Amy and I were walking through Jeyu Park when I turned to her and said something that some might consider offensive. “You know what I’d like to be able to do?” I said. “I’d like to be able to look at an Asian person and say with certainty, ‘That’s a Chinese person.’ Or, ‘That person is Korean.’”
Jeyu Park is at the heart of Korea’s Chinatown, located in Incheon. In 2002, the South Korean government spent $18 million creating a Chinatown, hoping that it would be a lure for Chinese investors and tourists. Red lanterns line the streets, restaurants serving chajangmyon (noodles in black bean sauce) are everywhere, and there is even a statue of Confucius given to Korea as a gift from China. Small shops are ubiquitous, selling glass bird whistles and wooden swords, Chinese fans and large painted pots.
“Do you think Asians can tell each other apart?” I asked Amy. She said they could, and rather easily. I looked at the people in the park. What were the giveaways? Skin color or shade, the roundness of the face, the shape of the eyes, the length of the nose? I had no idea. Then I turned to Amy and asked a question that I would eventually look up on the Internet, and which would spark the idea for this essay, “I wonder how many of the people in Chinatown are actually Chinese?”
Not many, as it turns out. Up until 1945, Korea was colonized by Japan, and during that time the majority of the Chinese people living in Korea were ousted by the Japanese. But even after Korea gained its independence, things didn’t improve at all for Chinese immigrants. The Korean government passed laws disallowing Chinese residents from owning land, it was made illegal for Chinese restaurants to serve rice, and Chinese people living in Korea were forced to renew their residential permits every three years. The Chinese population decreased every year, until it bottomed out at about 25,000 for the entire country. Today, Chinese residents still have restrictions, having to prove financial ability in order to stay in Korea, and having Alien Registration Numbers that deny them access to Korean Internet sites and email accounts.
About one-third of the shops and restaurants in Chinatown are run by actual Chinese people. The rest are run by Koreans. I had to read an article from the New York Times to get that figure. Apparently an Asian person can ascertain such a stat just by looking around at faces.
At the height of Jeyu Park, there is a large clearing where cheap kites are sold for 5,000 Won. Each kite has a gaudy picture of a peacock on it, and comes with about two miles worth of string wrapped around a plastic handle. Amy and I bought a kite, took it into the square, and tried our best to fly it. Our peacock struggled to catch the wind, flapping its one-dimensional wings and falling pitifully to the ground. An old Asian man laughed at us. Several others tried to help us. Finally a woman with a baby on her back succeeded in getting our kite off the ground. We looked into the air and there it was, our peacock flying proudly in the cloudless sky with the rest of the kites. It was a sky devoid of real birds, populated only with painted peacocks attached to string.
Perhaps it was a decent analogy for where we were. We were in the center of a Chinatown without Chinese people, an ethnic community run by the dominant race, gazing up at a sky filled with fake birds. Amy let the rest of the string go and our bird soared higher than any of the others. It was a cool sight to see, our bird flying way up high, looking at us and all the others down below, probably thinking we all looked exactly the same.