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Lee's and Park's

Cece Lee's picture

After an excruciating 13 hour flight from Seoul to New York, I waited in line to get through immigration. I was pulled away from the line by an officer after peering into my passport and led into a plain room. On our way there, the officer jokingly commented on how there were “so many of you Lee’s and Park’s” (which is partially true - Korea's most common last names are Lee, Jeong, Kim and Park but each of these last names have a very unique Chinese root and can be distinguished by region, class, and clan) and I nervously laughed and agreed, unknowingly giving into a micro-aggressive comment and leading him to think that statments like that would not offend anyone. The room was filled other international students like me and there were families with young children who were anxious to start their vacation. I was not in any trouble and the immigration office just merely wanted to make sure and interview us that we were indeed college students. The process took a long time and I sat in the room staring at the blank walls and listening to the conversation amongst the officers. However, an instance that stuck out to me was when an officer read someone’s documents and started laughing and passed it around with his coworkers. The officers were laughing at a name because it sounded funny but what struck me the most was that they did not care that we were in front of them and could hear and understand every word. One would expect that being in a profession such as an immigrations officer would be exposed to people of many different backgrounds and cultures and would be more sensitive to issues surrounding race and culture. I learned from this experience that no matter how much (social, cultural, racial, etc) diversity we are exposed to in our daily lives, it does not mean that we are aware of certain issues or are socially competent. We do not instinctively know what kind of behavior is appropriate and that we often learn the hard way by making mistakes.


jccohen's picture

immigration officers and joking comments

Cece Lee,

This story is a powerful example of the power differential in this kind of situation.  While you (and others there) had to wait as long as it took and listen to the officers' joking comments about your names, the officers were not necessarily even aware of you all sitting there, no less of your responses to what they were saying and doing.  Were you to say something to them, what kind of risk might you be taking on?  So they remain oblivious - as you say, unaware, insensitive, inappropriate.  How might we interrupt this cycle of microaggression, which also seems to me symptomatic of larger oppressive relationships?