Xenophobe Nation

Some time ago I had occasion to travel to Korea for work. The job involved getting out into the countryside, inspecting some equipment, taking a lot of photos and meeting with some Korean business associates. Having spent precious little time in Asia (at this point I think the sum total was four months in Taiwan and a day in Hong Kong) I found the cultural experience fascinating and, if I think about it, a little disturbing. Fascinating because, well, differences are. But disturbing because it seemed that the way in which I communicated and carried myself in Korean society left some of the locals uneasy. What was I doing so wrong?

I may have been born elsewhere, but I’ve spent most of my life in urban Australia, at its heart a very multicultural society. Melbourne is the second largest Greek city outside Athens; Perth, thanks in part to its timezone and distance from the other major Australian cities, has at times more in common with India, Indonesia and China than it does with its own national capital. So when a work colleague was leaving for Korea just recently we got to discussing our cultural differences, and he cleared it up for me – Korea is a monoculture.

Having lived here most of my life, have I become so accustomed to a sort of multicultural tolerance that monocultural intolerance is, if not inconceivable, then at least difficult to fathom? Perhaps this is why when an image like the following goes viral I think it says more about the people who are popularising it than does the picture itself.

The caption is

Two women standing in line at an airport, completely unaware that their daughters are holding hands. The innocence and love of children is amazing.

Wait a second… innocence? Of what crime are they unaware? Is there a subtext here pitting racial disharmony (the parents ignoring each other) against the kids’ ignorance of it? If so, and if racism might even be a small part of why this image became popular, are we not propagating the concept of racism by popularising it?

If I ignore the caption – and I’m pretty sure that’s a good idea – what I see in the image is completely different. As a parent, if I’m not visibly acknowledging my kid holding hands with another I can assure you it doesn’t mean I’m unaware of it. No, if one of the first things you grow as a parent is eyes in the back of your head, then I’m fairly sure any parent is aware of what their kid is doing if said kid is in their arms.

Rather, as adults we tend to be focused on what we need to do next. Like, get on the plane. So if I and a friend (or random stranger) are travelling and waiting for a vacant ticket counter we might well look as the adults in the photo do, in which case I’d substitute my own caption:

Kids. Not giving a damn about schedules since forever.

Multicultural societies or not though, I do wonder if we’re still letting our xenophobic buttons be pushed unawares.

Any news headline which can elicit an emotional response will make an audience sit up and pay attention – and few emotional responses are quite as effective as fear. If since childhood we’ve been made aware of stories of school shootings, child abductions, paedophilia and more; as parents these stories relate directly to our responsibilities to our children – even to the point where we’re doing them a disservice.

And if we also live in a city, rushing about ignoring the people around us, does it become completely too easy to ignore a stranger? If I’m on a four lane highway in the city, surrounded by a hundred other cars all going 80, how easy is it to ignore that car stopped, broken, in the middle of the road with its hazards on? For me to fit in with the crowd, not hold up traffic, keep moving, get where I’m going?

And yes, that happened – and what really gives me pause is that a few days earlier I was in the country, saw a car similarly stopped, and thought nothing to pull over and ask how I might lend a hand.

Some might argue that urban isolation is a myth, but I’m not so sure. I worry that even without traditional racial or ethnic boundaries to prey on, a fearmongering media is finding it can still sell stories that have us boarding up the windows for fear of the stranger walking down the street.

And if that stranger comes to us asking for help, are we going to be so used to the wall between us that we can’t listen?

So perhaps it’s time for good news stories whatever the caption.

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