Such numbers won’t surprise fellow ex-expats. Some years ago I illustrated a book cover for a collection of essays written by an African-American fellow living in Yokohama, documenting his uncomfortable life as a racial outcast in the land of the pure. People pointing and staring and clutching their purses and changing seats and whatnot with a brazenness that would have raised eyebrows in the Jim Crow South for its lack of subtlety. That was the kind of thing all the immigrants always talked about when I was there. Just like how it was an article of faith in those same circles that some restaurants and shops in lower-class neighbourhoods hung explicit “NO FOREIGNERS” signs in their windows.
That Asian countries are some of the world’s most racist is an assertion born out by data. A revealing 2013 World Values Survey of racial tolerance around the globe (as measured by one’s willingness to have neighbours of a different race) placed Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and South Korea all near the bottom of the global rankings, well beneath anywhere in the Americas, non-France Europe, even South Africa.
Whatever its roots, this cultural inclination towards xenophobia and bigotry is often blamed for the loud, exaggerated paranoia and distrust Asian nations routinely display towards each other, and the vicious, bloody wars of colonization and ethnic cleansing that have historically erupted in response. (And of course ominous storm clouds loom today over the multi-sided stand-off over those islands in the South China Sea, a ridiculous conflict most outside observers agree is as much about upholding reactionary notions of “national pride” as any legitimate geopolitical interest.)
No great shock, then, that ethnocentrism is also a particularly pronounced feature of Asia’s worst kid on the block.
In 2010, a guy named B. R. Myers wrote a book on North Korea entitled The Cleanest Race, that was later the subject of a memorable review by Christopher Hitchens. Meyers’ thesis was that much of the country’s lunatic patriotism was actually a racial thing, with their hermit-like isolation from the rest of the world viewed as a source of national strength, since it reflected such enviable ethnic purity. Hitch himself recounted meeting a NoKo bureaucrat who bemoaned the Southern regime’s comparative mongrelization at the hands of all those interloping foreigners bedding their women, “even black American soldiers, or so he’d heard to his evident disgust.”
Earlier this month the world received a reminder of just how high this ugliness goes. On May 2, 2014 (or, as the North Koreans evidently record dates, Juche Year 103 — Juche Year 1 being the birth of regime founder and Great Leader Kim Il Sung, whose xenophobic spin on Marxism is known as Juche), the infamous Korean Central News Agency churned out a press release in response to Barack Obama’s recent Asian tour.
Writing in the trademark half-coherent pseudo-English that’s become a quintessential component of North Korean sloganeering, the bulk of the thing consists of a fiery denunciation of South Korean president Park Geun Hye (referred, in traditional, and only somewhat metaphorical fashion, as “no more than a dirty political harlot” and an “old prostitute”) but it was the passing reference to her “American master” as a “wicked black monkey” that made the biggest headlines.
Lest anyone think it was just a casual slur, the NoKo news office banged out a second, more Obama-centric release that same day ratcheting up the racial rhetoric to truly cartoonish heights.
Originally untranslated into English until the blog One Free Korea got their hands on it, the rant apparently describes the President of the United States as a “ugly sub-human” with “cross-breed blood” and “cavernous nostrils” and a “thick-lipped maw” who belongs in a zoo “licking at the bread crumbs tossed by onlookers” — among many, many other colourful analogies. As The Washington Post dutifully noted, while the White House “often ignores the rhetorical excesses of the North Korean regime,” even they reached their limits with this one — “ugly and disrespectful” was the official denunciation of a spokesman.
One of the great ironies of America’s ever-more zealous drive to extinguish racism within its borders — in which every other week this-or-that b-list celebrity is being dragooned out of their job for using some noun or adjective freshly forbidden by social justice censors, and overt discrimination has become so rare we must now worry ourselves with shadowy phenomena like “structural racism” — is how blind it makes us to the persistence of considerably more aggressive, destructive forms of bigotry practiced elsewhere in the world.
True racism, in the sense of angry, ignorant, cruel hate directed towards those visibly different from the majority, remains, as it always has, the ideology of tyrants eager to redirect their subjects’ rage towards phantom enemies, and sheltered societies whose insecurities about their own weakness can only be effectively masked with puffed-up chauvinism.
That’s not a bad description of many of the regimes running Asia at the moment.
Not that I want to stereotype.