No Laughing Matter

Quiz Time! Ready?

#1. Who is this?

If you answered Martin Luther King, you are correct. Pat yourself on the back for being educated and racially sensitive.

If you answered “OOOBAMAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!”, you are incorrect and you may also be a Korean 6th grader.

Reviewing American holidays in class this week, I got the answer “Obama” from all but one student out of 120. I gave them the correct info in a ten second spiel, you know, about how Martin Luther King led one of the most important civil rights movements in America and how, as a result, he has his own holiday on January 17th. Over the course of those ten seconds my students’ faces went from disappointed (that it wasn’t Obama), to confused (there are other black people?), to completely disinterested (I think I have a wedgie).

I don’t expect these kids to know who MLK is. They’re only 12 and it’s simply not part of Korean curriculum to learn about the heroes of a race and a country that isn’t their own. But it is somewhat unsettling that Barack Obama is the only black person they are even remotely familiar with. Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated racial incident.

A few weeks ago a “new” character was introduced in our book. Peter’s his name (and actually he’s not new, there was a Peter last year but he was played by a different actor) and he’s part of ‘Look At Us! We’re Multicultural!’ team that goes with the English curriculum. There’s a Korean boy, a Japanese girl and a few Americans.

This is Peter.

And when his cute little mug appeared on screen, my students reacted as if the school principal just burst in dressed in a wig and coconut bikini, danced a jig across the room, farted a round of Jingle Bells and mooned everyone on his way out the door. In other words, they HOWLED. Peter’s face = funniest fucking thing they’ve ever seen.

Having read a thread on earlier in the week mentioning this very phenomena, I can’t say I was wholly unprepared. But I had naively hoped that my kids would be a bit more open-minded and was obviously still horrified when it didn’t play out that way. I tried not to overreact or react at all really (nothing makes something funnier than someone telling you not to laugh). I put myself in the place of a bunch of immature preteens and wondered, very After School Special-ly, if maybe a person who looks so different than they do just makes them slightly uncomfortable and the only way they know how to express this is through laughter?

I can remember looking at National Geographic as a kid and laughing at the pictures of people from what seemed like other planets. I want to believe that’s because they had mystifying rings around their necks and terrifying holes in their ears and all sorts of crazy piercings and tattoos (not to mention all the boobs). It was their costumes that made me uncomfortable and not the color of their skin or shape of their lips. But maybe I was a douche too.

I’ve known my students for nine months now, long enough to notice that the laughter in my classroom was ugly. While it was initially encouraged by a handful, it wasn’t just the bad kids or the rowdy kids who were guffawing, even the good children were in on it. And repeatedly too. No amount of frowning or disappointed-face from teacher made a difference.

Ultimately the issue was ignored in my classroom; they’re kids after all. Were I to get up and lecture them on their behavior and close-mindedness, nothing would be achieved, and my coteacher is too timid and defeatist to confront them. And so it was. But my lingering discomfort lies in the fact that there IS a larger issue here.

Twice in the last two weeks I’ve had first graders pass me in the cafeteria and holler “WAYGOOOOOOK!!!” at the top of their lungs (“waygook” being the Dr. Seussian word for ‘foreigner’ in Korean). It’s not really bothersome because it’s completely innocent from children so small. But I can’t help but link that to how Korean adults/strangers often stare and act weird in my presence. Koreans are relatively xenophobic. Read a book on Korean history and it’s not hard to see how they came to be that way. Now it’s just a reality. And looking at the situation a bit more optimistically, one could say that the exposure students are regularly getting through English class to (at least two) different races is positive. Things are moving in the right direction.

I have to question, though, whether the rest of the system is set-up to support this kind of exposure. If the book is going to include laughter-inciting black kids and ridiculous drawings of black people like this:

there should be some built-in lesson about how the typical 6th grade reaction isn’t generally acceptable elsewhere (kind of like this over-exaggerated, super-stereotypey, white-lipped depiction of a black person). From what I’ve gathered, no one else’s coteachers are prepared to face this topic, to stand up and suggest to kids that they are being insensitive. If I really pushed, I bet I could get my coteacher to give me a few minutes of class to talk about racial equality. But I know that between the language barrier and my lack of authority, little would be accomplished. The foreigner telling kids not to act weird/rude/stupid around foreigners is not nearly as effective as the Korean telling kids to not act weird/rude/stupid around foreigners.

All this to say, it makes for an awkward/unpleasant moment when you are a Westerner in a room full of people laughing at a black person. It would be nice if when this issue came up, there were adult Koreans around willing and able to help address it in sensitive and meaningful manner.

*descend soapbox*

5 responses to “No Laughing Matter

  1. Oh man, what I wouldn’t give to see a bunch of Korean kids dropped off in 5th ward. They would bug out.

  2. According to my kids, Mandela is Obama’s father and Usain Bolt is Obama’s brother.
    Also, on the term “waygook”… it’s not very specific is it? I mean, anywhere else in the world you would say: “Oh look, there is an Italian”, “He is a Nigerian”, “I met someone from Holland”. If we said “I met a foreigner (waygook)”, the next question would be: “Where is he/she from?”, but in Korea we’ll all just weird waygooks.

  3. This post reminded me of a Korean TV show I was watching last year. What I saw had me flabbergasted. Luckily, I had my phone in my hand and quickly loaded up the camera before the magical Korean racism in front of me disappeared. I’m sure you’ll appreciate it. Take a look: As they say in the picture, WOW! Now, I understand how some racial stereotypes don’t translate to other cultures, like that all black people like chicken and watermelons. Not being American, I only learnt about these things two years ago and think it’s absolutely ridiculous. But I’m pretty sure, no matter what culture you’re in, doing black face must seem at least a little wrong to someone. I mean, you’re in a dressing room with a dozen other entertainment professionals and nobody says, “this might not be a good idea”?

  4. Thanks for posting this! I’ve been thinking the very same thing about my classes and have encountered the exact same issues with Peter and other darker-colored characters in the CD ROM and textbook. For some reason, it’s a laugh riot for the kids. I did mention it to one of my co-teachers (5th grade) and she tried to play it off as something else. That was, until she learned that the students call one of the boys in class “Obama” simply because he has darker skin (which apparently makes him African-American). Anyway, your post is great; very well-thought and written with cultural sensitivity. Keep up the good work and don’t let the little ones bring you down.

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