I've just arrived in Korea for four-and-a-half weeks of what I expect to be deeply-draining and deeply-personal field research. On Monday, I'll start meeting with professors, trying to win over NGOs, and wandering around Seoul's migrant neighborhoods and U.S. military camptowns, searching for young adult(ages 18-30ish) mixed-race Koreans to interview. Not American citizens like me, but mixed-race Koreans who were born and raised in Korea, a country that prides itself in its, "unified bloodline."
This ideology of racial purity has produced a society where the few individuals(and by few, I mean an estimated 5000 "Amerasians"-- people of mixed American(primarily white or black) and Korean heritage, and an estimated 30,000 "Kosians" -- people of mixed Korean and other-Asian descent) who deviate from the monoracial norm live in the margins of society, face unrelenting discrimination, and consequentially suffer from many of the problems that plague marginalized minorities across the world: high drop-out rates from schools, large numbers of suicides and attempted suicides, poor emloyment opportunities--not to mention just dealing with the fact that they are one of 35,000 exceptions to a monoracial narrative of nationhood in a country of 50,000,000.
Before studying in Seoul last summer, it had never really occured to me that these 35,000 contradictions to Korea's racial ideology existed. Perhaps the idea had crossed my mind at some point, or I intuitively assumed that there must be people like me in my other motherland, but I had never bothered to find out.
But, arriving in Seoul last June, I landed in the middle of national discussion on race. Two months before my arrival, 2006 Super Bowl MVP, Hines Ward, a football player of Korean and African-American descent, had completed a triumphant tour to the land of his mother. Here, he had been feted by politicians, celebrated by the (notoriously sensationalist) Korean media, and named an honorary citizen of Seoul. Somewhere in this hoopla, cultural commentators coined terms like, the "Hines Ward effect" and "Hines Ward syndrome," to describe Ward's impact on the Korean society, speculating that Ward's celebrity had begun to force a shift in how Koreans think about race.
But, has life for mixed-race Koreans really changed in this Hines Ward era? Well, the Korean government granted legal status to mixed-race Koreans(apparently my existence was illegal in Korea on my previous two visits here...ok, I'm dramatizing a bit) and decided that instead of labeling mixed-race Koreans with the derogatory term honhyol("mixed-blood people"--basically Korea's answer to the Harry Potter series' "mudblood") in government documents, they would start using a new term: "people of international marriages"(so even if you were born in Korea and have spent your entire life here, you're still not Korean...you're a "person of an international marriage"). But, let's be fair, at least these measures are more proactive then deciding that the worst problem mixed-race Koreans face is discrimination from crayon companies
During the two-and-half months I was here, I couldn't stop wondering about these 35,000 Koreans; and thinking about how race importantly—but very differently—impacted both my and their lives compelled me to study race in an academic context. When I returned to Yale last fall, I decided to take Introduction to Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, a class that taught me, among many lessons, how to better articulate my own experiences as a person of mixed racial heritage. And that fall, I began to develop my own plan to take advantage of Yale's generous funding for its students' quixotic projects.
As I was putting this project together and applying for grants, I discussd my plans with several professor and graduate students. Indepedent of each other, two former TAs recommended that I read a new book by Columbia professor, Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. One told me she thought I'd, "appreciate the prose and the approach." The other commented that it was, "a must read for anyone interested in attending to the silences in historical archives and negotiating the tension between memory and history."
I put it on my summer reading list and just finished the last few pages during the near twenty-four hours of flying that brought me back to Seoul.
Hartman's self-described "exercse in literary fieldwork" didn't disapoint, providing me a powerful framework for thinking about and reckoning with histories of trauma, pain, and loss. And, looking back at her prologue during my connecting flight from Tokyo and Seoul, I was struck by the similarities between our motivations and goals.
"I had come to Ghana in search of strangers...As both a professor conducting research on slavery and a descendent of the enslaved, I was desperate to reclaim the dead, that is, to reckon with the lives undone and obliterated in the making of human commodities...I arrived in Ghana intent upon finding the remnants of those who had vanished. It's hard to explain what propels a quixotic mission, or why you miss people you don't even know...The simplest answer is that I wanted to bring the past closer. I wanted to understand how the ordeal of slavery began. I wanted to comprehend how a boy came to be worth three yards of cotton and a bottle of rum or a woman equivalent to a basketful of cowries. I wanted to cross the boundary that seperated kin from stranger."
But, unlike Hartman, who wrote that, "neither blood nor belonging accounted for my presence in Ghana," blood and belonging are exactly what have brought me back to Seoul this summer. My mixed-blood and sense of belonging to those who share it have brought me back here to listen to my peers who share my mixed-blood, hoping that with them, I'll find something I've been missing, that with them, I'll begin to forge a diaspora that's tied to no single ancestral homeland--or, at least, we'll establish some trans-Pacific lines of communication where none existed before.
Where Hartman sought to "reclaim the dead," I seek to find the living, not to "reclaim" them, but simply to hear and share what they have to say. Where Hartman searched for the traces of unrecorded voices of the dead, I am searching for living voices to record.