awkward white woman is awkward

#NotAllKoreaboos: on economic integration, intruding into spaces, the inadequacy of good intentions, and shopping.

One of the things that's been keeping me busy this semester is a studio, run by my co-adviser, looking specifically at the immigrant communities in and around greater Norcross. I haven't said much about it here, and don't plan to, because (a) I don't have permission from the other studio participants to talk about it, and (b) we're going to be conducting interviews with local actors and I certainly don't have their permission to talk about it. When the final report is made public I'll let y'all know.

Suffice to say that I've been thinking about some of the issues we've discussed in the studio space. For example: the idea of "integrating" what I'll vaguely call ethnic-minority concentrated economic activity. ("Ethnic enclave" used to be the term, but the literature's moved beyond that; I need to catch up to the literature.) What does it mean to be "integrated"? How does a space simultaneously serve the needs of a (presumably underserved) minority and the greater public? In order to be "integrated," does a space need to lose the characteristics that made it useful to the minority in the first place? Or to phrase the question a little more aggressively: why should such spaces be required to adjust to majority needs?

So the other day I went up to Duluth, to the shopping center with the H-Mart. (For those of you not familiar with Duluth, it's currently  majority-minority, with 22% of the population reporting Asian descent.) I had errands to run nearby, and we're always in need of groceries; but when I got out of the car I just walked around the shopping center, and ended up pausing in front of a store -- Mimi's, it said, and then 미 미 -- that sold cosmetics. Paused for long enough that it would really look silly if I didn't go inside.

Inside: hair bands, jewelry, cute notebooks , and yes, cosmetics. The store was almost empty save for the two shopkeepers and three other women, younger than me and white. And for the record, my father's family came to north Georgia from England (we think), and my mother's parents were both descended from Ashkenazi Jews of central Europe; which makes me whiter than a mayonnaise factory in a snowstorm.

One of the shopkeepers was demonstrating BB cream or something similar to the group of three. They oohed and aahed. I stuck to the other side of the store, feeling jumpy with embarrassment. I know why you're here, I was thinking in their direction. You're here for the same damn reason I am. And sure enough, when one of the three went in front of me at the cash register, excited at her new find, I saw three rubber bands around her wrist, and one of them said SHINEE World.

I couldn't quite figure out -- I still can't -- why I felt not only out of place but intrusive. The three women I was trying to disassociate myself from weren't acting particularly disrespectful; on the contrary, they seemed thrilled to get the shopkeeper's attention and careful explanation. I got rung up by the older of the two women working there -- I bought a cute notebook, because that's  what I do, and a snail mask, because it said Charmzone on the back and that's one of the few brands I've heard of, and because I have heard enough about the power and advances of the Korean cosmetics industry to hope that a snail mask can do something for the bags under my eyes -- and after she handed me my bag I said, "감사 함니다," (kam sa ham ni da, the formal "thank you"; it's one of three phrases I can say in Korean) and bowed a little, and both shopkeepers smiled at me, though I couldn't say whether they were genuinely charmed or just being indulgent.

And it doesn't make sense, to look down upon people outside a culture to start at one entry point into that culture (K-pop, in this case) and pursue other strands of knowledge about said culture. That's how learning works. That's how the Korean government, to some extent, wants the Hallyu Wave to work in the first place. If you're interested in learning more about Korean cosmetics, isn't going to a Korean-branded store and asking the Korean-American staff there for recommendations among the more respectful ways to do it?

And yet I keep feeling like I'm blundering into delicate territory. Ever since Madeleine Lee posted her "Am I a Koreaboo?" essay I've been turning it over in my mind. (See also this.) Because while Maddie came to K-pop as a way of connecting with a culture that informed her parents' history but hadn't been available to her as a kid, I sort of stumbled upon it with no history at all: I started listening to music, and then developed an affection for some of the people performing the music (or their personae, more accurately), and then wanted to know more. My intentions were, and are, relatively good, but one of my favorite not-actually-William-Blake lines is about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. If you put my curiosity about Korean culture in the context of centuries' worth of Orientalism, it looks less charming and more potentially threatening.

This seems relevant not only to my music writing -- which is still a hobby, no matter how much I enjoy it -- but to my studies of immigrant entrepreneurship as well. How do I make sure that I, as a researcher, respect the experiences, needs, desires, and opinions of the people I presumably want to help? How can I conduct valid qualitative research, given that I haven't been steeped in these cultures and will miss a lot of social and cultural cues? How do I make sure not to make too much of a respectability that will be conferred on my scholarship not because I'm actually doing good work, necessarily, but because I'm white? Planning is a field that, by its very nature, encourages arrogance: you need a certain amount of self-confidence in the first place to follow Burnham's mantra of making no little plans. Throw white supremacy into the mix and there's a lot of room for potential distortion, whatever the researcher's intentions.

I'm still figuring out how to use data, and what my data will look like, and what my research question will look like. I'm still holding back a bit, I think, for fear that what I produce will be not only imperfect but flawed in a predictably, eye-rolling-ly, current-flawed-power-structure-endorsing-ly exclusionary way. I still haven't tried the snail mask.