Monday, July 14, 2008

Why Do Expats Hate Korea Complain So Much?

It’s an exciting day here at Roboseyo: I have an interesting topic I’d like to discuss, about the relationship between expats and Koreans, and in order to address the topic properly, I contacted a Korean blogger, named, um, The Korean, who runs the excellent site, “Ask A Korean!” We’ve agreed to do a joint post about this topic, in order to get a variety of voices out there. I’m interested in this topic, and I sincerely hope it starts an interesting discussion on the K-blogosphere: if this topic interests you, consider yourself tagged: let me know what YOU think, too. The Korean and I will each write two articles, so you can have an expat’s view, and a Korean’s view on these two questions:

This week, we'll discuss the question, "Why do expats complain about Korea so much?"
Next week, we'll roll out the question, "Why do many Koreans take criticism of Korea so poorly?"

For links to other bloggers' reactions to this topic, go here.

Here is my contribution on question one; the next post will be the Korean’s view on Question number one.
Then, after a "talk amongst yourselves" break, I will post my thoughts on Question two, followed by the Korean’s view on it.

Without further Ado:

Soundtrack time: "A With Living" by Do, Make, Say, Think
Hit play and start reading.

There's an elephant in the room. Three, in fact. On the (English language) K-blogosphere in its entirety. Nobody wants to mention it, because everybody knows what happens once we toss rocks at the hornet's nest. The situation is similar in real life; those elephants sure get around.

The three elephants are the following, and all three are on a hair-trigger:

1. the kimcheerleaders, out to promote Korea's virtues, sometimes well into the realm of fiction, given the opportunity.

2. the expat complainers, quick to whine and gripe about Korea

3. those same kimcheerleaders, now with hurt pride, getting prickly, surly, and sometimes even mean, because of the expat negativity.

From there, it's a back-and-forth, ad hominem grudge match between the kimcheerleaders and the bashers; sometimes the bashers are Korean, sometimes they're expat; ditto for the kimcheerleaders (though the expat kimcheerleader is the rarest of the lot: the AB- blood-type of commenters, if you will), and when the dust settles, nobody’s happy except the trolls who write poisonous things to get attention by upsetting people. They're kissing mirrors to make lipstick prints and congratulating themselves in the third person. And the K-blogosphere is poisoned by negativity. Again.

You better believe those three elephants are reading over my shoulder every post I write, crossing out lines, rephrasing things, smoothing my cynicism into sarcasm, and my sarcasm into gentle irony.

Now, I've already talked at length about the Kimcheerleaders; they're mostly harmless, and a source of a fair bit of comedy, as well as the target of a little satire and sarcasm. They're also easy to appease, if I praise Korea from time to time: toss them a bone, and they'll leave me alone.

The expat complainers are a bit more of a puzzle. Like Bruce Banner flipping the rage switch, and morphing into the Illegible Incredible Hulk, a criticism too harsh will turn certain Kimcheerleaders into big, green, angry K-defenders. Their hurt, defensive, even visceral response to the critics creates an interesting dynamic. It's human nature to complain, but this whining expat/K-defender grudge match is puzzling. I can't say whether this dynamic develops between griping expats and nationals anywhere else, but I digress.

I'm writing this post to look at some of the reasons Expats in Korea seem to complain so much: Metropolitician has had a lot of experience with defensive kimcheerleaders, and recently blog-buddy Brian has also come under fire, getting linked by a Korean netizen who basically wanted a cyber-terror attack on his site, and even went after his job, trying to publish his employer's phone number, so people could phone his boss and try to get him fired. The comments he wrote on why Brian should be cyber-terrorized are dripping with condescension and hate, basically saying, "Let's CORRECT this ignorant foreigner's behaviour" as if they were training a dog not to piss on the carpet. This kind of bullying of people with whom one disagrees reminds me of a certain other group of nationalist boosters who have a very effective way of shutting up those who disagree with them.

So let's look a bit closer at expat complainers, but before I say anything else, I'd like to mention three things:

1. Complaining is human nature. People everywhere complain, about pretty much everything. Let's be honest about that, and recognize that until Laura The Expat Who's Lived Everywhere weighs in with, "Yeah. I've lived in sixteen different expat communities over the last thirty years, and things are way worse here than anywhere else," there's no reason to think things are worse on the K-blogosphere than elsewhere. The reason it's a topic at all is because of the dynamic that develops between gripers and defenders, and because of the perception that things are especially bad, and because people are acting on those perceptions with things like cyber-attacks on bloggers, however, it has not been demonstrated that expats in Korea complain more or less than expats anywhere else.

2. It's the internet, folks. Everybody complains on the internet. Why would you expect the K-blogosphere to be any different than any other corner of the world wide whine? Plus: as usual, in places where people write, instead of talking face to face, things seem worse on the net, and in print, than they are in the face to face conversations I've had: on the whole, the interactions I have with the people around me are overwhelmingly positive; with the online stuff, less so. If most of what you know about Korea comes from comment boards and rant-blogs, I pity you for the dim and distorted picture you must have of both Korea and expats. Get out of the house and visit some heritage sites with some friends, or go to the Korean restaurant in your town.

Weird netizens are everywhere. Not just here.

3. Some people actually do have a bad time in Korea, whether because of disappointed expectations or crooked Hogwan directors or whatever. The question here is not "how is it possible to have a bad time in Korea" but "why do some spread that negativity so far and wide, so aggressively?" let's give people the grace to allow for a reasonable amount of complaining, because we're expats, not saints, and these are blogs and comments and conversations with friends, not press releases or travel advisory warnings from international organizations.

Now that that's out of the way:

I like to divide complainers into the cathartic complainers and the social critics. Let's make that distinction, and then immediately muddy it up by saying sometimes they bleed into one another (for example, when the Metropolitician goes on a rant).

I'm going to try to list these reasons in ascending order, starting with the basest complaints, that deserve the least attention, and moving on up to the critics and criticisms that deserve careful attention and sober reflection:

Class 1: Cathartic Complainers (because you need to get it off your chest sometimes)

Bottom Rung: The Snark Olympians:
(Harsher! Meaner! Ruder!)
For a certain stripe of expat in Korea, it's practically a sport, almost like a secret handshake, to moan about Korea: you can prove the validity of your experience and time spent in Korea by the depth and clarity of your complaint. After two months, Johnny Firstyear moans, "Korean moms are too intense! My boss is totally unprofessional! They put CORN on PIZZA! Cheese is so expensive!" but Annie Expat can prove her cred by going deeper. She drops a few phrases like "Neo-Confucianism" and "credential society," blames Korea's social ills on Park Chung-hee or Japanese colonialism, maybe drops the names Michael Breen and Bruce Cumings. ("I won't even listen to your opinion if you haven't read 'The Aquariums of Pyongyang'") The expat who's been here longer, or knows more, usually holds the floor in these cases; between expats with approximately equal experience in Korea, it becomes a race to say the meanest thing about the country, and I've heard some doozies.

But keep this in mind about the Snark Olympians: they usually don’t stay for long, and moreover, this kind of complaining has very little to do with Korea really, and everything to do with the complainers, and the fact complaining is fun. I've said a few awful things about Korea too, in my day, to get a laugh, or because it was well-phrased, and not really because I meant it. Uproot Joe Firstyear and Annie Expat, and put them in New York City, and they'd be doing the same, but crapping on the New York Knicks, A-Rod, or Mayor Bloomberg instead. Heck, given the chance, some of this group of whining expats would probably complain about Shangri-la, if that's where they found themselves. "Love-slaves 24, 46 and 71 out of 72 are kind of chubby, and love-slave 32 sweats a lot. . . what kind of sham paradise-on-earth is this?"

The same way a parent shouldn't take it to heart when his angry kid shouts, "I hate you!" snark-fests should be taken for what they are, and tolerated, but ultimately ignored: why waste your time reading it, and even more, why waste energy getting your hackles up? You won't convince them to stop. Complainers like these are the reason a lot of expat lifers don't spend too much time around first year English teachers: the complaining is a drag, and it's kind of boring when you've heard it all before, read James Turnbull's five part essay and Mike Hurt's rant, and written an op-ed piece to Korea Herald's Expat Living about it.

Next Group: The Misdirected Culture-Shockers and Disappointed Orientalists

Next rung up on the ladder are the expats who complain not so much for the sport, but because they don't know any other way to articulate the culture-shock they're experiencing.

This category also goes for people who expected their (often first ever) time overseas to be very different than it is. "What? Bosses here overwork their employees, too? People don't wear hanbok every day? People live in apartment buildings instead of hanok houses? People drink Starbucks instead of Sanghwacha when they meet? Not every girl wears a short-skirted school uniform? This is TOTALLY different than I thought Asia would be after reading Manga, watching 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' 'Memoirs of a Geisha,' 'The Last Samurai,' and 'M*A*S*H*!'"

Got this:
Instead of this?


Got this:

and this:

and this:

Instead of this:

And this?

I hear ya. Reality's rough.

This is a little closer to honest criticism, but while Snark-Olympians are at least having fun, these two groups might be the bitterest and meanest of the lot: a former coworker poisoned the entire atmosphere in the staff room, as she took her failure to adjust to a different culture out on everyone around her. Eventually, she went home early, but not early enough. Again, a grain of salt should be taken with complaints of this kind: when certain people are thrown into a new situation (especially ones having their first overseas experience), it takes them a little while to figure out that "this is interesting" or "I can learn about this" are better default reactions than "this is bad," when they encounter something unfamiliar, or that new situations are best approached with open minds, rather than preconceptions. It ain't pretty, but hopefully we can cut them a little slack (though, again, it would be better for them if they vented their frustration in appropriate directions, saving it for people who knew them well enough to take their ranting in stride, and let's also ask, if it's online, who is choosing to read their complaints?).

The next level goes especially for people who complain online, or expats who always run Korea down when they're around other expats: The Off-Duty Diplomats

See, most expats realize that we are guests in Korea; because we (other than some Asian-hypenated expats) look different than the rest of the people around, we know we're being watched, in curiousity, or in judgement. In our own neighbourhoods, and around our Korean friends, most of us feel the burden of representing our home countries: we're diplomats, saying the "right" things about how Korean women are beautiful, and Jeju Island gyuul are great, and those mean Japanese textbook writers ought to get their facts straight! Is it any surprise that after a long day of diplomacy, we come home, hop online, or huddle away with other foreigners, and criticize, in the same way most table-waiters come home from a long day of fake-smiling for tips, and act rude and surly to their housemates?

Ranting Englishman makes no bones that his blog is saving his and his wife’s sanity. Sorry you had to be privy to that, but can you really hold it against him? My Mom once told me, when Peter talks about Paul, we learn more about Peter than we do about Paul, and while it's not pleasant to watch or read or hear, remember here that you're reading the literary equivalent of a hotel receptionist spending her day off wearing sweatpants, a baseball cap, and no makeup. For many of us, this is when we aren’t putting our best foot forward. Putting the negativity online, or keeping it between friends in a club somewhere, is better than spewing it at work, where careless words have more consequences.

(Another thing about these first three types of complainers: telling them to stop actually makes them complain MORE, in the same way that telling kids not to do something immediately makes it fun.)

This level and those above are often mixed with this: Alternate View Pointer-Outers

Now, due to various reasons (homogeneous society, intense and intentional cultural programming [especially during the '60s and '70s], a culture of suspicion of those who hold unconventional ideas [leftover from the anti-communist red-scare days], an atmosphere of conformity strong enough that old ladies have been known to correct how I eat my soup) which are mostly beyond the scope of this post, and would require masters' theses to do them each justice, many westerners are surprised at how little diversity of ideas there are in public forums here in Korea; meanwhile, when a group DOES get loud about something, the rest of Korea usually shuts up and lets them rave, rather than shouting alternative viewpoints just as loudly. (If you disagree with this, kindly explain why the pro-FTA, pro-America, pro-LMB conservatives were so quiet during the first month of beef protests). This means some expats take it upon themselves to argue a different point of view, for the sheer sake of having a different point of view.

For example: every time I talk about education in Korea, I run into the EXACT same arguments, as if they were memorized in high school, along with the phrase, "Fine, thank you, and you?"

everybody say it along with me:

1. Korea has few natural resources
2. Korea has many people; people are Korea's best resource.
3. Korea has so much competition, because of overpopulation.
4. Education is the only way to gain a competitive advantage.
5. If you go to SKY* universities, you're set for life
6. Therefore, even though it's stupid and counterproductive and hurting Korea, and hurting students, and everybody knows it, I still must push my middle-school-aged son to study until 1am every day from now until the end of high school, to do well on the test and get into an SKY university.

(*SKY Universities are Korea's top three: Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei Universities. It's generally accepted that if you graduate from a SKY School, you're pretty much set for life.)

Good god! Somebody needs to toss a monkey-wrench into that tired cycle of thought, and suggest that there must be another way to raise kids into successful adults -- some noisy expats (maybe self-importantly) offer up other options, and are sometimes resented for it, and when we get the rote response, some of us feel like we're butting our heads against a wall, and depending on the expat, that prompts some of us to give up, and some of us to butt harder. Hard butts can rub some people the wrong way.

Next level: Closely related to the off-duty diplomats are The Kimcheerleading Counterbalances

I've blogged before (in my kimcheerleaders post) about the way an unfortunately large number of Koreans seem to approach every conversation with a non-Korean as a promo-op, a chance to promote Korea, rather than as a meeting of minds between two human beings. (remember that I'm speaking in broad generalizations here) -- some of us may feel overwhelmed by the Kimcheerleading.

Imagine Chul-soo. He's proud of his country. When he chats with a foreigner (which happens two or three times a week), he takes two minutes to explain that Kimchi is the world's healthiest food. It's only two minutes in his day, and he loves Korea -- good for him, I say!

But that foreigner might have similar conversations with many Koreans who also take just a few minutes to explain how garlic is healthy and Koreans use every part of the animal. Those few minutes' add up, when a dozen people a week spare a moment to promote Korean culture. It's even worse in the Korean English Language print media, where that dull, downer story about a double-murder-suicide, or a rapist on the loose in Daejeon, often get cut, but articles like this one ALWAYS make it in (HT to Brian in Jeollanam-do), the sports page is covered with a full, half-page "Park Chan-Ho pitches four innings, gets No Decision vs. Padres", ("Tiger Woods Wins Fifteenth Major in a Thrilling Come-From-Behind Finish" goes on the bottom half of the page) and "What's So Great about Korea, Maarten" still grins at us from the English section of every bookstore.

Faced with such a flood of positive Korean promotion, it's almost natural that we Westerners (who, at least among North Americans, have been programmed by movies and stories to go against the grain, and to prefer being right and alone over being wrong with the crowd), might start to push against the flood of Kimcheerleading with a bit of counter-balancing negativity, just so there’s a conversation, instead of just a room full of people nodding their heads in agreement.

Now, add to THIS the fact, because of our language limitations, a lot of us can't access the Korean language media in print or TV. This means that, while there might be a very lively discussion of Korea's social ills in Korean, because the English media editors and producers diligently excise almost all such topics from the pages of the English dailies, we have no idea whether social critics set the agenda in Korean public discourse, or whether Koreans just sit in circles repeating to each other the same things they say to us when they meet us!

If Arirang TV is anything to go on, Koreans spend all their time having conversations like this:

Chul-soo: "Yi Sunshin was probably the greatest naval commander in world history."
Hye-mi: "I've heard that's true. It might be because he grew up eating with chopsticks: studies have shown eating with chopsticks increase your IQ."
Chul-soo: "Ah. that might partially explain why Koreans scored higher than any other country on standardized IQ tests."
Hye-mi: "Indeed. Though I would credit that more to the fact Koreans are extremely diligent students."
Chul-soo: "It's because our young people are raised in such strong families: Confucianism values the family as the lynchpin of a healthy society"
Hye-mi: "That's why we have more jung."

It sounds ridiculous when I write it out like that, but The Korea Herald and Korea Times and Arirang TV (which no foreigner I've met watches) sometimes start to sound that way after a while, and for all we know, the local, Korean language papers might be the same way, from top to bottom! No wonder we feel like we need to balance out the kimcheerleading with a little negativity! (the simple solution here is that we ought to learn more Korean and see for ourselves what fills the pages of Korea's papers, but until then, that's where a lot of us are coming from.)

The Next Level: The (Maybe You Didn't Notice It Was) Affectionately Sarcastic

Some readers and listeners don't notice, can't notice, or intentionally ignore, the fact that some of us comment on this stuff because it amuses us, and we're not trying to be negative at all: some of the strongest reactions to posts of mine have been from readers who didn't quite notice the irony, sarcasm, or bemusement in my tone -- I wasn't trying to run anyone down, I wasn't trying to make anybody look stupid, or imply that the one dummy I met yesterday stands in for all Koreans everywhere -- I was just telling a story. However, a reader or acquaintance who doesn't have a lot of experience in spotting irony or verbal satire, who is looking for a reason to get upset and defensive, will probably find one. People who only read the critical rant, and skim the positive stuff, glancing at the photos, might miss the generally cheerful tone of my blog, and my usual affection for Korea. They might get more upset than they need to, about my mode of expression, in the same way the table-waiter's roommates think he's a rude jerk, because they don't see how well he treats his customers and his mother.

And, finally, the two highest levels:

The Social Critic:

These people HAVE paid their dues; they're not speaking in ignorance, or jumping to conclusions. They've done their due diligence, read up, qualified their statements, and started pointing out areas where Korea is not what it wishes to be. These people play an important role in a healthy society. It may seem they're negative, but as one of my favourite writers, Flannery O'Connor once said, when somebody accused her of only talking about the negative aspects of her society, and why couldn't she just write something nice once in a while, "If I write about a hill that is rotting, it is because I despise rot." (original quote by Wyndham Lewis)

Naming a problem is the first step to solving it, and maybe some of these critics are attempting to be legitimate part of that process -- that is, they're writing because they want to see Korea become a better place. . . in which case, Koreans who are upset about non-Koreans criticizing Korea need to stop and take a careful look at why that upsets them, because the problem does not lie in the complainers or their intentions.

To be fair, sometimes the social critics' intentions are good, but their methods are poor: the sometimes bitter and mean tone of certain critics can be hurtful, and as I've said to some of my friends who complain about Korea with a rude or condescending tone: "when you talk so harshly, even when you're right, you're wrong, and even if you win the argument, you still lose" -- but then,

1. polemical writing gets more blog hits than diplomatic writing
2. polemical writing sticks in peoples' heads for longer than diplomatic writing, which means it ultimately has a higher chance of changing a person's pattern of thinking!
3. polemical writing stirs up emotions, which means it will start more discussions, than diplomatic writing, which might not poke through someone's guard.

Bare fact: A scalpel is a better surgical tool than a pillow, and sometimes, a social problem must be sharply criticized to bring about change; gentle phrases just won't stir up a strong enough reaction.

Finally, at the top of the pile, the last group who complains about Korea: The Constructive Social Critic

The CSCs have also paid their dues. They know Korea, they've been here a long time, and maybe, their outsiders' views give them insight into topics that even Koreans miss. The only difference between them and the category above is that they are solution oriented, rather than problem oriented. Sure, they name the problem, and that's important, but for them, naming the problem is simply a step toward finding a solution, and their complaints end either with a suggestion of their own, or with a feeling of "now that we understand the problem very well, let's get working on a solution!"

Most of the critics I enjoy vacillate between these two categories, depending on their areas of expertise, and emotional state at the time of writing. CSCs write out of knowledge and love for Korea, out of a real desire to see Korea grow and improve, and mature into a world leader. Again, as with the social critic, if Koreans have a problem with a non-Korean producing THIS kind of writing about Korea, then it's really time to take a careful look at why it upsets them for someone with knowledge, insight, and compassion, to clearly articulate their wish for Korea to become a better place. My wish would be that more of the CSC's learn Korean well enough to get their ideas into the Korean media without risk of having a reader misunderstand it, or a translator twist it to their own ends (at the same time as we also need CSCs publishing about Korea in English, the international language).

So, there are a few reasons expats complain. I've probably missed some, and I'm not making excuses for rudeness (though I am suggesting it's best ignored), but that's at least where we're coming from, and as I said before: the stuff that goes online is harsher than what happens in face-to-face situations, so if the K-blogosphere is getting you down, don't use it to get in touch with Korea; get out of the house and climb a mountain, visit a temple, have lunch with a Korean friend, or (if you're outside Korea) go find a Korean restaurant nearby or watch a DVD of Welcome To Dongmakgol. Seriously.

"I would sooner have you hate me for telling you the truth than adore me for telling you lies."
Pietro Aretino, quoted in this article, from the BBC to angry Chinese defenders.

Here are a few typical responses that Koreans have to expats' complaints (some of these are borrowed from the Metroplitician's excellent, "Why Be Critical" post, one of the K-blogosphere's must-read posts, and an article without which this post would probably not exist at all. The comments on that post are also very interesting, for numerous reasons.)

1. Why are you airing out our dirty laundry? (One commenter on my blog once wrote about the critics, “It felt like my family’s dirty laundry was being aired to stranger and strangers were now telling me how to fix my family’s problems”) This one can also be phrased as "Why are you prying into Korea's internal issues?"

Answer: Well. . . if Korea is your house, then there are people living in your house that didn't live here before, and some of your family members have moved away and never looked back, and the windows are bigger than ever before, so a lot of people can see in now. South-Asian wives of Korean farmers and international investors and long-term teachers live under this roof now, and Korea's own people are more cosmopolitan and well-travelled than ever before, including many ethnic Koreans who haven't even been to Korea, transnational adoptees, Kyopos with various degrees of affinity for their parents' home -- it ain't Dongmakgeol any more, if it ever was, and the world is too interconnected to believe Korea can still exist in a bubble which doesn't affect other countries. A lot of us have invested a lot of time and energy into Korea; we have careers, families, kids, and connections here: this is our home, and we have a stake in Korea! Why shouldn’t we want our home to become better?

2. Why do you hate Korea?

Answer: I don't. If I did, I would have given up and left, as I am still free to do. The very fact I'm here is proof I like Korea enough to stay, and care about Korea enough to pay attention, and comment on it.

3. You should learn more about Korea.

Answer: This is a Korean's way of chunking me into category two of the expat complainer: "If I decide your complaints are borne of ignorance or culture shock, I can dismiss them." It falls apart if I can demonstrate knowledge of Korea (at which point this one often leads to number 4, revealing the true nature of the objection.)

Often, what this one REALLY means is, "I'm trying to find an excuse to ignore what you've said," or even, "It's easier for me to dismiss what you've said than to reexamine my idea of Korea." If I should learn more about Korea, then I'd love for you to explain it to me!

This one wears especially thin for those who HAVE been in Korea a long time, watching and listening carefully, but are still lumped in with Joe Firstyear, so be careful about using this one, because it often reveals more about the speaker's attitude than the complainer's knowledge.

4. You CAN'T understand Korea.

Answer: Translation: I refuse to listen to you. More at Metropolitician on this one. Sometimes this comes up when "You should learn more about Korea" is rebuffed by a demonstration of extensive Korea-knowledge, at which point, the K-defender is cornered, and starts saying stuff like this. Basically, this comment reveals more about the one who says it than the one who's complaining: what would it take to convince the person who says this that a non-Korean understands Korea? What kind of pedigree would it take, other than having Korean blood (and why does having Korean blood legitimize a complaint: who knows more about Korea? An expat who's lived here for ten years, or a Kyopo who can't speak the language, and has never visited, but has 100% Korean blood)? Where do pure-blood transnational adoptees fit on the spectrum of “allowed to criticize Korea”?

5. I don't like when a foreigner criticizes Korea

Answer: Why not? Again, this comment reflects more on the speaker than the complainer. What's so terrible about a foreigner complaining about Korea? The worst thing that can happen is that the foreigner's wrong, or the discussion gets emotional and unproductive; the best thing that can happen is that both sides might learn something.

7. You should be a more gracious guest while you visit Korea!

Answer: That might be so. . . but maybe I'm not a guest, and don’t want to be thought of as one; maybe I'm an active participant in Korean society, and wish to have my views respected as such. I've lived here for five years now, watching and asking questions: that's so long away from Canada that I no longer feel qualified to comment on situations back in Canada. If Korea isn't my home, nowhere is.

8. It's just as bad (or worse) in X country!

Yep. And when we're talking about that country, we'll address it. Right now, we're talking about Korea: there are very few things that are unique to only one culture -- but just because Japan, China, Iran, England, or America have the same problem, doesn't mean that Korea shouldn't be trying to fix it here, while those countries work on the problem there. If Joe's a jerk, and James is a jerk too, that doesn't mean Joe's free to remain a jerk; it just means that Joe and James both need to change their attitude.

9. If you don't like it, go home.

Fair enough. K-defenders are entitled to that opinion if they choose. However, I hope they’d think for a moment about how unhelpful that attitude is. If I don't like Korea, and I go home, whatever -- I'm just one guy, and I can put up with a lot, as long as Korea puts food on my table. But what about when an international investor doesn't like something? What if ten-thousand teachers, or ten-thousand migrant workers, or five-hundred loaded, foreign businesspeople looking to invest, don't like something? When does the onus fall on Korea to look inward, rather than on outsiders to get lost? Is telling that investor to take his billions and invest them in Hong Kong instead, going to help Korea become the global leader it wants to be?

And if a K-defender wants Korea to go back to its hermit kingdom days, and pickle in its own juices, he’s free to that view, but that "my way or the highway" has another name in North Korea: juche, and it didn't work out so well for the starving farmers over there. If Korea wants to become a globalized, cosmopolitan hub, and a destination for business leaders and investors, then, "If you don't like it, let's work something out" would be more productive.

10. Why don't you talk about positive things?

This is a fair critique, as is "why don't you say things more nicely/politely," and extremely valid, IF the complainer DOES only talk about negative stuff, and/or use rude, condescending tones. . . but don't use this one after reading a single post; save it until after you've read a bunch of posts, or had a number of conversations, so that you can back up your accusation. I get frustrated hearing this one, when I work damn hard to stay to stay positive and keep my criticisms edifying, and the commenter fires this off after reading a single one of my posts.

11. Go easy on us: we're just a developing nation!

Answer: Put very simply:
Still developing:

Finished developing:

Congratulations! You're part of the club! You're playing with the big kids now!

In terms of infrastructure and wealth, Korea is no longer a developing nation. Top fifteen economy in the world, people from South Asia coming HERE to work and send money home -- in the ways of the won, Korea's made it. It's a major player. Other countries look to Korea's development model to figure out how to raise their standard of living and set up infrastructure. One of the drags that comes with being one of the big boys is being a big target, and people pay more attention, and take more shots at big targets. Griping about facing criticism from the international community that Korea worked so hard to join, is like the little boy who wants to play soccer with his older brother's big friends, and then cries when they knock him down with a sliding tackle. More on that later.

12. You want Korea to become exactly like America.

Answer: If I want to live in a place that's exactly like America, I'll just move there. Given the history of the last 100 years, and the fact North and South Korea are as different as Summer and Winter now, when in 1935 their situation was exactly the same, Korea of all places should recognize that cultures are constantly changing and developing. The ones that don't end up artifacts and oddities, like the Amish, who are interesting, but basically irrelevant, and don't attract much foreign direct investment. Yeah, it takes some wisdom and discernment to figure out when you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or bringing in what The Joshing Gnome calls "cultural junk DNA", but if Korea can go through the upheavals of the last hundred years and still have a unique culture, isn't it time to lay the "our culture's going to disappear completely" objection to rest?

13. But you're telling this to the wrong crowd! You should learn Korean and say this to Koreans; telling it to other expats is preaching to the converted, and not very helpful. The people who really need to hear culture-changing ideas are the ones who can't read English, who are captive to the Korean language media.

Answer: You are absolutely right.

Two final thoughts on Expat complainers that didn't conveniently fit into the above categories:

1. (generalization ahead. . . ) One of my English Teacher friends has a lot of non-English teaching expat friends -- from other parts of the world than England, USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, with skin-colours other than white, and notes that loudest and bitterest complaints come from white males from English-speaking, first-world countries. She thinks it's because, for first-world WASP males, coming to Korea is the first time white male priveledge hasn't managed to open every door to them: only most doors.

2. A new way to look at complaining. . .

Reflect on the fact that complaining is an act of hope. Really. When there's no hope that a bad situation will improve, people stop complaining and learn to bear it, or (in the case of first-world expats in Korea) go home. The very act of complaining is an expression of hope, of the conviction that Korea DOES have the potential for change, and for growth.

Criticism is also a sign of respect, a recognition of Korea's climbing status in the world. It is much better to have people criticize Korea and hold it up to international standards (with the implicit affirmation that Korea is now a world leader), than to approach it as a place so backwards and stubborn that engaging with the culture would be useless for anyone but observers and documentarians. Such an attitude would cause less stress to the K-defenders, but do they really want Korea to be treated delicately, like a quaint oddity, rather than like an international heavyweight? (Case in point: look how much international criticism the world's MOST powerful country, the U.S.A., receives from other countries -- the fact that Korea now catches the attention of international critics just proves how much Korea's influence has grown. Would Korea rather be a criticized heavyweight like the USA, or a delicately approached cultural oddity, like Bedouin nomads? Which treatment is more respectful, really? An honest criticism, or a condescending, "Look at these interesting specimens!"

If you think about it, criticism isn't a bad thing at all: it's an opportunity to learn something, to improve something. The person who ignores valid criticism does so at his own peril; I would argue that it's the same for countries (look at how bad USA's international reputation is these days, because of plowing ahead with its plans and ignoring the international community). So yeah, because it's all in English, a lot of the K-blog complaining doesn't read the audience that would benefit most from hearing it, but starting the discussion can only lead to deeper insight, right? So bring it on!

Readers: Korean expats and Koreans: Do YOU think expats complain about Korea too much? If so, why? Should they complain, and how? Why is the relationship between expats and Koreans online so adversarial? What's an appropriate mode and medium for complaint, if not online? What can we do to have constructive criticisms heard? Write about it, blog about it, weigh in; e-mail me your thoughts to roboseyo [at] gmail [dot] com and I'll post them here; tell me where to find them online and I'll link them. Weigh in on my comment board. Let's talk about this honestly and reasonably. It's about time.

(Flannery O'Connor Quote from "Flannery O'Connor's Religion of the Grotesque, by Marshall Bruce Gentry)


Anonymous said...

Very interesting read. Thanks for posting this, you've given me a lot to think about.

Cheri said...

This was a good read - thanks for sharing.

The Korean said...

"If you disagree with this, kindly explain why the pro-FTA, pro-America, pro-LMB conservatives were so quiet during the first month of beef protests"

Alright Roboseyo, the Korean will kindly explain :) There are two factors to consider.

1. Pro-FTA, pro-America, pro-LMB conservatives were making all the noise they could in their own forum of conservative newspapers. In fact, the tone in conservative newspapers was borderline hysterical (as they always are), screaming that these candle-wielding protesters would be downfall of Korea. See what you're missing by not reading Korean media directly? (The Korean never reads English editions of Korean dailies, so he doesn't know what they have.)

2. Then why weren't the conservatives coming out to protest to match the effort of the anti-FTA crowd? This is the generational gap in play. Korean politics is set along generational lines. Unsurprisingly, older people are more conservative and younger people are more liberal (in a very broad, general sense.) Even the actions of younger conservatives are dictated by the conservative political culture, which is created by the geriatric bunch.

This type of candle-wielding protest is distinctly a province of liberal-leaning people. It is a direct outgrowth of the protests occurred in the 70s and 80s as a part of the democratization movement. Conservatives in Korea never had this culture because, well, they were in power the whole time and they could send in the riot police and the military to break up the protests any time they please.

Don't get him wrong, the Korean loved your post. And Korea is undoubtedly a more conformist place than America/Western. All the Korean wants to say is that the diversity of political opinion in Korea should not be underestimated.

Roboseyo said...

Thank you for the insight, The Korean.

I really enjoyed reading your article, as well.

You've explained nicely here how, while there is a diversity of public opinion, the amount of public discourse -- or at least, the numbers and interests of candle-wielding demonstrators -- does not represent that diversity.

Hanokgirl said...

Hilarious. Thanks

Anonymous said...

And following along the lines of reading the Korean media, now that I'm back in the US and don't have a large circle of Korean friends and acquaitances to discuss current events and issues, I often look online for "gusts of popular feeling which pass for public opinion." It was interesting to read comment threads relating to the shooting of the Geumgangsan tourist and see echoed many of the same remarks made by expats and ethnic Koreans on English K-blogs, namely, "Let's have candlelight vigils" and "US beef hasn't killed one Korean." By reading comments at different forums, Chojoongdong, Hanky, and Naver, using sorts like most rec'd, and reading longer posts in which commenters explain their thinking, one can get a cross-section of opinions about an event or issue.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I'd like to zoom on these points:

"Now, add to THIS the fact, because of our language limitations, a lot of us can't access the Korean language media in print or TV. This means that, while there might be a very lively discussion of Korea's social ills in Korean, because the English media editors and producers diligently excise almost all such topics from the pages of the English dailies, we have no idea whether social critics set the agenda in Korean public discourse, or whether Koreans just sit in circles repeating to each other the same things they say to us when they meet us!"

"13. But you're telling this to the wrong crowd! You should learn Korean and say this to Korean; telling it to other expats is preaching to the converted, and not very helpful. The people who really need to hear culture-changing ideas are the ones who can't read English, who are captive to the Korean language media.

Answer: You are absolutely right."

I think it is essential to learn to speak fluent Korean to be the ultimate critic. Maybe you should put one more category for the social critic type. The one who has acquired full Korean language skills, has all the first-hand access to information in Korean and is able to directly interact with Koreans in everyday life. (ex. sonagi?)

Eujin said...

If you're both going to write about this, do I have to leave a comment on both blogs?

I can only talk about my own experiences, but I'll try to slip a few inductive statements in there just to make things interesting.

Firstly, I think if you write a well-mannered, thoughtful (and lengthy) piece you're unlikely to attract the attention of the type of people you really want to hear from. It will be interesting to see how many comments you get from people who identify with one of the above categories. We all know who they are.

Secondly, I'm not buying the language lock-out reasoning. I used to work with a lot of expats in London (Americans, Aussies, French...they were there for the money, not for the lifestyle) and they whinged with the best of them. The Americans whinged about the taxes and the service and the fact that everything was always breaking down, the hassle of getting broadband and the laziness of plumbers, the Aussies complained about the weather, the traffic and the sporting ineptitude and the French complained that buildings were ugly and the food was shit.

I also went to school with a bunch on non-Brits in Oxford and they complained that all the women were ugly and the pop-stars were all gay (and that was a bad thing).

When I was in New Zealand expats complained about the bureaucracy, the petty-mindedness, the fact that the prices were the same as Australia but the wages much lower, the washing machines didn't work properly and the houses were cold and damp.

Tapping into the local language media would not have helped many of these people.

Thirdly, I don't think Korea is too bad. I guess partly it's horses for courses. I'd rather live in Seoul than in Tokyo/Osaka or Southern California. I disagree with the Korean that the weather is shitty for eight months. It's shitty now, but a month ago it was pretty good and two months ago it was perfect. I've already told Elgin that I don't mind the apartu as it makes the cities seem smaller and less cluttered. They're basically giving public transport away for free and the hills are great and everywhere, even in Seoul. I like the food (better than sashimi, tonkatsu or udon) and I'm well into panchan as long as I don't have to wash it up. The TV is diabolical but I'd say the same about So. Cal.. It's easy to get into the soccer games and the baseball has cheerleaders.

I guess I don't talk to many white expats on a regular basis. There's one guy in my department but I rarely talk to him and when I do we mainly talk about Taiwan (his wife is Taiwanese). I need to go to the Hole to get my fix of expat moaning. I have lunch with my Korean boss three times a week and he told me Park Chung-hee was the greatest president Korea ever had and that he likes Italians because they cheat and steal like Koreans. But I've grown quite fond of my boss, that's just how old men are. The other Koreans I hang out with seem pretty clued-up and rational. We bicker about hangul and beef but its no big deal. I guess that's an advantage of being up here in the SKY.

I guess the kimcheerleading isn't quite as in my face as it perhaps is for some of you down in the trenches. I got a lift from a guy once who told me that all Japanese people are liars. I thought about having him up about it but he WAS giving me a lift. I also get the odd adjumma remarking about foreigners in my ear-shot and three-year-old kids demanding I say something in English, but hell, they've haven't broken me yet.

I don't know why people moan on the internet. I also don't know why people bother arguing with people they don't respect.

It's like Private Joker says;

"I wanted to see exotic Korea, the crown of East Asia. I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture...and argue with them."

Anonymous said...

"Secondly, I'm not buying the language lock-out reasoning."

"Tapping into the local language media would not have helped many of these people."

Yep. Of course, local language fluency itself does not guarantee anything. However, what I'm saying is that it is the necessary (not sufficient) condition to be the "ultimate critic". I believe it is quite self-apparent.

Eujin said...


What you say is correct. My words weren't so much directed to you as to roboseyo. Knowing the language certainly helps, as does having lived here most or all of your life. Imagine someone writing to the London Times,

Dear Sir, I am an American who has been teaching baseball in the UK for the last eight months. As an "ultimate critic" I feel compelled to make the following remarks about British society...

or the New Zealand Herald,

Dear Mr Editor, I was born in New Zealand and grew up here but my parents are from Korea. As an "ultimate critic" I feel compelled to say something about the way New Zealand is run...

Ultimate critic or not, it still wouldn't go down very well. You'd still get a fair few "if you don't like it here then you can just fuck off" replies.

Of course, it sounds much better than "je ne parle pas anglais, mais j'ai quelque paroles sur la societe anglocanadienne..."

Roboseyo said...

I think, Eujin and Doggyji, that language lock-out has two effects on one's complaining:

1. if one wants to be a constructive social critic, it really would help a lot to be writing in the local tongue, as well as getting one's information from local language sources.

2. for complainers who are complaining for other reasons, being locked out of the language mostly only means I might sometimes feel like I'm the ONLY one voicing my complaints, while, say, the Aussie in Canada, reads Canadese well enough to know others agree with him -- that may not make him complain more or less, nor may it increase or temper the stridence of his complaint, but reading the local language MIGHT at least let our friend from Oz know he's not alone in spotting social weak spots (heck, it might even give him more ammo).

everyone: thanks for your comments, so far.

Jordi Rovira i Bonet said...

Very interesting post for those like me that are still in their first months around here.

I've have commented it a little bit in my blog, but as it is not in English, i feel it fair to drop a line here explaining it.

I think you categorysation of people is quite right with my experience so far. The title is a little bit misleading, though. Because more than the reasons of the complaints, you talk about the complainers.

Oh, and i like the style too. I have stolen some of the pictures you link for my post. And i couldn't avoid realising that the cute girl showing its finger is in a picture names "japanese girl" or something like this. However i have found more girls of the educated kind.

And finally and more important: i want to emphasyze the language too. Not being from a native english-speaking country, and coming from a country with permanent language wars, i understand their rejection of criticism in english... the fact that so many expats live here for years without learning korean sounds like a little bit a lack of respect. I hope i won't be one of them, but you never know.

I'll keep on reading this place, i guess.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Metropolitician said...

Hey all --

That wasn't me -- just an imposter with a cut-and-paste penchant and bad English skills there at the beginning of my apparent rant.

Unless I was "sleep-posting" -- that's when you know you're blogging too much.

I've been getting into it with a few McCain fiends on my blog, and methinks perhaps one got pissy at being caught in his own stupidity.

Or maybe it's any number of people who don't like my blog.

Sorry about that -- trolls will be trolls.

ICanHazCheeseburger said...

You say that you want to use this topic to start a conversation, but your entire premise is a nonstarter. This post is a defense (or explanation devised as defense) of complaining expats and your other post about "defensive" Koreans is essentially a critique of them. Which is precisely the position expats hold--you are not trying to take a new position on the situation--you are still in your expat corner and the Koreans in theirs.

The common thread I see is the arrogance I have become accustomed to seeing among North American expats--men and women. There is a sense that they critique because they come from AMERICA where people have FREEDOM and savor INDIVIDUALITY, etc., and when others cannot take the criticism it is because they are not familiar with FREE SPEECH and ORIGINAL THINKING.

I am Indian-America, and have lived equally in both countries in my hyphenated existence, and have traveled through Asia and the Middle East, and the attitude displayed by Americans is about the same in every country. There is always the usual complaint about race relations (news flash, American race issues--with its horrific history of slavery and institutionalized racism--is not of interest to most people not American) or gender equality. One would think based on complaints from American expats that the only way to be free is to mimic an American woman. Hijab, the veil, early marriage, stay-at-home moms, etc., are categorically dismissed as being enslaved or enslaving, etc.

So, Koreans are not the only ones who are fed up with North American expats whining. Most of the world is.

Your post, while well-written, would have been more worthwhile if you had examined your assumptions. Instead of being defensive, you should have evaluated why so many North Americans feel the need to come to another nation and denigrade it. Where do these instincts come from? Why would you feel that you have the right to criticize at all? Why does anyone have to defend anything to YOU? Where does your arrogance come from?

I grew up in a diverse immigrant family in the U.S. I also studied for my B.A. and M.A. in the heartland of America. I did my doctoral studies in a coastal city. I came across the same "type" of Americans--woefully self-indulgent and self-centered in their world view. The point is that these instincts to complain without self awareness--to mock China's Olympics b/c of human rights abuses while maintaining Gitmo, etc.,--is beyond logic.

Learn to be more self aware. When I was in Seoul, many people stared at me, called out if I was Hindoo. I stopped to chat with all of the people--because curiousity is far better than politically correct cosmopolitanism. Heck, when I was in village in South India, people stared at me because I was wearing jeans. Hell heck, I stared at the first blonde woman I ever saw. So what?

The idea that by becoming economically part of a developed nation opens one up to playing with the "big boys" and thus opens one up to criticism is ridiculous. Why should Koreans or Chinese or Indians have to play by rules set by North Americans? Just because you think that criticism (I call it infantile whining) is a mark of one's individuality doesn't mean it has automatic validity. It doesn't. It just shows that you are as much caged in by the narrow mentality of your own background as you argue others are.

One example: While in Delhi I came across a Canadian woman studying arranged marriages, and she went on and on about how women in India have it bad. I saw other Indians trying to defend women's rights to her. She noticed that I kept mostly silent and she asked how I felt. And I told her that it amazed me how little I cared about what she felt about Indian women. She was taken aback. I told her that I respected her and thought she was a lovely woman, but just couldn't care less about what she thought about India, its poverty, its class inequities. I care very much about India, its poverty, its lack of rights for its citizens, etc., I just didn't give two hoots about what she thought. Why? Because damn if I will get into a defensive mode with her. I could give her a million reasons why she was wrong or why she was right, but the reality was that her position of complaint came from that of superiority--even if she was unaware. She came from a mindset that she needed to fix the poor people of India. Two hundred years of colonization and 50 years of American imperialism have taught some of us Indians that we do not need to justify our country to anyone. The woman was welcome to whine, stay in India and complain, or gush over it, or whatever. I didn't care.

I think Koreans need to get that attitude.

To the expats who have lived in Korea for 5+ years and feel that they have the right to complain: sure you have the right to complain, but also examine yourself and your assumptions and your attitude and learn to evaluate how much of your entrenched background you are still caged within and what the nature of the cage is from which you speak. It is not the matter of how many years you have lived somewhere--it is a matter of where you are coming from.

Let Koreans fulfill their own destiny...and if Koreans find your comments offensive enough that they are defensive, then shut up. There is a reason why there is a private space and a public space. Expats, if you are fed up or angry, complain to your own friends. That's where private space comes in. If Koreans don't want to listen to your whiney ass, they shouldn't have to. Take the cue, and be quiet.

I'd like to see you guys go to South L.A. and whine about Mexican gangs...while in Mexican neighborhoods. See how defensive they get...and you get when you get kneecapped.

Whine in the privacy of your home if you are complaining is your nature. Koreans don't need to indulge you--and if you think they do, then you need to figure out why you think that way and how and why you have this John Bolton-Rumsfeld-Cheney mentality about how the world should treat you.

Roboseyo said...

Hi, Cheesburger.

I put your comment up at The Hub Of Sparkle as a talking point...there were some interesting responses there; you make a few interesting points, but I think your main problem in this comment is a failure to note the distinctions I draw between arrogant unconscious imperialists whining out of ignorance and informed, solution oriented social critics.

Meanwhile. . . mexicans in LA aren't trying to attract Foreign Direct Investment, or become a hub of tourism...don't you think that changes the ground rules for the attitude one ought to have toward criticism?

Anyway, go to and see what else people have said.

Anonymous said...

I know this is coming in late, but I just read this post and think it is fantastic. Thanks for doing all the work it took to lay it out, include the pictures, write it up, the whole bit. This is obviously not something dashed off in 30 minutes, and it shows.

Roboseyo said...

Thanks, Tony!

Chris in South Korea said...

As a fellow blogger in Korea, I've found myself in more than one of the categories you mentioned. I'd love to see Korea become a better place to work / live / play / enjoy, and I've tried on my blog ( to mention the places to go and mention the lifestyle as openly and unbiased as possible.

Does that make me a kimchileader? I hope not. I hope that what I write serves some purpose beyond making a place sound good - that's what the Tourism department is for.

Perhaps the reason people complain - and perhaps louder - is because they can. You hear people complain about their jobs, their spouse, their cat, etc. in every country of the world... At the expat level, you have other ears just waiting to listen...

OK, my two cents have been used up...

Roboseyo said...

I've also spent time in almost all of those categories of complainer, Chris. Even the ugly ones.

I'm glad that people having fun in Korea are writing about it too; that doesn't make you a kimcheerleader: you're only a kimcheerleader if you praise Korea right into the realm of fiction and hyperbole.

I have a lot of fun here, too, and I write about it, and that just makes me a happy blogger whose subject happens to be Korea; nothing more, nothing less (in my opinion).

Thanks for stopping by. I'll check out your blog.

Beaner said...

Well I'm a little late to the party but I dismiss everyone's point of view when it come to bitching and moaning about Korea. My window to the world is focused on bikes and drunken jackassery wether I'm with my American brothers or Korean friends. Your home is what you make of it, Korea has been my home for 7 years now and I get on my bike and the world melts away until I have to... watch out Matiz pulled out in front of me!!! Shit, this bus is aiming for me! Damn drivers! No matter where in the world I go I HATE CARS! Trucks, busses, taxi's, lorries what have you. They suck because of unattentive fools in a 2 ton death trap aren't looking or too busy on their mobile phone.

dokebi said...

Thanks for writing this! That's also how I felt about some of the news articles & some of expat complainers etc.

Foreigner Using Chopsticks said...

I love your Arirang imitation here... spot on.

Actually, Arirang always reminds me of this...

Miss_Ru said...

i'm a student in south korea.
they know there's problem.

so now school's education is focused on globalize.

and the reason they have racism about the non-korean asian, they don't trust foreigner.
the reason that korean be nice to kinda white people is, may suggest, they think, their may be wealth, or nice - just visit for travel. but asian mostly come to work here. that's not bad, but lots of asians come by illegal immigrant, and truly make problem in here. - make us think like just earning money and go back to my hometown.(ok, that's ok), and we're illegal immigrants so make problem don't tracked, make some work! now also other race do make problem but basically, many of us think likewise.
those racism is not caused by just theys' nation, but because the people come here and make problems. - and some poor stupid korean lose job because of them (stupid complainers. - just just so little)

yes, this is called racism.
we have it, sadly and such a shame.
but any other contry have like those racism. (- yes, just self-justification)

and i truly say, yes your guy should not expect much about korea, right now. your guys maybe concede korea too good.
our nation have lots of problem, we've been colony by japan and get our sovereignty just 60years? ago. and lots of stupid dictators - and fight for the democracy- also north korea's war worries.

apparently. we're good, fast developement nation.
but not enough.
in fact,
it's different from your nations in the ground.
we tried to change . so keep work and work and work!
but less expereience.

i know, sadly. our nation in this time we're just not good as your expects.
your guys come here for expectation. that's good. but just korea started late. and during the progress it could be disorder and lots of problems.

i think we're just in disorder now.
we gonna try to be better for living the global worlds' family.
so, please understand us.
and try to input your guys' open mind to korea.

i'm sorry, but we're just not experience that much.
just like a child.
so please, understand little and make us be a better citizen of the world.

and please don't make problem here. koreans're not so open to accident especially rapes and other illegal affairs, - it could be deep hurts.
now the rape case(by white people) make us make bad image about white people too.
and some of pro-globalizener uses it for false propaganda.

- please don't make bad prejudge.
as you come here in korea, your guys're be the your nations' (or races') diplomats.

-i'm not in grammar and words. maybe there's wrong.
sorry for miss works.

Anonymous said...

About the diversity of opinionators of Korea, I guarantee you 100% that the more you learn Korean the more diverse opinions you get. They are quite creative and quite diverse too. But, if you don't know the language you never know until you die. Some of them are way more creative than typical Americans. Learn it or you will always have half-truth about how creative Koreans are.

Anonymous said...

To be fair enough, it's as exactly the same situation as Koreans never understand how fucked-up the American's spelling and English errors are even if they are all NATIVE speakers until they learn the language deep enough. Language lock-out matters hugely. You will probably not be fluent enough to understand Koreans until you die. But, at least, you should leave the humble pocket for credit because of the language barrier. I find you not arrogant at all, though. That Koreans are monocultural is not valid when you don't know the language. For example, they know way more deeply and diversely about other Asian nations than many English-writing authors about Asia, I mean, China or Japan. I find English-writing authors about China and Japan are very shallow, monocultural and inaccurate most of the time. I rather read ordinary Japanese-written papers about China than read some top English-writing Sinologists. It's diverse in Asian way. But, it might not be diverse in Western way. Because, for you, they are all under Confucianism more or less. But, hey, they are microscopically different in terms of the degree of Confuciousness and it rules hugely on the general public's cultural spectrum. Anyway, the point is. They are diverse in Asian way and don't need to be diverse in Western way. And you never know how broad the youngsters thoughts are unless you learn the language properly. You never imagine what kind of words come and go on Korean blogosphere because, LITEREALLY, you can't see it.

loblo said...

Thanks for the interesting read. I will get down right into how I think about these matters.

First of all, I think what expats don't realize is that they think they have uncovered some serious social issues buried deep under the Korean society when those issues have already grown outdated by most of the Koreans.

For example, with respect to how education is so bad in Korea, Koreans have tried to address this problem for so many years. For last 20 years the government reformed the college admission exam for at least 10 times to lessen the burden of students and their family. Result? A big failure.

Koreans do know that there is something greatly wrong in their education system. Almost every Koreans i know have sat at their desks in their high school years wondering why they should go through the misery of studying long hours everyday when American school kids were busy flipping burgers and having sex. The movie called "School Grades are Not Everything" was made in 1989. After 20 years, school grades still ARE everything.

I think pointing out these problems and complaining about them are really valuable whether it comes from one of our own or expats. The problem is no one seems to come close to presenting a real solution. So I guess until then, Koreans are happy talking about other stuff than getting themselves into a tiring discussion about things that have bothered them for their entire lives but haven't found a solution to.

My two cents? Provide more Korean role models who became successful and earned respect without a college degree. One area where a success is possible for those without education seems to be the entertainment business. And I think Seo Tae Ji, who dropped out from school when he was like 15 and became most popular and successful musician in the Korean history, had a big influence on Korean kids and changed people's perception about how one can achieve in life. So expats! Can you think of anyone else?

Life In Korea said...

Enjoyed the post, I've learned for the sanity of my relationshipswith my Korean love to direct any observations, not matter how true or well intended, as the people in Seoul, as opposed to Korea/ Koreans.... have a very unique and aggressive subway culture...etc..

... said...

I have been actively involved with human rights work in during the FTA crisis, I've worked a total of over 3 years (in intervals) in Korea, and have both taught within various hagwons to consulting in Yonsei. As a Korean-American and fluent speaker of Korean, I'm going to address the biggest expressive limitation that this post cites: the language barrier as a failure of connecting to Koreans to advocate for any sort of open-minded change.

Fact: It's NOT the language. This country is simply entrenched in its cronyism and (when you peel back the layers) socially stagnant rampant corruption that there is no room for what isn't a part of an ascribed "public agenda" often crafted by those who promulgate "traditional" Korean culture, and because of the essential passivity that both tacitly accepted and valued, "those people" comprises the vast majority of Koreans.

Before you dismiss this as some hackneyed "anti-corporation" rant, let me point out that it is no coincidence that, from investment banking experience, 80% of Korea's economy is owned indirectly or directly by Samsung or its subsidiaries (often masked under a different luxury title, but sort of the Toyota-Lexus effect), that there is a massive income gap...or that cabinet elections were entirely conducted in an "invite only" banquet party of 1,300 guests. I can go on and on, but I have fought and fought to in Korean and English to the point where I am simply tired of listing the endless examples of what actually happens politically and socioeconomically in this country. I don't even need to restrain my temptation to rant and rave in a profanity-ridden "ex-pat tirade" that falls under one of the above mentioned categories, because I've done it to exhaustion.

The point is, that even if you read, speak, and write Korean, no matter who you talk to or how many letters you write to people, editors, reporters, groups, there is honestly no way to break through a massive cultural kimcheerleading helmet crafted out of fermented soybean paste steeped in Confucian tradition, molded out of cookie-cutter societal norms. Even if the soybean paste helmet does indeed reek (don't get me wrong, outside this metaphor, I enjoy eating the soup but it is simply a fact that it smells bad), they don't want anyone to point out that it does. They'd rather develop a myth about how fermented soybean helmets give them extra brain cells to fuel their superiority complexes than to admit a shameful fact.

Not to mention, people prefer to follow rather than to lead, and they are lauded for doing so. Korea is known for lack of social/occupational mobility. About those "sky schools", I feel terrible for many of the students there because they become "lifers" with Samsung (aka Samsung gives them a lifetime unbreakable contract upon graduation in return for providing them with a comfortable one-way track life with everything they need). The problem with the education is that it's not geared to produce free thinkers or passionate intellectuals. In fact, for the majority of Korean students, school ends at the HS exam. It isn't a coincidence that there's more plastic surgery clinics and dating cafes in a block of every "sky" university than a bookstore or anything academic.


... said...

(from previous)

Students en masse care more about some commercialized excrescence of pre-pubescent pinheads singing the same permutations of copycat melodies run by corporate entities that cull and cultivate pop stars by orphaning them from their underprivileged lives at a young age to be surgeoned into their superficial high pitched Technicolor glory, otherwise known as K-pop. They like to be told what they should do and who they should like. This is in part fueled by the "familial-cluster" ways of Korean society, where it's all about what is passed down, inherited, where it is a societal norm to live with your parents till you're married. I could go into the other reasons deeper but in summary would say that there is a masse equivalent of China's government censorship happening in Korea, and that's (perhaps a more difficult issue to tackle) homogenous societal censorship. Hence, unlike the women who joined the communist revolution in China as a reaction against Confucianism, women in Korea are bred to be docile sidecar idiots (note, I'm not saying that communism is good in any way, nor am I lauding China, just using it as an example). Anyway I'll stop here before I start getting extremely vitriolic, because my gripes against the misogyny of Korean culture probably rivals my disgust towards the Chinese government.

On this note, re: the FTA protests, During the FTA protests people denounced me for even suggesting that the point of the protests isn't about their own personal agendas, nor about "Anti LMB" as they were starting to make it out to be, nor about (as later developed) protests-protesting-the-protesters-protesting-the-government. There was no room or space for any perspective outside of the completely caricaturized extremes. Even the one sentence from me on behalf of the Human Rights Commission published in the JoongangIlbo during that time was COMPLETELY re-worded to the point where it sounded like - wait, no I mean, it was TRANSFORMED into, a mere re-hashing of the anti-political chant that that 99% of the people there were rabidly bandwagonning.

From having people spit in my face yelling at me that I can't know anything about Korea because I'm not born in Korea, being taken for granted in public circles because I'm "not Korean enough" to the SAME people discriminating against me for not having a "Foreigner Look" which translates to some variation of "blonde hair and blue eyes" or at least "european" when I was trying to get a job (I was initially rejected by more places than I can list or care to recall, for merely that reason despite my English Literature degree), I have experienced a great deal of intolerance in this country. I've been marginalized for being able to communicate in Korean and simultaneously have been marginalized for being Korean in blood.

... said...

(Continued again)

I have come to the conclusion that the double-standard reverse-discrimination is symptomatic of what is actually a deep insecurity colored by absolute homogeneity...and given Korea's history as well as catapulted-into-"developed" nation-status that happened ironically under one of the biggest un-reported brutal dictatorships, it doesn't surprise me. The Kimcheelearding stops being obnoxious once you realize that it is sort of like the BAM theory (Black Anthro Theory) about African American cultures, where marginalization led to the hyper-inflation of sexuality as an attribute associated with African American males.

Sometimes, my pet peeve about expat complaints is that they don't realize how much better they, as foreigners, are treated, than fellow Koreans, or worse, Korean Americans, or from their perspective, at the "bottom of the pack," Chinese individuals. Koreans want to be Westernized. They want to learn English at any cost. Hence, foreigners can be paid several times the amount of a native "sky" university graduate and have to work half the hours. It's sort of like watching Koreans protest labor laws when they have some of the best labor unions and rights legally in comparison to many countries. I won't even mention the plight of people such as irregular workers in Korea.

However, what most of what expats complain about are entirely valid. It isn't just culture shock. I've lived in Japan and HK and other countries as well. The problem is that many insular aspects of Korean society are mere status quo that no one wants/cares/tries to change, and any external opinion, even as an "insider," are entirely marginalized or ignored.

It's like asking gift set packagers in Korea to consider the fact that Spam is, actually, NOT a luxury gourmet commodity.

It's just not going to happen. Oh, and by the way, they're also a subsidiary of Samsung or another Chaebol, aka LG.

Roboseyo said...

I am a Filipino writer, and I used to work for a top Korean publishing company. Surprised? Well, those English maniacs do not only employ native speakers as ghost writers. Because of what they call as “cheap labor” in the Philippines, they put up publishing firms and get Filipino writers and editors to produce their English textbooks. The bad thing about it is that they make the other English maniacs back in Seoul believe that they have an all-American staff.

Feeling that these people think too small of Filipinos is already offensive, but being TOLD by a Korean executive that his company is expanding into my country for “cheap labor” is rather hurtful. That incident happened after my company shut down and left me with no choice but to apply for a new job in another Korean publishing company.

It was my worst interview with a foreign executive. At first, the Korean manager/“star instructor”(as what he claimed to be his title) seemed to be impressed with my experience in academic publishing and ESL writing, but when we got down to the salary, he was surprised that I used to earn more than half the salary of a native speaker. After that, he started to say bad things about my previous employer and even asked me, in an utterly condescending way, why I deserved to receive that much. I never felt so small! But just to get on with the interview, I showed him my certificate of employment, some recommendation letters from my former bosses, and my portfolio. And the incredible creature returned them back to me, and told me that he didn't need people who just work for money. He said he needed people with “passion for excellence.” And for a moment, I was lost for words because of anger and disbelief. I wanted to smack him in the face. And then he told me that his company is in the Philippines because of “cheap labor” and so on and so forth.

I know my country is poor, but that doesn’t give Koreans,or any foreigner for that matter, the license to discriminate us in our own soil.

I wanted to tell him that even if I am a Filipino, it doesn't mean I'm not good and doesn't deserve to be paid well. I also wanted to say mean things to him, like how I feel violated as a Filipino with the way they flood our streets with Korean business signs and change our traffic signs in Korean, with the way they damage our hills and beaches to build tourist attractions, and with the rude way they treat Filipinos in public places.

But then I thought that snapping at him wouldn't be worth my energy. So I decided to let him end the interview and thank him for his time. Besides, I could get back at him by simply leaving him ignorant of his own ignorance.

Roboseyo said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Even though Roboseyo categorized complainers, his general attitude about Westerner complains is "why not?"
Also, I like how you are logical in explaining your points.
God i should have read a lot when I was younger!