Monday, July 14, 2008

Why do Expats Complain? Guest-post from The Korean

Dear Korean,

Why do expats in Korea complain about Korea so much?


Dear Roboseyo,

The Korean welcomes the first joint-blogging effort for Ask A Korean! in conjunction with your well-written blog. This will be Part I of a two-part series, and both Roboseyo and the Korean would be writing about two topics at the same time.

The Korean must first admit that this is really the topic for Roboseyo. The Korean himself knows very little about expats in Korea. He never met too many of them, and never hung out with them. In 1997 when the Korean moved out to sunny California, it was still a rare occurrence to see a non-Korean on the street. But recently, a few expat blogs began linking Ask A Korean! to their blogs, so the Korean began to visit some of them from time to time. And boy, expats are a complaining bunch.

The Korean has to be fair to expats: truth is that people love to complain, no matter where they are. People are also more vocal about the things they dislike than about the things they like. Expose people to a different environment, and there are always things to complain about simply because things are not familiar.

And to be sure, there is a lot to complain about in Korea. The Korean does it all the time! Aside from racism in Korea about which the Korean constantly complains on this blog, there is a disgusting amount of sexism, xenophobia, materialism, etc. On a smaller scale, the Korean incessantly complains about: traffic jam in Seoul; too many people crammed into a small space; shitty weather for 8 months out of the year; lack of open space; lack of toilet paper in public bathrooms (although the situation has recently improved); no decent food other than Korean, Japanese, and Chinese; awful selection of Scotch; and numerous others. (The Korean is convinced that he was born to live in Southern California.)

However, many complaints from expats that the Korean has seen show a certain level of ignorance. This is not to say that complaining expats are dumb. It is only to say that were they more aware of certain things about themselves and about Korea, they would not be complaining as much, and the pitch of their complaints would not be as strident. So this post probably does not answer conclusively about why expats complain about Korea. However, it would try to answer why some expats complain in the way they do.

What Expats do not Understand about Themselves

Among the expats from different parts of the world, the Korean can only speak about Americans because the Korean has little knowledge of other countries. But it is safe to say that many Americans lack the knowledge of their country’s place in the world, and in world history. Therefore, instead of having a proper perspective of where their opinions stand in the range of possible opinions in the world, Americans tend to define their opinions to be correct, rational, and logical, and define others as incorrect, irrational, and illogical. (This frequently leads to the familiar charge that Americans are arrogant.)

Take for example Americans’ emphasis on individuality. Everyone is supposed to think of themselves! If you don’t, you are a part of the herd, a dumb lemming who would follow the one in front of you to a precipitating death. (Sound familiar? This was every other post in expat blogs during the beef protests.)

But this type of emphasis on the individual is a particular product of American/Western history. There is no inherent reason why (regardless of any references to “God-given liberty” or “self-evident truth”) individuals must be valued over a group to the extent that Americans value individuals. Societal interaction for majority of human history has been group-driven, and even in the modern era group-driven societies work in their own way. (Even within America “identity politics” holds a powerful force. Here is Stanley Fish’s exposition on how identity politics could be rational:

So American expats, because they are so cocksure of their opinion as a self-evident, God-given truth instead of an accidental product of their history, complain and dismiss whenever they see something different in Korea. And they complain rather than truly observing and engaging the Korean way of doing things because they lack the basic respect towards the Korean methods that is required to make a meaningful engagement.

(Aside: Although the Korean is talking about expats here, Koreans themselves are not much better. The only difference is that Koreans, instead of dressing their accidental product as “rational” or “logical”, dress theirs as “the Korean way” that non-Koreans just don’t understand.)

Another thing that expats fail to appreciate is how little of Korea they are actually seeing. The Korean often tells his Korean friends that no matter how long one has lived in the U.S., it is impossible to appreciate how large of a country America is unless you travel to six different cities: Boston, New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Only after seeing how different those cities can be within a same country can someone from a small country like Korea truly understand how big United States is.

In the similar vein, no matter how long one has lived in Korea, it is impossible to appreciate how deep the generational gap runs among Koreans of different generations unless one has meaningful interactions with Koreans in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and above. On one hand you have your Koreans in their 60s who grew up in constant danger of death from war and starvation, and on the other hand you have your Koreans in their teens who are self-absorbed, battling obesity problem. And guess who is more important in the formulation any society’s political and cultural direction? But because most expats do not learn high-level Korean, the only Koreans with whom they have meaningful interactions (if they do at all) are Koreans in their teens and 20s.

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

Everything in Korea that appears odd to expats has its own logic, and once explained (as the Korean tries to do in this blog,) they are completely understandable and not very odd after all. But because expats never talk to the people responsible for creating such logic, (it is, after all, people in their 40s through 60s who run the country,) the oddities continue to remain incomprehensible. And instead of coming to an understanding, expats go on with their complaining.

What Expats do not Understand about Korea

A cursory look at Seoul shows a fantastically futuristic city. People carry around crazy technological gizmos. Internet works at blinding speed. Everywhere you go there are flat screen panels showing some type of moving images, just like the visions of future that we used to have through sci-fi movies of yesteryear.

One cannot help but feel a little bit like Homer Simpson as he was marveling at the dancing fountain/toilet in his hotel room in Japan: “They are YEARS ahead of us!” Upon seeing this spectacle, it is only reasonable to expect Korea to be a fully modern country, and its citizens to behave in a fully modern way.

But this outlook cannot be more misleading. And this is really the point that anyone who wishes to understand modern Korea must know – Korea has only become this way in the last 15 years. All the people who were born and raised in the pre-modern era are not only alive, but they are the people who are in their 50s and 60s, leading the whole country and educating the next generation.

Few people (including younger Koreans themselves) understand this point, no matter how many times the Korean screams about it: only 50 years ago, Korea was DIRT FUCKING POOR. It was one of the poorest countries in the world. Here is an example: when the Korean War happened, Ethiopia was one of the countries that sent a contingent to aid South Korea. Ethiopia! The same one with $823 per capita GDP! (Current South Korean GDP per capita = $24,783 in 2007) Can you imagine Ethiopia helping South Korean with economics, military, or anything at all in 2008? (Perhaps a few skilled marathon runners?) But in 1950, Korea was the lesser nation between the two. In short, Korea occupied the place in the world in which the poorest African countries occupy now – completely helpless, unable to survive on its own without aid from other countries.

In the abstract these words do not sink in, so let’s put it this way. It was commonplace for Koreans to have nothing to eat. There is a uniquely Korean expression of describing how poor a person is: a person is so poor that “his asshole would tear out.” This expression came to be because when Korean people were starving, they would peel tree bark, boil it and eat it. (This is still going on in North Korea.) Since tree bark has little nutrition and a lot of indigestible fiber, one’s anus bleeds as one excretes after eating tree bark. Can any expat, all from wealthy Western countries (regardless of how poor s/he may have been in that country,) imagine this level of poverty?

The degree to which (South) Korea managed to pull itself out of such abject poverty into the wealth it currently enjoys has no precedent in history. For this achievement Korea and Koreans deserve all the praises in the world. But mind you, it was definitely not a normal thing to happen. A country does go from $87 per capita GDP in 1962 to $24,783 per capita GDP in 2007 without something happening to it.

This incredible, borderline mutative economic growth could not have happened without the attendant mutative changes in Korean society and culture. Richard Posner said this about Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who was a brilliant judge but had troubled personal life: “With biography and reportage becoming ever more candid and penetrating, we now know that a high percentage of successful and creative people are psychologically warped and morally challenged[.]” Same could be said about Korea’s success; it could not have happened without collectively warped psyche.

And truly, this is the keystone in understanding any aspect of modern Korea. Everything about modern Korean culture, in one way or another, is an outgrowth of this history. This, for example, is the reason why the generational gap runs so deeply in Korea.

Almost every question that the Korean has received so far is related to this central keystone in one way or another. Why are Koreans always in a hurry? You can’t afford to be slow if you are desperate to get out of poverty so fast. Why do Koreans always want their children to be doctors? Because no matter what happens in a country (even in a war in which the country is at the brink of elimination,) doctors never suffer poverty. Why do so many Koreans believe in rank superstition? Because the people who believed in magic and witch doctors are still alive and well in Korea, and are often in the leadership positions.

So believe it or not, when Korean people say expats “just don’t understand Korea”, they are correct in an indirect way. No other country has the kind of history that Korea has experienced, so the cultural oddities in Korea are unlike any other country. Appreciating and understanding such cultural oddities take a lot of effort and a lot of studying. And too often, a complaining expat does neither. It is faster, easier, and more mentally satisfying, to complain.

Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at

Comment on the Korean's points over at his page.

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