Friday, December 24, 2010

Koreans are people too

Some of the things I see written about Korea stun me for the outrage they would cause if Koreans said it about Westerners or non-Koreans. Granted, I'm one who frequently criticizes Korea, particularly Korean government, but I would like to think that I've kept my criticisms qualified by degrees or as reflective of parts of Korean society.

I came up with the idea for this post about a month ago, when I read this post on a message board, which positions Westerners as rational and Koreans as inherently irrational because:

"remember we Westerners want to talk in facts and such (our tv shows are full of info and history), but alot of the "facts" they know are from their books and such"

The writer goes on to say, "(dont get me started on the emptyness of the local tv programming)". Anyone who has ever seen Western TV, especially the most popular programs, would never claim that it is "full of info and history", except for some staunchly racist boor who can't conceive of reason and intelligence existing apart from, our outside of, the West.

At the end of the post, he uses the word "locals". There is perhaps no more pejorative term for Koreans used online than "locals", even more pejorative than "K-girl", "K-teacher", "Kimmi". Local implies an unfathomable gap between the writer and Koreans, the sort imagined by European explorers. It's really a step or two above something further dehumanizing like "natives" or "savages", as in "I spent a lot of time with the locals, who were quite adamant about the healing powers of some fermented cabbage they referred to as 'kim chi'".

A discussion I once saw about the Korean tendency to have the window open a crack even during cold weather turned into a discussion about Korean manners, which concluded with someone saying something to "the only manners Koreans have..." I'm sure the person wouldn't make such a statement about Korean-Americans or blacks, no matter how much time she had spent around people from those backgrounds and how much frustration she had received at their hands.

Based on the Internet and discounting venues like YouTube or newspaper articles, the only one who seems to be openly racist or xenophobic on legitimate Internet fora is us. We go on and on about how Korean women are not attractive, intelligent or bearable as companions, we talk about the pervasive irrationality of the education system ("what exactly do they learn all day anyway?"). It's undeniable that Korea has a problem with being nativist and xenophobic, but we don't act that much better, if better at all, when discussing Korea.

We have a vast belief in the superiority of Western values, to the extent that we conflate Western values with the West. This is why we ask for Western doctors because Korean doctors aren't logical, though with a life expectancy higher than America's, Korea is probably doing something right. In believing in our supreme, invincible superiority while paying lip service to the value of other cultures, we become the caricatures we mock, The kind of person who says "yes, I believe that all people are equal, as long as none of them are black and all of them are Korean."


Roboseyo said...

hear hear! well said.

I also really tire of the casual dehumanization that can occur on K-blogs and discussion boards... it seems to get especially bad on discussion boards, though there may be reasons for that... (a few years ago, I wrote a series titled "why do expats complain so much?" These days, I try to avoid engaging with it, because what's the point, really? If I re-assert the diversity and individuality that can be found among Koreans, I'll just be dehumanized myself as an "Korean uncle tom" who's "gone native" and maybe just caught yellow fever, or been bitten by the kimchi fly, or some equally ridiculous dismissal of my own view.

I've seen this in other areas to - when I studied drama and literature in university, going to plays and reading authors, most of us students went through a stage where we knew enough about literature to criticize a play or a novel, but not quite enough yet to appreciate it on its own terms despite possible flaws. As our knowledge and understanding grew, we passed through that stage and started to see a different point of view... MUST people go through that stage? Maybe... but hopefully as quickly as possible.

And, there ARE a lot of people who DO have a good understanding and compassion for Koreans, if you choose to look in those places instead. I'm No Picasso is one blog I've been recommending to eveyrone I meet, as a perfect example of someone who has paid her dues, and views Korea with compassion and generousity, and acknowledges the individuality of her Korean friends and students, without blinding herself to the issues they DO face, which those critics you mentioned tend to harp on.

It doesn't help to lump expats in one group, saying that "they always lump Koreans into one group" -that one cuts both ways.

Roboseyo said...

did you notice the poster you quote joined Dave's on September 4, 2010: the very first flush of ignorance about Korea. It's unfortunate other commenters don't step in with a little balance, but that explains a little.

Adeel said...

I haven't read that blog in a long time, but she is a good writer. I liked your series on complaining, as well as your guide to making friends. It might not persuade the thickheaded, but it's a nice guide nevertheless and amusing if you've been here for a while.

I don't think the join date is as indicative as the writing style. Having been here for an hour or a week doesn't mean English-language TV is the epitome of civilization.

Roboseyo said...

No. That was the most ignorant part of the comment - American programming is based on facts and history? Really?

This guy ought to stop comparing crappy Korean comedy and variety shows with great shows on HBO and such, and start comparing them with the western shows they most resemble: junk like "S*#& My Dad Says" and "Two and a Half Men" and "Real World: White Trash Edition"

David said...


This is David from 10 Magazine. This is off topic, but I was wondering if you'd be interested in writing or assisting with an article on running in Korea.

You can reach me at dc[at]