Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The amazing race (well, ethnicity)

...hard to believe this sign for a hair salon, isn't it?

I don't have any evidence that Koreans are racist toward blacks. It's hard to be racist against somebody you never see. To be precise, in almost six months I've seen three African-Americans here. It's like living in Vermont.

I suppose the people who put up this sign thought it looked hip; I'm sure they meant no offense. Still, FAIL.

The Koreans are probably the most ethnically homogeneous people in any modernized country in the world; they came here from Mongolia some thousands of years ago, and as this is a peninsula without many resources, there's not much reason for any outsiders to come here, except the Japanese, who periodically stop over for a few decades to rape and plunder. (There's a popular phrase in Japanese, "tourist camera", which is a homophone for "stupid Korean".) I think that, even though the Koreans have a reputation for xenophobia, they are as much sinned against as sinning. Like Poland, Korea is stuck between two bigger, more aggressive powers and has paid the price, in blood and stereotypes. To be blunt, they seem to be the Polacks of East Asia. I think their reputed jingoism is largely defensiveness.

The look is homogeneous, too; to my eye, everybody's complexion is exactly the same, and there are about three hairstyles for women and two for men. Sometimes one will see a Korean with (dyed) brown hair, which goes very well with the skin tone. On rare occasions one will see what my dad used to call a "suicide blonde" (that is, dyed by her own hand). That, I think, looks ridiculous. It's black hair dye, though, that must sell like hotcakes stuffed with money; there are some very wizened people here, and barely any of them, and no women that I can recall, have a single gray hair. Maybe Ronald Reagan had a commercial deal here back in the day: "Howdy, Koreans, this is ex-president Reagan with a word about Kiwi brand black shoe... err, hair coloring."

My Americanness, and my paleness, don't attract a lot of attention, despite my rarity. (I appear to be the only foreigner between the Manchon E-Mart and the Sea of Japan. [Oops... Koreans hate that name; it's the East Sea.]) I think that the oldest Koreans (the ones who remember, or even served in, the war) are grateful to us. I was out running in the park a few weeks ago and an elderly man, dressed in his Sunday best, jogged along with me for a few feet and gave me a broad smile, a thumbs up, and (in English), a "Number one!"

One is not always the loneliest number.

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