Like most mixed-race Americans in their 30s, my youth included thousands of “What are you?” questions. The perpetrators were a diverse bunch, from biracial classmates to the stranger at the crosswalk.
At first, preparing for these daily interruptions made me constantly tense. But children are great adapters, and in time my identity incorporated being conspicuous. At 19, I even made a job of it. As a freshman in college, I started a mixed-race magazine and became the poster boy for America’s multiracial lot.
Years of talking publicly about my mixture helped end my fantasies of being Puerto Rican. As race made room for other parts of my identity, I started coming out as a gay man. When legislating same-sex marriage became a national priority for the political right wing, I volunteered at an LGBT grant-making organization that gave money to gay-straight alliances at rural Western schools and for voice lessons for trans people so they wouldn’t destroy their vocal chords.
Those eight years of publicly working through my identities as a half-Korean gay man were fun and educational. But in 2007, when I was 29 in the U.S. and 31 in Korea (due to different calendars and ways of counting age), race- and gay-obsessed America was making me feel claustrophobic.
Straddling the social milestone of 30, it sounded good to relocate to my mother’s land, despite what I’d heard about biracial and gay Koreans – in a nation that’s 98% ethnic Korean, hone-hyeol (mixed-blood) people are either half-White models imported from the West or home grown social pariahs. And, as I was told on several occasions, “There are no gay Koreans.”
Getting ready to move overseas included a psychological preparation. I imagined that my Korean life would be an exaggerated version of my conspicuous one in America. A few weeks in Seoul, however, brought me to another conclusion. During long walks through the massive city’s grid-less neighborhoods, I experienced a new feeling: I was inconspicuous.
My appearance and body language tell most Koreans that I’m not one of them, but I don’t get the curious or hostile comments that Black and White expats complain about. Maybe as we pass each other on the street, placing my Asian-ish face gives locals a brief pause, but in that moment of opportunity we pass in silence. On the other hand, foreigners assume I’m Korean, which means I’m not sought out as an English-speaking resource for where to find the nearest subway or Citibank. The upshot has been almost two years of unmolested anonymity in one of the world’s largest cities. After so many years of feeling conspicuous in my home country, it’s here in Korea where I finally have privacy in public.
While I’m enjoying the racial anonymity, I’m frustrated by my invisibility as a gay man. Early on, I made a point of coming out to my boss, my coworkers, and my classmates at a Korean language school, yet they still ask me why I’m not married and make dramatic shows of shock and protest upon learning (again) that I’m gay.
In the U.S., I came out explicitly by talking about being gay, and passively through fashion and demeanor that was considered a little queer. In Korea, however, man purses and perms are popular on straight men. Guys can hold hands (blame it on the soju), and my boyfriend has slept at my apartment for weeks without his parents jumping to conclusions. Yet again, what was conspicuous in Seattle is unacknowledged in Seoul.
For these reasons I’ve joked that closeted American homos (of every ethnic background) should come to Korea. The cultural obsession with heterosexual relationships provides daily opportunities to practice coming out to the same people, repeatedly. Once you’ve perfected coming out in Korea, you can go home and do it for real.
Seriously, although nothing in South Korea’s penal code criminalizes homosexuality, it is taboo, nonetheless. As a result, there are just a handful of queer celebrities, and I’ve met maybe four or five Koreans who are out to any family members or straight friends. Having grown up in very-gay Seattle a generation after Stonewall, initially it was exciting to feel like I was on the wild eastern frontier of a global queer rights movement.
Two years in, I’m learning that most Korean queers don’t want greater awareness of homosexuality in the public sphere – there’s safety in maintaining their society’s heterosexual presumption. Now it makes sense why there were almost no 20-something men at last summer’s queer pride parade in downtown Seoul, but hundreds met later that night to dance and hook-up in Itaewon’s gay ghetto. As one young lesbian told me, “We’re really secretive and like it this way.”
As I process this, I try to keep tabs on my American righteousness. When I’m irritated by what feels like cowardice by Korea’s everyday gays, or about being pushed back into the closet, I remember that just because I grew up conspicuous in a country that rewards outspoken individuality doesn’t mean everyone else did. Furthermore, if Koreans accept who I am, it doesn’t mean that’s how they’ll treat their own. As a biracial and gay Korean-American, if I tread too far outside the lines of what’s acceptable, I get the “foreigner” pass.
I’m grateful that Korea feels vividly different, not the exaggerated version of home I expected. Indeed, the ability to leave my conspicuous (and exaggerated) American identities behind has been a liberating paradigm shift, and the longer I live in Korea, I realize why I’m comfortable in this so-called “ethnically pure” and homophobic place.
Matt Kelley is the son of Kinam Sohn. Their stories are published together on KoreanAmericanStory.org
Kinam Sohn, CCIM CPA, is president and designated broker of the Sohn Real Estate Group. Born in Daegu, she has called the U.S. Pacific Northwest home for over 30 years. A proud mother and grandmother, she has long championed Korean American, mixed heritage, arts and LGBT organizations in the Greater Seattle area. This fall, she is organizing the first annual Northwest Kimchi Fest.
Matt Kelley is an award-winning writer and consultant, and principal of Pantagraf, a communications and destination marketing company. He is also producing EVEN THE RIVERS, a documentary film about the growing number of multi-ethnic youth in South Korea’s schools. Matt, his partner and Jindo dog live in Seoul and southern Oregon.