One of my classes here is about American regional culture and we are focusing the early part of the semester on theoretical and practical approaches to the study of regions and regionalism. Much of the discussion considers race and ethnicity in terms of region. If you are studying US history or regionalism, particularly in the South, that is necessarily at the heart of it.

But it rings differently to Korean ears. One of my more thoughtful students asked me if it sounded harsh to Americans to be described or characterized by their race. In particular, if I was called "white" would that be considered impolite or even insulting. She said her friends, when speaking of white or black GIs (among themselves) for instance, just call them "Americans" to avoid these problems and because they do not see much of a difference. And here in class I was very calmly describing "whites" "African-Americans" and so on.

The American focus on race is something that looks much different from the outside than from within the culture. Descriptors we take for granted have a different resonance, it is interesting to have that perspective.

In Korea this question of ethnic identity and national character is just starting to become an issue, and the migrant question has suddenly come to the fore in the news.

"It is funny how Koreans react to a person’s skin color. When the children of international marriages have a similar skin color to Koreans, they are less likely to be teased by their classmates at school,” said Cho, an official at the migrant workers ‘ welfare center. “I once received a phone call at the center from a middle-aged Korean man. He was angry and said, ‘Why are you trying to mix our pure blood?’ ”

A good comparison to make to my mind is Germany. There we saw a very successful and prosperous capitalist democracy with a Stalinist regime next door in an ethnically identical though economically imploded country. The West Germans coped (poorly) with the Turk auslander question even before having to figure out how best to assimilate the East Germans back into the country. After unification, the Eastern response to the Turks was even worse. I would be curious if any academic work has been done comparing Korea and Germany. If not, someone should do it!


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