Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ask A Korean! Teamup Part 2: Why are Koreans Hypersensitive to Criticisms from Non-Koreans?

We discussed the perception that Expats complain too much about Korea here and here.
The other side of the dynamic is Korean defensiveness. The Korean has written about it on my page (next), and on his page, here. This is my stab at the question.

Soundtrack time: hit play and start reading.

Everything about You, by Ugly Kid Joe.

So, the next question, and it's a biggie, is: When Expats, or other International voices, or basically, Non-Koreans DO criticize Korea,

Why do Koreans get so damn defensive?

Michael Breen, writer of a book every person should read in their first month in Korea, and Korea Times columnist, wrote an article criticizing Korea's beef protests, and was criticized in return for not understanding the true meaning of the protests, and/or for being too critical of Korea (I didn't read the letters to the editor, or possibly the avalanche of comments on the Korea Times website, to which he was obviously responding). responding to those who dismissed his criticisms of recent Korean protests as base K-bashing:

The other thing to remember is that people are extra-sensitive to what ``foreigners" say.

The Korean view of nationalism is race-based. In other words, the thing that you are taught in Korean schools and homes that distinguishes you, as a Korean, from other nations, is your race. Although the world is politically structured around the concept of the nation, few countries distinguish themselves by race. Korea is one and that means that when a bald white face such as mine leers at you from the pages of this newspaper, it is immediately recognized as foreign. Yes, it is a vision of beauty, you find yourself thinking, but no, it is not Korean. That means that, even though I've lived and paid taxes here longer than most Koreans, I am immediately perceived as an outsider commenting from my hotel room. Thus, any criticism is taken to be the rudeness of the visitor. 

And even when that is the case, it is never meant. OK? Group hug? 

Now, Breen's lived in Korea a long, long, long time, but as soon as he criticizes Korea, he is demoted to "an outsider commenting from my hotel room." Conversely, I've discovered, if I tell people how much I like Korean barbeque, and how much I enjoy Kim Kwang Seok, and name-check Korea's top five pop-stars, I'm told I'm practically Korean -- a blue-eyed Korean, if you will. I'm welcomed into the club. . . as long as I only have nice things to say. This kind of double-think reminds me of a movie I watched when I was a kid, where every time a father saw his son do something well, he'd say, "That's my boy. Look what my son did!" but whenever he stepped out of line or did something disappointing, the dear old man would point at his wife and say, "Look what your boy just did!"

Without the defensiveness, the expat complaining would be a non-topic -- the dynamic is what makes this interesting at all. I'm still not convinced that expats in Korea complain more than expats anywhere else, but there's a perception going around that they do, and that put-upon attitude is reflected in many, many comments all around the blogs about Korea (poke around yourself: won't take long to find them). As far as mentioning beefs and complaints in person, to Korean friends and students, I've had the full range of responses, from interested attention, to a surly, "if you don't like it, you should go home".

Myself, I don't mind a reasoned defense, I don't mind a discussion or a debate, but I DO mind being accused of hating something when I'm only trying to discuss it, and I DO mind attempting to learn somebody's views on something, only to have my questions or suggestions met with an emotional backlash, or a slogan, and I really mind the attitude, not that my complaints are incorrect, or formed upon false assumptions (which the debater is capable of pointing out to me), but that my non-Koreanness means I shouldn't be saying what I'm saying, like the Korean who suggested his netizen buddies try to "correct" Brian in Jeollanamdo's critical attitude.

So assuming I've expressed my complaint reasonably and fairly. . . whence the defensiveness, as if some people think we expats are not allowed to criticize?

Now I have to defer to The Korean on this topic, and acknowledge first that, not being a Korean myself, I'm sure there are nuances or points I'll get wrong, or miss completely, even as The Korean warned me in an early e-mail "you know, I'm only one Korean -- I can't REALLY speak for everyone -- just remember that, K?" (paraphrased) However, when I run into the attitude that I'm not allowed to complain, because of things about me which I can't change (for example, my race, age, birthplace, or mother tongue), there are a few things that I think to myself, to calm myself down. They're generalizations, but you know, looking for patterns is something we humans naturally do -- Grok, who notices patterns in animal tracks, is a more successful hunter, and has a better chance of surviving to reproduce than Throg, who just kind of goes into the forest and does whatever with a sharp stick in his hand, and hopes he lucks into some food for his wife (whose behaviour he is completely incapable of reading--which doesn't help him propagate, either, especially since she invented a couch for him to sleep on). I don't think making generalizations is wrong in and of itself-- if generalizations are used to try and understand otherwise mystifying phenomena, they can be useful. If they're inflexible agents of judgement, that's when they get hurtful instead of helpful.

Apologies and butt-coverings aside, let's acknowledge, first of all, that anybody gets defensive when you slag something they love. Let's be fair. If I talk smack about my buddy's wife, I'm gonna get what's coming.

So explanation number 1: It's just human nature, dummy.

And, as with my buddy and his wife, if I have some critique that's well-thought-out and carefully phrased, and especially if my buddy knows I have a long history of being respectful and kind to his wife, and I know her well, he'll listen to my critique a little better-- generally, the Koreans I've met respond much more positively to constructive criticism than to straight-out ranting (which expats really shouldn't lay at their feet, anyway).

Explanation 2:
As with the whining expats, it's the internet, remember? The complainers, the K-defenders and the uber-sensitive Kimcheerleaders are all noisier, and more surly online than anywhere else. If a hundred Koreans read my article, and ninety-eight agree, but two disagree enough to leave poisonous remarks in my comment section, I still come away feeling like Koreans can't take criticism, even though almost everyone actually argreed with my points. . . quietly. Surly k-defenders are much more likely to take the time to drop a little "just go home, jerk! Korea treats you well and you're an ungrateful turd" into the punchbowl. If Joe Expat is getting tired of them, I strongly recommend that he go hang out with some real Korean people (the other 98%), rather than taking his lumps from Korean netijens (who, like netizens of every nationality, often hide behind anonymity to act like jerks, because they can.)

(Soundtrack, part 2: hit play, and read. Patience - by Micah P. Hinson: warning: one bad word.)

Next soundtrack song will be happy.

Explanation 3:
Some expats are too critical, never offering Korea a shred of grace for the fact it's come a bloody long way, and managed (mostly successfully) to cram 200 years of development into 50 years. (This comment is a really good, emphatic look at that, as is Gord's Part Three on "Who's Complaining in Korea," here.) Korea's still a work in progress, and while I don't think it's fair to ask every expat commenter to praise unreservedly, nor to maintain some magic ratio of praise to critique, or add a disclaimer at the beginning of each post, it kind of behooves some of them to offer the benefit of the doubt from time to time. Because of Korea's 5000 year history, and because Kimchi cures SARS? Not really, no. Because 50 years ago Korea was poorer than Haiti? Heck yeah.

The pundits, bloggers, commentators, and general blowhards who are too ungenerous damage their own credibility, I think, and frankly, in the same way that I don't revisit many restaurants that serve me bitter food, an expat's blogging or conversation style will turn me off, and deter me from visiting their site or answering their calls, because I don't like doing things that bum me out, and that includes reading things and hanging out with people, that are graceless, tactless, ungenerous, compassionless, and just plain rude and condescending.

As I said before, if they're blogging to get it off their chest, I'm glad they did, in the same way I'm glad you feel better after barfing up that rotten egg-salad sandwich you ate for lunch, but in both cases, I'm not going to stick around and watch, thanks. If people are blogging or talking to draw attention to things, and contribute to the discussion, they ought to consider their tone and audience . . . all-bashing is just as one-sided a discussion as all-kimcheerleading, just as likely to venture into the realm of self-parodic hyperbole, and just as likely (and worthy) to be ignored.

From here on in, let's be very clear here that the rest of these are theories and guesses and generalizations; don't take this as the final word on the topic by any means. This next theory is kind of cumulative -- a lot of influences piling on top of each other, to provide a kind of context for the K-defending.

Explanation 4: The Explanation Pu-Pu Platter or, in Korean: 모듬 명분 (HT to Google Translate)

4.1. In forty years, Korea went from a country that needed aid, to a country that could offer aid. Countries that NEED aid are approached with a very different mentality -- look at how far backwards international aid organizations are bending/bent, to convince Myanmar and Sudan's leaders to allow relief workers into their countries. Look at the lengths to which countries are going to accommodate Kim Jong-il's ludicrous demands. When people need help, the international community approaches its leaders on its leader’s terms, in order to facilitate the helping of civilians. "We should understand their culture" or being "culturally sensitive" makes sense in that kind of situation.

However, when a country is trying to attract international investment or gain influence in geopolitics, the onus is no longer on the international community to suit THEIR needs; now, the onus is on a country to adhere to international standards. (Or, like China, to bend the rules by offering cheap labour and suppressing their currency's value, so that even though China doesn't meet international standards for working conditions etc., it remains extremely profitable to outsource there.)

Here in Korea, we're only a generation and a half removed from kids running behind US Army jeeps shouting for American GI's to throw them some chocolate. Some of my students remember days when silk-worm larvae was the closest thing they could afford to meat, and the oldest son was the only one in the family who got to drink pricey milk. Korea has gone from being helped to meet international standards, to being judged according to international standards in a very short time, so this whole "member of the international community" is still pretty new territory for Korean society as a whole, and they're still figuring out how to take their lumps.

4.2. Add to that the pride in having risen in the international community so quickly (as well as the heady feeling of all the good press Korea had during the early 1990s: "Here Comes The Asian Tiger!" -- “why can't the international media write stories like THAT about us anymore?”)

4.3. Add also a feeling of historical grievance from the perceived and actual humiliations Korea suffered during the Japanese Colonization, a period of much controversy to historians, and the still raw humiliation of having needed such extensive aid during the 1950s and 1960s -- that image of Korean kids running behind US Military vehicles shouting "Gimme chocolate" is an embarrassment to many of the older Koreans who used to do it.

(huge flag photo from expat jane's site)

4.4. Add to that, the fact many Koreans identify with their ethnic and national roots in a very strong, emotional, even visceral way -- many Koreans don't say "Korean" when talking about their language, they use a possessive -- and not just a possessive, but a PLURAL possessive -- say these three sentences out loud, to see the difference this makes:
"Does the DVD have Korean subtitles?"
"Does the DVD have subtitles in MY language?"
"Does the DVD have subtitles in OUR language?"

Pretty striking difference, eh? That's what "Urimal" means: "Our language."

Now try these three sentences:
"Why is he criticizing Korea?"
"Why is he criticizing MY country?"
"Why is he criticizing OUR country?"

Koreans often say "Our country" (Urinara) to refer to Korea. Again, striking difference.

Whether the use of "our language" and "our country" is a cause or an effect of this deep personal identification with country is moot to this discussion; however, the use of language provides a pretty clear illustration of how personally many Koreans connect their self-identity with their nation, and that helps to explain why criticism often meets such visceral reactions.

With that sense of ownership in mind, that familial pride, think again about how these Koreans think of criticism from outside:

Imagine a guest coming to your new house (the building of which almost killed you), running his finger along the mantle to check for dust, checking the brand labels on the china in your cabinet (hmm. Made in Pennsylvania? Not even from England?), noting loudly that your living room sofas are not Corinthian leather, unlike his sofas back home, and commenting under his breath, as you introduce your children, "Your daughter's a bit chubby, and your son has bad posture, and your other son speaks slowly . . . are you sure he's OK in the head?". . . it'd start to rankle, wouldn't it? Especially if he's constantly talking about all the virtues of his house and his family (and admit, in a moment of honestly, that we've all occasionally given the situation back home more credit than it quite deserves, especially in areas like social welfare and education, where Korea has shortcomings, and knows it). Right or wrong, like it or not, this seems to be how it feels to many Koreans when outsiders criticize.

Soundtrack 3: hit play and keep reading. If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out, by Cat Stevens.

4.5. On top of that, is the fact that the almost entirely homogenous society in Korea, along with the Korean language media, gives Korea the illusion that Korea can still operate like it did in the 1800s -- as an island shrouded in mystery (Korea didn't earn its 'Hermit Kingdom' moniker for nothing). Sometimes, reading a critical blog to Koreans is, as my commenter put it, "Like having my family's dirty laundry aired out" Part of the reaction to a critical K-blog is simply embarrassment that domestic issues are being presented in English (the international language) for anyone to read: "can't we keep our in-house issues in-house?"

This is a mistaken assumption, that it would benefit Koreans, and especially the Korean media, to realize: Korea no longer exists behind a shroud. The language barrier is getting porous, as more Koreans can read English, and now, more and more internationals can read Korean. When a Korean makes comments that play to the home crowd, those comments get translated into other languages now, where in 1970, probably they didn't, or nobody cared anyway, and Korea's leaders and media could pretty much say what they wanted, without much risk of being called to account, as long as they spoke in Korean.

Now, if a Korean factory owner rips off his Indonesian employees, thanks to the internet and the ease of world travel, Indonesians hear about it, where twenty years ago, they wouldn't have, and one ripped off factory worker returning to Indonesia broke, one English teacher cheated out of his severance pay, back in New Jersey complaining, one Vietnamese imported bride murdered by her Korean husband, damages Korea's international reputation more than half a million dollars of "Korea: Sparkling" newspaper and TV ads in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Jersey, can repair. Meanwhile, the ripped-off Indonesian’s uncle blogs about the dirty crooked jerk Korean factory owner, and again, a Korean READS that blog post, where in 1985 it would have been a hot topic around the Indonesian village, and no Korean would have known that Korea was being bad-mouthed somewhere in the world. Communication is better worldwide, Korea’s behaviour at home is reported worldwide, and Korea’s reputation is affected. The sooner Korea realizes this, the better it will be for everyone. As international communication increases, countries will increasingly get exactly the international reputation they deserve, whether they think they deserve it or not.

[rabbit trail: the Korean media will resist acknowledging this truth for as long as they can, because they will then have to come to grips with the fact that as more Koreans' English improves, they will need to improve their product to compete with Reuters, CNN and BBC, instead of just with each other, or they will lose their formerly captive audience.]

4.6 Add to this the fact Korea IS a major world player now (top fifteen economy and all), so Korea is attracting a lot more attention than back when it was mostly farmers and war amputees and beggars. This is good for Korea, but it's difficult taking criticisms, when within living memory (and that can’t be emphasized enough) Korea used to take humanitarian aid (which goes down much easier) instead.
Unfortunately, that's part of being at the top of the pile (a major playa): I'm sure Austria would have loved for that news story about the kidnapping/confining/rapist father to disappear into their own language media, and if that had happened in Burkina, maybe nobody would have heard about it, but instead it was covered on every network. Canada gets embarrassed by a serial killer who kept going for five years longer than he should have, because he was killing Vancouver prostitutes, and mostly First Nations ones at that, and nobody important cared enough about First Nations prostitutes -- the most disaffected, marginalized subsection of probably the most disaffected, marginalized group in all of Western Canada!. . . there's no hiding from that shame anymore, and everybody gets their turn in the spotlight, both for good (KJ Choi wins Sony Invitational) and for bad (PD Diary faces criticism by CNN for crap journalism).

Soundtrack 4: saved the happiest one for last. Be Joyful, by Rock Plaza Central

My question, then, for Koreans, is this, and this is a genuine question that I'd love to hear answered, by as many voices as possible:

While other posters and commenters have made the point that Koreans complain about Korea better than anyone else. . .

If criticism of Korea by non-Koreans upsets or offends you, why does it? How could those views be expressed without upsetting you? Under what conditions ARE outsiders allowed to criticize Korea? (And is it just a tiny minority who feels that way, but they happen to leave a disproportionate number of comments?)

If you have an answer to that question, I'd sincerely love to hear from you. Write in to roboseyo[at]gmail[dot]com and tell me: why do YOU think Koreans take criticism of Korea so poorly? Is that a completely mistaken impression to begin with? When, under what conditions, WOULD criticisms of Korea be taken with an open mind, and judged according to the content, rather than the speaker? If your answer is interesting, I'll publish it on my blog. Throw it down in my comments section if you like, or publish it on your own blog, and send me the link.
I think this question is getting harder, because there are people with Korean blood living around the world, who can't speak the language and barely know anything about Korean culture, while at the same time, there are people from other countries who live in Korea now, who have invested a lot in Korea, in money, time, energy, and passion. Can we dismiss the opinion of a fluent Korean-speaking Ph.D. in East Asian studies, because he has no Korean blood? What about the Indonesian wife of a Korean farmer who's lived here for ten years? Is her opinion more valid if she's mothered children with her Korean husband? What about a Kyopo who has Korean blood but can't speak Korean? What about one who can't speak the language, but reads every book, and follows every news and opinion source he can? What about a pure-blooded transnational adoptee from Korea, who grew up in Denmark, and knows nothing about Korea except that she was born there?

I've given my thoughts; fill me in if I missed something!

Expat Bloggers as well: this question is for you, too. Whence all the negativity on the K-blogosphere, from both sides? Why do YOU think expats complain about Korea? Why do you think critiques are often taken so poorly? Is it just that the internet makes everything seem more extreme than it really is? Is there something I simply missed? Send me your thoughts, or post on your own blog, and send me the link. Let's have a discussion.

(p.s.: Where the hell is Burkina? Here)

A clip and a picture that didn't fit anywhere else:

"Duty Calls" from

Still feeling bummed? Watch this.


Anonymous said...

good post
let me ask u a question
lets say an international student from korea came to US and currently attending howard university (all black college) and live in a black community. if he and his korean friends blog about everything that's wrong with the ghetto black neighborhood, would black people like that? what if he and his korean frined blog about how high the crime rate of blacks are compare to other race, how uneducated black men are compare to other race, and his experience in dealing with angry black ahjussi and ajuma? even if he has some valid point they will still call them a racist gook and tell them to go back to their cuntry. they will also tell them that they can't understand their culture and their suffering. sounds familiar?
it's not fair but that's just how it is. would u call those international korean students racist too?

Roboseyo said...

Hi anonymous. How I responded to those critiques depends entirely on

1. the amount of research and knowledge and background that critic has

2. the manner in which they were communicated (logically? calmly? compassionately? -- OK. Rudely? arrogantly? emotionally? not OK)

3. the critic's choice of when, where, and to whom they complain --

4. whether they ever balance it out with positives they see, or at least have a hopeful tone of "this can be improved if. . . " -- every situation has positives, and when somebody is 100% negative, I tune out after a while.

Such a situation would be another "Pebble Beach Minefield" (as The Korean called it), and would require a lot of care and tact in how one handles oneself.

The Korean said...

I so love Kim Gwang Seok... good post Rob, as always.

Anonymous said...

Haha, I also comment frequently on how much I like Kim Kwang Seok, 'fire chicken', pojangmachas, etc. Sigh...
These are some excellent posts and I'll have to sit down and read them more carefully.
FWIW, (and if this has been touched on previously, my apologies) I'll try to give my 200 won on a reason expats might complain. An expats experience in Korea is a polarized one. Where in the west, we are mostly anonymous, here in Korea we are in constant focus. Even folks who are low-key seem to pique the attention of so many others. And this, of course, can be good or bad. Some people will be very warm and complementary to you, others will be rude and insulting. There is little middle ground.
I believe the nature of this experience in Korea tends to push us psychologically back and forth at times. Of course it's good for any human to be showered with good-will and kind words (unless we take it too far and actually start believing we really do look movie stars j/k). I'm very thankful for the generosity so many Koreans have shown me. Perhaps that is why I may overdo it sometimes with searching for kind words for Korean culture.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, sometimes expats catch some completely unwarranted bullshit from folks looking for trouble. These experiences leave us jaded and prone to venting. Throw into the mix being in a new culture where some things are better but others are worse (plus human nature and the internet), and we get extreme.
I think this extremeness could be a piece of the puzzle as to why expats both tend to complain a lot and why expats stay in Korea nonetheless. Something or another keeps us here.

Anonymous said...

Good points and well thought out.

Being a Korean-American who can read both Korean and English AND having lived in both Korea and the U.S. for significant periods of time, I have to agree with some of your points.I wanted to bring up some additional points that I don't think were brought up.

Many or most of the foreign bloggers live in Korea for relatively short periods of time.So I think it may make it even more insulting when the person doling out harsh criticisms of your beloved country isn't very much invested in your country and isn't very familiar with the country due to the short time period.Of course there is a minority of foreigners who are very much invested in Korea,such as those married to a Korean or have lived in Korea for many years and have thus "immigrated" to Korea.So, being a minority, even those who have spent many years in Korea get lumped into the category of "ESL-teacher-in-their-20's-earning-money-in-korea-for-1-year-while-finding-themselves."

One reason why adoption isn't very popular in Korea is the culture and concept of the bloodline.Anyone outside of the bloodline isn't family.If you are outside of the family and you insult a family member,God help you.It's not a concept limited to Korea,but I think it's magnified in a homogenous and small country.

3.North Korea:
I think many foreigners tend to forget North Korea when talking about many South Korean issues.
I mean, the U.S. calls the Korean Civil War the "Forgotten War" for Godsake! And unfortunately, North Korea has gotten a lot of Western press for not very good reasons in recent years, so it's not so much off the international radar now.
I think there is something there to say about South Koreans holding on to Korean and South Korean history and culture a bit more possessively due to the fact that it was so feverently fought for.Of course with much needed international help.

4. East/West:
I think many Western foreigners in Korea tend to criticize only in the perspective of their Western countries.You can't put a square peg into a round hole. You can't make everything fit, you shouldn't try to, it's OK sometimes to be different, and different doesn't mean that it's bad.5000 years is a very long time for a culture to develop,and it may never change which is OK.

If you are planning to rant then rant to your friends/ family/therapist or write it in your diary BOOK.The internet is not a private diary and I think many bloggers forget that what they write is very public.

6.Cultural constitution:
Irish are stereotyped as drunks and Italians are stereotyped as being passionate etc.
I can't say that there is such an identifiable character for South Korea out there in the international community. I think Korea was last characterized as the "Hermit Kingdom." Which the North is continuing to do very well.
So what about South Korea?
What is the cultural constitution?
I explain to non-Korean colleagues who ask what Korean people are like, that Koreans are similar to Italians in that Koreans, like Italians live on a peninsula, eat squid (calamari),have black hair
(OK not all Italians, but many do), and are hot-tempered. Maybe it's the peninsula thing?
South Korea is hermit no more, maybe the world needs time to adjust.

7.Powerplay/Cultural Baggage:
Is it perhaps the prejudice and cultural baggage that the foreigners bring coming to Korea gets shattered when they come to Korea? It may have had perceived that Koreans (or Asians in general) are passive and submissive.It may have been that they only had contact with Koreans in the U.S (etc.) when the Korean was a minority or did not speak English well, so they may have seemed "quiet." But when they get to Korea and the foreigner becomes the minority and they don't speak the language, there is a reversal of roles.
It's not easy being a minority.I can tell you that.
It's stressful,you want to rant, you want to change things so that it suits the way you live etc.
Hmmm, am I beginning to sound like a foreigner in Korea?
I have to say,that only by going to a foreign country where your race is not easily accepted or only sometimes accepted, and there is a significant cultural difference that you will understand what it is like to be a minority in the U.S.
I think that this may be why there are more "rants" than constructive criticisms from foreigners.
Culture shock doesn't mean it gives you the right to insult with abandon.
Koreans have been immigrating to the U.S. for over 100 years (longer for Chinese) and I still get called a "Chink" walking down the street.
I think it's been less time for foreigners in South Korea, no?

8.Concept of "Our":
I thought you made a very good point about the "Our" language used in Korea.
To add to this, it's not only when there's an achievement that Koreans are proud of that they use or demonstrate this concept of "us/our."South Koreans apologized (not just politicians) when Virginia Tech happened.
I can't remember ever seeing an American apologizing because another American did something horrible in another country.
Koreans casually say that Americans do this or that different from Koreans because Americans highly value individuality.
I think that's a concept ("our/us")that many foreigners, especialy Western, don't get fully.They may know it exists and they see it demonstrated, but I think it's another step to truly understand it and feel it.
I think it's a part of the "you-must-be-Korean-to understand" arguement.

Also one last thing about foreign investment.
The international standards you refer to, who makes that standard?
What makes it international?
U.S. alone does not equal international.
The Western concept of imposing itself on other, perceived to be less than up to standard cultures/nations is an old one.
Old habits die hard.

Koreans have been resilient (with help along the way)in keeping a singular identity despite efforts over thousands of years to take it over.
Old habits die hard.

Anonymous said...

1. I am so sick and tired of the "you guys are only here for a short time" argument. Most of my friends have been here since 1996, I know guys that have been here since 1985, I'm going on 8 years. So, I think you should be careful before making assumptions. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy; do I invite you into my home, take your coat and ask you when you are leaving? You'd probably do an about-face on the spot.

2. "A single standard...over thousands of years"

What does that mean? What constitutes a single standard? There are right wing, left wing, rich, poor, creative, dull, idiosyncratic people all over the place in Korea. They all think the same? You insult my intelligence. Also, the thousands of years continuity thing. I think that, um to pick one group, the women I teach at a university that drive cars and have jobs and multiple boyfriends might argue that the standard has changed significantly.

Anonymous said...

I don't know whose comments you are responding to, but if it's the second anonymous commenter (me), then you really should re-read what I wrote.I think you are the one that made an assumption on that point.
My point is that the majority of those who rant on a whim and spew negativity tend to be those who are in culture shock.They tend to be those who do not have an investment in Korea.
BUT,due to the negative sensationalism created by those who are here on a very short-term and those who are not at all familiar with Korea (I mean if you claim to understand a culture in and out after a few months in that culture,then you MUST be idiot to think that it could be true),that those foreigners who are a minority (i.e. have been in Korea in 1985 etc.) get lumped into the majority group.
Basically, some may be getting a bad rap due to a few bad seeds.
It works both ways.

It seems you are only looking at the issue in an etic view.
You've got to also look at it in an emic view or otherwise you'll always be an outsider.

Also, it may not matter how long you've been in a another country if you don't fully engage in it.
Learn the language, assimilate into the culture etc.
I don't care much for the opinion of one who may have been in the country since 1980 but only engages with other expats at a meaningful level and lives the "Expat" lifestyle.

I DO care for the opinion of one who may have lived in the country a little less time, but has engaged in the culture.

As for your point #2. I don't understand what you are trying to say.
But, I think by the example you bring up, it shows the skewed view and experience you've ( or someone else could have) had in Korea (basing this solely on what you've written).
You see what these students are like when they are in college right?
You mau have no idea what they are like when they go home or go visit their grandparents?

So, how many people do you know still act and live like they did when they were in college?

Do you still give things the old "college try?"

Do you understand the delayed adolescence in Korean college kids?

Do you know that they are stressed and pushed so much harder to get to the same goal (getting into college) then in the U.S.?

So, that what you see socially when these same kids get to college is proportionately more intense?

It seems that you have missed the point completely as far as your reponse #2 is concerned.

Anonymous said...

I have followed this conversation across the different blogs with interest from afar. I taught in Korea "back in the good old days" 12 years ago when just being foreign warranted stares on buses. I married a Korean lady (against all odds) and we are still happily married and living in the UK. There is quite a big Korean community around the university in the city where we live (and I studied East Asian studies) and we regularly attend the Korean church. Korea has changed so much, when I last visited my in-laws there was a mosque down the road. When I was here the only foreign church was from Utah...

Anyway now that I have established my credentials to be able to make gross oversimplifications as much as the next two bit foreigner with an opinion I want to raise the subject of 'hahn' A word that has been described to me as both meaning 'pride' and 'shame'. It is a little mentioned concept and one that I think does well to explain why Korean's emotions when they surface can seem so irrational to Westerners

Wayne0714 said...

Hi all!

Having read some of the comments in this thread, I just can't help myself getting a few things off my chest. As a Korean-Canadian who experienced both Korean and North-American cultures, I think I'm entitled to add my two cents to the discussion and hopefully help expat friends feel better about expressing their views.

First off, I don't think this discussion requires a whole lot of psychoanalysis or sociopolitical/historical analysis on the Korea culture and society because the kind of behavior observed amongst Koreans is not particularly unique (there are idiots who are offended by cartoons and go on a killing spree, remember? I won't name names because they might come after me). Having seen since the childhood the kind of allergic reaction that some Koreans display when criticized by foreigners or foreign press, I've come to a rather simple conclusion after much fruitless analysis . So here it goes. The reason why a lot of Koreans are hypersensitive to outsiders' criticisms is (drum roll please), yes, "complex" (as in Freudian complex). I know I might get a few death threats from my fellow Koreans for saying this but damn it, someone had to say it. I'm reminded of the old Chris Rock routine (" I love black people but I hate n*ggers") and I guess I'll be the Chris Rock for now.

One thing expats living in Korea should remember is that there are also a whole lot of Koreans who do listen carefully to foreign press and expats ranting and raving about all things Korean. They in my opinion are the ones you guys should hang out with. Don't feel so apologetic about expressing you views on Korea. When you are confronted by some bozo who exhibits a knee jerk reaction to whatever you have to say about Korea (culture/society/politics/driving/personal hygiene/subway/BO problem...), gently remind them that you are equally critical of other cultures including your own. And challenge them to make counter arguments (if the dude seems like a lunatic who cannot be reasoned with, instead just tell him an old joke about Bush and have a few laughs. It's never worth getting into an argument with degenerate a**holes). Don't let them get away with all that BS about Korea's uniqueness and historical backgrounds and all that. If they babble on for two hours about Korea's history and how wonderful Korean culture/language is, and how American imperialism is ruining everything, chances are they don't have a damn clue what they are talking about; you cannot have civil, intelligent dialogues with these types of people because talk more than they listen. Thank them for the "interesting explanation" on Korean culture and slowly back away from them.

Actually there's one other thing why some Koreans are super-sensitive about being criticized by foreigners: a lousy sense of humor. Some people simply don't get it and that's not necessarily your fault. Remember that little spoof Stephen Colbert did when he found out that he had come in second place to Rain in Time magazine's 100 most influential people poll? Some people are offended by anything and you don't have to cater to the back of the parade because of them. Smart people listen to others to gain better perspectives on things and have an ability to filter out worthless information. If you call Carl Sagan "a butthead astronomer" to his face, would he be offended by that and file a lawsuit against you for defamation (ok, bad example but you get the point)?

There's another country with an even bigger complex and absolutely no sense of humor: North Korea. Ask them how they are doing these days.

Anonymous said...


I hope you are being sarcastic...
"help expat friends feel better about expressing their views."
(I think I threw up a bit just now).

Have you actually read what is written by some of the expat bloggers? SOME of the "criticisms" border on out-right racism and makes me fear for safety of relatives in Korea.
They seem to go "postal" in their blogs or on the forums.
They do not want to be your "friend," especially if you are a gyopo.

Do you know who invented psychoanalysis?
Sigmund Freud,as in "Freudian complex" as you put it.

Expats are called expats for a reason. It's a short-term move.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that likely, most of the expat population don't have many, if any, Korean friends.

This is probably due to the fact that many don't speak Korean fluently,they tend to gravitate to other expats, and of course, they spend only a short-time in the country.

Also due to similar reasons among Koreans as well as relative inexperience and unfamiliarity with foreigners.

It's for the same reasons that if you walk into any highschool or college in a diverse city in the US, you see groups hanging out based on mostly ethnicity.

Unless you are a "twinkie" or "oreo" or variation thereof.

If you've spent more time in Korea than in your native country in the past 10 years, then I don't think you can call yourself an expat anymore...

I think it would be interesting to take a poll among expats to find out how "friendly" they are with Koreans.

So how many of you expats out there have Korean friends?

I'm not talking about the ajumma at the corner store or co-workers you see only at work.
I'm talking about actual friends and not acquaintances.

And Wayne,just a suggestion,but I think you really should open up a Korean history book and an anthropology book.

Yeah, funny thing sense of humor, every culture is different.
Americans don't understand British sense of humor either.

Seriously, I could go on.

But now seriously Wayne, if you are someone can't read or speak Korean, but can understand it, I think you should talk to a Korean person who has lived through the Japanese occupation and the civil war.Like a grandparent.

I feel extremely fortunate and unfortunate at the same time that I don't have to go online or buy a book to get first-hand accounts of the multitude of hardships and changes Korea has had in the last century.

If it comes from your family, it becomes very,very personal.

Wayne0714 said...

I rest my case...
Some people just dont' "get it" and anonymous, I'm afraid you r one of them.

One more thing, I don't hear about a bunch of expats running around the city lynching Koreans (some crazy GIs do but they are very rare and they are not exactly expats), so you shouldn't be afraid of your folks' safety. The Korean population still has a size advantage over the expats and we got the angry mob thing down as you may have noticed. I don't think they'll mess with a people who goes nuts over beef.

Roboseyo said...

Hey there. Let's keep things friendly, everyone. The point of discussing this topic is to get back to listening to each other and trying to understand each other, rather than just rehashing old tropes and bringing up stereotypes and grudges and chunking people into categories.

I've given full recognition to the fact there ARE some expats who sound forth even though they don't really have a broad enough base of experience to speak with authority, and I've also looked at the fact that Korea is now something different than it used to be. . . bringing up the past can be helpful, but it can also be a way of turning a rational discussion emotional (ask any couple who argues). I don't think it's useful or helpful, though, to start dealing in stereotypes about expats (or Koreans) and I'd appreciate it if we don't make assumptions about the other commenters here.

Wayne0714 said...

Your point well taken, Roboseyo. I apologize if I turned your blog into a little Jerry Springer show by pointing out the obvious and inflaming the irrational hypersensitivity of some Koreans (here I go again. ok, I admit that I am a bit of cynic). I'm all for rational, friendly dialogues among thinking people and I do mean it. But let me also quote some of the things said by "anonymous" as an example to illustrate my original points (no offense to anonymous. You just happened to be standing in my view), namely "a Korean history book", "racism", and "Japanese occupation". Anonymous freely and unfairly assumed that I am an uninformed, biased, and self-hating Korean who would rather side with foreigners. Let me assure you that I am not part of the "Hate Korea First" crowd (hating Korea is usually at the bottom of my daily to-do list because I'm so busy these days!) As Roboseyo has pointed out, bringing up the past can be helpful in discussions on this topic. But it's often a diversion at best or plain lazy at worst. Who doesn't know about the unfortunate Korean history in relation to Japanese and even Americans? It still makes my blood boil when I think about the atrocities committed by Japanese during the occupation. It still makes my head spin when I remember how those American GIs got off practically scot-free for crushing Hyosoon and Misun with their tank. This self-righteous attitude of "I know more about Korean history and Kimchi juice is running in my vein and therefore I have an unassailable right to dismiss your baseless criticisms" is (how should I put this delicately?) just dumb.
I would like to direct the readers (both expats and Koreans) to the columns by Mr. Michael Breen on His columns provide valuable insights into the expats' views on Korea and I'm so grateful as a Korean that we have an intelligent, well-informed, well-read, and thoughtful expat living in Korea sharing his honest views with us at the risk of his own reputation. This gentleman runs a PR firm that represents both domestic and international companies. Let me say that again. He runs a PR FIRM! I'm most certain that he knows a thing or two about the implications of writing columns critical of the country he is currently residing in and rubbing some natives the wrong way in the process which can negatively affect his business. And that makes me believe that Mr.Breen must be writing those columns for reasons other than promoting self-interest or replenishing his ol' coffers. I even bet that he has regretted more than once his decision to write for Korea Times; some of the comments to his columns are mind-blowing and I don't mean that in a good way. It seems to me that some of us Koreans have only two modes when it comes to taking criticisms from foreigners: angry and more angry (kinda like Tom Cruise's acting style: intense and more intense). And that doesn't help us break out of this cultural shell and see the world outside. Let's face it, fellow Koreans; we may be the most connected nation in terms of telecommunications but we have some issues when it comes to listening to others and taking criticisms, not just from foreigners but also from other Koreans as well. Which is why I mentioned inferiority complex and a lack of sense of humor. We may have free speech in this country but we don't have a whole lot of free thinking and that's the real problem. Free-thinking, open societies will eventually prevail in the future while nationalistic, monolithic-thinking societies will stay at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder.

So here are my messages for my fellow Koreans who are often offended by these unmannered, uncultured, uninformed outsiders' telling us that our emperor has no clothes on.
1) Instead of getting all huffy and puffy about the foreigners' baseless criticisms, I suggest you ask yourself questions like "hey, if the emperor really has clothes on, how come I can see that huge, disgusting mole on his butt? And why am I strangely attracted to it?". And ask a follow-up question to them for clarification. You just might learn something.
2) These expats have made an effort to come to this country for whatever reason and go out of their way to tell us something. Just remember that there are people who PAY to collect this kind of information. If you are like me, you should take whatever is free instead of complaining about how free stuff is ruining my chance to buy it.
3) You may be 100% right and all those expats may be 100% wrong on facts. But if a majority of the outsiders holds less than highest regards for our culture/society/history/political system etc., then we may at least have a bit of branding or communication problem. Let's look into it.
4) I know, saving face is important; it's in our genes. But have you notice that we as a nation are more obsessed with "fixing face" than "saving face" these days? I mean for crying out loud, even the president uses botox! (a stern warning for those expats who feel an itch to ridicule our ex-president for the facelift: don't you dare mock our president. He did it to save face for this nation damn it, not for himself!)
5) Yes, there are some uninformed morons out there and that's not a problem unique to Korea. If you think you are dealing with a degenerate skinhead or a stupid school girl (btw, no offense to degenerates and stupid people) who is disseminating false information about Korea, just tune out! You know how to work the remote or mouse, don't you? If those hate mongers are getting undeserved attention, well, defective minds think alike and that's their problem.

Roboseyo said...

Hi again, Wayne. Thanks for leaving a longer comment to expand on what you meant in the shorter one before. I agree with you, and really appreciate what Michael Breen does.

Thanks for adding to the discussion! I'm really happy when I see this conversation happening without slipping into the old ad hominem quagmire that often occurs.

Anonymous said...

Is this too late for me to leave a comment? I just admire you for your knowledge and opinions about Korea. Wow. I've been in Canada for 3 years, and I can't even write a page long essay about Canada and Vancouver(in English of course). Indeed it is human nature to whine. Though I have great people around me, I am not really enjoying life in Canada, the atmosphere here is quite depressing somehow. Anyways, I am so surprised by your knowledge about Korea although I see some exaggerated or understated points. I have to agree that Koreans are defensive, doesn't know how to recieve criticism and they also lack ability to criticize others like I do. They just don't understand why some people have to criticize others because they have this dilema: Koreans are extreme collectivists, so they are not used to think critically or take criticism/bashing inside the community, there's just no culture for criticism or discussion..But in order for Korea to become economically stable, Korea had to get rid of walls they made for centuries and decades, and they had to accept all the Western/Japanese cultures and materials when they were not ready. The walls to protect their "race" in everyday battle life in between Japan and China for over thousands of years had been crushed and even before realizing it, they had to face the fact that they became the poorest country in the world. To say the truth, nationalism had become a first and last source to survive in between Japan and Korea. So nationalsim was perceived as very good and loyal thing for peace and goodness of the people. So it is not really a "inferiority complex" or anything related to that issue. It is issue about "leave us alone." As you know, Korean nationalism doesn't really make dangerous situations or harms to other countries, though it seems frantic on the surface. It's just became a source of defence for survival. I hope I didn't become a defensive Korean, a Kimcheerleader or one of weird nationalist Koreans rightnow for saying some of my opinions as one of Korean. Anyways, I enjoyed reading your posts. And thank you for opeing your thoughts in your blog, it really is a very brave thing to do. Oh, and the way to make Koreans to understand your criticism is to learn Korean language and culture deeply. And don't argue things in the internet, do it in real life with real people around you. That's the only way I can think of.. Sorry it's not really helpful.. but it's the only way.. But you won't really have a chance for criticism in real life.. I know. That's the way it is in Canada too. When I make criticism about Canada in real life, Canadians are not really happy and some people get very irritated.. so... Yeah I totally understand you in someway. It is very awkward to make criticism about your friend's country in conversation to think about it in reality..

Roboseyo said...

It's a tough topic, and most countries have a love-hate relationship with their own progress/development: as my friend says, the conversation between the old and the young goes like this:

young: let's go!
old: your slow is my fast. be patient.

thanks for the comment, and of course it isn't too late.

Anonymous said...

I guess it's because we were not brought out to take any criticism well and grow from it. whether you are korean or american or european, taking criticism is not easy, but just the difference is how you respond to it. wish korean schools or parents teach kids how to response to criticism maturely and reasonably. korea is a tiny little country that was invaded constantly by other neighboring countries for 5000 yrs. Perhaps, whether it's a physical attack or criticism, sadly, defending yourself became our instinct reaction from constant anxiety and fear of losing our country and food (yes, i used the word "our"). Although i agree some koreans need to learn how to calmly discuss about criticism and admit any faults if they have, i have to say it's not easy to take criticism. But you know what, nothing is a big deal when you realize none of us is perfect either. can we just accept that we all are imperfect and laugh about it?? so what? have others criticize you if they want? reacting to it negatively means your admission and loss. it's all up to you how to win over the criticism. from my experience, when someone whether he/she is korean or foreigners, criticizes you, the best thing is to admit the faults and sincerely apology for it, no critics will have any more to say. there's even a greater chance you might be accepted just as you're!!! Cheers everybody.

Roboseyo said...

thanks for that one, anon.

Solomon Barber said...

Hi! I just wanted to say what a great article I felt it was. I really don't have much to say to expand on what you said, but I thought the translation of 우리나라 (Uri-Nara) was a very good addition. I don't think non-Korean speaking expats catch that. I was very shocked when I first caught on to how they referred to their country. I've referred to America as 우리나라 infront of my students and they actually turned to my co-teacher to ask if I could talk about my country that way in Korean. I think they picked up on how shocking an expression it is when you hear it the first time. I would also add that you should translate the proper name for Korea: 대한민국 (Dae-Han-Min-Gook) which translates to Great Korean Race Country. The idea of Korean ethnicity definitely ties into their national identity and is already proving a challenge to rising multi-ethnicism. I have a couple mixed kids in my high school courses and I notice that they become more subdued and less social as the year goes on. However, I believe that Koreans can rise to meet the challenge as many of my Korean friends are very aware of the problem and embrace the opening of Korean society.

On a side note, I have started to notice an increasing trend in younger children (around kindergarten or 1st, 2nd graders) to identify me on the street as 영어 (English language) rather than 미국인 or 외국인 (foreigner). You speak Korean...have you noticed this too? I think it has some relationship to the private academy system. I always joked about foreigners being viewed as English producing machines but never actually thought I'd be referred to as such! BTW, adult koreans I talk to about this seem to think it's funny and don't consider it a serious problem. I hope I'm overreacting, but language choices reveal the underlying concepts to which they refer.

Roboseyo said...

Solomon: thanks for the comment.

Your observation about Kindergarten isn't one I've notice myself exactly, but it doesn't surprise me. I think the generation of kids going through school now, who will have spent time around foreigners almost their entire lives, thanks to the English hogwan and English kindergarten systems, will be an engine for a great deal of cultural change and mind-opening -- the Koreans in charge now were raised on a steady diet of race-based nationalist propaganda during the '60s and such; when today's elementary age kids start to take over, I think everything will change.

Wayne0714 said...

I don't like responding to crazy comments (Thanks for the moderation, Roboseyo) but the guy who threatened me to snuff me out for "kissing asses" of expats reminds me of the crazy Muslim who killed Theo Van Gogh ("you call my religion violent? I'll kill you!!"). I commented as a Korean about Koreans not handling criticisms very well in a civil manner and he got offended and spewed out that incoherent nonsense. what a delicious irony! However I should mention that this kind of knee-jerk reaction is not uncommon in other cultures as well. Bill Maher's "Religulous" shows some Muslims who try to justify tortuously their self-serving argument that dissent is allowed in Islam and at the same time Salmon Rushdie must die for offending Islam. As Maher points out, they seem to have a problem with OUTSIDERS' telling what's wrong about them; in-fighting is very much allowed and even encouraged. As for the ridiculous comment about me kissing foreigners' asses, hello? they are the minority in this country! Why would anybody want to do that unless you work for them?!? A lot of expats are actually working for Koreans, and not for a whole lot of money either. What a progress we've made as a nation! As a matter of fact, I'm one of the very few Koreans who are not too crazy about English being so pervasive in this country because of that "ass-kissing" aspect of looking like we are a bilingual country when in fact average Koreans cannot even articulate their thoughts in English very well despite years of costly English language training in and outside of school (another funny/sad irony). Why is everything so bilingual in this country? I don't even like the English (and Chinese) announcements in the subway; I've lived in a bilingual country (Canada) and they don't have all these "ass-kissing" services for the French-speaking Canadians outside Quebec other than government services. The Konglish you see in the Korean streets only seems to have one purpose: providing material for English-speaking teachers/bloggers like Roboseyo. This crazy phenomenon of bilingualizing everything started because of the 1988 Olympic Games and we as a nation have been blindly following this de-facto rule ever since without thinking about its usefulness or effectiveness. Getting back to my original point, I freely admit I'm a bit of a skeptic/cynic and I find it difficult to sit idle by when one side is demagoguing the issue in a debate which is why I wrote my original comment, the tone of which I apologized for later. It's human-being's basic instinct to be tribal and it's not necessarily a bad thing. But Keeping an open-minded attitude and practicing introspection every now and then is for helping yourself, not the other guy. One more thing. This "Yankee Go Home" slogan is really stale and childish, isnt' it? "Yankees" could've said the same thing a million times to those 2 million Koreans living in America happily and I'm sure some of them caused other Americans some grief every now and then as any other ethnic groups might have. But they all seem to get along (more or less) without anybody saying "go back to where you came from" every time there's a conflict amongst them?Sure you hear that once in a while if you look distinctively ethnic but the majority of decent average Americans realize they are all immigrants and don't say such ignorant stuff on a daily basis (only when they are pissed drunk, in which case it's forgivable!!)

Solomon Barber said...

Wayne0714: In your defence, that guy seemed pretty racist. Anon: Japanese Yakuza will slit your throats? Japanese on the whole are very peaceful and it's pretty obvious you are a racist. I have lots of Japanese friends and NONE of them would ever do something like that. I realize Korea and Japan have a long and unpleasant history, but perhaps you should go to Japan and meet a couple regular Japanese people before you spout hate speech. That statement made me immediately disregard anything you said.

Roboseyo said...

Generally, directly addressing commenters who have previously posted poisonous comments, and particularly calling them things like racist, does not lead to productive discussion, folks.

Let's keep that in mind, thanks.

Roboseyo said...

youre wrong abotu sudan needing aid, sudan feeds the world! its south sudan that needs aids. but the north doesnt need shitt from the US

Roboseyo said...

what u say about koreans is dumb adn auntrue! to also pride yourseflf as white is hilarious! white is defined different worldiwde. pork skin people like you are called red.