“A Mermaid Like Me!” We All Need Someone Like Us

Meeting the Immigrants and Refugees in South Korea

Gang Seulgi | 기사입력 2023/05/09 [17:10]

“A Mermaid Like Me!” We All Need Someone Like Us

Meeting the Immigrants and Refugees in South Korea

Gang Seulgi | 입력 : 2023/05/09 [17:10]

※Editor’s note: There’s a number of young people with diverse migratory backgrounds (e.g. those who were born to and raised by intermarried couples or migrant couples who moved to Korea, those who moved to Korea at a young age with their families, etc.), yet their stories are not discussed or represented in our society. We hope to see and hear the migrant youths’ perspectives and voices directly from them, as they are difficult to find within conversations around youths and young people as well. This project was supported by the Korea Press Foundation, which is funded by government advertising fees. 


A Controversy over Casting Disney’s Live-action Movie The Little Mermaid


On September 9th, Walt Disney Studios released the trailer for the live-action movie The Little Mermaid. The movie has been engulfed in controversy since its casting. Disney chose a black woman to play Ariel, the protagonist of the Danish fairy tale. The fact that she is the first mermaid of African descent triggered discussions on political correctness and a boycott from those who put the studio under fire, arguing that it defamed the original story featuring a white mermaid.


▲ The Little Mermaid poster, 2023. Disney

When this controversy first broke out three years ago upon the movie’s casting, Disney took the hard line that “Danish mermaids can be black because Danish *people* can be black.” It also countered a group of people pointing out that the animated Ariel had white skin and red hair, which is far from the image of black Ariel, by citing the fact that “[b]lack Danish people, and thus mer-folk, can also *genetically* (!!!) have red hair.” 


Maybe everyone knows this simple truth: anyone, black or white, can be a mermaid without permission. Still, I feel like there is something more we can do. I ask myself, why do people think that this Danish story by Andersen is the only one about a mermaid princess? There are different mermaid stories around the world. Korea alone has folk tales such as “The Mermaid of Dongbaek Island,” “The Mermaid of Jangbong Island,” and “Bhikkhuni Naggan” [a tale about a woman who ate mermaid meat]. On the African continent, there is Yemaya, the Queen of the Sea, who is a mermaid of legends that originated in the West African areas a thousand years ago. That means there are various mermaid stories in the first place, not just the Danish one. 


Is casting a black actress for a role stereotyped as white the right way to rewrite the mermaid narrative beyond race and prejudice? Is showing that black people can do whatever the whites do the best way to appreciate diversity?


The movie is scheduled to be released in May 2023, but its new trailer plunged the casting back into the controversy that first arose three years ago. Related news articles and comments are being spewed out in an endless stream. A Twitter user even used AI technology to replace the actress in the trailer with a white one, bringing on a serious debate on the matter and charges of racism.


In the midst of the bedlam, I encountered a 29-second-long video on TikTok about the trailer. In less than one minute, that short-form video was imprinted in my mind, almost making me shed tears. It was an edited collection of reaction clips of black children and teenagers as they watched the trailer. They shouted, “I think she is brown,” “That is Ariel,” “She’s a black girl,” “I’m crying,” and, “She’s black!”


They were all bowled over by the black Ariel. And the last girl in that video made the most unforgettable remark of them all: “She’s like me!”


▲ A black child watching the trailer for Disney’s live-action movie The Little Mermaid. Captured from the reaction video on TikTok ⓒhttps://tiktok.com/@armlina/video/7142550172550073606


Friendship beyond our age gap: Seol and I


That shouting reminded me of an eight-year-old girl named Seol (not her real name) whom I met in 2015 at the Uijeongbu EXODUS Migrants’ Center, where I work. Before moving on to Seol, I will tell you my story first. I was born in 1986 as the daughter of an immigrant worker. I migrated to the Philippines to go to college in 2005 and was dispatched to the Republic of South Africa for a regional development project in 2010. I have been providing services for immigrants and refugees based in Korea since 2014.


My father is from the Philippines and my mother is from Korea. My father naturalized as Korean when I was in middle school, so now he has Korean citizenship. Seol, on the contrary, has a Filipino mother and a Korean father. Her mother visited the center in need of advice, bringing Seol with her—and that is how I met Seol for the first time. After her family moved near the center, she started dropping by after school and spending time there on a day-to-day basis. She and I began to hang out frequently, and we have been close ever since.


One day Seol told me that she is the one that has been on airplanes the most among her classmates. To some, this would seem like just the typical showing-off of an elementary school kid, or something not that special. Not to me. Her story made my heart palpitate with great excitement. 


Why? It is because I was that kid. I was the one who had the most flight experiences in my class. I, a 29-year-old woman, turned the clock back to when I was a kid of eight years old and had a conversation with Seol, which brought me great joy. Of course, flying in a plane frequently is not that interesting of a subject. It was merely more of our usual chitchat about our families. But I had never met someone else I could talk to about such matters. That is why I could feel empathy and enjoyed the conversation with my new eight-year-old friend.


I have spoken about my experiences before. I am sure I must have talked to someone, like my best friends, younger sisters, or my parents. When I talked to Seol, however, I felt a different level of sentiments as my heart swelled up. It was the first moment in Korea I finally understood what belonging feels like. 


Thinking of myself as “different” made me feel small for a long time. But Seol made me realize that I am just one of the people who are “different” and “normal” at the same time. All I ever wanted in my high school years was to leave Korea. Whenever I crossed the border into the country, I felt like I was being held back by invisible shackles. I found a way to break free by finding out that there are always people like me. Knowing that there is someone like me was the greatest consolation and source of empowerment.


▲ Mermaids and their stories are diverse, just like humans are. ⓒIllustrated by Dudusaddi


My empathy and sense of belonging with Seol may resemble the reactions of black children who watched the trailer for The Little Mermaid. They were thrilled not only because the mermaid was black, but also because she was like them. Just like I was given consolation and strength from Seol, they shouted out to Ariel because she gave them the same consolation and strength. 


It is a cliché to say that society should change to celebrate diversity and respect the uniqueness of every individual. Nevertheless, my hope is that, as they call for acceptance of each other’s differences, anyone who is a minority in some way also keeps in mind that there are others like them.


An invitation for those of you with a migrant background


Three years ago, I actually hosted gatherings for those with diverse migrant backgrounds to share the concerns about identity and belonging that they have felt during their lives. I wanted to talk with people who were annoyed from answering questions such as “Where are you from?” or “How can you speak Korean so well?” But I failed to gather many people and couldn’t keep the gatherings going on a regular basis. Sometimes people replied to my invitation that they were not ready to reveal themselves. I would like to use this article as an opportunity to begin the gathering once again. 


“To anyone like me:

I would like to ask you to step forward from wherever you are, 

and let us join hands and start a journey of solidarity based on empathy.”


Gang Seulgi was born the daughter of a Filipino immigrant worker. She has suffered an identity crisis as a Korean and Filipino. But one day she was struck by the epiphany that she is just one of the many people on Earth. Now she has been considering identifying herself as a citizen of the universe.


Translated by Jun Jihai

Published: October 12, 2022

*Original article: https://ildaro.com/9461


◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).

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