On Being a Minority
All my life I’ve had the tremendous privilege of being part of the majority. Despite my Korean identity, living in Hong Kong meant that I easily blended into a predominantly Asian crowd; I walked through streets without unwarranted stares, commentaries on my race or the niggling discomfort that comes from being ‘different’ or ‘other’.
And in the way privileges go, it’s taken me many miles to realise how fortunate I was.
Here in Salvador, I stick out like a sore thumb. With 92% of Brazil’s Asian descendants residing in São Paolo, and over 80% of Bahia’s population being of African descent, there’s a reason why I can count the Asians I’ve seen thus far on my fingers. Moreover, with the vast majority of Asians in Brazil being of Chinese or Japanese origin / descent (Chinese pastelerías, or bakeries, are a common sight in Lapa, the main shopping district), being Korean seems to mean nothing at all.
In the beginning, I was simply amused. Whenever people called me ‘japa’ or ‘minha chinesinha’ (‘my little Chinese girl’), I internally face-palmed but let it slide with a simple ‘eu sou da Corea’ (‘I’m from Korea’). In response, many people would then benignly ask if I was from the North or the South — a question I’ve never received non-ironically anywhere else in the world — or follow up with questions like, “Do you know Tokyo? Or Mount Fuji?”
Yup. There are people who think Korea is a part of Japan, which a) is blatantly untrue and b) carries painful historical and cultural connotations. Ouch.
Later on, however, I was decidedly less amused by the constant misplacement of my heritage. I grew sick of the arigatos, the assumption that I’ve eaten plenty of yakisoba (which doesn’t even exist in Asia), and lateral pulling of the eyes.
But what I was even more tired of was being scrutinised everywhere I went. Now I know what it feels like to be an alien: double takes, stares, murmurs from fellow pedestrians. I can’t walk down a crowded street without the jarring knowledge that I am being looked at, watched, constantly, by people I don’t know. On the streets, I’m always self-conscious of the fact that I’m different, that somehow I don’t ‘fit in’.
And to tell the truth, it’s depressing. It’s depressing because I know that however much I try, however well I speak Portuguese or know the refinements of Bahian cuisine, I’ll always be seen as a foreigner for the next nine months. It’s depressing because I’ll always be primarily identified as ‘the Asian’, even by people I care for in the communities I interact with. It’s depressing because one of my core philosophies is to be appreciated as an individual who is whole and multifaceted rather than fragmented. I want to be seen as a human being with personal qualities, likes, dislikes, hobbies, habits, tendencies, not merely as someone who is part of another race. But when one’s first impression of me instantly latches onto my appearance, how easily can I attempt this mapping of my own identity? How much harder does it become to see me as a regular person?
For a while, I walked certain streets without making eye contact, in the expectation that those on the receiving end would simply ogle at the Portuguese-speaking Asian. After all, you’ve got to choose your battles — sometimes, it’s not worth explaining your story to someone who won’t care for it.
Yet gradually, I’m beginning to realise that this alienation may be an opportunity. Perhaps it is an opportunity to share my Korean background, an opportunity to debunk the whole ‘timid Asian’ stereotype. Perhaps it is an opportunity to show people that despite our physical differences, in many ways we’re the same.
It’s a tough journey, for sure. But when I point out the similarities between Bahian and Korean cuisine, when I mention that yakisoba — contrary to popular belief — doesn’t exist in Asia, when I mention that ‘arigato’ and ‘konichiwa’ are not Korean words, but rather Japanese, I have a sliver of hope that someone, somewhere, just developed a slightly more open-minded world view.