Monday, September 23, 2002

Roboseyo's first Full-Page KH Article, cut and pasted for posterity.

originally here
Why do Koreans get so defensive?

Something funny happens when Koreans and expats start talking about Korea together. Because of a perception, especially online, that expats in Korea never stop judging and criticizing Korea, offset by the perception, on the expat side, that Koreans get unreasonably defensive and irrational at the slightest hint of criticism from a non-Korean, I contacted T.K. Park ( -- whose writing online attempts to explain Korean thinking to non-Koreans.
We asked, "Why do expats complain about Korea so much?" and then, "Why do Koreans take criticism of Korea so poorly?" At the end of the article, I invited others to join what became a very fruitful discussion. Here is some of what I learned. The first thing to note about defensiveness is that while complaining is a natural human tendency, getting defensive is also a natural human response.

It is helpful to remember that most Koreans identify with their ethnic and national identity much more personally than many Westerners: Koreans often call their language "uri mal" -- our language, and Korea, "uri nara" -- our country. To demonstrate what this means, read these three sentences out loud: "Does this DVD have subtitles in Korean?" "Does this DVD have subtitles in MY language?" "Does this DVD have subtitles in OUR language?" Quite a difference, isn't it? Now try these three, to see why some Koreans take criticism so personally: "Why is he criticizing Korea?" "Why is he criticizing MY country?" "Why is he criticizing OUR country?" Another thing to remember is that Korea has joined the first world incredibly quickly: People alive today grew up in danger of starvation just decades ago. This means Korea is still getting used to being a first world nation. The kind of press an emerging Korea got in the early 1990s -- "Here comes the Asian tiger!" -- is a lot more fun than the scrutiny Korea now receives as a first world nation.

Tough truths for those tired of criticism

First, the question of who has the right to criticize is muddier than it has ever been. The old response, "You should learn more about Korea," is sometimes a valid criticism, but occasionally, it is a polite mask for the nationalistic and racist idea that only Koreans could ever understand Korea, and any criticism from non-Koreans is unwelcome, not because their complaints lack grounding, but because of who's speaking.

The problem is, these days, more than a million non-Koreans live in Korea, work, spend money, and pay taxes here. We have invested in Korea, and benefit if Korea does well. By watching and studying, we have a view of Korea that people raised here do not. The old sneer, "Yankee go home" does not work for us, because we are home.

Transnational adoptees, part-Koreans raised here and abroad, exchange students here, Koreans returning from overseas study, and migrant workers, all have different views, too. It is dangerous to disparage them all, because they weren't born and raised here, or can't speak Korean perfectly, or because their minds were "Westernized" during their overseas education, or, even worse, because their blood isn't pure Korean.

Korea will quickly find itself on the outside looking in at the global community if it refuses to engage with a quickly changing world, or take advice from non-Koreans on how to get non-Korean investors to invest here, and non-Korean tourists to spend money here.

Next truth: There's no more hiding in the world of instant communication. Korea is a power player now, and power-players are targets for attention and criticism. Fifteen years ago, if a factory owner in Jeolla cheated his Indonesian employee, or if a group of Koreans insulted a Japanese tourist, the worker or tourist would go home, complain about it at his local bar, and that would be all.

Now, thanks to the internet and the growing number of non-Koreans who know the Korean language, and Koreans who know other languages, the language barrier can no longer keep Korea's domestic affairs domestic.

In the global village, there are no more secrets, and increasingly, countries will get exactly the reputation they deserve. Every country gets its turn in the spotlight, both for good (seventh in Olympic medals!) and for bad (PD Diary's dishonest mad cow reporting featured on CNN). If Korea doesn't like what people say about it online or in print, it would be more useful to look in the mirror than to shoot the messenger.

Finally, expats and locals in every country complain. Koreans in America complain, Koreans in Korea complain. Why wouldn't expats in Korea complain, too?

We're humans, not saints, and complaining is a popular human pastime, everywhere. Moreover, upon looking closer, there are many, many expats, blogs, and commenters who are very supportive and positive about Korea, and who get forgotten when one harsh critic takes the spotlight. Because the internet can bring out people's ugly sides, things are also much more negative online than they are in real life; for a more accurate picture of the expat experience in Korea, turn off the computer. Invite a foreigner to your house instead, or take one to climb one of Korea's beautiful mountains.

Pots and kettles

On both the expatriate and Korean side, it has helped me to remember this simple truth: The silliest, most ridiculous things Koreans say to defend their country, and the harshest, worst things expats say against Korea can be repeated and remembered much more than reasonable and rational conversations.

Simply because the extreme cases make for better storytelling, these repeated stories pool together and form cartoonish caricatures, both of dogmatic Koreans making ridiculous claims to defend their country and of bitter expats who never stop complaining.

Neither of these images has much resemblance to actual reality.

The complaining foreigner

One of the strangest compliments I ever had, was from a New Zealander named Greg. My roommate and I met him near our house, and invited him to eat with us. Halfway through dinner, he said, "You know, we've talked for thirty minutes now, and I still haven't heard either of you say anything negative about Korea."

Another person I know was attacked because somebody didn't like what he wrote about Korea. Blogger Brian from Jeollanam-do had a cyber-terrorist publish his personal information and try and get him fired from his job. The attacker wrote, "Let's correct this ignorant foreigner's behavior," as if they were training a dog not to pee on the carpet.

Cathartic complainers

A lot of complainers are off-duty diplomats: Because many non-Koreans look different, we know we are being watched, and try to say the "right" things about Korean food, culture, and today's hot topic. After a day of diplomacy, some meet with other foreigners and criticize, the way hotel receptionists come home after smiling all day, and scowl all night.

Some people, believe it or not, actually aren't having a good time in Korea.

Fifteen years ago, many of these complainers would have worked their grievances out by scribbling in paper diaries hidden away on shelves. Now, thanks to the internet, it often goes online instead, and some people's most cynical sides get an audience they probably don't need. While they're free to do what they like, I'd advise some of them to go back to paper diaries instead of leaving their most negative thoughts out where anybody can read them.

These people are writing for personal reasons, not for an audience, and it's good for them to vent their vinegar, but personally, I don't want to be around for it, and believe me, Koreans are not the only ones tired of this kind of whining. It is one of the main reasons many long-time expats don't spend much time around first-years, and honestly, much of it is best ignored, or taken with a grain of salt the size of Daegu.

Missing my true tone

Some of the harshest reactions I've had to my thoughts were from readers or friends who didn't notice the bemusement, irony, or humor in my tone. Stories are fun, and humans are funny, and laughing about life's ridiculous situations does not equal a blanket judgment of a culture. Unfortunately, the ones who need to lighten up the most are the ones who don't get the joke.

The social critic

Unlike venting ranters, social critics are writing for an audience, and they're writing to make a difference. They do not speak in ignorance or judgment. They have tried their best to understand Korea in all its complexity, and they want Korea to become the best country it can be (and not just a mirror image of some other country). They have started pointing out areas where Korea has not achieved stated goals yet. These people play an important role in a healthy society. They point out flaws, not like a bully trying to humiliate, but like an adviser trying to plan the best road.

While the best social critics are constructive, focused on solutions instead of problems, and full of hope for improvement, all critics ought to remember that their tone, as much as their ideas, determines what kind of audience and response their writing will have.

Tough truths for expats

Though more and more English language sources on Korea are becoming available, the fact remains that without the ability to draw from original Korean language sources, the best we can achieve is skillful recycling, augmented by storytelling. Writing an article in English that Korea needs to put its money where its mouth is to achieve true globalization is pointless. The only Koreans who can read it already have. Either we need to learn the language and join the discussion properly, or acknowledge that our main audience is the small percentage of Koreans who've learned English, other expats and English readers who are interested in Korea.

Also, some complaining expats really are too harsh: graceless, tactless, and unwilling to offer even the tiniest benefit of the doubt. This attitude reflects more on the expat than on Korea itself. Relentless criticism is just as one-sided and untrue as blind praise.

Both online and in real life, for better or for worse, bloggers usually get exactly the audience they deserve, and expats with attitudes usually end up with exactly the friends they deserve, too. Tired of all the complaining? Then stop complaining, and stop spending time with people who complain! Act like the kind of person whose company you would prefer to the whiners.

Finally, remember that Koreans talk about Korea very differently with other Koreans than they do with foreigners. You are not the sole critical voice crying out in a desert of nationalist cheerleading.

Koreans know what parts of their system are broken, and they discuss them in detail with other Koreans, but when they talk with foreigners, many prefer emphasizing the positives. This is either because they aren't confident enough with their English to clearly articulate their thoughts on Korea's social issues, because they don't know you well enough, or because like it or not, you are still usually seen as a guest.

What I got from it all

The main thing I've realized from this discussion is that our attitude depends mostly on where we fix our gaze. By focusing on the negative, we get trapped in negativity; by focusing on the positive, we can have a great time in Korea, or anywhere. There is lots to get angry about in any country, though it's easy (admit it) to paint life back home in rosy hues. I had lots to say about Canada's shortcomings when I lived there, too, but the people I prefer to be around, and the ones I prefer to read, are those who have taught themselves to notice and comment on the good stuff as well as the flaws, who make a point of balancing things out, not to flatter, nor to appease rabid netizens, but because of the person they choose to be.

Willfully choosing to seek out and dwell on the best parts of life is a discipline that does not always come naturally, but it's worth cultivating, wherever I live, and I hope it makes me into the kind of person I'd enjoy knowing. It's not willful ignorance, but willful optimism, and it helps me enjoy my life.

I think that the best way to do this is simple, too: get out of the house. It's easy to stay home all weekend, but getting up on the mountains, or mucking around the countryside, sightseeing, always puts me back in a positive frame of mind, especially if I can do it around some positive people, expat or otherwise.

Fact is, the expats who have the most positive attitude don't get online even to praise Korea, because they are too busy having a great time to stop and write about it.

So after all that talk, nobody's off the hook. Online lurkers ought to get out of the house and interact face to face; constant complainers ought to reconsider where they direct their gaze, and Koreans ought to come to grips with the fact that there are many non-Koreans who stand to gain or lose as Korea goes, and who deserve to have their voices heard. While I'm not making excuses for rudeness or arrogance from any quarter, hopefully we can look at each other with a little more understanding, and a little less judgment.

Rob Ouwehand's blog can be seen at -- Ed.

By Robert Ouwehand

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