Having attended an international school in Seoul, I never had the opportunity to interact with a hugely diverse crowd. Maybe in other international schools things are different, but because South Korea is so ethnically homogeneous, my high school, which prides itself on its diversity, is still 90 percent Korean. Granted, many of the students have foreign passports or have dual citizenship, but diversity is still lacking.
In the context of a more diverse place like Wesleyan, inquiries about background become essential to conversation, and are necessary in getting to know new people. In small talk, I tend to lead with the fact that I’m from Korea. I’ve noticed that I constantly hear the phrase “I’m sorry if I’m being ignorant, but” or some similar iteration preluding any question about South Korea.
But are you being ignorant, really?
Definitively, I suppose you are being ignorant, as being ignorant can be as simple as not knowing something. But with that logic, I’m also ignorant of plenty of things. Take American Geography, for example. I don’t think I can name 10 states in America if I tried.
The ignorance that we’re talking about is obviously different. The kind of ignorant behavior that people are afraid of displaying is the kind that, with proper momentum and offense, could result in criticism or being labeled as a bigot.
I never thought asking me what kind of government South Korea has or asking me if I’m an American citizen are truly ignorant questions. These are not offensive questions in the least; I’ve certainly heard worse (“Are you from North Korea or South Korea?” has become such an immortalized meme of a question that if you’re still asking this today, then I really don’t know what to tell you. I could’ve defended this maybe five years ago when Korea was low-radar… but it’s 2018, man. Get it together.)
On the one hand, I don’t like hearing these preludes to the point that it’s begun to annoy me a little bit. I don’t mind questioning, and if you’re being truly offensive, I’ll be sure to let you know. On the other hand, I don’t know if I’m being harsh in my assessment. There is nothing overtly wrong with people trying to be politically correct, and perhaps this trepidation is an inevitable outcome of a diverse community trying to maintain a comfortable, respectful atmosphere.
Where does the responsibility for a potentially ignorant question even fall? Some will say on the person asking. But isn’t the risk of offending the other person a byproduct of free inquiry? I think this is true, which speaks to an inherent flaw of the barriers in conversation we have constructed. By wariness and a (perhaps misguided) effort to be overly respectful, people avoid risk, and free inquiry is not the same without it. This seems to place too much liability (if there should be any in the first place) on the person asking the questions. We can’t anticipate everything the other person doesn’t want to hear, after all.
Since we can’t anticipate each person’s conversational boundaries, it can be argued that such things should be considered case by case. But this in itself seems flawed too. The breadth of possible conversation topics is so large that I don’t even know how discussing these boundaries before every conversation would work.
I’ve had people even ask me if I have eaten dog before (NO, never). I admit, I was a little taken aback at first. However, was that a question I should’ve taken offense to? I don’t think so. We can’t know everything, and it’s by asking that we learn. Shaming a person for not knowing and making assumptions about something as specialized as the average South Korean diet seems extreme and unnecessarily discouraging. I’m only happy questions are being asked, but when someone apologizes for an offense they didn’t yet commit, it only makes me nervous or (if the question they ask is totally legitimate) a little annoyed that they give themselves so little credit for their curiosity.
Ina Kim is a member of the class of 2022 can be reached at email@example.com.