Rainbow France a Lesson For Asia

Who was that East Asian-looking female face which appeared in the photo of the ministers appointed by France’s new President, Francois Hollande? It was a question that intrigued many Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, particularly when the list of ministers’ names showed no sign of obvious Asian origin.

The answer was not long in coming but has had a salutary impact in some parts of the region, most of all in Korea. The woman in question was Fleur Pellerin, who turns out to have been born to Korean parents but was given up for adoption very early in life to a French couple. She is now entirely French in every other way, speaks no Korean and appears to take her origin as a matter of fact rather than either pride or shame.

For Koreans, Pellerin is a reminder of two aspects of their society that most think need changing. The first is the history of giving up babies for adoption overseas. This may have seemed unobjectionable when the country was poor but has continued long after there was any obvious welfare need. Most specifically most of those adopted overseas have been female, reflecting the national gender bias which has produced a serious imbalance which in turn is now resulting in Korean males getting mail-order brides from elsewhere – mainly China and Vietnam.

The second is the relative racial tolerance now found in at least some parts of Europe, including France and Britain, compared with what prevails in much of east Asia where immigration is generally rejected, despite continuing very low birth rates, and immigration of brown-skinned Asians to the paler regions of the northeast is looked on with horror.

Many, maybe most, Japanese, Chinese and Koreans cling to theories which somehow link genes to race and race to nationality which makes acceptance of people who might look a little different impossible and puts a premium on descent. The existence of a distinct Korean-origin community in Japan is widely accepted by all parties even if it means that some discrimination continues against those with Korean ancestry even if they are totally indistinguishable from “native” Japanese other than inspecting their family tree. Japan is finally having to face up to its falling birthrate, as Asia Sentinel reported in May.

In China most people identify Han with China in both a genetic and a cultural sense – even as the genetic make-up actually varies widely from north to south. This in turn makes dealing with minorities an endless source of friction. The same applies in Thailand where for long many minorities were not accepted as a part of the nation even though they lived within its borders. Myanmar still has problems recognizing the Muslim, dark-skinned Rohingya as citizens.

Thus genetic notions which result in social exclusion are not merely a barrier to acceptance of people of foreign origin, they create added problems for any country with minorities if those are treated as somehow biologically rather than simply culturally different.

Some migrant communities themselves add to the problem. For example, many people of whole or part Chinese descent in Southeast Asia cling to pride in their genetic roots long after they have lost all cultural or family links to China and have been integrated into other societies other than favoring other once-Chinese in business, a tendency which creates indigenous resentment.

Such issues are especially sensitive now in Southeast Asia given the rise of China as an economic and military power. People of Chinese descent badly need to beware of displaying divided loyalties. Basing political loyalties on genes is dangerous game.

It has yet to be seen whether immigration of foreign brides to Japan, Korea and Taiwan results in discrimination against their offspring. It may not so long as the brides come from countries such as Vietnam and China with similar physical characteristics. But given current attitudes there is likely to be strong discrimination if these countries (and China which has the biggest shortage of young women) have to go further afield to find brides, to the regions with gender balance – and browner skin.

Preference for the whitest possible skin is found throughout northeast Asia, in parts of Southeast Asia and even among many in India. Just look at the models used in advertising in Thailand and India, for example, and compare the skin tones to the average of the local population. Such attitudes will have to change, at least in those societies needing migrants and anxious to be engaged with the outside world.

Great civilizations have always thrived on religious and ethnic tolerance. Today, globalization and demography make tolerance all the more vital for nations which wants to succeed. Inadvertently, Pellerin may prove not Korea’s gift to France but France’s gift to Korea and east Asia.