A video of an African American man accosting an elderly Korean male on a bus outside of Seoul has garnered widespread media attention across the country, with headlines calling for the perpetrator to be “immediately kicked out.” Netizens, meanwhile, are flooding Web sites with comments far less forgiving.
The video begins with the 24-year-old American, clearly aggravated, yelling at an elderly Korean man, his fists hovering threateningly in the latter’s face. “You see these rocks,” he asks, lunging as if to strike. The bus eventually stopped at a nearby police station, where officers detained the attacker.

According to reports, the unidentified American later told police that the altercation began with a misunderstanding over something the Korean man allegedly said. While there are conflicting accounts, the dominant narrative so far suggests that the Korean either offered or told the black man to have a seat. One of the words in Korean for “you, however, comes (in this case dangerously) close to sounding like the N word in English. It’s pronounced ni-ga, and is used by elders when speaking to those younger than themselves.

Bloggers have gone after the attacker, wondering how on earth he might have assumed that an old Korean guy would even know the N word, much less have the gall to use it in that fashion. Others have pointed out, however, that the N word is one of several English translations provided by the online Korean dictionary Naver for the word “black person” in Korean.

Other definitions include the term “n*** lover,” with no context provided to explain the history of the word and its connotations within western, and specifically American culture.

That Korea, and East Asia in general, has issues with race is not news. Following the brawl between the Georgetown basketball team and China’s Bayi Team earlier this month, observers were quick to note that the American players were primarily black. “Race can’t be discounted,” noted one. Closer to home, a black friend of mine living in a neighborhood heavily populated by Chinese would often complain about “old grandmas moving away” when he sat next to them.

Relations between blacks and Asians in this city have never been stellar.

I am not trying to justify what this individual did. He attacked an elderly man and another young woman who tried to intervene. The guy himself later told police that he was wrong for what he did and that he wanted to apologize. Whether or not that’s enough to garner forgiveness I’ll leave to readers to decide. But judging from the comments I’ve read, it’s surprising to me that none take into account the difficulties of being black, or simply dark skinned, in Korea.

I lived in Korea for three years, learned the language and etiquette and generally did my best to conform to local custom. Still, not a day went by when I wasn’t reminded either by colleagues or complete strangers of the fact that I was different. I was an outsider. Such reminders were rarely hostile, most often casual references made out of concern for my own possible discomfort, usually related to worries that I wouldn’t like the food. Most days I’d brush off these encounters as part of living in Korea, where the population is overwhelmingly homogenous. There were days, though, when it really got to me. I’m white, by the way.

A few years back a visiting Indian scholar was verbally abused by a drunk Korean man on a bus in a rural area of the country. The perpetrator in this case was angered, in part, by the fact that the South Asian was sitting with a Korean woman. “How can you be sitting with that monkey,” he spat out. The victim went on to press charges, with the case eventually making its way to Korea’s high court as the country’s first involving a race crime. The Indian won.

But that doesn’t mean things have gotten any easier for people of color in Korea, where attitudes tend to grow increasingly negative the darker one’s skin. On the basketball court one day, two Korean men told me about their time living in the U.S. and how they didn’t like Chicago “because of all the blacks there.” The presumption being that this was a secret they could divulge to me as a white person. Surely I’d understand.

While such attitudes tend for the most part to remain under the surface, occasionally they bubble up, as with the case of the Indian man above. Most times they form a sort of backdrop, however, a quiet but relentless fear/hostility that, as this latest incident shows, does not go unrecognized by those who are its targets.