Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Complaint About People Complaining About People Who Complain

Me getting prepared to complain about the purpose of modern art, I believe.

Shoot me if you like, but the 'forget about our differences and let's all live as one big happy family' principle that exists in many circles today leaves me wanting to stick my fingers down my throat and bring up my kimbap.  It's not that I don't think - in a perfect world - that this is a good idea, who could argue against it, but I am pretty sure it only exists as an idealistic principle and never works in practice or at least that those who peddle this have no clue how to make it work in the real world.

This is why multiculturalism is on shaky ground at the moment in many Western countries, we have the above principle and think the way to live together in perfect harmony is to just forget about all the stuff that people from other cultures do that we really think is awful and chalk it up to differences we can simply laugh-off as unimportant, or at least not as important as keeping them happy.  We aren't honest with each other and we keep quiet when we want to say something, and by doing this we simply don't understand each other well enough to live together in harmony or truly respect each other.

I remember Christopher Hitchens once saying he considered himself a divider and not a unifier, but that if someone labeled themselves as a unifier they would get all the applause and all the plaudits.  People love a unifier and why not, but unifiers are not always good and sometimes dividers can be underrated.  His point was that if some people are evil or merely immoral or they exist in a culture which encourages abhorrent practices and will not listen and never change, he didn't think it was a good idea to live alongside them.  The divider works to keep these people away, the unifier wants to bring them in.

So, what am I getting at exactly?  As great as unifiers can be they can also have some strange priorities.  In the quest for togetherness they can ignore or explain away some pretty horrible stuff.  I could use many examples to illustrate this, but seeing as this is a blog about South Korea, let's take the example of complaining in a post from a new blog at

The message is, stop complaining about Korea.  It isn't that bad in Korea (true) and all the bad stuff is the same or at least there are equally bad things going on in our own countries (kinda true).  I've gone true and pretty much true here, so what's the problem?  I have a few, but I should acknowledge some more nuance to the argument that wasn't really in the original post, but appeared from TheKorean in the comments section.  He is dead right that many complaints just aren't learned enough to be useful, the only problem I have with him generally is that he often paints every complaint involving Korea or Korean culture as unjustified and unlearned and every complainer as something akin to a racist or culturalist or just simply dumb. You don't always need to be a Korean, have a degree in Korean politics, or read 100 books about Korea to have a valid complaint while living there.  Here are the problems I see with keeping too quiet about the things that upset you.

1.  What if we are Discriminating by not Complaining?

Well, I'm a complainer, always have been, but I am an equal opportunities complainer in that I moan just as much when I am at home in England as I do in Korea, just usually about different subjects.  And, funnily enough I moan about England more when I'm in England and Korea more when I'm in Korea (conversely, I also talk-up England more when I'm in Korea and Korea more when I'm in England).  Why? Because you just don't think about complaining unless something has happened to you recently.  Should I stop moaning when I live in another country?  Surely this would involve not treating each place equally, not being honest, not considering Korean people my equals or of equal value to Brits, and not being true to myself.  Do Korean people never moan about things in their own country? (I know for a fact that they do).

One should perhaps check yourself if you find that you are moaning more than normal or without good reason, however, and this could be a sign of basic culture shock or discrimination in the other direction.

2.  The Moral Implications of not Complaining

Whether bad things happen everywhere is largely irrelevant.  If people are doing something dangerous, immoral, rude, or out of order, I do feel like one should not be afraid of pointing it out.  The unifier makes the mistake of trivialising some really seriously nasty stuff in their bid to make us all just get along and by trying to equal-up the cultures in all regards.  In the post I mentioned, there were two classics; bad driving in Korea and the treatment of dogs.

"Bad driving exists everywhere I go and, from my experience, the difference between Korean drivers and the rest of the world is negligible."

This old chestnut.  Even if this statement were true (which it isn't), why shouldn't we be upset about bad driving, wherever it occurs?  It is no trivial matter, people die from bad driving and according to OECD statistics people die at a 1.7 times higher rate in Korea than average in the OECD on the roads.  Yes, there are higher rates in third world countries, but Korea is not a third world country.

The people who will die in the future are potentially my friends, my family, my wife, and possibly even me (and actually we really should also care about those we don't know).  So when reckless driving nearly puts me in hospital while I'm riding my bike - even on the pavement - I might be justified in having a little moan, because it happens more here than anywhere else in almost the entire developed world (and even if this were not the case, complaining is still valid if you feel there are safety issues that can be improved and even better if you can suggest how they could be improved). When you are a genuine part of the culture and have real Korean friends and family, who you care about, this kind of thing should move you to at least speak out about it.  How would you feel if someone in my family really did die on the roads by reckless driving in Korea?  Would you condemn me for complaining then?  Until some changes actually occur and something is done about deaths on the roads in Korea, continued complaining is justified.

The treatment of dogs is another one.  You are pushing at an open door with me if you say Western countries don't exactly have a sparkling record when it comes to animal welfare and we eat pigs and cows, and in raising them for slaughter, treat them badly too.  But does this excuse the cruelty inflicted on dogs every day in Korea?

"I also harbor no bias in my disregard for people that dress up their dogs, dye their fur or carry them around in the streets—regardless of what street they are on, in whatever country it may be, and whether they plan to eat them or not."

I know the writer doesn't like bad driving or the poor treatment of dogs, so why not complain about it?  I think he should because we all hate the mistreatment of dogs, but if you are being honest, all of the above in the quote occurs far more often in Korea than in most other countries.

Dogs can't speak, but if they could, I am pretty sure they might disagree with the concept of having their tails dyed pink and their ears luminous green.  Also, they might just say that they want to have a walk, have a sniff, and enjoy the outdoors rather than being carried about for fear of getting their paws dirty (bad for dust in the apartment I hear).  It is all a failure of care on the owners part and the treatment of the dog as an accessory.  Whether I see this - admittedly fairly minor mistreatment - in England or Korea (never seen it in England as it happens), it matters not, it's wrong, period. I will complain about it.  So if the writer harbours the same disregard for such behaviour, again, what is wrong with complaining about it?

When it comes to eating dogs, I have some sympathy to the argument that we eat pigs, chickens, and cows, so who are we to comment.  However, there are some troubling aspects to dog meat.  It is technically illegal in Korea, so it is unregulated and severe cruelty can result, both in the care for the animals and in the slaughter.  The practice of beating or strangling the dogs slowly to death is still something that occurs in the daft and sinister belief that it makes the animal taste better or conveys a sexual boost for the person that eats the meat.

So when people say stop complaining about the driving or the treatment of dogs, I have to wonder whether they are just ignorant or simply have a callous disregard for human life or the treatment of other living beings.

3. Complaining Works

A couple of years back, you wouldn't believe how much crap my country of birth put me through to get properly settled in the UK with my wife and what the government and many companies tried to get away with making me pay for.  I was constantly moaning at them, and what did I get for it?  Money back, stress relief, personal satisfaction, some justice, and an easier life.  So I'd say complaining was pretty successful.

Just a couple of months ago, a Korean airline tried to change my flight home to a day later on New Years Eve, so that I'd arrive late in the evening that night - as you can imagine, most inconvenient, as well as knocking a day off my trip back home.  They offered nothing in response to this inconvenience, not even an apology, so what did I do?  That's right, I had a good complain, twice by phone and twice by e-mail.  And where did it get me, you ask?  I got a seat on a more expensive date a couple of days earlier, a heartfelt apology from Mr Moon at customer services, and lounge service at Heathrow and Incheon airports.

Complaining gets things done, especially in this day and age, as long as it is done in the right way.  Surely, complaining is the first step to change in almost every negative situation.  But how does complaining specifically stop Koreans driving badly and treating their dogs cruelly?  Shaming people can go a long way*, particularly if you shame a country with a sometimes nationalistic mindset, as well as raising consciousness to issues that some people may know nothing about.  And it should work the other way too. When a Korean complains that we are hypocrites for criticising them for eating dogs and treating them cruelly, when we eat pigs for example and treat them poorly too, this should be cause for self-reflection, shame, and change.  As an Englishman, the more complaints about the UK from people of other countries, the better, because I'd really like to learn their perspective and I find it interesting.  If they are nonsense complaints, I can ignore them or argue against them, but I am sure many can be used to help build a better society or at the very least educate me a little.

4. And Finally...

If my complaining combined with many others, spares some people dying on the roads and a few dogs suffering, I've done something good, but even if it doesn't do anything at least it has made me feel better.  I have hurt no one by doing it because if you don't want to hear me complain, don't listen and don't read my negative blog posts, it really is a simple as that.  Same goes for any other moaning expat; stay away from them if you don't like it.  Why must we all be so damn sensitive to any little thing some expat says on some forum on the internet, on facebook, or drunk in some bar.  Feel free to complain about this post though, but please realise that you are not on some higher plane of moral consciousness and that you are doing exactly the same thing you are complaining about.

* One should acknowledge that you have to be careful with 'shaming', this is because it has partly backfired when it comes to dogs.  After the 1988 Olympics and the 2002 World Cup, the issue of embarrassment about eating dog lured the government into making dog meat illegal.  This would have been great if the laws were enforced, but as they haven't, the effect has been to deregulate the rearing and slaughter of dog meat, making cruel treatment easier to get away with (although I bet it when on before).  However, it is still possible the net effect of the feeling of shame has reduced the consumption and therefore the suffering of dogs overall in Korea.  There is still a long way to go though.

As I have written before, however, the cruel treatment of the dog for the purpose of food - and generally - in Korea should give us all pause for thought about our own practices in rearing animals for food.


  1. I was going to make a comment about the unintended consequences of "shaming" but you seem to have beaten everyone else to the punch.

    The only other thing that I want to say is that the regulation of industrial animal agriculture in Korea, as well as other countries in the world, whether we are talking about cattle, pigs, or poultry, does not seem to have made that much of a dent in eliminating cruelty to animals.

    Besides that, I enjoyed this.

    Another Serial Complainer

    1. Yeah, regulation in animal farming should make things better shouldn't it? But you are right, I think it probably has a negligible effect pretty much everywhere. Who knows whether the plight of dogs is truly better because of the change in the law after those big sporting events in Korea. I don't know, but I can understand the argument of people who say it might have made things worse and therefore that the 'shaming' argument I promoted would not have been effective in this case and had a possibility of being counter-productive. I was playing devil's advocate fairly early on in that point.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. The issue is not whether to complain or not, it regards the quality and nature of expat complaints. Coming from outsiders to the culture, they are often off base, unfair, and based on the very narrow spectrum of Korean society they inhabit.

    Fine, you say, even a newbie has a valid complaint. True, but consider the difference between saying "Among OECD countries Korea has one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities" and saying "Korean drivers are the worst drivers in the world". The former is an obecjtive statement of fact, and understanding it is important to effecting change. The latter comment, which is the one I more often hear expressed, does a few things wrong: Even if traffic fatalities was the metric the commenter had in mind, it's still hard to define "worst" driving that way. It also indicts the average citizen for what is more likely a failing of police enforcement or city planning. Rather than point that out, however, I am subject to tons of half-baked philosophizing about how Koreans have no spatial awareness, lack of concern for their fellow humans, etc. etc. which then puts you on much more troubling (and frankly racist) ground. Most expat complaining, from my experience, falls into that category, that is the type of complaining that I take issue with.

    And to be fair, TheKorean was responding to a guy who was not merely complaining; the commenter was arguing that not only are certain things bad in Korea, but that Koreans are largely unaware of the issues and are doing nothing about them. I don't think I need to rehash the rebuttal to that, but that's not really a complaint as much as a racist indictment of Korean people, and deserves whatever scorn it gets.

    This is one of my own pet peeves in Korea, that this discussion so often devolves into a simple binary choice: complain or don't complain. It's not. There is a third way: complain intelligently, fairly, and with a solid grounding in fact.

    1. I was in agreement with TheKorean's point and am mostly with what you write here. My problem with TheKorean is that he tends to see all complaints or criticism about Korean culture as dumb, racist, or culturalist and dismisses many arguments to the contrary. I think he is too pro-Korean and too bias in his point of view. In that particular comment, however, I think he made a very good point.

      Really nothing I disagree with you about here, but I do believe much of the unnecessary complaining you talk about is simply something cathartic that people do. There will be some that are racist and some that are just blowing off steam as a way of coping with living in a different culture. I think we should be less sensitive to such complaints and complaints or criticism generally.

      PS: The original piece that I critiqued did at least partly promote the binary choice, that is why I mentioned TheKorean's good comment in adding nuance to the argument.

    2. John I'd like to get in bed with your comment and just lie down for a while. I am but a lowly expat from South Africa and have arrived in Korea less than 6 months ago. I agree that the intelligence, forethought and hence quality of a critique determines whether it is worth considering or not. That said I have caught myself blowing off steam flippantly about some menial frustration only to realise later the naivete and ignorance inherent in my comment. I suppose it is through such reflection that one can grows and learns.

      As a slight aside, many of the social and developmental issues in Korea are far worse in South Africa, but that doesn't stop me from taking issue with them. I take issue with them at home too. I find that people assume all western foreigners come from fellow OECD countries. As a South African, that assumption falls flat. Just an observation.

  3. Well said. Though I'm by and large happy here these days, thanks to a job at long last at a university, there are still times when I need to complain a bit to relieve stress. Traffic is an excellent example. My mom died in a car accident caused by reckless driving, and I don't want to go the same way. Nor do I want to get hit by a scooter, or hurt my foot dodging a car in places without sidewalks. As you said, it's dangerous and it's pretty hard to argue that it's a good situation which we should just ignore and put down to culture. I'm not sure if my complaints will make any change in the long run, but as you also said, it's human nature to complain and it's a needed stress relief.

    Also - thank you for pointing out the extra factors/treatment involved in the dog meat industry. If there's one ex-pat behavior worth complaining about it's how so many one-year ex-pats come over here and decide that "eat dog meat" is a fun little item to check off their "bucketlist." It's cruel, it's frivolous, it doesn't contribute anything to any kind of real cultural knowledge (unless they want to experience what it's like to be a superstitious ajeoshi with erectile dysfunction or someone who believes it will cool them down on a summer day), and they're deliberately desensitizing themselves to the cruel death of an animal they have likely been raised to love, so that what - they can have a stupid story to tell their friends? When Koreans do it, it's culturally regrettable and I wish they'd start connecting the fact that their country is in love with dogs as a pet with this cruelty. When ex-pats raised in dog-loving countries do this it's callous, insensitive, cruel and shallow. It's the ultimate act of egotism - my "fun travel experience" means more than this dog's life or dogs' lives in general. Total bullshit.

    1. Thanks for commenting.

      I think it is very easy for people to say one shouldn't complain about things, particularly when the issue of another culture comes into play in the hope that we can all live happily together. This feeling can then take precedence over some really important problems. Like you say driving is a good example as it is not something trivial like spitting on the street; people really die because of it and that is too important not to speak out about.

      You are also right about it complaining being a stress reliever and being somewhat natural. Even if the complaint is unsophisticated, I think in many cases people are not being racist or particularly damaging. I think it would be a sad state of affairs if every time people said, 'Damn Koreans' or had a rant in a bar or on facebook in a state of homesickness, culture shock, or some other emotional pressure, they were accused of being racists. As I said to the writer of the original article below, perhaps we should all aspire not to say such things, but none of us are perfect and I don't believe all people who make perhaps unwarranted complaints like this are deep-seated racists who eat away at the fabric of our society.

  4. Nice post. You make some good points and raise some interesting questions about the role of expat complainers and their place in the grand scheme of change.

    I strongly disagree with one of your claims though: I'm pretty sure that dogs can talk.

    On the traffic point you mention, if we expand on the OECD's limited 34 country count to the WHO's more comprehensive list of traffic fatalities, Korea is not so deadly compared with much of the world ---good on the UK, which looks to have one of the safest roadways. Thailand, Vietnam, not so great. And God help Togo.

    I agree that complaining is a valid form of expression --the drive behind my post was that I find that expats, regardless of their origin or country they are currently in, often boil their complaints down to "Damn Koreans!" or "Damn Americans!" and so on, as if the place they are standing is some microcosm where only bad things occur and its those "Damn People!" making their lives miserable. That's doing no one any good at all and does indeed ring racist --it also implies that said people are unaware of the problems and incapable of fixing them.

    Good blog, and good writing elsewhere. Keep it up.

    1. Many thanks for the good-spirited and gracious reply to my criticism. I am glad and appreciate it that you didn't take any of it personally.

      I don't think there is a large difference of opinion between us, but I would be careful drawing too much meaning to those who spout, 'Damn Koreans!', 'They are the worst drivers in the world!'.... etc etc. I am sure there are genuine racists about, but I think the majority of these people are harmless and just frustrated with the culture they find themselves in. I think it is just a release, and I think those that find themselves from time to time doing this may resent the accusation of racism or a prejudice against the people or the culture of Korea. People aren't perfect and we don't live in a perfect world. Most people know they should aspire to not think or say such things, but in a fatigued state in strange surroundings they can vent their feelings rather recklessly.

      My wife complained a lot on England when we lived there for a while and 95% of the time I agreed with her about the stuff she said, but sometimes her frustrations did get the better of her and she spouted stuff like, 'damn English people!', etc. I don't think she has a racist bone in her body, but she was just coping with a different place and maybe also missing home as well.

      Thanks once again for the comment and the writing of a piece that got me thinking and others talking, which regardless of whether we all agree is a mark of good writing.

  5. I've been here a while and after only a couple of years I’d heard all the complaints. After that, I've had to hear them over and over. They don’t change, you see, not much. It’s the same old list, over and over … and that ought to tell you something about how well complaining from expats is working with regard to making things ‘better’ here.

    Fact is, Koreans don’t care what foreigners living here think about how they live. Nor, I think, should they - unless someone can think of some good reasons to convince me to change my attitude.

    Life has improved a lot in Korea since the days of dictatorship and was better even for some years during that sad time. It didn't happen because foreigners dropped by and sniffed around and offered their wisdom. Korean people themselves decided what they wanted to change and what they wanted to keep. You and I can argue and discuss the choices they have made in the past and are making now and decide amongst us whether they are good or bad ones. It won’t matter a bit – and again I’ll say that it ought not. These are not our choices to make.

    Still, among expats occupying space on the internet, negativity is the norm as well as the smug sense of knowing more and knowing better about what needs to change here. Yes, the traffic death statistics are atrocious. Many other things can be improved. And I have to tell you, Korean people at large are busy scouring the English internet for tips from expats about how to make things better. Of course they are. Um … right?

    Give me a break.

    As for blogs and commentators who make a career of nonstop dissing everything they see here (not singling this blog out) I tend to consider what I would think of a restaurant reviewer who exclusively specialized in giving bad reviews to every single establishment, without fail. I would think they are not telling me anything useful, except where NOT to go.

    What I need instead is something worth recommending, news of a place or a kind of food that is new to me and that I could learn from even if I never try it myself – fresh info, something unexpected. And complaining? That’s not it.

    1. Well, if no Koreans are scouring the internet looking at expat complaints, what's the problem and what harm are they doing? Just let them blow off some steam and argue each other out. Seems to me you can't have the argue both ways; you can't say complaining is really detrimental and at the same time say that no one really cares about it (not that I think you are really saying that here).

      "And I have to tell you, Korean people at large are busy scouring the English internet for tips from expats about how to make things better. Of course they are. Um … right?"

      I think you miss the point here and the wider significance of complaining. No, of course Koreans are not scouring the internet (although you might be surprised how many Koreans I have had comment on this blog and most of them commenting positively on the complaining posts). This brings me to that infamous MBC TV program, complaining did get an apology, but even if that was a waste of time people like me would have shown the program to their wives or Korean friends, who then showed it to their friends and their parents etc etc. Because of my complaining my in-laws are far more aware of some of the ills of Korean society (especially with regard to foreigners) than they were before and they in turn pass this onto friends (they also know more about the ills of my own country). The effect of this slow trickle-down knowledge is hard to pick up on and perhaps there is no effect at all, but I bet over the years this slowly works to change attitudes. I would argue that English teachers in Korea have had an effect on society in this kind of way and I think complaining has played its part, just in more subtle ways than you mention in your comment.

      Are there many who just blow-out hot air and whose comments are not useful, yes, but as I said to the previous commenters I think that may be a natural reaction to the pressures of living in a culture you are not used to. I think most are harmless and not racists and bigots. The really nasty ones of course should be condemned because I do think they can create a negative atmosphere between us that is undesirable because I happen to believe that complaining is not always useless, and also the corollary not always harmless.

    2. Apology?

      I don’t remember an apology. You may have a different memory, but I was personally involved in this issue at the time, wrote about it both on my blog and in the 3 Wise Monkeys webzine. The ‘apology’ that came from the MBC was only after coverage in the Wall Street Journal and it was hardly one at all - and in fact appeared on its face more like continued insult. I’ll grant you that Evan Ramstadt drew heavily from a few prominent bloggers in his reporting, but MBC would not have noticed in the least unless the international press started murmuring – and the result? Perhaps this is the apology you are referring to :

      “What’s the fuss about?”

      ‘ The show’s chief producer said Thursday he couldn’t understand why foreign residents in South Korea were upset by the five-minute report.

      “I don’t understand why he would get angry if it’s not something he was involved in.” ‘

      I don’t call it an apology. Do you? If I argue with my wife and try to calm things by saying, ‘I don’t know why you are so upset’ – does that sound like an apology?

      This example is not a good one, and in any case it directly affected those of us among the expat community living here, so we had more than just cause to speak our minds. It doesn't really relate much to the other kinds of complaints that we are discussing here, does it?

      I’m skeptical when you seem to assert that Koreans are learning from hearing our complaints. I can’t think of any gripe foreigners might make that my Korean friends don’t already know about – and complain about on their own.

      Can you think of some specific example? It would help me out.

    3. I am more than willing to concede that there was no real apology (you obviously know more about the whole thing than me), but my point remains (as I think I already wrote) and I think what you have written about the MBC stuff has strengthened my case. The fact that the story made its way to the Wall Street Journal and that this forced a statement from MBC is surely a testament to the usefulness of complaining!! Without the foreigner complaining, that programme would have slipped away unnoticed and who knows they might be producing an even greater number of them. I do also remember some Korean students even putting out a video making fun of that MBC programme.

      "I’m skeptical when you seem to assert that Koreans are learning from hearing our complaints."

      So am I, and I think I wrote as much in the last reply to you. However, I believe that there is a possibility that complaints en masse and over the years have at least educated some Koreans on some issues we have in their country and opened some minds of others, especially the younger generation. As I said, I am 100% sure that my parents in-law have different attitudes about some issues now due to me complaining about things. How do you know that a similar effect isn't going on with other foreigners with Korean family and friends? I am not saying it is definitely having a huge effect on raising consciousness, but merely the possibility that it has some effect and therefore complaints might not be useless.

      Specific example, littering. Many Koreans are aware of this, but not all. When I complained that there were never any bins in this country to my mother in-law and then emptied my pockets that were full of receipts and food wrappers, she remarked, 'oh, that's very responsible, I never thought of that, a Korean would just threw it on the floor', I shit you not, this was the translation my wife gave (as this was very early on in our relationship). I have also made similar points to students and received a similar response. I even did a class once about things I like and dislike about England and Korea, and at least a couple of my dislikes about Korea were news to them. The other points they knew about but I still think they were made to think a bit more seriously about them. So, perhaps your friends are very world-wise or have a lot of contact with foreigners, because this knowledge of the complaints some foreigners have is not as widespread in my experience. Perhaps you should take into account that there could be less awareness of issues like these outside of Seoul or Busan?


      "This example [MBC] is not a good one, and in any case it directly affected those of us among the expat community living here, so we had more than just cause to speak our minds. It doesn't really relate much to the other kinds of complaints that we are discussing here, does it?"

      What kinds of complaints are we talking about? How does bad driving, for example, not directly affect the expat community? We walk the streets don't we? We have Korean family and friends, who could be run over, don't we? We have to be troubled by what we see when it comes to animal cruelty, we are affected by unfair treatment at work and we have to watch Koreans that we care about unfairly treated at work. I can hardly think of a complaint made that we as an expat community aren't directly affected by.

    4. I’m a little confused. You cite the MBC imbroglio as an example (your sole example) of where complaining by expats brought a positive result – but where is it? What was that positive result? A response that required the prestige of the WSJ to make the broadcasters prick up their ears – a response that not only was not an apology at all but rather deepened the sense of cluelessness and disrespect: ‘I don’t understand why you are upset.’

      Oh, there were online petitions, there were Facebook discussion groups, and I myself took part in and helped organize an international couple picnic at Yeoido near the MBC studios, and there was LOT of blog-spittle tossed around the expat forums – but there was no further response neither from MBC nor from any governmental agency in response. No substantial change or recognition of error or wrongdoing, not anywhere.

      (Speaking purely for myself, that picnic had one positive result. I met some very cool and interesting fellow expats and we still keep in touch and occasionally hang out – but that is all.)

      There’s a very obvious difference between this issue and others like it that touch on racism and xenophobia, and thus directly affect the lives of us expats, our spouses, and children, and the other kinds of issues such as dog soup, paternalism, parochialism and traffic fatalities. And sure, we can speak up about such, and why not – but I won’t delude myself that Koreans will wait with baited breath for my opinion. Nor should they.

      And again, whenever I do discuss such matters with my Korean adults students, good friends and family members, they are not surprised and they know full well about the problems and have been talking with each other about them both personally and in the media.

      Those of us without ready access to the Korean media (in Korean) will be excused from realizing it, but people here are engaged in discussion about all these things and have been all along. They really don’t need our ‘help.’

      Kim Seong-kon is well-regarded scholar and translator and he regularly contributes at the Korean Herald. He also doesn't need our help.

      ‘Seven Flaws Koreans Should Discard’

    5. I will try and break this up a bit:

      1. I used the MBC example because it came to mind and then you talked about it. I think the fact that complaining got all the way to the Wall Street Journal made MBC stand up and take notice is at least a small success. But, as I granted you, perhaps there was no real apology at all and I'll grant you another thing (as I think I did in my last two comments) perhaps it all made no difference at all. I am not saying it definitely had a positive result, just a possibility and that this is enough to make complaining not completely useless. Who knows, maybe MBC put out less racist programmes these days for fear of the same reaction or maybe they put out more in defiance (I somehow doubt this). The fact is though, you can't deny that to change the status quo or policies or attitudes of anything at all, you have to complain about it. Things don't change by themselves, you have to voice your disapproval. You have to take the chance it won't work and all the effort be in vain, but maybe it will next time. That's how progress is made.

      2. In your reply, you stated what other example I could give that directly affects expats; all the examples I gave do directly affect expats, but what I think you really meant was name another example that ONLY affects expats. I spent much of my post explaining that it doesn't matter what country you're in and we should not be thinking of ourselves as expats separate from Koreans who have no right to complain or be offended by what happens to Korean people (only 'ourselves'), we live in Korea just like them. You are the one creating the 'us' and 'them' here. I used the MBC example because it was a high profile issue that came to mind, not because it was exclusive to expats necessarily.

      3. I know many Koreans who are ignorant of many of the issues expats complain about, but I am sure there is greater knowledge in Seoul and greater knowledge among academics and the better educated. My students for example know much more than my in-laws extended family (my mother in-law listens to me quite a lot and is quite aware of things). I have no doubt there are large numbers of Koreans who know everything, but what difference does this make? Everyone in England knows of the problems on high streets with drinking on a weekend, but does that mean we should just sit back and accept it without a word of complaint? When I say 'we' here I mean all people both British and non-British of all ilks. If a Muslim Bangladeshi living in London complains about the drinking culture, is this not valid because he is not British? Is it just a waste of time because nothing is ever going to change? Actually, as much as I post a lot of negative articles about Islam in Britain, many Muslims (even the extremists) have a point about our debauchery in such areas (and this maybe why they get a number of British converts). They are right to complain and we should listen, despite the fact that most Brits are already aware of the problem. Sorry to suggest this but you seem to be advocating the attitude I accused you of perhaps taking before the, 'they/it won't change so we just shouldn't bother'. Complaining is always the first step to change, and if you have a point, however many people know about it and however hopeless it may seem, one should not be afraid to point it out.

      4. Kim Seong-Kon might be a well-regarded scholar, but from the evidence of some of his recent posts ( ) I am not so sure how impartial, world-wise and all-knowing he really is. He is also the wise chap behind that wonderful article about Korean mothers, isn't he??!!

      Personally, I think this guy needs our help.

    6. ‘ Who knows, maybe MBC put out less racist programmes these days for fear of the same reaction or maybe they put out more in defiance (I somehow doubt this). ‘

      Not sure about MBC, but this is KBS, just a week ago …

      ‘ In your reply, you stated what other example I could give that directly affects expats ‘

      Um, pretty sure I asked for some other example of a time when complaining by the expat community resulted in some positive change on the part of the Korean people we were griping at. We both seem to agree that the MBC fiasco does not fit, and we’ve both been trying hard to find another one.

      Things do get better, and I’ve been here long enough to see positive change going on. It’s not because of the advice of expats like you and me, however. It’s because Korean people are looking around, talking to each other, and figuring things out.

      In fact, the opposite often results. Google the terms < bardot world cup > and see the reaction of Korean people when this once-famous actress – who is, as we know, a certified racist, convicted by her own government of hate speech on several occasions – called Koreans ‘barbarians’ in the media. Do you think she advanced the cause of humane treatment of animals in any way – or did she rather cement the conviction among many Koreans that their culture ought not be denigrated by outsiders? (I was here before World Cup and in the years after, and I can tell you that the later is the case – there are not fewer bosintang restaurants today than before, and probably more.)

      I don’t really think I said we shouldn’t bother. I think I said complaining on the internet doesn’t really work. I’ve never seen a case where it has.

      Mr Kim Seong-Kon and I don’t agree about a lot of things, but that’s okay. We don’t have to. A lot of my Korean friends and students don’t agree with him either. Point is, there is a conversation taking place among Korean people that covers many things. Sure, I guess we can be part of it to some extent, but the important things will be said by Koreans to Koreans.

      More seriously think of lot people who enjoy complaining often exhibit a kind of arrogance akin to the paternalism and noblesse oblige attitudes embedded in the White Man’s Burden trope: ‘Hey, you guys are getting it wrong. Here, let me tell you how it ought to go.’ The real irony lies in the fact that just about every one of us who comes here from somewhere else came from places that are also messed up, albeit perhaps in different ways.

      Korea has improved a lot and solved a lot of problems in the last few decades, but it didn’t happen because people dropped in from other places and told them what they should be doing – yeah, sure, there are problems here and especially when they directly affect us expats we certainly ought to speak up, but ultimately the bulk of Korea’s failings, as in the past, will be solved by Korean people, not by us foreigners, the vast bulk of whom among us are just visiting anyway.

    7. I spent a good deal of this post and quite a few comments trying to explain that it doesn't matter where you live, complaints are necessary and valid sometimes (with exceptions to the racists) and relatively harmless in those that are frustrated and just rant without thought. I also spent some of that post and stated in these comments that I am skeptical or at least am unsure of the effect that expat complaints have. I hardly think Koreans or a Korean institution is going to come out and say that their minds have been changed because of what foreigners in their country have said, however, if it did have an affect they'd most likely keep that bit quiet. However, I do think it is possible that expat complaints can make a difference, that's all I need. In most awful situations in the past there would have been people like you saying why bother complaining, it will make no difference. Things change and all the sources for these changes are not always identifiable. Usually we pick on a few key moments or great people, but there are many factors involved and many complainers to bring things to a head and motivate these special people to do extraordinary things.

      Sure Koreans make the changes in their society happen,but you have no idea what influences these people; you have no idea who they meet or what they read. I think it is perfectly reasonable to think that expat complaints, either in person, or on the internet or other medium (which may filter from forums to blogs and then to Western newspapers and then in turn to Korean newspapers, magazines, and other media) could have an effect. I find your argument amazingly simplistic, it's not about us telling them what to do, the influence is much much more subtle, complex, interconnected and nuanced. Do you really think immigrants complaints in our own countries are completely ignored? I would argue they aren't and even though we have a different culture I think it is presumptuous to think Koreans can't do the same.

      And, again something like bad driving directly affects expats, what you mean is something that only affects expats, which I assume concerns matters of discrimination. Finding an example of specifically expat complaints causing a direct apology or worthwhile change would not be impossible if I trawled through a lot of information and history, I guess, but it would be difficult to find for sure. The point is though that this would not make one iota of a difference to the main point of my post. In the MBC matter, I do think something positive came of it and that was the ridicule of the program by Korean university students, no doubt motivated by expat complaints (though I am sure you will deny this). I used it as an example fleetingly, and you have not let go of it. You simply refuse to respond or it seems read the rest of what I have written, which is why I am becoming a little frustrated at repeating myself (I am sorry, I am not being condescending, that is just the way I see it).

      I feel like we have come full circle, to be honest, this comment is mostly just a re-hashing of the others.

      PS: When it comes to something like Bardot and the world cup, the point is utterly irrelevant. It would be damning if I had said every complaint ever made is always useful and never detrimental, but I didn't did I?

      PPS: Again, I spent part of that post asking what the hell does it matter if we have problems in our own countries, we're in Korea now, the issues in Korea are separate from the problems in your country. Would you really deny a valid complaint a Korean had about the US because 'they have lots of messed-up problems in Korea'? It's a bizarre argument.

  6. What needs to be established is the nature of the complaint and the surrounding circumstances.
    People who do nothing but complain about things such the price of cheese, the weather etc are obviously, for the most part, silly little children.

    But people who are facing dire working conditions; non-payment of salary; lack of clarification from immigration in relation to their visa; alien registration and other such things; if their employers are being (sometimes deliberately) difficult in regards to various terms and conditions of their contract such as holidays and English camps; if recruiters are messing them around then these are an entirely different propositions altogether. I have to be honest though, the later set of complaints are, anecdotally speaking anyway, very very common in fact I would challenge anyone would say they didn’t at least know someone who has had a few of these problems crop up. It’s not just English teachers; in my time here translators, researchers, phd students, factory workers, photographers, professors have all made the same complaints.

    Sorry to generalize here but Koreans seem to be experts in placing foreigners in difficult positions and then, when everything falls apart, turning round and laying the blame squarely at their feet and expect them pick up all the pieces; and the chorus of westerners wagging their fingers saying ‘don’t moan’ and ‘relax, it’s a cultural thing’ is a real kick in the teeth I must say.

    To make a comparison with England, when I was in and among foreigners people would often complain about high taxes, bad weather, expensive transport and long traffic jams. But guess what, that is exactly the same thing that British people complain about. I have rarely if ever heard the same kind of complaints made in house about in England that I hear very regularly in Korea; and I worked in health and social care which is a very difficult industry to participate in, at all levels.

    There is a culture of ‘blame the victim’ in Korea which I absolutely despise and abhor. I think this is an edifice of white liberal guilt that holds that, no matter what the grievance, Korean culture is never to blame and whitey must be held responsible at all times.

    Let’s just be real for a second, when I first came here I ended up at a hagwon and basically never received my salary either on time or in full. Now who in their right mind is going to say that someone in that situation doesn’t have the right to voice their concerns. Anyone who says ‘stop complaining’ to someone in those unfortunate circumstances is stupid, unreasonable, extremely ignorant and in need of no further consideration as a person in my humble opinion. Some names do come to mind.....

    1. The circumstances in which complaints are made is a point that I didn't make in the post, but should have. This angle is dead right and is another factor to be considered. I was almost too fair in the post, perhaps. This is a nice addition to it.

      I too had a crappy Hagwon job once and it is tough to remain positive when you are at the mercy of an unscrupulous employer taking advantage of you in a country where you may not receive very much help or support. I find I can't really comment just how commonplace this kinda thing is. I have never worked in Seoul or even one of the bigger cities - where I guess this stuff might occur more often - in this area I would guess Seoulites would have more of an idea. In my relatively small city, I heard of a few examples, along with mine.

      I wouldn't bemoan anyone a complaint or two who had to put up with what I put up with for 9 months. I think I was actually quite fortunate because I at least had my Korean family to back me up and I think this saved me getting totally screwed over. Others at the same Hagwon in the past recanted tales of losing lots of money, i got away with it on that side, but I still had to put up with the weirdo boss from hell (he was a real piece of work that guy).

      I think with regards to situations like this, I can imagine some people arguing that these kind of complaints would be justified, but that they hate the general moaning about Korea and use it as an example of racism. However, under these kind of horrible circumstances one could see how people could become generally embittered and while it is easy for the rest of us to say they should just shut up, one should also not be too quick to judge them, and especially judge them as racists (which many people like to do). Like I said to others, I am sure there is a few genuine racists among us, but I bet that most of them aren't and I bet many really resent the accusation of racism put on them.

  7. When complaining about a country or culture, it's very important to be specific and (if possible) constructive.

    As an American, I have heard countless generalized complaints about America and Americans, mostly when I was in Europe. I agreed with most of the complaints, except for the way they were generally applied to ALL Americans ("Why are Americans so..."). We make the same complaints in the U.S., but we SPECIFY what type of people we refer to. Of course, my foreign friends who have traveled in the U.S. understand how heterogenous the country is and they specify when making criticisms.

    Likewise, I make an effort to be specific and constructive when criticizing Korea. I try not to say Korea or Koreans. When people say "Koreans are...", they are referring to 50 million people of all age groups. It's extremely frustrating for people to hear these blanket criticisms.

    Also, as you wrote, it's important to know what you're talking about when making complaints. Too many expats blame racism or Confucianism for things they don't understand. There are many different factors at the root of problems in Korea and they require a deeper understanding of the culture - even if it's just reading a couple books.

    And although I agree with you that complaining can be cathartic, sometimes we have to ask ourselves WHY we are complaining and WHO we are complaining to. My girlfriend knows I have complaints sometimes, but she doesn't necessarily want to be the one to hear them. The fact that I'm American doesn't mean I have an answer to everyone's complaints about America, just as my girlfriend and friends don't necessarily have answers to my criticisms of Korea.

    Nice writing!

    1. Many thanks.

      I agree with you about being specific and constructive. I also think we should never look at a pattern occurring in a country or culture and paint everyone within that culture as having certain opinions or acting in the same way; there will always be exceptions and many many of them. You treat people as individuals first and foremost, whatever country they are from. Of course, however, I think we are perfectly justified in identifying trends and patterns in different cultures and complaining about them if they need to be complained about.

      I think there might be a slight difference in circumstances between the people you met in Europe who applied their complaints to all Americans (I think they were just being ignorant and fashionably anti-American. I think many of the complaints people have in Korea is as a result of culture shock, stress, or other difficult circumstances. I think this is born out of frustration as well as the ignorance you talked about. They lash out sometimes and generalise their complaints to all Koreans. This is not to excuse them, they are wrong to do so, but sometimes it is understandable and in most cases I think when the stress has abated they don't really mean what they said when they were upset.

      Other than that though, I couldn't agree more with the rest of what you wrote.

  8. fantastic article. What subject did you major at University, if you don't mind me asking?
    You came across as a really thoughtful Bachelor of Arts graduate.