Cross-border families in a post-Paris world

Once last year, teaching an English conversation lesson with the theme of describing places, I asked my university students to describe their hometowns to a partner. As an example, I jokingly described a few good points and several more bad qualities of my hometown, mentioning among other things its high obesity and crime rates. This might be why a little later, when I called on one young man to describe his hometown, he also mentioned that the city, Ansan, had one of the highest crime rates in Korea.

“Oh, why does it have a lot of crime?” I asked, trying to draw him into a lengthier utterance; he rarely spoke in class, which, of course, was why I had called on him.

“There are many foreigners,” he answered.

“You mean, like me?” I asked, smiling but also wide-eyed in my surprise.

“No, no, no!” he exclaimed hurriedly, probably worried about his grade, waving his hands and turning to some more fluent classmates in a flurry of Korean. It turned out, they explained, that he hadn’t meant foreigners “like me”; he had meant illegal immigrants, probably from China or South or Southeast Asia.

I got a similar shock last night. I was teaching Mr. Kim to play Yatzhee in our bedroom, the warmest room of the house. As he took his turn, I looked over at my laptop, perennially open beside me, unthinkingly moving my eyes down whatever was on the top of my facebook feed. Suddenly, a headline from the “Trending” section in the right-hand sidebar–a feature I generally ignore–caught my eye:

racist facebook trending headline
The third one, in case you couldn’t figure it out.

I made some exclamation of surprise and clicked to read the story. My disgust intensified when I realized the crime these five men had been arrested over: possessing tools that could be used to duplicate credit cards. (I’m not linking it here because I don’t want them to get even one extra pingback.)

I was shocked to see this xenophobic, fear-mongering headline on the sidebar of facebook and syndicated among media outlets across the Midwest. “Foreign national.” Really?

In fact, a week ago, I actually don’t think this story would have made headlines in any real way. People, Americans and otherwise, are arrested every day for that level of crime in America. The normal headline would have probably read something like, “Five arrested on turnpike with fake credit card machine.”

But after Paris, with an increased level of paranoia about the actions and intentions of “foreigners” in America more socially acceptable among a broader group, the editors at this paper doubtless knew that they could get lots of clicks (and indeed, trend on facebook) by focusing their headline on a group of foreign nationals being arrested.

It’s the kind of thing I was used to hearing people who aren’t Korean nationals living in Korea (e.g., Americans and Canadians) complain about in Korean headlines–things like “Hundreds of foreigners arrested in past 2 months,” when the crime rate among non-Koreans is something like half that of Korean citizens there. They’re right to complain these headlines, because that kind of reporting is misrepresentative and contributes to the image of the other as a danger and a menace and maybe less human than us.

Dividing people as insiders and outsiders is probably one of the most natural things we do. I mean just look at kids. But it’s also one of the most dangerous, especially in a world like ours, where people are constantly on the move, individually and groups, voluntarily or reluctantly, for their gain or to avoid further loss. Learning to avoid identifying people by their categorical differences rather than their personal actions was supposed to have been last century’s work.

As someone prone to rumination, I’ve definitely pondered before on how families like ours could be particularly vulnerable to xenophobia or nationalism if those moods were to seriously grip the world again. In Korea, I’ll always be presumed to basically be valuable for my combination of native English ability, phenotype and, while it, lasts, youth, but probably never in physical danger of anything beyond a daring grope; our children will probably always be marked as at least partial outsiders. In America, Mr. Kim, and any children, will always be looked upon by at least some as interlopers, although currently, given our overall educational and social situation and the fact that Mr. Kim is East Asian rather than Middle Eastern, I think we don’t have anything serious to worry about.

When my student last year made his comments about foreigners (but not ones “like me”) causing high crime rates, I gave my class a brief but probably-unwelcome lecture on the truth about foreign crime rates in Korea. I had to, and I understand why many of my friends have to complain about the headlines there that make the same characterization. Here in America, we have to complain, too. It doesn’t matter that Mr. Kim isn’t Middle Eastern, and it shouldn’t matter if he was the WASPiest American I could find–I should still complain. Headlines like the one I saw last night–and votes like the one that just went through in Congress–are bad for our families, our society, and ourselves.

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