In 2011, you couldn’t find many places in Seoul, South Korea selling Mexican food, authentic or Americanized. Choi’s Tacos, a small, privately owned Mexican eatery, walking distance from Yonsei University, where I was attending graduate school, was a rare exception. That year, Taco Bell made the very ruthless and/or savvy (depending on your feelings about international corporate capitalism) choice to set up a new location in the building across the street from Choi’s.
Fellow graduate student, Evan*, an American like me, decided to champion Choi’s Tacos cause. Evan, also like me, had taught English at Korean public schools for two years in the southern part of South Korea before attending our small global studies program, in which half the students were Korean nationals and half were foreigners.
Evan often became red-faced and righteously angry when tactlessly sharing his many opinions, embodying the rudeness and entitlement of American stereotypes. He complained loudly about how Koreans treated foreigners, assuming prejudice even when there wasn’t much evidence. He enjoyed riling people up, claiming things like: “Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant.” In a discussion on Barack Obama, he tried to explain that many people from his home state saw the current President as “just another n-word”, but because he said the actual word, he rightly offended a lot of people.
Evan hated that Taco Bell. He told us not to eat there and encouraged people to go to Choi’s Tacos instead, where they’d encounter an affable Mr. Choi, a big man with round glasses and apron who spoke English fairly well because he’d spent some years in the US. The restaurant was almost too well lit with fluorescent lights and small, with just a few tables and a basic menu. Evan went there multiple times a day, trying to save the small business by eating as many quesadillas as he could.
Occasionally, Evan had valid points: Taco Bell could handily outcompete Mr. Choi, and sometimes, policies towards foreigners in Korea were unfair, and unfortunately, some Korean people were prejudiced or ignorant. Although, as graduate students (especially white students, like Evan and me), we generally experienced far less discrimination than other groups of foreigners, like migrant laborers from Southeast and South Asia, and we could return to our home countries and easily find employment.
Anytime I started to like Evan, he’d do something offensive again and I’d feel like he deserved to be ostracized. I tried to avoid Evan, but our program was too small. During breaks from the semester, I worked at an English camp for elementary students at the Yonsei campus. Evan worked there, too.
When I lived in Korea, I volunteered for a few North Korean human rights organizations, helping them edit English news articles as well as some documents to present to the United Nations and assisted with some charity events. I volunteered with these groups before I started attending Yonsei, when I was still teaching full time at a public school in Ulsan, South Korea.
In South Korea, NK human rights groups are associated with Christian missionaries, right-wing politics, and pro-US and anti-China stances. I’ve met and seen online plenty of international cheerleaders for North Korea’s government, who doubt that North Korean society is as bad as activists claim it is because they associate maligning NK with pro-USA propaganda. There have been incidents of activists lying about or exaggerating situations in NK, including the well-known Shin Dong Hyuk, who was born and raised in a concentration camp but escaped. He admitted recently that he had lied about some details of his past out of shame. I’ve met pastors and activists that admit to entering China illegally to escort NK refugees through the country, and when you ask them about these trips, they understandably are loath to give out many details about when these trips happen, the routes they take, or the exact locations of families that receive aid. Most of them look fatter, older, or nerdier than the type of person you’d imagine as an international secret agent guiding refugees over kilometers of land and past multiple borders into countries that won’t repatriate them, such as Thailand.
Some of these activists also get healthcare, food, education, and other needed supplies to North Korean children and families in China. It is Chinese policy to repatriate North Korean nationals caught on Chinese land, often forcing North Koreans to leave their children behind, including many children with North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers. These children have a hard time accessing social services, including food, healthcare, and education, because they or their North Korean mothers entered the country illegally, and they are not official Chinese citizens. Of course, these activities cause some tension between South Korea and China. Most foreigners who are curious about NK human rights don’t immediately understand how Koreans view the movement.
In 2011, I volunteered, along with some other Americans and Koreans, at an event raising money for this cause. We stood around our little table on a street corner with a box for collecting cash along with activist performers playing instruments or wearing fake chains, near crowded bars in Seoul. A drunk European man, seemingly very offended, called us idiots and American imperialists for getting involved with causes that had nothing to do with us. Instead, we should worry about poor people back in America. At first I thought he was not too serious, but he got louder and more aggressive. I wanted to ignore him, but my friend argued back. He got close to her face, and his friends egged him on. I was protective of her, wanting to get her away from him as she started to cry while telling him to mind his business. Eventually, his friends pulled him away. She removed herself from the crowd and went down some alleyway where she squatted and curled her tall body into a small ball. I followed her and tried to rationalize how he was wrong because I am not good at comforting people, and I was trying to convince myself, too, while secretly wondering if he had a point.
I suspect that his anger stemmed more from a dislike of Americans than any actual knowledge or feelings about NK. However, the incident made me consider, why did I, an American, feel like I should get involved with North Korean human rights issues?
The question continued to nag at me. For a graduate school class on social movements, I interviewed some American NK human rights activists, trying to understand why this cause moved them. Was it their religious beliefs? The mystique of knowing more than most people about a mysterious society? An act of rebellion? Did they have Cold War fetishes, spy fantasies, a fascination with dystopias? Or was their motivation simpler, like, they found friends and community among the activists? The answer for each person was a different combination of all those reasons. Sometimes the cause just moved them, they just wanted to help those people, and they couldn’t tell me exactly why. However, no matter what initially interests someone in a particular cause, they need to feel a part of the community surrounding that cause to sustain their activism in the long term.
Choi’s Tacos eventually did go out of business some months after Taco Bell moved in.
“Mr. Choi is nice,” one of my friends admitted while sitting in the freshly painted yellow and purple dining room inside of Taco Bell. “But his food is more expensive and this Taco Bell is pretty good, better than back in the States. Plus, if I go to Choi’s, I’m afraid Evan will be there, and I don’t want to have to talk to him.”
Ironically, Evan’s enthusiasm for saving Choi’s Tacos might have actually scared customers away. Maybe that drunken European might have donated to North Korean children if Americans weren’t the ones asking. In activism, both big and small, who delivers the outrage can matter more than the cause itself.
One of my graduate school professors brought in an American woman activist to talk to students in our program about the NK human rights movement to inspire more students, especially the Koreans, to care more about the issue.
She gave a short talk about North Koreans and the human rights abuses they experience. Though some activists have lied or embellished stories from NK, there is a significant amount of evidence of widespread human rights abuses. North Korean political prisoners are sometimes sent to concentration camps and subject to communal punishments. Much of the population suffers from lack of nutrition, and illicit drug use and production is rumored to be encouraged by the government. There is little open communication between cities and towns, extreme censorship, rampant sexism, religion is banned, and so on.
When the floor opened up for questions, I asked something like:
“As foreigners, we can bring different resources and perspectives to the issue, but how do foreigners respect the South Korean perspective? If North Korea collapses and millions of North Koreans suddenly become South Korean citizens, or if North Korea starts a new war, we can just leave. South Koreans are the ones who will suffer, die, and have to rebuild their society. If they join a North Korean human rights group, they get social backlash from other Koreans. How do we ask them to care, when they have much more to lose than we do?”
The professor who had invited the American woman activist, a South Korean middle-aged man, known for right-wing views, yelled at me in front of everyone. He said I was disrespectful, and he was offended by my question. Truthfully, I didn’t mean to disrespect him or the activist woman because I was wrestling with those questions myself.
Thank you, one of my fellow graduate students, a Korean man, texted me in secret as the professor scolded me. It is different for us.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, I saw a left-wing podcaster post on Twitter that instead of donating to help Ukrainians, Americans should be donating to homeless people and food kitchens in their own country.
To me, this sounded strikingly like right-wing Americans who bemoan any expansion of social safety nets for immigrants or the poor when “ThErE aRe HoMeLeSs VeTeRaNs”, even if they don’t help veterans themselves. I’ve seen people debate the freedom, corruption, or racism of Ukrainian society.
Debating whether or not Ukrainian people are moral enough to receive international aid feels like a dangerous slide into apathy, like, refusing to help NK refugees because some have exaggerated their litanies of hardship or because Americans offend you. Is it different from Fox News pundits arguing that some Black American victims of police brutality don’t deserve sympathy or justice because they had a criminal record?
The victims’ flaws aren’t really the point. They’re just excuses to not care, or in many cases, to dehumanize the victims, to paint them as deserving of their suffering.
Yet, the podcaster did have a point, sort of—why were white, Ukrainian refugees suddenly more important than a starving American neighbor? As others have noted, why do these refugees get more grace, attention, and sympathy from the West than those suffering from war in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, or the millions of climate and economic refugees, mostly black and brown people, in the Global South? How much do our own biases, prejudices, racism, or personal interests influence whom we help or how we virtue signal?
Activism and charitable organizations exist within a competitive market for funds and attention. Breast cancer fundraising, due to the marketing prowess, is often more successful than other types of cancer fundraising. How much money is spent on panda conservation while less cute animals are overlooked? People rail against nonprofits for wanting overhead, but some projects are complex and need well-trained employees to succeed, and how can an organization, in good conscience, help the poor and disadvantaged if they don’t pay their employees a living wage (many don’t)?
In the marketplace of activism and outrage, whether or not you successfully make people care relies on successful navigation of both practical issues and peoples’ perceptions and identities.
At the end of the summer, the teachers, both Korean and foreign, who worked at that Yonsei English camp went out to get celebratory drinks. Evan was there, as were some other foreign teachers. An Irish teacher went on a long rant about how Americans were idiots for being offended by the word cunt. In Ireland, it was just a common insult.
One of the American women said: “Maybe if someone from Ireland called me that word, I wouldn’t care, but I think if an American man calls a woman that, you know he means to hurt you. It’s not the same.”
We ended up at a Canadian-owned bar with a selection of foreign beers and thin-crust pizza. Most of the teachers went home after a couple of drinks, except for me, Evan, and one of the Korean teachers, a woman, around twenty years old. Evan and this young woman, Young Mi*, were getting very drunk while playing a game, ruining a deck of playing cards with greasy fingers and beer-glass sweat.
I went to the bar to talk to the bartenders and some acquaintances, keeping an eye on Evan and Young Mi, knowing that they were probably getting too drunk to get home by themselves.
Suddenly Evan yells, “Hey Jennifer, come here! Come here, you, CUNT!”
That word echoed through the whole bar. No man had ever called me a cunt before, not to my face. Evan was not Irish. He was American. It wasn’t a funny joke. The whole bar grew silent, and I felt pairs and pairs of eyes on me, waiting for my reaction.
To confront why we do or don’t care often leads to a realization that we may benefit from our activism (getting involved in North Korean activism makes you more interesting at cocktail parties) or from others’ suffering (asking people to care about Choi’s Tacos means asking them to give up the convenience and allure of capitalist junk food).
Can we be critical of and reform how people care without shaming people out of caring, totally? People care so little, so rarely about things beyond their own lives, even if they’re imperfect carers. I’m afraid to criticize, too harshly, how and what people care about. Wouldn’t total apathy be worse?
On the other hand, I think about how much damage failed international development projects can do, how much money can be wasted on fancy ideas that rich, privileged people have that don’t actually make sense in practice (piles of expensive unused computers for kids in classrooms with unreliable electricity come to mind). Caring too much about things you don’t understand well can actively be harmful, and is perhaps, at times, worse than apathy.
I’m lucky to be able to debate the politics of caring—I’m not starving, in a warzone, dying of some terminal disease. No matter your intentions, when you talk about charity or activism, you always, somehow, sound like an ass. There is always something you should care about more, and passionate activism or taking offense about anything always says something about the person who cares.
Shortly before I was about to leave Korea, Chae Won*, a human rights activist I met while volunteering, invited me to stop by her organization’s office because the staff wanted to formally thank me before I moved away. I admired this woman–she’s always seemed focused on helping people, and not particularly interested in political or religious posturing. She worked tirelessly, without losing patience or becoming deterred.
Honestly, I didn’t think my helping with a few events and lightly editing some documents needed to be specially acknowledged. I had realized, too, that I lacked the intelligence, advanced language skills, investment, and passion to effectively help the North Korean human rights movement. However, it would have been rude to refuse a very kind gesture on the part of her staff, and it felt like I had been invited into some elite club.
“Another American student is also coming,” Chae Won told me before I arrived at the office. “He’s volunteered a lot with us. We’ve got small gifts for both of you.”
I was sitting in the small office, meeting the staff, composed mostly of shy men with big smiles and thick glasses, when suddenly, I heard Evan’s voice at the door.
“This is Evan,” Chae Won told me. “Have you met before? I think you’re both at Yonsei?”
We forced smiles and joked. We ate cake, and they made us take pictures on two chairs placed in the center of a room.
“It looks like you’re getting married!” Chae Won teased. I pretended I wasn’t insulted by people joking I should marry this very annoying individual who thought it was funny to call me a cunt in front of a bar full of people. Evan also didn’t seem charmed by the joke; in the past, he had repeatedly stated his preference for dating Korean women, not fellow white Americans.
Evan being there made me feel less special. I wonder if I would have continued to volunteer if he had come to the same events I attended, if I knew he was this active with this group and had to worry about the social backlash among my grad-school friends from being associated with him.
Like me, Evan moved back to the states. From his social media, it seems like he became active in the Blacklivesmatter movement, joining a few protests. I’ve only supported police reform activism through modest donations. I’ve not yet, unlike him, actually marched for that cause.
At that dimly lit bar, melting snow dripping down the large windows, the word cunt uttered from someone who already annoyed me, who thought that joking made demeaning words okay, who loved attention on his “good” deeds and sometimes embarrassed me as a fellow American, felt like a hot slap across the face.
Yet, Evan and Young Mi were very drunk. If I got in a fight with Evan, it would ruin Young Mi’s night and make an awkward situation for everyone at the bar. This offense was so much smaller than human rights abuses, or war, or even Choi’s Tacos being run out of business, but, in that moment, I still had to navigate the politics of caring. To care enough to loudly scold Evan and leave him there, dramatically, everyone watching, might have been what he deserved. It might’ve taught him another lesson on overstepping boundaries. I would get praise and encouragement from my fellow students who loved to be offended by Evan.
I put my beer down and walked over to Evan. “Don’t call me that again,” I told him quietly, choosing not to care (much). “When do you guys want to go home?”
I helped them get home later that night because I would’ve felt guilty. Because the thought of him seducing Young Mi made me roll my eyes. Though he probably wouldn’t have done anything inappropriate to Young Mi, whatever his other flaws. He was stumbly drunk, himself, and if he had called the wrong person a cunt, that other person might not have been as forgiving as me. I wanted to feel like a good person, and not like a person who got in a fight over the appropriateness of a word that could hit so much differently, depending on who has said it to whom. Sometimes, I think, it’s okay to care enough to help someone, when you actually are the right person to help, even when other people might question why.
*names have been changed for privacy