Wednesday, September 25, 2002
Fending off discontentment
Following is Part III of a popular online series examining expat-Korean relations. The essay was originally posted on www.gordsellar.com and has been updated for The Korea Herald. - Ed.
Discussion of late online - and in the pages of this newspaper - has turned to the question of expatriate complaint, and its root causes.
I think Descartes' old formulation of "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am) would be improved by throwing in something a little more universal to the human experience than thinking: If we amend it to read, "Queritor, ergo sum," (I bitch excessively, therefore I am), we'd get something a little more reflective of humanity's attachment to complaining, its motivations for speaking out, and the moment when human volition and the identity bound into it are at their peak.
I bitch excessively, therefore I am.
If we take complaining to be a natural part of the human condition it certainly explains a lot. If various aspects of the world didn't suck, people wouldn't feel driven to sit in rooms and write about them, adding to the millions of hours people have spent throughout human history - I suspect, as a student of literature and the arts, that complaint lies at the heart of human creativity.
For example, when popular British science fiction author Richard Morgan was asked why so much of his fiction was so violent, the first thing he mentioned was not the themes of his stories (systemic exploitation and oppression of the masses by the elite through systems like government or corporations). No, that came second. The first thing he mentioned was, "Having been an ESL teacher for many years, and the compacted sense of rage that one builds up because, no matter how vile the things you're hearing are, your job is to make the classroom a warm, comfy, touchy-feely place to be, so that your students get more confident, try more, and ultimately get better at saying what they think - be it brilliant, or be it vile."
Burnout is a risk in any profession, but especially in teaching. I suspect that the rate of burnout is higher still for people who are teaching in a foreign country. I can't help but look at the guys who are teaching week in and week out - the hagwon teachers who go not only without the four months of holiday enjoyed by university lecturers like myself, but also sometimes teach eight or more hours a day - and wonder how they stay sane after a couple years of it.
In fact, I suspect a lot of people don't, or cannot, and this might be one reason why they either leave so soon, or begin teaching as if they'd been hired off the set of a George Romero movie.
Time off helps prevent burnout. Being in a foreign country usually doesn't help, at least not in the long term, as the petty annoyances compound. Morgan was living in Britain for a lot (but not all) of his ESL career, but many expat teachers have done it all abroad, and have been doing it for years. I don't know that they complain more than teachers in similar situations in their home countries - though that would be hard to test; probably fewer teachers back home blog as publicly or as honestly as many expats do here, since it's riskier in the West. Still, judging by the mockery and ranting one sees in foreigner-hangouts, expats probably do whinge more both online and offline.
Why they choose to remain abroad when they are unhappy is an interesting question, and there are probably a bunch of issues at work there - economics, in some cases; lethargy or inertia; masochism in a few cases; perceived or real lack of opportunities in their home country; and almost certainly much more.
Get a hobby
The other thing that I've noticed is that the people here who don't have some kind of hobby tend to go sour, bitter, and ranty a lot faster than the people who don't. Korea lacks a lot of the usual "fun things to do" in the countries many expats come from. I have a friend who's on holiday in the United States, and it was one of the things she mentioned first in an e-mail to me: "There are so many fun things to do everywhere!" Korea has fun things too - but they're, er, well, not much like the fun things we Westerners tend to have learned to think of as fun. Hiking a mountain, fun? Actually, once you get past the sweat and ache and the rest, it really is fun. No kidding. But Korea has a very undeveloped market for entertainment, especially outside of certain parts of Seoul and Busan. On a winter day, you can:
- watch a movie at the cinema/DVD-bang/at home
- play computer games at the PC-bang
- consume some Korean food/badly-prepared Western food/alcohol/coffee/tea at a restaurant/foreigner bar/Korean bar/cafe/tea house
- hike a mountain to visit a temple, yell from the top and shiver
There are, of course, more options than that, but not for most Westerners. Museums? Where are they? Rock concerts? Sure, if you know about the Korea Gig Guide online (google it!) and live in Seoul. Film festivals happen for just a week of the year. And the other festivals ... well, good luck finding out about them.
I've observed that having a hobby helps immensely. The first few years I was in Korea, I played in a rock band that gigged at festivals, clubs, and all kinds of other events, and even put out a few CDs (get yourself one at http://tinyurl.com/dabang). To be honest, over the years it kind of drove me batty, because I'm more into jazz than rock music, and I'm not one for spending weekends on the road. I'm just not cut out for a career in rock music, but then again, I play the saxophone, so it was never meant to be.
All of that said, though, playing in that band was immensely therapeutic for me in terms of adjusting to Korea. It opened doors to me that never otherwise would have opened. Suddenly I was talking to Korean people about stuff they cared about - indie music - and that was a counterbalance to the world of my classes, where students struggled to make perfect sentences about things they didn't care about at all. I was, of course, always something of an outsider, and to a degree so were all the foreign musicians I knew, but we were still part of a community. It was a community with its own vocabulary, rules, interests, oddities, people to care about and people to avoid, and much more - and none of it had anything to do with my actual job.
The expats I know who've adjusted here best are those who have some kind of, well, I don't want to use the word "hobby" again, so I'll say, "interface" with Korea. They interface by engaging with the place they live in some creative, responsive, energetic way. Some I've known in the past made documentary films or created art. Some produce zines exploring the local culture. Others do pop culture analysis, or perform independent research. A few take on academic studies, or work as translators, or live lives of scholarly inquiry in an apparently idyllic familial home.
Really, the options are limited already, and unless you can search online in Korean, or get some help, you're going to mostly end up doing what the majority of other working people do here: watching movies, drinking with your own kind, or stay at home, ranting online.
And yes, other working people - that is, Koreans - are ranting online, too. The fact is, Koreans complain - online and offline - too. Sadly, the vast majority of expats here have never been made aware of it. They seem to imagine that Koreans are, in general, quite happy-go-lucky about what appears to us non-Koreans like a whole network of nonfunctional systems. Do you really believe that Koreans don't realize how askew economical development has become here, or that they don't get annoyed with a lot of the things that bug you? Sadly, many expats I've met do seem to think these things, and don't consider doing what the popular blogger The Korean (www.askakorean.net) invites them to do in the title of his blog: Ask A Korean.
A major difference, though, is that the majority of other working people have families here, and circles of friends. Expats, rootless as they often are, have social worlds that, however much they make do, do not bind them as powerfully. Among expats, it's common to hear the word "friend" used where acquaintance is more appropriate. I would wager money, hard-earned money, that people uprooted from their communities the way most of us are much more prone to negativity and complaining, simply from a sociobiological perspective: The stresses weigh more heavily without a deeper-rooted system of support than any "expat community," with its transience and dislocation, can provide.
But my experience with my fiancee is that, in fact, we happen to find a lot of the same things annoying. The lack of a political candidate to really get excited about in the last election; the disrepair of so many fundamental systems here; the way so many people behave inconsiderately in public - these things bug her endlessly too. They probably drive me mad in a way that strikes her a bit over the top, at times, of course, because I didn't grow up with it. But they probably bother her much more, deep down, since it's her country.
The uprootedness is a very difficult thing to compensate for in one's life. Much as we glorify it, many of us in Korea learn the importance of community by living without one, or by working hard to forge one for ourselves if we choose to live here long-term.
These days, I'm engaging with Korea by exploring the way science-fiction is developing here as a genre, and you know what? The doors were thrown open for me at my first sign of interest. I've met and talked to aspiring writers, a major publisher, an organizer of Korea's biggest SF fanclub, and more than one SF fan in the few short months since I've begun looking into this with any degree of energy. (And no, we don't dress up like Jedis and swordfight. Yet.)
Many expats get really, embarrassingly (for me) good at the language. Whatever they do, they engage with this place on their own terms, but they remember to take into account its terms, too. They're realistic, and probably every one of them has engaged in an unwholesome bout of complaining more than once - it's human, after all, which is why I'd bet every human language has a verb that means "to complain" - but they've moved past that. They've dug in and found things to get fascinated by, excited about, or involved in, despite the constant stream of mixed signals. The encouragement they receive clashes with messages telling them that they shouldn't bother, that they can't do that, or complicating the process, or discouraging them to pursue their interests.
A few years ago, I would have said that all well-adjusted non-Koreans in Korea study and develop their Korean ability. I've lapsed, myself, grown too busy in weighing the options, focused on other things, and I don't feel my quality of life has slid too much for it. But, learning and improving my Korean ability would probably help my engagement with Korea.
Connect with Koreans
But there is one more common - though not universal - trait among those who adjust well here. It's that well-adjusted expats connect with Korean people outside of their workplace. And I don't just mean the smiling, nearly-fluent-in-English bartender at the local foreigner Bar. I mean they make friends with Koreans; they have arguments - of substance, about things of mutual concern, with Koreans. They may fall in love with one (or two, or three, over the years) and marry a Korean, or they might not. But they do connect to people outside of their workplace, even if it's just someone in their swim class at the YMCA, or the cute guy who chats with them every time they stop in at this particular pub or coffee shop, or the lady next door who likes to chat about this or that. The middle-aged lady who ran my favorite tea shop in Iksan used to sit with me and chat in the simplest Korean she could manage, just to pass the time.
For many non-Koreans here - male and female, though the latter is rarer - a Korean mate is the most profound connection possible to Korean society, and a kind of natural, compassionate reality check. When you have no idea why Koreans do this or that, of course, and complain to your Korean other half, sometimes it just causes annoyance. My fiancee and I, for example, have topics we've learned not to complain to one another about, because it never achieves anything worthwhile.
But if you're lucky enough to have someone who values dialog, if you're clever enough to value it yourself, if you both have a sense of humor, and if you make the obvious investment in one another that helps understand each others' worlds, (most) Koreans don't seem quite so weird to you, after all. Different, yes. Odd, maybe.
And sometimes I think the people who really adapt to living here do it with a trick of the mind: They just kind of learn to mentally balance the things that drive them batty with the things that they really enjoy.
And really, that's like living anywhere, isn't it?
Well, maybe not. There are pleasures and pains unique to Korea, I think - or, at least, unique enough to make it pretty unlike living in a lot of places. And really, like I said - complaining is part of the human condition. But if you find it a growing part of your daily conversational (or blogging) repertoire, perhaps it's time to put down your laptop, go out there, and engage with this huge, diverse, and interesting society all around you. Find something and get into it, and you might be surprised how enjoyable your life becomes.
Photos by Alii Higham and Matthew Lamers
By Gord Sellar
Monday, September 23, 2002
Originally from here.
Why do expats here complain so much?
Following is Part I of a popular online series examining expat-Korean relations. The essay was originally posted on www.askakorean.net and has been updated for The Korea Herald. - Ed.
Full disclosure: I am a Korean-American who has lived in the United States for the last 11 years. I do not have any firsthand knowledge about expatriate life in Korea, other than the few times when my newly-acquired American sensibilities grate against what I experience in Korea during my visits.
My exposure to expat life in Korea came when a few expat blogs began to link to or quote my blog. Through this admittedly limited peek, the feature of the expat lives that immediately jumped out at me was the length, frequency and severity of expats' complaints about Korea.
Because I am aware of my limited perspective into expat lives in Korea - both with respect to its scope as well as the medium through which it is delivered - I do try to temper my criticism against the expats in Korea who complain. Expose people to a different environment, and there are always things to complain about, simply because things are not familiar. The fact that these complaints are expressed through the internet magnifies their severity. And to be sure, there are a lot of legitimate complaints that may be lodged. I myself am completely guilty of complaining about Korea, also through online media. My complaints run the gamut of fairly significant to utterly trivial; I complain about racism in Korea, but I also complain about lack of toilet paper in public bathrooms. Given the plank in my eye, I try to view expat complaints with tolerance. After all, we all resort to venting in order to deal with the things that we do not like, and writing online is as good a way as any, especially when all of our family and friends are far away.
Even with that caveat, however, many complaints from expats that I have seen show a certain degree of ignorance. This is not to say that complaining expats are dumb. It is only to say that their complaints reveal that they do not understand certain things, because if they did, they would not be complaining as much and their pitch would not be as strident.
What are these understandings that complaining expats lack? There are three: first, how much of their deeply-held beliefs are inapplicable in Korea; second, how little of Korea they see; third, how much influence Korea's modern history exerts upon Korea of today.
Alternative perspective on society
One of the reasons for the popularity of science fiction is it offers the possibility of an entirely different way of life. After all, it is an accident of evolutionary history that homo sapiens took their present form. In another life-sustainable planet of different environs, sentient beings with high intelligence may have taken a completely different shape - perhaps with an exoskeleton, perhaps with psychic communicative abilities.
It is this type of perspective that many complaining expats lack: They do not understand that there could be an entirely different way of running a functioning society different from their own.
This is not to say Korean society is completely different from the countries from which most expats hail, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. In fact, after deeper examination, one would find there are more similarities than differences. However, there are many instances where Korea employs an expression of society starkly different from that of the countries listed above. When such instances arise, complainers do not use them to re-evaluate their fundamentally held beliefs; instead, they complain about the collective stupidity of Korean society.
The recent row about Korean protests against beef imported from the United States provides a good example. Tens of thousands of Koreans occupied the streets of Seoul for many nights protesting against beef imports, primarily because they feared the possibility of mad cow disease.
Complainers had a field day with these protesters. Why are thousands of Koreans filling up the streets for something as obscure as American beef? They must be hopelessly dumb, easily manipulated by the sensationalist media! Where are the sensible people who oppose this insanity? All of Korea must be going along with this! These Koreans are unable to think for themselves, no better than lemmings following the one in front of them to a precipitating death!
For an expat that wishes to be educated, this instance would have presented a perfect opportunity to challenge his or her belief system. Why aren't thousands of Americans filling up the streets protesting government policies that injure them much more gravely than American beef import injures Koreans? Could Korea be demonstrating an alternative model of democracy, one that is more direct and active? Are all Koreans truly acquiescing to the protesters, or are the dissenting Koreans simply letting the protesters have their spasm? If the latter is the case, is there any benefit of avoiding the yelling match that has become universal in the American political scene?
Asking these types of questions requires a basic respect towards Koreans and their way of running society, a tacit faith that, no matter how strange things may seem at first, there is a good reason when a modern democracy of 49 million people acts in a certain way. Complaining expats lack that type of respect. Instead of critically re-examining his or her own social conventions, a complaining expat reaches for the most improbable conclusion - that this entire country is somehow hysterical, irrational, crazy or just plain dumb.
View through a tiny window
Many of my friends from Korea had spent several years in various places in the United States, and it is very amusing for me to hear their broad impressions of America that are inconsistent with one another. "America truly is a cultural melting pot," declared one friend who spent three years in San Francisco. "America is just white people who all go to church on Sunday," said another friend who studied for four years in University of Nebraska.
What had made my Korean friends make such incongruous statements? What they did not realize was that America is a very large country, and one part is radically different from another. Thus their broad description of America was rather limited, because they failed to appreciate how little of it they had actually seen, no matter how much time they have spent in one place in America.
Similarly, complaining expats fail to appreciate that the Korea that they observe is no more than a thinnest sliver of Korean society - namely, the young, English-speaking younger generation of Koreans. Because most expats tend to be younger and not fluent in Korean, their observation of Korean society is limited to this perspective. Indeed, often the view through that small window on Korean life would seem absurd. But instead of realizing the size of the window, the complainers bemoan the absurdity of the view itself.
First, the youth part. The generational gap in Korea is more like a generational chasm. On one hand, Koreans in their late 50s to early 60s grew up in constant danger of death from war and starvation; while Koreans in their early 20s have always been blessed with affluence. Now, consider - how many presidents, prime ministers, CEOs, prominent thinkers and other leaders of society are in their late 50s? And how many are in their early 20s? In any country in the world, the first figure would vastly outnumber the second.
When it is older people who are more responsible for the societal direction, and when the same older people have a radically different mentality from that of the younger generation, whatever perspective one gains from the younger generation is at best limited. It would not matter how long one has lived in Korea, or how many younger Koreans one has spoken with. To criticize Korea based on that limited picture is, simply put, silly.
Again, the criticisms of the mad cow disease protests illustrate this point. The protest was primarily youth-driven, with most of the participants in their 20s and 30s. The Koreans who disagreed with the protesters tended to be older folks, whose political culture did not consist of protests in the streets but dry discourse in newspapers.
Suppose an expat has come to the conclusion that the protests were indeed irrational and hysterical. Then an expat may speak to 100 Koreans in their 20s and 30s, and "confirm" that all Koreans are in favor of the protests, and complain that Korea is an irrational place. But if he bothered to read a newspaper in Korean, which would have spelled out all the things that were wrong with the protests, he would have realized there were plenty of Koreans who agreed with his position.
This brings up the next limitation on expat perspectives - the language barrier. A complaining expat often does not realize that there is always a full political discourse about whichever topic of complaint that she may choose, in the Korean language. (After all, why should Koreans carry on their affairs in any other language?)
Truth is, Koreans are generally aware of most things that ail their society, and they are in active communication addressing those things. If a complaining expat bothered to read such communication, she could focus on criticisms that actually serve a constructive purpose. Without having done so, her criticism only invites scoffs from Koreans, who reply: "You think we don't know these things?"
These two limitations beget another limitation, namely the young English-speaking Koreans. Decent English-speaking ability is not an easy feat for Koreans. What makes a Korean fluent in English? Many factors are at work, but one important aspect is a ton of money. Without it, a Korean cannot afford private English-speaking tutors or spend several years in an English-speaking country studying.
Therefore, by speaking only to English-speaking young Koreans, not only are expats insulated from older Koreans, they are also closed off from younger Koreans who are poorer. What kind of understanding about Korea could an expat possibly have with this kind of limited exposure?
Understanding of modern Korean history
A cursory look at Seoul shows a fantastically futuristic city. People carry around crazy technological gizmos. The internet works at blinding speed. Everywhere you go there are flat-screen panels showing moving images, just like visions of the future that we used to have in the sci-fi movies of yesteryear. Upon seeing this spectacle, it is only reasonable to expect Korea to be a fully modern country, and for its citizens to behave in a fully modern way.
But this outlook could not be more misleading. This is really the point that anyone who wishes to understand modern Korea must know - Korea has only become this way in the last 15 years. All those born and raised in the pre-modern era are not only still around, but they are the people who are in their 50s and 60s, leading the country and educating the next generation.
Few people, including younger Koreans themselves, understand this point: only 50 years ago, Korea was poor. At the time, Korea occupied the place in the world where the poorest African countries are now.
There is a Korean expression of describing poverty - a person is so poor that "his anus would tear out." This expression came to be when Korean people were starving, and they would peel tree bark, boil it and eat it. Since tree bark has a lot of indigestible fiber, one's anus bleeds as one excretes after eating tree bark. This is the kind of world in which Koreans in their 50s and 60s used to live. Can any expat from a wealthy country (regardless of how poor s/he may have been in that country) imagine the worldview of a child growing up in this level of deprivation?
Miraculously, Korea managed to pull itself out of such abject poverty into the wealth it currently enjoys. However, that was not a normal development. This incredible, borderline mutative economic growth could not have happened without the attendant mutative changes in Korean society and culture. A country does go from $87 per capita GDP in 1962 to $24,783 per capita GDP in 2007 without instances of things that appear strange and not readily comprehensible.
Truly, this is the keystone in understanding any aspect of modern Korea. Everything about modern Korean culture, in one way or another, is an outgrowth of this history. Accordingly, almost all complaints about Korea are related to this central keystone in one way or another. For example: "Koreans drive like maniacs!" But the vast majority of Koreans did not start driving until the early 1980s. In other words, Korea has a very young driving culture, and we all know how we drove when we were very young. Not knowing this, the maniacal driving is simply inexplicable - why would anyone recklessly risk one's life driving this way? And the complaints continue.
Why do expats in Korea complain?
So let us circle back to the main question: why do expats in Korea complain?
Many factors are outlined above, but among them runs a common thread: laziness. Instead of scouring every aspect of the new country for more learning, complaining expats are content with the readily available. They sit within the comfort zone of what they already understand - the way in which their own society works - and do not bother to learn the completely new ways in which another society works. When they do decide to peek outside, they do not bother to find out the size of the window through which they see Korea, nor do they bother to expand that limited scope. And finally, they do not seek to look deeper into whatever aspect of Korea that they do see.
Therein lies the prescription for understanding Korea: try to observe mainstream society. Learn to speak and read Korean. Engage Koreans of all ages, and talk to them about serious topics just like you would do at home. Read Korean newspapers. Korea has a ton of quirks and oddities, but none of it is incomprehensible. They have their own logic, but such logic can always be understood. In the end, the deep joy you gain from having acquired an entirely new perspective would far surpass any fleeting satisfaction gained from complaining.
By T.K. Park
Park is the editor-in-chief of www.askakorean.net - Ed.
Why do Koreans get so defensive?
Something funny happens when Koreans and expats start talking about Korea together. Because of a perception, especially online, that expats in Korea never stop judging and criticizing Korea, offset by the perception, on the expat side, that Koreans get unreasonably defensive and irrational at the slightest hint of criticism from a non-Korean, I contacted T.K. Park (www.askakorean.net) -- whose writing online attempts to explain Korean thinking to non-Koreans.
We asked, "Why do expats complain about Korea so much?" and then, "Why do Koreans take criticism of Korea so poorly?" At the end of the article, I invited others to join what became a very fruitful discussion. Here is some of what I learned. The first thing to note about defensiveness is that while complaining is a natural human tendency, getting defensive is also a natural human response.
It is helpful to remember that most Koreans identify with their ethnic and national identity much more personally than many Westerners: Koreans often call their language "uri mal" -- our language, and Korea, "uri nara" -- our country. To demonstrate what this means, read these three sentences out loud: "Does this DVD have subtitles in Korean?" "Does this DVD have subtitles in MY language?" "Does this DVD have subtitles in OUR language?" Quite a difference, isn't it? Now try these three, to see why some Koreans take criticism so personally: "Why is he criticizing Korea?" "Why is he criticizing MY country?" "Why is he criticizing OUR country?" Another thing to remember is that Korea has joined the first world incredibly quickly: People alive today grew up in danger of starvation just decades ago. This means Korea is still getting used to being a first world nation. The kind of press an emerging Korea got in the early 1990s -- "Here comes the Asian tiger!" -- is a lot more fun than the scrutiny Korea now receives as a first world nation.
Tough truths for those tired of criticism
First, the question of who has the right to criticize is muddier than it has ever been. The old response, "You should learn more about Korea," is sometimes a valid criticism, but occasionally, it is a polite mask for the nationalistic and racist idea that only Koreans could ever understand Korea, and any criticism from non-Koreans is unwelcome, not because their complaints lack grounding, but because of who's speaking.
The problem is, these days, more than a million non-Koreans live in Korea, work, spend money, and pay taxes here. We have invested in Korea, and benefit if Korea does well. By watching and studying, we have a view of Korea that people raised here do not. The old sneer, "Yankee go home" does not work for us, because we are home.
Transnational adoptees, part-Koreans raised here and abroad, exchange students here, Koreans returning from overseas study, and migrant workers, all have different views, too. It is dangerous to disparage them all, because they weren't born and raised here, or can't speak Korean perfectly, or because their minds were "Westernized" during their overseas education, or, even worse, because their blood isn't pure Korean.
Korea will quickly find itself on the outside looking in at the global community if it refuses to engage with a quickly changing world, or take advice from non-Koreans on how to get non-Korean investors to invest here, and non-Korean tourists to spend money here.
Next truth: There's no more hiding in the world of instant communication. Korea is a power player now, and power-players are targets for attention and criticism. Fifteen years ago, if a factory owner in Jeolla cheated his Indonesian employee, or if a group of Koreans insulted a Japanese tourist, the worker or tourist would go home, complain about it at his local bar, and that would be all.
Now, thanks to the internet and the growing number of non-Koreans who know the Korean language, and Koreans who know other languages, the language barrier can no longer keep Korea's domestic affairs domestic.
In the global village, there are no more secrets, and increasingly, countries will get exactly the reputation they deserve. Every country gets its turn in the spotlight, both for good (seventh in Olympic medals!) and for bad (PD Diary's dishonest mad cow reporting featured on CNN). If Korea doesn't like what people say about it online or in print, it would be more useful to look in the mirror than to shoot the messenger.
Finally, expats and locals in every country complain. Koreans in America complain, Koreans in Korea complain. Why wouldn't expats in Korea complain, too?
We're humans, not saints, and complaining is a popular human pastime, everywhere. Moreover, upon looking closer, there are many, many expats, blogs, and commenters who are very supportive and positive about Korea, and who get forgotten when one harsh critic takes the spotlight. Because the internet can bring out people's ugly sides, things are also much more negative online than they are in real life; for a more accurate picture of the expat experience in Korea, turn off the computer. Invite a foreigner to your house instead, or take one to climb one of Korea's beautiful mountains.
Pots and kettles
On both the expatriate and Korean side, it has helped me to remember this simple truth: The silliest, most ridiculous things Koreans say to defend their country, and the harshest, worst things expats say against Korea can be repeated and remembered much more than reasonable and rational conversations.
Simply because the extreme cases make for better storytelling, these repeated stories pool together and form cartoonish caricatures, both of dogmatic Koreans making ridiculous claims to defend their country and of bitter expats who never stop complaining.
Neither of these images has much resemblance to actual reality.
The complaining foreigner
One of the strangest compliments I ever had, was from a New Zealander named Greg. My roommate and I met him near our house, and invited him to eat with us. Halfway through dinner, he said, "You know, we've talked for thirty minutes now, and I still haven't heard either of you say anything negative about Korea."
Another person I know was attacked because somebody didn't like what he wrote about Korea. Blogger Brian from Jeollanam-do had a cyber-terrorist publish his personal information and try and get him fired from his job. The attacker wrote, "Let's correct this ignorant foreigner's behavior," as if they were training a dog not to pee on the carpet.
A lot of complainers are off-duty diplomats: Because many non-Koreans look different, we know we are being watched, and try to say the "right" things about Korean food, culture, and today's hot topic. After a day of diplomacy, some meet with other foreigners and criticize, the way hotel receptionists come home after smiling all day, and scowl all night.
Some people, believe it or not, actually aren't having a good time in Korea.
Fifteen years ago, many of these complainers would have worked their grievances out by scribbling in paper diaries hidden away on shelves. Now, thanks to the internet, it often goes online instead, and some people's most cynical sides get an audience they probably don't need. While they're free to do what they like, I'd advise some of them to go back to paper diaries instead of leaving their most negative thoughts out where anybody can read them.
These people are writing for personal reasons, not for an audience, and it's good for them to vent their vinegar, but personally, I don't want to be around for it, and believe me, Koreans are not the only ones tired of this kind of whining. It is one of the main reasons many long-time expats don't spend much time around first-years, and honestly, much of it is best ignored, or taken with a grain of salt the size of Daegu.
Missing my true tone
Some of the harshest reactions I've had to my thoughts were from readers or friends who didn't notice the bemusement, irony, or humor in my tone. Stories are fun, and humans are funny, and laughing about life's ridiculous situations does not equal a blanket judgment of a culture. Unfortunately, the ones who need to lighten up the most are the ones who don't get the joke.
The social critic
Unlike venting ranters, social critics are writing for an audience, and they're writing to make a difference. They do not speak in ignorance or judgment. They have tried their best to understand Korea in all its complexity, and they want Korea to become the best country it can be (and not just a mirror image of some other country). They have started pointing out areas where Korea has not achieved stated goals yet. These people play an important role in a healthy society. They point out flaws, not like a bully trying to humiliate, but like an adviser trying to plan the best road.
While the best social critics are constructive, focused on solutions instead of problems, and full of hope for improvement, all critics ought to remember that their tone, as much as their ideas, determines what kind of audience and response their writing will have.
Tough truths for expats
Though more and more English language sources on Korea are becoming available, the fact remains that without the ability to draw from original Korean language sources, the best we can achieve is skillful recycling, augmented by storytelling. Writing an article in English that Korea needs to put its money where its mouth is to achieve true globalization is pointless. The only Koreans who can read it already have. Either we need to learn the language and join the discussion properly, or acknowledge that our main audience is the small percentage of Koreans who've learned English, other expats and English readers who are interested in Korea.
Also, some complaining expats really are too harsh: graceless, tactless, and unwilling to offer even the tiniest benefit of the doubt. This attitude reflects more on the expat than on Korea itself. Relentless criticism is just as one-sided and untrue as blind praise.
Both online and in real life, for better or for worse, bloggers usually get exactly the audience they deserve, and expats with attitudes usually end up with exactly the friends they deserve, too. Tired of all the complaining? Then stop complaining, and stop spending time with people who complain! Act like the kind of person whose company you would prefer to the whiners.
Finally, remember that Koreans talk about Korea very differently with other Koreans than they do with foreigners. You are not the sole critical voice crying out in a desert of nationalist cheerleading.
Koreans know what parts of their system are broken, and they discuss them in detail with other Koreans, but when they talk with foreigners, many prefer emphasizing the positives. This is either because they aren't confident enough with their English to clearly articulate their thoughts on Korea's social issues, because they don't know you well enough, or because like it or not, you are still usually seen as a guest.
What I got from it all
The main thing I've realized from this discussion is that our attitude depends mostly on where we fix our gaze. By focusing on the negative, we get trapped in negativity; by focusing on the positive, we can have a great time in Korea, or anywhere. There is lots to get angry about in any country, though it's easy (admit it) to paint life back home in rosy hues. I had lots to say about Canada's shortcomings when I lived there, too, but the people I prefer to be around, and the ones I prefer to read, are those who have taught themselves to notice and comment on the good stuff as well as the flaws, who make a point of balancing things out, not to flatter, nor to appease rabid netizens, but because of the person they choose to be.
Willfully choosing to seek out and dwell on the best parts of life is a discipline that does not always come naturally, but it's worth cultivating, wherever I live, and I hope it makes me into the kind of person I'd enjoy knowing. It's not willful ignorance, but willful optimism, and it helps me enjoy my life.
I think that the best way to do this is simple, too: get out of the house. It's easy to stay home all weekend, but getting up on the mountains, or mucking around the countryside, sightseeing, always puts me back in a positive frame of mind, especially if I can do it around some positive people, expat or otherwise.
Fact is, the expats who have the most positive attitude don't get online even to praise Korea, because they are too busy having a great time to stop and write about it.
So after all that talk, nobody's off the hook. Online lurkers ought to get out of the house and interact face to face; constant complainers ought to reconsider where they direct their gaze, and Koreans ought to come to grips with the fact that there are many non-Koreans who stand to gain or lose as Korea goes, and who deserve to have their voices heard. While I'm not making excuses for rudeness or arrogance from any quarter, hopefully we can look at each other with a little more understanding, and a little less judgment.
Rob Ouwehand's blog can be seen at www.roboseyo.blogspot.com -- Ed.
By Robert Ouwehand