Abu Dhabi Romance
By: Soo-Kyoung Kim and Wonderworks
For OWLS, the theme for April is “Colors.”
“We are all part of one race, the human race. “Colors” refers to people of color in anime. For this monthly topic, we will be discussing how people of color or characters of different “races” (a literal alien race) are represented in anime. Some topics we are considering is the dangers of stereotyping, bi-racial characters, and the importance of racial inclusion.”
Previously, Hazel did a wonderful job discussing the topic of “Colors” in Revolutionary Girl Utena which you can read here.
For my post, I’m going to take a different direction from what I originally intended and discuss a South Korean webtoon called Abu Dhabi Romance by Soo-Kyoung Kim. This webtoon was said to be commissioned by Korea International Trade Association. It is not a popular webtoon, but the reason as to why I picked it for this topic is because this webtoon is written from the perspective of an outsider.
Now before I start discussing my interpretations, I would like to make a disclaimer. All thoughts are my own and are based only on the webtoon rather than any other prior knowledge on Korean and Arabic culture.
In Toni Morrison’s “Playing in the Dark,” Morrison discusses the importance of understanding racism in literature from the outsider’s perspective:
There are constant, if erratic, liberalizing efforts to legislate these matters. There are also powerful and persuasive attempts to analyze the origin and fabrication of racism itself, contesting the assumption that it is an inevitable, permanent, and eternal part of all social landscapes. I do not wish to disparage these inquiries. It is precisely because of them that any progress at all has been accomplished in matters of racial discourse. But that well-established study should be joined with another, equally important one: the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it. It seems both poignant and striking how avoided and unanalyzed is the effect of racist inflection on the subject. What I propose here is to examine the impact of notions of racial hierarchy, racial exclusion, and racial vulnerability and availability on nonblacks who held, resisted, explored or altered those notions. The scholarship that looks into the mind, imagination, and behavior of slaves is valuable. But equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behavior of masters (1008-1009).
Morrison encourages the study of race within novels despite its inaccuracies when it is written by a foreigner or a person of a different race. Why? Morrison suggests that by studying racial identities of literary characters from writers that may not be of that specific race, we will gain a better understanding as to how racial identity is formed and the racial stigmas that we encounter about others, and I think Abu Dhabi Romance is a great example of racial understanding. By exposing oneself to these misunderstandings, we will be able to correct our way of thinking about race.
Asking Racial Questions
This webtoon isn’t a story about racial prejudices and stigmas, but rather, it’s a story about forbidden love between two people from different cultures: Young-one, a man part of the Korean army who is protecting innocent lives from pirates and Clude, an Arab woman who is from a wealthy and powerful family. As readers, we are drawn to the question of whether these two people will be able to be together despite their different social and racial backgrounds.
Abu Dhabi Romance proposes some interesting questions to readers. In this day and age, if a reader has racial prejudices against Middle Eastern people and reads this webtoon, how would they react? The reason I bring this up is because I wonder if a reader’s racial assumptions will block them from appreciating the story or will they approach this webtoon with a similar mindset like mine, which is to see the story as just a forbidden romance?
Listening to Others Beyond Race
Although these questions linger in my mind, I think Soo-Kyoung Kim does an excellent job of eliminating the color of one’s skin as the focus of judgment for readers. Instead, readers learn about the social circumstances that each character lives in and by doing so, it invites readers to feel empathetic towards them. For example, Clude must follow the strict rules of her parents and accept an arranged marriage even if she does not want to because if she rebels, it’s a sign of disrespect. As for Young-One, he is on active duty and has military responsibilities. Yet it’s interesting to note that both Clude and Young-one try to understand one another’s culture by exploring different mediums such as watching Korean dramas or reading books about Arab culture. These are ways of understanding a culture, but one soon learns that ‘research’ isn’t enough, but rather, conversations with people different from oneself is the best way to learn about a culture. This is shown when Clude and Young-one have coffee together and spend a few hours getting to know one another. Although their conversation is aimed as a romance, people who engage in conversations with others not only learn about a different culture, but they might be able to form strong friendships.
This love story seems to function as a way for us readers to learn more about Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim culture. Now, we can’t safely assume that the author, Soo-Kyoung Kim, knows everything about Middle Eastern culture, but we can praise Soo-Kyoung Kim for their efforts in exploring an unfamiliar culture. Now, I read comments about how Soo-Kyoung Kim made some cultural mistakes about Middle Eastern values and customs, but I don’t think that we should criticize the author for doing so. Instead, I think the author’s intention is to get readers to be open-minded and talk about cultures that are different from their own. These ‘cultural mistakes’ aren’t something one should ridicule. They are the author’s interpretations about Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim culture from research and experiences. By writing about it, Soo-Kyoung Kim shows appreciation for Middle Eastern culture and even though there may be some misassumptions, it allows people to discuss cultural values and gain a respect towards cultures different from their own.
The webtoon illustrates that a person’s social values and customs create a form of racial identity and that it can be misconstrued when others make assumptions based on race that may not be true. Yet overall, a person’s skin color shouldn’t define one’s character but instead, one’s personality and actions define a person’s identity and we see through this webtoon that Young-one and Clude truly love each other beyond their social class and background.
That’s it for my OWLS post. The next OWLS writer is Anime Girls NYC with her post on Twin Star Exorcists.
Also, if you would like to read Abu Dhabi Romance, check it out on Spottoon.
Morrison, Toni. “Playing in the Dark.” Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp. 1005-1016.