24 April 2008

one year here

i moved to korea one year ago today! to mark the milestone, here's an article i just wrote about it for an upcoming anthology about korean american homos. not surprisingly, faithful readers may recall little fits and spurts from earlier posts embedded in this here "year in review".

(minus three months of traveling in-between, of course.)

The first time I went to a gay bar in Korea it was with my mother. The two of us, along with family, friends and a guy that I’d met online, each paid 10,000-won (about $10) to enter Del Disco, a once-popular, now closed, dance club in the basement of the Hamilton Hotel. Our motley posse added diversity to the gay club’s homogenous clientele of young and pretty Korean gays. Unlike the venues I was familiar with in the States, most homo bars in Korea aren’t filled with fag hags and “hip” straight couples, much less 50-something ajummas (아줌마 married women).

Seventeen years earlier, I made my first trip to Korea. My family traveled to Seoul for the 1988 Olympic Summer Games. I can recall the ubiquitous smells of leather and kimchi as an American television crew followed our family shopping at an outdoor market. At some point, a pair of women who had been trailing my sister for a few minutes dropped to their knees and pointed at her, exclaiming, “yeapuda! yeapuda!” (예쁘다! 예쁘다! beautiful! beautiful!)

On both occasions, I recall feeling very conspicuous. But as a mixed-race person growing up in America, being conspicuous is something I expected. The daily, “What are you?” questions from strangers were a constant confirmation that I stuck out. Furthermore, coming of age in this bizarre era of legislating same-sex intimacy also confirmed that my biological wiring was everyone else’s business. So, like any good student of American identity politics, I protested my exclusion from the mainstream by eliciting more attention for my various groups. To temper peoples’ ignorance, I founded a mixed-race nonprofit organization and volunteered for LGBT activist causes.

But several years later I was burned-out with race- and gay-obsessed America and tired of feeling guilty about not speaking Korean. Because of different calendars and counting systems, I’m 29 in the U.S. and 31 in Korea. As I straddle the social milestone of 30, it seemed fitting to follow the precedents of a great-grandfather who spent several years exploring China, my halmoni (할머니 grandmother) who relocated to Japan and my mom who, in adulthood, sought new opportunities in the U.S.

Moving to Korea made sense, despite the tales I’d heard about biracial and gay Koreans: e.g. in a nation that’s 98% ethnic Korean, hone-hyeol (혼혈 mixed-blood) people here are either half-White models imported from the U.S. or homegrown social pariahs, and, as I’ve been told on several occasions, “There are no gay Koreans.” Based on this snapshot, I figured that my life in Korea would be an exaggerated version of the public identity performance I already knew well.

While I had suspected that being mixed here would arouse either fetish or revulsion, a few weeks of living in Korea brought me to a different conclusion. After settling into my apartment, I took long, meandering walks through Seoul’s grid-less northwestern neighborhoods. It was during these walks that I first noticed a new feeling: I felt inconspicuous.

My appearance and body language tells most Koreans that I’m not one of them, but I don’t receive the curious or hostile comments that Black and White expats complain about. Maybe as we pass each other on the street, placing my Asian-ish face gives locals a brief pause, but in that moment of opportunity we pass in silence. On the other hand, foreigners assume I’m Korean, which means I’m not sought-out as an English-speaking resource for where to find the nearest subway or Citibank. The upshot has been 12-months of unmolested anonymity in one of the world’s largest and most densely populated cities. After so many years of feeling conspicuous in my home country, here in Korea, I am enjoying my unexpected privacy in public.

The anonymity I also feel as a gay man in Korea, however, is less fun. I’ve met only three people who are out of the closet to any family members or friends. As an American homo, I grew up associating the closet with self-hatred and shame, while coming out was a courageous act of self-love that would bring forth the LGBT community’s support and resources. Or, at least, that was my experience, thanks to a universally supportive network of family and friends. I brought these beliefs to Korea and quickly outed myself to new friends as well as my boss and coworkers at KBS (Korean Broadcasting Service). Beyond avoiding the tedious lying inherent to life in the closet, I felt that being an openly gay foreigner was one way to normalize Korean perceptions of homosexuality.

“Korea is a conservative country” is the unchanging explanation that I get for why gay women and men remain inside the Korean closet. While there are no laws criminalizing homosexuality here, this seems thanks to queer invisibility rather than social liberalism. For example, gays are banned from what is typically mandatory military service, and several of my friends say that if their boss knew that they were queer, they’d be fired. Furthermore, in a country of 50 million people, there are just three openly-LGBT public figures in Korea – one actor, one entertainer and one aspiring politician. On the activism front, there’s a tiny coterie that work with little support against significant odds.

Having grown up in very-gay Seattle a generation after Stonewall, initially it was exciting to feel like I was on the wild eastern frontier of the global queer rights’ movement. But when I express my admiration for these pioneers to everyday Korean homos, the typical response is criticism of their appearance and/or behavior for “making us look bad”. Making gays look bad or just making people look?

It took the better part of one year to sink in, but I’m learning that many (most?) Korean homos don’t want greater awareness of homosexuality in the public sphere. They’re comfortable enough acting straight six-and-a-half days out of the week while reserving Saturday night to meet each other under pseudonyms at a bar or in a love motel. It finally makes sense why there were almost no 20-something men at last summer’s queer pride parade in downtown Seoul, but hundreds popped up later that night to dance in Itaewon’s gay ghetto. As one 20-year-old lesbian told me bluntly: “We’re really secretive and like it this way.”

As I process this, I try to keep tabs on my American righteousness. When I’m irritated by the lack of participation by everyday gays in Korea’s fledgling LGBT movement, it’s helpful to remember that just because I grew up conspicuous in a society that rewards outspoken individuality, that doesn’t mean everyone else did. Furthermore, just because Koreans may accept my mixed-ness and/or homosexuality, it’s rarely an indication of how they’ll treat their own. As a biracial Korean-American, when I tread too far outside the lines of acceptable behavior, I get the, “He’s a foreigner” pass.

I’m glad that Korea feels vividly different, not some lite or exaggerated variation of home. Although it’s less socially progressive than where I’m from, it’s the ability to leave my conspicuous American identities behind that's been the liberating paradigm shift. More than anything, living here has me aware of the different realities that can exist, which is great comfort to anyone who has felt confined or marginalized by where they come from.


corextacy said...

very insightful post.

matt said...

thanks, dude.^^

Anonymous said...

I'm in Seattle and I recently came out. The only LGBT Koreans I've met were at the Wing Luke museum and I have a couple buddies at the UW who are gay. Do you know a network of queer Koreans here?

matt said...

hi saipan,
thanks for your question. hmmm are u a seattle native or a transplant? that's me just being nosey, not because it will help me answer your question.

i'm not aware of a queer koko group. in my experience, there weren't many of us. however, i mingled with guys from a filipino-heavy informal gay pan-asian network that was fun. if you want to get in touch with folks, leme know.

davidk77 said...

Yo Matt,

Saipan is actually me. My name's David, and I'm the one who posted the question about Tyee H.S..Your blogosphere is very intriguing and insightful. As a newly out KA, my approach to Korea is very different then it was a few months ago, as you have encountered. But yeah, I'm a native, a liberal, latte-drinking progressive Seattleite! Just the way you like it....

I'm glad to hear you're involved in the Dari Project, but they haven't updated their website in ages...so, I'm assuming they're not as active as they used to be.

Getting to the nitty-gritty, the question I'm asking you all these questions is because I think you're cute (as many of the bloggers would concur, but it seems like you're taken)and have done good work for the community. I wonder if we know many of the same people because it seems our communities overlap?

matt said...

why the nickname, "saipan"?

dari has been very busy, just not updating its site, i guess. we've selected all of the essays that will be compiled into the collection. they're being translated now.

re: human overlap, i'm sure we share acquaintances or friends. seattle, homo and ka are all small communities.

it's always nice for aging bloggers to hear they're cute, so thanks for that. ya, i've got a boyfriend, which is a nice tho unfamiliar experience!

davidk77 said...

I don't know, saw it on my friend's blog...

Anyway, my friend Amy Moline (Hyuna Pak), has met you before. Her husband is part of the KoreIonz band in Seattle. She's an adoptee and we're both a part of Progressive Majority (my mentor nuna too). She told me how her and a few friends compiled a list of eligible bachelors and you were on the list, until they found our you were a homo ;)

matt said...

ya, im so homo. i've even forgotten how to flirt with girls. it's a shame.

davidk77 said...


I'm running for state senate (41st district) and would like your's and MAVIN's support if you're back in Seattle. It won't be for a while since I'll be in the east coast and then hopefully the foreign service, but my plan in in five to six years.

matt said...

that was unexpected. 5 years is a ways off but keep me posted. i'm not connected with mavin much these days, but you should get in touch with them if you're looking to network or for support. are you connected with any of the seattle api political folks, e.g. hyeok kim, sharon tomiko santos, etc.?

davidk77 said...

Yes, I saw them both last week at Uncle Bob's bday party. Seattle's very fortunate to have a strong API community.