I encounter a deluge of frustrating microaggressions every day I am in Korea. Simply because I am white, I must be unable to speak Korean, use chopsticks, eat spicy food, keep my floor clean, or successfully engage in any activity that the locals (often incorrectly) assume to be a unique aspect of their own culture. Normally I try to clamp down on the hardwired anger that flares up at the baseless application of these generalizations to my person. And instead take some small pleasure in executing some mental swordplay on the respect I hold for the perpetrators.
But some situations call for more.
On Saturday I took part in a research focus group on the American chewing gum market. I had a free afternoon after most of my finals and it paid pretty well for two hours of just chatting about gum. Simple, right? If it were, I suppose that I wouldn’t have felt the burning urge to follow up my experience with the letter below (for those of you who can’t speak Korean, use chopsticks, eat spicy food, keep your floors… okay, who can’t read Korean, I’ve appended the English translation afterward. I warn you that it reads as though it has been awkwardly translated from Korean. Because it was.)
What are your thoughts, dear readers? Did I win a small victory for social justice, or did I just take things too far? I’m interested in your opinions.
ㅇㅇㅇ Research 관계자 각위에게:
귀사에 이 편지를 쓰는 이유는 2013년6월14일에 있
2013년6월14일 오후 15:00시에 미국의 껌 시장
그러나 조사에 참여하기 전에 아주 불쾌한 일이 하나 일
그분의 걱정은 이론적으로 일리있을 수 있다고 하는데 제
그런데 저 분은 이런 가능성에 대해서 고려하지 않고 자
그럼으로써 가장 심한 편견을 갖고 계시는 한국인은 바로
그래도 저는 처음 만난 ㅇㅇㅇ씨랑 싸우고 싶지 않아서
이미 말씀을 해드린 듯 ㅇㅇㅇ Research의 설문조사에 참가하는 전반적 경험은 아
토요일의 프로젝트처럼 외국인을 대상으로 된 마케팅 조사
이 설문조사에 참가하는 기회를 주셔서 다시 감사드리고
To Whom It May Concern at ㅇㅇㅇ Research:
The reason that I am writing this letter to your company is to inform you of an incident that occurred during my participation in a June 14, 2013 survey on American chewing gum markets as well as provide you what might be helpful advice for managing such surveys in the future.
I will begin by thanking you again for allowing me to participate in your American gum market survey at 3:00 P.M. on June 14, 2013. On the whole, it was a pleasant experience. When Mr. ㅇㅇㅇ from your company contacted me on the telephone on Friday, he was relatively polite. From the moment I entered ㅇㅇㅇResearch’s office on Saturday, every employee with whom I interacted was also very polite and kind and even prepared water, juice, and snacks for the survey participants. Finally, I had a very pleasant time conversing with everybody during the survey meeting. Thank you again for creating as comfortable an environment as possible for us survey respondents; if another opportunity to cooperate with ㅇㅇㅇ Research presented itself I would pursue it without hesitation.
But as I was joyfully immersed in this experience, one very memorable incident arose. When the employee responsible for survey respondent recruitment, ㅇㅇㅇ, first contacted me on the phone, I picked up and answered in Korean, as I normally do. Even though every email I had sent this person before talking with him on the phone had been in Korean, he still suspiciously asked whether I was Kelley upon hearing me speak the language. I answered in the affirmative. But maybe because I continued to use Korean and not English, he continued to suspiciously ask me whether I was really American, really white, really not biracial, really not an overseas Korean. Even when I explained to him multiple times that I was a European-American who had learned Korean as a second language he very clearly continued to be suspicious. Finally, he said something that struck me as rather odd and surprising: “Judging from the sound of your voice, I believe that you are sincere, but other Korean people have a stereotype that foreigners cannot speak Korean, so if our client hears you speaking Korean tomorrow he/she might think that I was unable to recruit foreigners who have been in Korea for less than three years as required by our study.” Then he made me promise that on Saturday I would not “cause any trouble by speaking Korean” and hung up.
Even though his worry might be said to make theoretical sense, had he looked at the clear record of about one year spent in Korea as inscribed on the passport that I brought with me on Saturday, wouldn’t he have realized that his admonition not to speak Korean was unnecessary? Had he spent just a bit more time in thought he would have realized that Korean, being not an exceedingly complex field of study like particle physics or biomedical science but, rather, just another modern language, does not take three years of study to learn enough to participate in meaningful conversations. Had he spent just a bit more time in thought he would have realized that the reason I speak Korean is perhaps not that I have been here for longer than three years but maybe that I am a passionate student who has benefited from the care and hard work of many excellent teachers and friends.
But this person did not consider these possibilities. Instead, allowing nothing to float about his brain except for his preconception that any foreigner who says that she has learned Korean in less than three years is either lying or has a very odd background, made me promise not to “cause any trouble by speaking Korean.”
Therefore might one not say that the Korean person with the strongest prejudice was this man himself?
Nevertheless, because I did not want to get into an argument with someone whom I had just met, I kept the promise that had been imposed on me and, feigning ignorance of the Korean language, spoke nothing but English from the moment I entered the ㅇㅇㅇ Research office on Saturday. Since, from the very start of my life in China and Korea I have respected my own internal rule not to speak English with the locals, this was my first time voluntarily interacting in English with Korean people, and it was, as such, very uncomfortable. When the company employees who greeted me spoke with me in English, they were visibly embarrassed and spoke in choppy one-word sentences; I couldn’t help but think how much more warm and interesting our conversation might be were it in Korean. Then, as we were conducting the survey, in the few instances that the woman asking the questions in Korean addressed me directly, even though I could understand her inquiry and thus respond without interpretation, because the translator at her side did not know that I could speak and understand Korean, I had to undergo the odd experience of waiting for the unnecessary translation to finish before I could say anything. Finally, at one point the client asking the questions noticed that another Korean-speaking American and I were comprehending her Korean because of unconscious facial or postural responses to her words; laughing, she asked in Korean if we could understand her. But instead of responding to her question honestly I could do nothing but uncomfortably listen to her mocking laugh. All in all, feigning ignorance of something that I worked so hard to learn was, as might be expected, unnatural, unfortunate, and, above all, unfair.
As I have already said, on the whole, my participation in the ㅇㅇㅇ Research survey was a pleasant experience. In the future, if your company offers similar opportunities I would jump at the chance to take advantage of them. But because of one baseless prejudice my time inside your office suffered from unnecessary discomfort. So that you might avoid conferring such discomfort on other foreign individuals in similar studies in the future, I would like to offer the following advice.
Especially those who work at a company that manages marketing research directed at foreigners like Saturday’s project should, better than other Koreans, understand the actual situations of foreigners. It is a fact that very many foreigners, especially foreigners who, like me, have spent time at a formal language training program like the Yonsei KLI, speak Korean well. It is a fact that Korean is not so difficult that one needs to study it for more than three years in order to have a rich conversation with a Korean person. Finally, no matter what some prejudiced person might think, it is a fact that someone who has been in Korea for only little more than a year can learn enough Korean to write a letter like this. Especially a company that manages research projects should recognize the importance of thinking with evidence-based facts like those enumerated above rather than baseless prejudices.
Thank you again for the opportunity to participate in your survey as well as the time you took to read this letter.