“You use chopsticks so well!” by Joe Schlabotnik on Flickr
There was much debate in Korea this week about Debito Arudou’s article in the Japan Times last Tuesday. The headline alone, “Yes, I can use chopsticks” will resonate with almost everyone who has spent some time in Korea. The article is an application of Dr. Derald Wing Sue Ph.D’s research into what are called “Racial Microagressions” to the context of “non-Japanese” (to use the article’s term) living in Japan. I found both articles a fascinating read, but felt a slight unease at the Japan Times piece. This piece is an attempt to figure out exactly why, so please excuse the slightly rambling style.
The author’s experience with Japanese/non-Japanese conversations can be translated almost word for word to the Korean context. Even before I could speak Korean well enough to really converse with people, I could trot out the “England”, “Thank You”, “Two years”, “I like it”, “I like it too”, “No, I don’t find it spicy”, “I’m an English teacher”, “No, I’m not married” routine with my eyes closed. As a beginner language learner, this makes you feel awesome for the first two minutes of any conversation, before the inevitable descent into umm-ing, ahh-ing and head scratching begins. This conversation is still repeated in more taxi journeys than not more than two years after I came here.
Is this a racial microaggression though? Dr Sue’s research breaks microaggressions down as follows:
• Microassaults: Conscious and intentional discriminatory actions: using racial epithets, displaying White supremacist symbols – swastikas, or preventing one’s son or daughter from dating outside of their race.
• Microinsults: Verbal, nonverbal, and environmental communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity that demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. An example is an employee who asks a co-worker of color how he/she got his/her job, implying he/she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system.
• Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, White people often ask Latinos where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land.
I’m not sure that a fairly inoffensive conversation in a taxi really fits into any of these categories. I think that at a push some of the interaction could be seen as microinvalidation (“How long have you been in Korea?”), suggesting that I was not born here. However, the “Westerners in Korea” discourse is still one of recent immigration and temporary stays, and so this seems a more reasonable question when put to me than when put to a Latino in America (however, I am not quite sure about the differences in foreigner discourse between Korea and Japan). Furthermore, I’m not even sure that commenting on my chopstick use is suggesting that “manual dexterity is linked to phenotype”; I prefer (arrogantly) to see it as simply expressing admiration for a skill that I have most likely learnt since my immigration.
It is the claim that this kind of interaction is a microagression that bothers me. It’s clear that microagressions do exist, and are damaging, but how far should we go in claiming that conversations that transpire from a difference in race are microaggressions? Where does recognizing difference end and microagression begin? Debito Arudou suggests that the kind of interactions are microagressions, in which people are being put “in their place”, namely that of Japanese/Korean host (dominant) and non-Japanese/Korean guest (submissive). My problem with this is the labelling of guest and host dominant and submissive, which I don’t believe follow naturally from one or another (and countless episodes of Come Dine With Me seem to support me on this). Is it not possible to see the roles (in my case) as simply Korean and non-Korean, and therefore different, but equal?
I believe that recognizing difference is natural. Look at the terms that populate this article and the two referenced: Korean, Westerner, non-Japanese, Latino, Asian-American. Everyone, myself included, is putting themselves, and others, into a place based on race. The flight attendant in Dr. Sue’s article who claims she does not see color is a liar. We all see color, just as we all see age, sex, nationality, sexual orientation and a million other things that make each person unique, and because of those things, we treat people differently. Having probably just outed myself as racist, sexist and generally bigoted, I feel I ought to clarify a little: I don’t speak to Korean people in the same way that I speak to Westerners. I don’t speak to my university students in the same way I speak to elementary age students. I don’t speak to my female friends in the same way I speak to my male friends. And neither, in all probability, do you. We recognize a difference and we behave accordingly.
This is because when we use language we are not just saying something, but doing something. We are “who’s doing what’s” (Gee 2011:44). Therefore, as well as being put in our place, we are putting ourselves in our place whenever we say anything. For example, when talking to my students, I am a “professor ” (in title at least) doing “teaching”. Similarly, when talking to my Korean friends, I am a “non-Korean” doing “talking to Koreans”. Even when the subject is not our differences, there are still many factors that change because of my non-Korean-ness. This is an unavoidable factor in the conversation, and affects utterances on both sides, and so I change my rate of speech; I change the vocabulary that I use; I change my cultural references. Our race, and our situation are performed in what we say and do whether we like it or not, and so to expect them not to have an influence on conversation is, I believe, unrealistic. Moreover, our race is part of our identity. Being a non-Korean in Korea is part of who I am – no matter how long I stay here, and that won’t change, nor do I particularly want it to.
To move this towards a conclusion, I personally don’t mind being treated differently (nor treating others differently) on account of my non-Koreanness. What I do mind is being treated unfairly, unequally, demeaningly, or being discriminated against because of it, and this does happen in Korean society both through racial microagressions (such as speaking 반말, or informal language to me) and overt racism (such as anti-foreigner articles on the internet and in the press). However, I don’t think we can extend the definition of microagression into the sphere of phatic conversations with curious people, especially when the intention is the exact opposite of racism and social control, an attempt to reach out and cross cultural and racial boundaries.
Furthermore, criticizing this kind of phatic communication for being boring or repetitive seems a little strange, because boring and repetitive is exactly what phatic communication should be. It’s the little practised routines that allow us to break down barriers between each other, and move on to more personal and interesting topics. It’s at least in the same realm as criticizing saying “How are you?” in English for being dull.
I think the above is why I feel uneasy about the article’s stance. Debito Arudou implies that any kind of discourse that is prompted by a difference in race attempt at establishing dominance or social control. I don’t believe this is the case. We have to recognize our differences, and deal with their implications. Otherwise, the world either becomes a boring, homogenous sludge, or one in which real predjudices go untackled. Personally, I look forward to my next boring conversation with a taxi driver, as it may just be a small step to bring us closer together, rather than an attempt to drive us apart.
Gee, J.P. (2011) An Introduction to Discourse Analysis (3rd Ed.). Oxford: Routledge.