Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Sewol Ferry Disaster: Why we Must Question some Aspects of Korean Culture

jinjoo2713 (Naver User)

In the aftermath of great tragedies, one must be thorough in drawing conclusions about the causes and the way people respond in times of trouble and be careful not to explain away matters on handy scapegoats.  Asking pertinent questions is very much a part of this.

The captain of the Sewol and his crew were obviously in the wrong, their individual actions and orders cost lives and they should rightly be brought to justice.  However, the reasons behind their actions are complex.  It is convenient for everyone, including Park Geun Hye and her government, to brush away the issues highlighted by this disaster as the result of solely individual errors and incompetence.  This may be so, but they have to be more thorough than that.

There have been a variety of articles written that place a fair amount of blame on Korean culture for what happened (many from Koreans themselves), and inevitably people have become upset, calling this simplistic and racist (mostly non-Koreans).  I have two thoughts on this; 1) Yes, it is simplistic to say that culture is the sole cause for the disaster, of course it's not, but I have not heard anyone make this claim, only that it may be part of the reason for it or exacerbated it; 2) It is not racist, how can it be?  We are talking about culture, not DNA. People that constantly make this claim are using a kind of language which is not true, unhelpful, and emotive.

The truth is, individuals are significantly influenced by the culture in which they are brought up and this drastically impacts on their individual thoughts and actions.  It is too simplistic to say culture caused the disaster, but did it play a role?  I would argue that the evidence so far suggests it may very well have done, and it is not wrong to suggest it as a possibility and should not be insulting to do so.

I think there are two main aspects of Korean culture which may have helped cause or exacerbate the catastrophe (and I think they are linked):

  1. Hierarchical Respect Culture
  2. A disregard for rules and regulations and lack of knowledge of safety procedures

Of the two factors, number 2 might be the most important.  "But this hasn't got anything to do with culture", I hear you say.  But you'd be wrong.  Sure, one can't blame it on Confucianism (the usual turn-to) or pinpoint it to other parts of cultural history, but a lack of respect for safety protocols, rules, and regulations is a modern day cultural issue in Korea and is something all of us who live here regularly see. This is why I shake my head in disbelief that articles like this pop-up, titled "Stop Blaming Korean Culture for Last Week's Ferry Disaster", especially when they go on to write this:

"The real problem, at all levels, seems to be protocol—or rather, the absence of one. Kim Su Bin, a classmate of Lim’s at Danwon High School in Ansan, pointed out that passengers did not receive any safety instruction before or during the trip, and that life jackets were available on the fourth floor but not on the third. A communication’s officer for the Sewol has admitted to the crew’s lack of evacuation training, or the enforcement thereof. And the indecision written all over the transcripts between harbor officials and the Sewol crew reveals an apparent dearth of actionable protocol for either side in the event of such a calamity."
The author then goes on to quote a journalist in South Korea:

“The main point is not culture,” said Jaehwan Cho, a Seoul-based journalist covering the events on his Twitter, in an interview on Sunday. “The main point is government structure... We need to turn our eyes to the government situation, government atmosphere. If we can revise those things, I don’t think this kind of disaster will happen again.”

He is at least partly right, government is an issue, but the lack of a safety protocol, instructions, lack of training, etc, could very well be heavily linked to culture because this is not something unique to this situation and it is not all the government's fault.  And after all, where does government come from if not the people and the culture that created it?

When I spoke to my wife about all this, she told me that when she worked as a nurse in a hospital in Korea she was given no fire safety training, but legally she was supposed to, she was even given a form to sign to say she had.  When she said she had no such training, she was simply told to sign it by her superiors anyway.  Irresponsible of my wife? In the atmosphere of the Korean workplace, in reality she had no choice whatsoever, you simply can't question your superiors, if she had refused, her life would have been made very difficult (a subtle way respect hierarchies reduce safety).

So, if there was a fire in that hospital, you might well have had a similar situation occurring as to what happened on the Sewol; panicked people searching for members of staff to tell them where to go and what to do and the response and information would have been poor because the problem is that the patients in the hospital and the passengers on the ferry would have had about as much information on safety as the people who were supposed to be in charge.

Also, people in junior positions are regularly thrown into the deep end and given responsibility for things they perhaps should have been better trained and equipped for. In my wife's case, she became a surgery room nurse and her training consisted of sitting-in on only one or two surgeries and watching (she did many different kinds of joint surgery) and then told to learn terms and instruments at home on her own time. Basically, she had no training and learnt on the job - and was often shouted at and bullied by doctors when she made inevitable mistakes every now and then.  To make matters worse, in the quest for profits and the busy world of Korea, she was forced to rush from patient to patient, hastily sterilising instruments (and often having minor accidents as a result; cuts, burns etc), and feeling extreme pressure to finish important and possibly hazardous tasks quickly (빨리 빨리!).

I see this kind of thing everywhere in Korea, therefore I think it is fair to say that this has become part of the culture and needs changing.  Whether you agree with this or not, my hypothesis is not racist because I am saying it is cultural, not racial, and because it is not about race, it is something that can be changed; it is not written in their DNA and not set in stone.

The exact reason why I believe hierarchical respect culture was a factor is different to most other commentators on this subject.  I simply don't know what passengers from Western countries would have done had they been given the same orders to stay below deck by the captain.  I actually think saying they were being overly obedient is probably a bit simplistic, perhaps this was a factor, but I think this is something we can't really know and it is harsh and insensitive to blame the passengers, who were obviously scared victims of someone else's mistakes and a desperately unfortunate situation.

As I have mentioned already the effect of respect culture is probably more subtle on this disaster.  It is the role of the crew and the captain that needs more focus and these are the questions I would ask:

  1. Why didn't any of the crew question the captain's orders, and if they did, why did it not have any effect?
  2. Why was the captain away from the bridge when the accident occurred?
  3. Why did it take so long to correct the original order of staying below deck?
  4. Why did they go off the original course in the first place?
  5. Why was the response so slow by rescue teams?

Of course we don't know the answers to any of these questions yet, but I am going to highlight some of the side effects I see day to day in Korea of rigid respect hierarchies and I will leave it to you to connect the dots:

  1. People rarely question orders of superiors, even when they are obviously wrong sometimes.
  2. The sense of entitlement being of higher age or rank gives people often affords them the luxury of sitting back and letting those below them do most of the difficult work.
  3. When mistakes are made by elders or those of superior rank, they can be very stubborn in admitting them and will often carry on regardless or hope everything will be alright in order to save face.
  4. Protocol, rules, and regulations are often ignored by people who have high status because they feel they know better and are above them.
  5. Respect hierarchies are inefficient, causing a lack of initiative in individuals and can cause slow responses by waiting for orders of superiors.

Now I am not saying these factors are all definitely related and this is exactly what happened, but it is everyone's responsibility to consider all of these a possibility.  In fact they are questions you could ask people of any culture, but Korean culture accentuates things when it comes to issues of status and respect.  If you refuse to acknowledge them for fear of being a racist or upsetting those of another culture, you may be sending others to their doom in the future.  People's lives, whoever and wherever they are, are more important than the risk of offending cultural sensibilities.

Finally, if someone were to hypothesise that the 7/7 bombings in the UK had something to do with British culture, why on earth would I be offended?  I just don't understand it.  In fact, one could make a good argument that British culture played a role (over-politeness, political correctness, and tolerance of even the dangerous and intolerant for fear of giving offence) in the creation of the Muslim radicals (the UK seems to be quite good at cultivating them) who hatched the plot and carried it out.  Not only that, but even if it had nothing to do with British culture in the end, it would have been our responsibility to question it (and many did) and at least rule it out.

In fact the two examples correlate rather nicely because in the case of the 7/7 bombings it was the actions of psychotic and brainwashed individuals; in the Sewol disaster it seems it was the actions of incompetent individuals in positions of responsibility.  We can leave it at that on both disasters and hope both never happen again, but it must be discovered whether in each case such disasters were a one-off or whether there is something about each culture that might encourage future similar events.  In the case of British culture, might it encourage radical Muslims to flourish?  And is there something about Korean culture that encourages incompetence, danger and confusion, in potentially dangerous situations, to flourish?

The only way to find out and be as thorough as possible in avoiding future disasters is to ask questions, which it seems is easy and not at all insulting to do with British or American culture, but when we do it to non-Western cultures like Korea, we suddenly turn into racist simpletons.


  1. What definition of "culture" are you employing here? There are many definitions, but in general I understand culture as being a shared set of practices that are based on a shared set of perspectives within specific social contexts. Just because something is observed often doesn't mean it is a part of culture, which is what you are doing here.

    For example, American people in general share a belief in the rule of law, and we have established laws that reflect that shared perspective. Yet many people can be observed breaking the law. Are the lawbreakers then the stewards of our national culture, or are they the aberration that we seek to marginalize and bring closer to the ideal? Do we have a culture of respect for law or a culture of lawbreaking? You can't have both if you're seeking to characterize an entire nation.

    On that note, you seem blissfully unaware that the second Korean cultural trait you posit (Lack of respect for rules) negates the first one (Hierarchical respect system) because the latter is full of complex rules governing a variety of social and administrative contexts and would simply could not possibly be adopted by a people lacking respect for rules, which you claim is a cultural trait of the very same people. So which group are the real Koreans, the ones making and following the rules, or those breaking them?

    In the case of the Sewol, it seems that at many levels there were lapses in established protocols, that either weren't followed, or didn't exist. So are we to extrapolate from this that the Korean people in general do not value rules that make people safer? I don't assume that, and based on the reaction of millions of Koreans (shocked at the behavior of the captain and the glaring absence of such protocols) they don't share it either.

    One of the problems people have with the practice of calling Korean culture into question at times like these is not that it's racist or that there is no cultural component to it, but that it seems that Korea is often singled out for such cultural analysis whenever things go awry. Asiana plane crash? Must have been a cultural issue. Air France? Must have been pilot error, the act of a free thinking individual who got it wrong. It's not whether the idea has any validity or not, it's the knee reaction of people like yourself to seek explanations in ways that make Koreans out to be a crowd of lemmings or automatons that would sooner maintain good manners that to save their own lives in a clear-cut life or death situation that any other sane person would immediately recognize and act upon. In a word: bullshit.

    1. Firstly, there is no contradiction between being overly respectful to authority figures and having no respect for general rules and regulations. It is however ironic, certainly. When no one is there giving the orders and setting the rules and there is no one to be chastised by for breaking the rules, they are often ignored. Why this is I cannot say. Certainly not blissfully unaware, in fact I commented on this the other day somewhere else, I think on facebook.

      I think there is a general set of behaviours and thinking attributable to a large proportion of the Korean population that does show a disregard for rules to make people safer, yes, and overly rigid respect hierarchies. This makes them behave and think significantly different from other populations in other countries, especially Western countries. This difference is cultural and hence why I define it as culture.

      Korea isn't singled out, cultural explanations go on all the time for almost every country when it is relevant and applicable. In the Asiana crash is was relevant and applicable because respect culture had a history of involvement in other crashes (according to investigators) and surprise surprise when the pilots were interviewed it appeared to be relevant in the Asian crash. Not relevant in the Air France crash because it is difficult to see based on the French culture how it could cause the crash in the specific situations of that crash. It wasn't difficult to see how communication could be dangerously unclear with Korean hierarchical respect culture because such confusions and troubles are a regularly everyday part of the culture and the evidence of past crashes confirmed this.

      Like I said, I think that British culture played a role in the 7/7 bombings too, so that must mean I think British people are a crowd of lemmings too! Your the one being too simplistic here. All I am saying is it it perfectly OK to ask questions, I never said culture was the whole story. Culture is also so ingrained into people's psyche and behaviour that that you must know that there is no conscious thought process going on between being polite and potentially killing hundreds of people, it doesn't work like that. In a word, if you think that is what is going on: bullshit.

    2. Re: "I think there is a general set of behaviours and thinking attributable to a large proportion of the Korean population that does show a disregard for rules to make people safer, yes, ... This makes them behave and think significantly different from other populations in other countries, especially Western countries. This difference is cultural and hence why I define it as culture."

      You merely state that "the difference is cultural" without saying why you think so. How is that a cultural difference? Because you said it is? Is "culture" then just something that a lot of people do (even if it is apparently in opposition to their stated beliefs, rules and preferences)? Every Korea I have talked to or read about has expressed shock at the behavior of a captain who felt no sense of responsibility for the safety of his passengers, shock that there was no ready system to aid the stricken vessel, shock that the company could have made such modifications to the ship. Is there corruption and incompetence here? You bet. But why are you holding that up as culture when Koreans are universally expressing shock and outrage that those things were going on?

      And if you do consider the rule-breakers the real stewards of culture, how do you explain the current uproar to change the laws governing everything from ferry companies and crew to disaster management. Do they care about rules or not? Don't confuse rule breaking with a preference for no rules at all, which seems to be what you are doing here.

    3. Sorry, didn't realise you posted this comment until just now.

      I did state why I think the difference is cultural, please read:

      "I think there is a general set of behaviours and thinking attributable to a large proportion of the Korean population that does show a disregard for rules to make people safer, yes, ... This makes them behave and think significantly different from other populations in other countries, especially Western countries"

      Expressing shock and outrage is pretty par for the course when lots of people die, I don't think that is surprising. But they weren't expressing any outrage before the disaster. The disaster exposed a culture of negligence and lack of concern for safety in a bid to maximise profits, speed of work, etc, that most of us have all experienced in this country. Hopefully it will change as a result of the disaster. But while I'm sure laws will change and the government will get stricter, I predict the culture as a whole will be slow to realise and may not adhere to laws very well. I haven't seen drivers not running red lights and wearing their safety belts, for example since the disaster, no one links the two. I got a lift home from a sweet mother of one of my students the other night and her son of 12 years old rode the whole way in the passenger seat without a seat belt on. It is that attitude that will be slow to change and it is cultural. Is it completely specific to Korean culture, no, there are other cultures that share a disregard for safety, but it is an aspect of Korean culture nonetheless. It is however, quite a startling aspect of culture to see in a highly developed country.

      And do I consider the rule-breakers the real stewards of culture? It is an odd question. I consider this issue to be one aspect of Korean culture among many. No confusion on my part, whether they are breaking rules or would rather have none is irrelevant. What is relevant is that they have a disregard for safety in the culture at the moment. Where this comes from, I never speculated upon, the fact is that it exists and needs to be changed.

      Tighter, better enforced rules will help things, but unless Koreans are educated better on issues of safety, a high amount of accidents will continue to occur.

  2. Should read: " the FORMER is full of complex rules..." (not the "latter")

  3. There you go again being perfectly reasonable, articulate, and fair. This is why you get such backlash. I guess id have to say be careful how you define culture but you are right on about this.

    This will be a case study for a long time. Korea needs to change their culture when it comes to safety...they havenr even accepted seatbelts. But i too hate the asian race card. Just look at the #cancelcolbert thing. Talk about the PC police.

    1. Cheers.

      I don't get all this take care with defining culture stuff. I think people are using this to slip out of the responsibility to explain things. Koreans generally act and think in ways that are different to other countries, especially in the West. As the previous commenter said, a shared set of practices and perspectives, not everyone but generally among the population. Hierarchical respect is practiced in Korea and the people have a shared perspective about it, their attitude to safety, rules and regulations also seems to share these attributes. I would call it a part of the culture.

      The racist stuff drives me nuts, not just on this blog, but in general discourse. These days 90% of the time it is about shutting the conversation down and trying to humiliate someone and their point of view without actually addressing it. Most of the time it has nothing to do with race either. The lack of honesty going about in the PC brigade is astounding at the moment.

  4. The amazing thing about the Zoey Park and the #cancelcolbert things was even though she claimed to have understood the satire, she claimed that white people were "incapable" of understanding the pain that those jokes caused... MENTALLY INCAPABLE. So If I basically say, you just don't understand my point of view because you're not mixed race like me... It's ridiculous, we may have different perspectives but everyone is capable of understanding what it might be like.. that's what analogies are for. You're right. It just shuts down the debate because if you are incapable of seeing it my way, then why even talk? But I do admire her for what she was really trying to do.. get famous. Mission accomplished.

    But what I meant about the be careful thing was not that he was wrong. I meant to say that I've always thought that with those hard to define terms like culture, if you broaden it to mean and explain everything, it ends up explaining nothing. Except for evolution. THAT explains everything. But I agree. Culture can explain things.And it does.

    And as far as what one commentator said, Korea breaking the rules while at the same time obeying authority are separate things. They do it all the time. Breaking the rules: running reds, smoking where they shouldn't, not wearing seat belts... all while obeying those in a higher positions. They do it all the time and BOTH are part of their culture.

    I feel so sick at the thought of those kids, scared, listening to those crew members, themselves a victim of their culture, and dying such a tragic and horrible death for it.

    1. Re: "Breaking the rules: ... all while obeying those in a higher positions. They do it all the time and BOTH are part of their culture."

      So fundamentally opposite tendencies are both valid ways of characterizing the same group of people. Congratulations, you've just explained nothing.

    2. The crucial thing element to this is they will hardly ever break the rules when they have been given a direct order by someone or are accountable to someone. They will try to avoid conflict at all costs and many times this involves lying and bending the rules. For this reason it might actually be that the tendencies are linked and not fundamentally opposite. To obey people in higher positions you may actually have to bend the rules.

      For example, if your superior tells you to load the boat with 3 times more cargo than is safe, you do it to obey them, yet knowing full well it is breaking the rules. The culture of hierarchy, however, often doesn't help people express their objections.

  5. I am Irish with a korean wife. I lived in Korea for a while but the place frustrated me, so we came back to Ireland to settle down. I recommend that you get out of there ASAP, as it seems to frustrate you too. PS I agree with most of your articles

    1. Many thanks. I'm off to Australia in August, my wife is already there.

      You're right Korea does frustrate me, but there are many aspects that I like. I think it is the treatment of individuals and relationships that frustrates me most about Korea and their respect culture plays a big part in this.

    2. It's the same for me, I do love to visit Korea, and find it a real buzz but there is too much conflict with my own set of values. So either Korea changes or I change, and as Korea and myself will not change anytime soon, my decision was made for me.
      That's what I found frustrating, Korea was a country that I loved and hated at the same time, and that is not good for the soul.

  6. The whole thrust of this article lies around the meaning and the definition of the word 'culture' which is problematic and at best. Without going through the usual par for the course hullabaloo, I think the thing that provides the most oxygen to these debates is that the word 'culture' is such a loaded term and so hard to define; I mean what is culture really? Its about as subjective as subjective gets. It’s intangible and gives the liberal cultural relativists a nice little 'get out of jail free' card as they go about their arguments and debates.

    Ergo, I will avoid the word culture because it is too problematic. Lets just stick to what we know about Korea and what is observable without too much difficulty.

    Korea has had more man-made disasters in the last 20 odd years than most developed OECD countries, count them: Seongsu Bridge, Sampoong Department Store, Daegu subway fire, Daegu gas explosion, Sewol, Asiana, generally speaking their domestic flight record (that goes back a little further perhaps, but atrocious nonetheless, Wiki has an entire separate article dedicated to Korean domestic flight crashes). What you can find here in many respects is gross negligence in the extreme and there are traits that are commonly made, a lot of short cuts were taken, extreme cost cutting measures, impulsive decisions made with no other intention then increasing profit margins and business, a general lack of concern for health and safety, well-being of others or, to put it another way, disregarding the set-up and protocols installed for preserving health and safety, young people having to do things they probably knew were wrong just to meet the demands of their highers. Sampoong in particular is so so quintessentially Korean it’s scary. Sewol shows signs and symptoms of this as well.

    One university professor said it right when he exclaimed that people who follow things like health and safety laws are seen as difficult, inflexible and stubborn where as people who disregard these in order to meet the wishes of their superiors and further the greater cause[s] are seen as intelligent and pragmatic. I think it was a Korean professor in North America or something. In my opinion, you can observe this everywhere in South Korea.

    I think your 5 point summary of points is spot on. Call it culture, call it what you will, but there are clear and observable traits at work whatever people want to say.
    There are lots of things we know and need answering:

    Why was an inexperienced driver at the ship’s helm whilst going through difficult waters?

    Why was the ship allowed to be loaded with 3 times the recommended load of cargo?

    Why weren’t the passengers put on evacuation alert when the initial distress call from Jeju came in, at least then they would be prepared in the event of a disaster? That is, why weren’t they a) all moved above board, b) preparing the life jackets, c) determining if the life boats were suitable and who could swim?

    Were renovations to the third and fourth decks in line with safety recommendations or were they simply ignoring these and doing what they wanted. This allowed the centre of gravity to shift over 50cm, quite a lot.

    All of these serve to highlight how regulations are often ignored; a practice that needs to be addressed in Korea I think.

    Yun Jong-hwui, a professor at Korea Maritime and Ocean University notes that while South Korean regulations are strong, they are often poorly enforced. So even Koreans are aware of these issues it seems.

    1. I just think that if you have a selection of observable traits in a population of people (a way they go about things) it is culture. I am just trying to be as clear with language as possible. But I do realise the relativists use as narrow a definition of culture as possible when it suits them and as wide a definition at other times. There shouldn't be confusion about the meaning of 'culture', but you're right, there is. Perhaps we should call it 'society', but then I wonder how long before people get accused of being 'societists'?

      I saw an article that called Korea 'The Land of Disasters', a bit harsh, but the disasters keep on mounting-up, like you say, and they have connections to society and culture, and they all seem to be man-made.

  7. Very true about the narrow definition when it suits them and the wide definition when it doesn’t. John’s definition of culture seems alright at first but I can envisage some issues. For example, in many cases it is customary for English people to dip/dunk rich tea biscuits in their tea; I, personally, don't do this nor do most people I know. But it still pertains to be a cultural trait even if the majority of Brits don't do this. Now because a lot of people can be observed to not be doing this does this suddenly make it not a cultural practice? I don’t think you need to have a majority of any one nation or group regularly do something, I think the numbers aspect is arbitrary; it just have to have some precedence within the wider society and be observable. Whilst the numbers aspect isn’t so important the wider cultural/racial/ethnic dynamics are; which is why radical Islam, to use one example, shouldn’t be held up as British ‘culture’ because the wider framework that supports it discernibly not British and pertains to a specific, narrow segment of society.
    Now how much of this ‘culture’ or ‘just the way things are done’ I do not know.
    Another thing that gets me is this. Koreans have for decades used the culture card to trump up their international image and global brand. So to have masses of left wing, liberal western journalists and news outlets looking to lighten the burden bestowed by white liberal guilt, the subtext to a lot of it reads like this to me; “this is Asian / Korean culture, you don’t understand it, but it is superior to you, your country and your culture. If you disagree it could well be because you’re a racist. Shall we stop now? Thought so.”
    The problem is the double standard and hypocrisy; when it’s something good no one minds talking all day about ‘the culture this’ or ‘the culture that’, but when it’s something not good (ie Sewol) no one wants to explore cultural based dynamics behind the incident.

    1. “this is Asian / Korean culture, you don’t understand it, but it is superior to you, your country and your culture. If you disagree it could well be because you’re a racist. Shall we stop now? Thought so.”

      Dead right, I might also add that many Western progressives might also say such things, like this:

      "“this is Asian / Korean culture, we don’t understand it, but it is superior to us, our country and our culture. If you disagree it could well be because you’re a racist. Shall we stop now? Thought so.”

      There is a big double standard, you're right.

      What you say about the definition of culture is also right and this is another thing people can get irate about if you make a negative comment about an aspect of culture. They assume everyone must do it for the criticism to be valid, but that is not necessarily the case.

  8. Finally, if someone were to hypothesise that the 7/7 bombings in the UK had something to do with British culture, why on earth would I be offended? I just don't understand it.

    I think that you tend to come across as a bigot in your thinking, that might be why people respond negatively to your points. Yes, perhaps there is some merit in questioning cultural tendencies, but when the person suggesting seems like a bigot, then it might be hard for some people to want to listen. For example, no-one would take parenting advice from a pedophile, even if the advice had nothing to do with abuse.

    1. Hmm, interesting. Are you going to back up your accusation that I seem like a bigot with any evidence or justification?

      It is interesting that in this very comments section I discussed the impulse to call anyone who doesn't agree with a kind of wave of liberal progressive opinion a bigot or a racist. A better thing to do is argue about what you disagree with thoughtfully and logically.

      My wife (who is Korean) encouraged me to write this post and liked it, is she a bigot towards her own culture? Or do you think I keep my blog a secret from her?

    2. Well it just seems that every other post is in some way critical of Korea and Koreans, and it makes me wonder if you would or could approach your own culture with the same critical eye, and with as much sweeping generalization. Plus, I know that others - who are not Korean nationalists - have felt that you exhibit bigotry, so no smoke without fire? And you always seem to be saying things like, "I'm not being racist", or I'm not being a bigot", or "I can't be a racist/bigot because my wife is Korean!". So obviously, I am not the only reader who has formed this opinion of you.

      I have lived as an ex-pat on and off for well over twenty years - mainly in the Muslim world - and the ex-pats are basically the same. Often they will carry opinions with them that they formed before they even left home, and will read everything through that same biased filter. Sad because they never really learn to enjoy the experience of living in a foreign land because they get so caught in "proving" how wrong or fucked up their host country is.

      Usually, such ex-pats are unable to speak the language with any degree of fluency, and typically only - literally, only - ever socialize with other unhappy ex-pats, regurgitating all the negativity that they have within themselves that they project onto their host culture. I don't know how much of that applies to you, of course.

      I am just skeptical that someone who has an opportunity to live in a foreign land but who seems to find so much - too much, perhaps - to be critical of is either bigoted or just plain negative.

    3. Just as critical with my own country, when I am living there, I am just the same, if not worse because I don't feel I have to be as polite about it.

      So your idea of not being prejudiced is to pigeon-hole all expats?

      I also have plenty of positive posts on this blog, but like the news on TV and the newspapers, what stories dominate? The negative ones. Why? Because conflict is often the most interesting thing, we learn from it and other people enjoy hearing about it. I have listed the many things I enjoy about Korea before, but it is difficult to expand much upon it. Personally, even the conflict with Korean culture is something I enjoy, because you learn a lot about yourself and your own culture.

      I'm not sure I always say things like 'I'm not racist', think you might be exaggerating there a little, but the fact is I receive a lot of abuse on this blog for often very mild criticism, sometimes for actually no criticism at all, just giving a different opinion of what many others think and being honest. I am also very aware that it is very much the fashion in liberal progressive culture at the moment to call anyone who doesn't agree with the popular opinion a racist or a bigot or even anything regarding culture, people are overly sensitive. Avril Lavigne just got called a racist for making a music video in Japan to appeal to Japanese. Of course no Japanese cared much about it, but the Western liberals, they were all over it. It's nonsense, much like the ridiculous comments you post about me, simply because you don't agree with my opinions.

      It always sends out alarm bells with me when people write things like you have, with no specifics, no arguments, just simply conjecture about what I might be like and insults.

      I not saying I can't be racist because my wife is Korean, I'm saying that every post I write is run by her, she reads them, she influences them, so if I am a bigot or racist towards Korea, so is she. Maybe she is, but I never said what you quoted me as saying. Use my words, not yours.

    4. Well, I think you are reaching when you say that I have pigeonholed all ex-pats. That aside, do you speak Korean fluently enough to do make the kinds of in-depth analyses of the culture that you strive to make. If the answer is no, then it is likely that you do in fact hang out mostly with other ex-pats, which further throws your credibility into question.

      But I think that you have answered the question of whether you are the victim of your own negativity. Think about it, you have an amazing opportunity to live overseas, and many, perhaps most, of your posts whine about the people you chose to live amongst, plus you admit to being negative back home, which is more damage to your credibility. It is possible that you are the problem and are projecting your own negative world view on the unsuspecting people you live amongst who have probably been quite hospitable towards you.

      Plus, stop hiding behind your wife to deflect accusations of bigotry. So what if she is Korean and so what if she agrees with your posts, that doesn't mean that they come across as any less bigoted.

    5. @ Anonymous - that's all well and good you say you have spent the majority of your expat life living in the 'Muslim world' but what about Korea? Its difficult to tell what the level of your collective Korean experiences are. Do enlighten us.

    6. Your question makes no sense to me. Please elaborate. Are you saying I need to live in Korea to notice ex-pat bigotry?

    7. @Anon - You accuse me of 'seeming like a bigot', not based on any argument about what I write, but on your authority of 20 years as an expat in a Muslim country and the fact that a few others say I am. There are equally people who say I'm not and I receive many kind words of praise and often from Korean people or Korean Americans. The fact I receive kind words from these people doesn't mean I'm not a bigot, but neither does a few others saying that I am make me one either. Make an argument, be specific. What have I written that is an example of bigotry? I am not hiding behind my wife, I have asked you for justification for your accusations and all you have given me is you think I am and a few others think I am a bigot. Very convincing, I must say. My point about my wife really is that she doesn't think I am one, and she is the most important person and the person whose opinion I value the most. Who are you? Some Anon, I'd take my wife's opinion over yours any day.

      But you go further to make another dumb argument, an argument you can only make when you have no idea who you are talking to; you make judgements about my life and other expats' lives based on your authority as an enlightened expat who did everything right and has the 'right' attitude to living in another country. Incredible arrogance. As I said I am not always negative, in fact if you really read my posts I don't think I am that negative even in criticism much of the time. Even if it was negative, this blog takes up a tiny percentage of my life, maybe 1 or 2 hours a week when I have no class and need to look busy at school. At home in England, I have my criticisms, but again it takes up a tiny fraction of what I say and do; it's not like I am walking around in a constant state of grumbling. I air my honest opinions, that's all, on a small fairly insignificant blog (apparently according to scientists, it is healthy to air frustrations and complaints).

      Predictably, you aren't that accurate either with you assumptions about me; while my Korean is not great, it is enough to get me communicating and I don't just hang around with other expats, in fact I spend far more time with Korean friends and acquaintances and my in laws as I find the expat world in my city is dominated by going out to bars, which I don't like and I am trying to save money.

      Why don't you just admit you really know nothing about me? Stop making assumptions about my life and other expats and actually make an argument.

  9. Just read your post and I had to comment that I'm really grateful for it. I'm so sick of other expat writers who think they're culturally superior who completely ignore your points or simply don't get them (or respond like assholes). Even if I happened to disagree with you, which I dont, it's nice to see an expat writer with the balls to not go with the others (who often seem to have Stockholm Syndrome).

    I'm a liberal, progressive guy but even I get sick of these guys attacking with "You're a bigot/racist" as opposed to making proper defenses to your case. There's a certain blog I have in mind (it's named after a common Korean side dish) that is always making excuses for Korean culture and they seem to circle-jerk to each others articles.

    Anyway, great article. You always have awesome, well thought-out writing.

    1. Many thanks for the kind words of support, it's much appreciated.

      I think I would consider myself mainly liberal and to be genuinely progressive is surely good, it is difficult to frame the feeling I have that certain opinions are struck out of conversation and too taboo to mention. It is coming from somewhere and is becoming a worrying trend in silencing honest debate, perhaps PC culture is the better expression as to its origins.

      If people wanna disagree with me that's fine and I enjoy the debate, but like you said, I find many seem to want to ignore, misconstrue, or abuse.