Saturday, 24 April 2010

Wanna Chat with Korean Buddies? How not to make an Ass of Yourself: Part 4

This post is part of a series providing tips for expats in Korea who are interested in becoming friends with Koreans, and tips for Koreans who are interested in becoming friends with Westerners. Read. Yes, I know these are sweeping generalizations. Deal with it.

Here's the table of contents to the series.

On to the tips:

Learn as much as you can about Korean manners. Gord Sellar just wrote a great piece about what is called "Gaijin Smash" in Japan - where foreigners get away with stuff, or dodge the usual expectations or obligations by feigning ignorance of Japanese norms, or demanding special treatment. Don't over-play the foreigner card, and learn how we Koreans deal with conflict resoluation. Open confrontation often isn't the way it's done here; if you have an awkward situation, ask a Korean friend for advice rather than starting off with your battering ram impersonation. As a general rule, Koreans usually prefer back-channels and indirect methods of conflict resolution, rather than direct confrontation; we even have a word for it: 눈치, or nunchi, which might be defined as a cross between social awareness and tact on steroids. Learning a bit of how to comport yourself with nunchi will go a long way. Give a person a small gift and invite them to go drinking to work things out privately, instead of hauling off with a confrontation in front of colleagues, where I lose face, and you lose even MORE face, for making me lose face.

Don't ask how to get a Korean girl. What would you say if a Korean exchange student in your home country asked you the same question? Probably, "Every girl is different; I don't know what to tell you," right? Why would you think it's different here?

So here's Roboseyo's authoritative guide to meeting Korean girls: step one: Come to Korea. Step two: Approach a girl. Step three: Put your best foot forward, and hope she likes you. The Korean from Ask A Korean! wisely notes that "If there is only one thing to remember about Korean men, it’s this: they are men before they are Korean." Ditto for women: it's pretty universal that women want to be treated with respect and kindness. It's universal that there are some awesome women and some crazy psychos in every country. While variations in culture might lead to differences in how people express certain things, or how an an individual's awesomeness/psychoness manifents, those differences won't be that much more confusing than the usual variations between individuals, if you keep an open mind. One friend advises watching a few Korean dramas and romantic comedies to see what women expect from a suitor. From there, figure it out.

Earn your right to be opinionated. When giving opinions on Korea, acknowledge what you don't know. Even Roboseyo remembers having conversations with Koreans in his first year, telling them everything that was wrong with Korea, and exactly how it could be fixed. Coincidentally, the best way to fix things, most of the time, was to do them more the way they were done in Canada. Old Roboseyo was operating under the false assumption that Koreans don't already know what's broke in their system, and got caught up in the heady notion that he would be the visionary - that vaunted outside voice - who could break people's thinking out of the box of Neo-Confucianism (whatever that means) or hyper-competition, or whatever.

Problem is, the more Roboseyo learned about Korea, the more complex all those problems seemed. It's no surprise that a lot of us Koreans rankle when somebody acts as if they have it all figured out, three months into their Korea experience. During all those conversations on his high horse, Roboseyo didn't actually say anything his Korean friends hadn't heard before, and been said better, by a social critic, a commentator, or a thinker in Korea. Don't fall into the trap of thinking we will never have heard your "western perspective" before. Approach discussions of Korean issues with a level of humility appropriate to your level of knowledge about the country.  

Pick Your Spots, Too. Make sure our friendship can bear the frequency and type of complaints, criticisms, and commentaries you make on Korea. It IS my country, after all, so I probably won't want to talk about social issues all the time, nor will I want to hear complaints and criticisms every time we talk.   Spend some time talking about travel, or food, or video games, so that it doesn't seem like the only thing we ever talk about is all the ways you'd change Korea, if you could.

Meanwhile, if you don't know me well enough to read when I'm starting to feel uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, you shouldn't be getting overly critical to begin with, and if you do know me well enough to read my comfort level, be sure to do so during the discussion.  It's generally a good idea to save the "Korea bashing" theme for other expats, who understand the difference between the "group therapy" context and the "representations of Korean culture" context.

Finally: Don't talk about sex all the time.  Some of us don't mind that - some of us even hang out with non-Koreans so that we can speak a little more freely about topics that are taboo to most Koreans, but not all of us.  It's quite unusual, and often embarrassing to have a lot of really open conversations about sex, even if it's in English, because these days, a lot of people can understand English, and can follow every word you're saying if you talk about it in public.  Even if the other people in the coffee shop don't understand every English word, they'll still recognize words like "sex" and "fuck" - we all watch Hollywood movies.  Once again, pick your spots, and don't go into it unless you already have a pretty good read on a person's sensibilities and comfort zones.

Well, that's what I've got for now. If you can think of other things I've missed, let me know. I hope this series turns out useful for both sides.

And even though I've just spent a few thousand words dredging up stereotypes and awkward aspects of either side of the expat/Korean friendship, here's my bit:

Basically, if you boil down both lists, they sum up the same way: be considerate and respectful, and consider the person you're meeting as a complete human, and not just an example of their group. Really, that's all anyone wants, because, to modify The Korean's quote: "We're humans before we're Koreans, or Westerners."

I've grown uncomfortable with the casual tendency to say "I talked to a Korean nurse at the clinic" instead of saying "I talked to a nurse..." because often adding the "Korean" (or "foreign") label means lumping a whole bunch of baggage over top of the initial situation. "A Korean lady pushed me on the subway." No. "A rude lady pushed me on the subway." Using the word "Korean" there instead of the word "rude" seems to saddle the category of "Korean" with rudeness, and fails to acknowledge the diversity of Koreans, and that's unfair. On both sides, we need to be more careful about avoiding such casual categorizations.

One of my correspondents concurs:
Even though I said these things, this is the small part of my friends/foreigners aspects. Mostly, the foreigners I know are really nice but I sent this list because I had to think about what could be annoying for me.

and I'd say the same thing about the Koreans I know.

Hope you've enjoyed the read.

Back to the table of contents.

3 comments:

corsair the rational pirate said...

Finally: Don't talk about sex all the time.

Uhm, guess I am out of the demographic in that I don't talk about sex at all.

Don't people have anything more interesting to talk about? Sex has pretty much not changed in millions of years. Not much new in that department.

How about last night's Nats game?

gordsellar said...

I'm way behind here, but:

I've grown uncomfortable with the casual tendency to say "I talked to a Korean nurse at the clinic" instead of saying "I talked to a nurse..." because often adding the "Korean" (or "foreign") label means lumping a whole bunch of baggage over top of the initial situation. "A Korean lady pushed me on the subway." No. "A rude lady pushed me on the subway." Using the word "Korean" there instead of the word "rude" seems to saddle the category of "Korean" with rudeness, and fails to acknowledge the diversity of Koreans, and that's unfair. On both sides, we need to be more careful about avoiding such casual categorizations.

This is something I struggle with myself. I make a conscious effort to avoid using the words ajumma and ajeoshi specifically for that reason. And yet... and yet, it's a commonplace among younger Koreans I know to use those words in that way even when speaking in English, because of that specific cultural/generational freight.

Which is interesting, discomfiting, and very natural all at once. I still try to avoid it, but there are moments when the characterization seems the most natural way to convey a situation.

When the middle-aged Korean lady is, for example, diving for a deat on the subway, that's ajumma behavior. Or, when the middle aged lady makes a bunch of kimchi for the poor white guy because his own mom is so far away and what must that poor lad eat, left far from home to fend for himself? Both situations seem very "ajumma" to me. And so then ajumma functions as a marker of, what, a specific range of normative behavioral standards? I mean... younger people dive for subway seats less often, and mommy people less often; so do women of a lot of other cultures, I'd guess. So... hmmm.

Hmm. That may be different from labeling someone as Korean. I've been thinking a lot about the labeling of people, or groups, lately. It's so common here, after all, that when some new behavioral demographic appears, a term is coined for them -- 된장녀, 초식남 -- so in some sense the labeling feels like one of those things that rubs off on Westerners after they're here a while. Or have North Americans gotten back to being so rude they say, "I was talking to this black nurse..."?

But I agree, the whole, "I was talking to a Korean nurse/student/whatever" is a bit offputting -- especially when it's being used as a setup to pointing out something negative about Korean society --. It's also pretty redundant, unless one has a reason for specifying the nurse/student/whatever is Korean. (For example, we have lots of exchange students at my uni, so it's not always Korean students I'm talking to.)

I also find it extremely offputting when someone refers to "The Koreans" with that definite article. Talk about the linguistic trace of monolithic thinking! Ugh.

It's as offputting as when I hear, in conversations, some guy (it's usually a guy) start a sentence authoritatively with, "여자들은..." or "남자들은..." or, grrrm "외국인들은...." followed by some crass generalization.

Which is something I hear a lot, mind you, in coffeeshops.

C.W. Bush said...

Fantastic string of articles. Thanks for the insider tips.