Monday, September 23, 2002

The Korean's Korea Herald Article, cut-and-pasted for posterity

Originally from here.

Why do expats here complain so much?

Following is Part I of a popular online series examining expat-Korean relations. The essay was originally posted on and has been updated for The Korea Herald. - Ed.
Full disclosure: I am a Korean-American who has lived in the United States for the last 11 years. I do not have any firsthand knowledge about expatriate life in Korea, other than the few times when my newly-acquired American sensibilities grate against what I experience in Korea during my visits.

My exposure to expat life in Korea came when a few expat blogs began to link to or quote my blog. Through this admittedly limited peek, the feature of the expat lives that immediately jumped out at me was the length, frequency and severity of expats' complaints about Korea.

Because I am aware of my limited perspective into expat lives in Korea - both with respect to its scope as well as the medium through which it is delivered - I do try to temper my criticism against the expats in Korea who complain. Expose people to a different environment, and there are always things to complain about, simply because things are not familiar. The fact that these complaints are expressed through the internet magnifies their severity. And to be sure, there are a lot of legitimate complaints that may be lodged. I myself am completely guilty of complaining about Korea, also through online media. My complaints run the gamut of fairly significant to utterly trivial; I complain about racism in Korea, but I also complain about lack of toilet paper in public bathrooms. Given the plank in my eye, I try to view expat complaints with tolerance. After all, we all resort to venting in order to deal with the things that we do not like, and writing online is as good a way as any, especially when all of our family and friends are far away.

Even with that caveat, however, many complaints from expats that I have seen show a certain degree of ignorance. This is not to say that complaining expats are dumb. It is only to say that their complaints reveal that they do not understand certain things, because if they did, they would not be complaining as much and their pitch would not be as strident.

What are these understandings that complaining expats lack? There are three: first, how much of their deeply-held beliefs are inapplicable in Korea; second, how little of Korea they see; third, how much influence Korea's modern history exerts upon Korea of today.

Alternative perspective on society

One of the reasons for the popularity of science fiction is it offers the possibility of an entirely different way of life. After all, it is an accident of evolutionary history that homo sapiens took their present form. In another life-sustainable planet of different environs, sentient beings with high intelligence may have taken a completely different shape - perhaps with an exoskeleton, perhaps with psychic communicative abilities.

It is this type of perspective that many complaining expats lack: They do not understand that there could be an entirely different way of running a functioning society different from their own.

This is not to say Korean society is completely different from the countries from which most expats hail, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. In fact, after deeper examination, one would find there are more similarities than differences. However, there are many instances where Korea employs an expression of society starkly different from that of the countries listed above. When such instances arise, complainers do not use them to re-evaluate their fundamentally held beliefs; instead, they complain about the collective stupidity of Korean society.

The recent row about Korean protests against beef imported from the United States provides a good example. Tens of thousands of Koreans occupied the streets of Seoul for many nights protesting against beef imports, primarily because they feared the possibility of mad cow disease.

Complainers had a field day with these protesters. Why are thousands of Koreans filling up the streets for something as obscure as American beef? They must be hopelessly dumb, easily manipulated by the sensationalist media! Where are the sensible people who oppose this insanity? All of Korea must be going along with this! These Koreans are unable to think for themselves, no better than lemmings following the one in front of them to a precipitating death!

For an expat that wishes to be educated, this instance would have presented a perfect opportunity to challenge his or her belief system. Why aren't thousands of Americans filling up the streets protesting government policies that injure them much more gravely than American beef import injures Koreans? Could Korea be demonstrating an alternative model of democracy, one that is more direct and active? Are all Koreans truly acquiescing to the protesters, or are the dissenting Koreans simply letting the protesters have their spasm? If the latter is the case, is there any benefit of avoiding the yelling match that has become universal in the American political scene?

Asking these types of questions requires a basic respect towards Koreans and their way of running society, a tacit faith that, no matter how strange things may seem at first, there is a good reason when a modern democracy of 49 million people acts in a certain way. Complaining expats lack that type of respect. Instead of critically re-examining his or her own social conventions, a complaining expat reaches for the most improbable conclusion - that this entire country is somehow hysterical, irrational, crazy or just plain dumb.

View through a tiny window

Many of my friends from Korea had spent several years in various places in the United States, and it is very amusing for me to hear their broad impressions of America that are inconsistent with one another. "America truly is a cultural melting pot," declared one friend who spent three years in San Francisco. "America is just white people who all go to church on Sunday," said another friend who studied for four years in University of Nebraska.

What had made my Korean friends make such incongruous statements? What they did not realize was that America is a very large country, and one part is radically different from another. Thus their broad description of America was rather limited, because they failed to appreciate how little of it they had actually seen, no matter how much time they have spent in one place in America.

Similarly, complaining expats fail to appreciate that the Korea that they observe is no more than a thinnest sliver of Korean society - namely, the young, English-speaking younger generation of Koreans. Because most expats tend to be younger and not fluent in Korean, their observation of Korean society is limited to this perspective. Indeed, often the view through that small window on Korean life would seem absurd. But instead of realizing the size of the window, the complainers bemoan the absurdity of the view itself.

First, the youth part. The generational gap in Korea is more like a generational chasm. On one hand, Koreans in their late 50s to early 60s grew up in constant danger of death from war and starvation; while Koreans in their early 20s have always been blessed with affluence. Now, consider - how many presidents, prime ministers, CEOs, prominent thinkers and other leaders of society are in their late 50s? And how many are in their early 20s? In any country in the world, the first figure would vastly outnumber the second.

When it is older people who are more responsible for the societal direction, and when the same older people have a radically different mentality from that of the younger generation, whatever perspective one gains from the younger generation is at best limited. It would not matter how long one has lived in Korea, or how many younger Koreans one has spoken with. To criticize Korea based on that limited picture is, simply put, silly.

Again, the criticisms of the mad cow disease protests illustrate this point. The protest was primarily youth-driven, with most of the participants in their 20s and 30s. The Koreans who disagreed with the protesters tended to be older folks, whose political culture did not consist of protests in the streets but dry discourse in newspapers.

Suppose an expat has come to the conclusion that the protests were indeed irrational and hysterical. Then an expat may speak to 100 Koreans in their 20s and 30s, and "confirm" that all Koreans are in favor of the protests, and complain that Korea is an irrational place. But if he bothered to read a newspaper in Korean, which would have spelled out all the things that were wrong with the protests, he would have realized there were plenty of Koreans who agreed with his position.

This brings up the next limitation on expat perspectives - the language barrier. A complaining expat often does not realize that there is always a full political discourse about whichever topic of complaint that she may choose, in the Korean language. (After all, why should Koreans carry on their affairs in any other language?)

Truth is, Koreans are generally aware of most things that ail their society, and they are in active communication addressing those things. If a complaining expat bothered to read such communication, she could focus on criticisms that actually serve a constructive purpose. Without having done so, her criticism only invites scoffs from Koreans, who reply: "You think we don't know these things?"

These two limitations beget another limitation, namely the young English-speaking Koreans. Decent English-speaking ability is not an easy feat for Koreans. What makes a Korean fluent in English? Many factors are at work, but one important aspect is a ton of money. Without it, a Korean cannot afford private English-speaking tutors or spend several years in an English-speaking country studying.

Therefore, by speaking only to English-speaking young Koreans, not only are expats insulated from older Koreans, they are also closed off from younger Koreans who are poorer. What kind of understanding about Korea could an expat possibly have with this kind of limited exposure?

Understanding of modern Korean history

A cursory look at Seoul shows a fantastically futuristic city. People carry around crazy technological gizmos. The internet works at blinding speed. Everywhere you go there are flat-screen panels showing moving images, just like visions of the future that we used to have in the sci-fi movies of yesteryear. Upon seeing this spectacle, it is only reasonable to expect Korea to be a fully modern country, and for its citizens to behave in a fully modern way.

But this outlook could not be more misleading. 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 those born and raised in the pre-modern era are not only still around, but they are the people who are in their 50s and 60s, leading the country and educating the next generation.

Few people, including younger Koreans themselves, understand this point: only 50 years ago, Korea was poor. At the time, Korea occupied the place in the world where the poorest African countries are now.

There is a Korean expression of describing poverty - a person is so poor that "his anus would tear out." This expression came to be when Korean people were starving, and they would peel tree bark, boil it and eat it. Since tree bark has a lot of indigestible fiber, one's anus bleeds as one excretes after eating tree bark. This is the kind of world in which Koreans in their 50s and 60s used to live. Can any expat from a wealthy country (regardless of how poor s/he may have been in that country) imagine the worldview of a child growing up in this level of deprivation?

Miraculously, Korea managed to pull itself out of such abject poverty into the wealth it currently enjoys. However, that was not a normal development. This incredible, borderline mutative economic growth could not have happened without the attendant mutative changes in Korean society and culture. A country does go from $87 per capita GDP in 1962 to $24,783 per capita GDP in 2007 without instances of things that appear strange and not readily comprehensible.

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. Accordingly, almost all complaints about Korea are related to this central keystone in one way or another. For example: "Koreans drive like maniacs!" But the vast majority of Koreans did not start driving until the early 1980s. In other words, Korea has a very young driving culture, and we all know how we drove when we were very young. Not knowing this, the maniacal driving is simply inexplicable - why would anyone recklessly risk one's life driving this way? And the complaints continue.

Why do expats in Korea complain?

So let us circle back to the main question: why do expats in Korea complain?

Many factors are outlined above, but among them runs a common thread: laziness. Instead of scouring every aspect of the new country for more learning, complaining expats are content with the readily available. They sit within the comfort zone of what they already understand - the way in which their own society works - and do not bother to learn the completely new ways in which another society works. When they do decide to peek outside, they do not bother to find out the size of the window through which they see Korea, nor do they bother to expand that limited scope. And finally, they do not seek to look deeper into whatever aspect of Korea that they do see.

Therein lies the prescription for understanding Korea: try to observe mainstream society. Learn to speak and read Korean. Engage Koreans of all ages, and talk to them about serious topics just like you would do at home. Read Korean newspapers. Korea has a ton of quirks and oddities, but none of it is incomprehensible. They have their own logic, but such logic can always be understood. In the end, the deep joy you gain from having acquired an entirely new perspective would far surpass any fleeting satisfaction gained from complaining.

By T.K. Park

Park is the editor-in-chief of - Ed.


The Korean said...


How did you manage to get the story link? I'm gonna steal it.

Anonymous said...

Ooh nicely done, and very well written by "the korean".

I was thinking recently about another reason we complain. I'm not sure if it's been brought up, but another reason is to find common ground with other expats. There are whole friendships here based solely on complaining. I've made friends here with people who I would never otherwise keep social ties with in America. The basis for a lot of those friendships is a shared sense of culture and suffering/culture shock/confusion. Which leads to complaining, and well, more complaining.

I'm not as close to those people as I was initially, but as a newcomer it's very easy to make those kinds of friendships.