Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Welcome, Korea Herald Readers!

Hi there. If you're a Korea Herald reader who decided to check out my page after reading the "Expat Living" article, 'You don't understand Korean culture', welcome!

The series of essays The Korean and I wrote about complaining expats and defensive Koreans are here, and they've started a very interesting conversation online, which I've tried to document with links and summaries:

First question:
Why do expats complain?
My thoughts (this is the article that was quoted). The Korean's thoughts.

some other responses from other pages
some e-mails I got
a wonderful, hilarious look at the history of complaining expats at the blog Popular Gusts

Why do Koreans take Criticism about Korea so Poorly?
My thoughts. The Korean's thoughts.

some other responses from other pages

If this topic really interests you, also take some time to read Gord Sellar's views on the topic:
"Who's Complaining In Korea"
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

and if you have something you want to say about it, go ahead and put it online, and send me the address where I can find it.  Or e-mail your thoughts to me at roboseyo [at] gmail [dot] com or write them in the comment board to this page.

To my regular readers: Wow! I was quoted in the Korea Herald! To see my article read 'You Don't Understand Korean Culture', at the Herald, or for posterity, it's here on my site, too.

(soundtrack: I Never Wanted To Be A Star, by Cat Stevens - snicker)

Highlights from the article:

(the first part of the article describes how Brian Deutsch was basically hung out to dry by his school, and the magazine he wrote for, when somebody tried to cyber-bully him for being too critical of Korea.)
Still, there a few prominent expatriate blogs in Korea that receive a lot of hits. The six we are interested in here are: The Marmot's Hole, Scribblings of the Metropolitician, The Grand Narrative, Ask a Korean!, Roboseyo and Deutsch's - Brian in Jeollanam-do.

The Marmot's Hole is run by Robert Koehler. . . .

"Our role is to offer commentary and criticism from a fresh, outside perspective," Koehler said. . . . "All countries are open for criticism. The question that really needs to be asked is whether anyone should take what we write seriously. For the most part, the answer to that would be no.

"Besides, generalizations are kind of fun - nationalistically hysterical Koreans, pot-smoking over-sexed English teachers, condescending expats - who doesn't love 'em. It's all a question of how seriously you take what you read."

Scribblings of the Metropolitician comes from Michael Hurt. The blog is a mishmash of social criticism, international politics, pop culture and comments on Korean media. 

Both Koehler and Hurt brought up Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who wrote "Democracy in America" in the first half of the 19th century. Both men consider this book a great commentary on the United States.

"The fact that we're foreigners shouldn't disqualify us. I look at American social commentary and social criticism and some of our sharpest and best social critics have been foreigners, people coming from a foreign perspective," Hurt said.

"Why would I put all this effort, why would I even care, or put myself out there, why would I do this if I didn't actually give a (expletive)?"

New Zealander James Turnbull runs The Grand Narrative. 

"I find the notion that only Koreans are 'permitted' to speak about Korean problems simply absurd," he said. "That isn't to say that all foreigners' opinions on them are equally valid, but if the roles were reversed then I'd be quite happy to hear the opinions of, say, a Korean person who had spent some time in New Zealand and who made an active effort to study and know New Zealand society and learn the language. In fact, probably more so than someone who was merely born there.

"The majority of netizens aside, I've actually found a significant number of Koreans to feel much the same way about the opinions of non-Koreans.

"Koreans are not unique in readily dismissing the opinions of foreigners, but they do seem more defensive about foreign criticism than most. For that reason, it is very important to use Korean sources as much as possible.

"Without any Korean ability, foreigners are usually forced to rely on either the limited English language media or books for the bulk of their information, and both have problems: the former for often presenting a rose-tinted version of Korea to the world, and the latter for being quickly out of date in a country as rapidly changing as Korea."

"[Criticize] in Korean, and in a major Korean newspaper," Koehler said.

Writing complaints in English may be "cathartic," he said, but it does no good.

Why do foreigners complain so much?

(and, like the guy who was an extra in a movie hauling all his friends to the cinema, and shouting, "Here it comes!" when the Cafe scene begins. . . here comes my quote!)

Another pair of bloggers, a Korean man living in America (Ask a Korean!) and a Canadian teacher in Seoul (Roboseyo) put together a two-part series dealing with foreigners' criticism and social commentary.

Ask a Korean! wrote, "many complaints from expats that the Korean has seen show a certain level of ignorance. This is not to say that complaining expats are dumb. It is only to say that were they more aware of certain things about themselves and about Korea, they would not be complaining as much, and the pitch of their complaints would not be as strident.

"Expats rarely venture out of large cities in Korea, and they only really interact with Koreans who are fluent in English. Do you know what makes a Korean fluent in English? Money, tons and tons of it. So not only are expats insulated from older Koreans, they are also insulated from younger Koreans who are poorer. What kind of understanding about Korea could an expat possibly have with this kind of limited exposure?"

About social critics, Roboseyo wrote, "Naming a problem is the first step to solving it, and maybe some of these critics are attempting to be a legitimate part of that process - that is, they're writing because they want to see Korea become a better place - in which case, Koreans who are upset about non-Koreans criticizing Korea need to stop and take a careful look at why that upsets them, because the problem does not lie in the complainers or their intentions.

"To be fair, sometimes the social critics' intentions are good, but their methods are poor: the sometimes bitter and mean tone of certain critics can be hurtful, and as I've said to some of my friends who complain about Korea with a rude or condescending tone: 'when you talk so harshly, even when you're right, you're wrong, and even if you win the argument, you still lose.'"

[Brian Deutsch, despite the cyber-attack will continue blogging about Korea.]

"I've also had to question how welcome those opinions are. My colleagues themselves told me that it was not my place to opine on what are called 'sensitive issues,' and a recent letter to the editor in the Gwangju News suggested that I, and foreigners, mind their own business and not worry about Korean internal affairs.

"But I think foreigners do have a right to speak about problems in Korea and to address sensitive issues from our own perspectives. At the most basic level we are invested in this society, even if for only a short time, and we pay taxes, function as consumers, participate in local communities, and teach local children.

"Moreover these issues are so prickly because they're not black and white. While it might be unpleasant for some Koreans to hear the other side of the story, I don't think it's inappropriate for it to be raised.

"Our opinions are often dismissed with a line about 'you don't understand Korean culture.' Often this comes when something unpleasant happens to a foreigner, or when a foreigner expresses an opinion disagreeable to the Korean listener. It's well beyond my abilities to explain why this happens, but it's patronizing and inappropriate. I do believe that although foreigners can sometimes dwell on the negative when writing or talking about Korea, I think taking a critical look shows an interest in the host culture that can be healthy if applied properly.

"I realize that a greater measure of tact is necessary when addressing sensitive issues and when trying to foster conversations across cultural boundaries, but even with a lot of coddling I remain cynical that people are ready to hear what we have to say just yet.

"I would love to have Koreans who disagree with me take the time to point out their objections, rather than simply railing against a foreigner who dares to publish something against the grain. And I would love to have Koreans spend more time trying to educate us about their culture and their views, then, since so much energy is spent telling us how wrong and misinformed our opinions are."

Deutsch said he was asked by his school to drop the case against Kim, and that his job was also placed in jeopardy because of what he has written.

And that last line is exactly why I think we need to talk about this, instead of letting things stay as they are.

Good news: this topic has more legs than even I thought it would, and I'm really happy that it's reaching more readers, and filling up more heads with thoughts.  Meanwhile, being listed in company like that is quite a thing on the K-blogosphere.  Kind of like being invited to K-Blogapalooza.

As always, if you want to tell me what you think about this topic, post it on your blog, and send me the link in the comments, or at roboseyo [at] gmail [dot] com and I'll print, or summarize, or link it here.

Have a great day, readers!

[full disclosure update]

I just got an e-mail from the editor of the magazine Brian wrote for, offering a few more details than I included in my summary of the Herald piece, when I hastily said, "the first part of the article describes how Brian Deutsch was basically hung out to dry by his school, and the magazine he wrote for"

a few quotes (with permission from the editor)

"The magazine has actually been very supportive of Brian. (personal details about the editor's involvement in the situation. . . ) The problem [Brian had with the magazine] is individuals not the organization.

The majority of the people who "work" for the magazine like Brian and myself are volunteers. This has it's pros and cons. In the July issue http://altair.chonnam.ac.kr/~gshin/gic/July%202008.pdf (pdf file) there was a letter to the editor. This writer was unhappy with two articles that were printed, one of them being Brian's most recent. Though myself and the acting editor had hesitations about what the author was saying in response to these articles, the letter was printed largely due to the fact that the man is a board member at the GIC and the non-profit magazine relies on their support. In the same issue though another article was printed, inspired by what had happened to Brian, explaining how though one might not agree with what had been previously written, it served a purpose and he had the right to do so.
Though I wasn't completely comfortable with the tone of the above mentioned "letter to the editor" the comments about the other author mentioned in it (not Brian) encouraged others who were not regular writers to submit pieces to the magazine. One is the letter to the editor in the August issue http://altair.chonnam.ac.kr/~gshin/gic/August%202008.pdf. The other will be an article in the upcoming September issue. 
Though what happened has created its fair share of stress and in some instances fear, there has been some good from it. People are talking. To be fair, some writers are feeling more hesitant to put "pen to paper" but others who were hesitant before are feeling inspired to have their voice heard.


Jae said...

Hiya Rob-

I'm one of the Korea Herald crowd, and this would be my first time visiting your blog (although I've heard of it before). Just wanted to comment that I'm really thankful as you & the (a) Korean are making your stances known and are willing to approach this particular issue in a manner that would involve extensive conversations b/w Koreans & non-Koreans. (At least I think you guys are.)

As a gyopo residing in the U.S., I admit that I do enjoy reading expats' criticism on Korean society and tend to be less defensive (or nationalistic...) when it comes to some topics, having to experience living in different cultures. However, I could really relate w/ your quotes in the article about how some critics may evoke a sense of bitterness.

While I don't conceive the contributors of blogs like the Marmot's Hole or their posts as bitter, what strikes me is the manner in which these blogs operate. Although the criticisms offered in the posts are hardly offending, it's in the comment sections where the opinions get downright nasty, sometimes developing their own sense of humor about how ridiculous Korean society is/Korean people are. Then as a result (of the contributors themselves reading the comments), there would be repetitive posts regarding the same topic to spark more condescending responses from the readers, as if to generate hype.

Again, I acknowledge that this doesn't apply to all critiques of Korea, as many of them are perfectly valid. Also, I'm aware many Koreans (who tend to live overseas) comment on these blogs as well, often to offer alternative persepective, but as for myself, I would feel very umcomfortable viewing/leaving comments in such hostile settings.

But then when generalizations are so fun, as the article states, I suppose all this would continue. I just wish there was a "safe" medium in which non-Koreans & Koreans can easily conversate.

(Perhaps this is the typical Korean inferiority complex @ work. Perhaps this is an inherent irony - a Korean complaining about online bullies, in the heartland of "cyber terrorism"; I mean just look at what the netizens have done to Mr. Deutsch. Ha.)

Cheers again.

wevegotseoul said...

Woo Hoo! (Fist punch in the air for you!) ^_^

Eujin said...

Hi Rob,

It's good to see you getting some public recognition for the hard work you've been doing.

I think it is well deserved.

the Korean said...

NOOOOOO Ask a Korean is not an expat blog...

Roboseyo said...

Sure it is. You're a Korean expat living in America, while I'm a Canadian expat living in Korea.


Bart Schaneman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
the Korean said...


I shrugged when I saw your email, and I was mildly surprised when I saw the same comment on my blog. But seeing the same comment on Roboseyo's blog is downright weirding me out.

Let's talk on my blog. No need to drag Robo into this.

Bart Schaneman said...

That's right! I am a friend of your Roboseyo blog, Roboseyo. And let it be known that I am a friend of all bloggers and idea-writers and thinkers, and...oh, god, I'm getting carried away with all this friendship and sharing and blog love.

I like how positive and generally good vibe-y you are Roboseyo. That's right on.

Foreigner Joy said...

thanks for the compilation and mention ;-) hope all is going well

JG said...

Hey Rob- greatly appreciate your site, and this extended discussion.

So I've been in the states for three months now, and in less than two weeks will be heading back to what definitely feels like "home" in Gwangju (even though compared to many of you guys I wasn't there for very long). And I've been doing some reflection.

Most of what I would be led to fear from first- and second-hand accounts was not borne out in my experience. Actually, that's a hell of an understatement. I learned a fair amount of Korean quickly and was well-received by many people who spoke essentially no English. I dated Korean women with no palpable backlash. And the only time I was really worried about getting lumped in with other foreigners was when a thoroughly smashed friend was cursing at a group of Korean teenagers because they couldn't answer his request for directions in (slurred) English. i.e., not any Koreans' fault at f***ing all.

So, lately I asked myself, what are the most annoying things Koreans have frequently said/asked? Well, pretty much these:

(1) "Wow, you use chopsticks well!"
(2) (from ajeossi) economics/resource questions about the US/California. How the hell should I know? I'm a linguist. Ask me about the history of hangeul; I probably know more than you do.
(3) "Do you like Korean women? Do you have a Korean GF?"

Those questions/comments are really not very annoying at all. Not even close to the annoyance of:

(1') "North or South?"

which, here in the US, I've gotten more than a dozen times in as many weeks.

It would be bad enough if these Americans were really ignorant of the situation, but in almost every case the person knows damn well I'm talking about South Korea, and really means to suggest:

"Whoa, wouldn't it be funny if you had to go to North Korea? Ha ha ha."

I think: screw you guys, making a casual tired joke about a nightmare prison state.

On that alone, by comparison, I really don't feel inclined to criticize my actual interaction with Koreans.