November 12, 2014

LEE | Reverse Isolation: Being White in the Far East

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By CRISPINUS LEE

We live in a multicultural society. Or so we are told. We say the World is moving towards a more diverse and simultaneously world where cultural norms are becoming more standardized. We are clearly divided about how to respond to this, as the public’s participation of this phenomenon is avid participation or crying conspiracy, but the flows of globalization have been hitting our shores for quite sometime. Understandably, most governments and state actors are attempting to accommodate the new phenomenon, and have succeeded or failed in varying degrees. In the United States, we attempt to recognize that this phenomenon is part of our process for historical reconciliation and progress. Yet, the process of embracing multiculturalism within a society has gone awry. Despite all of our advances to accepting each other on the global scene, many people cling to old hatreds, which more than not arise from the notion of what the traditional image of people, where they come from, who they are and what they practice. Old presumptions about what people should be like and what they really are continue to clash in the 21st century, and rather gravely, will continue to do so for the time being.

Around a year ago, I read an article concerning a white American woman’s attempts to live in Taiwan. It was around the same time I had a conversation from a friend in high school. She has long held fascination for Asian cultures and frequently sought to participate in interactions. According to her, it was not uncommon for her presence to be scorned or demeaned as fetishizing or exotification. It was discomforting to say the least, seeing that the notion of culture was near strictly confined to a racial or ethnic description. To those who looked more distinctly “foreign” than other traditional minorities such as the Southeast Asians, the question being accepted was null. I was reminded of a specific experience that I had during my Summer break in Seoul. As we finished up a meal, he stated that a foreign family walked in. I looked back to see, unsurprisingly, a family of what I assumed to be either of Central Asian, Middle Eastern, or European descent. My own callousness allowed me make a crude assumption, but my immediate response was, “How do you know if they’re foreign?” My friend stared at me and stated, “Dude you know what I mean.” He was right. He wasn’t saying that they were foreign, just non-Koreans. The notion of foreign has been near embedded with the construct that all Koreans are people who are Asian.

This is a generally accepted notion in society, but the premise continues to bother me. It implies that certain types of people are forever tied with the identity to a certain land. This is inherently untrue. One of the oldest traditions and acts of humanity was movement. The population of Canada and the United States stand as monuments to that fact. The creation of borders and consolidated governments does not necessarily mean the end of human movement, and it arguably never will. The situation seen in the Far East reflects this reality, but the people have tied the cultural perception to only certain groups.

I was frankly taken aback. Korean and Japanese culture, despite the harsh interactions in the past, were built on their own perceptions of foreigners. I see more L.A. Dodgers baseball caps in Seoul than I do in the States. Modern Japan was a creation of western doctrine and the spirit of traditional Japan. The cultures we see today are product of adaptation. The reason why further participation is discouraged by some come off to me as odd at best.

People frequently describe culture as a tree or a house. I feel this is a crude analogy. Culture is an amorphous entity, that grows without end, absorbing ideas to create new magnificent structures. That is the essence of cultural evolution. The article that I write lacks the experience of the Black and South Asian peoples in the Far-East, who stigmatized by even worse stereotypes, in some cases are denied basic legal rights. I recognize that there is a traditional people as there has been tradition in ancient lands, and I further recognize that these traditions are an integral part of identity, but even such traditions are the products of interacting and centuries of adaptation.

Crispinus Lee is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at clee@cornellsun.com.

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