Sunday, 20 November 2011

A Response to Chris in SK on Embracing Un-Koreanness

**Please note the Update added to this post, in response to comments**
**Update 2: "Adventures in the 4077th" offers a bit of advice to Chris in their post "Un-Koreanness and White Whine"**
Update 3: Scroozle adds his two bits.

So Chris in South Korea put a piece on his blog called "Embracing My Un-Korean-ness"

And I disagree with it. I wish nothing but the best to Chris himself... but I disagree with him from time to time. Like now.

His article starts off saying that he's not Korean... and follows that statement with the assertion that "Not after...even a lifetime of living in Korea will this country fully accept me." He shares examples of ways that various Koreans have given him "the foreigner treatment:" shouting "hello" out of car windows or using him as a walking dictionary. From there, here are a few of the juiciest tidbits:
Even if you’ve spent 40 years in Korea, married to a local, speak perfect Korean, don’t be too surprised when some ajosshi goes out of his way to shoulder-bump you as you come up the subway steps. It DOES NOT MATTER....In the minds of many native Koreans, even a gyopo isn’t a full-fledged Korean....As a source of relief we find our fellow foreigner. We meet up at [expat] bars... and read [expat] magazines... both of which separate us from the natives....
If there is one fair indictment of foreigners, it’s that learning-Korean part. A few noble exceptions notwithstanding, not too many waygooks pick up any more Korean than necessary. Why bother? ...At best, we’re patronized; at worst, we’re excluded from the rest of the story.
....It is quite possible, however, to live in Korea on your terms, learn about the culture, and embrace a new lifestyle. Just don’t expect the ‘open-arms’ treatment from the locals.
Now, the main problem I have with this article is very simple: It seems like Chris wants to have his cake and eat it too. He seems to want to be welcomed to Korea with open arms (or wants us to feel his pain and disappointment that he is not) while wanting to "do Korea" on his own terms... without learning the language ("why bother,") and without even letting go of the numerous stereotypes of Koreans he trots out in the course of the article (ajumma elbows, rude ajosshis, kids shouting hello, people asking inane questions, vomit-stained doorways). Do those stereotypes exist for a reason? Sure. That's always the first line of defens(iveness spoken). Are my chances of finding a real connection with a member of ANY group going to improve, if I hold onto the stereotypes of that group? Nope. And if I'm not even willing to meet them somewhere in the middle -- if it has to be on my terms? Strong nope.

Perhaps if Chris tried to meet Korea somewhere in the middle, and offered up more of the benefit of the doubt, he'd discover, as I'd venture some of us have, that Korea contains all types, including bigoted jerks who shove people on the stairs because they're foreigners, run-of-the-mill jerks who shove people on the stairs because they're in the way, people who say excuse me, people who don't want a non-Korean for an in-law, and people who would become a loyal friend (and buddy, Koreans are loyal to their friends until death), and even people who would happily become an in-law, to the right non-Korean. Perhaps Chris has discovered that (let's hope so!), but it didn't fit to say so in this article.

And finally... when he says "Not after...even a lifetime of living in Korea will this country fully accept me," I think Chris's attitude is a little defeatist - deciding not to meet Korea in the middle, or on its own terms, and then feeling alienated because Koreans don't accept one, therefore hunkering down and leaning into the expat enclave, is kind of a chicken-egg vicious cycle. I also think his expectations are a little unreasonable... especially in a country whose leaders used a one-blood myth to get the nation on board during the economic growth of the 60s and 70s, that didn't see a significant incursion of non-Koreans (other than GIs) until the English teaching boom of the 1990s and 2000s... and a country that's made tons of effort (not always in the right direction, but...) to accomodate the expats living here, since I came in 2003.

I don't know exactly what Chris means when he asks Korea to welcome him with open arms... though many Koreans might think that approaching him and asking him if he can eat spicy food, where he's from, and if he likes Korea (sorry, "rikes Korea" - because Koreans talk like Scooby Doo) does qualify as welcoming him -- contrast an approach, a smile, and some inane and utterly expected questions with refusing him service, abusing him on the bus, and ushering him out of the dance club if he approaches a Korean woman... which sometimes happens to expats in Korea, if they're brown. Not if they're white. *Update* Enough less, if they're white, that I'd be embarrassed to complain about the way Koreans treat me, in front of a South-Asian migrant worker. Go read the second last paragraph of this article by Bonojit Hussain. *End Update* 

In my opinion, Chris doesn't fully account for how much learning Korean improves the Korea experience, and it appears his experience here has suffered because of it. My Korean's no great shakes, but the responses I get for trying to speak Korean are way better than when I tried to "waygook" my way through situations, and I'm having more fun, too. My friend who's fluent in Korean? She gets so much love from the Koreans around her it's not even funny. Every Korean in her neighborhood seems to know her name sometimes. You wanna bet she's enjoying living there more than Chris is enjoying living in his neighborhood?

I don't ask Korea, as a nation in its entirety, to accept me. I don't know what that would look like, anyway, and my house isn't big enough for 50 million Christmas cards, and I don't need every Korean to shake my hand... I don't want every Korean to shake my hand. I'd settle for an open-arms welcome from my wife and her family, from enough friends to busy my Friday nights and give me quality company, from my boss and colleagues, and then for a continuation of efforts by policy makers and businesses to become more accommodating to expats and multicultural families, and their needs and their funny ID numbers and non-conventional documentation, and then for the rest of Korea to be OK enough with expats living in Korea that they leave me alone, and don't have a problem with their kids playing with my kid, don't have a problem with me living my own life in Korea. I'm not sure how much more would be fair to ask of a country.

So... that's my beef with Chris's post. I also agree with much of what Bobster says in his comment.
Hope he doesn't mind my response.

Some other issues were raised - particularly in the comments of Chris's post - about otherness, and about the way "other" often gathers into enclaves... but I'll deal with that in another post.


gwern said...

> He seems to want to be welcomed to Korea with open arms (or wants us to feel his pain and disappointment that he is not) while wanting to "do Korea" on his own terms... without learning the language ("why bother,")

> This despite my earnest efforts to learn Korean, enjoy kimchi, drink soju, accept local incongruities, and otherwise try my damndest to fit in.

I see.

Chris in South Korea said...

It's nice to see the article getting so many responses.

gwern pointed out a little section that got left of the 'juiciest tidbits'. Taking those tidbits out of context could easily lead someone to think the article was completely negative.

Regarding the 'open-arms' treatment - understand that that was written to people not in Korea in order to set their expectations. I never said anything about expecting the 'open-arms' treatment myself. Considering what people see about Korea before coming here involves A: recruiters, B: Dave's ESL, or C: bloggers like you and I, it's easy to get an unreasonable expectation of the country.

I'd be interested in hearing about your Korean-ness, so to speak. Being married to a Korean, living in a more Korean neighborhood, having a half-Korean child, and speaking a fair amount of Korean would put you in an excellent position to tell readers how Korean you've become.

Burndog said...

The Bobster's comment ticked all of the boxes so far as I'm concerned...especially regarding the l/r thing. Bravo Bobster!

Unknown said...

I agree with Chris on this one, you claim things as fact (such as 'it only happens to brown people, not white guys') when it's not fact.

Having lived in five Asian countries (including Korea), I can say without a doubt that Korea is the least welcoming towards foreigners, and 'mixed' children, but I'm not in the mood to compare Korea to China or Vietnam at the moment.

It doesn't matter if you speak Korean or not, you are an outsider to Koreans, period. What worries me is why someone would want to fit in here, that just implies that they are racist, sexist, extremely conservative and worryingly nationalistic.

Anonymous in Daegu said...

"contrast an approach, a smile, and some inane and utterly expected questions with refusing him service, abusing him on the bus, and ushering him out of the dance club if he approaches a Korean woman... which sometimes happens to expats in Korea, if they're brown. Not if they're white."

Have you ever lived outside Seoul? I live in Daegu and the xenophobia here, toward all non-Korean races, is much worse and much more widespread than in Seoul.

I've never been refused service in a restaurant, but I have had my order delayed while I watched Korean people who ordered the same thing after me receive and finish their meals. I am a white guy, and I was dining with a Korean woman. She asked the 아줌마 a few times, "Why is our food taking so long," to which the 아줌마 replied to the effect of, "You'll get your food when we feel like giving it to you." Obviously, one could ask, "If they hate white people so much, why did they prolong the white man's stay in the restaurant?" But the vibe was definitely hostile.

I worked at a private, all-boys school in the same neighborhood as the restaurant. My boss, the 영어부장, told me that I could not have a key to my own office because "foreigner do bad things." I guess they thought I would steal something? It was a daily inconvenience to me, not to mention a humiliation, to have to wait or beg for someone to let me into my own office. Literally every Korean teacher had a key to his/her office, including the teacher who had (a few years previous) both split a student's scalp open by throwing a chair at him and broken another student's arm by manhandling him. That guy can have a key to his office, but I can't? I complained to the Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education, but their response was, "Your 영어부장 is friends with our 차학사, so we can't do anything about it. We don't want to embarrass our boss by criticizing his friend."

All the above happened in 2011.

I actually like living in Korea. I never hang out in expat bars, and I can't identify with a lot of the specific experiences that frame Chris in SK's expat life. Still, I empathize with his general point. I understand that there are a lot of clueless, privileged white people who come to Korea and all of a sudden become very vocal in their complaints about any perceived racial discrimination, but that doesn't mean that there aren't legitimate problems for people, and particularly women, of all races.

3gyupsal said...

I've got two suggestions. First stop expecting to get treated with open arms. Second imagine yourself as a first generation Korean person somewhere in the united states, and contrast that with how you get treated here as a person from a different country. Not every foreign person gets the same level of treatment here, but people often are very patronizing when you put fourth a small effort to speak Korean. Contrast this with a person who speaks Korean as a first language in the U.S. but is pretty much fluent in English, but still has a thick accent. A Korean person in this situation may have lived in the states for over 40 years but still gets yelled at to "Speak English."

Hell, if you really want to be treated like a Korean, why not join the Korean army and try to get Korean citizenship? Your stock will rise pretty high if you do that...also two years in the Korean army will serve as a good language lesson.

kushibo said...

I like Chris and his blog, but I have to say I'm a bit disappointed by this post. Even more so because I know he's not alone in much of his thoughts.

Some disparate reactions. First, I think that he, David Wills, and others have an exaggerated sense of just how well people of Asian descent are accepted as "Scottish" or "British" or "American." It's inconsistent at best, and someone who treats an Asian-looking person as an outsider even if he/she was born and raised in Ohio stands out like the kids who should "hello!"

Also, it is painfully obvious that his experience, as Roboseyo says, is heavily filtered and affected by his lack of Korean communication. Fine, he hasn't been in Korea that long, and he can't exactly be expected to write Shakespeare in Korean, but the problem is the conclusions he (and others in the same boat) draws from it.

For example, complaining about the "reactions to [his] white face" all over Korean "seeming the same." The problem there is not a lack of diversity among KoKo thoughts, but a lack of diversity in the English communication toolbox of people in Korea channeling their schooldays lessons in English.

I have some more thoughts (mocking KoKo attempts at English, for starters) but I'll save them for some other time. Chris is a good guy, but I think he needs to re-read that post of his and realize it says far more about him than it does about Korea.

Adeel said...

What is this hypothetical business about living in this country for forty years and still being considered a foreigner? I had a recruiter who actually was a foreigner (Taiwanese) but had lived here her entire life. Even those who knew that she wasn't Korean didn't care, and she more or less wasn't treated any differently.

Yes, it's true that you might often be treated badly even if you have lived here for a long time and speak the language, but it's also true that sixth-generation Japanese immigrants in North America are regularly asked where they are from.

In Korea's defense, looking different in a homogeneous society will lead to these sort of questions, much like how someone once asked me (a Pakistani immigrant to Canada) if my religion allowed me to eat bananas.

It's obviously never a losing case to present Korea as inadequate in its dealing with any group of people who are not older, wealthy men, but some perspective is worthwhile. Korea is probably not that different from Canada and America in the early stage of multiculturalism and open immigration about 30-40 years ago.

If, after a few years in Canada, I'd written a piece in Urdu called "embracing my Canadian-ness", lampooning Canadians' inability to speak Urdu, a few odd examples of rude behaviour in public places to which Canadians were subject equally, and noted my fondness for hanging out with other South Asians in South Asian-targeted establishments, I'd probably have an answer for why I wasn't that accepted.

Adeel said...

Whoops, that should've read 'embracing my un-Canadianness'.

Rob-o-SE-yo said...

Interesting comments so far...

I'm less interested in discussions of whether Koreans are not yet all diplomat-level skilled communicators with strangers - that horse has been whipped soundly in all kinds of places, and it's generally going to be easy to support the assertion that there's racism in Korea, though it takes a little more time and work to account for variation in different areas, among different groups of Korean (they're not an undifferentiated mass, though they seem that way when they're all asking 'where are you from,' I know), and variation over time (what was it like in Daegu in 1995, I wonder)

I'm more interested in the way people take (perceived or actual) rejection/treatment as outsiders in Korea, and react to it by... basically quitting, and then blaming Korea.

I don't like to invalidate the particular experiences that commenters have shared... though it's hard to say whether those who choose to leave a comment represent of the experience of the average expat reader, or only the experience of the most disgruntled (or most boosterish) one percent of readers.

"taking those tidbits out of context..."

I am satisfied that my representation of Chris' article was accurate: if you show me a plate that's spam spam spam spam spam, egg, spam and spam, I'll describe the plate as "pretty much all spam" - not focus on the egg.

I don't know what you mean by asking me to talk about my Koreanness, Chris, but you seem to miss the point that it's not about trying to become more Korean, nor is it about expecting all Koreans to accept my Koreanness, and it's certainly not some kind of pissing contest to show readers that I'm way better at Korea-ing than you are. I couldn't care less about comparisons, because I have friends who are better acclimatized to Korea who'd just throw my posturing in my face. Deservedly. it's about having reasonable expectations, looking for a few people around whom I can feel accepted, and not sweating the way strangers treat me...because they're strangers, and who knows what they've got going on, and obviously, they don't know a damn thing about me. I'm not going to find/feel "home" if I focus on that. Obviously.

Burndog: you're right. Bobster's comment came up when I was 3/4 finished this post, and stole my thunder (in a quarter of the word count). Good on him.

Unknown and Anonymous in Daegu: your comments are the reasons I updated the original post. Thank you for sharing.

3Gyup, Kushibo and Adeel: thank you very much for your comments.

Chris in South Korea said...

My final comment on here.

"I'm more interested in the way people take (perceived or actual) rejection/treatment as outsiders in Korea, and react to it by... basically quitting, and then blaming Korea."

I don't blame Korea - it's not a perfect country (and no country is). Were I a foreigner living in the US, I would have a number of things to say about life as a foreigner in the US.

I'm also not quitting Korea - it's a great place to live, a good place to work, and a great place to travel. I haven't put forth as much effort in being accepted by locals as I could, and there's always room for improvement in learning Korean. To expect the open arms treatment is not the point of my piece - I didn't. If you read my article, I was warning other people to not expect the open-arms treatment, not expecting it myself.

The original theme of the piece was to go with the Seoul Writers' anthology, entitled 'Out of Place'. I could just as easily write about the excellent 3 1/2+ years I've had in Korea. I may just do that at some point in the future.

Some foreigners simply won't fit in to Korea. We may simply not want to adjust to the quirks of life in this country, or we might make an earnest effort, fail, and not see the point in trying again.

How 'Korean' do you feel, Rob? Would you say this country has embraced you? If they haven't embraced you by now, when will they?

Anonymous said...

Don't expect to receive "white privilege" in Korea! They're a homogenous country unlike many Western countries. How are minorities and immigrants treated in the U.S. for example? Not very well, according to many immigrants I know. How are African Americans, Mexicans, and Muslim Americans treated in the U.S.? It's the same way in Korea. Only this time Whites have the tables turned in many Asian countries and don't like it.

Turner said...

I think many of the negative commenters here and on Chris' blog focus on some of his examples of being the outsider (shouting "hello", being elbowed, etc) rather than seeing his point. I don't exactly agree with the way he expresses it with those examples - everyone's experience is different - but the conclusion is right on. I'm particularly interested in people who have commented saying they have foreign friends who speak Korean fluently and never find themselves the butt of jokes or being treated as a stereotypical "waygookin". Some of my friends fluent in Korean have ALWAYS started conversations with friends with repeated praise of their Korean ability. Granted, this isn't hateful, or intended to be offensive, but it definitely marks one as an outsider: "I see you can speak Korean perfectly, a fact which I have known for years, but I think I'll remind you of it again."

I'm kind of surprised this subject hasn't been addressed in the Korean blogosphere before. Maybe it has, just not recently. But, frankly, I think people marking Chris as a pessimistic are mistaken or simply lacking in experience themselves. It's not pessimism. It's reality. You will never be an equal in Korea. You will always be an outsider. And that's perfectly OK for some. But not all.

John from Daejeon said...

"It's not pessimism. It's reality. You will never be an equal in Korea. You will always be an outsider. And that's perfectly OK for some. But not all."

Great comment, Turner, and spot on.

Zackary Downey said...

Was wondering why my blog was getting traffic from your URL. Merci for the shout-out.

Gomushin Girl said...

Everybody's tossing around words like "accept" "equals" and "outsiders" without doing any real work to define what this means. What would it look like to be "accepted" by Korean society?

lee said...

I do hope Korea can model herself as the ideal country with respect and comprehension towards other cultures during this process of globalization.

Kokoba said...

I think "advice" might be a bad way to frame my rather puerile kneejerk response of "eat a dick." ^^; Unless you're being ironic. Kind of hard to tell on the Internet. ㅋㅋㅋ

Though at at this point, my "eat a dick" is less directed at Chris personally (who, after all, seems to not really take much issue with Korea otherwise) but the 45386576 other white men I hear bitch about the same thing...while spending time almost exclusively at expat bars and expat neighborhoods and not being fucked to learn anything except "Maekju chuseyo." They can, in the parlance of the Internet, go eat dicks. All of the dicks.

Rob-o-SE-yo said...


"How 'Korean' do you feel, Rob? Would you say this country has embraced you? If they haven't embraced you by now, when will they?"

As Gomushin Girl said, and as I pointed out in my original post: I have no idea what "being embraced by Korea" would look like... and I'm not looking for that anyway. I'd rather just have the respect and affection (clumsily expressed as it may be, Turner) of the Koreans close to me, and the rest can eat a... pepero. And I've experienced that. I've had classes and students and friends and in-laws whose warmth and kindness have been a powerful enough influence that I can ignore subway jerk.

In Canada my attitude would be the same: random stranger calling me a dweeb out the pickup truck window would mean a lot less to me than knowing my friends liked and respected me. Why would I hinge my contentement with where I am on strangers' opinions of me?

Koreans are not the borg, with one personality, and one will, who decide en masse to accept or reject somebody, or one group. Like every social change, it's going to be messy, slow, irregularly paced (faster in cities, slower among certain demographics) contested, and there'll be hangers-on still wanting to shove me on the stairs long after most people have decided it's time to be OK with Korea's new demographics.

Kokoba: I like when you do a parlance of the internet. Happy Roboseyo is happy.

thebobster said...

Gomushin Girl said...
Everybody's tossing around words like "accept" "equals" and "outsiders" without doing any real work to define what this means. What would it look like to be "accepted" by Korean society?

Language acquisition would have to be a pretty key element, wouldn’t it? I’ve heard it said many times in many places that a westerner could live here for decades and still never be treated as anything but a foreigner by the locals – but every single time I’ve heard that, it’s been people whose mastery of the language is, like mine, rudimentary or only slightly better.

Some possible candidates we might want to ask such questions:

Dr John Linton, Director of the International Clinic at Yonsei Severance. He was born and raised here (in Suncheon, actually) and one website (1) says “he speaks Korean more fluently than the average Korean.” He’s licensed to practice medicine in both America and Korea, and is descended from missionary families (2) that go back to the 19th century here. Wikipedia cites him as an authority in their entry on fan death (3) - he’s highly skeptical, you’ll be glad to know, though personally I’m a little concerned when he says there is “little” instead of “no” evidence to support it.

Another guy is one I just came across by web search, a practicing lawyer at Pusan Pacific Law Office. (4) “Jeff Harrison was born in the rather unassuming community of Logan, Utah […] He speaks, reads, and writes Korean fluently. He has a deep understanding of Korean culture and society that proves invaluable in assisting foreign clients.”

I’m sure there are others who are similar to these guys. As I say, we’d have to ask people like this if they feel accepted by Korean society, and I don’t know how they would answer - but I think you can see where I’m going with this, right? Very likely, most of us reading Rob’s blog here don’t have the same kind of stuff going on as these people do, by which I mean of course that we are not really qualified to make accurate observations about how much or how little Koreans are willing to accept outsiders among them.

Chris has acknowledged at least some of this. And it would be the same for non-English speakers living in our own home countries, wouldn’t it? Arnold Scwarzenegger is not a native English speaker – and I don’t know if he’d qualify for an E2 visa, by the way - but he did pretty well for himself in America. First time I saw Jackie Chan on an American talk show he had just recently arrived from Hong Kong, and he couldn’t do much more than grin and make some funny faces … but he got better, right?

Because the language thing is key, wouldn’t you agree? Unless we can speak to Koreans as they speak to each other – yes, of course we ARE outsiders and there’s no other realistic way to see it, I think.


I'm no Picasso said...

Being a foreigner means.... being a foreigner. That's a really difficult thing for most people to accept at first, and some people to ever accept. But.... we are outsiders. We are from another place. We do have language impediments (to varying degrees). We have different cultural backgrounds. We are different. We are not Korean. We will never be seen as Korean, because we will never be Korean.

Even forty years in a country doesn't make you from that country.

Why is that strange or bad?

Not being Korean doesn't necessarily equal being "outside". I don't want to be Korean, or be seen as Korean. I want to be an American who lives in Korea, and who has adjusted as well as can be expected. Or (hopefully) better. The more I adjust, the less outside I feel. But I'll never feel like I'm not an American, or a foreigner, because I'll always be both.

wetcasements said...

"Why is that strange or bad?"

It's not. In fact, it's a huge positive for me and not just in the trite "play the foreigner card" way.

Being accepted is way over-rated. Much more fun to be a dirty foreigner, not matter where you live.

Dan said...

I hate to nitpick, but making a generalization like this (which, without the terms defined, I can't say that I agree with) following a paragraph criticizing stereotypes is rather ironic:

"and people who would become a loyal friend (and buddy, Koreans are loyal to their friends until death)"

Isn't Korean friend-loyalty a stereotype itself? I think that the friendship dynamic is different here, but I haven't noticed exceptional loyalty ...

ifihadaminutetospare said...

In fairness, the both of you are as right as you are wrong. Which is a bit like Korea itself.

Rob-o-SE-yo said...


Yes, there are different dynamics, and maybe this isn't the greatest indication, but it might be...

a much larger proportion of the Koreans I know, who no longer live in the town where they grew up, are still in touch with more of their elementary school friends, than westerners I know who no longer live in the town where they grow up (and I"m not just talking about expats here: expats are a poor sample for this, as a self-selecting group willing to forego ties and move overseas)

adamgn said...

I am amazed at your leveled and restrained response, although I am also of the mind that responding to it validates it as a subject worthy of debate.

I think Roboseyo has the right idea.

I know I can go to almost any country and sequester myself in my own Little Western World, but if I did that I would never expect to be accepted (in any country).

And while I know I will never be Korean, I do believe I can become an accepted part of society. But I think that depends on me and how much I am willing to do to become part of that society.

Lastly, I think it would be very hard for anyone to feel accepted in a foreign land without being fluent (NB, I am not fluent... but am working on it).