“Trailblasian,” Black Women in Asia, Part 2

Trecua McLennon

Part 1 of this interview focuses on Trecia’s anthology of essays by black women about living in Asia. In Part 2 we share our observations. Unfortunately, her dealings with her employer were not atypical of those of westerners in general. Trecia is now back in North America at a job which suits her talents and experience in intercultural relations. Since the interview she has taken on a job as intercultural co-coordinator. (Link)

Trecia’s story

In my two and a half years, seeing other westerners come and go wore on me. Because on the one hand you’re not really going to fit with the locals unless maybe you have a local spouse, but even then that’s kind of iffy. And with expats you can get close to people just to watch them leave. I can understand how both Koreans and expats might wonder what’s the point? I don’t know how people deal with that.

Well, I had a fairly large group of expat friends, and one month or maybe a month and a half, I had three going-away dinner parties. And I thought, “This is too much, I’m not going to do this for a while.”

Also, all Confucian cultures are said to have hard ethnic boundaries which foreigners can’t cross. For my MA in linguistics I did an experiment about Korean language attitudes and non-native speakers of Korean. It was a blind guise set-up. I recorded people at different levels of proficiency and paired each recording with a picture of a white guy and a picture of a Korean guy. Then I compared the reactions in “status” and “group solidarity.” What I found was that on the status dimension the scores were low for beginners, highest in the middle, and lower for the really good speakers. I took this as evidence that people liked someone whose Korean was good enough to answer questions but not good enough to be threatening. The solidarity scores were absolutely flat, so no evidence that anyone would be considered part of the group. The scores for the ethnic Koreans were exactly the same as for the white guys but considerably lower because people were offended at their inability to speak at a native-speaker level.  

Yeah, there’s a pretty strong in-group, out-group dynamic. You can be treated with kindness and consideration, but it’s not the same as feeling a sense of belonging, which I didn’t feel my whole time in Asia. It’s very different here in Toronto, where the people are from everywhere and half of the city was born outside. Everyone is kind of in the same boat. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you just arrived or whether you’ve been there for ten years or more. I think people are more open to friendships and creating a sense of community. We’re not as homogeneous as Korea, and we don’t have as long a history. Canadians always joke about the fact that our national identity is not having a national identity.

In Korea the children of people from Laos or Thailand can be bullied as “other,” which from a North American perspective seems strange because they’re all Asian. Koreans are far more homogeneous than our broad categories would indicate. Someone can say, “I am Korean. My parents and grandparents and everyone before them for as long as we know was Korean.”

In Asia it’s complicated. In a business situation people might say, “We Asians should stick together,” but then there’s a love-hate dynamic between the Japanese and the Koreans and between a mostly industrialized country like Korea and a developing country like the Philippines. Among Koreans there are regional tensions.

If you’re from the west and if you’re not open, you can miss nuances. You with your North American viewpoint have no idea.

I’ve heard westerners refer to Korean “group-think,” but Koreans don’t all think the same thing. In a particular group there might be factors preventing someone from expressing an opinion different from the majority opinion or the opinion held by an authority figure. Speaking out is very often against social norms. Women who speak out are often considered arrogant, regardless of whether their views are reasonable or correct.

Like for example, one of the things I noticed about your story was when you were suddenly told you didn’t have a summer vacation. And my initial reaction was I’ve been in a situation like that too. Well, it was handy in my case that the poor graduate students who ran the office in the English department had to break bad news to me. And then I would have a fit, and five minutes later I would be down at the office apologizing, and then we would start working something out. In that particular case I was told that well, I could go ahead with my vacation plans since I’d already bought the tickets, but the final vacation I’d have to teach a class for some of the time. Often the Korean professors do not have that option.

Right. I think there is definitely a different set of rules and in many ways they are more lenient with the foreign staff—to a point. They think of us as not knowing any better.

We also don’t belong to the hierarchy or the network, so we’re not constrained by it.

I expected that being black in Korea was probably going to be an issue, but I think at work a bigger issue was being a woman.

Okay, why don’t you expand on that with some examples.

Well, it’s certainly a culture where men are expected to bond with men. An American friend of mine told me was working for Hyundai, and he said within his first week his coworkers took him out and got him drunk. Then they said, “Okay, we’ve seen you drunk. You’ve seen us drunk. Now we can trust you.” That’s not an experience I’m ever going to have.

But I think the worst conflict I had was over a job I really wanted at a different place. My boss didn’t say no. He just let the clock run down. I got the distinct feeling that he thought I needed to stay in my place. I didn’t get the feeling that there was a racial tint to it, but that I was too ambitious for a woman.

There was another opportunity to work with the local multicultural institution, to be on the board or something. My employment agreement stated that I could take on added activities if I had permission from my employer. I was told, “We don’t think you can handle that.” I think I know what I can handle. Every time I tried to expand, every time I tried to find something else connected to business—my master’s degree is in business administration—it was always a no. I don’t think I’d have gotten that if I’d been white and male or even black and male. If I were a man I’d have been expected to ascend to leadership positions and work with executives. But for women in most places in the world it is a tougher slog.

After I’d been there for two years, they asked me to put together a presentation for high school students who were looking for universities to apply to. I said of course. They’d hired me because my undergraduate major is in communications and I’d worked in corporate communications for many years. I did a presentation, and the whole place went nuts. All my colleagues were poking their heads in and saying, “Oh my gosh, this is is amazing.”

Then they came to me and said, “We’re starting a graduate program. Can you teach presentation skills?” — I’m like, “Sure, absolutely.” – “Wow, we really had no idea.” So I was wondering, “Did you read my CV? What do you mean you had no idea?” I tried to say thank you and be grateful for the opportunity, but at the same I wondered what they’d been thinking. Was I just there to fill a space? They were surprised I could do what they hired me to do? It was bizarre.

Well, foreigners are often thought of as people who work at lower-level jobs, doing proofreading or language teaching or coaching pronunciation—all related to English proficiency—certainly not of being able to do other things Koreans can’t do or had never even thought of. I think it comes from a lack of imagination, as well as a desire not to let us encroach too far into their territory.

Getting back to the boss not wanting you to take another job, what stage of your contract were you in?

All this happened in June. The new semester started in September. I had another semester to go on my contract. At my school department chairs were changed every two years, and a new guy was in. Because I was aware that I didn’t know all the ins and outs of the culture, I went to my old boss and another senior person to ask for advice. “Look, this is the situation. They offered me a job. I have a semester left on my contract. What do you think I should do?” They both said it was an amazing opportunity and I should take it. My former department chair said, “He may not be happy about it, but he can’t stop you. Take the job.” The other person said the same thing.

What I wasn’t aware of was that there was an understanding between departments, which are closely linked by the network, that unless they have the permission of the current employer they will not offer you a job. [This is also a regulation with immigration.] My boss knew that, and basically he let the clock run down. The person who was hiring said, “If we don’t get an answer from him, we’re going to have to offer the job to the next candidate.”

My boss was playing around with me by setting up all of these absolutely impossible scenarios. “Why don’t you teach here two days a week and there three days a week? Go ask them if they’ll agree to that.” I was running around back and forth trying to arrange something that was never going to happen. He never said no. Or he’d say it was too late to find a replacement for me. It wasn’t too late. It was June. [Korean universities often hire close to the beginning of the semester.]

Obviously, I was really upset. Other people on the faculty said the chairman was a mean-spirited and had been mean with them. So I didn’t take it personally, I just decided I didn’t want to torture myself by trying to work with someone who made it clear that he intended to make my life very difficult.

I’ve heard a lot of stories about a boss, usually someone in a for-profit language school, who takes it as a personal insult when an employee wants to leave. There often seems to be little separation between professional responsibility and personal ego. I had a boss like that in my year at a language school, but he was a very insecure, vindictive white American.

In a Confucian society the employee owes deference and respect to the boss, and that controls the relationship. When I was interviewed at Dongguk University, I was told that I was their top candidate. Would I accept the job if it were offered to me? As a westerner I thought, “Why don’t you ask me and find out?” But having been in China already I suspected the subordinate couldn’t say no to the superior. The network and the vertical hierarchy cause some very strange things to happen.

Absolutely. I tried to be mindful of that. One of the things that did not help–I’d explained to the person doing the hiring that I needed to speak with my boss first. But he called my boss directly and said, “We want to hire Trecia.” – “What?”

But there was so much more going on that I couldn’t possibly understand, even with the people who encouraged me to take the other job. They were certainly no fans of the way he operated. I wonder whether they were looking for a way to embarrass him.

My attitude was that I wasn’t there for the money. I was there to learn and also offer whatever I could that might be of benefit. So if my presence was resulting in a polarizing, silly tug-of-war over something that didn’t matter to me, then I might as well go home. I decide where I work. Even if I didn’t get to work where I wanted to, I could certainly decide not to work with that guy. And ultimately that was my decision.

You had a Business English class and another class that was connected with business, right?

Well, there was an international relations class and some extracurricular stuff I did with small businesses. They were doing presentations and competing with the local SMEs  [small and medium enterprises]. I was a business coach and presentation coach, working with them and the students on their craft, presentations,  stage presence and that kind of stuff.

Did you get into cultural differences in the business setting?

Yes. I incorporated that into my business communications class. I also taught the students who were going to Canada for their semester abroad. I thought that they needed to learn about some basic things like culture shock and ethnocentrism in order to make sense of what might happen. Even simple things like hand gestures which have different meanings.

The textbook I wrote includes chapters on working and business. The reading selections are based on interviews with western businessmen in Korea, so students got a chance to look at things from a western point of view. Then there were situations where they had to figure out what the westerners might be thinking and the Koreans might be thinking, like what different expectations they might bring to the negotiating table. Sometimes there’s a stark contrast.

There is so much room for miscommunication, especially when you have globally diverse teams. At times I’ve assumed everybody else thought the way I did and then discovered that they didn’t. We all have assumptions coming from what our culture tells us about the proper way to do things. That can cause a lot of conflict and miscommunication and can result in not getting anything done. Having experienced that in my own professional life, I wanted to prepare my students what they’d encounter abroad. Some wanted to go to the States or Canada. Some wanted to stay in Korea but work in global organizations. For that they really need some foundation, at least enough to make sense of why things are not going according to plan.

Some years ago I met a woman who’d come to Korea as part of an international consulting team for one of the big chaebol. Her team consisted of a white woman, a dark-skinned Pakistani man and a couple of white men. The Koreans took one look and made a big fuss about not getting the top team. The American company explained it was their top team. Then the team spent months making connections between Korea and the States and setting up an itinerary of meetings. Finally, a Korean delegation with the company president went over, but their schedule was shredded by the president’s insisting on eating only Korean food, which meant last-minute detours to Korean restaurants, waking up restaurant owners in the middle of the night and cancelling most of the meetings. Nobody could tell the president this was not a good idea. My friend said it was a perfect illustration of what can happen in a mixture of Confucianism and capitalism.

In Korea I saw things I didn’t like, but I felt it was my job to try to adapt. You can’t change the culture or what people think. The only thing you have control over is how you’re going to behave in challenging situations. I focused on what I could do. I used to try to get others to conform to my way of doing things, which does not work,

My last question is about your future projects. What do you have in mind?

As I vacillate over the idea of going back abroad again, but I think I’d really like to focus on what it’s like to be abroad with a family. That’s my personal experience right now. My daughter was born in my home country, we lived here in my home town, but I really love the notion of world schooling. Whether or not I’ll have the courage and the wherewithal to do it is another issue. But wouldn’t it be fun, and wouldn’t it be amazing to see how a family could do that–whatever manifestation of family that might mean, with a spouse or as a single parent. Being able to up and do stuff on your own is wonderful and freeing and beautiful in its own right, but I wonder about having other responsibilities as well and how different that might be. So that’s what’s percolating in my mind at this point, but it’s still just an idea.