The Sudden Minority

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From Busan Haps

It could be said that the biggest culture shock for white westerners coming to Korea is the sudden loss of majority status. Is the transition easier for westerners of color going from minority to minority? Marcus Williams writes of culture shock, white privilege and new paradigms.

BUSAN, South Korea -- Most blogs penned by Expats in South Korea touch on Culture Shock at one time or another. For some, the Korean culture is so ‘foreign’ that they decide to pack it up and skip town during the first year, choosing not to adapt or cope with their new found surroundings. This departure can be with an approving nod from a willing employer or via the infamous ‘Midnight Run.’

Many of us expats in the ROK have found some way to cope.  I use the word ‘cope’ with specific intent.  Life as a western foreigner can be challenging.  We face a myriad of emotions and experiences that range from finding the culture mildly irritating to the other swing of the pendulum with the ‘I never want to leave,’ experience.

When I first arrived in the Land of the Morning Calm, I was truly overwhelmed with the vast contrasts in Busan with the slow, country charm of my home in North Carolina.

Perhaps the the greatest contrast was due simply to the color of my skin.  Being black in South Korea is a sure fire way to stand out, stick out, and quite frankly, be singled out.  

The fact is, every expat who is not Korean sticks out; and I find that a fair number of Koreans at times go out of their way to remind us of that at every turn.

One of the core aspects of the expat experience in Korea is created by this otherness.  Those westerners amongst us, by geographical apportion, suddenly share a common minority status.  We tend to have the same gripes, joys and pet peeves.  

Interestingly, soon after arriving on the peninsula, I noticed that how we deal with being a minority can take on different modes. I suppose this is a good time to define “we.”  

If you haven’t noticed, most of those  teaching English in South Korea trend towards some variation of Caucasian decent. Whether from the US, Australia, Canada, South Africa, or the UK, they come from a life where being part of the majority culture was the norm. In short, Caucasians are going from majority to minority.

As a black American it is markedly different. And it is from this perspective I seek to understand how being a minority, for the first time, can have a profoundly different effect than being a minority such as myself in the midst of a new Majority.

I don't give a lot of thought to race relations and interactions normally, but at a multimedia event in Charlotte, North Carolina a while back, a friend of mine gave a talk about the costs and obligations of what she calls “white privilege.” The merits of her presentation were intrinsically important. The audience was mostly White.  My friend who gave the lecture is White.  It was a conversation to White Americans, from a White American, about the unseen benefits of being a White American.  But more than that, it was a conversation about what it means to be afforded privilege because of where and what you were born.


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