Friday, November 29, 2013

Should Race and Culture be Off-Limits in Comedy?

Image by Gage Skidmore
Image by Gage Skidmore
Having lived in Korea for nearly 5 years now (and married into a Korean family for over 3 years), the way Korea and Asia as a whole is portrayed in Western media and the entertainment industry and the reaction to this portrayal has been something that has interested me quite a bit. I can remember the kind of picture that was painted for me before I lived in Korea and now I can actually analyse whether there is any truth and fairness to how they do it. However, as to whether some of the material put out there is offensive and wrong - and if so how we should deal with it - well that appears to be a matter of some debate.

The entertainment industry is an area where the subject of racism towards Asian people comes up frequently in the field of comedy. Let's first focus on Seth Macfarlane, who has come in for a fair bit of criticism recently for some of the scenes he promoted for his new sitcom "Dads" - weeks before the pilot even aired - because of its use of some Asian stereotypes as a subject for humour. Many have also argued that the show that made him famous, Family Guy, also has gone too far and stepped over the line (numerous times) into racism, not just of Asians but other races too.

Huff Post Debate
Dads on CNN

A couple of other examples also became prominent recently on Jimmy Kimmel and on the Dutch version of X-Factor when a Chinese man auditioned.  Both are neatly summed-up in this article in the Atlantic.

I actually agree with the conclusion in the piece in the Atlantic that anti-Chinese (and even Asian generally) racism is a greater problem than many people realise in the West.  As I wrote in a post on my own site a couple of weeks ago, I myself was shocked at how people in my own country treated my wife when I lived there for a year with her.  There is a big taboo on criticising or making fun of race and culture in the UK, but it doesn't seem to be helping much in alleviating people's ignorance on the matter and making Western countries free of prejudice.  I do believe the taboo on race and culture has reached the limit of its effectiveness and it is time for some honesty and open dialogue.

Jimmy Kimmel and the Dutch judge on X-Factor appear to be pretty cut and dry examples of attempted comedy that is not funny and that stepped over a line.  With the Dutch judge it is easy to see why he was wrong, he simply discriminated against another human being, treated him differently, made a joke of him as an individual in front of the audience, and made him and everyone else feel mightily uncomfortable as a result.  With Jimmy Kimmel, the joke was bad taste, but the fact that such a nasty thing was uttered from the mouth of a child also probably helped push the joke into being something wholly distasteful.

When it comes to comedy generally, however, I do see a great many issues and it is not clear to me how best to handle things and where to draw lines, if that's indeed what we need to do.

Being Offended by Possibly Racist (in fact any) Jokes is Almost Always Counter-Productive

The minute people become offended by something, when it is presented as comedy, they run the risk - 90 times out of 100 - of only benefiting those they are upset with. If you are the member of any sports team, you may learn to pick this up quite quickly. The producers of "Dads" played the game perfectly; they got their exposure on the news and had people talking about the new show. When the show actually aired its first episode the probability is that more people tuned-in. Of course, they ran a fine line between notoriety and a ban, but if they had agreed this plan of action to their broadcaster beforehand, there was very little risk of that actually happening.

The other reason becoming offended works in the comedian's favour is that the jokes they make only end up being funny precisely because of the potential offence they might cause. If it could be plotted on a graph, one would see a steady upward curve showing a correlation between a joke's potential hilarity and its level of offensiveness, perhaps until you hit a subject that truly isn't worthy of humour and then the line will become a sudden precipice, the Holocaust for example, although even that is not completely untouched territory. Even AIDS in Africa can be manipulated by comedians to get laughs. Now I am not supporting these kinds of jokes (especially the AIDS one!), but the reality is that if a bunch of people get offended by them, it is more than likely a comedian has done nothing more than forwarded their career.

The sad fact for those who wish to rid the world of racist, culturalist, sexist, ageist, or in fact any bad taste humour, is that there is nothing less funny than political correctness and taboo and nothing funnier than breaking it. Offence simply feeds the desire to produce more of it and if you go down the road of constantly banning and monitoring everything, we end up living in a world lacking freedom of expression, controversy, one that is devoid of a sense of humour, and the ability of people to grow their own thicker skins and defend themselves (this is arguably already happening in the West). A good way to combat it is to confront stereotypes head on and expose them, and it turns out that comedians are often some of the best qualified to do this too.

Another way to kill a subject fit for humour is to make it commonplace, dull, uncontroversial, and tired. To do this, those on the receiving end must brush it off. It sounds a pretty insensitive thing to say in this day and age when we all worry about not offending each other and just getting along, and when some people are more vulnerable than others, but it is simply being pragmatic. Offence is like a defibrillator to a flat-lining joke that brings it back to life again and again.

Many a True Word is said in Jest

Trawl through some clips of Family Guy on youtube, for example, and one can find a large number of little sketches on Asian stereotypes. Here are a few examples:

How God Made Asians
Asian Woman Driver
Asian in-laws
Asian Santa
Asian Family
Asians are Good at Maths
Japanese Girls Laughing
Chinese Dry Cleaners

On all of the above clips I think I can safely say I have known many Asian people born in the UK who are nothing like this and indeed many Koreans who are not like this, but the reason they are quite funny is that I have also known a considerable amount of Asian people during my travels that have fitted each of these stereotypes rather perfectly, far more so than people of a Western background. They are generalisations about behaviour, but they are - it must be said - quite accurate when it comes to identifying patterns of behaviour in at least some Asian people, especially those who were not brought-up in a Western country, let's be honest.

What I would really love to see is a comedy program created in a non-Western part of the world that has similar themed gags about Westerners, especially White people. Perhaps I could even suggest a bit of material for them; licentiousness (especially when drinking), being over-weight, arrogance, dumb kids, reality TV shows, clinging to the past (UK in particular), bad dancers, slow runners, lazy workers, ruining beautiful parts of the world, etc. What most of these categories and the Family Guy videos on Asian stereotypes show is that the vast majority of these jokes are not about race at all, they are about culture. Asian, Black, or White racial characteristics just make people more identifiable as belonging to a certain cultural heritage. Here are a couple of specifically White racial/cultural jokes from Family Guy, but you can also find plenty of jokes based on stereotypes of other Western countries and a great many about my own:

White Guys in a Race
White Guys Scared of Other Races
The British

Besides, much of the comedy that revolves around using stereotypes these days makes fun of the people who really believe they reflect the behaviour of everyone in a particular group and use it as a means to discriminate, as much if not more so than the group they seem to be mocking.

Western Culture Rebels against Censorship, Thrives on Disobedience, and Enjoys Disrespecting People Who Want to be Respected (at least in principle)

Of course, there is the historical and power dynamic at work here, which makes the whole situation so volatile and it should not be over-looked. Non-Whites will argue that the history of the world makes it a fair bit easier for White people to take a joke about either their race or cultural heritage and there is no doubt this is true. The scales are not balanced, it is simply not fair. The problem is that the world is not fair; how are we to balance the scales? Have an age where Black and Asian people enslave, impoverish, and belittle White people? Would this then make it fair on both sides, so we can start afresh and not worry about joking around with each other? This is not how the world works and not how it moves forward and I realise this is all very easy to say as a White guy, but you can't get around it.

It probably is true that many people from Western countries (again especially if they are White) have a slight superiority complex, particularly when it comes to non-Western cultures, so how can people of other cultures and races get past all of that? Complain to a culture that values freedom of speech and disobedience to authority that, "You can't say that", "It is not fair", "That's not funny", or "We demand you stop and be more respectful." It sounds horrible to say, but this is just not realistic when it comes to comedy. Such things will only fuel the flames and are like a red rag to a bull for many. The ironic thing is that most of the calls for censorship of sensitive material regularly come from Western far-left liberals on the other culture's behalf and it doesn't realise that it simply encourages it even further. Like a vicious circle, the more offended they get, the more they have to be offended about and the more other cultures become the butt of jokes.

Some of the Reasons for Making Fun of Others are Down to Insecurity

This is following the same line of argument as the people who make fun of and bully gay people being the most likely to be closet homosexuals. Unfortunately, race is still an issue for people in the world and culture also, so with this in mind the rise of the East may have unsettled more than a few Westerners and perhaps especially Americans, who have held the honor of belonging to the richest and most powerful nation for a while now (I have certainly noticed more Asian-dissing comedy in the US than the UK). When joking around goes too far or when racial or cultural comedy is taken too seriously, we can often expose jealousies, fears, and insecurities, which are present in many people with regard to Asians and Asian countries. A realisation that this is indeed the case in Asian communities may well help them soften the blows, provide piece of mind and indeed aid them in fighting back.

Try not to be Too Serious or Over-React

Personally, I was a little shocked at the recent reaction to a group of young people dressing-up as the Asiana pilots at Halloween. The article I have linked was so pathetic that it almost served as comedy itself, especially as the writer obviously couldn't see the irony in his little flow diagram at the end. I don't think there was really any harm in wearing what they did, but I am pretty damn sure it didn't deserve the attention and general vitriol that it got either.  In a more recent example, Katy Perry's embarrassing, but harmless performance at the American Music Awards garnered a similar reaction and calls of racism, culturalism or at least disrespect.  Both serve to show-up what is an over-sensitivity towards issues of race and culture.  This over-exaggerated response of outrage clouds minds to more serious issues caused by a shocking level of ignorance among many people.  I believe this is because of lack of dialogue about the problem of racism down to political correctness and social taboos.

When it comes to comedy at least, making fun of others is pretty much the norm, it isn't going to go away and if you really think about what makes you laugh on a day to day basis, no one should wish it to disappear. All one needs do is acknowledge it as comedy and not fact and therefore treat everyone you come across as a separate individual, without prejudice. The argument is, however, that allowing such comedy just reinforces people's stereotypes of others. What the factors above tell us though, is that getting angry and trying to ban a brand humour merely is the best way of perpetuating it, promoting it, encouraging it, making it a lot more interesting and funny, and stops people from having serious debates about it and learning from it.

"A joke is not a joke unless it is at the expense of someone else." - Unknown

For comedy to be effective, one need only pick up on patterns of behaviour in others, and generalisations of this kind can offend, but I think we are all going to have to live with it and at the end of the day.

There is however, a time and a place for the more edgy and possibly offensive kinds of comedy.  Racial or cultural jokes have no place on the news for example.  More responsibility and care must be taken and I do seriously wonder sometimes whether Western news media are doing a good enough job in this department, let alone other TV programs that are meant to be more family orientated like X-Factor, but we will leave that for another day.  When you tune in to a show like Family Guy, you should expect that some of the material is going to be offensive to some people, when you go to watch a stand-up comedian like Ricky Gervais, Billy Connolly, or Jimmy Carr you should expect the same (sorry, I don't know many stand-up comedians of other nationalities).

To sum things up then, I think I am going to pull a quote from a previous post on stereotypes:

"I have always thought of humour as a key ingredient to getting along with anyone and I think this also applies between groups. When we can make fun of and laugh at each other, without worrying too much about offending each other, this is often a show of acceptance, respect, and generally liking someone and being friendly. In fact, jokes at other's expense are often a test and an invitation to join the group and to test the water as to whether we can trust the other person, especially in men."
There will of course be examples of jokes that are genuinely insulting and done for the purpose of maintaining power or just simply being nasty.  Sometimes outrage is necessary, but we don't need many of the over-blown reactions common in Western culture at the moment in matters of comedy and entertainment.  It does us no favours in ridding the world of prejudice.  Putting social pressure on controversial statements or words in the form of social taboos had an effect, it reduced prejudice and discrimination and raised consciousness, but now it is time to move on and be able to talk openly and honestly about race and culture to take equality and friendship between our fellow human beings to the next level.  Comedy often thrives on blunt honesty and could be the best way to set us on the path to a better relationship between the races and cultures.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Anti-Education and My 50% Success Rate at Answering Korean English Exam Questions

So, I am an Englishman flown in to South Korea to help educate their young in English.  In my school my level of English is obviously unmatched (I am English after-all) so why is it I am so bad at answering English exam questions in Korea?

Perhaps I only ever get asked about the tricky questions, or maybe I am just a dumbass, but it turns out that I am right about 50% of the time in my estimation.  In many ways it is embarrassing, why can't a reasonably well educated native English speaker, from England, who has spoken, read, listened and wrote in English all his life, answer questions correctly in a country where the overall level of English is poor (this is not a criticism, just simply that English is not their first language)?

You can get an idea of the type of questions that come-up in the college entrance exam (the big one) here at Ask a Korean.  They are not easy.

Personally, I was intrigued by a couple of things recently.  I have just finished correcting about 40 essays for our innugral and now annual school English newspaper.  The vast majority of them are sound efforts indeed - much better than I could do in Korean - however, they are riddled with mistakes as you might expect.  Sometimes it becomes very frustrating to check because the meaning is so difficult to grasp without actually going through the essay with the student who wrote it.

One of the few teachers in my school I have the ability to be honest and candid with, asked me to check one such essay the other week.  After a while of struggling through it, she asked me what I thought; I said it was fairly similar to all the others I had checked.  In reply, she said that the original piece was by a student at our school, but which had almost totally been re-written by her brother, who has just finished high school.  I replied that it was still difficult to understand and she remarked that her brother just received a perfect score in his English college entrance exam.  Shocked, I asked her honestly how this was possible and her reply was that the exam is all about reading and listening and not speaking and writing.  I guess we all knew this, but it really did bring home just how messed-up the system of learning English in Korea really is.  The kid got a perfect score in the biggest exam in the country at English, yet his essay was all over the place and was not what you'd expect from someone who just aced a very difficult English exam.

One of my perennial gripes with education in all countries is teaching to the test and in Korea they have perhaps hit the pinnacle of "excellence" in this regard.  Tests are not completely useless and I suspect in subjects like mathematics and mainly theoretical subjects, they are valuable as tools, not only for assessment, but for motivation a well.  In regard to English, though, I can't imagine a worse thing to be doing.

My colleague's brother had been taught for years and years and spent countless hours studying to pass a Korean English test and not to how to use and communicate in that language.  The tests and the education system that surround them are to get into universities, period, they serve no other purpose.  In terms of communication, every student in Korea would be better off spending 3-6 months in an English speaking country learning English, rather than 14 years in a Korean classroom.  I really do believe this, I'm not over-stating things, and I can't help but think that this waste of time is almost immoral.

I will give an example of a question passed to me the other day by another English teacher at my school.  Answer the following question by giving the correct response:

A: Can you tell me why you were so upset?
B: ___________________________________________________

1. I got some money for good grades.
2. I got the book I wanted for my birthday.
3. I'm angry because my brother broke my MP3 player.
4. I feel happy because I won first prize in the contest.
5. I couldn't sleep enough because I had to prepare for an exam.

Got it?

Actually, this is an example of quite an easy question; it can only really be two answers 3 or 5 and 3 is in the wrong tense, so it must be 5.  On first attempt, however, I slipped-up here.  Again, maybe I was just being a dumbass, but I think it part of the reason is because of a profound difference in the way Koreans see the English language and how English speakers see the language.  English speakers are communicating in English and therefore I think the relation between upset and angry is far stronger than upset and tired.  Everyday English conversation teachers all over Korea receive responses from students to verbal questions like this; i.e. that are perfectly understandable but have errors of grammar, like answer 3, and I personally grasp what Koreans are trying to say to me, even though they make simple tense errors like this.  My wife's English was not perfect in the same sense when I first met her and for quite a while after, but she was an excellent communicator and easy to understand.

The amazing thing is that probably 95% of my high school students would not be able to even give the incorrect response that's understandable, let alone give a spoken response with perfect grammar.  Only about 5% can achieve a speaking or writing ability good enough to get their thoughts across in any meaningful way, but I bet the majority of students answered the above question correctly. 

I have the sneaking suspicion that if I took the college entrance exam, I would not get a perfect score and probably would not even be in the top 10% of students.  I would love to see an experiment done on foreign teachers in Korea to this effect, I think it could be very revealing.

The ignoring of the spoken and written aspects of the English language in Korean exams is a telling one because it is speaking and writing that are the creative and interactive elements.  I think that creativity and interaction are things that Korean culture as a whole are exquisitely uncomfortable with, especially in a classroom situation.  Creativity involves individuality and interaction may involve disagreement and possible embarrassment, especially when another language is being used.  Korean culture has always appeared to me somewhat ill at ease with the concepts of individuality, disagreement, and embarrassment and many Koreans strain to avoid all three over and above what obviously occurs in Western culture also, but in smaller doses (mainly in disagreement and embarrassment).  Korean students are comfortable sitting quietly and passively in class with their heads in their books and listening to their elders/teachers bark instructions and information at them.  Korean teachers and parents are also very cozy and content with this situation.

The fact that the Korean education system doesn't confront the clear issues in its culture and education of the young regarding these factors is a local symptom of what education has become world-wide.  What is driving it are the ideas of conformity, tolerance, the fear of failure, meeting targets, societal values, and saving face.  I would argue this is not education but anti-education.  If you only ever do things that are inside your comfort zone, how can you ever truly grow?  It's like going to the gym and never increasing the weights you lift, the reps you do or the time and resistance on the bike, rowing or running machine.

What I see all over the world is the teaching of youngsters to conform to other's wishes and views (not necessarily always bad), to be concerned about the idea of free expression in favour of tolerance and to have a fear of failure that is reinforced by never taking students out of their comfort zones and by continuous testing.

What is knowledge of a language good for if it is not to communicate with it?  Korean education is so caught-up in understanding all the little nuances and academia with it as well as saving face by not speaking it, it ignores the whole purpose.  I see the same thing in science education, which I trained in as a teacher, in England; everyone was so caught-up in teaching the facts and doing experiments with Bunsen burners that everyone ignored the whole point of science, to ask questions and to be in wonder and awe of the world around us.  I can't remember any wonder or awe from my school science classes when I was younger and there was no wonder, creativity or questions raised in my science classes when I taught either.  All that was required of me was to whizz through all the facts and the silly practical skills in the syllabus as quickly as I could to fit them into the school year and to make sure they missed nothing for their exams.  If I digressed to explore something in greater depths or answered questions that went off at interesting tangents from the class topic, I was chastised for it by the teachers that were "training me" to be a better teacher. 

This is anti-education, but it is what passes as education and it really elevates my blood pressure.

Apparently, Korea sits at number 2 behind Finland in countries with the best education systems.  I think really this is nonsense, the wording needs changing; Korea actually is number 2 in schooling, not education because if there was ever a land that matched the following quote from Mark Twain more closely, I haven't heard of it:

"Don't let your schooling interfere with your education" - Mark Twain

Sound advice, which people in all countries should take note of, especially Koreans.

Note: I think this post goes quite nicely with a great piece written by "the Boss" over at

Friday, November 15, 2013

How the Treatment of Dogs in Korea Should Shake our Conscience on Eating Meat: My Story

First an update on Noah the dog (original post here), after my concerns about how my in-laws were taking care of him I was then slightly disappointed to learn that they also couldn't keep him.  Why oh why they couldn't have realised this before they got him, lord only knows, it could have saved them, me, and more importantly the dog a lot of heartache.  For a variety of reasons my in-laws had to give him up.

Despite the chopping and changing of owners being horrible for the dog, I am at least optimistic about who they have given the dog to; a man who owns other dogs and doesn't believe in keeping them tied-up outside.  It seems as if he has other dogs and cats also, so if he can train Noah well enough, it seems like he will have a lot of company.  It is certainly far from the perfect solution, but it is at least not the worst that could happen.

So, on to matters of eating meat.  I was a vegetarian for about ten years from the age of about 20.  I became one not because I knew all that much about how animals were farmed or slaughtered, but simply because I was reading quite a lot of moral philosophy at the time and was logically argued out of it.  Basically, there is not any good reason why we should rear and kill animals purely for our own pleasure when clearly the results of doing this are against the animal's best interests or choices (the fact is we should not assume their choices or make them for the animal).

I was fairly strict (in that I wouldn't eat seafood also) for most of these ten years up until I arrived in Korea.  For the first year, I ate seafood in Korea as I found myself struggling for vegetarian options (especially as I was so inept at sorting things out at the time generally), but still no meat.  However, after I met my wife and started working in a public school I lapsed into eating meat also.  My reasons were based around the lower availability of meat alternatives (especially in school food) and the great advantage it gave me in keeping my in-laws and work colleagues happy.  I can eat basically anything and I love Korean food.  You wouldn't believe how much easier this makes my life in Korea and also how much more liked I am for being this way by Korean people.

Still, I did not eat that much meat generally and in the last few months I have stopped buying it completely, but still eat it if my in-laws serve it up or if it is unavoidable in my school dinners.  I still don't drink milk and avoid dairy products as much as possible, but for more practical reasons as I am lactose intolerant.

A few weeks ago, however, I decided to go back to being a strict vegetarian again.  What prompted this change?  It was the feelings I had about Noah's situations and the hypocrisy of  eating meat at the same time.

I was so concerned for Noah, so much so I was prepared to turn my life upside-down to keep him in a ridiculously unfavourable situation.  Even when I realised the expense and the trouble of taking him to Australia, I was for a time trying to find ways in which I could do it.  All this despite the fact he was almost impossible to take care of in my small apartment, on my own, and with my work commitments, which was causing me a fair amount of stress.  When I had to give him to my in-laws as planned, and then saw the conditions they were keeping him in and the way they were looking after him, I was almost moved to tears.

Noah wasn't being abused by my in-laws, just neglected slightly and not treated with the love and attention I thought a dog needed.  His quality of life was not up to scratch. 

But this got me thinking while I was eating pork ribs (galbi) round my in-laws house.  The dog was outside and I was worried about him, but here I was tucking into meat from a pig that probably had a far lower quality of life than most dogs would have, even in Korea.  I knew also that there was no real reason to differentiate between the suffering capacity of a pig and that of a dog.  I was a hypocrite, I cared so much about this cute fluffy thing outside because he had become a part of my life and I could see him and his relatively low-level suffering, but I cared very little about the pig I was eating.  The only reason I didn't care was because it was out of sight and out of mind.  Willful ignorance or delegation of responsibility of rearing and killing what I ate were not good reasons to continue eating meat.  I was eating it, I spent money on buying meat and I therefore supported, not only the killing of the animals, but of the cruel factory farm practices where approximately 66% of the animals eaten in the world come from.

A while ago I received a comment on one of my blog posts saying exactly this (here) and the person in question lambasted me for being a hypocrite.  Essentially, the comment was right, but I thought it was a tad judgemental.  She did not know that I knew about all the issues and had been wrestling with them for quite some time while also dealing with living in a different culture and family (and that I had been a vegetarian for so long).   The writer of the comment basically said what many Koreans say when confronted with how they treat dogs and the fact of eating them, "well you eat pigs, cows and chickens, don't you?  What is the difference?"  In my posts on abortion and the treatment of dogs in Korea I stated some of the reasons why I do think there is something special about a dog and that the way they are treated does tell a story about morality in Korean culture.  I stand by what I say, if you can't even treat our closest friend in the animal kingdom with some compassion and respect, I don't think this is encouraging and is definitely going to make the job of animals rights campaigners much more difficult in the changing of attitudes towards all animals in general.

At least in Western countries more people do seem to understand that animals can suffer and our close relationship and care of dogs can help us achieve a base for greater compassion and empathy for other animals also.  Indeed, I think dogs can really serve as a consciousness raiser for Western people when it comes to the ethical treatment of other animals.  Of course, many Korean people have a love of dogs and animals, but the culture is very different towards dogs, especially bigger dogs and because of this Korea doesn't have the head-start most Western countries have in striving for the better treatment of animals.

That said, though, the vast majority of Westerners still don't really seem to care about what happens behind closed doors and the pleasure of satisfying their taste buds is simply more important to them than the suffering of other sentient beings.  In essence Koreans are correct, it is hypocritical of us to come down on them hard over the eating of dogs and the cruelty they sometimes show towards them.  As long as we all support factory farming, in particular, by continuing to buy meat products they will always have a point.  Their treatment of dogs and the use of them as a food source should serve to make us all feel uncomfortable about what is going on in the meat trade in our own countries.

Knowledge of what really goes on in the meat trade is important; one has a moral obligation not to simply turn a blind eye on what is going on and this is precisely what I had been doing.  Noah's predicament set me on the path to rediscovering the horrific amount of suffering we impart on animals on a shocking scale.  Reading a couple of books on animal rights by authors such as Peter Singer or watching documentary videos such as, "The Earthlings", is enough to put anyone off their appetite for eating meat.

On top of all this I have never heard an anywhere near convincing argument for eating meat in modern developed societies.  I watched a debate recently by Intelligence Squared in Australia on the issue of eating meat and I was fairly shocked how hopelessly inept the side in favour of eating meat were in defending their position.  Most people in my experience simply pretend do know things they do not know by saying things like "animals don't suffer" or "slaughter is painless for the animals."

It is hard not to become preachy as soon as you make the decision to be a vegetarian.  Once you realise the injustice of how we use animals for our own pleasure it is hard not to be outraged by it.  Factory farming, especially when combined with animal testing in science and medicine, compares frighteningly well to the Holocaust, for example, because if you can accept that there is even a chance that animals can suffer and feel pain in similar ways to which humans can suffer, our conscience should be heavily weighed-down by what is happening daily with animals.*  Back in 2001 an average of 2.5 million animals were killed daily for the purpose of food, the vast majority in abattoirs.  This figure is almost certainly much higher at present.

Perhaps the way forward is a compromise; I find it hard to be so upset about free-range animals as a source for food.  I think there are still problems with slaughter, but in principle the life of a cow roaming around a large pasture before being killed, for example, is less troubling.  In an ideal world though, there would still be a massive issue with regard to the moral treatment of animals because even ethically-reared animals often end-up going to abattoirs to be killed, which are grim places indeed, not to mention the troublesome issue of the transport of them to the abattoirs.  Even if the methods used to kill the animals were proved to be utterly painless, both mentally and physically, can we guarantee that every time an animal is killed this is so?  This seems to be a problem.

Think of your own job or even general tasks and hobbies and how many small mistakes you make over the length of one day; just writing the last sentence I had to make 3 corrections.  Make small mistakes in the killing of animals and you can cause extreme pain and suffering.  These mistakes become more likely due to time constraints caused by trying to process as many animals as possible in order to save/make more money and cope with demand from consumers.  This also assumes the people responsible for killing the animals in abattoirs are all well-adjusted, highly moral human beings that won't abuse the animals further, and considering what the job entails and the potential for a significant amount of desensitisation to killing and pain that must occur even over the space of just one day on the job, this seems highly unlikely.

So there you have it, a blog basically dedicated to promoting the idea of becoming a vegetarian, with some small relevance to living in Korea.  I guess though, that conclusions we come to in life and the following decisions we make can really be affected by traveling and living in other countries.  The true experience of another culture is often an unsettling one, which forces us to confront some uncomfortable issues regarding our own.  Sometimes we are well aware these things exist, we can play-out thought experiments in our heads, but actually having to deal with it first-hand in another culture often brings the message home with frightening and possibly life-changing clarity.  If you live in a culture different to your own for a long enough period of time, you will begin to slowly change many of the ideas, principles, and ways of living you previously thought of as normal or simply took for granted.  This is precisely why, as it is famously said, travel broadens the mind.

* Altered from the original piece to include, "especially when combined with animal testing in science and medicine" because of a point raised in my comments section by Burndog.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Asia shows the way in its Street Food, the West shows the way to a Heart Attack

I am having a bit of a war on Western food (from English speaking countries) at the moment and combined with a recent post of mine over at Asiapundits on enjoying food and food waste, I thought I'd use my own site to highlight some attitudes towards health and our food and what we can learn from Korea specifically, and Asia in general.

I don't know much about the United States, but from what I can gather from the news, my American friends and the internet the people there tend to be a little more overweight than average, my country is not far behind and to be honest it isn't hard to see why.

Recently, I have been watching a program on National Geographic Adventure in Korea called "Eat Street".  It charts the truck street food trend currently in the US, Canada, and occasionally other countries like the UK.  It always happens to be on the TV when I am eating dinner myself, coincidentally.  While I usually tuck into Korean food for dinner, I can see what Americans on streets all over the country are eating.

It is actually quite an interesting program and usually makes me quite hungry, even after I have finished dinner.  Sometimes, however, I have to admit to being quite shocked at what some people can put down their throats.  Here are some examples:

I always hear of the customers of these establishments saying how they often eat there everyday or a few times a week and I wonder how their hearts can cope.  I also see parents feeding some of the more irresponsible things to their children, some of whom are already grossly overweight. 

Of course, excess is kind of the point to these food trucks, but it is a fair reflection of where we are in Western culture with regard to enjoying food.  There is a definite feeling of, "This is so bad for me, but I don't care, in fact that's what makes me like it more."  I sort of understand this attitude because I used to have it myself.  However, living in Korea and also travelling to other countries around Asia have given me a new insight into how we perhaps should be looking at the food we eat.

The street food around Asia sums much of this up quite nicely.  Korea is the only country I have lived in and street food is probably not quite as good as in many other countries in Asia, especially Thailand.  While the street food in Korea is not especially healthy (it is also not especially unhealthy either), it is also not thought of as a meal, just a snack often during a night-out drinking.  The portions therefore reflect this and it doesn't seem quite so indulgent as the clips above.

Somewhere like Thailand, on the other hand, has street food sorted.  You can get anything from quick snacks to full meals, freshly prepared and often quite healthy.  When I was there, I did not see gluttony on the street, just a varied and interesting food culture.  I have traveled to a number of countries now in Asia and a pattern I see is that street food in the Far East is more about smaller snacks and South East Asia tends to go for actual meals.

While some might argue that the lack of health and safety regulations for street food vendors in Asia might cause health problems of their own, in principle the food on offer does not clog arteries or drastically expand waist-lines.  The funny thing about Western food culture generally, shown in many of the street-food trucks featured in "Eat Street" is the pride people take in looking death in the face while they eat.

The "Double By-Pass Burger" with "Flatliner fries" by Heart Attack Grill

I know the above picture is all in good fun, yet at the same time I can't help but feel that it sums-up a very serious attitude problem towards our relationship towards food in many Western nations.  In Korea, I have noticed people eat food for a specific purpose - other than just filling their stomachs - and this is to make them feel good, feel stronger, or to make them healthier in some other way.  Even if some of these reasons are bullshit ones, there is still a real thought to what they are eating having positive effects on their body, rather than simply fulfilling a gluttonous desire for sugar and fat because it gives them a big hit of guilty pleasure.

The interesting thing is though, Koreans love the taste of their food as much as anyone and I have learned to love the pleasure of eating Korean food also.  Once I coupled this pleasure for eating with the genuine feeling of well-being it gave me and the feeling of being healthy, there was no turning back.  To put it simply, my diet is no longer a Western one, it is predominantly Asian and mostly Korean (because that's what I know best).  Even Western food that is not fast-food or street food does not tend to make it onto my plate anymore.  Generally, I find it too heavy, too fatty, and too oily and it just doesn't make me feel good in the same way Korean food does.

If street food tells us something about the culture of the country we are in, what does the street food of the US or the UK tell us?  I showed some of these clips to my students at school last week as part of a lesson on food.  While a minority thought that the food featured on some of these trucks looked like the best thing since sliced bread, the majority were shocked by what was being consumed and many laughed at the number of fat people eating it and saw it all as a fit subject for ridicule.  I have to say, when you look at it all from the perspective of a culture with a greater connection between food and what it does for the body, I must agree with them, there is something ridiculous about it.

Perhaps I am being a little unfair, after all I did pick probably some of the worst clips of the most unhealthy food trucks to show you.  However, the healthy ones did tend to be exclusively non-American, non-Canadian, or non-English, and a great many of them had an Asian theme.  They also tended to feature much smaller portion sizes.  Huge portion sizes was something that shocked me on my only visit to the USA.  Here are some examples of the healthier food trucks on the show:

Of course it is just one TV show, but my experience of street food from back home is not a healthy one either; it mainly consisted of hot dogs, doughnuts, pork pies, pasties and not a lot more (not that Britain is especially world famous for its food culture).  I guess on a positive note the show does at least show how open most of our countries' people are to eating food from other places.  Unfortunately, however, the "good ol' fashioned" all-American food or English food that is served on most of these food trucks are often the worst examples of fat, grease, and general unhealthiness imaginable.

In reference to my post over at Asiapundits about waste and enjoyment of food, someone wrote that the poor attitudes to food we have in the West are mainly present in the cities and when you get outside of them people are eating locally-grown food and eating healthily and that I was mainly talking about a countryside vs the city phenomenon.  This was not my experience in England, however, and a little anecdote that sums-up our differences in food culture concerns the contrast in the schools that I worked at in England and my current school in Korea.

At break time in one of the rural schools I worked at in England (picture a classically old, rich English school in some of the most idyllic countryside you can imagine, it was a beautiful school) between stints in Korea, there would often be food in the middle of the staff room for all the teachers to enjoy.  100% of the time this would be cakes, chocolate or sweets.  While I tucked into some of this myself, I was often held back by a niggling guilty conscience about what the Koreans I knew would have to say looking at the scene.  I thought that they would say we were eating the kind of food kids would eat and that as teachers and adults we should be eating much better quality food, not to mention the number of over-weight teachers that were scoffing down cupcakes and fun-size chocolate treats.

The difference in my High school in Korea is like chalk and cheese.  Occasionally there is something sweet, but not nearly as sweet as back home, even the cakes in Korea seem to be lighter and less calorie dense (which is probably why they are not as tasty).  The vast majority of the time the only food that gets put out on our staff room table is locally-produced, seasonal fruits and vegetables.  It is a telling difference in culture.

When I see what is depicted of the US and what I see for myself in my own country, I wonder whether too many of us have a relationship with food that is totally dysfunctional and broken.  There is also a childish element to the way we eat; it is almost as if we need our mums on our shoulder all the time to tell us not to eat the things we know we shouldn't.  The fact that she is not there to do so means we can be naughty and do what we know is wrong anyway.

There is of course nothing wrong with a little indulgence every now and then, but when it becomes too commonplace we need to change our ways; there is an obesity epidemic in many Western English-speaking countries which is at the heart of a range of health problems.  This is down to our culture as much as anything else, a culture that is severely compromised in the food department.  We have slipped into some of the worst habits imaginable, consuming some of the worst food possible and doing very little physical exercise.  A connection between the health of our bodies and the food we put into our mouths has to be restored and looking to other countries that have better attitudes may help us break a rather dangerous spell of unhealthy eating that has been cast upon us.

Instead of doing this, however, we seem to be remarkably good at spreading our bad habits to other countries.  I hope Korea doesn't lose sight of what is great about their food as some of the younger generation appear to be slipping into the same bad habits as we are in the West.  Let's hope that Asia's food culture wins through in the end or at least the healthier aspects of our own food culture in the West.

Friday, November 1, 2013

My Experience of the Hypocrisy of Western Prejudice

Picture by Gwydion M. Williams (
Just so all of you know that I am not one to only bash cultures different from my own, I have news for you and this is I am getting a little fed-up about my own when it comes to matters cultural and racial.  While I refused to admit, in my much argued about post on White/Asian couples, that the whole issue revolved around Western prejudice, I certainly didn't say it wasn't a big factor.  It is definitely a real issue that is worth talking about.

The thing is that hardly any country in the West, especially my country of birth puts a sign up like in the picture to the right saying that we don't like people coming into our country.  Not many people want to confess to having such an opinion, but many have it.  Even if they don't consciously have it, it is my experience that a large number of people show it or are at least are uncomfortable with people from other countries - even people born in their own country but of a different race - without being aware of it and aren't honest with themselves about it.  In fact, the whole discussion (or lack of one) about multi-culturalism in Western countries seems mired in dishonesty.

As I have written before, I can remember a time - just before I lived in England for a year with my wife - that I naively assured my wife that we wouldn't have so many issues with prejudice because England is so multi-cultural and used to all this stuff and she would just blend right in.  Having had time to reflect on that year, however, and having a similar picture painted of Australia while my wife is staying there studying at the moment, the experience of comments on my blog, and the Western media generally, I have come to the conclusion that racial prejudice and discrimination is just as bad as in Korea, just in different less obvious and up-front ways.

I think there are some important areas where Western culture (let's focus on the country I know, the UK) trumps Korea in terms of treating people.  To me it seems a fair amount of prejudice is enshrined in law in Korea and a level of distrust of non-Koreans is promulgated in the media, which it is not happening in the UK and the West generally.  I also think that, while it is difficult to be accepted for who you are everywhere, there is a greater possibility of it happening in the West.  I am not optimistic, for example, that my in-laws or work colleagues will ever want to really know my opinions and accept them, I will have to follow the Korean way to be truly respected.  As much as they are mostly lovely people, it is extremely difficult to be myself with the vast majority of the Koreans I know. It is difficult in the West too, but one can have a greater success in the end.

However, there are ways in which many Western countries are worse, and the frustrating thing about it is that no-one considers themselves to be prejudiced and many think we have evolved beyond it.  All the talk of equality hides a secret prejudice that I'm afraid, in my experience, most people had when I was with my wife in the UK.

There are, of course the fairly obvious racists and bigots among us, characterised by the BNP and the EDL in my fair country (apparently the UK has the claim to fame of housing the greatest number of organised fascist movements).  But then there are those that think they treat all races and cultures fairly and equally, but fundamentally don't.

Picture by Matt Neale (

It was always so interesting to me how people treated my wife in England (again I have posted about this before but it is worth re-airing).  Almost everyone, including my friends, were kind of stunned and had strange expressions on their face when I first introduced her.  Most of my friends (because they are a pretty fantastic bunch) got over this quite quickly and treated her like any other human being after a short while, but many others never were able to do this.

My wife really wanted to make English friends, but in one year in England it never really happened, the friends she did make were fellow immigrants to the country, which included Filipinos, Polish, and Hungarians.  I liked her friends, they were genuine in a way very few of the English people around her weren't, and this meant that sometimes my wife argued with them, was annoyed with them and they got upset with her too, but they made-up in the end, like friends usually do.

Her English aquaintances were markedly different.  Interactions with them were characterised by an inability to be straight with her; they would shower her with praise, say they would go out and never get back to her or actually do it.  Clearly they acted as her protectors; she was perceived as vulnerable, weak, and (I dare to say) even stupid.  I never liked the patronising way so many people were with her and I never understood it.  It all felt so fake.

In multi-cultural Britain I could see, first-hand, that cultures and races generally did not mix.  The vast majority of British people did not seem to have much inetrest in hanging around with people from another country unless they were thought of as from an equal - predominantly White - country.  I had some experience of people coming from the US, Australia, or even the richer nations of Europe and I never experienced the same patronising manner with them. 

Based on my experience, and in my opinion, the "uncool" foreigners were usually ready to be friends, but us Brits normally did not want much to do with them.  It hasn't even been two months in Australia for my wife, but it seems as though the same pattern is occurring there too.  The world of the foreigner appears to be completely separate to that of the natives.  Us westerners seem to talk a good game when it comes to integration, anti-discrimination, and treating others fairly and equally, and although at least our laws dictate we do, the reality is that we rarely put it into practice and especially in our personal lives.

Rules and Regulations

But there is another story too, and this is the enforcement of laws and the confusion of rules and regulations that often serve as a convenient excuse to discriminate or at least make life difficult for foreign immigrants.  We promise them a land where they will be treated equally under the law and a place where they will receive the same rights at work and in public as everybody else, but the situation is much cloudier than it appears.

The most damning indictment of equal rights under the law is argued in this post by Nick Cohen in the spectator, from which I take the following quotes:

"Women, gays, secularists, liberals and socialists from ethnic minorities ought to be able to turn to British liberals and leftists for support against the patriarchal men, who seek to control them. Rather than fraternal greetings, they find indifference and hostility. The mainstream of liberal-left opinion in the universities, media, civil service, and Labour and Liberal Democrat parties has convinced itself that it is culturally imperialist to demand that members of minorities should enjoy the same freedoms as the rest of us."
 "This is why there has not been one prosecution for female genital mutilation [in the UK]. This is why, when [a] 15-year-old white schoolgirl runs off to France with a teacher, the story leads the news, but when the parents of a Pakistani girl pull their daughter from class and force her to marry an old man —that is, when they organise her abduction and rape— liberal society stays silent. I should not need to add that multiculturalists who deny rights to people on the grounds of their ethnicity are every bit as racist as the white supremacists they profess to oppose."

Basically, the rights of the truly vulnerable are ignored because we must be nice to ethnic and cultural minorities.  This is the odd treatment of my wife blown-up to a larger scale to the point that it really is an injustice of huge proportions and not just an annoying and upsetting foible about British culture.  If we really were for this equality game, if we really didn't discriminate, we would treat everyone the same under the law, but this does not happen.  This all begins with the inability to treat people of different culture and often of different race in the same manner we would treat anyone else.  They are weak, they need our protection, so we can't say anything they might not like because we are not racists.  Hypocrisy defined.

These issues are not only present in major parts of the law and justice system, they also make their way into policies of employers. They have to meet their quotas for hiring people of different cultural backgrounds, for example, just like the South African cricket team used to have to pick at least a couple of Black players in their starting eleven. Again, this is not equal treatment. This positive discrimination causes resentment among the masses and is patronising to individuals in minorities who may want to get where they want to go on merit alone.

Personal Experience with Onerous Rules and Regulations that Effect People from Overseas

This starts with the small matter of the change in marriage visa regulations, which means I cannot live in England with my wife right now, part of the reason we are planning a move to Australia.  It seems as though now the UK only accept people with money.  At least I had not been living in the UK with children because that would have meant deportation for my wife, with children apparently only really needing one parent to look after them according to UK immigration law.  While I lived in the UK with my wife, we didn't earn anywhere near the amount required now, but we were not allowed to claim a penny off the state anyway.  She was not a burden on the tax paying public at all.

Before I even moved back to England for a year with my wife in 2010, we immediately encountered overly-complicated regulations with the the delivery of some of my wife's clothes from Korea.  The post office in the UK refused to deliver them unless my mother (we sent them to my mother to be there for when we arrived) paid about 250 pounds to customs because they assumed the contents were all new goods we bought abroad.  Of course they were just my wife's clothes, but they refused to open the boxes and check and said they would have to send it all back to Korea if we didn't pay and we had to claim the money back when we got to England.  Claiming the money back was one long and difficult process, as you might expect, but I began to be suspicious when I read the documents we had to fill in.  As an Englishman of generally good language ability and vocabulary in English, I could not really understand them.  The way they were written was crazy, it read like something produced from the post-modernism generator with too many overly obscure and long words thrown into the mix.  When you consider who is most likely to have personal stuff sent from another country into the UK, there was no way non-native speakers could successfully fill out these forms to get their money back, perhaps this was the plan all along.

Even when businesses serve customers, there can be some strange regulations that make their way through the equality laws.  To demonstrate this, a little anecdote from the UK involving my wife; one night my wife (23 at the time) decided to pop-out to our local Coop mini-market for a bottle of wine.  The legal age for drinking in the UK is 18, but my wife realised that people often thought she looked young (there was also a drive to ask anyone who looked under 28 at the time to avoid mistakes) so she brought her passport with her.  She was refused the ability to buy the wine because her passport was not an EU passport, and it was company policy that they would only accept EU identity documents.  A little miffed, she came back and told me to help her buy the wine, as she had a stressful day and wanted some wine to help her unwind.  So we both showed up, me with my British passport (about 31 I was at the time) and our marriage certificate just to make sure.  However, that wasn't enough as we were still refused service based on the grounds that I could be buying alcohol for her and she could be under-age.  I actually couldn't believe how much of a jobsworth the manger of the store was being, rigidly sticking to the rules, but then I asked her, "so you are telling me that anyone who is staying in this country that is not a resident of the EU, who might look under the age of 28 (the rule for asking for ID), cannot purchase any alcohol at Coop stores?"  The answer came back as yes.  Stunned, I just starred at the woman, said "You must be joking" and left without the wine.  My wife was furious.

Another example involving my wife recently came up in Australia.  In Australia, one must complete a course to be a carer - a popular job for immigrants and international students in Australia due to a high demand for positions - which lasts 2-6 weeks depending on when you can attend training.  After this, one must then complete a 120 hours unpaid work placement.  I already find this a considerable cheek to ask people to work this number of hours unpaid in our economically difficult day and age, but to make matters worse is the inflexibility of their demands and the lack of information they give to foreign students prior to starting these courses.  I called the training provider myself and I was amazed about how secretive they were about the details of the course, even when my wife talked to them in person they seemed to reveal little extra annoyances only after money had been handed-over.

To summarise things then, my wife had to work the 120 hours without pay, despite the fact she worked in England for 11 months as a carer when she lived there with me and despite the fact she was a fully-qualified nurse in Korea.  She also had to work these hours - inflexibly - on 5 days a week (not at weekends) and in the morning and early afternoon.  So at what time do you think most students study?  While my wife is studying nursing then, she cannot complete those 120 hours (and remember, they are not paying for this).   I find myself suspecting that this is not just an unfortunate coincidence.  Also rather conveniently, the course doesn't allow many placements to be completed in the vacations from the universities, so my wife has to go to her placement on the opposite side of the city to her university.  This is madness and the motives for all this nonsense are genuinely suspect.  It works against foreign students and the lack of transparency before one actually pays for the course works against immigrants generally.  This all means it could take months to become a carer, this could drastically affect those who are on a budget and need to work.

Annecdotes these maybe, but it is an example of how needlessly stupid the rules and regulations of the West have become and how easily they can be used to discriminate against people - consciously or unconsciously or even by accident - by virtue of being over-complicated and burdened by bureacracy. 

Moments of Clarity

I suspect many immigrants, to the UK especially, know to avoid the guaranteed time and place where people can be relied upon to be honest with them about just how they feel about their presence in the country; in the UK at least, it is the High Street of any town and city on a Friday and Saturday night.  I have written before about how Mr Hyde tends to show his face on the issue of prejudice when drinking gets involved.  During the day Dr Jekyll walks around showing-off his principles of equality, human rights and fairness, then after a few beers this often goes out the window.  Of course not everyone behaves in this way, but I can tell you from experience that a significant few always do, so reliably so that you can almost set your watch to the time that they will start, based on the average time it takes to become successfully inebriated enough to laugh-off all those equality principles as nonsense.

Media Madness Shows-up General Ignorance

This famous gaff, in a country with a huge Far-East Asian population showed-up just how ignorant many are of the people from different cultures living inside their own country.  One of the big reasons why multi-culturalism is not working is that we are not all together, we are not one people all under than same roof in the same country; we are a selection of islands within the same country where a large number of people never interact, have no knowledge of each other and yet when asked whether they support the principle of living in a multi-cultural society, simply say, "yes, of course, why wouldn't I?", despite the fact they have no idea who they are living alongside.  Perhaps one should find out before giving it one's full endorsement and especially if they then criticise those fiercely who voice opposition against the idea.

In summary then, this is not a pro-immigration post.  I actually don't think unrestricted, or even high levels of immigration at this point in time is at all a good idea (although I would love for there to be a time when we could live in a world without borders).  Why?  Because no one is ready for it.  Even among those who profess to be open-minded about other cultures and in favour of multi-culturalism, most seem to have no idea about how to truly see people of other races and cultures as equals.  The buzz word of the moment in the UK is "tolerance", we should all tolerate each other (I can't believe people don't see how bad this sounds).  Well, this misses the point entirely, tolerance is just a way of saying, put up with stuff we don't like or even hate without any understanding, a recipe for disaster as far as I can see.

Korea has a more open lack of confidence and worries about becoming a country that accepts people of different cultures and races.  Many of us foreigners living in Korea often become upset down to the laws, media reporting, and general behaviours that result because of this, but at least they are being honest about it.  Korea has a general feeling of distrust, fear, and a lack of understanding of things non-Korean and they wear it on their sleeve.  There is at least something admirable about this compared to cultures that believe the same things yet hide it away under a coat of "tolerance", odd behaviour, and laws, rules and regulations that are not followed for all or are simply too bureaucratic for non-natives to figure out.

Until tolerance is replaced by understanding in the West, multi-culturalism will not work, it will go on creating problem after problem and the hypocrisy of Western prejudice shows we have a long way to go to get to grips with people from other cultures and races.  We are not nearly as morally superior to countries like Korea as we would like to think we are in this department and we still have plenty of work to do.  Owning-up to our ignorance and being honest with ourselves and others is the first step on a long road ahead.