The following post is on a topic I've been wanting to write about for years and so I have a lot of pent up feelings about this stuff that I’m about to unleash in torrents. I apologise for the massive waterfall of writing that will ensue.
Also, I think it might be prudent to explain that when I say “expats” in this post, I’m referring to people who by their own free will moved to Korea for a prolonged period of time to teach English or try to run a business, because they thought it would be neat, interesting or something new. This excludes refugees or people assigned to work in Korea by their respective governments or international companies etc.
|Tourist map of Itaewon. I refer to it jokingly as "the foreign quarter" or "Toronto/New York town"|
The other day I was reading this article that I found on my Facebook news feed from The Korea Observer about life in South Korea by a certain Laura, no last-name, who identifies as “not a Russian prostitute”. From what I could discern from the article, Laura is an expat and English teacher in South Korea who resides in Seoul’s Itaewon district, essentially the expat Mecca of that city. She has been living in South Korea for ten years and is married to a Korean man. The title of Laura’s article is “Korean Etiquette Equates to mine, mine, mine!” and is a long and searing article denouncing her perceived “selfishness of Korean people” in her everyday life as an expat living and working in South Korea. Laura is sick of the way people push in the subways, sick of how drunken middle-aged men resort to fisticuffs in bars, sick of having to get Korean owned cars towed when they block her from backing out of her own house, and sick of being mistaken as a Russian prostitute when she’s out with her husband (apparently this happens a lot to her). You can read it here. I encourage you to at least glance over it before reading the rest (though I will be using excerpts from it).
While I can certainly understand and empathise with a number of her misgivings, the title of her article is already a gross generalization and immediately reeks of cultural superiority — in other words, its racist. Still, I’m not here to lambaste an article written by someone who refuses to expose even her last name (possibly because she recognizes the problematic stance her own article takes). No, I mean who knows she might have been depressed or particularly frustrated when we she wrote this vehement piece, humans are volatile, whatever. What I’m here to address is just how similar her rant is to myriad other bellyaching sessions I’ve endured from expats during my time in South Korea and out both online and in person in just about equal measure.
During my time in South Korea if I had a dime for every time I’d been surreptitiously nudged by another expat in a bar followed by some quip about how rude Koreans supposedly are I’d be rich. If had a nickel for every time I’d been in a bar frequented by foreigners and offered some juicy nugget of heavily biased criticism of “the people in this country” by some semi-intoxicated non-Korean smoker out front I’d be even richer. Likewise if I had a quarter for every blog post or YouTube video that gets published like this Laura person than I’d be a bloody billionaire. Still to illustrate my problems with these “confessions” I’ll be analysing Laura’s article as a framework.
|I've actually had this problem.|
The first problem with Laura’s article that I hear all too often from other expats as well is gross-generalization. Laura speaks of Koreans collectively, she makes numerous blanket statements, such gems as “Koreans still do not seem deterred in parking illegally wherever it suits them” or “it is sad that the government had to enact a law in order for Koreans to gain some degree of social consciousness” or “My personal theory is that Koreans do not care much about people with whom they have not been formally introduced.” Or better yet:
“As an expat who has lived in Korea for almost 10 years, I can tell you that I used to hope that Koreans would progress as a society in terms of social consciousness and general manners. That change, unfortunately, has yet to fully materialize.”
These are only a few of the instances in which Koreans are referred to as a faceless, uncivilized collective, as an “other”. At several times in the article Laura recounts stories of rude drunken businessmen or college girls blocking the streets as they walk in gaggles. Never mind that these problems are prevalent in just about any major city on the face of the earth (which leads me to suspect Laura is not originally from a large city herself), to Laura, Koreans are just exceptionally rude and socially unconscious. To this extent her article reads like the diaries of traders and colonialists of the 18th century telling stories of successfully navigating the Strait of Magellan in stormy weather only to encounter “curious savages” with “backward ways”, especially with statements like “Koreans have only just recently become aware of basic hygiene through the events of the MERS crisis.” (Seriously?)
To make this even more problematic she indicates that she is in fact married to a Korean man. She does not make any effort to explain where he fits into this “society of rudeness”, is he the exception? Does he share her views that Korea is a socially stunted nation? She never says, for all we know he could be an expat himself (she says he’s Korean, but what does that actually mean?). Does she believe that being married to a Korean man allows her to make crass and sweeping statements about a complex cultural space and the individuals that reside in it?
The problem here is that to suggest that Koreans are “doing it wrong” would suggest that “it”, whatever “it” is, is being done right elsewhere. She quotes Japan and America as being better in this respect.
“on a recent visit to Tokyo I discovered that the Japanese, despite having a similar population density, manage to ambulate in a much more organized manner. In fact, in my three-day visit, not once did I find my way blocked. While the Japanese walk on the left, and Americans walk on the right, both methods allow pedestrians to reach their destinations in a time-efficient manner. Why do Koreans not yet grasp this concept? Anyone who has played the daily game of sidewalk zig-zag knows well that much time and energy is wasted trying to navigate the typical Korean street.”
The proof is in the pudding here. Laura cites Japan as being a good example of order and efficiency in its similarity to America and does not understand why Koreans “have not yet grasped this concept”.
|I admit this is greatly simplifying the problem, but I feel there is an air of truth here.|
Laura has spent ten years in Korea and therefore it is possible that she has visited Japan multiple times. However it is evident that she has never lived there.
From experience I can tell you that urban Japan certainly does have a cleaner image and more orderly society in many respects, but, as many Japanese folks both young and old have confessed to me, this comes at the high cost of individual expression and wide-spread social anxiety and frustration (ever wonder why the suicide rate is so high in Tokyo?) (Incidentally it’s also high in Seoul for many of the same reasons). What is problematic about Laura’s argument here is that she is comparing Seoul, the place she lives in, to Japan, a place she’s only seen in passing, and she’s doing so insofar as it resembles America.
At this point I believe that it is safe to assume that Laura is American herself, though I admit it’s never really safe to assume anything. Still what she is positing here is cultural superiority — America and Japan are similar in that “they’re doing it right”, Korea however, “is doing it wrong”. I’ll admit that at times, walking down the streets of Seoul can be an exercise in twitch reflexes but to posit that it is “the wrong way to be” is condescending and problematic. You’re allowed to not like it, but it is poor form to assume that it is intrinsically wrong. Again echoes of colonial literature and imperialist undertones abound whether she means it or not.
Condescending arguments like these are something I have heard all too often from expats living in Korea while I was over there and it is something I continue to read about in articles such as Laura’s: “Korea is backward”, “they don’t get it”, “they’re stuck in the past”, “they’re nationalists”, “they’re racists”, “they’re too conservative”, “they’re too short-sighted”, “too collectivist”, “too xenophobic”. While many of these are issues that are prevalent and problematic in South Korea which should and likely will change, the way these issues are often expressed by expats forgoes any critical inquiry. Too few times have I witnessed expats seeking reasons for these social phenomena, too few times have I encountered expats attempting to engage Korean society critically and meaningfully, not simply content to point out its “flaws” but actually seeking answers as to why these “flaws” exist in the first place.
|So. . . there are a lot of expat memes. I have used them in order to illustrate that I'm not alone in my frustration.|
Laura makes a few references to Korea’s politics and long history showing that she is at least aware that there is in fact a history to be considered. However, many of her references are of things any tourist could read about in a travel brochure, the glorious linguistic exploits of King Seijong the Great of Joseon (credited as being the progenitor of Korean script) is one she mentions specifically. She talks about the conservative Saenuri party, so she knows a thing or two about local politics. For all I know, Laura might be well-versed in Korean history, she may understand perfectly why South Korea is the way it is, but if she does, she opted to omit any such information or critical inquiry in her article, and this is echoed all too often by her contemporaries. What I’m asking here is that, if these issues really bother you so much, is it not perfectly sensible to assume you might feel the need to inquire as to their origins?
Incidentally and speaking of Seijong and Korean language, the way she talks about language is another point of interest for me as I believe it implies that she herself does not speak Korean, at least to the point of being able to hold a conversation. At one point she describes an altercation she witnessed in a bar with her husband:
“after several minutes we sense a marked shift in the mood of these older men. First the swearing commences with notable curses ‘Gae-ssaeki and ship-saekki.’ Then an empty bottle of soju flies across the room.”
I find it interesting that she highlights the swear-words without even a bit of conjecture about what they might’ve been arguing about. Most expats can identify Korean swears as they are usually among the first bits of Korean they pick up. Certainly a drunken altercation would be full of slurring and raised voices making it difficult to discern, but that she speaks of no other part of the altercation leads me to suspect she might have been incapable of understanding it linguistically. This is of course conjecture, Laura might be fluent in Korean, but I’d be quick to wager that the majority of expats echoing her grievances are not. In fact my own experience has been very telling of this reality.
|I found this reddit by accident. Look! People drawing direct correlations between learning Korean and their quality of life in Korea! I didn't even have to search that hard!|
If there’s one thing that I’ve noticed while talking to expats residing in South Korea, who are most vehment in there criticisms of the country, is that the majority of them, especially those working as English teachers lack proficiency in the Korean language. Now, I understand life is full of obligations, and learning a language, especially Korean is no walk in the park, so I suppose it might be insensitive and unrealistic of me to expect everyone who’s interested in working in a country that does not speak their native language to learn the local dialect. Still, at the very least you should understand the limitations inherent in this choice. While many Koreans, even those who have not studied abroad can speak at least a lick of English, especially the younger generations, most cannot carry a complex conversation about feelings, history, or social grievances in a way that would satisfy them.
All too many expats in Korea that I’ve met are content with speaking their native language, confining the majority of their social pass-times to Itaewon, where you can spend entire evenings in foreign pubs without hearing a lick of the vernacular and only venturing into “Korea proper” when they have to or want to experience “something different”. Thus they succeed in keeping Korea at a “safe distance” even within its own borders! They don’t study Korean, nor have any serious plans to and wonder why they are being marginalized and excluded in the country they have decided to work in.
All this while having the gall to approach me, perhaps imagining me a comrade by virtue of my Anglo-Saxon features (I’m white), and unleashing a torrent of verbal diarrhea about how some “stupid clerk” at a GS25 couldn’t understand what smokes they were asking for by virtue of their shoddy Korean vocabulary which in the five years they’ve spent in the country, can’t seem to make time to improve.
Look, I know Korean is hard, I’ve had my own trials and tribulations studying the language, but if you choose not to learn it while residing in Korea, understand that you are severely crippling yourself. Here’s some perspective. Let’s say you’re from New York and you meet a Korean guy whose been living there for eight years and speaks ten words of English. He constantly complains about how New Yorkers are kind of shitty because they tend to ignore or avoid talking to him (provided they don’t speak Korean themselves, which is most New Yorkers I imagine). What would you think of this guy? You’d probably think that he’s being kind of unreasonable. Maybe you’d like to ask him “how do you expect to meaningfully connect with New Yorkers if you can’t speak English?” Well, in my experience this is essentially what way too many expats in Korea are doing.
It’s just kind of asinine to sit around and complain about how rude, dismissive and exclusionary Koreans are if you don’t speak their bloody language and thus lack the necessary tools that would allow you to interact with them on any meaningful level as individuals (unless they do speak English, I mean a lot of them do, but the majority do not). This stands true for every country in the world that has a dominant language. If you go work in China and you can only talk to small fraction of the population because you don’t speak Mandarin, it’s not the fault of the Chinese people. It’s yours.
Languages aside, if you’re going to spend any extended period of time in another country doing anything at all, and you don’t do any research on that country beforehand, than you’re setting yourself up for hard times ahead. This Laura, seems to be suffering from prolonged culture-shock, ten years of it in fact, which is pretty weird. Albeit there is a huge difference between reading about culture and experiencing it, but considering she’s been leaving there for ten years, I’m kind of surprised she chose to write this article now, which is why I suspect maybe she just had a bad week. Still, maybe I’m not surprised.
|I'm actually really glad someone made this meme. Itaewon is, in a lot of respects, the Mos Eisley of Seoul. (I don't hate Itaewon by the way).|
After reading her article I imagine this Laura person as someone who lives out most of her Korean life in Itaewon, once a “camp town” where poor or disenfranchised Korean women would prostitute themselves to American servicemen; now a space in Korea where non-Koreans are the norm and one can easily get a good burger and a pint wherever they go. She does most of her shopping here so if she has a question she can ask in English, her cellphone provider is down the street with service available in flawless English, she drinks in European/American style pubs that line the streets with white waiters and bartenders or at least Korean bartenders who are able to offer service in English. And god forbid, if she has to leave the comfort of Itaewon and venture into Gwanghamun or Jogno for some god-forsaken reason and face the zigzagging motions and loud boisterous cries of those rude Koreans, it’s just going to ruin her day. She’s been living like this for ten years. In my mind, based solely on this article, Laura is the quintessential self-entitled expat, expecting Korea to conform and warp to her needs, an archetype I’ve met way too often in my Korean travels.
Maybe that’s not who Laura is in real-life, maybe she’s a neat person I’d get along with and maybe has great love for the country she is currently residing in, she’s a decent enough writer at least. But this article paints a picture of someone who has little respect for, understanding of or even interest in the history, culture and people that she finds herself living with. It doesn’t help that she, in no uncertain terms, advocates re-introducing corporal punishment into the Korean school system (I wonder if she feels that America should do the same? Or is it only Korean children that deserve the rod — I’m projecting here). Maybe she wants Korea without the Koreans, in any case, it’s perplexing that she’s endured ten years in this place she doesn’t seem to like all that much. And therein lies the final point I’ll make in this already ridiculously long post.
Many expats, particularly English teachers, have the ability to leave Korea if they so choose. Most expats, or at least the ones in similar situations to Laura, were not pushed to go to Korea because of any cataclysmic event such as poverty, famine or disease, they chose to go there so they could make money or didn’t know what else to do. They go to Korea to fill a demand; to facilitate an industry that itself has roots in imperialism and colonialism. Ever wonder why so many Koreans want to learn English? Easy, cause it’s the language of commerce. Ever wonder why English is the language of commerce? If you don’t know the answer, think about it for a second, there’s a power-balance at work here.
|I feel like there's a lot of truth here.|
For the most part, teaching English in Korea is not a bad gig if you can handle the stresses of teaching, and by tying it to colonialism I’m not implying you’re a bad person if you teach English there. Hell, I’m gunning for a South Korean teaching job myself. In most cases you get airfare, accommodation in the form of your own apartment, and a pretty decent paycheque, well over the local poverty line. The cost of living in South Korea is still not too high either if you play your cards right so much of that money is bankable. Language schools are a big business over there so there are usually contracts available in some capacity in the public or private sectors. It’s somewhat lucrative even on the grunt level.
In order to teach legally in South Korea you need at least a bachelor’s degree from a legitimate university (better of course, if it’s in education). That means that you would've had to be able to afford to go to University to begin with meaning that you would likely need to be privileged to some degree. So chances are, you’re in Korea because at some point, you made the conscious choice to go there. Even in 2005, supposedly when Laura started her teaching career, we had the means to research topics like “life in South Korea” with relative ease. Now it’s even easier, so in this case ignorance really is a choice. Therefore, it’s hard for me to buy the assertion that Laura, or people similarly disgruntled about South Korea were simply not able to know what to expect before going to work there. Furthermore, they likely have family back home that they could likely stay with if they chose to jump ship. Laura is supposedly married, so naturally there are some commitments and obligations to be observed, I imagine she loves her husband, still I somehow doubt it took her ten years to realize she wasn't a fan of Koreans.
I’ve said several times in this article that I don’t know Laura. It’s dawned on me that Laura might not even exist, she could be the work of a troll or just an online alias. She might not be the person I imagine at all. However, the culturally insensitive, self-entitled/important expat that treats their chosen country like a playground or cash cow with little respect for local. . . anything, that she represents in this article is real, and as you can see from the length of this post, greatly frustrates me. If your one of these folks that I’ve had the misfortune of meeting on numerous occasions, you have issues and you need to check yourself, that is, unless you like being miserable in foreign countries.
However, I am an optimist and would like to end on a high note. For every stick in the mud that I’ve met I’ve also met inspiring expats who are genuinely interested or at the very least respectful of the culture of their chosen country. They identify that there are problems and choose meaningful discourse and informed activism over resorting to unsubstantiated stereotypes, vitriol and plain racism. Many of my good friends are these sorts of expats, who understand that countries are complicated microcosms that don't all follow the same rules universally. To you folks I raise a glass, keep leading by example, lets show the world that we’re not a bunch of self-entitled pricks. Let's try to make it a little better.