Saturday, May 12, 2012

Asian Stereotypes - Fact or Fiction

Thought I would let everyone know just what I think about the many stereotypes that people have towards Asian people, and particularly those form the Far East, in an effort to dispell some myths and also to confirm which ones do in fact have some truth to them.  My experiences in Korea over the last 3 years or so, and those with my Korean family have served to either expel these many stereotypes that I indeed had myself or to, if not embrace the ones that are true, at least understand them.  I will be brief with some stereotypes that are simple to deal with, but others may take a little more explanation.  So here we go with my take on Asian stereotypes from a Korean perspective:

1. All Far East Asians are Chinese and speak like this -  'Ching Chang Chong'
An easy one to start with.  The three main languages of the Far East are Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.  Only the Chinese sound this way because of a peculiar quirk of their language; usually the same word can mean different things depending on it's intonation, this is why when Chinese people speak it sounds like what they are saying is going up, down, left, right and all over the place.  Korean and Japanese do not have this in their language, and therefore they really sound nothing like Chinese.  In fact, when I came to Korea I was amused to hear Korean children making fun of the Chinese language in much the same way we do.

When I lived in England with my Korean wife, everyone just assumed she was Chinese, and she received the odd 'Ching Chang Chong' comment from morons on the street, and 'Nihow's' from passers-by, much to her annoyance.

2. All Far East Asian People Can Do Martial Arts
This is generally untrue but a larger percentage of the population probably has some experience of doing martial arts compared to... say, my own country, England. 

In Korea, there are many academies for learning the Korean martial arts of Taekwondo, Hapkido, Gumdo, and Judo.  It is also interesting to observe the students in my school doing Gumdo (meaning 'Way of the Sword' descended from Kendo in Japan), outside in good weather and in the gym in bad weather, a very Far East style PE lesson.  Because of this Korean people certainly are more aware of martial arts.

To give you an idea of their competency, however, it is probably akin to how good the average person in England is at French, we learn it at school and we live right next door to them, but most of us can't speak it.  This is what martial arts is like for most Korean people.

3. Asian Women Value Money the Most
This is only really true in Korea, as far as it is true generally around the world, Korean women do not seem overly concerned in relationships with their partner's wealth.  Of course, world-wide, women do certainly think of a rich boyfriend or husband as a significant tick in the box, but it doesn't seem more so here in Korea. 

One thing I would say, however, is that it is more important for families that their daughters marry a man with money.  The reason is that the culture in the Far East does stress that family take care of each other much more and this means paying for parents in old age.  Parents do expect to be given money when they are older by their children, and this goes for their son in-law too.  Therefore is is definitely a welcome bonus for the family that they are wealthy. 

In most of Asia older people can not expect such fair and kindly treatment as they do in my country, so they do rely on their children to provide for them when they are older.  This is especially true of the poorer South East Asian countries and so it is easy to understand why so many of these countries (e.g. Thailand) has a reputation for women that marry for money.  It is not so much that it is important for them, but it can in fact be a matter of life and death for their families, in which case it is easy to see why they do it.  This is not so much the case in the richer countries of Korea and Japan. 

In Korea, especially, ii is uncommon to see relationships between Koreans and foreigners, and in my city, I believe there are only 4 or 5 of these relationships.  As I have mentioned in previous blogs, this is because of Korea's general mistrust of foreigners, and a strange tradition of thinking that the purity of Korean blood is important. 

Racial attitudes are actually quite divisive in Korea, and mixed race people, and particularly children at school are not treated very well at all.  For all these reasons families are not keen on having someone from another race come into their family, even if their son or daughter is very open-minded about it all. 

Differences in culture, manners, etiquette, and behaviour can all contribute to a very tricky relationship with families, which is too much for most mixed race couples to handle.  Trust me, it's not easy.

4. Asian Children Are All Geniuses
This is obviously not true, but children in Korea are pushed much harder in their education than in the West.  This may make many of them slightly smarter than average when it comes to book smarts, facts and figures, but more world-wise, confident, and capable they are not.  They also appear to be slightly less mature for their age than children in my country.

5. Asian Children Excel at Playing Musical Instruments
Following on from the previous point, many children do indeed play a musical instrument quite well, and again this is because they are pushed by their parents.  Parents spend an awful lot of money on their children's education in private schools after their normal school days, and these often include music schools for different instruments.  Sometimes students enjoy this 'after-schooling', but their competence in such matters is usually because of forced dedication and not too many children, or in fact adults, have a passion for what they are doing, which makes true genius, individuality, and inspiration a difficult thing to come by in Korea and is the main fault in their education system and culture.

6. All Asians are Studious and Want to Become Doctors.
If you changed the sub-heading to all Asian parents want their children to be studious and become doctors it would be much closer to the truth.  Average Korean parents have a fairly one-track mind about their children, and they not so gently push their children towards what they want them to be (especially if the parents have money already). 

A doctor is about the highest status profession you can achieve in Korea, and the Far East in general, and it is for this reason they encourage their children to be one.  I very much doubt from what I have observed that the principle reason is to help save lives and help people, call me cynical, but that's what I see.

7. Asian People are Strict Parents
When it comes to education parents in Korea are very strict, but in other matters they appear to vary in their firmness with their children along a fairly normal range.  I have seen many examples of overly permissive parenting, and unruly children as a result.

8. Asian People Don't Drive Well
I am sure there are exceptions, but this is absolutely true in Korea and China, they are terrible drivers and are so inconsiderate.  On a trip to Japan, however, I did notice that they were not nearly so bad.  So if I was Japanese, I'm not sure I would be very happy with being lumped in with the Koreans and Chinese as bad drivers.

The Korean driving test also appears to be relatively simple to pass.  I think my wife passed hers with about 6 or 7 hours of driving tuition at most, and was certainly not ready to be on the road when she passed her test.  Being in the passenger seat for the first week or so was a nerve-racking experience.

9. Asian People Have Lots of Relatives
This is untrue, they have the same amount of relatives, the only difference is that they see them all much more frequently than we do in Western countries.  For example, my wife has 3 cousins (I think) and the relationship between them is more like brothers and sisters.  I can't remember the last time I saw my cousin, although I am fairly sure he is a regular reader of my blogs, so 'Hi Rob!' 

10. Asian People Mainly Eat Rice
Yes, they do, and much healthier they are for it.  Typically, rice is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Sounds boring, but there is good variety in their food, they just accompany every meal with rice.  They believe it gives them good energy and helps them feel a nice kind of full, and to be fair I think they are correct on this and I am a big fan of eating lots of rice.

11. They have Poor English Language Skills
This is a tad ironic coming from the English speaking nations, who are notorious for being bad speakers of other languages. 

This one does have some truth to it, and they famously have trouble with 'r's' and 'l's'.  They have this trouble in Korea at least because the character in their alphabet that produces the nearest sounds to this is 'ㄹ' which sometimes sounds like an 'l', sometimes like a 'r', and sometimes sort of in the middle.  This makes it equally difficult to pronounce in Korean for me and I reckon there is probably an equivalent derogatory saying to 'flied lice' that they make fun of English speakers for. 

On top of this, you can observe quite a few amusing spelling mistakes in many situations in Korea.  There are also many strange translations of a great deal of things that you may read and this is because of the vast differences in the languages.  Many teachers in Korea often put their school memos into 'Google Translate' and the translation regularly comes out very strange indeed.  For example, thought I would just copy and paste a random Korean article on a news website into 'Translate', and this is what I got:

'지난해 여덟 살 많은 남편과 결혼한 직장인 황리나(34) 씨는 첫 추석과 설날 당일 시댁에 가지 않았다. 남편은 여동생 둘이 있는 장남인데 시어머니가 “기독교라 차례도 지내지 않는 데다 여동생 가족도 명절 다음 날에 오니, 두 번 걸음 하지 말고 그때 오라”고 했던 것. 그 대신 황씨 부부는 명절 당일 친정을 찾았고, 불교를 믿는 친정 가족과 함께 차례를 지냈다. 그는 “고부갈등을 많이 걱정했는데, 시어머니가 상당히 열려 있고 우리 부부가 워낙 나이가 많아서 그런지 별로 신경을 쓰지 않는다”며 “뒤늦게 독립한 남편 역시 시댁 일에 얽매이지 않고 부부 중심으로 모든 일을 처리하려 한다”고 했다'.

'Last year, eight years older and married her husband hwangrina workers (34) says the first Thanksgiving and New Year's day did not go to his family. He is the eldest sister, mother-in-law that they "do not get along that point, deda gidokgyora sister sludge family holiday the next day, then do not step twice," Come at that. Instead, the feast day of Hwang will speed up the couple visited a Buddhist believer will speed up the ancestral rites with their families. "I was worried a lot of intergenerational conflict, mother-in-law and my husband is very open, so a lot of old grunge does not care much," said "too late, separate laws on her husband without being tied around the couple tries to handle all the work "he said'.

It is easy to understand why they, and I, have difficulty.

12. Asians are Always Taking Pictures on Holiday
In my experience this is absolutely true and my wife is no exception.  She takes pictures of everything and especially food.  She really loves to take pictures of food and when left to her own devises she can take whole photo albums of food that she has eaten on holiday, I don't really understand it.

13. Most Asians Wear Glasses
People in Korea do appear to have more eyesight problems it is true, and the style that tends to suit their faces are these thick style glasses, so it is quite noticable. 

I have done some research and apparently there are a few explanations for this phenomenon; some say Asian people have a greater genetic disposition to getting myopia, others say that children do more reading and close up tasks from a young age in Asia which also contributes towards myopia, and some have even claimed that because Asian children spend more time at home and studying that their eyes adapt to only short distances, again increasing the instances of myopia.  It is argued that if they spent more time outside, then they would not be so prone to developing bad eyesight.

14. They Dress Strangely
Only the Japanese and K-Pop music stars in Korea.  Generally, the Korean style is not too bad, although the guys bring skinny jeans to a whole new level.

15. The Men are All Mysogynists
There is some truth to this claim in Korea.  As I mentioned in my previous blog on Korean couples, some men (particularly the older ones) don't see adultery as an especially serious crime.  There is also a certain amount of inequality in the workplace and in everyday life in general.  In my school it is always the female teachers who clean up or make cups of coffee or tea while the men sit around making horrible noises. 

Because of their Confucian origins, it is the men that are still thought of more highly in life generally, and many Korean men are against this changing.

16. They are Hard Working
Absolutely.  I came across an answer on 'Yahoo' the other day about why Asian people seem to be all hard-working, and the answerer ridiculously accused the questioner of being racist.  Well, I can tell you that they do tend to work very hard indeed, which of course has nothing to do with race, but everything to do with the culture in this part of the world.  If you are a Korean employed in Korea, don't expect to work your contract hours (in fact don't expect a contract), don't expect any vacation days, sick days, or many Saturdays off work.

17. Asians are not Fat.
Obviously, there are exceptions, but this does appear so.  In Korea, obesity in the population is increasing, largely due to the popularity of Western fast food with the young, and the perpensity to spend all day in PC rooms.  Generally, though, genuinely fat people are still pretty difficult to find.  Again, this is not because of race, but because of culture.  Korean people eat better food, and have a better attitude to health than people in the West. 

Their society also does not tolerate people that are overweight, sometimes to the point of bullying, which is not good, but they don't accept the nonsense excuses for obesity that western countries accept. 

Also, it is harder for Koreans to get away with being a little chubby, women especially.  White and black girls that are overweight can sometimes pull off a curvaceous, voluptuous look that can often look quite attractive to some people.  In Asian women, however, this kind of look appears to never actually occur.  Sounds horrible, I know, but Asian people think that women have to be slim to be attractive, and I think I agree.  Big Asian women never look good.

Stereotypes that Asian People have of us in the West

1. Western People are Selfish
This is because we appear to always talk about ourselves and it is important that we are treated fairly in any given situation.  We talk about 'my rights', and we make decisions because of how we feel personally about matters. 

Fairness and personal rights are not values in Korea, I will put it as plainly as this.  If you think fairness is a universal moral value you'd be wrong.  If you are unhappy with how a situation is unfolding in Korea and say, 'well it's just not fair', you will probably not receive a sympathetic response. 

If I can drill home a very different aspect to our cultures it is this; it is the group that matters to people in the Far East, it is the individual in the West.  If someone is being treated badly, but this treatment may benefit the particular group they are in, they have to suck it up.  They are thinking too much about themselves and they are perceived as being selfish. 

My wife often gets accused of being too 'Western' at her hospital when she voices even a moderate complaint about her working conditions (which are diabolical). 

It is so easy to see where China's roots of human right abuses have originated, and how North Korea even exists when the culture of the Far East doesn't believe in individual rights and fairness, let alone standing up for them. 

Things do, of course, change and it is possible to see many Korean people protesting these days, but it is curious to see what they protest about.  They normally protest about patriotic issues to do with their country, trade agreements, Japanese abuses in the past, names of seas, the ownership of rocks in the middle of the sea, etc.  They rarely protest about inequalities in their own country, and personal freedoms and rights. 

This is the very reason why foreigners in Korea don't care about Korea and Japan fighting over the name of a sea or who owns a small island.  To us this is petty and small-minded stuff, matters which western countries do argue with each other about for sure, but which the average member of the public frankly couldn't give a damn about.  Such arguments between countries are valid, but why should every person in the country care about it?  In Korea, pro-Dokdo (the rock in the sea), and the naming of the East Sea/Sea of Japan argument, propaganda are circulated to everyone, including foreigners living in Korea and children in schools.  It is ridiculous to do this with children, and completely pointless to inform foreigners about it.

One advantage of being a little selfish and thinking individually is that you can put yourself in someone elses shoes and this can encourage empathy, sympathy, and understanding. 

It can be quite shocking to witness just how heartless Korean people can be sometimes.  If someone is tired, sick, or simply struggling in their job, for example, help is rarely given, and in fact the knives come out ready to cut the weak link from the chain.  Again, this is a factor in human rights abuses, and mistreatment of animals in the Far East, which is quite widespread across all the Far East nations. 

There are increasing amounts of enlightened individuals from these countries that fight for human and non-human animal's rights, but they are still in the minority here.  People outside the cultural group can be thought of as being slightly less than human and therefore this is how people can carry out human rights abuses.  Animals are not even in the same species, so they get it even worse. 

Every country has tribalism, but the culture here magnifies it.  On a smaller level many Korean people have no thought for others when they are walking on the street, smoking, driving, and parking, and generally they are fairly thoughtless about the comfort and needs of others that are not in a certain group, e.g. family, friends, or work colleagues.  This has the result of most Korean people being just as selfish as that of Western people but in a different way.

2. White People are Attractive
Koreans have the highest number of plastic surgeries in the world (3.8% of all plastic surgeries conducted in the world), which is amazing for such a small nation.  Most of these surgeries are on their eyes and noses, with the main purpose that they appear a little more like those of white people.  They also use whiteners in their skin cosmetics and moisturisers, wear white make-up, and protect their faces and bodies from the sun at all times in order not to tan. 

They admire the white person look.  I am not in much of a position to comment on Korean men's appearance, but the women need not worry as the majority are far more pleasing on the eye than the women in my country.

3. Western White People are Racist.
This is highly ironic, when you consider that Korean people are amoung the most racist people I have ever known.  I think they get this impression from history, movie culture, and simpy that we have more interaction between races and therefore more problems. 

In reality, people in the West are now very guarded about any comment or action that could be deemed racist.  Korean people don't have this, and can display a shocking level of racism sometimes, especially towards black people.  Their form of racism is more subtle, however, and resides inside their heads and when it does show it is maybe a little less in your face than in Western countries, and therefore less noticeable.

4. Western People Smell
When I first arrived in Korea, I was told that some Korean people will hold their finger under their noses when they pass a foreigner in their country.  I haven't seen this  (maybe I am not too bad), but my wife informs me that a lot of foreigners have a 'western smell' of body odour. 

It is true that I don't think I have ever smelt BO on a Korean, and they never use deodorant either.  It can be purchased in the shops here, but at severely inflated prices as no one uses it.  Instead of BO, Koreans make up for it by smelling strongly of garlic and soju, which they consume in large quantities.

5. Every Non-Asian Face is an American
Talked about in a previous blog.

6. We are all unhealthy
They tend to assume that all we eat is pizza, burgers, and chips, and that any health condition we have, whether it be bad skin, the odd cold, or sickness, is caused by us all eating bad food and not exercising.  There may be some truth to this in some people, but this doesn't hold true for many, including me.

7.  We are All Work-Shy
This harps back to point 1, in that they connect laziness and selfishness.  Many think that foreign teachers stick rigidly to their contracts in order to avoid doing work.  I have known many fellow teachers to slightly abuse their allocation of sick days, but generally we stick to contracts in order not to be treated unfairly by our bosses, and not because we are lazy.  And being treated unfairly by your boss can be quite a common-place practice in Korea.


  1. Interesting! I'm doing an article on South Korean biases, prejudice, and stereotypes. This helps a lot! I liked how you switched it around to what they think of Americans, too!

  2. White people *do* smell more than East Asians. The difference is in the sweat glands.

    There are two types of sweat glands in humans, eccrine and apocrine. The former is for body cooling, and the latter is responsible for body odour. Apocrine glands are less common in East Asians, hence their limited need for deodorant.

    1. Yes, that's true. Found that out the other day, think I wrote about it in another blog post. Rarely have I ever noticed BO on a Korean. I have noticed garlic and soju smell quite a lot though.

    2. Asian people may have less glands but I think is because of their diet but they smell REALY bad!!!! Like garlic and ginger!!! Not sure how white guys can stand the smell when they date Asians

    3. I think you are in danger of tarring a pretty diverse continent with the same brush here. There is a massive difference between Far East Asia and South East Asia for example, and also between the countries in Far East Asia. Koreans do eat a lot of garlic but not a great deal of ginger. The diet of the average Japanese and Korean person is quite different in many key areas, a bit like how English and French cuisine differ.

      I am married to a Korean and I can't say I have ever smelt garlic, ginger, or anything unpleasant on her. This also goes for every single other 'Asian' woman I have ever known. If anything Korean people tend to be a bit OCD in matters regarding making sure their personal hygiene and smell is good. I am sure there are some smelly ones hiding around somewhere, but I am sure they are no more prevalent than in the West.

    4. As a Korean, I'd say the stereotype that Western people are racist would be better put down as "Western people are hypcritical on racism". We know race is a sensitive issue in the West, but a lot of Koreans see this as Westerners taking the high moral ground by rebuking others for being racist, while hiding racist thoughts themselves.

    5. "I'd say the stereotype that Western people are racist would be better put down as "Western people are hypcritical on racism". We know race is a sensitive issue in the West, but a lot of Koreans see this as Westerners taking the high moral ground by rebuking others for being racist, while hiding racist thoughts themselves."

      Yeah, 100% agree. I think a lot of Westerners are in denial about their prejudice though. So sure are they of their moral high ground, they don't realise that they actually have quite a high opinion of themselves and a low opinion of people of other races or cultures.

  3. Hilarious and pretty much on the money. I found my self laughing through most of it. Nicely done!

  4. Well... Your article is partially right about Korean. There are a lot of Korean parents support their children's own dream. And Koreans value 'rights' too. Older and powerful people don't allow it though. And I haven't met my cousin for years.
    But you are absolutely right about some things.
    Like, being a woman in Korea is very stressful. You have to make coffee, answer the phone, be skinny, wear makeup.... and yes, Korean drivers have dangerous driving habits.

  5. married to a Korean woman for a long time. A good and hard worker, fruitful financially, and devoted. Seemed to value money a lot and put shame on top clouding perspective.

  6. Some of this is so accurate, it's scary. (I'm South Korean myself.)

  7. Loving all the stereotypes that you wrote ! And I'm chinese, well most are quite true tbh.

  8. You know it is funny, all the abuse I receive about my blogs appears to come from White Westerners becoming outraged on Korean and Asian people's behalf. Usually, if Asian people comment on my blog they do so in agreement or if they truly disagree, make their points in argument without accusing me of racism or insinuating it.

    I do hope I come across as simply a guy from a different culture making honest observations and giving my honest opinion about stuff. Perhaps there does exist in me some deep-seated bias towards my own culture or even race that effects what I write sometimes, but I do try to be as objective as possible.

    Many thanks to all the comments on this post.

  9. I agree with you on #16, Asian people working hard. That's right. Most of them were born or raised in a working hard families so they have learned from their parents and even grandparents. Older Asian generations worked very hard to support their families. In the West, some of them don't even speak English fluently so they work more hours in low-salary jobs. So, that's right. Good trait.

    1. I think it is a good trait, for sure, but it definitely has down sides as well. The will to work hard can turn into obsession and it has always been my opinion that Koreans (I live in Korea so this is the culture I have experience with) place too much pressure on themselves and each other. Too many people seem over-worked and unhappy and I find that a little sad, especially when I see it in my students.

    2. Asians work hard because asians are competing against other asians. The cultural argument for the work ethics of Asians is that if your parents made huge sacrifices for your education, ... then you (as a dutiful and appreciative son/daughter) are obligated to reciprocate. You *must* work hard or see their love/dedication and ultimately their investment go to waste. Disappointing your parents is painful everywhere (but maybe more so in asian countries).

  10. South Korea has the highest rate of suicide in the developed world, especially in under 30's. They are very materialistic, ambitious and lack imagination.

    1. Obviously, there are many exceptions to the stereotypes you listed, but they are not without a grain of truth, yes.

  11. I cannot help but remark, regarding your comment about the maturity level of English kids, I'm fairly certain that said maturity level surpasses pretty much that of any other country's child population. :)

  12. Analyzing stereotypes with stereotypes?

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