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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
Today is International Womens Day so I would like to use this occasion to reflect a little bit on the state of affairs for Asian and Asian American women by discussing two recent news events. This is not meant to be a comprehensive or exhaustive review of the political, economic, and social status of Asian/Asian American women, just only some observations based on a couple of recent news stories.
The first article concerns the success of female figure skaters of Asian descent in the just-concluded Winter Olympics in Vancouver Canada. As the New York Times points out, Asian skaters such Kim Yu-Na and Shizuka Arakawa have elevated the status of the sport significantly in their home countries while and Asian Americans such as Mirai Nagasu try to follow in the legacy of recent Asian American champions Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan:
Skaters of Asian descent, primarily women but also men, have risen to prominence in large numbers both nationally and internationally. The reasons are varied, skaters and coaches say. They have to do with rules changes, body type, hard work and discipline, diet and the emergence over the past two decades of role models like Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan of the United States and Midori Ito of Japan. . . .
Maybe Asians are switching from studying to sports,” said [Mirai] Nagasu. The influx of Asian skaters can be traced in part to the elimination of compulsory school figures, coaches said. . . . Without compulsory figures, skating became more like gymnastics. . . . The key to jumping is to leap high and spin quickly and tightly through two, three or four revolutions before returning to the ice. Asian skaters are often small and willowy, which can be an asset when jumping. . . .
Asian skaters also often adhere to a diet of rice and vegetables and fish, avoiding large quantities of beef and fat, Carroll said. This can make them less vulnerable to weight gain in a sport where five pounds can make a difference between a winning jumper and a struggling one.
Other cultural factors are also at play, coaches said. Discipline at home often transfers to discipline at the rink, Carroll said. Audrey Weisiger, a prominent Chinese-American coach, said: “A lot of Asian families really drive their kids, and I don’t mean in the car. They’re not allowed to be marginal.”
To summarize, the NY Times article cites several potential reasons why Asian American skaters have become so prominent in recent years. For the most part, the factors discussed sound plausible, although there is certainly still a lot of room for exceptions and variations (i.e., taller figure skaters, both male and female, have still achieved success, no physical size isn’t everything).
However, the one factor mentioned in the article that caught my attention was the parental pressure on Asian American figure skaters to succeed. Unfortunately, it seems that wherever you look, Asians and Asian American consistently face these kinds of “model minority” pressures to do well, live up to their parents’ expectations, and to outperform everybody else. This is the case when it comes to academics and apparently, to more “recreational” activities like figure skating as well.
Along the same lines, the next news story focuses on some of the challenges that Asian and Asian American women still face in contemporary society these days. As the Washington Post reports, a recent full-page newspaper advertisement in South Korea illuminates how, despite the rising status of women in the country, numerous working mothers face severe contradictions and in many cases, a no-win situation:
In a full-page newspaper advertisement headlined “I Am a Bad Woman,” Hwang Myoung-eun explained the trauma of being a working mom in South Korea. “I may be a good employee, but to my family I am a failure,” wrote Hwang, a marketing executive and mother of a 6-year-old son. “In their eyes, I am a bad daughter-in-law, bad wife and bad mother.”
The highly unusual ad gave voice to the resentment and repressed anger that are common to working women across South Korea.
In a country where people work more and sleep less than anywhere else in the developed world, women are often elbowed away from rewards in their professional lives. If they have a job, they make 38 percent less money than men, the largest gender gap in the developed world. If they become pregnant, they are pressured at work not to take legally guaranteed maternity leave.
Thanks to gender equality in education, the professional skills and career aspirations of women in South Korea have soared over the past two decades. But those gains are colliding with a corporate culture that often marginalizes mothers at the workplace — or ejects them altogether.
Women who do combine work and family find themselves squeezed between too little time and too much guilt: for neglecting the education of children in a nation obsessed with education, for shirking family obligations as dictated by assertive mothers-in-law, and for failing to attend to the care and feeding of overworked and resentful husbands.
As Hwang complained in two mournful newspaper advertisements she bought last fall in Seoul newspapers: “We work harder than anyone to manage housekeeping and earn wages, so why are we branded as selfish, irresponsible women?”
It seems that in terms of society’s acknowledgment and recognition of the challenges that working mothers face in balancing the demands of work and family, South Korea is very similar to the U.S. That is, despite laws and formal policies in place to provide working mothers with job security, the actual implicit and cultural expectations frequently deter many mothers from taking full advantage of them.
While this situation is slowly changing for the better, in many ways the U.S. is still grappling with both firmly-embedded institutional practices and individual attitudes. With this in mind, unfortunately South Korea is likely to also be dealing with these societal contradictions for some time to come.
Ultimately, International Womens Day gives us a chance to reflect on both the successes, progress, and positives that women around the world have achieved, but also how many barriers still remain in the way toward attaining full equality. Like racial/ethnic relations, in many ways achieving gender equality also seems to be a “two steps forward, one step back” process.
2005: Model Minority Expectations and Suicide The intense pressure from families and society of living up to standards of high achievement can be overwhelming and has led many young Asian Americans to take their own lives.
2004: Inter-Asian Sentiments Examples from popular culture in both Japan and South Korea illustrate the contradictory nature of inter-ethnic relations between Asians of different ethnic groups.
Often, when I write about racism and anti-minority racial attitudes in the U.S., readers ask how such attitudes here in the U.S. compare with similar attitudes around the world. Frequently, the implication is, how bad do American racial minorities have it here, compared to other minorities around in other countries? This is often a very difficult question to answer because you have to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples.
In other words, just like in any kind of ‘scientific’ study or research, you need to make sure that other conditions or factors are the as similar as possible so that you can isolate the one or two variables that do differ between two sample populations, in this case countries. However, since very few countries share the same history, institutional dynamics, population demographics, etc., such direct cross-national comparisons are difficult to make.
Nonetheless, it can still be interesting to compare and contrast such racial attitudes across countries, as long as we don’t generalize too much about them and prematurely conclude that one country is “better” than another in terms of how racial minorities are treated. In fact, I’ve posted about racial attitudes in Japan and Australia. With that disclaimer in mind, the New York Times recently posted an article that looks at how anti-minority attitudes may be changing in South Korea:
South Korea, a country where until recently people were taught to take pride in their nation’s “ethnic homogeneity” . . . is struggling to embrace a new reality. In just the past seven years, the number of foreign residents has doubled, to 1.2 million, even as the country’s population of 48.7 million is expected to drop sharply in coming decades because of its low birth rate. Many of the foreigners come here to toil at sea or on farms or in factories, providing cheap labor in jobs shunned by South Koreans. . . .
In a report issued Oct. 21, Amnesty International criticized discrimination in South Korea against migrant workers, who mostly are from poor Asian countries, citing sexual abuse, racial slurs, inadequate safety training and the mandatory disclosure of H.I.V. status, a requirement not imposed on South Koreans in the same jobs. Citing local news media and rights advocates, it said that following last year’s financial downturn, “incidents of xenophobia are on the rise.” . . .
The Foreign Ministry supports an anti-discrimination law, said Kim Se-won, a ministry official. In 2007, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended that South Korea adopt such a law . . . But [Critics of the proposed legislation] charged that such a law would only encourage even more migrant workers to come to South Korea, pushing native workers out of jobs and creating crime-infested slums. They also said it was too difficult to define what was racially or culturally offensive.
“Our ethnic homogeneity is a blessing,” said one of the critics, Lee Sung-bok, a bricklayer who said his job was threatened by migrant workers. “If they keep flooding in, who can guarantee our country won’t be torn apart by ethnic war as in Sri Lanka?”
The first part of the New York Times article describes specific incidents of discrimination faced by non-Korean individuals in the country and are very telling — anyone who is both non-Korean and non-White generally face a lot of hostility, but non-Koreans who are White (generally American or European) are admired, although still not seen as equal to Koreans. As one example:
[A Korean woman’s] father and other relatives grilled her as to whether she was dating Mr. Hussain [an Indian working in South Korea]. But when a cousin recently married a German, “all my relatives envied her, as if her marriage was a boon to our family,” she said.
Another interesting issue in this larger dynamic relates to how Asian Americans and Korean Americans are treated in South Korea. This example illustrates some of the contradictions that they face in the country:
Tammy Chu, 34, a Korean-born film director who was adopted by Americans and grew up in New York State, said she had been “scolded and yelled at” in Seoul subways for speaking in English and thus “not being Korean enough.” Then, she said, her applications for a job as an English teacher were rejected on the grounds that she was “not white enough.”
It is indeed sad to see that fist, non-White non-Koreans seem to face persistent racial prejudice and discrimination in South Korea. Many people of color in the U.S. can certainly relate to their situation and regardless of the country involved, people from all backgrounds deserve to be treated equally.
Second, it is also sad to see that much of South Korea appears to be in denial about what it means to live in the 21st century. Specifically, with globalization and international migration taking place all around them and leading to inevitable demographic shifts in almost all developed countries around the world, many South Koreans appear to be clinging to age-old stereotypes that “foreigners” are automatically bad for their country and will lead to the destruction of their economy and culture.
What this kind of attitude fails to recognize is that larger institutional trends are what is responsible for their country being in dire conditions to begin with and that the influx of immigrants is just one symptom of these larger social forces, not the original cause of them. In fact, the immigrants in their country likely provide many unseen benefits to the country. Unfortunately, their contributions are easily overlooked due to their status as manual laborers, their non-Korean and non-White background, and the general economic instability that leads many Koreans to vent their frustrations onto immigrants who they perceive to be competitors for scarce resources.
In that sense, the situation in South Korea in terms of how racially-distinct immigrants are treated is very similar to that in many other countries, including the U.S.