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Race in South Korea Post-Obama

New America Media, Commentary, Peter Schurmann Posted: Nov 10, 2008

In South Korea, it is unclear whether the election of Obama is really altering attitudes toward race, long a central pillar of Korean identity. Peter Schurmann is a Korea based writer for New America Media.

SEOUL -- Sitting in a Starbucks in Itaewon, arguably Korea's most ethnically diverse neighborhood, a few nights after Barack Obama's historic victory in the United States, I watch a group of swanky young Korean women come traipsing by, pausing as they pass a table of teenage African-American girls.

"They're pretty, even if they're black," I hear them say.

The interaction reminds me that while Korea and the world stand poised to welcome America's first black president and his promise of "change," the reality on the ground is far more blunt.

Outside, Indonesians, Pakistanis and a host of other nationalities mingle with hard-nosed, working-class Koreans and American GIs. Across the street from the main U.S. military base, it's a heady neighborhood in a country long defined by racial homogeneity.

A friend from Mexico who has lived in the neighborhood for nearly two decades says it's the "one place in the entire country where you see large groups of blacks, whether Africans or African Americans walking around without drawing stares from locals."

There's normally an awkward tension in the air here as people from varied regions and cultures jostle for space on crowded streets. In the last week, though, it seems different, like it's a holiday. Walking down the street, I hear Obama's name several times, once from an Indonesian man speaking with a female companion and again as several young Koreans brush past me on their way to a local club.

Obama's victory seemed to carry across the Pacific, bringing with it a sense of hope and change for the better. And I begin to wonder, as I sit in that in-between world that is Starbucks, what kind of long-term change an Obama presidency will have on Korean society. Will Obama alter attitudes here toward race, long a central pillar of Korean identity?

In local papers, pages are filled with reports of politicians attempts to connect to one of the world's most powerful leaders. President Lee Myung-bak recently waxed lyrical on how both he and Obama had experienced difficult childhoods, while a full page in one of the major dailies was devoted to the Korean-American laundromat in Chicago that Obama has been patronizing for two decades.

As I sip my coffee, I listen as the American teens loud chatter bounces from plans for the weekend to who said what and the latest hip-hop release. I think about how long it's been since I've heard that voice, so distinctly American and so removed from the context of Korean society. They make no mention of Obama.

I figure they must be the daughters of one of the soldiers on the nearby Yongsan Garrison. What else could have brought them to Korea, I wonder. Across from me, a young, white American businessman occasionally glances over at the group, maybe irritated by the volume of their conversation, or maybe feeling that same sense of dislocation I am experiencing.

I know the girls at the table heard the comment.

"Oh no she didn't," one of them says. They may or may not have understood the words, but the meaning was clearly not lost. Then they get back to their conversation as the young Korean women glide out the door, smug in their high-minded progressiveness.

I'm stunned.

Maybe they're used to that kind of treatment here or just don't expect any better. At least that's how I interpret their lack of reaction to the scene I just witnessed. And then I wonder whether maybe it's a sign of progress, that these young Korean women, ignorant of their racial biases, were taking a cue from events in the United States. After seeing images of Obama everywhere, they were seeing black people anew.

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