“Cheer Up, Mr. Khan!”, a week-long KBS documentary series, aired early in October 2014, turns on its head everything taken for granted by Koreans, nay, people all over the world, about gender roles, marriage and family: Biflan Khan, a 46-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant in Korea half his life, has been raising his three children, two teen-age daughters, 19 and 16, and a 9-year-old son, as a single father since his Korean wife left him 6 years ago.
If anybody is to abandon the family and wander off, it is to be the male, predatory and reprobate, not the virtuous fair sex, steadied by maternal love. But women wise up to this flattering image as men’s ploy to keep their wives homebound, so they could go philandering. Surely gender equality includes a woman’s right to be bad, to act out her impulses like any man, however catastrophic the consequences. But it still takes a gutsy woman like Ibsen’s Nora in A Doll’s House to flee the burdens of home and family, even when her husband is a conceited bore. Mrs. Khan is a consummate feminist activist to up and leave a decent man like Khan when their youngest is only 3 years old.
Khan harbors no grudge against her. On the contrary, he is genuinely grateful to her for conceiving and delivering his three children, his raison d’etre, for whom he cooks, sews, and washes joyfully like any mother, as well as brings home the cash by picking up scrap metal and selling to recycling centers. Again he is grateful for the work, neither lucrative nor glamorous, as it provides his family with food and shelter, with a home, be it ever so humble in a slum of Incheon. Over the years he has built up a network of contacts, job foremen and security personnel, who alert him to a pickup opportunity. For good reason. He never fails to return the favor with cans of soda or lunch boxes enough to go around among the hands on site. Koreans like him because he is an okay guy that way but more fundamentally because he is good for their ego, somewhat like the Anchor Man honored by the entire graduating class at the US Naval Academy.
Nevertheless Khan is not without setbacks and wrenching heartbreaks.
He hasn’t been able to obtain Korean citizenship, because he can’t read or write, though he speaks Korean quite well. Often he misses an appointment because he can’t read the signs. He avoids riding the acclaimed Seoul Metropolitan Subway because, unable to read the digitalized progress board displaying the approaching station, he is apt to get off too soon or way past.
So he has enrolled in a literacy program, unashamed of being the oldest in class. Just as he sits down at his desk, however, his cell phone goes off. There is a load of old copper and aluminum to be picked up and hauled away, pronto. Off he must go in his beat-up truck hoping it doesn’t fall apart on the way.
As racist as any race and unaware of the slurs directed at them in reverse, Koreans call Khan and his children black, using the N-word which should apply more strictly to the African race, not the Caucasians that populate the Indian subcontinent or the Middle East. By the way the N-word has not changed in Korean, unlike American English where it is extinct, oblivious to the Shakespearean adage about a rose by any other name.
Resigned yet generally upbeat, Khan breaks down when his children come home crying because they are taunted at school or in the neighborhood. His 16-year-old daughter strikes back at one of her tormentors and gets almost suspended from school. Shedding big tears, Khan blames himself for passing his gene to them.
Maybe it’s time he became more assertive and told these uppity Koreans a thing or two about his ethnic background, as venerable as theirs, whether with or without heavenly descent, that his color is only skin deep, whereas his anatomy is what plastic surgeons tweak millions of Korean faces every which way to make them look, Caucasian. The Khan children will grow up Eurasian, good lookers by definition with a tan, which would in time mature into a mark of distinction, of leisure and genteel outdoor pursuits, as in America.