Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why does Korea Make us so Angry?

Picture by Charles LeBlanc (
Why is it that so many people get so upset about Korea while living in Korea?  I have never sensed the same acrimony about living in Japan or South East Asian countries, not even China.  When bad things happen in these countries, people get upset and move on more easily than Korea, it seems.  Is it simply that Korea is attracting only angry Westerners to its shores?

This was something I was musing on the other day while one of my uncle in-laws was talking to me over some spicy grilled eel (one of my favourites) outside his house.  I was in a good mood, eating happily away when he started a conversation about England in comparison to Korea.  He started with history and said, "America and the UK have only short histories, not like Korea.  You know Korea has a great history that goes back 5000 years?"

Firstly, why he lumped the US in the conversation is anyone's guess (Roboseyo might have the answer), but I suspect that, try as he might, even knowing that I am not American, he still can't quite bring himself to separate me from them.  In fact, many of my relatives regularly ask me questions about the US, to which 95% of the time, I simply say, "I have no idea."  Despite this, the questions still get asked and the message has not quite sunk in that I almost certainly know more about Korea than I do the US.

I can't help but feel I would have better received his comment if he had just forgotten about the comparison between countries and just said, "You know Korean history goes back 5000 years?" and left it at that, and then we could have had an interesting discussion about Korean history (something he might also know something about), albeit in my rather shoddy level of Korean.  I guess what he said was true about the US, it does have a young history, but the UK, not so much.  And as well as the fact he clearly knew nothing about the history of the British Isles, he had a goading, belittling, and magnanimous tone that encouraged a defensive response.  If I had been American I would have been tempted to say (as I got semi-offended on their behalf), "Well, I know your country has been around a long time, but....." you can add any number of responses here considering the great influence the US has had and still has on the world and has had on Korea itself.

The same goes for the UK of course, I had an overwhelming urge to list everything great about my country compared to his.  Also, unless we are talking about a continuous culture, the same race, or the same borders, the history of almost any country goes back over 5000 years, doesn't it?  But why did I have this longing to bite back?  I am not normally like this, I am not always so overly proud to be British, in fact I hate patriotism in many ways.  Why should I really be proud of a history I had no part in, based on the mere accident of my birth in that particular country? Logically speaking, it has never made that much sense to me.

Perhaps I am simply not immune to an innate form of tribalism that we all have, or perhaps it was also a combination of factors, like the inaccuracy, the ignorance, and the magnanimity of the way he was speaking, with all the authority given to him by his age and status as an older man in Korea.  There is just something about a Korean older man who speaks with confidence and authority on something that he knows absolutely nothing about and in a way that is clearly self-promoting that raises my heckles.  This biting reflex may be a natural Western instinct to rebel against authority.  This freedom to question and even grill the views of the supposedly superior is a great thing, which of course has some disadvantages in our societies when it comes to law and order, but is necessary for progress and freedom of expression.

Now, the very act of disagreeing with my uncle in-law tends to cause a bite-back response from him as well because - even when he is dead wrong about something that he obviously knows nothing about - he simply is not used to being told so.  So what could have started out as a friendly and interesting conversation about history, has turned into subtle slights on each other's culture when he probably had no previous quips about the UK with me, and I none about Korea with him.  I was starting to pick up that this was indeed what was happening, so started to check my tongue.  He however, wasn't quite done.

Picture by Leonard Bentley (

Next came the inevitable comment about smog (I don't know how many times Korean people have brought this up to me).  He also added how much cleaner the air must be for me now I am in Korea.  I had to correct him on this by saying that we no longer have smog because we don't really use coal as an energy source anymore (I think we stopped having smog when my mother was a child).  Since we stopped using it, we now don't have smog and that sometimes we have fog because we are quite a damp country, but the two are quite different and should not be confused.  I held back from saying that the air quality in the UK is undoubtedly better than Korea because the weather comes from thousands of miles across the Atlantic ocean and not from energy-hungry China and other highly populated and therefore fossil fuel burning parts of Asia.  There is evidence also to back this up.

Bizarrely, on a trip to Suncheon Bay with my parents (who were in Korea for my wedding) we were interviewed by a woman working for Gwangju kbc television and she reiterated much of the same sort of stuff.  After a few questions about how we felt about being there and how beautiful it was, it came up again, the comparison question: "How do you feel about being in Korea in this beautiful nature compared to England?"  It was an odd and uncomfortable question and the tone suggested she wanted an answer something along the lines of, "Yes, the air is so much fresher and the scenery so much more beautiful than my own country."  My mother and I sensed the gist of the question and gave a measured response saying how beautiful Korea was but also how England was just as pretty and picturesque, but perhaps in a less rugged and mountainous way.  She didn't seem overly satisfied with those answers, but it was better than my father's; he simply said - in his rather strong London accent - "Well, I'm not really a nature person."  The look on the reporter's face was golden.

Suncheon Bay in the background, two idiots in the foreground.
I digress, so anyway back to my uncle in-law.  After a few more back-handed comments about my country he then got round to giving me advice about how to raise a puppy given to me by my father in-law.  It was like chewing on glass to have to tolerate being told terrible advice about raising a dog even more than it was being told about the failings of my country of birth (compared to the mighty South Korea), especially as I knew how he treated his own dogs when they were alive.

As I have mentioned before in a previous post, my uncle in-law had two Jindo dogs a couple of years ago, which he tied up in the driveway and that he never walked - they simply stayed there for their whole life - with no bed or significant shelter in the heat of summer, the cold of winter and in the wind, rain, and snow. This would have been enough for me to disrespect his views on animal welfare already, but when I asked my wife one day why they had disappeared from his driveway, she said that he had sold them for dog meat because they were getting old and he didn't want them anymore.  Only yesterday did I learn that one of those dogs was actually my own dog's grandfather.

Coincidentally, this all happened just a few days before South Korean professor Kim Seong-kon at the Korea Herald released an article about Korean mothers, which was perhaps the very definition of diabolically awful, ill-formed, nationalistic nonsense, and quite rightly received a number of rebukes, first at Asiapundits, then by the boss at, and then my favourite of all by Roboseyo.  Actually, I was a little peeved with Roboseyo's post at the same time as it said precisely what I wanted to say about how Korea can wind us all up the wrong way sometimes and their reasons for it, plus it was done probably a lot better than I could have done it.  So check it out and I won't repeat anything here, he at least saved me some time in writing.

So in summary then, I understand the difference in culture and I know that some things will just get my goat because they are different and it is simply not what I am used to.  I think I have the means to fight these kinds of feelings, but perhaps the biggest reason for me to bite is this nasty little habit that so many older Koreans have of dishing out advice that is not only not asked for, but is for their own benefit, self-promoting, ignorant, vindictive, wrong, and magnanimous all at the same time.  Then, running a close second is the other tendency some Koreans have to shamelessly promote their own country as the best, whilst at the same time belittling others often right in the face of that particular country person, without having even the tiniest snippet of knowledge about their country.  Yes, I think I have figured out why I get a little snappy sometimes.

I sort of get why many often feel compelled to do preach advice and to compare the rest of our countries unfavourably to theirs, and I do feel genuine sympathy for what has happened to Korea in the past.  I also know that I should just be the bigger man and take it all with a smile on my face, yet at the same time, sometimes it is perfectly natural and right to become a little annoyed with it all.  More importantly, perhaps it is even our responsibility to respond and be upset, to ourselves, to others, and to the perpetrators of this stuff themselves.



  1. If only this article were translated in Korean, I'll send it to all the Koreans I know who have told me that Korea is THE BEST or HAS THE BEST... (My in-laws included.)

    1. Someone asked me if I was worried about my blogs getting in the hands of my in-laws the other day via a relative with knowledge of English. Only my wife speaks English in the whole family, but if my blogs ever did reach my in-laws, I think it would be fantastic.

  2. this is a toughie. i was born in korea but have lived 95% of my life in the US and am a US citizen. being around koreans while growing up even while living in america didn't really temper me to the things that are annoying about korea; it actually made me a LOT less patient about it. but having lived here a few years now, i am much more understanding about it.

    i realized that i really have no right to come here and tell them how to think, even though they may often be misinformed or even blatantly wrong. i could maybe offer some information but, as you know, it doesn't do much good. the US and britain offer a lot of diversity and have done so for a long time. the US is pretty much a country of immigrants. but you have to realize that korea has been a very closed off country for almost all of its existence until only very, very recently. it is not shocking that they are still a xenophobic, especially the older generation. and even though the US is a melting pot, racism abounds. it's kind of human nature. so it's hard to expect koreans to accept diversity to quickly and wholeheartedly when they've had so little experience with it.

    i suspect that things will change but only at a generational pace. even the humane treatment of animals (which is a cause near and dear to me) is a lot to ask, but that is slowly changing as well as the older generation dies out and the younger generation learns to accept animals as companions. it makes me angry but no amount of my chastising will ever change an ajusshi's mind about his penchant for dog meat in the summer. but his son or daughter may feel differently (most of my students are disgusted with the idea) and it will slowly die out.

    i personally don't want westernization to happen. there are lot of things i see here that are nothing short of take-overs in terms of western influence and, frankly, i don't like it. there is so much beauty about the korean culture and its people, that i fear a lot of that will be lost with time. but i do hope that some ideals such as diversity and acceptance will soon become standard here even though it may not be best exemplified even in our own home countries.

    anyway, my point is, there are reasons koreans behave as they do. there is a strong sense of nationalism but i don't think this is isolated to korea. i don't know what your experience in japan was but when i lived there, they were even more prideful. i did sort of unofficial survey while i was there and their are even more of an inward-looking people. but again, just like it is here, it has been changing due to international exposure and the broadening of experience. i think it will continue going that way. another 50 years from now, i think korea will be different than what we're currently experiencing.

    1. Top comment.

      Yeah, I know why Koreans are the way they are and I have quite a bit of sympathy for their past. I have written about this before and the link to Roboseyo's blog covers the reasons too.

      I, like you, think the same about the generations in Korea and I am optimistic that attitudes will change, not just because of a more enlightened younger generation but because as time goes by they will be more secure in their national identity and let their achievements speak for themselves.

      I also share your concern for animals (wait for a post a bout my dog in weeks to come) and your worries about Korea becoming too Westernised. I think it would be a great shame to lose many things about Korean culture. Unfortunately (along with almost every other country in the world), what Koreans often take from the West is the worst of it, i.e. the shallow captitalism, materialism, and the food.

      With any luck Koreans will learn to accept the diversity and equality parts of Western culture and realise what is precious about its own culture and make sure they don't lose it. I am optimistic that they will get the first bit - like you - in the next 50 years, but not so optimistic about the later.

      Many thanks for commenting.

  3. sorry for the typos and errors above.

  4. you know what is really weird, as I was reading through your article, I can actually relate to many of the things you mentioned in the article. Like yourself, I am foreigner living in a country with culture that is somewhat different from mine own, in my case, I am Taiwanese who is currently studying in Australia. And I swear I could literally replace the word "Korea" with the word "Australia". In fact, most Asians I talk to here have mixed feeling about this place.

    You mentioned in the article Korean has this habit of comparing western countries with Korea in a negative way, and that is what makes westerner living in Korea so mad. But you know, I have lived here for a couple of years, my experience with Australians ( and quite a few Kiwis too) is that they can be equally rude, Sometimes even "maliciously" rude when it comes to talking about Asian countries.

    For example, I once had this conversation with this friend of mine on my holiday to Jarkata, and I mentioned i was quite impressed with how metropolitan Jarkarta was when I was there, and the first words came out of her mouth and I quote " yes, I have been there , and it is VERY dirty and full slums"????? And that was not the first time I have came across a response similiar the one she gave me, I mean seriously, was that necessary? I dont have problem with people being honest, but would it kill Australians to show some tact and graciousness when they talk about other people's country, i guess not.

    In fact, I had this other experience when I went to New Zealand for holiday, and I struck up this conversation with this Kiwi guy at this camp ground, and I remember this guy asked me ( Note: I did not volunteered the information, it was him who "asked" me) on the population of Taipei, I remember telling him the population is a little bit more than two million" and his response was something like " two million stuffed into the size of a regular suburb in Auckland, how do you managed to survive?"

    So yes, I would argue this type of rudeness is probably not restricted to Koreans, though based on the example you gave, I would argue your uncle in law was actually a little bit more diplomatic than many Australians I have met.

    You mentioned in your other articles on how you find it really frustrating on not able to be honest and air your opinions in Korea in some situations.

    Again, I find that interesting. I dont know anything about English, but I have lived in Australia long enough to know when Australians talks about one's entitlement to his or her opinion ( at least in relation to Asians live in Australia), really means " I AM entitled to MINE opinion, and you are ONLY ENTITLED to agree with me", in another word, such previlege really apply to themselves, and it is a completely different standard to foreigners ( not those foreigners who are also Europeans, certianly not Americans).

    So, no ,I dont actually think Koreans are that bad.

    1. Hmm, I don't know for sure because I have not lived in Australia, but have had a few Aussie friends, and may wife has lived there and is currently living there at the moment and I do think there is a difference.

      The Aussies I know and the experience I have had with their culture, TV programs, sense of humour, etc, lead me to believe they have quite a cruel and blunt sense of humour and manner. I actually quite like it, it is honest and up-front, but to the point they certainly are and tact hasn't been a feature of my dealings with most of them (you should have seen a criticism of my blog and Aussie gave over at burndogsburnblog!). Yes, I agree, Koreans are more diplomatic, but that is not always a good thing. Sometimes I don't tend to know what Koreans are feeling and thinking - maybe down to social etiquette - and what they say can often be misconstrued or dishonest as a result.

      I think it is a culture thing rather than trying to get one-up on your country. However, I realise the Korean way is just a culture thing too and what seems rude to some people is different to others, so I take your point. The post was basically explaining this thing about their culture that I don't like and there will obviously be things about other cultures that other people don't like.

      I had a Korean woman write on here once that she found it tough to be accepted for who she is in Australia and England, much like I complain about it being tough to be accepted in Korea. This is of course true, but, I do think if you stubbornly stick to being yourself in Western countries, the people close to you will eventually accept you for who you are; I don't really think this will ever happen in Korea and my in-laws are the perfect example.

      You are probably entitled to your own opinion in Australia but you do have to fight for it, for sure, people are tribal everywhere. The principle of freedom of speech embedded in Western culture means that you should win in the end, though. Not so sure if this is true in Asian countries, where tradition, respect, and social etiquette take on higher importance.

      Thanks for an interesting comment.

  5. Nice post. I've wondered the same thing. I think part of the anger comes from not being asked for our input very often.

    Language notes:
    I don't think "magnanimous" is the word to use. Perhaps "patronizing" or "condescending" is what you mean.
    "Sheckles" should be "shackles."

    1. Cheers.

      The older people in the group kinda always run everything, so my opinion on what we are doing, how long we are doing it for, etc, is never sought. So i think you are right about that input thing.

  6. My wife is Korean and we have 2 sons who were both born in Korea. I've spent 5 years here and and am fluent in Korean. Since having kids and trying to raise them here, I've learned exactly what gets me red. It may not be true for everyone because not everyone has kids, but it really does make things more intense. What gets me really riled up is ethnic nationalism where the Korean race is what makes one Korean. My boys look more Western than Asian, so when we go outside I constantly hear the "foreigner" comments. It didn't used to bother me that much because I'm not Korean, but my kids are and it makes me want to break shit. But more than that, the worst is that Koreans can't accept Western child-rearing practices. Everyone from my in-laws to complete strangers on the street feel the need to educate the ignorant foreigner (me) how to be a father. And then when the ignorant foreigner doesn't do it the right way (ie: the Korean way) they just decide to "help" anyway.

    Kindly FUCK OFF!!!! Man I hate raising kids in Korea!!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I understand, have worked there for years frequently in enetrainment everything makes me ticked off in Korea and we also laugh.

      They define misery and hate.

      Not attractive is it.
      Sorry to hear that is tough with children.