April 15, 2008

Normal Like You

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 7:54 pm by stephshimkooo

I had a conversation with one of my eleven year old Korean students the other day. She had lived in America for almost two years, and was very well traveled. I told her that I loved her hair, and that I always wanted hair that was so thick, and shiny and black. She told me that she didn’t like her hair, and that she always wanted to look normal, like me.

The first emotion that I registered upon hearing that was anger because first of all, she shouldn’t be looking at someone like me and thinking that I’m “normal,” and most importantly, the criteria for normalcy, should not be white, blonde, and blue eyed. I find it completely paradoxical that white would mean normal, and at the same time, children and sometimes adults will gasp, point, and stare at me for looking different from anyone else here. What was especially confusing for me was that this girl had lived in America, and in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area. I know that she’s seen for herself that America, and the world, are full of more than just white people. She expressed to me that she knew full well that most people in the world are dark, but she still thinks of caucasian as what it is normal to look like.

I was thinking earlier this week about what it means to be an American. What I mean by that is: what is an American compared to an Englishman, a Korean, or an Ethiopian? In America, nobody seems to be just an American. We’re African American, Mexican American, Italian American, or any other nationality with “American” attached to the end. I always just thought that we were Americans. People are people, you know? Why spend all that time and energy hating or being wary of someone for any reason, let alone for no reason. I have found, from growing up in an immigrant society and spending much of my adult life outside of it, that ethnic identity is one of the defining ideas that separates societies like Canada, America and Australia from people whose country and race are more or less interchangeable terms.

Before I continue, first of all, I am aware that America had an aboriginal population that was essentially destroyed, but that part of my country’s history is a separate matter that isn’t really relevant to the question I want to ask. Yes, in a technical sense, Native Americans can be considered ethnically “American” if you define race solely along geographic/historic lines, but first of all, not all Native Americans are the same, and that’s not the topic that I want to get into. Present day America is not primarily inhabited by Iroquois and Hopi. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about nationalist identity. Yes, there are multiple ethnicities in other places too. There are British Indians and all that, but it’s not quite the same because you can still look at someone and identify them as ethnically German, or Chinese, or Turkish, or whatever. In my mind, at least, you can’t look at the way someone looks and say “Ah! American.”

To take it a step further, in places like South Korea, where I live now, they have a class that’s translated as “Ethics” in middle and high school. In this class, they are taught things like South Korea’s status as a regional “superpower,” and the genius of its language. (I should mention that the Korean writing system is absolutely amazing and logical). The most interesting idea that is taught to every Korean is that Korean blood is pure, and that must be maintained. Also, they are taught that race and nationality are the same thing. There’s even a word in the language for it.

Why did this happen? Well let me copy and paste to explain it:

“Especially in states busily reconstructing their national cultures to serve specific, concrete agendas – such as building a national economy – this conception of national identity becomes extremely useful, as the hard times requiring conformity, obedience, and sweat take their toll on the people. When race, nation, and culture become one and the same, this makes all the more convenient a dangerous ideological sleight of hand.”

That quoted bit was copied from the metropolitician, who is quite brilliant, and a little bit blunt. You can view the full article here (http://metropolitician.blogs.com/scribblings_of_the_metrop/2006/04/the_gates_…)

I’m not sure where I’m going with this anymore. I think this will end up being far too long for anyone to care much. I guess what I’m trying to say is that people from immigrant societies view race differently from people who can identify their race with their nationality. I’m also trying to tie it into my student’s comments on what normal is supposed to look like. I’ll work on this more a little later and make it more coherent.
*originally posted 09/25/06 on yahoo360