Day 49-50

Day 49-50: a muddle and an explanation

So I have been in a muddle lately of how to portray the Korean community in Buenos Aires. That is, what conclusions do I have, from two months of meeting people and seeing new things? And what of my experiences? I would, of course, like it if my findings/experiences could be of some service to the academic world, but my methodology of examining, interviewing and researching was too inconsistent and not well thought-out beforehand. To be truthful, I had wanted to avoid being too scientific and formal in approaching my subjects because I wanted to be able to blend in– be an insider– instead of being an outsider trying understand the situation. Granted, there are a lot more biases in being an “insider,” because you can’t really differentiate what is the truth and what is a fiction– but I felt that it would be more “authentic” (a term very difficult to define and keep consistent)– or that is, at least, closer to the subject’s perspective, in that I would be able to participate in his/her narrative or history. A very nonacademic (at least, traditionally) way of viewing narratives, I think. I wanted to avoid being a detached, objective observer and wanted to be privy to their personal lives; so I only formally interviewed some community leaders, while quietly observing and participating in community life when possible. I didn’t want to intrude in their lives either, because then nobody will open up to you. So I’ve been patiently trying to gain people’s confidence and trust; something which is, to tell you the truth, both very easy and difficult. Tact is needed when approaching people, and if not done with circumspection, they can be very reserved and suspicious. I reasoned that it would be best that they gained my trust before I started bombarding them with questions and photo opps.

But with my last two weeks quickly coming to an end, I have finally started engaging them in a dialogue about their lives. I realize that the microcosm doesn’t always explain the macrocosm and vice versa, so I’ve been extremely slow in generalizing or interpreting their lives/situation. There also really isn’t that much data (at least, I haven’t found much) on the Korean population here. So I’ve been in a muddle. What is my conclusion? Have I found anything?

This has been eating away at me for quite some time, until I realized something yesterday and today. That is– I had thought about it before, but it really hit me then.

Yesterday, I was at Feria Americana for lunch, like usual. An Argentine couple was invited and joined us to eat Korean food. The store owner can barely speak and understand castellano, so I ended up being the translator with my feeble Castellano. The couple asked me what I was doing there, and so I gave them the formulated, memorized answer– in perfect Castellano, of course. Then they started asking me what I had found during my two months there– what my conclusion was. My Spanish then faltered. And so did my mind. Not only that, but then they started asking me about Korea– my mind went blank.

That is, it’s quite normal that people ask me about Korea; they are curious and would like to know more about the country from where my parents immigrated. It’s a very kind gesture. But the truth is that I don’t know. I don’t know Korean history– I’ve never formally learned it. I know a few major figures here and there, major dates (6-25, 1945, etc) but that’s it. To be honest, I probably know more about British history or Indian or French than I do Korean. At least those came out in my history texts. Korea was never mentioned in my history books– or if so, maybe a paragraph (which is probably more than what Australia gets!). I also don’t really know what Koreans think. But people always ask me what they think about certain issues. How am I supposed to know? I’ve never lived in Korea, I’ve only visited a handful of times, and I don’t participate in Korean society. I can tell you what I think as a Korean-American, but even then, my view certainly doesn’t represent others’.

The couple asked me what Koreans thought about communism– if they were afraid/hated it because of North Korea and if they thought of it as a threat. I didn’t know, but from what I saw of my parents and their opinions on communism, it didn’t seem like they hated it that much. I have socialist tendencies, so I figured I’d just answer with my bias in mind: that they didn’t really hate communism that much.

Big mistake. Luckily, there was a Korean woman eating with us who understood some Castellano and heard my response. She told the other Koreans at the table, and they all started explaining to me immediately that Koreans instinctively hate communism, just as much as they hate the Japanese. It’s a gut response– this hate. A physical, emotional and mental instinct. They explained to me that this instinct was because they had experienced firsthand the hardships associated with communism: dividing the nation in two, hunger, persecution, oppression, manipulation, violence, death, etc. I realized then how powerful an experience can be, and how intensely it can alter a people’s psyche. I’ve always been wary of the instinctual hatred Koreans have of the Japanese– but now I suppose I can understand it. That is, these firsthand experiences are imprinted in their lives, mentality and the way they function/behave– so much so that it dramatically changes them. I was embarrassed that my answer was so egregious. These Koreans and I were the results of two vastly different worlds.

Then, today, the sunim and I were invited to lunch with the owner of a clothing store in Avenida Avellaneda. Great, I thought– another opportunity to listen and ask questions. I ended up being questioned: he seemed to want to know who I was, that is, my mentality and philosophy. So instead, I asked some blunt questions so that I could get him to react to the statements/questions. That is, I wanted to see how he would react to the statements/questions in order to see his opinion on the situation. I think this worried him, because he thought that I was being quick to make conclusions and generalizations about the Korean community. Fair enough– but really quite the opposite of what I had wanted. What we ended up discussing is the danger of generalizing– which I absolutely agree with. But he said something that I thought was valid, which was, if you want to understand the immigrants and why they live a certain way here, you need to understand the society from which they came from. Namely, if you want to understand the first generation and why they are so conservative, traditional and backwards, then you need to know from where and how they developed their mentality– that is, Korean history.

Fair point– but I don’t know Korean history. And to tell you the truth, it doesn’t interest me. Not one bit. Except for maybe the human rights struggles and civil/political rights movements of the 19th, 20th and 21st century– but that’s because I’m just interested in human/civil/political movements. I don’t really care about what kingdom followed what kingdom, and what king from Shilla was invaded, etc. I’m just uninterested in elitist history, as much influence they might have had on a everyday person’s life.

But for the most part, I don’t care about Korean history because it’s not my history. And American history is and isn’t mine– that is, there really aren’t any Asians recognized in American history either (read “Asian American Dream” by Zia Han!), but I at least identify with the immigrant history of America, if not with the Pilgrims and patriots. I’ve grown up without a history, really, and without a specific culture. I don’t know anything about my family’s history; I don’t even know all the actual names of my grandparents off the top of my head. It’s part of the distant, blurry past of the life my parents left behind in Korea, something they do not readily speak of. As if better left in the past so that the present may continue. I don’t know all of the cultural references and norms of Korea, and I’ve slowly learned those of America by living there for 20 years. But I still have a hard time understanding American idioms. And I hated it in elementary and middle school when teachers assigned us to write about a tradition that my family had, because I grew up without any set traditions. So I felt without a culture.

But this was my experience as a second-generation Korean-American. This was the context in which I grew up in– my history.

But how could you possibly understand the first-generation Koreans living in Argentina (or in the US) without knowing their history, the man asked me. Wow– fair enough, I thought. I probably should find out then. Because earlier that day, I was watching the owner of Feria Americana and her friend bleeding themselves for oriental medicinal purposes. It was a silly and absurd situation; they were extracting blood from the back hip using a plastic suction cup that used pressure to extract blood from an area punctured by a needle– in the middle of the store, while customers were walking around browsing. Not a bit embarrassed, not a bit, they were. I was amused by how they could so blatantly extract blood in such a silly manner in public, but at the same time, I understood what and why they were doing it, and I acknowledged/accepted it. Wow, I thought, definitely part generational gap, part personal indifference, part cultural difference. I was somewhat embarrassed as well because I wondered how the store’s customers would think of Koreans– because from a foreigner’s point of view, it must have seemed strange, exotic and weird. Of course, I could understand both perspectives, the Korean’s and the foreigner’s, although I certainly thought that the Koreans’ actions may seem strange, irrational and backwards/conservative/what-the-hell-are-they-doing-in-public?!. I realized then however that I couldn’t fully comprehend the Koreans’ actions and mentality because I didn’t know their history; I didn’t know how these norms and mentality came to develop. So it hit me then. The older generation may be strange– but they come from a different era, a different culture with different customs, traditions, norms, behaviors. And as a second-generation immigrant, I was embarrassed of both their indifference and inability to adapt to the dominant culture and norms. Hence the cultural/generational clash. I mean, I knew of this before– but it really hit me then.

The store owner’s advice was valid. Certainly. so I will try to be interested in their history because otherwise I won’t understand their mentality. And plus, the first generation’s decisions/mentality affect the later generations, so it’s definitely relevant to me.

He pointed out to me something that had been bothering me as well. He questioned not only the value of my work/research but the validity of it. Something that had been eating away at me since the beginning of this project.

Firstly, the value/quality of my work: anyone can take pictures and interview, even a high school student can do that. What then, differentiates your work/project from that of a high school student, he asked me. This has been a constant worry for me, since the project’s conception to the present. How can I make this personal experience not only valuable to me but to others as well? Ideally, I would like to present a photo essay to be published by some publication/online site. I would also like to write an article to be published. But that depends on the quality of my research and investigation, of course. Unfortunately, that requires strict methodology and consistency for accurate results. I however chose not to do so, and I was certainly not an expert in Korean immigration studies to know what I should research to be able to add to the knowledge of academia.

Secondly, the validity of my work: how biased am I? how accurate are the representations of the community that you have gathered/heard/seen? How accurate are not only your facts but your conclusion and interpretation? From what perspective are you viewing the community, he asked me. Because it is important that you know your own bias before you begin to interpret and analyze, and in order to know your own bias, you need to know your own history, your own self.

I answer his question with a quote from Ernesto Guevara, from the “Motorcycle Diaries”:

Man, the measure of all things, speaks through my mouth and recounts
in my own words what my eyes saw. Out of ten possible heads I may have
only seen one tail, or vice versa; there are no excuses; my mouth says
what my eyes told it. Was our view too narrow, too biased, too hasty,
were our conclusions too rigid? Maybe so, but this is how the
typewriter interprets the disparate impulses which made you press the
keys, and those fleeting impulses are dead. Besides, no one is
answerable to them. The person who wrote these notes died the day he
stepped back on Argentine soil…
Any book on photographic technique can show you the image of a
nocturnal landscape with the full moon shining and the accompanying
text revealing the secret of this sunlit darkness. But the reader
doesn’t really know what kind of sensitive fluid covers my retina, I’m
hardly aware of it myself, so you can’t examine the plate to find out
the actual moment it was taken. If I present a nocturnal picture, you
have to take it or leave it, it’s not important. Unless you actually
know the landscape my diary photographed, you’ve no option but to
accept my version. (p. 12)

Scholars and critics tend to analyze and criticize authors’ views, claiming that the position taken was too narrow or too biased—thus disparaging the work. This is good– I do it all the time– question, doubt, constructively criticize. But since it is difficult to have an objective view of anything, sometimes I find that the subjective view is more accurate (I don’t know if that’s the right word…) because bias is inevitable. That is, it is good to hear varying perspectives and decide for oneself what reality is. Objectivity takes out the very thing that makes an issue important—the humaneness, the bias. Sometimes it is difficult to understand a situation without any points of view; one can end up with a superficial account —it may become dead
information. Ironically, history itself is a collection of biased accounts. That’s not to say that I don’t value academia and the search for an objective reality– because I do. :)

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