Saturday, April 7, 2012

Korean People - The Men

Korea is a place torn between two extremes; on the one side there is a very traditional way of thinking, with a great emphasis placed on respect and social etiquette.  And on the other side is the freer more adventurous way of thinking of the modern world, which has largely been imported from the west.  This divide in their culture is becoming more and more apparent and the partition is usually between men and older people on the conservative and traditional side and women and young people on the more liberal and adventurous side.

Korean men can be a bit of a strange and sometimes intimidating bunch to a foreigner.  They are open-minded when they are young, and teaching high school students is a real joy because of this, but then they seem to reach a certain age and it all goes out of the window.  I reckon it happens when they hit their mid-twenties and my theory is that this is the time when they start demanding respect from those that are younger than them.

They start buying in to the respect culture which they so hated as a young person because they never got it, but now they are a little older, it's their turn.  They turn from these charming, modest young men into jealous, arrogant men that demand the respect of others.  I am sure there are many exceptions to this rule, but I see it happen all too often.

The same phenomenon also occurs with Korean women in their attitude towards other women, as my wife routinely experiences at work in the hospital.  Young Korean nurses are bullied by older nurses frequently, and one would have thought that when these same nurses got older they would be more forgiving on the next crop of young nurses, but it seems like this rarely happens.

From a foreigner's perspective, however, women seem to hold on to the friendliness and open-mindedness they had when they were younger for a much longer period of time.  I find the women in Korea much more approachable, friendly, and talkative than Korean men.  Again there are exceptions and at this point I would like to give a mention to one of my co-teachers, who is nearly 50 years old, and who is all of the good things I mentioned above and a really nice guy.

Too often though, Korean men come across as needing to mark their territory against me, and if they are not doing this sometimes they have a certain creepiness about them, which I am sure many a foreign teacher living in Korea can recognise.  This creepy feeling I get from some Korean men is either from their strange habit of touching your leg or the inner thigh area with gay abandon (pardon the pun) or from a general feeling of distrust, a feeling like they are not telling you something.

This feeling is difficult to describe but it is the feeling that if you walked with them, say to a mountain one day, that they might just shove you over the edge of a cliff when no-one is looking (this is metaphorical, of course).  It is that feeling that we are not one of them, we are not from their tribe, and the kindness they are currently showing is not going to last, especially not when push comes to shove.  I could be wrong about all this, but this is the feeling I get from many of them, and this feeling is backed up but what I see when we as foreigners compete against them, which is usually in a sporting context.

I myself have competed against Koreans in Korea on a number of occasions in running, squash, and boxing, and I have experienced the feeling of overly competitive (to the point of cheating), and jealous behaviour on a number of occasions.  Here are some examples:


When I was younger I was a pretty decent squash player, and have done a fair amount of squash coaching back home in England where the game is very strong and currently boasts the world number 1 squash player.  In Korea the game has only a small following around the country, and therefore the standard is not nearly as high.  In my first year in Korea I turned up to my local squash club in Suncheon, and fortunately, there were two good players playing at the club, one was a talented coach and the other was playing the professional circuit in Korea.

This was brilliant for me because I had a couple high standard players to play, but also remember this should have been a blessing for them too because outside of Seoul, good competition is hard to come by.  I should have been the perfect playing partner, especially for the guy you wanted to play professionally.  I was just a little better than both of them, but they could give me a good game and if I was playing badly they had the ability to upset me.

Trust me when I say, that if you are looking to improve at any sport, you want to be around better players, so you can test yourself and learn from them.  In contrast, however, what I found is that after a few months, they weren't interested in playing and practicing with me.  Now I can't say this for sure, because my Korean was particularly bad at the time, but I am fairly sure this was because they really hated losing matches against me.

This was confirmed a year or so later, when it turned out that one of the players at the squash club was an ex-student of my co-teacher.  We arranged another game and my co-teacher asked him who was the better player.  This is, of course, an awkward question and sporting etiquette usually gives you an answer of, 'well we are about the same, there's not a lot in it', even if you are not and you yourself always win.  Before I could answer with this reply to my co-teacher's question, my opponent quickly answered (translated), 'well I am, I have won the last few times'. Not only is this against the sportsman's code, but it was also a blatant lie.  I had played this man maybe 25 times and he had won only twice, and not in the last 10 attempts.  Bare in mind also that I would play maybe once in two weeks and he was playing everyday.

I was annoyed, and despite the fact I hadn't played in about 8 months set about beating him to get my own back.  The following week he invited me to another squash club where I beat him again, but then he made me play two other good standard players, and then played me again afterwards to try and get the win.  I had played 10 games of squash at this point and I was feeling damn tired and it was also only the second time I had played in 8 months, my body was a mess.  He got his win, and one felt his self-satisfaction that he could claim to have beaten me the last time we played.  I have not yet received another invite to play him again, whereas before he was very keen on phoning my co-teacher, asking me to play.

I did also play one professional tournament in Korea, where I met the Korean number 3 squash player in the third round.  It was quite a tough match and very close, which he won in the deciding game 14-12.  He was a nice guy and a gracious winner, the same could not be said of the crowd and the referee.  Disgrace.  Every decision went in the Korean player's favour and the crowd were raucous in their cheers and applause for every point he won, and no matter how good a shot I played to win a point, I was greeted with complete silence, apart from the odd groan of disappointment.

I took to applauding my own shots, which made them like me even more.  I also used an array of South of England slang words to abuse the referee with to make me feel better and the racket flew across the court on a couple of occasions.  I haven't been invited back to any other tournaments and I don't think I would want to go if this was going to be their attitude anyway.  All eyes were on me, no one was in the least bit interested in the fair contest of the sport, they were just all hoping that the foreigner loses.


I have also had a couple of boxing bouts in Korea, in the early days again.  The first was a rout and can be seen on my facebook page if you fancy having a good chuckle.  I hurt him early on with a body shot and after that he pretty much spent the rest of the fight running away from me, easy win.

The second fight came around and at the last minute my fight was changed to the same fighter as before, and also with an extra stipulation, we had to wear stomach guards.  This was all in the 5 minutes leading up to the fight, I had no choice but to agree.  He was a very tall man, and my tactic in the previous fight was to hit him in the body, this was negated this time as he pressed forward in great confidence that I wasn't going to be able to hurt him to his body.  He won a close fight on a decision.

Even in practice, the same competitive streak against me could be felt.  The first time I sparred, I sparred against a guy who had been kickboxing for 15 years and was coaching at the gym.  I thought he'd go easy on me, I was wrong.  He battered me for 3 rounds.  I was very dazed afterwards, as he had hit me more times than I can remember (it is not surprising I suffered some memory loss) squarely in the head.  The one consolation is that he seemed to be breathing rather heavily at the end, probably from the amount of punches he was throwing.  What was his motivation for blatantly beating up on an absolute novice?  Would he had done the same on a Korean man?  I doubt it.

A fellow waygook (foreigner in Korean) had a similar experience when he decided to take up Taekwondo.  He had practiced the Korean martial art of kicking in the US when he was younger for a brief period of time, but had not done it for about 15 years.  He was immediately thrown in to sparring bouts with the black belts, and after a few bruises the inevitable happened.  One particularly enthusiastic black belt did a spinning back kick which landed perfectly in my friends' face.  After an x-ray it was shown that he had cracked a bone in the back of his eye-socket, which meant no exercise of any kind (as the shock of even jogging could affect it) for about 2 months. Upon hearing this story I was not at all surprised.

I am afraid to say the overwhelming feeling I get when meeting many Korean men is that they feel they have a point to prove against me.  I don't know whether this is because they feel threatened personally or they are taking a kind of patriotic stance on things, and showing that Korea is great, but it doesn't bode well for friendship.  It is a shame because I was keen on making Korean friends and not just to come to Korea to socialize with other foreign teachers.

My task is made more difficult because I am at heart a sportsman and I want to socialize through sport or some form of exercise.  In almost three years I only have one Korean man who I can call my friend, and that is my co-teacher, he is fantastic but he is 50 years old.  It is not like I haven't tried to make Korean friends, this also hasn't aided my ability to speak the Korean language, which I am keen on developing.  Another area that has hamstrung me is my dislike for soju (a cheap Korean spirit) and smoking, which appear to be Korean people's favourite vices.

Korea remains a patriarchal society, in which greater respect is shown to men because of the history of Confucianism.  This is certainly a large part of why Korean men are like the way they are.  But I think there are other factors.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, Korean people have a natural suspicion of foreigners in their country.  This comes from their not too distant history, where they have had to put up with multiple invasions and mistreatment from Japan in particular.  There were attempts from the Japanese to wipe the culture and language of the Koreans off the face of the planet.  South Koreans on the whole have reacted well to this bitter history by proving they can compete in business on the world stage and they should quite rightly be proud of themselves.  They could have so easily gone the other way and ended up like North Korea, whose suspicion of foreigners is legendary.

Nevertheless, South Koreans still have this attitude of nervousness embedded quite deeply in their cultural thinking and as most countries in the world have some degree of tribalism anyway, it is easy to see how they can be pushed over the edge and treat foreigners unfairly.  Of course this doesn't happen with their women, who are mostly very nice, welcoming,  often shy, but curious of people from other cultures, but then again it's the men that fight and men that usually cause all the trouble in the world isn't it?

It is often easy to sound racist sometimes and pigeon hole people, races, and cultures into stereotypes, but some things are just plainly true and there is no getting away from it.  There is another reason that I think Korean men seem defensive and even overly competitive against foreign people in their country, and that it the well known phenomenon of 'small-man syndrome'.

I don't think it is racist to say that generally Korean and Asian people are smaller than white and black people.  You can point to exceptions, of course you can, but I can assure everyone, they are smaller.  Even today, I went out shopping to find some T-shirts and I went to a shop downtown in Suncheon, whose owner is a friend of my wife, I tried on about 3 or 4 T-Shirts and they were all far too small and they had no sizes big enough.  Bear in mind I am not a big man, maybe 5"10 and fairly slim (although with a solid pair of shoulders, arms, and pecs!).

Also, the size issue is also very apparent in penis size, as my students last week confirmed they know all too well about.  Again this is a stereotype, but with a lot of truth.  As a man who has been not particularly short-changed, but also not especially blessed in that department, I can tell you I am slightly emboldened and strut through the changing rooms at my local gym with more confidence than I might back home.

Any women reading this might think I am just being vulgar, and this is a fairly pathetic line of argument, but most men will recognise that this is not irrelevant to explain defensive behaviour.  Most people will obviously (and should be) above this stuff and not care about it all too much, but the fact is that some do and there is no getting away from it, it can be a factor.

On top of this Korean society lusts for a Western look.  Plastic surgery to make the nose higher is popular, and many envy different colour hair and eyes.  It is possible that Korean men may be a bit worried that Korean women find western men more attractive, and this is another reason that some feel that they have something to prove.

One positive reason for competitive behaviour could just be extreme patriotism, which can sometimes be commendable and many Korean people show a great deal of pride in their country, and are justified in many ways as they have been through a lot and have come out shining with one of the most rapidly growing countries ever.  One should always be careful not to be too patriotic, however, and take heed of Oscar Wilde's warnings of patriotism being the 'Virtue of the vicious'.  Too much love for one's country can also come across as being a little desperate to show off and many people outside of the said country can begin to be very skeptical and dismiss legitimate achievements.

The insecurity with regard to foreigners does seem to wear off with the wisdom of age, and I don't see it in those aged over 40 or so.  However, it is replaced by a slightly arrogant and magnanimous aura about them and many seem to walk around with the look of a man that feels the world owes him a great deal of respect, just because he is old.  I think my father in-law is great but he does have this attitude sometimes, the attitude that what he says goes and he can do pretty much whatever he likes because he is the head of the family.

Older people do deserve respect in general, but men and women should be equal, and it is unfortunate that this equality doesn't quite exist yet here in Korea.  The uneven balance of respect between the sexes makes the women charmingly humble and many men annoyingly arrogant.  Again, I should stress that I know of some exceptions to this rule.

This might seem a slightly negative blog post and I guess it is, but it does represent my genuine frustrations with the less fair 50% of the Korean population.  These are attitudes I don't see changing in the near future, unless a genuine equality of the sexes takes hold in this country.  I don't this will be forthcoming, however, as the rules of social harmony laid down in their history have a much stronger hold on the people than in our cultures in the west, where the overriding principles are fairness, freedom, equality, and respect for individuality.

These principles are not so prescient in Eastern culture and so it therefore is harder to see great changes happening in the moral landscape on these issues than we see in Western countries.  Men are always the trouble makers in all countries and we do have our fair share in England too.  Anybody reading this thinking I have given an unfair account, please read my previous blogs and realise that I think the children in Korea are top notch, and generally kids here are much nicer, more respectful, and funnier than in my own country, they are a real joy.  The only problem in Korea is that the boys have to grow up into men, and that is where it all goes wrong.


  1. Terrible! I was sympathetic at first, but honestly your blog sucks! Im sure they just cant handle how big your dick is.

  2. My whole comment got deleted. Rewritingthis It was interesting post but maybe approach with more practicality and humility. Whites are to asians what blacks are to whites.

    1. It was fairly difficult to raise the point about genitalia without sounding pompous and arrogant, I tried not to and keep it humorous, but perhaps I failed in the tact department. I do think it may well be a relevant factor though and must be mentioned in an honest discussion, I don't believe in not speaking what I feel maybe truths just because they maybe taboo to say. Sometimes practicality and humility can get in the way of the best arguments. All my students know about it as well and were quick to point it out to me in class, especially on a lesson on stereotypes.

      However, I do not agree that whites are to asians what blacks are to whites. I have found that many Asians do admire white people (wrongly) for many things and an insecurity exists because of it, at least in Korea. The same can not be said for white to black and there is a history of persecution of black people by white people that there is not in white/asian relations, at least not to the same depth and severity. All this causes a significantly different relationship between the races.

  3. I traveled to this post after reading your post about your lack of Korean language ability, and I have to say both are pretty bang on. I've been living in Korea for almost 10 years now, have a wife who is amazing and a child that makes me happier than anything and yet I still can't bring myself to learn Korean. I studied at my university before coming to Korea, I studied at universities inside of Korea, I've tried language exchanges (1st time English, 2nd time... English, 3rd time no answer), reading books on my own, translating kid's books with my wife, trying to convince my wife to teach me (or at least speak to me in Korea) and nothing has worked.

    Korean is not a hard language to learn inherently, let me just say that outright. I understand a lot of it, I can reproduce the sounds well enough to be understood (when the recipient can get past their "Oh my God the white monkey just spoke Korean..." reaction), I can hold basic conversations beyond riding in a taxi and ordering food, but every time I try to better my Korean ability I'm met with one of two responses:

    1) You are a white person who cannot possibly learn oorimal, so I'm going to respond in broken English until you leave me alone.

    2) I'm going to speak Korean to you as if you are a native and when you ask me to speak a little slower I will ignore you. Oh yeah, I also have a mouth full of socks.

    Regarding this post, your read regarding Korean men is spot on. They either want to make you their best friend (in the hopes that you will introduce them to some of your "loose foreign women") or they mark you as the enemy, acting all smiley up front yet as soon as they can they plunge the dagger in your back. Despite this, I've managed to be fairly successful, but I can count more times than I have digits to represent in which I've had a Korean male coworker undermine, sabotage or actively attempt to discredit me in my work (not related to the field of education), and no, they never fight fair.

    That said, I guess I am grateful to them for teaching me how to give better than I get in a professional setting.

    In the end, the biggest hurdle to learning Korean is Koreans themselves. When they can stop viewing foreigners as invaders, allow us to learn the language without partaking in the culture 100% (seriously, I'm never going to kiss ass or dish out pain because I'm younger or older than someone and I'm not going to call my in-laws by titles) and get over whatever insecurities they might have about Westernization more people will enjoy and actively want to learn Korean, rather than viewing it as a chore or obligation. No amount of wishful thinking (Hallyu) will change that.

    1. Thanks, it is nice to have someone who understands what I mean here.

      Like you, I think there is not anything technically difficult about learning Korean, it is actually quite logical, but I think that unless you really enjoy the culture, you are facing an uphill battle to learn it.

      It might sound a horrible thing to say, but I do think you have to be a strange kind of Westerner to really enjoy Korean relationship culture. There are plenty of other aspects of Korean culture I enjoy, but the rigidity of the rules of social discourse is not one of them. That in itself is a major factor as to why Korean is difficult to learn and when you factor in the stuff you said about their general ignorance about us trying to learn their language and speaking English to us all the time, it leads to something that is more than just an excuse. You're right, the key is to genuinely enjoy learning Korean. For me and I guess for you too, I am trying but it has turned into a real chore.

      When it comes to the men, I like you have known plenty of good, kind, Korean men, as well as the backstabbers and those trying to mark their territory, but even the good ones it seems follow an invisible set of rules for social engagement, which just leaves me uncomfortable and completely cold.

      I just can't be myself among almost all Koreans except for my wife and when you can't express yourself the way you want with the freedom, both to speak and make mistakes, it is very difficult to get enthused about speaking the language.

  4. I think Koreans grow up always being shown how they don't measure up, how they need to improve. It eats away at you from the inside out. No wonder they feel anxious.

  5. I loved this article.
    Your points are bang on!

  6. Hi Chris. I am a chinese girl who likes korean men. We have many korean transfer students in my university and they are all quite tall. So I doubt they have what you call "the small man syndrome". Go Siwon! :D

    Maybe they just don't like foreigners coming to their country to date/***k or marry korean women.

    But in general I observe that koreans are more arrogant than other asians...girls and guys. They really try not to mingle with anyone except their own race. Which is sad cos I want a korean boyfriend. :P

  7. Hi, I am Korean American middle aged male and am sorry for your experiences. I am originally from the US, but have been living in Seoul, Korea for 4 years and want to relate some of the many many examples I have had with young Korean young people in their 20's. I will not make insulting remarks, because I want to see what you guys think of the sort of behavior I've encountered on so many occasions here or in the Korean districts in USA. I have heard many foreigners also mention this type of attitude. One time, I went to a Paris Baguette in USA and politely asked a 20ish Korean female employee if they had chocolate chip cookies. She was probably a Korean foreign student working part time She as a server. But instead of doing her job and servicing customers, she replied in a very sarcastic and scornful tone "How should I know something about that eh?!" She did not even look at me. Today here in Seoul, I wanted to pay for lunch at a restaurant near Gwanghamun and went up to the cash register. I saw a young woman in her mid 20s there and thought she was an employee. I found out afterwards that she was a customer. Anyway, I gently mentioned that I wanted to pay my bill. I said politely, "I'd like to pay the bill." She snorted quietly and in a low tone of voice said "I don't work here, don't you see?" I can understand that in a very historically hierarchical society like Korea, she could feel insulted by my assumption that she was a waitress. Indeed, two Koreans I spoke to said I had insulted her. So I understand that I had upset her. After all, Korea is not like a Western culture where democracy implies that all are equal, but her tone of voice indicated that she very convinced that restaurant work was utterly and completely beneath her. It confuses me, because the young people in Japan are very humble. And many people around the world consider Japanese to be superior to Koreans. In USA, there are many people who would be considered far superior than Koreans, even by Koreans! I know that young people every where are arrogant, but the young Korean people seem to think they are really special. I wonder what accounts for such an attitude. In Asia, I have met many friendly and humble young people from Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, Hong Kong, Vietnam etc, as well as from Japan. Even though I am Korean by heritage, I am finding it difficult to understand this sort of Korean attitude among the young. Many older Koreans may be rough around the edges, but they are really humble and soulful. And many Korean Americans are also quite normal. In addition, I know many many young white Americans who are from wealthy families, but they all work as waiters, waitresses etc yet are very friendly and humble. As I said previously, many of these young white Americans would be considered beautiful, handsome, smart, highly educated and superior by these young Koreans, but they are relatively humble. I am sure there will be apologists here, but this has been my personal experience. As a person who is Korean by heritage, I am trying to wonder how this has happened. I mean Korea was so poor only recently that the Philippines built Kimpo airport and helped Korea during the Korean war. But now the young Koreans think they are better than them. It is truly mind boggling. And if you try to correct these young Koreans about their general attitude, many of them will get extremely defensive and start insulting you. I have never encountered this sort of taunting in any other country.

    1. Thanks for your perspective. Sorry for the late reply. I check this blog less often these days.

      There is a culture of oneupmanship in korea that is stronger than anywhere else I have seen. Status is so important it seems an obsession to compare yourself against others; job, car, son or daughters job or university or how much money they earn, and it goes on and on. Young people certainly want to see themselves on this high-ground, it has been programmed into them from a very early age. I think this is the source of what you observe. It is also the teason why korea feels a bit of an unhappy society. Constantly comparing yourself to others doesn't bode well for mental health. Everyone does it in all cultures, but not to the extremes they do in korea.

      Many thanks for commenting.

  8. Interesting the lack of insight here, both into himself and into society. One wonders whether this fellow had many friends back in England or wherever he is from. The parts about sport display an innate competitiveness that he doesn't seem to recognise in himself, which probably brought out more competitiveness in his counterparts. He is a boxer, to boot, not a sport which attracts the most likeable sort. The leap in thought which generalised an entire 50% of a population (what is that - 25 million?) from the handful that he failed to get along with, and connected that with penis size (!) - the picture emerging here is perhaps just a simple one of a somewhat unlikeable guy without the insight to recognise these character flaws in himself, railing against a stereotype after one too many failed social interactions. The 'i'm not a racist but...' touches fail to obscure the fundamental absence of self-reflection underlying it all. A real man knows how to take stock of himself, admit his mistakes, without feeling weak, without feeling the need to measure his cock to reassure himself of his continued relevance.

    1. I find it interesting that you criticise me for making generalisations, yet really I am only talking about observations of my own experiences. At the same time though, you make broad generalisations about me; at least I actually met the people I was talking about.

      "A real man knows how to take stock of himself, admit his mistakes, without feeling weak, without feeling the need to measure his cock to reassure himself of his continued relevance."

      I never measured my cock to reassure myself, I couldn't give a rats ass about it, it's petty to talk about. This is exactly the point I was making; I never brought penis size up, but I reckon most of the Korean men I met, especially young men (and therefore potential friends of similar age) did. They were constantly measuring themselves against me, I didn't want any part of it, but they did.

      I am glad you think me a boxer also, haha. I only boxed in Korea, more of a squash player. I had a couple of fights because I wanted to see how I reacted to being in a fight, then I stopped. I am competitive in sport though, for sure, but I know fair play. Cheating in Korea or bad sportsmanship was more common than I was used to back home, simple as that. You can call that racist if you like, but that's what I observed. Could I be wrong on the whole male population of Korea based on who I met, sure, completely open to it. I was merely commenting on what I observed.

  9. I have enjoyed reading all of your posts. I'm Korean. I agree with what you say. Your insights are very keen. You've said things I've never heard articulated, and I appreciate that very much. I also appreciate that you "tell it like it is" without sugar coating it. Bravo. I truly applaud you, because speaking the truth of your experience may come across to some as racist. But it actually happened. You weren't saying it in a racist manner, you are reporting your experience. In this ridiculous era of political correctness, I appreciate you telling it like it is. "Ask a Korean" is a real asshole, by the way. He is very defensive about the culture. Every Korean knows exactly what happens in the cockpit of those downed planes because we have lived that kind of idiotic hierarchy. And I know that the chief pilot would rather have people die than be opposed. I don't know if this is a conscious thing, but the cultural norms of Korea put people on "automatic pilot" removing any sense.

    1. Many thanks. To be honest, the vast majority of Koreans that have responded to any of my posts (and there have been quite a few, have commented sensibly and fairly, like you. Even when they haven't agreed with me, thwy haven't played the offence card or called me racist.

      The politically correct era you talk about is really poisoning Western culture generally right now. Writing this blog some years ago was a real eye-opener for me on this. The amount of abuse and pressure I received for my honest musings, on a personal blog really amazed me. It was always from White Westerners getting offended on the behalf of Koreans, when Koreans themselves mostly agreed with me! There's a reason for this, because most of my material was drawn from the frustrations of Koreans that I knew, I.e. my wife, her family, and friends.

      You are dead right about Ask a Korean. I think anyone who has spent any time in korea and honesty assessed what they have witnessed, sees this hierarchy culture at work, and the obvious problems that come with it, very regularly. Things like what happened in those cockpits are clearly a negative aspect of this kind of culture. What's wrong with saying this!!!!??? It's not like Western culture is perfect, there are plenty of negative aspects to its general principles and practices also.

      Thanks for commenting.