By Jason Lim
Korea has come of age, of sorts. Jasmine Lee, a naturalized Korean citizen originally from the Philippines, became the first foreign-born lawmaker. Granted, she didn’t run for a seat herself, but became a member of the National Assembly as a proportional representation candidate when the Saenuri Party won a majority in the recent parliamentary elections.
This is actually big news. Not necessarily the fact that Jasmine Lee became a rising political star; she was already a minor celebrity in Korea with a complete package of looks, smarts and a compelling narrative. The real news is the fact that Jasmine Lee has ― as a result of her background as a transplanted Southeast Asian woman who came Korea after marrying a Korean husband ― become the face and voice of 210,000 similar women and their 150,000 children who live in Korea today and their struggles to join the mainstream society.
This won’t be an easy task. The insular vein from the “Hermit Kingdom” of old still runs thick beneath modern Korea. After all, the country is probably one of the few that proudly trump the myth that Koreans come from a single bloodline. Granted, every nationality has its own creation myth that tells why it’s unique ― the Korean one just happens to be heavily based on its supposed ethnic purity.
This might have served Koreans well in the last 2,000 years by keeping them intact and coherent as a people. But this self-serving myth has recently come under attack from the influx of foreign-born wives to mostly rural Korean men who bear Korean children who are no longer ethnically “pure.”
As these women and their mixed-blood children come of age and join society to claim their own “Koreanness,” Korea will face the types of debate that will force it to engage in extensive soul-searching that other multicultural societies like the United States has been engaged in for the last 100 years or more.
In a way, this has already started. As soon as Jasmine Lee was elected, some netizens began attacking her with racist remarks that ran the gamut. Some disparaged her by painting her as a mail order bride while others accused her of a conspiracy to unfairly shower multicultural families in Korea with budgetary largess. The only thing that these attacks shared was their xenophobic crassness and an ingrained fear that the formerly invisible “other” is now claiming a spot front and center.
In response to these attacks, Seoul National University law professor Cho Gook, one of the representative liberal thought leaders in Korea, said on Twitter on April 13: ``There has been some racially discriminatory denunciation going around Saenuri Party proportional representative Jasmine Lee. Although criticism of her political inclination and qualification may be necessary, racism cannot be allowed,”
Responses from other, more responsible members of Korean society have followed along similar lines. They all quickly denounced the racist attacks and urged Korean society to face multiculturalism with an open mind.
All well and good. But what came to my mind instead was Sidney Poitier in “Who’s Coming to Dinner,” the groundbreaking 1967 film that dealt with interracial marriage in the United States. How would all these high-sounding intellectuals react if their sons or daughters brought home a significant other that looked like Jasmine Lee and wanted permission to marry? Would they still be as noble as they sound today?
I am not too sure. And if they were honest, no one in Korea today, not even the self-proclaimed social progressives, would know 100 percent how they would react. It’s not that they don’t want to be colorblind and judge everyone solely by the “contents of their character.” It’s just that even liberals are subject to the cultural norms and prejudices of their upbringing.
In Time magazine, Toure quotes Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow,” as writing: “Decades of cognitive bias research demonstrates that both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions even when an individual does not want to discriminate. The fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may have black friends and relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias.”
Individuals have cognitive habits. When you scale up an individual’s cognitive habits to a national level, you have an ingrained culture. In short, Korea has a racist culture in the dictionary sense of the word because one of the main pillars of Korea’s national myth is its ethnic homogeneity.
I guess what I am trying to say is that a journey to a pluralistic, multicultural society is not an easy one. High and mighty denunciations against ignorant and anonymous netizens, albeit a good start, doesn’t mean the game is won. In fact, it hasn’t even started.
As in habits, culture is difficult to change. Change will always face resistance. It doesn’t take a genius to predict that Korea will be facing a civil rights struggle of its own in the next few decades. It will demand blood, sacrifice, and, mostly, courage by change agents who will lead the way.
So, here’s to Jasmine Lee. May God watch over you as you lead Korea towards the next generation.
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant in organizational leadership, culture, and change management. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on facebook.com/jasonlim2000.