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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Sewol Ferry Disaster: Why we Must Question some Aspects of Korean Culture

jinjoo2713 (Naver User)

In the aftermath of great tragedies, one must be thorough in drawing conclusions about the causes and the way people respond in times of trouble and be careful not to explain away matters on handy scapegoats.  Asking pertinent questions is very much a part of this.

The captain of the Sewol and his crew were obviously in the wrong, their individual actions and orders cost lives and they should rightly be brought to justice.  However, the reasons behind their actions are complex.  It is convenient for everyone, including Park Geun Hye and her government, to brush away the issues highlighted by this disaster as the result of solely individual errors and incompetence.  This may be so, but they have to be more thorough than that.

There have been a variety of articles written that place a fair amount of blame on Korean culture for what happened (many from Koreans themselves), and inevitably people have become upset, calling this simplistic and racist (mostly non-Koreans).  I have two thoughts on this; 1) Yes, it is simplistic to say that culture is the sole cause for the disaster, of course it's not, but I have not heard anyone make this claim, only that it may be part of the reason for it or exacerbated it; 2) It is not racist, how can it be?  We are talking about culture, not DNA. People that constantly make this claim are using a kind of language which is not true, unhelpful, and emotive.

The truth is, individuals are significantly influenced by the culture in which they are brought up and this drastically impacts on their individual thoughts and actions.  It is too simplistic to say culture caused the disaster, but did it play a role?  I would argue that the evidence so far suggests it may very well have done, and it is not wrong to suggest it as a possibility and should not be insulting to do so.

I think there are two main aspects of Korean culture which may have helped cause or exacerbate the catastrophe (and I think they are linked):

  1. Hierarchical Respect Culture
  2. A disregard for rules and regulations and lack of knowledge of safety procedures

Of the two factors, number 2 might be the most important.  "But this hasn't got anything to do with culture", I hear you say.  But you'd be wrong.  Sure, one can't blame it on Confucianism (the usual turn-to) or pinpoint it to other parts of cultural history, but a lack of respect for safety protocols, rules, and regulations is a modern day cultural issue in Korea and is something all of us who live here regularly see. This is why I shake my head in disbelief that articles like this pop-up, titled "Stop Blaming Korean Culture for Last Week's Ferry Disaster", especially when they go on to write this:

"The real problem, at all levels, seems to be protocol—or rather, the absence of one. Kim Su Bin, a classmate of Lim’s at Danwon High School in Ansan, pointed out that passengers did not receive any safety instruction before or during the trip, and that life jackets were available on the fourth floor but not on the third. A communication’s officer for the Sewol has admitted to the crew’s lack of evacuation training, or the enforcement thereof. And the indecision written all over the transcripts between harbor officials and the Sewol crew reveals an apparent dearth of actionable protocol for either side in the event of such a calamity."
The author then goes on to quote a journalist in South Korea:

“The main point is not culture,” said Jaehwan Cho, a Seoul-based journalist covering the events on his Twitter, in an interview on Sunday. “The main point is government structure... We need to turn our eyes to the government situation, government atmosphere. If we can revise those things, I don’t think this kind of disaster will happen again.”

He is at least partly right, government is an issue, but the lack of a safety protocol, instructions, lack of training, etc, could very well be heavily linked to culture because this is not something unique to this situation and it is not all the government's fault.  And after all, where does government come from if not the people and the culture that created it?

When I spoke to my wife about all this, she told me that when she worked as a nurse in a hospital in Korea she was given no fire safety training, but legally she was supposed to, she was even given a form to sign to say she had.  When she said she had no such training, she was simply told to sign it by her superiors anyway.  Irresponsible of my wife? In the atmosphere of the Korean workplace, in reality she had no choice whatsoever, you simply can't question your superiors, if she had refused, her life would have been made very difficult (a subtle way respect hierarchies reduce safety).

So, if there was a fire in that hospital, you might well have had a similar situation occurring as to what happened on the Sewol; panicked people searching for members of staff to tell them where to go and what to do and the response and information would have been poor because the problem is that the patients in the hospital and the passengers on the ferry would have had about as much information on safety as the people who were supposed to be in charge.

Also, people in junior positions are regularly thrown into the deep end and given responsibility for things they perhaps should have been better trained and equipped for. In my wife's case, she became a surgery room nurse and her training consisted of sitting-in on only one or two surgeries and watching (she did many different kinds of joint surgery) and then told to learn terms and instruments at home on her own time. Basically, she had no training and learnt on the job - and was often shouted at and bullied by doctors when she made inevitable mistakes every now and then.  To make matters worse, in the quest for profits and the busy world of Korea, she was forced to rush from patient to patient, hastily sterilising instruments (and often having minor accidents as a result; cuts, burns etc), and feeling extreme pressure to finish important and possibly hazardous tasks quickly (빨리 빨리!).

I see this kind of thing everywhere in Korea, therefore I think it is fair to say that this has become part of the culture and needs changing.  Whether you agree with this or not, my hypothesis is not racist because I am saying it is cultural, not racial, and because it is not about race, it is something that can be changed; it is not written in their DNA and not set in stone.

The exact reason why I believe hierarchical respect culture was a factor is different to most other commentators on this subject.  I simply don't know what passengers from Western countries would have done had they been given the same orders to stay below deck by the captain.  I actually think saying they were being overly obedient is probably a bit simplistic, perhaps this was a factor, but I think this is something we can't really know and it is harsh and insensitive to blame the passengers, who were obviously scared victims of someone else's mistakes and a desperately unfortunate situation.

As I have mentioned already the effect of respect culture is probably more subtle on this disaster.  It is the role of the crew and the captain that needs more focus and these are the questions I would ask:

  1. Why didn't any of the crew question the captain's orders, and if they did, why did it not have any effect?
  2. Why was the captain away from the bridge when the accident occurred?
  3. Why did it take so long to correct the original order of staying below deck?
  4. Why did they go off the original course in the first place?
  5. Why was the response so slow by rescue teams?

Of course we don't know the answers to any of these questions yet, but I am going to highlight some of the side effects I see day to day in Korea of rigid respect hierarchies and I will leave it to you to connect the dots:

  1. People rarely question orders of superiors, even when they are obviously wrong sometimes.
  2. The sense of entitlement being of higher age or rank gives people often affords them the luxury of sitting back and letting those below them do most of the difficult work.
  3. When mistakes are made by elders or those of superior rank, they can be very stubborn in admitting them and will often carry on regardless or hope everything will be alright in order to save face.
  4. Protocol, rules, and regulations are often ignored by people who have high status because they feel they know better and are above them.
  5. Respect hierarchies are inefficient, causing a lack of initiative in individuals and can cause slow responses by waiting for orders of superiors.

Now I am not saying these factors are all definitely related and this is exactly what happened, but it is everyone's responsibility to consider all of these a possibility.  In fact they are questions you could ask people of any culture, but Korean culture accentuates things when it comes to issues of status and respect.  If you refuse to acknowledge them for fear of being a racist or upsetting those of another culture, you may be sending others to their doom in the future.  People's lives, whoever and wherever they are, are more important than the risk of offending cultural sensibilities.

Finally, if someone were to hypothesise that the 7/7 bombings in the UK had something to do with British culture, why on earth would I be offended?  I just don't understand it.  In fact, one could make a good argument that British culture played a role (over-politeness, political correctness, and tolerance of even the dangerous and intolerant for fear of giving offence) in the creation of the Muslim radicals (the UK seems to be quite good at cultivating them) who hatched the plot and carried it out.  Not only that, but even if it had nothing to do with British culture in the end, it would have been our responsibility to question it (and many did) and at least rule it out.

In fact the two examples correlate rather nicely because in the case of the 7/7 bombings it was the actions of psychotic and brainwashed individuals; in the Sewol disaster it seems it was the actions of incompetent individuals in positions of responsibility.  We can leave it at that on both disasters and hope both never happen again, but it must be discovered whether in each case such disasters were a one-off or whether there is something about each culture that might encourage future similar events.  In the case of British culture, might it encourage radical Muslims to flourish?  And is there something about Korean culture that encourages incompetence, danger and confusion, in potentially dangerous situations, to flourish?

The only way to find out and be as thorough as possible in avoiding future disasters is to ask questions, which it seems is easy and not at all insulting to do with British or American culture, but when we do it to non-Western cultures like Korea, we suddenly turn into racist simpletons.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Korean Teenagers and Well-Being

Over the past two years or so I have written frequently about what a stressful and depressing life Korean teenagers are having in Korea, so it was to my surprise that South Korea came third recently in a study of well-being in teenagers from different countries.

In the linked article above, I do think the title is a little deceptive, in that although well-being and happiness are linked, they are not the same.  I would argue strongly that South Korea is not an example of a country with especially happy teenagers, and I'm sure many would be on my side.  Korea's notorious suicide statistics and a recent poll finding that about half of all teenagers have contemplated suicide, would also seem to contradict the notion that South Korean teenagers are the third happiest in the world.

It is interesting to see how the study was compiled and how it favoured Korea in the parameters it measured:

"To create the index, the researchers looked at 40 indicators to assess "citizen participation, economic opportunity, education, health, information and communications technology (ICT), and safety and security" among the world's youth (defined as people 12 to 24)."

Listed in among the factors quoted are some of the really fantastic things about Korea. There is no doubt that in some departments Korea has done many things right, especially the last three; health (in young people), ICT, and safety and security.  General organisation and efficiency in Korea is also something I find much better than in many countries, particularly my own.  Life for teenagers in Korea is certainly convenient, well-organised, and relatively free from dangerous temptations and situations.

However, the problem with fairly narrow studies like this is the lack of attention to detail and the message it may send out.  Education is a perfect example; while I am sure Korea scored highly for education (it regularly tops world league tables), Korean education of the young is something that significantly contributes to unhappiness.  One can't help but also notice that if you keep students cooped-up in a classroom all day (and on many occasions, all-night), of course they'll be safer.  Just like house cats have less danger and tend to live longer than those that are given free reign to go outside and come and go as they please.  But what kind of cat would you rather be?

Economic opportunities is another thing to be careful in making assumptions about happiness, because while Koreans do have opportunities and in my experience finding a job is much easier (for Koreans and non-Koreans) than in my own country (Korea has the lowest unemployment rate in the OECD), work life in Korea is stressful.  Koreans work some of the longest hours, taking away time with family and friends and time for relaxation. Hierarchies at work also cause troubles, giving their bosses too much control of their lives.  Young people are always at the bottom of these hierarchies, often leading to the worst of working conditions, and the lowest levels of respect and job satisfaction.

But even if it was crystal clear that South Korea was doing a better job than most other countries with regard to the well-being of its youth, does this mean it is doing good enough?

What has always fascinated me about Korea is that its problems are so obvious, and what's more Koreans are so aware of the problems they have in their society, they just seem powerless or unwilling to change them.  It is not a question of Johny foreigner coming over here and noticing the problems they can't see, in my experience very few Koreans are ignorant of the issues they have in society.

In a heartbeat South Korean society could make things so much better for young people if they simply took some of the weight off their shoulders.  The obsessive compulsive nature of education in Korea is the major culprit of unhappiness.

Even small steps would make a great difference; students could still study long hours for example, just give them less homework and encourage more sleep.  As I said in last week's post, why are Korean high school students sleeping only 4 or 5 hours a night? Surely, a healthy amount of sleep would improve their performance and make them happier at the same time.

The study on well-being actually does show some huge positives for the way Korean society has been organised.  Korea is so close to being a place that is really great to live.  There are many ways in which Korea trumps other places in the world to live, but fails in ways that are so unnecessary it becomes frustrating to be a part of it all.

In my own personal opinion, there are a few key issues that would really make Korea a wonderful place to live if they could change their ways slightly:

1. A less rigid adherence to respect culture hierarchies.
2. A greater respect for worker's rights (and individual rights generally).
3. Less concern with petty status games and jealousy.
4. Being less OCD when it comes to education.
5. Being less nationalistic.
6. Enforcing laws (e.g. traffic laws).

Korea has always struck me as a nation of extremes in these regards; it would only take a little adjustment of each of these factors and one might see Korea rising to the top of more positive tables and statistics, like those concerned with well-being, and lifting off the bottom of the less desirable measures of societies, like suicides.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Korea's Contempt for Sleep

Recent research suggests that a lack of quality sleep can kill brain cells, and this comes on the back of a great deal of research suggesting a range of health-related problems due to not getting enough shut-eye.

As a person who is almost obsessively into exercise, I have always been aware of the value of sleep in rejuvenating the body, but I had always just assumed that everyone else did also.  I think most people in England know how important sleep is and try to do their best to make sure they get enough, although many ultimately fail for different reasons.  In Korea, however, I am regularly surprised just how little sleep people are getting and how most simply don't see this as a big deal.

The story starts with my high school students - who I always feel sorry for.  These guys are at high school from 8am until 10.30pm and this is bad enough, but I asked them one time about what they do when they finish school and some of the replies were quite shocking.  Some - indeed many - go for more schooling at a private academy (Hagwon) and many have homework on top of this.  I questioned them about when they go to bed and most said about 1 or 2am.  They then usually woke up at about 6 - 7am on school days.  This gave an average of about 4 to 5 hours sleep a night for most students, 6 hours being a luxury.

I would go as far to say that maintaining such a sleep pattern in growing adolescent boys is impossible, or at least unhealthy, and it may actually be detrimental to their studies (it must be, surely).  Sure enough, high school students can be a sleepy lot at school, which makes them sleep in classes and lose concentration. They also talk about the subject constantly:

Teacher: What do you wish?
Student:  I wish I could sleep all day.

Teacher: What did you do at the weekend?
Student:  Sleep.

Teacher:  What do you enjoy?
Student:  Sleep.

Teacher:  When are you happy?
Student:  When I'm sleeping.

Teacher:  What did you do in your vacation?
Student:  Sleep (and study).

Teacher:  What's your ambition in life?
Student:  To sleep for 24 hours in a day.

I could go on and on, I'm sure my students mention sleep in almost every class.

The physical health risks of lack of sleep are well documented, but there is also a significant risk to mental health.  A recent poll in South Korea suggests that half of Korean teenagers contemplate suicide.  The combination of societal pressure for success, long hours of study and lack of sleep seems to be taking its toll on young people.

It is not just young people, though, a general contempt for sleep seems to pervade throughout Korean culture, synonymous with the hard-work attitude Koreans feel has elevated their economy and wealth in such a short period of time.

I teach a couple in their fifties conversational English in the evening after school. They have an annoying habit of calling me 30 minutes before their scheduled class sometimes and cancelling. Sometimes I rush through my day, fitting in workouts in the early morning so I can teach them in the evening (sometimes I am even on the way to their place when they cancel).  I told the wife of the couple they need to cancel earlier because I am very busy, but this seems to have made little difference.  Anyway, this led us on to chatting about how busy they were, the wife especially.  She seemed to own at least a couple of businesses and said she was always in meetings and at work, or at least working at home.  I asked her what time she went to sleep at night and she said at about midnight; not too bad, I thought.  But when I asked her what time she woke up, she replied, "at 2 or 3 am".  I couldn't quite believe her, she doesn't even look that tired most of the time; 2 or 3 hours of sleep a night after working all day?!

Now, she could be lying of course, but I don't know why she would and even in the unlikely event that she was, one would have to wonder why she would proudly say that she only had 2 or 3 hours sleep a night.

This seems to be the case with basically everyone I meet here, I think I am yet to find a person who sleeps 7 hours a night or over and there is a strange tone of pride in their voice when they tell me how little they sleep. Are people really working this hard and sleeping this little?

Recently, Korea hit the headlines for more negative reasons in articles that claimed South Koreans had the lowest productivity at work in the OECD.  This article suggests many very good reasons for this, but lack of sleep doesn't really get a mention. However, very much prevalent in the summation of the situation is that appearing to work hard is more important than actually doing so.  Is that what people are doing when I ask them about their sleep patterns?  Are they just giving me the impression that they live hard, busy lives?  My own feeling is that there could be a combination of both true hard-work and lack of rest and some porky pies to make them look even more diligent.

It is true that, at certain periods in your life, you may need to sacrifice quality sleep temporarily in order to get important things done, but there appears to be something more permanent about Korea's attitude towards sleeping.  It is taking, "You snooze, you lose" to extraordinary new levels and apparently many are proud of it and parents, businesses, schools, and society demand it too.  Could Koreans benefit from more sleep? Surely, their lives would be much happier and more productive if they took a little more time for some quality rest at night.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Offending Adoptees, a Defence, and a Theory Confirmed - Part 2

In this post I am going to deal more directly with some of the points made on a Korean adoptee's blog ( and finishes with my final word on the subject of comedy and how important it actually is.  This is by request and I realise I am going on about this, so it will stop here.

I dealt with the first couple of points in the last post, in a more general fashion because many people had the same arguments, let's finish-off the rest and carry on where we left off with point 3:

#3  "Just because other "graver" things are mocked, doesn't make them all ok.  It makes them all wrong."

I find this a bit revealing.  So I would venture a guess that almost everyone will have seen at least one of the shows/films I mentioned in my original post and what Shannon is referring to, i.e.:

Family Guy
Only Fools and Horses
Life of Brian
Seasame Street
Hot Fuzz

If you laughed at any or found them funny, you are wrong to have done so, apparently, as they were all an example of the damaging humour you saw with SNL Korea that end up not just offending people, but infringing their rights.  Now you see how I might say that there is a danger in political correctness ruining all our fun.  I will leave my readers to decide, but I for one don't think I am a bad person or wrong for having a laugh at the jokes in these shows/films or having a little giggle at the SNL skit.

Just for fun, how about this clip from The Simpsons, sorry it is in Spanish and a bit poor quality, I guess they delete the English ones from youtube, but many of you might remember this and if you don't, you get the idea:

Why did I never hear Vietnam war veterans getting outraged by this scene?  The Simpsons is also probably one of the most world famous TV shows ever (hence the translation into Spanish here).  The SNL sketch was just satire of a taboo subject, I believe the intention was not to directly mock Korean adoptees, just like this clip did not set out to mock the people who died or suffered from trauma in the Vietnam War.

#4  "You don’t get to decide what situations are worse than the subject of adoption or birth family search. unless you have actually been adopted or embarked on a birth family search. you acknowledge you can’t understand these situations but somehow you still think you can assign which ones are worse and which are not worth getting outraged about?"

I dealt with some of this in part 1, but I think I can say that having a family member brutally murdered (say your mother or a child) is worse than being adopted or searching for family.  What do you think?  Seems pretty obvious.  I think both situations are horrible for sure, but I do think one is worse than the other, yes.  I base this on the simple logic that having a living parent or child is better than having, not just a dead parent or child, but a murdered one.

#5  (Her interpretation of what I wrote) read: adoptees can be offended, but i deem them lame for voicing their anger and hurt over the dominant and degrading discourse about adoptees. i don’t think the way that adoptees have been separated by their families, language, cultural, and identities are “truly damaging.” why? because i said so. and who am i? the random white guy who knows the universal truth of who has the right to get offended (but of course, i’ve already acknowledged multiple times that i don’t really know or care about it). and even though i so generously acknowledge their right to complain, i think they’re stupid. and my opinion (on a subject that i don’t know anything about) is valuable, of course.

My criticism was specifically about that comedy sketch and nothing about the general discourse.  I would never say that being separated from your family, language, culture, and identity isn't damaging or traumatic.  I cannot judge anything other than the reaction to the skit in question, in every other way I cannot comment about their situation.  This was a comedy sketch though, and not fact in the news or a documentary. Comedy has to be edgy and needs the freedom to be so.  It is the price of freedom that sometimes people get offended, they can always switch off the TV.  No one gets to decide what is funny for you.

At this point I would like to point out that I have no time for defending bullying on the street or wisecracks to undeserving vulnerable people.  My defense is solely for comedy that you can choose to watch/listen to or not, not when jokes are forced on you when you are going about your day at work or on the street, something I don't consider to be comedy.

I would also like to point out that me being a 'White guy' should not be relevant to the argument.  Can you imagine what response I'd get if I used the line, "Who is she, just a random Asian chick" to belittle her opinion and score points in argument?  I can, and it wouldn't be pretty.

Political correctness achieved great things, but it's time has passed, to a degree. People are aware of important issues now, most are not racists, for example, like in the days of my grandfather and in need of consciousness-raising.  General opinion is for equality and human rights (rightly so) so it is time to be open and honest about controversial issues and to not restrict freedom of expression.  I admit, perhaps the situation is not quite this way in Korea and perhaps there is a greater role for political correctness in the form of raising consciousness, but comedy plays such a vital role as a tool for freedom of expression.  To me it is vital that comedians are not always looking over their shoulders and are not pressured into trying to please everyone, because they never will be able to achieve it and culture at large would lose something too precious if this was the case.

No one is saying people are calling for censorship, but prevailing public opinion at the moment in Western discourse encourages a natural censorship of many ideas by instilling fear of freedom of expression and opinions that I believe is very damaging and I will argue against this whenever I see it.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Offending Adoptees, a Defence, and a Theory Confirmed - Part 1

I'm no monster (really!)

Some thought that I would be shocked by how much people disliked my previous post, however, I have been blogging for a while now and even when I talk about fluffy things and buttercups I find that someone is always offended.  So when I squared-up against the adoptee community, I was more than aware I'd be putting myself in the same league as child snatchers and puppy stranglers.  I don't set out to offend people, and I guess I am sorry if I do, but honesty and freedom or expression, for me, take precedent.

There were many misunderstandings of what I wrote and I must accept some of the blame for this and perhaps I was a little too confrontational and the blog post read like a bit of a rant.  I am just sick and tired of 'offense', I feel saturated with it everywhere, it destroys honesty in argument and a good deal of fun.

#1.  You don't care about the situation, how can you possibly understand enough to criticise?

The point I was trying to make (which I was a bit clumsy about in the original post, I'll admit) is that before this fuss occurred I had spent precisely zero hours worrying about how difficult things must be for adoptees. Everyday, I care more about what's for lunch at my school and have more concern for how hungry I am. That makes me sound like a monster, doesn't it?  But unless you are actually an adoptee yourself, I am pretty sure that my prior concern for adoptees is the norm in most people.  So, in my mind the excessive reaction by non-adoptees looked a bit odd.  If it is any consolation, the reading I have done now about the adoption issue in Korea, because of all of this, has enlightened me to the difficulties they face. Of course, I would never have been for infringing on any of their rights anyway, I simply don't think SNL Korea did infringe on their rights or encourage others to do so.

Not everyone who went ballistic about SNL's sketch was an adoptee, so I do have my suspicions it is ego and the warm feeling of moral superiority that motivates the the non-adoptees to join in with the outrage.

How can I criticise?  I will include my reasons in point 2.

#2.  How can you comment on a group of people - and say they are overreacting - who find themselves at the butt of a joke, without out having experienced their situation?

I don't need to understand how adoptees feel or to know everything about them to criticise their reaction.  I never said they had no right to be offended or that they shouldn't be upset, just that the outrage was not necessary or appropriate, it was the excessive nature of the reaction I was criticising (perhaps I should have made this clearer).  The logic of this is clear when you go to an extreme example, like the reaction to a Danish newspaper publishing a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed (and the more current Jesus and Mo cartoon controversy in the UK). You don't have to be a Muslim to have a valid criticism about the reaction of some Muslims to these cases.

To make this crystal clear, consider this line in a comment I received:

Anon: "And no, I don't know much about your life, nor am I interested in who you are, what you do, what you think."

Firstly, they are obviously interested in what I think or they wouldn't have replied to me, and he/she did write exceptionally long multiple replies too.  But they judged my opinion without knowing anything about me. Were they wrong to do that?  By most people's logic they were, not by mine, she/he is perfectly entitled to criticise me.

How can I justify myself?  Every one has the right to be offended, but they don't have a right not to be offended.  When it comes to comedy, as I pointed out, a range of people in all sorts of vulnerable or sensitive positions are made fun of.  I don't see anything special about adoptees.  This is a principle I live my life by and one I have written about many times and read-up on quite a lot.  I don't need to fully understand the adoptee position to be against their reaction because of this.

If the response to SNL's sketch was just some letters explaining the offense taken by the adoptee community, then fine.  The ball would then have been in SNL's court as to how to react.  If they had issued an apology in this case, you then know it would have been genuine as well.  What the general outrage and overreaction created was pressure.  Now we will never know whether the program makers were genuinely sorry or whether they are just watching their own backs and cursing the adoptee community in silence.

In fact, I see an overreaction of the kind seen against the sketch as being far more likely to encourage prejudice than the comedy.  Just put yourself in the head of some idiot who really would make an adoptee's life difficult, are they more likely to have their prejudices enhanced by a short comedy skit that they probably might not even had seen, had it not been for the reaction, or by seeing the mass outrage and rebelling against it?  I would argue the latter is far more likely.

The reaction to the SNL Korea sketch, by far too many, was not a balanced, reasonable one and if people wanted to go about proving my point about the overreaction to the skit, the commenters on this blog, went about it in just the right way.  Here are some examples (anonymous contributers, unless stated, and I apologise for the profanities, I did not write them, but feel it is valuable to show them):

 Burndog: "You're peddling cheap click bait. I'm outraged about this fake outrage is just a sad attempt to gain clicks as a sideshow to the original car crash. It's pathetic mate."
 "You have this terrible way of disagreeing with people that is totally fucking ridiculous. How about you show us your fucking balls, and take each point that Shannon made and actually respond to each one? Like she did with your post. How about you try a reasonable fucking discussion rather than your typical ignorant fucking tripe"
This same person got all upset and supported a guy in his outrage when I said he was "Fooling himself" and "Misrepresenting me" the other week for (specifically) a comment he made.  The outrage of this statement went on for days.  But when he accuses me of blatant dishonesty, that's fine in his eyes - and he doesn't see any hypocrisy - because I don't agree with him and it's him saying it not me.  Seems this guy's principles to and fro depending on what is beneficial to his arguments and who he likes and dislikes  He even had the cheek to call me a hypocrite!

In the second part of the comment, he is referring to a comment I made by mistake because I followed the link given and thought it was just a reblog of his blog (if you go to both links [here and here] you might understand why I made this error), which I had already read, so I didn't read the link posted in my comments section.  I have read the piece now and I am responding to it in this post and more specifically in the next. Nice to see he didn't overreact or anything though, eh? The misunderstanding exposed what kind of guy he is, I think (see his post on his blog too! and his full comments in my comments section).  Anyway, here are some more revealing comments:
 "you have NOOOO right to talk about this"
So I have no right to an opinion?
 "just because you stuck your dick in a korean and married her doesn't mean you know shit about korea or korean people."
 "Korean adoptees, I suggest we ignore this guy because he is talking through his ass and hasn't the intellect to realise it. I suggest we just make jokes about him getting 'arse-raped' by his Korean wife with a kitchen implement whilst she yells, "British humour isn't funny, you get it!” [shove] “Anniyo funny!” [shove] “Stupid yeong-gook!” [shove] [canned laughter, he cries] [shove, he cries some more] "I love you honey, let's never be parted!" he cries. [schmaltzy music] [shove, he cries]"
"I think it would be hilarious to watch a comedy where he was tormented and his most vulnerable moments of natural anguish were exposed to me so that I could get a great laugh. Then, his life would be of value on this earth. Come on, Chris, whadja think? Oh, wait, we don't need your permission or your opinion. I would be so much more ENTERTAINED if your emotions were raw, real, and you were cornered. That'd be FUNNY! The more true suffering you experience, well, you know, a bundle of laughs for ME!"
No overreactions there then either, eh?  They were pretty entertaining though, I must say.

The last comment is trying to teach me a lesson by trying to say that the SNL sketch is comparable to what they are saying about me.  I don't think the two situations are at all analogous as no specific person was tormented on SNL Korea and as I said in the original post, I don't think it was the intention of SNL Korea to directly insult adoptees.  But again, it is another example of obvious overreaction.

The reaction that most confirmed what I was saying, however, came after this comment by a guy named Eric:
Eric: I've read your post and the various responses to it. Just wanted to say that you're totally entitled to your opinion. In terms of the logic of the things you're saying, it's really just all over the place, isn't it? Really too many absurdities to bear mentioning. 
Anyway, do you understand why people are reacting the way they are to your post? You've done a really excellent job of extolling your qualifications for being such a good sport when you're the butt of the joke, your commitment to cultural objectivity, and your knowledge of modern comedy. Then with all your accolades you say people who are offended shouldn't be. That's, like, totally not nice. You have mentioned at length that measuring overreaction is a difficult concept, but it would be plain naive of you to think that people might not get offended when something like this airs and then posts it on social media (it seems you're pining for the days when people really BELIEVED in their outrages and they came on paper and men were men and women were women). If your intention was to be deliberately hurtful then you achieved it, but I fear you think you've uncovered some modern truth. Anyway, intelligent readers here will be taking your opinion with a large grain of salt (you're uninformed and from the country in the world best as self-deprecation) so I wouldn't worry about their ire too much.

So summarize for me what your opinion on the matter is. It seems to me if you had something valuable to say it wouldn't need all the qualifications to stand on its own. Are you just outrage weary? 
Frankly, I agree with you. People do get offended too easily. It makes me sad when one of my outrage-junkie friends pops up on my newsfeed, both for the friend, and for the things that are going untalked about that are likely worse(?). I rather understand you moreso given the reactions in these comments above. They're uh, not well-measured for the most part. I doubt some of them even understand why they're offended, but that makes their offense no less real.
What an excellent comment and an example of how to conduct yourself when you disagree with someone. Now I disagreed with much of what he said, obviously, but this is how to criticise someone.  The interesting thing was he received a response of disgust to this comment, here it is:

Do you have ANY experience or insight with being adopted from Korea. If not, then keep your judgements to yourself about whether someone else's offense is valid or not, someone who KNOWS and has lived the experience. 
Chris wrote a lengthy invalidation of people's offense over a topic and experience he admits to knowing very little about, and insults them by saying that he wasn't entertained. You're right, he's not nice and he's self-righteous, judgmental, arrogant, and ignorant. Very typical, like you.

Now, I thought he was against me mainly and on the other side of the argument, but it seems even the most minor agreement with me is a subject for an overreaction and outrage.  Here is what Eric said in reply and it turned out he was an adoptee too (oops!):

Eric: @Anonymous... sigh... actually I am an adoptee. A typical one to be sure. I feel like on the internet it's the penultimate insult to call someone typical. I think, and I'm sure Christopher thinks that you've helped prove his point in your response. Is my opinion valid... now? In any case sorry for deviating. I know you're a shiny starlike beacon of hope and individuality in a sky of dead black bigotry, so I apologize to you and the community for... what? Disagreeing? Did I? Not sure. Anyway, I beg you shine on.

Yep, I do think Anon helped prove my point for me.

More in part 2.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Saturday Night Live Korea's Adoption Sketch: No Need for an Apology

Outrage has become the insatiable hunger of our time in the West.  People will step over their own mother to find it and show everyone they know what a morally well-rounded and high-class person they are.  It has also become a way of winning arguments. 'I'm offended!' = discussion over, 'I win', and that is what passes for debating these days.

I have found outrage is especially apparent when anyone criticises any non-Western culture (the weak ones that can't handle what we think), but sometimes criticism of Korean culture (I think many Westerners living in Korea think of Korean culture as inferior to theirs so they think it is wrong to criticise aspects of it) by expats is justified if it looks like Koreans are picking on a vulnerable group or people that are less strong than they are.  Many of these criticisms are completely valid, but some are not.

So, with this in mind, I am going to defend those at Saturday Night Live Korea for their little comedy sketch. (Translation here). Not so much because I think it is really funny or a valid representation of adoptees, but because I am pretty sure I don't know enough and don't care enough to be outraged about it, and I get a little tired of misdirected and phony outrage.  I'm guessing that I might be in the minority with this viewpoint though and what I say here might offend people.

I Don't Know Enough

My wife and I have overcome many cultural differences to be the happily married couple we are today.  We understand a great deal more about each other and our cultures than we used to.  However, one of those things we just have to accept is that she just doesn't get British humour and I don't get Korean humour.  This doesn't mean I can't make her laugh, but it does mean that when I watch Korean comedy - in film or on TV - it is simply not funny to me most of the time, even when I get the jokes, and the same goes, vice-versa, for her with British comedy.

This is because comedy is often (not always of course) very subtle and the elements that come together to produce a sketch, a program, or a movie are derived from a close cultural understanding of language (which even a fairly fluent speaker might not be able to pick up on), the history of the subject being made fun of (either as a country, in society, or even in previous TV programs or in films), and the cultural context.

For instance, I have heard that the skit in question on SNL is actually making fun of a specific TV program that used to run in Korea and Korean dramas where they used the subject of adoption (quite possibly many times) and airport meetings of adoptees and their real parents as a subject for melodramatic shows of emotion (cue the tears and piano music).  Most foreigners living in Korea would not have known this and probably most adoptees - who had not spent much time in Korea - wouldn't have known this either.

I find it ironic that many of the same people I see criticising foreigners who complain about Korean culture for 'Not knowing enough' (on some pretty black and white cultural issues), are slamming SNL in exactly the same way.  They don't get it, they don't know enough.  All they see is an attack on adoptees, but if you watch the video again with the above explanation in mind, it paints an entirely different picture.

I don't blame adoptees for getting upset, but I do believe those that became outraged misunderstood the sketch and overreacted.

In a similar case, but not involving comedy, an England cricketer (Graeme Swann) remarked to his brother on Facebook - a few months ago - that England got 'arse raped' by Australia in their test series after losing the 3rd match.  The PC brigade managed to find this remark and spread it around social media and rape charities in the UK were angered about it and demanded an apology.  It was simply an off the cuff remark of a disappointed man in a message to his brother (in a very common British colloquialism), but he had to apologise nonetheless.  It feels wrong to condemn rape charities for overreacting doesn't it? After all, unless you have been raped how can you really know what they are going through, so surely it was irresponsible of Graeme Swann to say what he did.  Perhaps he shouldn't be quite so profane in his everyday language, but was it deserving of such outrage?

Rape is a disgusting crime and we should have the greatest sympathy for people who have gone through it, but that doesn't mean these people didn't overreact, it was a ridiculous reaction given the circumstances.

Although this is not comedy, I think a similar situation has occurred with the SNL sketch; outrage gets magnified as it's spread around social media and it becomes very difficult to take a step back and see that it isn't really that outrageous.  Much graver misfortunes are made light of in comedy all the time.

Examples of 'Insensitive' Comedy Shows/Movies and Characters

Family Guy - Joe Swanson is wheelchair bound and jokes are regularly made of his situation.  Most of us cannot possibly know what it is like for people who can't use their legs, so it is not a fit subject for comedy.

Only Fools and Horses (UK) - Delboy and Rodney are brothers live together with their Grandad in low-level poverty in central London.  Their mother died when they were young and their father left them.  They live from day to day by making dodgy deals and selling tat at the local market and to their friends.  Many of us cannot possibly know what it is like to lose a mother when young or have their father abandon them or live in such poor circumstances, so it is not a fit subject for humour.  How can we laugh at their troubles?

The Life of Brian - A man called Brian is worshipped like Jesus and is eventually crucified.  Since we all have never been crucified (I hope) how can we find this a fit subject for humour?  And singing a jaunty song while on the cross!!  Disgusting.

Hot Fuzz - a London based cop gets more than he bargained for when he is transferred to a sleepy village when murders, disgusied as accidents, occur on a frequent basis. Since I and none of my family or friends have ever been murdered, this is not a fit subject for humour, I cannot possibly understand what murder victim's families must feel when they watch this film, it trivialises death and murder.  Ban it.

Seasame Street - Oscar the Grouch is clearly homeless and the Cookie Monster is clearly coping with a powerful food addiction.  How on earth we can all make light of such situations is crazy.  And it is a show for children!  Most of us have no idea what it is like to be homeless or have a strong addiction, again, this is not a fit subject for humour!! Pull the show from TV before more young minds get corrupted!

The disabled, parentless families, people in poverty, people being tortured and crucified to death, murder victims and their families, homelessness, and addiction, all being used as subjects for comedy in very very popular TV shows and movies.  Should we all be disgusted with ourselves?  Or would that be an overreaction?

I could have given a number of other examples.  The point is that there are many unfortunate situations we will never truly understand, many that are much worse than the subject of adoption.  Intelligent people can see comedy is comedy and making light of hardships is sometimes a necessary part of life and this in no way detracts from our ability to empathise with real people embroiled in really heart-achingly sad and difficult situations.

Personally, I can see how the SNL Korea sketch could be funny, it made me giggle at some points, but has it changed my perception of adoptees in any negative way whatsoever? Absolutely not. Might it change or accentuate bad vibes in Korean people towards adoptees?  I don't know, but I doubt it.  Now let's say the government made a policy change that stopped the reunification of adoptees and their Korean parents or discriminated against them in some way; then I might be moved to some level of outrage.

Comedy is comedy, and upsetting some people is its business sometimes, it tends to be funnier that way. Sometimes comedians step over the line, but the SNL sketch is nowhere near an example of that.

Understanding Comedy

I remember when some of us Brits got all upset by a Ricky Gervais comedy, 'Life's Too Short', because people weren't sure if Gervais just using Warwick Davis to make fun of dwarves and midgets.  But that's the thing with comedy, it is at its best when it is close to stepping across lines.

The day that comedians have to go the politically correct police (or Joe Blogger) for advice on how best to write a comedy sketch, we really will live in a dull, humourless world.

Making Fun of Language Ability

Another aspect of this sketch that I have found many people didn't like is the part that makes fun of the guy's Korean.  Some of the foreign community are crying, 'Oh my god, they are probably making fun of me when I speak Korean!'

So what if they are?  My students make fun of the way I say Korean words sometimes, I just laugh and jokingly say, 'Shut-up' or 'You wanna punch in the face?', which they find quite funny.  A sure way of getting them to continue making fun of me would be to act all hurt and angry about it.  Making fun of your pronunciation; it's nothing, get over it and it's a guarantee people will continue to do it if they see it bothers you anyway.  If it doesn't bother you, they just look silly when they do it.

I remember a while ago my wife and I were watching a Korean film about a mentally handicapped man with a young daughter who got mistakenly accused of murdering a little girl.  The way he spoke Korean bore a resemblance to the way I speak it and my wife noticed this and said so to her family and they made fun of me for it.  My reaction was not to cry like a little sissy girl (or point out how mental illness is not a fit subject for a joke), I just had to take it on the chin and laugh along with it.  It was quite funny, I did sound remarkably like him.

Making fun of pronunciation or language ability can be annoying sometimes and frustrating if you are trying hard to learn a language, but come on everyone, mummy stopped holding your hand when you step out the house a long time ago, time to grow up, have a thicker skin, and get a sense of humour about yourself.  Obviously no one likes to be heckled on the street about their language ability or generally bullied, but we are talking about a comedy show here.  Are people really that fragile or so easily led?

In summary then, some might say I am getting outraged over people getting outraged, but no, not really.  I am just tired of them making life less fun for us all and sitting on top of their throne of moral superiority and not admitting that a huge reason people get upset about stupid things like this is to help inflate their already sizable egos and make themselves feel important or special.

I am not innocent in this regard either, to write a blog in the style of this one, you have to have a bit of an ego, and I am sure my ego does leak into my blogs from time to time, but at least I don't require a sense of humour transplant.

As for the adoptees themselves who were offended by it, of course they can take offense to it and they can voice their feelings, but I think they need not, and in my opinion I think it is pretty lame.  There are a million hardships we will never fully understand that people suffer from and to erase every one of these situations from comedy is not only impossible, but would make the world a very boring place indeed. Somethings are truly damaging or irresponsible - like using a blackface gag in a Sunday afternoon family comedy show - but do we really think any harm will come, any rights trampled upon, or any prejudices enhanced by SNL Korea's mildly controversial sketch involving the issue of adoption? Surely not.

This has nothing to do with people demanding censorship, by the way, this is simply me reacting to the outrage produced.  People are totally within their rights to voice their outrage, as I am within my rights to say it's stupid.

Anyway, SNL Korea have apologised, so let's hope this makes people happy (I won't hold my breath).

Note:  A commenter very fairly asked where I looked for reaction to the SNL sketch. Roboseyo's blog first got my attention and I followed many of his sources as well as doing my own searches.  I'm afraid some reactions on social media are now lost, but here are some other links that I read from:

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Why does it Happen? Some Korean Cultural Conclusions

It has come to my attention that foreigners in Korea (including me) often use cultural explanations for much of the behaviour that can be seen by Korean people and also sometimes draw conclusions from it.  Why is that?

There will be a significant number of people who will chalk it down to prejudice or a lack of understanding, and to be fair in some people, and with some issues, this may very well be the case.  However, the story is not a simple as that.  In my opinion, there are obvious traits about Korean culture that stand-out and that guide us to cultural conclusions, and these are very often the right ones.  Let's go through a few and I will highlight the simplified cultural explanation (SCE) and see if there is any truth to it:

Plastic Surgery

It is pretty undeniable that there is a bit of an obsession with plastic surgery in Korea, but why is that?

SCE: Koreans want to change their appearance to look more White Western.

Now, of course, this is not entirely true; Koreans have many home-grown reasons for valuing things, like pale skin, for example, and appearance is obviously important to many people regardless of what they are from.  But the coincidence between two of the more popular surgeries (nose and eye-lid) and a White Western appearance cannot be over-looked, as well as the admiration for White models.  I notice peculiar things like White Western models plastered over posters for all manner of things and I find it hard to believe that this would happen in, say, England in reverse with lots of Asian models, even though England is more culturally diverse.

My wife also believes that many Korean women, in particular, admire a White Western look and this is one of the reasons why some of them choose to have plastic surgery, and she is always right.

My Conclusion: Obviously, high rates of plastic surgery in Korea are not solely or even mainly motivated by a longing for a White Western look, but I believe it is a factor.  Korean people look just fine to me (I married one!), they need not admire a White Western look, but many surely do.

Air Crashes

I will be brief because I have covered this at some length before, here, here, and here!  This subject has animated me because hierarchical respect culture, in my opinion, is the worst aspect of Korean culture and is the part of the culture I have seen cause a lot of hardship, stress, and suffering on Korean people and at times I think can be dangerous.

SCE: A suspicion of the involvement of Korean hierarchical respect culture in miscommunication in the cockpit is justified as a possible explanation for crashes of Korean airliners.

The blanket assertion that Korean culture is the sole cause for crashes is wrong.  And certainty in saying it is the cause before evidence is in, is also wrong.  However, there is some history regarding Korean airline crashes and odd breakdowns in communication and pilot error. There is also the experience many people have of living in Korea and dealing with the extreme discomfort of talking to and questioning superiors and elders that most Koreans have (people in all countries experience this, but I believe that in Korea it is magnified).  My wife once recanted a tale of how this actually jeopardised a patient's life on the operating table when she was a nurse and often speaks of a strong dislike for the rigidity of Korean respect culture in all relationships, but especially working relationships.

My Conclusion: The everyday behaviour of Koreans, the logic of the hierarchical etiquette system, and previous history mean that it is justified to hypothesise/suspect Korean cultural involvement in plane crashes, when no clear mechanical fault is easily identifiable.  This theorising can also rightly be attributed to Korean airlines, even though it is not often used as an explanation for crashes of airliners from other nations given the logic, history, and evidence involved.

Nationalism and Japan

SCE: Koreans are so nationalistic and bitter they are overly petty and ridiculous about a range of issues involving Japan.

I am mostly on Korea's side when it comes to issues with Japan.  Many in the pro-Japanese camp will say they have apologised again and again, but Korea just doesn't take notice and they want Japan to beg and grovel.  I happen to think, however, that the Japanese government are regularly insincere with their apologies and don't back apologies up with any action, as well as constant denials of obvious wrongdoings in the past. The "Comfort Women' issue is a perfect example of this.  And now the Japanese are even thinking of taking back an old apology, they are clearly in the wrong and Koreans are right to be upset about their handling of the 'Comfort Women' situation.

The problem is, though, many Koreans appear to enjoy shooting themselves in the foot and alienating possible supporters by going over the top in their hatred of Japan and by constantly reminding everyone of why they are upset.  Dokdo is a great example; the foreign community are just tired of hearing about it and we don't really care.  I personally think that, as a gesture of goodwill for past misdeeds, the Japanese government could be gracious and hand it over to the Koreans, I am on the Korean's side in this.

What turns me off, however, is the propaganda about Dokdo, especially to the young.  I once saw a kids swimming tube with "Dokdo is our land" written all over it in a supermarket (I thought this was distasteful to say the least) and I know it is taught to kids in school.  Nationalistic passions and hatred are stirred-up in the young about the subject and I find this must be unhelpful in building better ties with Japan in the future and coming to an amicable agreement.  Teach Kids about history, sure, but there is no need to bring a political issue of land ownership into the minds of often young children.

My Conclusion: Yes, the Japanese are essentially to blame, are quite snidy, and they seem to do their best to rile South Korea, but by continually stirring-up hatred of the Japanese (particularly in the young) and by refusing to take any moral high-ground and do any forgiving whatsoever,  it is all a god-awful mess of sometimes quite daft and petty nationalism, the kind no one around the world wants to be seen choosing sides on or getting involved in.

Nationalism and Sport

Matt May

SCE: Koreans are sore losers in the international sports arena and are prone to influencing officials or being unfair if they see a chance they can win.

One should be careful not to discriminate to all individuals when using cultural explanations, and this is a perfect example.  Kim Yun Ah (legend), for instance, was a class apart and incredibly gracious in accepting her silver medal in the Sochi Olympics, despite what many thought was a dubious and unjust judgement.  The public reaction, however, although admittedly better than in the past, was still rather obsessive.  An estimated 90% of the 1.5 million signatures on, (now about 2 million), for example came from Koreans. When you think of all the great injustices of the world that languish behind a figure skating decision, it is pretty telling of an inability to move on and maybe taking a sporting event a fraction too seriously.  Also at Sochi, there were online threats to a British skater who mistakenly took out a Korean medal favourite in the speed skating.  I couldn't imagine the same situation occurring with the fans of most other countries.

On the impartiality side of things, it has to be noted that one of the worst examples of cheating in any games by a host nation was in Seoul in 1988 (explained in last week's post).  In 2002 also, there were question marks raised about Korea's route to a surprise semi-final.  So the last two major international sporting events in Korea = two major sporting controversies and accusations of unfair officiating, one blatant and one slightly more arguable.  It doesn't mean anything like that will definitely happen in Pyeongchang in 2018, but I think some suspicion is justified when you combine past history, the still high level of nationalism in Korea, and the overreaction generally to international sporting failures and the over-importance of sporting success.

My Conclusion: Korea as a nation do appear a little preoccupied with proving themselves in the sporting arena and this means they will undoubtedly come under the spotlight when they host sporting events.  Only a clean Pyeongchang in 2018 will allay suspicions and Korea have a chance to prove the doubters wrong in 4 years time.

Koreans in the Way

SCE: Koreans have no spatial awareness and no manners and that is why they bump into others and get in our way.

Personal space manners, I believe, are a manifestation of cultures based around the individual, like those in Western countries.  As a visitor to Korea, one must accept that many Koreans will not place such a high regard on personal space because of this. Manners are also different from place to place; there are probably many examples of Korean people thinking Westerners are very bad mannered too.

That said, there are times when giving personal space is practically important and when it is not done can cause major problems and unfairness.  I see driving in Korea as an example of this and queuing also.  An acceptance of the culture does not mean that we aren't sometimes majorly inconvenienced and even put in danger by such a lack of spatial etiquette.

To give a couple of anecdotes; I have been playing squash for about 20 years or so and have played thousands of games without a major incident.  In 4 years of living in Korea, and playing only a handful of matches in that time, I managed to get one of my teeth knocked-out by a Korean player's wild dangerous swing (a high standard player who should have known better).  I also had a friend from orientation who was knocked down on a bus by a pushy Ahjuma and briefly lost consciousness because he fell so hard he hit his head (he's quite a big guy too, it must have taken some shove).  This sort of thing appears to be a common foreigner gripe in Korea.

Accidents can happen anywhere, but is it just a coincidence these happened in Korea?

My Conclusion: The accusation of a lack of spatial awareness maybe over-simplified and insulting, but there probably does need to be some general improvement in matters regarding personal space manners and awareness in some of the Korean population for reasons of safety, practicality, and fairness.

These are examples of generalised conclusions and opinions about groups of people, i.e. Korean people.  I personally don't think there is anything wrong with this and I would be perfectly open to accepting any of the many negative aspects of British culture also and their explanatory power in how many British people act. But one must be careful not to discriminate and draw conclusions about every person you meet.  It is unfair, immoral, and stupid for example, to judge the next Korean person you meet who has had plastic surgery as wanting to look like a White Westerner.

People are complex and they are individuals and must be treated as such, everyone should have equal value and equal rights.  However, culture can and does affect individual's behaviour and real patterns can be observed and conclusions drawn in certain situations.  It is popular to deny that this is the case and sometimes to insinuate racism against people who think it (but only when conclusions are drawn about non-Western cultures in my experience), but just because it's popular doesn't make it true.