Friday, November 19, 2010

I always knew I was black

When I first got here, a lot of kids asked if I was black. Or, more commonly, they told me that I was black, from Africa, and that I looked like Barack Obama. So, I took my blackness to heart, which might explain my difficult hailing cabs of late. I lost about seven cabs tonight to drivers uninterested in picking me up and more interested in picking up Koreans.

I've never taken taxis anywhere but Korea, but I've generally assumed that if two people hail a cab, the person farther down the street got there first. At least, that's how it often seemed to happen. I'm more than willing to defer to someone who has been waiting before me, even if I didn't see them, though that deference is never returned here, much like no one ever holds the door open.

So, if the person behind me is more entitled to the cab, that's fine, as long as drivers never pick up the person waiting in front of me. But, today, I was, in order, passed over right and left for Koreans standing in front of and behind me. Naturally, the only difference between us was that they were Korean and I wasn't. A couple of cabs flat out refused to stop for me. The one that I did hail, I had to walk into the middle of traffic to hail, and even he was about to roll down his window to ask me where I was going before I got in and pretended I didn't understand what he was saying (i.e. "What the fuck are you doing? Who walks into traffic like that?").

For good measure, this repeated itself later this evening with an middle-aged couple and a lazy driver.

About the only effective way of affecting social change in Korea is to point out that the rest of the richer, whiter world is doing it, so I wrote about it on Twitter:

"세계 인종차별의 도시 서울입니다. 택시 잡을 때 한국인도 있으면 기사가 저를 무시해요. 저 앞에 있는 한국이을 먼저 보고 먼저 승차했어요. 저 뒤에 있는 한국인은 오랜 기다려 하고 있었어 먼저 승차했어요. 한국인 없으면도 저의 얼굴은 싫어해요."

("Seoul: a world-class racist city (a play on Seoul's obsession with being a world-class city for this and that). If there's a Korean around when I catch a cab, drivers ignore me. They take the person in front of me because they saw him first, and they take the person behind me because he's been waiting longer. If there's no Korean, then they just don't like my face.")

Calling someone's city a hub of racism is pretty controversial, but as much as Koreans love their country, the 20-somethings that use Twitter know that the state of things can often be ridiculous. Saying it in Korean is probably much better than saying it in English, much like a Korean saying it is better than a non-Korean.

My inbox was flooded with notices of about 30 people following me in 20 minutes, and a flood of retweets made it easily the most popular post I've ever made on Twitter. The next time we fly into a panic about Koreans being rigid, defensive and racist, it's fair to at least remember these replies from people who generally don't speak English, don't talk to anybody who's not Korean and are generally ordinary people that will be running this country in a generation.

@metalcandy: "Let me apologize instead. I worry that Korea's image suffers because of just a few people. I'm sure you know this, but there are more good people than bad ones."

@woo0c: "Hi, You're from my wife's country. I saw your tweet about taxi and i am really sorry to see that. But most of the seoulites are very kind, aren't ya?"

@70retro: "Embarrassing"

@RapTioNarY: "Oh man..." (in reponse to 70retro)

@seo_jung_kim: "Wow, that really sucks."

@bobozzang: "I'm very sorry. That is so embarrassing."

A lot of people responded to say that this isn't racism, which is right in the sense that drivers don't drive around looking for ways to avoid giving rides to dark-skinned people. But, apparently, if they can choose between a dark-skinned person and a Korean, evidently they'll choose the Korean every time.

A lot of those who felt this wasn't racism said it was just an unfortunate case of drivers not being able to speak English, but really, isn't that the definition of racism? Leaving aside the obvious fact that you don't actually need to speak any Korean beyond the rough vicinity of your destination (e.g. "Suwon bus terminal" can go in the place of "Gokbanjeong-dong Chuksanmul Yutongsaenteo"), the very definition of racism is judging someone based on how they look.

It would be absurd in Korea to assume that a non-Korean speaks Korean given how many don't speak any, but it would be equally absurd to assume that a non-Korean adult is incapable of getting himself home in a taxi. While this isn't out-and-out vicious racism, when I'm trying to get somewhere and running late, I don't appreciate having to stand in the cold just because some middle-aged man supposedly thinks I can't say Wangsimni station.

If this is merely an unfortunate cultural understanding, the remedy presumably would be giant billboards informing people to treat those who look differently with equity. This remedy is, incidentally, identical to the one for racism.


Jennifer said...

Wow. Good post.

Anonymous said...

I'm Korean and I apolize my poor english.

It is just your color, but language. I think.

Most of taxi drivers are at least middle age, afraid contact with foreigner.

So, what I want to talk, do not feel so down.

Cheer up.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I witnessed this on Halloween in Itaewon-- I am white and he is a Gyopo. There was a black man ahead of us on the street who was unable to get a cab to stop for him, though we only had to wait a minute for a cab.

It reminded me of New York, and so we did the only thing you can actually do in this situation-- open the cab door for the person who has obviously been waiting longer and then slam it shut after him before the cabby can drive away.

We've experienced this before back home, but with people of Asian descent—I guess the takeaway message is that cab drivers can be just as prejudiced as the next guy, and no matter where you are you will find people who judge you based on race.