Sunday, November 5, 2017

Looking, Really Looking; Seeing, Really Seeing

I should have been paying more attention to the sites in my Korean news blogroll.  Some have disappeared, a couple are now Korean-language only, some are still there but stopped posting some time ago.

But I was interested by some of what I found when I looked them over last week.  This American blogger, though he stopped updating Korea Dispatch in 2009, has a good attitude.  I disagree with him on numerous points, of course, but he's less ethnocentric than some American writers in Korea that I've seen.  His suggested reading list is good.  He's married to a Korean woman.  I liked most of what he said in his final post, about the culture shock of returning to his home city of San Francisco after several years away, but this bugged me slightly:
And the faces. All kinds, all ethnicities. So unlike the never-ending sameness of Korea, that maddening, comforting sense of living in a village/nation where everyone is a variation of the same theme. SF felt fragmented, everyone a stranger who neither shared the same tongue, ate the same food… only occupying the same space. In Korea I am a minority; in SF, everyone is.
I realize that he's exaggerating slightly to make a point, and I know what he means, though when I first visited San Francisco in 1997 I was surprised how multiethnic it wasn't.  Yes, there was more variety of human appearance than in the small northern-Indiana towns I'd grown up in, but no more than I was used to after a quarter century in Bloomington, Indiana.  The university draws students from all over the world, and though its relative lack of racial diversity is still a sore point, I was surprised that San Francisco didn't feel so different to me.

But I disagree about the "never-ending sameness" of Koreans.  From my first visit in 2001, I was struck by how much variation there was in Koreans' appearance.  I'd already noticed it to some extent among the Koreans I'd met in Bloomington, but once I was in the actual place I could see how different Koreans looked from each other, and this was before younger Koreans really got into dyeing their hair in lighter colors.  (Older Koreans, by contrast, had been dyeing their hair black all along.  Every time I pass a Korean barber shop, I see half-a-dozen older men getting a dye job.  And not only older men: when I got my hair cut last week, a guy about 30 was getting his black hair refreshed.)  What I'm talking about is bone structure, face shape, eye shape (again, even leaving aside the depressingly popular eye-widening surgery so many Koreans get), lip/mouth shape, hair texture, even color.  (Also height and weight.)  Some of my Korean friends, when I've mentioned this, put it down to genetic influence from American soldiers, but I doubt it could have been as extensive as what I see.

But I've also noticed that there's a lot of sameness among Caucasians -- guys with goatees, for example, tend to look alike.  When I'm in all- or mostly-white small towns, I have the same feeling that the blogger had about Korea: never-ending sameness.  People's appearance can be categorized, though I don't have names for the categories, just the awareness that this person looks similar to others I've known or seen.  (That becomes more common as I get older: everyone looks like someone else.)  Some of the similarities cross "race" as well; I think of the laughing old Chinese man in Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet who's a dead ringer for Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot.

Maybe it's just that I look.  Many foreigners I see appear to be drawn into themselves, as if not to draw attention to themselves, maybe afraid that someone will ask to practice their English on them.  (Most of the white people I see are European, though; when I overhear them talking to each other, they aren't speaking English anyway.)  I'm glad to be here, I'm interested in the country and the people, and I interact when I can.  I know I'm not unique in this -- I see foreigners speaking good Korean on TV, and I know some who do in everyday life as well -- but I rarely see it on the street, in the stores, on the subway.  As Thomas Mann had one of his characters say, interest is greater than love.