Saturday, June 8, 2013

He's a White Westerner? He Can't Say That! - A Civilised Disagreement

This blog gets re-blogged on on another site ( and I had an interesting discussion with someone who commented on it.  I think the exchange was quite civilised and shows two fairly distinct points of view on the subject and thought it was worth highlighting in a blog post in its own right on this site.  This might make for a longer blog post than normal, but thought it was a good debate about some important issues that was without shouts of 'racist' or 'bigot' just because we didn't agree with each other's point of view.

Reply from Stan_hkg to my original post
Let's say you are walking, and you approach a group of a thousand people that aare walking the opposite direction. Would you expect that whole group to suddenly turn around and walk along with you in your direction? What would be required for such a group to change their behaviour?
Maybe all thousand of them would prefer to go in your direction, it is downhill and thus much easier than walking uphill. They agree with you, but instead of turning around, they keep walking uphill. Why, because that's just the way it is. In Korea you walk uphill, not downhill.
Let's say you start asking them questions. Isn't it easier to do it my way? Isn't it better? They will agree, but they keep walking uphill.
In other words, everyone will sometimes feel annoyed in another culture. Heck, I am the first to admit I sometimes feel annoyed by my own culture. But you can't expect society to change. All you can do is change yourself, try to feel less annoyed by things and focus on the positive.
Just my two cents. I'm not an Einstein either, but almost 6 years abroad have learned me not to focus n the annoyances anymore, and it is much better for my health.
South Korea Inside Out (Me)
Your example is benign and therefore does not really get to the point I made. I wasn't even complaining about the effect of the culture on me, but on vulnerable Koreans. 
Let's take a more extreme example, you are in Afghanistan and there have been a series of gruesome incidents involving men assaulting young girls for going to school. Is it ok to just sit back and do nothing, say nothing, try not to effect change? Let's say you work in the country, do you just get on with it or leave out of protest? Under your argument you would just sit back and ignore it because it doesn't effect you.

Even a less extreme example, sexual harassment and bullying at work. My wife received it at the hospital she worked at when she worked as a nurse. So she and I should just accept that sort of treatment? Does it not involve me at all? I would be ashamed to just accept such treatment of my wife without even voicing my opinion about it all. Why should it be any different with someone I don't know? Does not knowing someone mean that I shouldn't care about their possible suffering?

We should stand up for the vulnerable full stop. Ignoring our responsibilities for others just because we are in another culture is unacceptable. It is political correctness at its worst. Granted we can't do much, but voicing an opinion about it can't hurt can it?
I was replying to your post in general terms, not replying to bad thing that may have happened to you and/or your wife that were not mentioned in your post and which I do oppose.
All I am saying with my 'benign' and therefore 'not to the point' reply is that cultural things somtimes do not make sense and that things sometimes are just the way they are in a culture. Going against it is a mere waste of time. If you can't beat them, join them, and if you don't want to join them (for whatever reason) try to get out for your own sake. It goes for countries, clubs/groups, work, relationships etc..

Like someone replied to one of your other posts, "Living amongst the savges must be so tough"...
South Korea Inside Out
The examples I gave are examples of possible criticisms of culture, though, you cannot get away from that. If you oppose these examples, then you agree with me in principle, that we should stand up against certain aspects of another culture and criticise them. Besides, all manner of things might come back to bite you, whether you are concerned with them now or not. You live in South Korea, are you not against their driving culture? Can't beat em, join em? You really think it is OK how they drive? What if you or a friend of yours is run down by a careless Korean driver one day? (Korea has the highest pedestrian death rate in the OECD) Caring about these issues and bringing them to light is in your own self-interest, in almost all cases. You might not change anything, but highlighting problems to as many people as possible is at least the first step to change.

As for this comment, "Living with the savages must be so tough". What a completely hypocritical statement. It is those that don't care about people just because they are form another culture who should be accused of thinking of others as "savages". My wife is Korean, some of my family are Korean, my students are Korean and, shoot me, I care about them and other Koreans I don't even know. That is why I get animated by aspects of Korean culture that causes them suffering. Koreans are people, simple, I try and get as upset about things that cause problems in British culture, I don't discriminate.

I am interested, do you care about issues within your own culture? Do you care about people in your own country? Why should your attitude change because you live in a different one?

You sound like you just want to avoid any controversy or conflict, what a shame, as I think people learn so much from both. I find the conflict of interests between myself and Korean culture most often highly interesting and enlightening, it is not a source of great unhappiness in my life, indeed it is quite intellectually stimulating and life enriching.
"I am interested, do you care about issues within your own culture? Do you care about people in your own country? Why should your attitude change because you live in a different one?"
As a matter of fact, yes I do care. And a lot of the issues that we have in The Netherlands (I'm Dutch) originate from people not accepting different cultures. Dutch are being raised to believe they are tolerant (gay marriage, legalized prostitution, legalized soft drugs). We are so tolerant, but yet we complain about immigrants not integrating in our culture. My root cause analysis is that people in the Netherlands believe they are so tolerant, that being a little less tolerant is still morally acceptable and way above average. However, maybe the Dutch are not that tolerant and being less tolerant results in being a bit racist?
Although I am not in Korea, my wife is Korean, I speak the language, I often visit, yet I live in Hong Kong. I have experienced my own rejection of Chinese culture, I have seen my wifes rejection of the Chinese culture and of Korean culture as well when she realized that so many things are easier in Western families. I have learned to recognize the rejection process, something we all go through when moving abroad.
The culture won't change, we will have to adapt (walk uphill). Korea, nor China nor Hong Kong, will change for us. No matter how right we are and how rich the experiences we have are. We can only walk uphill with them, and learn the strenghts of their culture, be proud with them, and then utilize these to create grounds for our thoughts. You may be right with every letter you write and every word you speak, but being right doesnt bring you anywhere. Only if people agree you are right they will walk along with you, though they might come with different solutions for problems or not solve certain problems at all and let it linger.

Every person, every nation has its own proud of past successes and cultural heritage (proudness is something you must have noticed in the Koreans) and only if we acknowledge these, people will be invited to learn about us and from us as well.

Finally, I love statistics but so often they do not reflect true situations. Sure, I have seen some crazy driving in Korea, but it is much better than in many surrounding countries. The fact there is more pedestrians dying in Korea than in any other OECD country does not bring us directly to the root cause of the problem. Is it bad driving behaviour, or does the infrastructure of small back streets/alleys (골목길's) play a role, or the drinking behaviour of the Koreans. I frankly don't know, but knowing the real root cause can make a frameshift in the perception of it.
South Korea Inside Out
Needless to say, I think you are so wrong on this point, but I am enjoying the dialogue.

Of course we should accept other cultures, there isn't only one way of doing things and the world is richer for it. However, some ways of doing things aren't benign and can cause major problems, not just for the culture in question but for the planet as a whole. It would be lovely to think that if we just let every culture go about their business and leave them be, that the world would be a happier place. I think this is a little naive, especially in a globalised world when so many of our actions are interconnected. The problems of ways of thinking and acting in other cultures (including our own) will come to your doorstep anyway, there is no avoiding them. Honest dialogue has to prevail.
My point wasn't that you don't care, but that you surely do care about the welfare of your fellow countrymen. Your point about your own country's intolerance points to the fact you would want to change things within your own country to avoid the unnecessary suffering of others. My point is, have those feelings and extend it to others regardless of where they are from or where you currently reside.

As far as your own country goes and much of Western Europe as a whole, I think there are legitimate concerns about immigrants not integrating into our societies. By immigrants, I think you and I know what group in particular we mean and that is Muslims. I agree that there are racists that pigeon hole all Muslims as radicalised nutters, but there are a great deal of valid problems brought by an influx of Muslims into Europe. I won't go into them all here but I will give an example of how problems will come to your doorstep. Violent protests in the streets, death threats, and the burning of Danish embassies. Why? Because the Danish government weren't prepared to change their own country's laws on the censorship of the free press, i.e. drawing cartoons of Mohammed. One culture is for freedom of expression the other is not. One side is wrong and it is important to win the battle against them or would you like Sharia law in your country of birth? We can't avoid this battle if we want to maintain our own cultural values, it is as simple as that. The issue of freedom of speech is an ongoing battle with many supporters of Islam.

When it comes to Far Eastern culture, we can and should pressurise cultural norms with better ideas and it does bring success. Japanese whaling, for example, has come under significant international pressure and although it hasn't stopped completely it has been markedly reduced and the Japanese people themselves are growing in their lack of support for it. There are so many other examples I could give, but one more from my own country. The UK has got some serious issues with drinking and violence. We export this to other countries in Europe and in Asia when we go on holiday or when we watch football matches. I have also been to your fair country and seen them causing trouble on the streets of Amsterdam. Because of this your country is in the process of changing its laws of tourists using marijuana legally in bars to try and reduce the influx of people coming to Amsterdam for specifically that reason. My own culture needs to take and accept some criticism for their thuggish attitude to drink and having 'fun' on nights out. We can do this and still accept the kind praise for all our historical and cultural achievements (I have praised Korean historical and cultural achievements many times on my blog).

Finally, I wonder if you genuinely believe driving is acceptable in Korea. Sure it is better than some other countries but not with similar economic means. The death rate is the worst in the OECD and if you wanna chalk that up to the back streets and drinking behaviour then fine, but that still does not change my point that Korea could do with improving its driving culture does it? Pointing this out is the first step to greater research into the problem, changing the culture and reducing road deaths.


I will start with the last point. I am not saying traffic in Korea is great, my whole point is that as long as I don't understand the root cause of the high traffic deaths, and I may not, any claim on the 'why' of these metrics would be a mere assumption. Korean society may not be as open as Western societies and thus I wouldn't even know if the government is having attention for it or not. I'd be interested to learn.
Ever seen a sign in Korea that says "고래 고기"? Thats where they sell whale meat in Korea. I have seen it on the fresh market in Busan as well. But not only Japan and Korea are catching whales, Iceland and Norway are too. And yes, even Alaska (US) allows whaling. Just like fishing, there is quota and rules and they should be respected by individual countries. Imagine if India would suddenly impose a ban on eating cow meat on the rest of the world? Or if the muslims and/or jews would try to ban eating pork? 
The whaling example shows that for both Asian and Western societies cultural point of views cannot be changed easily and even despite international treaties both western and eastern cultures have a hard time adopting to new standards especially when it touches cultural issues. 
My personal world view is that we are humans that all strive for the same things every day. We have families, children and parents to feed. We want a roof over our heads and clean water to drink. We want to take care of the people that are dear to, have security and if possible, we want something additional money and opportunities to enjoy ourselves. There is really no difference whether you are European, American, Eastern Asian, African, Central Asian etc..  
Based on different cultural backgrounds we choose different ways to achieve the same goals. As long as we don't judge on others and try be tolerant to differences, we may realize there is no perfect world or country and that each country has its strengths and weaknesses based on cultural beliefs, religion and rich history. This is exactly why I don't try to criticize the country I live in, there may be too many historical and cultural things that I don't understand that make the society and that are vital in decision making processes. 
When we move outside our countries, we bring with us a set of ideas and principles that we have learned from the day we were born and whatever we do in life, these will always be with us. Western European countries asking migrants to 'integrate' is a silly demand in my opinion. We should not ask people to change, on the other hand, migrants should also respect the local culture in the country of arrival. If cultures are too different the only thing that really works is to be tolerant and acknowledge the difference, not to reject it or try to change it.

In my opinion, if things in Korea ain't right, it is primarily the responsibility of the Korean people to change it, unless it directly affects other countries or the world. There is simply too many things we may not understand.

South Korea Inside Out
I'll try and deal with these points in order. 
The fact is that there is a problem with car accidents in Korea. Unless people start making a song and dance about it, we will never know the underlying cause for sure. I have some theories that I am pretty confident about, but that may be a topic for a whole separate blog. I know one thing for sure, highlighting the problem and even making fun of their driving is not going to make things worse and might possibly make them stand up and notice it a bit more and start dealing with the problem better. 
To me, I could have easily picked Norway or Korea for the whaling example or the Ivory trade, rhino horn, and sharks fin for the Chinese. There is a difference between banning pork or beef and banning whaling and that is certain whale populations were becoming critically endangered, much the same as rhinos and elephants. Since reduced whaling the numbers have recovered. The Japanese are not respecting the quotas, however. The Chinese might have been a better example, as for the sake of a medicinal system that is mainly guff, they endanger a great number of rare animals on the planet that are also very ecologically important. They should be criticised for this, especially as what they are killing them for is totally unscientific. 
In one sense I do agree with you about all people being essentially the same, wanting the same things, but going about it in different ways. Some ways some cultures achieve the same goals are harmful to people and other cultures, however, and I think dealing with this is where our difference of opinion lies.  Historical and cultural reasons for behaviours explain things well and we should try to understand them, but regardless of the history some things are right and wrong and the bad practices are worth changing. 
I find I absolutely agree with you on the integration point. We shouldn't ask people to change, people should be able to live their lives how they want in a free society as long as they don't harm others. I do think that there needs to be an honest dialogue between cultures in the same country, though, or you get situations like in the UK where you have the black community, the Muslim community, the Jews, the Hindus, the Eastern Europeans, etc, all isolated in their own separate groups. Religious people even send their children to separate religious schools. I see this as a problem because there are many different cultures living in the same country that don't really know about each or are friends with each other. This is bound to cause issues of misunderstandings and fear of the unknown. 
Finally, I think we can reject harmful aspects of some cultures. We can't be too relativist and say anything goes because we don't understand the root cause of it and the culture's history. I agree again with you that we can't hope to force a change in culture (we are finding that out in Afghanistan and Iraq) but I see dialogue and honesty and promoting opposing ideas to people as a way for them to affect their own changes if they wish. To do this we must be able to criticise their bad ideas, just as they should be able to criticise ours.

 For the full discussion, including replies from others please go to


  1. Gotta' say that I think your whole debate is redundant given that the majority of Koreans (rightly or wrongly, but certainly understandably) don't care what you think anyway. You both make the mistake of imagining that your views (whether they are offensive and inappropriate or not) matter to Koreans

    I had a Korean co-teacher a couple of years back who had had a bad time of it as a home-stay student in England and she used me for catharsis by telling me what was wrong with English people. She talked about poor personal hygiene and a lack of propriety ect and I was left faintly amused and ignoring the thrust of everything she said. I just assumed she’d missed the point. I imagine that is also exactly how she reacted when I told her I thought elementary students shouldn’t stay up until 11pm every night. And fair enough.

    1. I don't know who you have been speaking to (one bitter co-teacher?), but there is evidence on this site alone, as well as on other sites I write on that in fact Koreans do care about what outsiders think and their criticisms, as they have left many thoughtful comments on my posts (and that I have a few Korean followers). I also take seriously criticisms made by visitors to my country, indeed it is important to do so as they can see things from a different perspective that people in your culture may miss.

      As along as you try to criticise objectively and sensibly, without trying to be obviously antagonistic for the sake of it, a great many people do listen and so they should. If you are just using criticism as cartharsis or out of bitterness, and it is obvious, then of course people are not going to take you seriously.

      Finally, it is not so important to get through to the majority all the time. Sometimes it is only necessary to get through to a few individuals and this can have a trickle down effect on the rest over time. I think you underestimate the written word, as your reaction would have been the reaction to almost any new way of thinking in the past that we now take for granted, i.e. that most people will just keep on doing what they know and they won't change or listen. This assumption has been proved wrong time and time again in history. The world has been made better and has moved forward because of the gradual acceptance of new ways of thinking born out of the criticism of dated ideas and discussion about them.

      It may be hopeful and unrealistic to think my meagre blog could have such an effect on Korea or on foreigners coming to Korea, but highlighting and discussing important issues and freedom of expression is rarely ever in completely fruitless.

    2. " I also take seriously criticisms made by visitors to my country, indeed it is important to do so as they can see things from a different perspective that people in your culture may miss."

      I suppose you often read blogs written in Polish and think deeply about the author’s positions within the context of British society then? Let's be honest, as well-meaning as this assertion is, people or all nationalities are too deeply entangled in their own cultures to properly appreciate the complexity of views held about their culture from an outsider’s perspective. Your response while commendably idealistic comes across as something you would like to do rather than anything you are likely capable of in reality. We’re talking about ritual and social practices built up independently over millennia with different philosophical groundings causing them to flourish. We don’t fully understand what is behind the things we find illogical and so they have every right to not be angry but simply dismissive of our judgments on them.

      “The world has been made better and has moved forward because of the gradual acceptance of new ways of thinking born out of the criticism of dated ideas and discussion about them.”

      I disagree. It is a mixed bag at best.

    3. Nothing is too complex not to be challenged.

      Once people stop believing there is a truth, that is when the "5 monkeys experiment" becomes a clear cut example of the rudimentary, and misguided at that, nature of people preserving a meaningless status quo.
      If we didn't challenge science, we wouldn't be where we are today technologically.
      If we didn't challenge our assumed knowledge, people would've still believed the world was flat.
      If we don't challenge peoples way of thinking, and problem solving, in social and infrastructural norms, we're not gonna get anywhere, and we will have people pointing fingers, and blaming the differences between them as justification for agenda, Q.E.D: The middle east, fx.

      No culture is too entangled. Chris rose up and questioned his own culture, and probably sparked him to travel. I questioned my own culture, partially unprovoked, which made me search for something more rational.
      No, if tradition does not serve a purpose, then people's purpose is not to serve it.

    4. To Anon - "I suppose you often read blogs written in Polish and think deeply about the author’s positions within the context of British society then?"

      Very strange comment this. Firstly, it assumes that blogging is the only way to gain information from another culture. As it happens I have talked to many Polish people in the UK about my culture and even if their English is poor they can still get their grievances/joys/etc across. And secondly, English is such a widely spoken language that you can find a great many blogs written in English by people from non-Western countries, which are critical of some aspects of Western culture and sometimes specifically British culture (not to mention translations). Perhaps you are not going out there searching and asking the right questions, to the right people, in the right manner.

      Infamist explained the other issues I have with what you wrote quite nicely and he is dead right about a big reason for the motivation for me to travel.

      Finally, a list of things that have disappeared but were once commonplace that gradually got killed off by the influence of better ideas by the minority (in the West):


      Belief in Witchcraft and burning women at the stake for it.

      Torture (perhaps with the exception of water-boarding, but torture is not used generally)

      Women not having the right to vote

      The torture of animals for sport in normal society (still fighting against underground dog fighting and cock fighting but it is underground at least. And bullfighting in Spain)

      Honour killings (duels for offending another man's honour were commonplace in Europe)

      Persecution of gay people

      Separate rules and laws for people of the black race

      Child labour..... I could go on.

      Some of these are still present on the fringes of lawless society in the West, but are not by any means commonplace everyday events for the everyday public and are widely reviled. The questioning of all of these would have been seen as futile in the past. They were undoubtedly part of social practices built up over millennia with different philosophical groundings. This is no excuse to keep them going or not criticise them, you don't need to fully understand the reasons behind behaviour to denounce it as a bad idea (it helps for sure, but many of the reasons are also not as complicated as you make out).

      The fact is that many of these still occur in many parts of the world on a regular daily basis and people in the West should put pressure on these practices and at least attempt to raise conciousness in these countries and support people that are suffering because of them.