During the year I spent in South Korea there were three older Korean ladies who ran the barbershop I visited every two weeks. My last name, apparently, was a source of serious vexation for them. They seemed utterly certain that there had to be a connection between the surname and my heritage. Which isn't the case to the best of my knowledge. As far as I know I received my genes from recent ancestors mostly in Europe, with some from Lebanon on the maternal side of the family lineage. That explanation, however, failed to carry water with the barbers.
After an initial round of very direct and repeated questing - and my admittedly incomplete Cliff-Notes summation on the naming conventions of England as I understood them – my conversational relationship with the barbershop trio settled into a kind of cat-and-mouse exercise in inquiry. Each biweekly visit kicked off an animated dialog in Hangungmal, in which it sounded like they were reviewing the state of the debate to date, while one of them shaved my head with the clippers. By the time it was time to take warm water and a straight-razor the back of my hairy neck, another one of the trio would introduce a new round of indirect questions designed to ultimately unearth some familial or at least significant geographic connection to black America. Nevada during the 80s and early 90s was a pretty pale and homogeneous place, so I had to answer in the negative for the last one, but they persisted.
The thing is, they were really good at it. Sometimes we’d be five minutes into a conversation on food, the weather, or things that people do on vacation before I’d realize that we were again touching on race and ethnicity as they seemed to perceive it.
This went on for about six months, with the trio demonstrating an amazing ability to continue generating novel avenues of conversational investigation to get at what they seemed to see as a hidden truth. Eventually, however, the matter seemed to sink into a category labeled Foreign Madness of Americans Beyond Explanation. Something that they simply strove to accept, no matter how strange or puzzling. There would be some suspicious glances, as though I was hiding something from them, and the occasional muttering under ones breath in Korean, but for the most part the questioning ceased. Then we got a new platoon sergeant. A short, but powerfully built Sergeant First Class who had black skin and the last name of White. After that any veneer of restraint in the barbershop was gone. The matter had been promoted from Beyond Explanation, to Foreign Strangeness that Must be Understood NOW. The questioning was fast, strident, and non-stop, and only ended for me when I hopped the freedom bird back to the States a month later.
On one level the whole thing was amusing and even charming at times. It made for a nice distraction from the often brutal weather, and the reality of the famine next door in the North, which claimed over a million lives and sent a pulse of desperate defectors through the labyrinth of rusting landmines and razor wire that is the DMZ. On another, I remain frustrated and baffled. Did I ever really understand the conversations? What were the barbers actually thinking? Did any of my explanations of US culture and history penetrate? Were their assumptions and premises really as simple as they sounded? Why the hell did this topic demand such a level of passion on their part, especially in a racially homogeneous country like South Korea? They always danced around that issue when I asked. Would I have heard the same questions if I’d been getting my hair trimmed in downtown Seoul, rather than by three working class women in a camp out in the sticks six miles away from North Korea?
All I know for certain is that if Ewah University or any other Korean institution of higher education ever needs three assistant professors of rhetoric and inquiry, I’d be happy to make a recommendation.