Friday, 18 July 2008

Three E-mails I've received on the Complaining Expat topic

As well as a few comments I'd like to highlight:

The e-mails:

Quoted with permission from a non-blogger:

A private comment about your post on expats.

"we Westerners (who, at least among North Americans, have been programmed by movies and stories to go against the grain, and to prefer being right and alone over being wrong with the crowd), might start to push against the flood of Kimcheerleading with a bit of counter-balancing negativity, just so there’s a conversation."

One of the things that has always amused me about Americans is how polarized they are. It seems to be embedded firmly into the way their political, economic, legal and social structures work. And they hate each other. Conservatives loathe liberals, etc. [on the Marmot's hole, too,] It seems to be mainly American expats and American-Koreans who give each other the hardest time and take the most extreme views (there are exceptions and the odd Aussie).

I'd like to think that it was just an American thing but I have to admit it is slowly spreading to the rest of the world. Richard Dawkins is British (I agree with a lot he says but not the way he goes about saying it) and Denmark is becoming increasingly polarized...

Here's something you might find interesting for your study of expats in Korea. There is this forum called devoted to soccer in Korea. It's in English and most of the posters are expats (there's the odd Korean). There's virtually no complaining about Korea there, no trolls (the closest they have to a troll is me) and most people are genuinely interested in and supportive of Korea.

Now I can think of three possible reasons for this. Firstly, it's a special interest forum and people don't feel it's the right place to air their Korea-grievances. Secondly, there are very few American commenters (there's the odd Canadian but most of the regulars are European or Kiwis). And thirdly, everybody there has a hobby interest that allows them to both identify with their home country and identify with Korea. They bring their interest in football with them when they arrive. It's not like taking up hapkido or the gayageum, but Korean football is still very...Korean!

Perhaps if more expats had something like football that they could identify with they wouldn't find it so tough."

-- this fits nicely with Gord Sellar's discussion on "the expattes complainte," where he, too, argues that to keep positive, it's very important to get out of the house.

Hey bud.

go climb a mountain.

from a contact who's been in Korea for about as long as I have (five years) - shortened for length and personal information, but otherwise unedited:

I've read yours, The Korean's, Gord's and the others. You guys seem to have covered the bases on that one. And you all are a lot nicer on the expat complainers than I am. Nonetheless, I wouldn't limit it to online experiences. There were people that I met in person who really weren't equipped with that filter many of us have on what was appropriate or inappropriate to say. There was one guy who was new to the country and sounded like he knew everything about Korea and bitched about this "fucking country" every time I saw him--constantly. He had nothing else to talk about. Then we'd leave the bar, trying to shake him, and he'd follow us. Saw a Korean go by with an Engrish t-shirt, rudely stopped her, and laughed in her face because of her t-shirt. I had to apologize to this person for this fuck's behavior.

[picture added by Roboseyo]

[end editorial comment]

Anyway, you guys are being too nice and maybe too analytical. A lot of these guys are losers and people with social functionality problems. They have trouble coping with social situations in their home environments and think things would change when they went overseas, thinking it wasn't their own inadequacies that made people hate them.

Having said that, the analogy of the waiter who smiles all day and then bitches after hours at the bar is spot on.

- [Name]

Gord Sellar's response to my initial "hey, I'm writing about this. . . wanna weigh in?" opened by coining a new word for bloggers working together: "Synerdy," expressed a hope that this will start an interesting conversation online (which I think it has), and also wished there was a way to get some of the well-known Korean language bloggers involved in this funny puzzle of each side's perception of the other. I hope that happens, too.

Another person I'd contacted, whose views I respect a lot, pointed out the sheer scope of the actual question:

On complaining expats:
"I don't think expats in Korea complain any more than in any other countries, even amongst the newbies that are the bulk of them, and doubt I'd be convinced otherwise unless it was argued by someone with extensive experience of travelling and of living overseas in a wide variety of countries. Other than the discussion boards of Dave's Esl Cafe, hardly representative, I see little evidence for expats complaining excessively."

and in a follow-up e-mail, expanding on the idea that some sites and forums seem to get a lot of trolls, this person also noticed that longer, denser posts usually don't get as many trolls, while shorter posts about current events seem to be the ones where the militant k-bashers and k-defenders start grinding their axes.

Food for thought from comment boards:

On my own comment board, Sonagi suggests:
By reading comments at [a wide variety of] different forums, using sorts like most rec'd, and reading longer posts in which commenters explain their thinking, one can get a cross-section of opinions about an event or issue.

doggyji said...
I think it is essential to learn to speak fluent Korean to be the ultimate critic. Maybe you should put one more category for the social critic type. The one who has acquired full Korean language skills, has all the first-hand access to information in Korean and is able to directly interact with Koreans in everyday life.

the very well-travelled Eujin said...
Firstly, I think if you write a well-mannered, thoughtful (and lengthy) piece you're unlikely to attract the attention of the type of people you really want to hear from. It will be interesting to see how many comments you get from people who identify with one of the above categories. We all know who they are.

Secondly, I'm not buying the language lock-out reasoning. I used to work with a lot of expats in London (Americans, Aussies, French...they were there for the money, not for the lifestyle) and they whinged with the best of them.

I don't know why people moan on the internet. I also don't know why people bother arguing with people they don't respect.

from Lunalil
Living here has crystallized my self-perception. Although I’ve always had a strong sense of “Who I am”, I always felt there was something missing that I couldn’t quite verbalize.

Soon after I came to Korea I realized what that missing thing was. I had never really understood my cultural identity (being a white-something from America is pretty generic despite what you may read on Stuff White People Like). Living in Korea forced me to not only realize my cultural identity, but do it while trying to cope with a culture that was radically different in every way. That’s culture shock for you.

People don’t talk about the shock of suddenly coming into awareness of that part your identity when they talk about culture shock. For me it was like having the wind knocked out of you, a big punch of “so this is what it means to be American culturally”, after which I felt silly for having previously considered myself an open-minded, self-aware, and educated person.
I think that the truth is you can’t really judge how open-minded or self-aware you are until you are immersed in a culture that is foreign, preferably a culture that is VERY foreign. Maybe even more than one culture.

Note that I stressed immersed, I don’t think traveling results in the kind of culture shock needed to shock your brain… Travel is certainly helpful and mind-stretching but I didn’t learn the same things traveling in other countries as I have living in Korea. Maybe it’s just me.
Let's face it, sometimes the grass isn't always greener on the other side of the world. Especially if that world doesn't even have grass and is all covered in cement and cigarette butts.

Joy also says, here,

"I just hope I am always the forgiving expat who doesn't take Korea stuff personally."

a commenter at Gord Sellar says complaining about Korea for expats is a bit like people back home gossiping about their neighbours.
"Did you hear Tom did X yesterday!"
"Did you hear the nationalists did X yesterday!"
[update/correction: the commenter was actually talking about gaijin (foreigners) in Japan, talking about Japan the way neighbours at home talk about the other neighbours -- I wrote this post in a bit of a rush, and in my haste, skipped a few details on the context of this one. My bad.]

On the same comment board, Gord and I discuss the fact that, while it's important to get out of the house, there aren't as many hobby options here, because of language limitations, and the number of us being small enough that many niches (for example, the Star Trek Fanfic Writer's Workshop) don't quite have enough people here to reach a critical mass and form a group. Really, you should read that whole comment board: I don't know how Gord manages to get such cool people to comment on his posts.

from Ireallydolikekimchi's post:
In speaking of culture I don't believe there is a right and a wrong. I don't believe one culture is better than another. Culture just is. People in Korea eat kimchi, wear disguises in the summer to protect themselves from the sun, speak Korean, and drive like maniacs. Is this good or bad? I don't think you can put a judgement on this. (Well, maybe we can judge the driving.) It just is. I have to accept what I cannot change. And, yes, this is where the Serenity Prayer gets inserted. In my experience those who complain the loudest are those who cannot accept the way things are. As an expat, it's not up to me to create any change in a culture not my own. The Koreans are the ones doing the change as they see fit. And as has been noted elsewhere, Korea is changing rapidly.

At the Marmot's Hole, Granfallon muses,
One question for you both: I sometimes wonder if Korea’s emphasis on grouping and exclusivity contributes to expat complainers. Koreans, even at their friendliest, still draw a very obvious line in the sand when it comes to dealing with foreigners: “You can live here, but you’ll never be one of us.” Does this contribute towards making an oppositional expat identity? It sounds like I’m blaming Koreans for the stupid things expats say and do, which is kinda asinine. Still, can’t help but wonder.

SeeF, also at the Marmot, says,
I mean, bring up the word “beef” and “ESL” - Marmot gets 50+ comments yet on thoughtful, NON-argumentative posts that encourage actual - I dunno, THINKING - . . . go ignored by some of the most frequent (and coincidentally, usually the most vocal and vitriolic) commenters on this site. Ironic. Sadly, I think this shows that the people who need to read this set of articles the most are the ones who aren’t.

slim at the Marmot:
I found Korea a mostly fun and fascinating place to live during my 5+ years there (1987-89 and 2001-4) while occasionally carping about certain things, like lawless driving, trade protectionism and the resulting high prices, and effusive jingoism.
What troubles me now, from a distance, is the huge and glaring “integrity deficit” I see in all of Korea’s key institutions: the media, political and religious groups, unions and corporations.

Marmite Michael:
Here’s my two won:
I’m pretty consistent in my complaints about Korea–I want Koreans to make their society better for themselves, not for the perceived status of being an “advanced nation” in the eyes of others.

at Ask A Korean,
nathan said...
Why do expats complain so much? What else are we supposed to do, reflect on our own shortcomings and cultural limitations, grow as human beings and then apply the lessons learned abroad to our understanding of our own lives and home countries? Ha! As if.

Just thought I'd throw those into the mix.


gordsellar said...

Rob, two tiny notes:

First, the commenter who talked about gossip actually was talking about gaijin gossip in Japan, but the gossip back home analogy applies well too.

And as for the quality of my commenters, I'm blessed with good fortune.

ZenKimchi said...

There's a Star Trek fan fic writer's group?? I'm so there, dude. Now, if I could only dig up my old Star Trek TNG/Midsummer Night's Dream screenplay.

Sonagi said...

I wonder about the perception that Americans complain more than other nationalities and the examples of the Marmot's Hole and the European-dominated soccer forum. As the commenter noted, the soccer forum is a club with a purpose and isn't likely to attract whinging. I don't read Dave's much, but when I do, I notice a lot of Korea-whinging posts from English-speakers of a variety of nationalities. TMH is dominated by US citizens, so without a large pool of other nationalities, it's hard to make comparisons.

Based on my experiences in Korea, the group mostly likely to complain wasn't a group dominated by Americans but by English teachers. I belonged to a couple of organizations, and the atmosphere at gatherings was always pleasant with cheerful chatter or thoughtful debates. The members hailed from a variety of occupations, including teachers, missionaries, students, businesspeople, and the occasional soldier.

Perceptions are a tricky thing because the human brain is wired to look for patterns and remembers experiences that fit the pattern while discarding ones that don't unless numerous counterexamples establish a new pattern.

A close Canadian friend lectured me one day about how Americans don't learn foreign languages. This friend quit Korean language lessons because she couldn't hack the past tense, and she was telling me, who spoke fluent Korean and had knowledge of Chinese and Korean. I challenged her perception by listing all all of our mutual foreign acquaintances and assessing their Korean proficiency if we could based on hearing them speak Korean in public. Lo and behold, there was no statistical difference between Americans and other Western nationalities. In America, people from English-speaking homes may be less likely to speak an additional language than people in officially bilingual Canada or Europe, but that is a reflection of educational opportunities, not an unwillingness to learn.

Perceptions are personal, selective, and biased. Doesn't mean they don't belong in a discussion. Just means we need to acknowledge them as such. I often preface mine with "It's my perception that..." to make clear that I do not mistake my perceptions for facts or other independently verifiable data.

Sonagi said...

"...knowledge of Chinese and Korean..."

should be

"...knowledge of Chinese and Japanese..."

Sonagi said...

And as for the quality of my commenters, I'm blessed with good fortune.

It's not good fortune. Bloggers who post less frequently but with longer, more analytical pieces on serious topics don't attract fleas. :) Moderating also helps. I don't think you've ever had a problem, but I read a few forums that post on controversial topics yet maintain readable threads patronized by thoughtful commenters because the bloggers delete posts with off-topic remarks or ad hominems. After a few deletions, the trolls get frustrated and move on.

One disappointment I have with the K-blogs and C-blogs I read is the paucity of Korean and Chinese commenters (not talking about overseas residents/citizens). There is a language barrier, but another factor is that the predictable Korea-bashing and China-bashing from some regular commenters repels all but race defenders.

wevegotseoul said...

I've only been reading blogs for about 2 years now, but I have to say that this topic, so far, has been the most interesting and from what I've seen, has generated so many interesting reactions.

My name is Joy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
My name is Joy said...

hey~ lets all just try to bask in the happy feeling that we have taken our lives to another part of the world and haven't berated the indigenous people around us~ :)

Roboseyo said...

Sorry, zenkimchi. . . there WAS one, but this guy kept coming and reading his Worf/Picard porn stories until the group kind of dissipated.

The rest of all y'all: well said. Thanks for weighing in.

I agree with you, Sonagi, that it's not limited to Americans; I think English teachers might be closer to the mark.

I also agree that it really depends on where one goes -- if Marmot and Dave's are top on your favourites, you'll get a very different view of comment boards on Korea online than if your top faves are Foreign/er Joy, Gordsellar and TheGrandNarrative. That should be noted.

Then, if your top two are Gypsy Scholar and Western Confucian, you might get the wrong impression that every expat in Korea has a Ph.D, or wants to.

Wevegotseoul: thanks a million! I really appreciate that.

also, Sonagi: your policy of reading the longer comments and skimming the one-liners (if I even bother with them) is one I started about a month ago, and it really works.

Anonymous said...

Damn, I feel like I've been reading Moby Dick, or War and Peace, over the last few days here and at the other couple of blogs.

I guess I've been spoiled by that girly magazine mentality of mostly pictures and limited text--your know, name, age, and measurements.

Keep it up. It's interesting, but a bit of a workout. However, it seems osmosis is leading to my acquiring an attention span equal to that of my students.

John from Daejeon

Roboseyo said...

better study hard, John from Daejeon. There's a 280 question, multiple-choice exam on the topic in december.

in order to better simulate your students' experience.

wevegotseoul said...

I've also put up a brief comment on my site - but more so about being in Taiwan (I was there for 2 years prior to coming to Seoul).

Roboseyo said...

Thanks wevegotseoul: it was interesting to compare expats in Taiwan to what's been said here about expats in Korea. I'm really glad you wrote about it.


Anonymous said...

"In order to better simulate my students' experience," I will do as they do and invoke the rule of "cunning" off my neighbors' tests and look on in glee when you have to pass me with my failing grade/score/mark/percentage.

John from Daejeon

Roboseyo said...

also, take a nap at your desk with the book open, and then ask your mom to explain it to you.

gordsellar said...


Actually, I did have a troll problem once. (It was Bluejives. Disemvowelment sent him/her/it off to post crap about how fat he imagined I was on his short-lived babble-on blog.) But it was short lived because, yes, moderating does help keep out the losers.

Still. that doesn't explain the cool commenters... I have been blessed with pretty interesting commenters in general, absence of trolls aside.

As for confirmation bias, you nailed it. Confirmation bias is a huge part of the whole foreigner-bitching thing that also deserves discussion. I'm at the point now where I can catch myself just before I engage in a kind of negative reaffirmation that the ajumma who whacked me with her umbrella, or the ajeoshi who shoved past me to the front of the line is living proof of, well, whatever negative thing I feel like generalizing. The more you say, "No, that person's an inconsiderate clod, but look at the lady who moved her umbrella out of the way, or the grandpa who immediately went to the back of the line" the more you can "hack" your own confirmation biases. Sometimes it's eerie, the kind of self-observation of reactions you can achieve, even anticipate, and head off. Makes me think of Susan Blackmore's (essentially vaguely Buddhist) conclusion in The Meme Machine where she argues that ego and identity are just constructions of memplexes in our heads, and that decision making often comes from the memeplex and you can sit back and observe the process and not even make the decision. Human programming. Sounds quite schitzophrenic in writing, but when you catch the program running its iteration -- "Damn, why is everyone so rude here?" and at the same instant -- or just before it runs, you deflate it, it's a strange, strange thing. The first few times, anyway.

But everyone slips, right? I have my days of venting and annoyance, too.

My confirmation bias about foreigners, sadly, has been shaped by the fact that I've met a lot of Americans who, even if they weren't great at Korean, tried to pronounce it right, while a lot of Canadians I met, maybe from some chip-on-the-shoulder about French classes in middle school, or just laziness, but anyway, they seemed to insist on pronouncing Korean words as incorrectly as possible. So I always have a vague expectation that Americans will speak Korean better than Canadians I meet her. (Of course, absolutely not true -- I've known some Canadians who blew me away with their Korean ability, and embarrassed me thereby. But that's my bias. And I'm Canadian!)

And yeah, on the lack of native commenters in C/K blogs... I think because of all the race-baiting. It had me thinking of setting up a blog where the kinds of discussions I think would attract more, er, interchange (aaaaaugh! horrible textbook title word!) between locals and foreigners, but I don't know that I'll be here long enough to get such a thing going. We'll see. If I'm here next year, I may try it.

K-blog without the negativity, without the ranting and bitterness. People writing fascinating, thoughtful, and read-worthy things about Korea.


His point is there is no Star Trek Fanfic crit group. You might be able to start one, though. Or maybe something media-esque with Michael Hurt? There are some SF fans in country, even some Trek fans, foreign and (one or two) natives. I've been approached by a few since publishing a story in an SF magazine. If you make a film, give me a bit part. I want to beat up a Vulcan with Hello Kitty weapons from Vulcan. I'll be happy to be a redshirt for the chance to kick one Vulcan's ass with the Hello Kitty gear.