Saturday, March 1, 2014

Why does it Happen? Some Korean Cultural Conclusions

It has come to my attention that foreigners in Korea (including me) often use cultural explanations for much of the behaviour that can be seen by Korean people and also sometimes draw conclusions from it.  Why is that?

There will be a significant number of people who will chalk it down to prejudice or a lack of understanding, and to be fair in some people, and with some issues, this may very well be the case.  However, the story is not a simple as that.  In my opinion, there are obvious traits about Korean culture that stand-out and that guide us to cultural conclusions, and these are very often the right ones.  Let's go through a few and I will highlight the simplified cultural explanation (SCE) and see if there is any truth to it:

Plastic Surgery

It is pretty undeniable that there is a bit of an obsession with plastic surgery in Korea, but why is that?

SCE: Koreans want to change their appearance to look more White Western.

Now, of course, this is not entirely true; Koreans have many home-grown reasons for valuing things, like pale skin, for example, and appearance is obviously important to many people regardless of what they are from.  But the coincidence between two of the more popular surgeries (nose and eye-lid) and a White Western appearance cannot be over-looked, as well as the admiration for White models.  I notice peculiar things like White Western models plastered over posters for all manner of things and I find it hard to believe that this would happen in, say, England in reverse with lots of Asian models, even though England is more culturally diverse.

My wife also believes that many Korean women, in particular, admire a White Western look and this is one of the reasons why some of them choose to have plastic surgery, and she is always right.

My Conclusion: Obviously, high rates of plastic surgery in Korea are not solely or even mainly motivated by a longing for a White Western look, but I believe it is a factor.  Korean people look just fine to me (I married one!), they need not admire a White Western look, but many surely do.

Air Crashes

I will be brief because I have covered this at some length before, here, here, and here!  This subject has animated me because hierarchical respect culture, in my opinion, is the worst aspect of Korean culture and is the part of the culture I have seen cause a lot of hardship, stress, and suffering on Korean people and at times I think can be dangerous.

SCE: A suspicion of the involvement of Korean hierarchical respect culture in miscommunication in the cockpit is justified as a possible explanation for crashes of Korean airliners.

The blanket assertion that Korean culture is the sole cause for crashes is wrong.  And certainty in saying it is the cause before evidence is in, is also wrong.  However, there is some history regarding Korean airline crashes and odd breakdowns in communication and pilot error. There is also the experience many people have of living in Korea and dealing with the extreme discomfort of talking to and questioning superiors and elders that most Koreans have (people in all countries experience this, but I believe that in Korea it is magnified).  My wife once recanted a tale of how this actually jeopardised a patient's life on the operating table when she was a nurse and often speaks of a strong dislike for the rigidity of Korean respect culture in all relationships, but especially working relationships.

My Conclusion: The everyday behaviour of Koreans, the logic of the hierarchical etiquette system, and previous history mean that it is justified to hypothesise/suspect Korean cultural involvement in plane crashes, when no clear mechanical fault is easily identifiable.  This theorising can also rightly be attributed to Korean airlines, even though it is not often used as an explanation for crashes of airliners from other nations given the logic, history, and evidence involved.

Nationalism and Japan

SCE: Koreans are so nationalistic and bitter they are overly petty and ridiculous about a range of issues involving Japan.

I am mostly on Korea's side when it comes to issues with Japan.  Many in the pro-Japanese camp will say they have apologised again and again, but Korea just doesn't take notice and they want Japan to beg and grovel.  I happen to think, however, that the Japanese government are regularly insincere with their apologies and don't back apologies up with any action, as well as constant denials of obvious wrongdoings in the past. The "Comfort Women' issue is a perfect example of this.  And now the Japanese are even thinking of taking back an old apology, they are clearly in the wrong and Koreans are right to be upset about their handling of the 'Comfort Women' situation.

The problem is, though, many Koreans appear to enjoy shooting themselves in the foot and alienating possible supporters by going over the top in their hatred of Japan and by constantly reminding everyone of why they are upset.  Dokdo is a great example; the foreign community are just tired of hearing about it and we don't really care.  I personally think that, as a gesture of goodwill for past misdeeds, the Japanese government could be gracious and hand it over to the Koreans, I am on the Korean's side in this.

What turns me off, however, is the propaganda about Dokdo, especially to the young.  I once saw a kids swimming tube with "Dokdo is our land" written all over it in a supermarket (I thought this was distasteful to say the least) and I know it is taught to kids in school.  Nationalistic passions and hatred are stirred-up in the young about the subject and I find this must be unhelpful in building better ties with Japan in the future and coming to an amicable agreement.  Teach Kids about history, sure, but there is no need to bring a political issue of land ownership into the minds of often young children.

My Conclusion: Yes, the Japanese are essentially to blame, are quite snidy, and they seem to do their best to rile South Korea, but by continually stirring-up hatred of the Japanese (particularly in the young) and by refusing to take any moral high-ground and do any forgiving whatsoever,  it is all a god-awful mess of sometimes quite daft and petty nationalism, the kind no one around the world wants to be seen choosing sides on or getting involved in.

Nationalism and Sport

Matt May

SCE: Koreans are sore losers in the international sports arena and are prone to influencing officials or being unfair if they see a chance they can win.

One should be careful not to discriminate to all individuals when using cultural explanations, and this is a perfect example.  Kim Yun Ah (legend), for instance, was a class apart and incredibly gracious in accepting her silver medal in the Sochi Olympics, despite what many thought was a dubious and unjust judgement.  The public reaction, however, although admittedly better than in the past, was still rather obsessive.  An estimated 90% of the 1.5 million signatures on, (now about 2 million), for example came from Koreans. When you think of all the great injustices of the world that languish behind a figure skating decision, it is pretty telling of an inability to move on and maybe taking a sporting event a fraction too seriously.  Also at Sochi, there were online threats to a British skater who mistakenly took out a Korean medal favourite in the speed skating.  I couldn't imagine the same situation occurring with the fans of most other countries.

On the impartiality side of things, it has to be noted that one of the worst examples of cheating in any games by a host nation was in Seoul in 1988 (explained in last week's post).  In 2002 also, there were question marks raised about Korea's route to a surprise semi-final.  So the last two major international sporting events in Korea = two major sporting controversies and accusations of unfair officiating, one blatant and one slightly more arguable.  It doesn't mean anything like that will definitely happen in Pyeongchang in 2018, but I think some suspicion is justified when you combine past history, the still high level of nationalism in Korea, and the overreaction generally to international sporting failures and the over-importance of sporting success.

My Conclusion: Korea as a nation do appear a little preoccupied with proving themselves in the sporting arena and this means they will undoubtedly come under the spotlight when they host sporting events.  Only a clean Pyeongchang in 2018 will allay suspicions and Korea have a chance to prove the doubters wrong in 4 years time.

Koreans in the Way

SCE: Koreans have no spatial awareness and no manners and that is why they bump into others and get in our way.

Personal space manners, I believe, are a manifestation of cultures based around the individual, like those in Western countries.  As a visitor to Korea, one must accept that many Koreans will not place such a high regard on personal space because of this. Manners are also different from place to place; there are probably many examples of Korean people thinking Westerners are very bad mannered too.

That said, there are times when giving personal space is practically important and when it is not done can cause major problems and unfairness.  I see driving in Korea as an example of this and queuing also.  An acceptance of the culture does not mean that we aren't sometimes majorly inconvenienced and even put in danger by such a lack of spatial etiquette.

To give a couple of anecdotes; I have been playing squash for about 20 years or so and have played thousands of games without a major incident.  In 4 years of living in Korea, and playing only a handful of matches in that time, I managed to get one of my teeth knocked-out by a Korean player's wild dangerous swing (a high standard player who should have known better).  I also had a friend from orientation who was knocked down on a bus by a pushy Ahjuma and briefly lost consciousness because he fell so hard he hit his head (he's quite a big guy too, it must have taken some shove).  This sort of thing appears to be a common foreigner gripe in Korea.

Accidents can happen anywhere, but is it just a coincidence these happened in Korea?

My Conclusion: The accusation of a lack of spatial awareness maybe over-simplified and insulting, but there probably does need to be some general improvement in matters regarding personal space manners and awareness in some of the Korean population for reasons of safety, practicality, and fairness.

These are examples of generalised conclusions and opinions about groups of people, i.e. Korean people.  I personally don't think there is anything wrong with this and I would be perfectly open to accepting any of the many negative aspects of British culture also and their explanatory power in how many British people act. But one must be careful not to discriminate and draw conclusions about every person you meet.  It is unfair, immoral, and stupid for example, to judge the next Korean person you meet who has had plastic surgery as wanting to look like a White Westerner.

People are complex and they are individuals and must be treated as such, everyone should have equal value and equal rights.  However, culture can and does affect individual's behaviour and real patterns can be observed and conclusions drawn in certain situations.  It is popular to deny that this is the case and sometimes to insinuate racism against people who think it (but only when conclusions are drawn about non-Western cultures in my experience), but just because it's popular doesn't make it true.


  1. Awesome satire!

    1. You clearly dont know the meaning of the word 'satire'. You are lacking in both manners and education.
      If you want to address the latter of the two here is a good place to start:

    2. Actually, I do know the meaning of satire, and I truly hope that this blog's author is being satirical, else he is merely a raving bigot. Do you know the meaning of the word "satire"?

      Thanks for the link - I'll watch later!

  2. I really hope it is supposed to be satirical.