Friday, 27 September 2013

Korean Mothers are the Best, you Know: Facepalm

The Korea Times came out with a howler of an article recently, mistakenly using the headline "Tips for Keeping Partners from Cheating" on an article that was clearly meant to be titled "How to Suffocate Your Partner and Poison Your Relationship With Mistrust." This is a far cry from its 2009-10 nadir (setting the record straight, and alien graveyards), but still. My response on Facebook was sarcastic, but basically: 1. Don't trust your partner? Find another.  2. Partner asking for your passwords? People usually extend to others the amount of trust they deserve themselves. Memo for everyone: possessiveness and obsessiveness aren't cute and charming. They're creepy uncomfortable suffocating and insulting.

Not to be topped (bottomed?), The Korea Herald ran an article by Dr. Kim Seong-kon, a longtime contributor there, titled "Korean Mother: A Cultural Icon" - now, Dr. Kim has been writing an article a week for a very very long time, so maybe we have to forgive the occasional stinker, but this one went over the line.

Kim suggests "the Korean mother" as a cultural icon for Korea - a symbol of Korean culture, or essence, or somesuch. Nothing terribly wrong with that, though compared to the examples he gives, like Japanese samurai, which only Japan has, choosing something every living person necessarily has seems odd.

Kim describes the sacrificial and nurturing quality of Korean mothers, name-checks "Please Look after Mother" by Shin Kyung-sook, compares Korean mothers to birds that feed their babies while they starve, and even points out how Korean mothers are different from the mothers in his anecdote, AND in this one TV show he saw, which is enough to satisfy a scholar these days, I guess. (Peer review, here I come!)

[Update: Smudgem writes a thoughtful response to the article, that includes some nice words about this post: thanks!]

Asia Pundits raises a number of objections to the article - asking whence Korean teen suicide, if Korean mothers are so great (but acknowledging the issue is waaaaay more complex than that), and in what way trundling kids off to hagwon until 8 or 10pm is different from sending kids to their rooms early in the evening. Asiapundits also outlines the pressure Korean moms often put on kids to get into a good school -- even using the threat of violence to bully kids into studying harder. The article is worth reading. The top comment (as of now) below that post mentions "stage mother superficiality" - making parenting decisions based on what the other moms in the sewing circle will think, rather than what's best for the kids, which happens, I suppose (elsewhere as well of here, of course).

Newer blogger Wangjangnim weighs in a little more emotionally, with his best point being that Dr. Kim's description of Korean mothers is a not-too-subtle disguise for a series of normative statements about gender roles that are a generation or two out of date, and which also fix the acceptable standard for motherhood ridiculously high. (Meanwhile, Chosun Ilbo English headline this morning: "Actress Park Si-yeon Happy to Focus on Being a Mom" -- still waiting for a major daily in Korea featuring a headline, "Famous and Accomplished Woman Happy To Focus on Career For Now" with a positive write-up). Wangjangnim also mentions (though briefly) overseas adoption, which has created a whole bunch of Koreans who are alienated from their Korean moms.

Both AsiaPundits' mention of teen suicide, and Wangjangnim's mention of overseas adoption, as presented, are probably unfair "Yeah but what about this!" reactions. Both reduce very complex issues into pot-shots in a conversation about something else, far less than these two issues deserve. (Honestly, though, adoption sprang to my mind as well during my kneejerk-rage reaction phase.) Neither of those fraught and complex issues are fair to lay solely at the feet of Korean mothers: both require far-reaching discussions of Korean society. There are other little digs one could make -- my facebook feed featured a funny wisecrack about the prevalance of car seat use, for example. Moms in Korean dramas notwithstanding, I have several main problems with the article:

First: When I try to talk about an entire country of over 50 million as if it's a single, undifferentiated mass, my commenters give me hell. Essentializing an entire culture is always fishy territory, whether it's a foreigner or a Korean holding the broad brush. Korea is a pretty big, complex thing: big enough, and complex enough, that you can find evidence to validate any bias or agenda you bring to it, from the fuzziest of happy purrs, to the bitterest of angry yawps. This gets us no closer to the bottom of things.

Second: There are tons of moms in Korea who don't fit the rose-tinted profile Dr. Kim offers. Hell, if Doc Brown and Marty McFly skipped back in time and showed this article to a seventeen-year-old Dr. Kim, I bet he wouldn't recognize his own mother in it. Nostalgia does that.

Next: for Koreans whose moms were less than ideal, or for Korean moms who aren't living up to Dr. Kim's standard, I'd hate to compound their hurt or guilt, by making them feel like their family issues also problematize their bona fides as Koreans. In my first year here, I dealt with panic attacks from a kid whose mother would beat him for bad scores. I had another kid in my second year who had internalized her mother's verbal abuse so completely I never heard my brightest student of the whole year say a positive thing about herself; she came to class with bruises sometimes, too. I've dealt with moms whose kids' accomplishments seem more to be baubles for boasting to their friends, than for their kids' own benefit. They were all Koreans. I know someone who had a (brief, doomed) engagement with a man whose parents had dropped the guillotine on OVER THIRTY previous prospective fiancees. But those three anecdotes, as well as the mom I saw on a Korean drama that my mom-in-law likes, who is a manipulating, selfish badword, don't mean all Korean moms are like that, any more than Kim's anecdotes and TV reference mean American moms are all deficient.

Dr Kim: "But those mothers don't typify REAL Korean motherhood!"

No true Scotsman would do such a thing!
The "NO True Scotsman" fallacy: Justifying funny pictures of men in kilts since the Internet

There are also tons of moms outside of Korea who do all  the things Kim describes. Tiger parenting? Pressure to succeed? Sacrifice for kids? Emphasis on education? Those ring a bell to more than Korean kids, as does every other behavior (good or bad!) you name when you describe a stereotypical, or an idealized Korean mother. Except maybe making kimchi, which not all Korean mothers do anymore.

The book thing: Kim points to "Please Look After Mother" as an example of Korean motherhood... now Gord Sellar has problems with that book; I myself found it touching at first, but trying too hard, and finally reaching maudlin territory. I have doubts that the author set out to write a book about Korean motherhood; I find it more likely she was trying to write about her mother. The conversation about whether or why any piece of Korean culture that finds success outside Korea's borders is quickly labeled "representative" of Korea is a long one, and off point here, except that I find it frequently spurious, especially because the designation is usually post-hoc. Except for D-War.

(Source) Common sight at night in drinking districts.

For that matter, how can Kim claim Korean motherhood is unique if the book became a New York Times best seller? If a book becomes a best seller, it's fair to say that means it's struck some kind of a chord with readers. If a book resonates, that means an audience can relate to it... which means all those Americans buying the book must have connected to the portrayal of motherhood in it at least a little, since the book is about nothing else... the success of that book SHOWS that Korean motherhood isn't as unique as Dr. Kim claims it is, doesn't it? If Korean motherhood were totally singular among world cultures, it stands to reason that the book would only have been successful in Korea, and not found a mass audience outside of it.

Finally, I just find it tiresome that Kim gives into that all-too-common impulse, where one seems unable to talk about a great Korean thing, without comparing it to a foreign thing that isn't as good.

Nobody has to tell me that Gyeongbokgung is in more harmony with nature than Beijing's Forbidden City, for me to be impressed by it. In fact, bringing up the Forbidden City mostly reminds me how much smaller and less fancy Gyeongbokgung is, how much more famous the Forbidden city is. Telling me hamburgers are shit does nothing to impress the health benefits of Korean food, except show me that someone has an inferiority complex, and is a bit petty, and doesn't understand American food: the Korean correlative to hamburgers is something closer to ddeokbokki than bibimbap. And it isn't necessary for American mothers to be told they suck, before we can properly celebrate Korean mothers. If it is necessary, that's a shitty kind of patriotism.

This type of argumentation is tone deaf if the author is appealing to anybody except Koreans themselves (of course he's writing this to Koreans... why in English? is the real question) Picking USA (and Japan, the other standby), again and again, as the points of comparison to show Korean superiority, also betrays a type of colonized thinking, because why USA and Japan? They're the two countries who have most recently dominated Korea politically and/or economically, so they're the two burrs in South Korea's saddle, when it comes to national pride and perception of national sovereignty, that's why. Showing that Korea is culturally superior, even with less economic or military clout than USA or Japan, is simply a tacky ploy at restoring a Korean pride somebody imagined has been damaged.

But the fact that pride is always measured against these countries over others, reveals that the Koreans who write articles like Dr. Kim's (which, to be clear, is a subset of Koreans - not the whole lot) still haven't gotten over the period when Korea was colonized: they can't leave that scab alone, and simply celebrate what Koreans are: these ones have to get a dig in. Using those specific measuring sticks to show Korea's better, unintentionally underscores that Korea was well bested by them in the past.

Korea has enough kit now that it would be utterly possible to celebrate its culture on its own terms -- between the Korean Wave, the achievements of Korean businesses on the world stage, OECD membership, Ban Ki-moon, Psy, and Storm Shadow, the growing popularity of Korean food and the medal standings of the last few Olympics, there's enough there to stand without comparisons. But compare they do (some of them), and it comes across badly every time. (Example: Why Korea Sucks at Marketing Itself. Discuss.)

Lee Byung-hun as Storm Shadow. Making Korea's national status look goooood.

Given his output, we have to expect Dr. Kim will write a clunker from time to time. But this one was over the line.

I'm glad you had a good Chuseok weekend with your mother, Dr. Kim, it shows. But please try to express your love for your country and your mother without shitting on other countries and their mothers, and next time ideas are thin, maybe take a week or two off from your column over pinching out a turd like this one.

Funny footnote: I have some history with Kim Seong-kon - a letter to the editor in response to his article was the first time I ever sent writing of mine to a publication other than my university's poetry journal. You can read it here.

Special note for commenting: let's try to keep this comment discussion more nuanced than just telling everybody how horrible Korean moms are, OK? There are horrible moms and great moms in every country.


Roboseyo said...

I wouldn't necessarily make the New York bestseller/personal resonance claim (because a lot of sensationalist crap becomes bestsellers), but great, great entry.

Roboseyo said...

Hijacking this discussion to say: I was not impressed with "Please Look After Mother"; being an English major and book nerd in general, I've been very frustrated by the lack of good, translated Korean novels. Trying to find good Korean movies with English subtitles? No problem whatsoever. Books translated into English? Good luck. I've found "Your Republic is Calling You" and that seems to be it as far as good Korean "crossover novels" go.

Also, Dragon Wars D-War (at least with the accompanying RiffTrax) was far more entertaining than "Mother."

Roboseyo said...

Coming back with the stat that Korea has the highest teen suicide rate in the OECD is not a cheap-shot , nor a "what about this" (straw man) argument. When Dr. Kim compared Korean mothers to American mothers (the gist of which was "Korean mothers are better than American mothers") he opened the door to comparisons to other countries, and that is one measure I think we can use.

Roboseyo said...

It isn't NECESSARILY a cheap shot... but some dots need to be connected before I think you can lay the teen suicide rate at Korean mothers' feet, rather than Korean society at large.

Roboseyo said...

A lot of English subtitles on Korean movies aren't that good either...

Roboseyo said...

Further, when he suggests that American mothers are selfish for putting kids to bed early so they can have "me time", it is fair to bring up Korean mothers dropping kids off at the hakwons...

Roboseyo said...

I never said that was an unfair jibe now, did I, Owsi? Please reply to what I've actually written.

Roboseyo said...

But if THIS sensationalist crap, rather than that OTHER sensationalist crap reaches the bestseller list, even that, crappy as the books may be, show they somehow resonated with an audience.

Roboseyo said...

Yeah, but the movies themselves are at least good. Or, at least, there seem to be more Korean movies of quality with international appeal than there are books....

Roboseyo said...

I always assumed morbid curiosity helped play a hand in it. Or maybe that's just what I tell myself whenever Coulter or Beck sell millions of copies :(

Roboseyo said...

I was a childcare worker in the States for 6 years - in daycare and as a nanny - and when I read the article what I primarily thought about were all the dangerously inattentive mothers I've seen, mostly on cellphones, whose children I have rescued from running out of subway doors (a 15-month old baby who had been allowed to run up and down the length of the Busan subway until he nearly ran out as the doors were closing), from running into a busy street (many incidences), and from falling off of various high places.
I also thought about inappropriate uses of discipline I have witnessed. One example - slapping a baby in the face repeatedly because it wouldn't stop crying while mom wanted to to text - the baby had spent the whole bus ride without getting attention, Mom couldn't be bothered to do anything but slap (hard). The baby kept crying, mom kept texting.Then there's the form of "discipline" I often see - a. letting your kid do whatever the hell they want so that they endanger themselves and annoy others b. yelling really loudly and not even getting down to the kid's level, and if the kid is sad, walking away and laughing until the kid finally either runs to you or falls down screaming.
None of this has impressed me with awe of "Korean motherhood" as a whole.
Granted, I've seen examples of really bad parenting in the U.S. too, but not nearly as much. You'd be shunned on the street for neglect if you let your young kids run near busy traffic, let a baby run on a subway, left a screaming kid behind in a store or on a busy street while you walked away. The parenting norms in the U.S. are overall more strict in terms of how you deal with discipline. Abuse can still happen in the home, but it can't happen on the street without censure. That's one very important difference between Korean and U.S. motherhood that the professor seems to have missed, maybe because he's not even aware of safety standards for young children.

Roboseyo said...

I enjoyed _Please Look After Mom_ but I feel like I may have read it the "wrong" way. It's satire, right? Selfless Korean mother is basically lost at the train station by her ungrateful family? And the mom isn't really selfless as much as she's psychotically, pathetically dependent on playing the role of the "perfect" Korean mother?

Roboseyo said...

"Korean Mothers are best in the world"
Really? All I'm gonna say is "Daegu Elementary School Mass Rape case" *drops mike*

Roboseyo said...

What about it?

Let's try to keep our commenting more nuanced than simply mentioning every horrible thing that happened/happens to Korean kids, as if every single one is solely the fault of the unique traits of Korean motherhood, and as if Korea is the only place where horrible things happen to children.

Roboseyo said...

While the mass rapes themselves may not have been the result of "mom culture", what happened after the case hit the neighborhood is clearly an indictment of 'mom culture'.

Did you even read the interview? Here's the key component.

“First of all, students don’t talk to their moms. Kids are more afraid of their mom than of their victimizers, and they don’t want to make her angry. And the parents tell their kids they don’t want to hear about this kind of thing.

It’s clear that the kids have been hurt, but unfortunately it seems the parents absolutely do not believe anything happened. Maybe they think that is a way of protecting their children. Right now the kids may think so too, but as they grow older they could change their minds and hold a grudge over it.

If we want to solve this problem we have
to face the problem, talk about it, get angry about it and heal the damage. The problem of sexual violence is that people don’t want to face
it. When parents and schools see it they won’t face up to it and don’t want to talk about solutions.”

Denial, sweeping the pain under the rug, blaming the messenger, making children afraid of them- too afraid to talk, leaving walking time-bombs (the original victimizers) free and loose in the neighborhood, ready to strike again... are these the hallmarks of the 'best mothers in the world'? The author has forgotten recent history, but I sure as hell haven't.

1) When you only worry about the outside of the house, you don't see the termites on the inside.
2) Maybe Hillary Clinton was right; maybe it really does take a village to raise a child. An extra pair of eyes on kids certainly would help.

3) This wasn't the only bad thing in schools that can be linked to parenting; there's heaps of articles all with the same theme. Fortunately the meta-culture here has changed in the past few years and hopefully the new practices will keep incidents like this to a minimum. But more security cameras and guards and free lunches are not the only solution. Parents have to care about their whole kid, not just the grades or how well the kid looks to the rest of the neighborhood.

Roboseyo said...

Well Rob, from reading your first few comments it seems that the whole 'let's not point the finger and blame' routine didn't work out, and this doesn't surprise me, but I digress.

I avoided reading your post and a few others after reading one or two others basically because I knew they'd launch into a tirade against Korean mothers, who much like any mother in any other culture, and especially ones with more pressures than just having dinner on the table each evening, have a lot more on their plate (no pun intended...uggh) to deal with than just keeping their child fed and watered.

The thing is for all the criticism we lay upon Koreans for their social situation, and for all the understanding we claim to have, we will never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever really understand, because we will never be in their position. Korea, as cryptic as it may look, is even more cryptic than we can even reckon (I could go on about this but I won't, just accept it as a reality).

Anyway, as much as I avoided reading your post I avoided writing a post about this because I knew it would just encourage preaching from waegs who witnessed something or another in their classroom or outside their classroom so that makes it legit. Bullshit. 100%. I'll give you an example why. I've been teaching here since '05 and I've never witnessed anything like people have been reminiscing over. Nothing. And I've taught everywhere.

Maybe I had my head in the sand or maybe I had the decency to mind my own business and not judge someone based on the way they raise their child. It's like mothers in other countries never did anything wrong, ever. Fuck that. Dismount from your lame and flaccid stallion promptly.

This was a nothing article which was blown out of proportion and sucked us in in true troll fashion. That post should have been looked at, laughed at, possibly with a snicker to the tune of 'silly old nostalgic ajjeossi', and moved on to more important things.

You know in the end, what this whole argument turned out to be was one big 'well my mammy is better than your mammy because I saw your mammy not doing what my mammy did.'

Maybe I should have saved myself some typing and just said that at the start. Oh well.

Roboseyo said...

Strange thing, Conor... I don't recall saying my mammy is better than their mammies, and I'm pretty sure even the places where I mentioned bad stuff Korean moms did were in the context of pointing out that anecdotes are not enough to justify sweeping generalizations, from me or from the author of the article, and what I wrote was more to point out that moms are moms around the world, and there are good ones and bad ones everywhere.

I feel like the article you are responding to isn't the article I read, which is out of character for the kinds of comments you usually make on your site and here.

Roboseyo said...

True enough you didn't.

This whole farce pissed me off no end from both sides. So apologies for the venting, I'll save it for my own pages in future.

My rant here was more of a response to the whole collection of responses, which to me seemed to be a collection of fingers pointed. Maybe I'm as much at fault for this as anyone.

Roboseyo said...

Yeah. I didn't like the finger-pointing, and tried pretty hard to avoid doing so - and especially to avoid generalizing anecdotes, which is not nice, and exactly what Dr. Kim did - when I wrote.

You're also right that it's pretty much a non-story, blown out of proportion... but what are blogs for if not that?

Roboseyo said...

It always amazes me as to why people try and look for reason in what Koreans say - in their papers, or otherwise. What are you expecting? Aristotlian logic?? They're Koreans, main! And I am married to one!!! Just watch one of their prime time dramas and you'll see right out that they just DO NOT THINK like we do~~ So, why are you expecting them to make sense????
Nice lifestyle here, though - I just avoid any in depth conversations with Koreans, especially the in-laws, and Koreans thus plug me into their 'strange waygook' category!! Happy, and peaceful days, man....take the cash, and check out in a few years back to reality!!
Peace! and good blog by the way~~~

Roboseyo said...

I don't think I'd have a happy life in Korea if I had the attitude toward Koreans that you do. It seems to work for you, I guess, but I don't want to be the "strange waygook" or to be treated that way, and I also won't want to write off the vast majority of the people I meet every day as incapable of logical thought or sane conversation.

Roboseyo said...

True enough, but for me the automatic 'default' with these guys IS illogical! But we are all different in our assessment of that, I guess.
As for the 'happiness', dealing with pretty much all Koreans I come across with a few learned by heart phrases and responses does it for me - keeps things easy. They are pretty simple and predictable folk at the end of the day. Ever notice how you can read what they are thinking at a glance??? They just don't do poker - but whatever~
And we are ALL strange foreigners to these guys, main, haven't u figured that out yet - with respect!!


Roboseyo said...

meh. A friend of mine likes to say, "If you meet an arsehole in the morning, you met an arsehole. But if you meet arseholes all day, YOU'RE the arsehole."

I feel like a similar principle might apply here, but maybe you've just happened to fall in with a group of Koreans who act like cartoon characters instead of humans. Bad luck for you!

Roboseyo said...

Man, they are ALL cartoon characters!!! But it'll be good riddance, soon enough. I might even MISS the place~~ LOLLL