Learning in Lake Bled
The all-too familiar racist experience for Asian travellers
Travelling around the world forces you to face an ignorant reality.
Gone is the sheltered Vancouver bubble where multiculturalism thrives and one avoids making cultural comments in fear of being called out.
But here, in Slovenia, where encounters with Asians are limited to a small number of Chinese restaurants and giant group tours, some locals try to follow along the Asian speech and throw out a Ni Hao” or “Konichiwa” to any remotely looking Asian traveller.
For some Koreans, the repetitive nature of these incorrect comments infuriates them. In a popular Europe travelling Facebook group, there is at least one post a month showing a distraught traveller asking what one should do when Europeans shout out these phrases.
Comments include: “Tell them, ‘F*** YOU I AM KOREAN NOT CHINESE/JAPANESE!’” or “Look them straight in the eye and tell them to ‘F*** OFF’”.
I can understand where the fury resonates from. Pretty much in every single city I have travelled to in Europe I have heard a random person shouting out their sad rendition of Chinese or Japanese phrases at me.
Korea as a country has always experienced an identity crisis sandwiched between its two larger neighbours China and Japan. Our entire history is filled with events depicting struggles in maintaining our independence from the two East Asian superpowers. Being Korean, a distinct cultural identity proven by the development of our own language, cuisine, and customs/traditions, is a source of pride for many.
Despite the advances in our economic power and soft power, aided by Psy’s Gangnam Style the Korean Wave (Hallyu), Korea is still a smaller country compared to China and Japan in terms of economy, cultural significance, and population. So, the Koreans negative reaction to these kinds of blurts is understandable.
As a Korean-Canadian, I have a unique vantage point when dealing with these students. I could also adopt the Koreans’ negative reactions to these annoyingly repetitive blurts. Or I am able to flex my English and engage those Europeans and use the opportunity to educate the ignorant.
Ultimately, I know that these bursts are made repetitively mainly because it is from a point of ignorance, not for an ill intention (at least giving them the benefit of the doubt). In fact, how many Koreans would have they actually encountered versus the million more Chinese and Japanese travellers they could have encountered?
So when I was swimming and enjoying my time in Lake Bled, I once again heard the all too common phrases.
The blurts were from teens, looking around 15 years, chanting along the platform in their playful selves.
I immediately got out from the pool and approached them.
“Hey, that’s the wrong language. Actually, I am from Canada so the proper way you should greet me is Hello.”
They looked at me funny. For many Europeans, the fact that Canada is a multiracial society does not really ring a bell. How could an Asian looking man be a Canadian and not Chinese?!
“We are sorry, I thought you were Japanese.” The students were tense and I could see their fingers curling behind their backs.
“And so what if I was Japanese? Do you think it would make a person feel good hearing this?”
They once again apologized for their action. These were reasonable kids, some would not even admit their mistake. I told them that I was born in Korea but moved to Canada at an early age.
“You are lucky! If I was not Canadian, a Korean would be a lot meaner about hearing the wrong language thrown at them.”
I explained to them quickly that Koreans especially did not enjoy hearing these words thrown at them because we wish to be recognized for the country we are actually from, and not as a blanket phrase for all Asians.
“What if I was to shout at you in Russian? Or in any other language other than your own? You would feel frustrated, especially if it was repeated in every single city you travel to.”
The kids understood as I saw their heads dropping. But not to completely kill the mood I asked them how old they were. Most were 15 years old and in Grade 9.
We then began to have conversations talking about life in Slovenia, their dreams and hopes for the future, where some of the nicest places in Slovenia were, and even their understanding of current events. These kids were not stupid, just ignorant. They were also highly interested in my travel stories, my reasons for being in Slovenia, and how I was Canadian and not Korean by nationality.
We left each other on friendly terms, with them even showing their cool water tricks with front and back flips.
This conversation did not have to end this way. The easy way out would be for me to tell them to f*** off and scaring them a little bit. But honestly, what would that do? The kids would continue their practice to every other Asian traveller they meet.
Racism is rooted in ignorance. Rather than be infuriated by it, there is a duty to educate and clear this lack of knowledge. Particularly for kids who are easily influenced and will follow what they see in the media or their peers, it’s important to address the situation immediately. Thanks to these kids and the conversations we shared, I saw the potential of how much the little bits of ignorance could be solved just by simply engaging and clearing their misunderstanding.
I see each incident like these as an opportunity to educate, instead of a source of annoyance. Not only do I teach the other person something about diversity and my proud Korean and Canadian heritage, I also learn the many stories and backgrounds of this person.
The best of my memories in Europe have been from awkward first encounters like these, and while I hope that it diminishes in the future, I’ll always be there to combat the “Ni Hao” and “Konichiwa” with some real conversation and learning.