Monday, February 10, 2014

Clickbait, and self-othering

While you're waiting (with bated breath, I'm sure) for part 2 of "Why Japan Shouldn't Apologize To Korea (Right Now)," I'd like to pass on a few things I've enjoyed reading... in clickbait headline form, just because:

You wouldn't believe how many links in this roundup are exactly the ones I wanted to tell you about!

This blogger investigates a racially charged controversy over the name of a chicken dish, and does something nobody else even thought of doing!

This will be the best Groove Magazine article about Korean racism towards blacks you'll read all day!

Popular Gusts researched the history of blackface in Korea. What he found will blow your mind!

You won't believe what happens when "Drifting Sapphire" sends identical teaching resumes to recruiters with a black photo and a white photo! Go read how she designed the experiment.

And one bit of food for thought:

I followed the conversations at Ask A Korean! about what he calls "culturalism" with great interest, and will probably write about it at more length sometime in the future.

The Korean defines culturalism, in this 2007 blog post, as follows "the impulse to explain minority people's behavior with a "cultural difference," real or imagined" and fleshes it out in his post-Asiana Malcolm Gladwell post.

This tendency to focus on cultural differences is interesting to me, because of all the conversations I've had where someone will tell me what Japanese people are like, what Koreans are like, and what Canadians and Americans are like.

It's also especially interesting to me that people look at their own groups through that lens. Koreans will tell you what Koreans are like, and how Koreans think. Americans will tell you what Americans are like, and what they think. And not just to get away with stuff (playing the 'culture' card, though that happens). I've done it myself.

The Korea Herald recently published this example, by Kim Seong-kon, whom I've dressed down before. The title: "Is Korea a Strange, Enigmatic Country?"

The funny thing about this article is that, according to the Korean's definition of culturalism -- basically using culture as a magic handwave to escape having to look further into an issue -- this article is culturalism to the nth degree. Dr. Kim asks a bunch of questions about Koreans -- Why does this happen in Korea? And suggests that the answer is that Koreans are a strange, enigmatic people: if I did the same, I would clearly be accused of culturalism. "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Koreans gotta give spam sets at thanksgiving" doesn't cut the mustard. But what about when a local does it? If he published this article in Korean, would he be scoffed at for his "how do magnets work?" credulity?

It's just a miracle, I guess. (warning: bad language)

Or would Koreans nod their heads knowingly and murmur "Yes. We are truly inscrutable to foreigners, perhaps even to ourselves." That he is writing in English suggests a foreign audience... does that change things, and make it more or less forgivable to do that same magic hand wave?

Acting as if Koreans (or Asians in general) are beyond comprehension to westerners (either because we're too advanced, or too unrefined - whatever) strikes me as a kind of performance: Koreans' lives make sense to them, more or less. No Korean waves their hand at their neighbor or relative's behavior and says "it's because they're Korean" unless there's a foreigner in the room. So why put on this pose of mysteriousness for the gaze of foreigners who are imagined to be judging Korea from afar? (Or am I making too much of the article being written in English when I suggest that?) What does it mean that the attitude encapsulated here seems to reflect the same attitude old orientalists had toward Asians? How strange that old white writers once wrote about Asians being inscrutable, and those same sentiments are now being echoed back out of the mouths of Asians themselves, for modern Western audiences!

To be fair, as time goes by, I hear less and less often that jung, or han, or "the Korean national character" cannot be understood by foreigners. But what would be the motivation, or origin, of this kind of self-othering, or self-essentializing? Is it a legacy of colonial mindsets? Is it self-flattery, pure and simple? Are they acting out an orientalist's fantasy to attract tourist dollars, or cultural capital? I have some thoughts, and a bit of a reading list to work through, but I'm interested in hearing what my readers think.

Comments are open. Be nice.


Roboseyo said...

Acting as if Koreans (or Asians in general) are beyond comprehension to westerners (either because we're too advanced, or too unrefined - whatever) strikes me as a kind of performance: Koreans' lives make sense to them, more or less. No Korean waves their hand at their neighbor or relative's behavior and says "it's because they're Korean" unless there's a foreigner in the room.

Really? I see Koreans doing that all the time... especially leftist Koreans who are eager for reforms, change, and so on. They tend pretty often to frame in 민족 terms the kind of frustration or bafflement you or I might direct at, say, creationists. The difference being in Canadian or US culture, there is acknowledged room for leftist, anti-traditional identity. You can be a Canadian and be a radical progressive. But in Korea, where the traditional and the conservative are often conflated with "authentic" Koreanness in opposition to the progressive or anti-traditional as "modern" and also as "un-Korean." The difference being Korea's collision with modernity as an outside force. I get the sense Korea hasn't yet arrived at the point where people mock the countrified jackasses who disavow anything progressive as "un-Korean" in the way that seems to have become possible in Canada... or at least, the way it was possible when I lived there. (I haven't for a long time, so I can't comment on the climate now.)

As for The Korean, I can't help but ask whether you've seen the post regarding his behaviour over at The Sonagi Consortium, which I find very resonant of my own views of The Korean. I have trouble seeing how anyone takes what he argues very seriously anymore.

Roboseyo said...

Hi, Gord.

thanks a lot for your comment. It's comforting to know somebody's still reading. :)

I know what you mean when you talk about the term "Korean" is used in such a context... but might argue that the word "Korean" is not really meant to attach to some type of cultural essential quality, but more as a place-filler for what they really think -- something more like "Backwards stick-in-the-mud"-- it's used as a euphemism the way a Canadian might use the word "old school" when they really mean "redneck."

As for The Korean and The Sonagi Consortium... I did read that post, and at his worst, perhaps that description is true. But I think that The Korean makes some very interesting points that are worth engaging regardless of your view of his online conduct in other cases. It's hard to get involved in the volume of online back-and-forth The Korean does both at The Marmot's Hole and on his own blog, with your hands coming off clean all the time. There are a number of other bloggers whose online behavior makes me think I would strongly dislike the person if I met them... but whose ideas are either interesting or frustrating or articulate enough that I find myself coming back to read them anyway.

Roboseyo said...

Well, I'll be honest, I only read blogs by expats in Korea occasionally... and blogs are sort of dying out in general, but that's another discussion. (I don't pay attention to my own readership but I suspect it's down, since I'm not flooded by comments as I once was.)

I know what you mean about "Korean" but I mean that, yes, the Koreans I know who are progressives, and think change is necessary,and all that, really do use the word that binary way: sometimes, it just means "to do with Korea" and sometimes, it represents everything that's backwards, anti-progressive, and reprehensible in Korean society. (Rather like how sometimes I use the word ajeoshi to mean any man over a certain age, and sometimes I use it to mean the sort of man I find unpleasant to be around.) Words can be polyvalent that way. Though I'll admit it's often Koreans who are arguably bicultural (or have extensive experience living *somewhere* overseas, even just in another part of Asia) who use the word "Korean" that way.

As for The Korean: I think that post is true not just when he's at his worst. I find his agenda pretty obvious across his writing, or, I did when I bothered to read much of it. I know what you mean about bloggers whose online behaviour make them seem like they'd be horribly abrasive in person (and sometimes they aren't) but that's irrelevant to my point. It's funny he slams a rightwing shill like Malcolm Gladwell, given his own ulstraconservative streak and his... can we call it "shilling" when it's (apparently) uncompensated nationalism that motivates one to publish misleading junk?

(His opposition to any sort of push-and-pull in terms of social change in Korea, and support of random assault on children (he terms it "destructive chipping-away at the social order" which is a complete lawyerism for "social change of a kind with which I'm uncomfortable") was certainly the last straw for me... especially given his graceless refusal to back off after it was made clear the woman for whose actions he was an apologist was well-known as a mentally ill bully who picked on young women on the subway. In part because I only saw his laughable disinformation-post on Fan Death--thoroughly debunked in the comments section--after that discussion.)

Unlike you, I don't find myself coming back to read The Korean despite his flaws. Though, sadly, I did end up visiting his site a few times since he was practically the only game in town commenting on the stuff I've been preparing a long post about. (Which is part of why my disgust with his site has resurged in the last few days.)

As they say: if you don't like the blog, stop reading it. Except, of course, then how can you debunk the trash published on it?

Roboseyo said...

That Korea Herald piece is just....wut. Sounds like someone was rushed for a deadline and decided to just list all the ~weird~ things he could think of about Korea (with some help from his foreign anglophone friends).