Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Korean In-Laws in Australia!

So, my Korean in-laws finally stepped-out of Korea.  For the first time in their lives they made it to another country.  And I missed it!

I was actually really gutted.  I had longed planned a big cycle touring trip of Australasia; firstly cycling from Darwin to Melbourne in Australia and then cycling all around New Zealand over a period of about 3 months or so.

Unfortunately, this coincided with their trip to see my wife, which occurred fairly last-minute due to my wife having a short gap between jobs.  Seeing as my wife had some time-off they jumped at the chance to come visit.

I had always looked-forward to observing how my in-laws would react in a Western English-speaking country that was well outside of their comfort zone.  My in-laws are both from Suncheon, a smallish city in Jeollanamdo, quite possibly the most rural province in Korea and quite far from the international hubs of Seoul and Busan.

In Korea, I was the stumbling, bumbling fool, who got around with limited Korean and was ignorant of a wide variety of cultural practices and things going on around me. Now it was their turn.

I wasn't just interested in a bit of schadenfreude, however (although it would have been wonderful), I was actually really curious to see how they'd react to it all.  Fortunately, my wife kept me up to date with what was going on.

As I suspected, my mother in-law appeared to be quite fascinated with everything and open-minded, especially with regard to food.  My father in-law, not so much.

The first thing they did after leaving the airport in Melbourne was go to the nearest Korean restaurant, even before going home to freshen up.  My wife told me that in the week her father was there, he ate pork belly every single day (this is the cut used in samgyeopsal in Korea), and in the whole time he was there ate nothing but Korean food except on two occasions; once eating a warm jam doughnut at Victoria Market, and one time eating fish and chips while on the Great Ocean Road.  Apparently, the fish and chips made him literally sick later on that evening.  He was also quite pleased that he could buy an ample amount of soju to wash down the copious amount of pork belly he was consuming.

Surprisingly, perhaps, they commented that my wife should not come back to Korea, and that they really liked Australia.  Maybe some of this is to do with how successful my wife has been (after a tough 2 years) in Melbourne.  They beamed with pride about how my wife works as a surgery room nurse in the most prestigious public hospital in Melbourne, The Alfred.  One of their few requests for places to visit was the hospital itself, and they made sure all their friends back home knew about this.

Among the things that impressed my father in-law about Australia was the sheer scale of the place and the abundance of open land.  On their trip along the Great Ocean Road, my wife said he gazed in fascination out of the window for most of the journey, even when there was little to see.  To be fair Australia's wide expanses of flat, baron land must be quite a difference to the lifetime of forested mountains he must have been used to, with cities and buildings squeezed into the flat spaces in between (he should cycle through the centre of the country for a real shock).

Of course, the thing that gave him the most joy was the cost of pork belly, which was quite a bit less expensive than Korea.  Apparently, the jam doughnut in Victoria Market was the only distraction from him salivating over the cheap choice cuts of pork belly at the butchers there.

My mother in-law was taken aback by the number of men she saw pushing prams and carrying babies.  She thought this was a great thing, and something she never really saw in Korea.  She was also very happy with how politely she was treated by the young men she came into contact with generally.  She was less impressed with the women, however, who she perceived as being a little more cold, self-entitled, and uptight than she expected.

Another thing that caught her eye was just how individual people were in their sense of style.  Melbourne is perhaps an especially noticeable place for things like this, with St Kilda where I live being a particularly eccentric place.  She was intrigued about how people mostly didn't give a damn about what they were wearing or how they were acting.

My mother in-law stayed on for 2 weeks longer than my father in-law, who had work commitments after one week.  She was able to go on an extra trip over to the Grampians, a range of unique-looking mountains a couple of hours North-West of Melbourne.  Unfortunately for her, this coach trip was also frequented by a large number of Indians, who were apparently smelling strongly of curry and body odour (I promise you these are her and my wife's words, not mine).  Knowing that my wife and my mother in-law are a pair of bloodhounds when it comes to their sense of smell (they have both put me to the sword at times for "Western smell"), and rather intolerant of unwelcome odours, this put a smile on my face while I was cycling through New Zealand.  Apparently they moved seats several times to escape the worst of the stench, but to no avail.  They were also highly critical of the punctuality of a pair of young German girls who were always late, and the last ones to get on the bus at the end of each stop.

Apart from the odd bit of culture shock, like this, however, I was pleasantly surprised about how well they adjusted to such a brave new world.  Amazingly, they encouraged my wife not to even visit them in Korea, but just to wait until they visited her in Australia, or even meet up somewhere else in the world.  My mother in-law, especially, has always wanted to go to Germany, a place where she dreamed of working as a nurse once (perhaps this is where my wife got her ambitions from).

Funnily enough, though, she doesn't have much interest in visiting England, and my hometown in particular.  Curiously, this has a lot to do with my mother, who she feels slightly uncomfortable intruding upon, and is convinced that her daughter is not a good daughter in-law as well.  Despite numerous attempts to allay her fears on this subject, she is convinced that because my wife did not cook for her and clean the house when we were there (and knowing her character generally), my mother must think ill of her for bringing such a rotten daughter in-law into the world.  The truth being to the contrary, that my mother thinks my wife is lovely, and surely wouldn't harbour such thoughts against her mothering skills, and would certainly be delighted to be a host if my mother in-law ever chose to visit.

The only problem for my wife is that her brother misses out.  He, like many thirty-something Koreans, is tied to a job with a scant amount of holiday time, if any at all, so visiting Australia, or indeed almost anywhere overseas except China and Japan is extremely difficult.  I think he really misses his sister.

It seems though, as if both my in-laws have caught the travel bug now, they are keen to visit again and to as many countries as possible.  With this in mind then, I am sure I will get my wish, and see them out of their comfort zone for myself in the near future.

Note:  This is a delayed post, as I forgot about it completely.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Do Koreans Integrate into Australian Society? And Does it Matter?

Hi everyone, it's been a long time.  I keep meaning to post more, but Korea is less relevant to me these days.  I still blog, but now it is usually only about cycle touring, which has been a new and exciting hobby I have been doing since coming to Australia.

Anyway, I thought I'd address the controversial topics of immigration and integration for my first post since over a year ago, and relate it to Korea to keep things relevant.

Firstly, I'll let you know where my bias lies on this topic.  I can't speak for other countries, but when it comes to Britain, I think mass immigration is doing a fair amount of harm at the moment, and I am especially concerned about immigration from the Islamic world.  Unlike the US, whose Muslim population is comparatively small (proportionately) and whose immigration system usually takes mostly well-qualified and vetted immigrants from the Islamic world.  The UK has old ties with countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, which means we tend to have a fair amount of low-quality immigrants from these nations that do not benefit British society.

So how do I tie this in with Korea?  Well, I love a comparison, as you may know, so I thought I'd do one here between Korean immigrants to Australia and Muslim immigrants to the UK.

My biggest issue with Muslim immigrants to the UK, and perhaps more importantly to other countries in Europe, is that those already there appear to be living solely in their own communities and struggling to integrate, yet still huge numbers are coming in, making assimilation into British and European culture even harder.

I am currently living in Melbourne, and I am often struck with amazement cycling my way through the city about just how many East Asians there are.  It feels like the ratio is almost 50/50, and filling a percentage of this does appear to be a fair amount of Koreans.

Looking at the latest figures I could find, the 2011 census data, the number of Korean-born people in Australia was only about 75 000.  Now this doesn't account for those born in Australia of Korean ancestry, but the number is far far less than say Muslims in the UK.

However, the key issue I am concerned with is integration.  Do Koreans integrate into Australian society?  It is a tricky question to answer with statistics alone, so with that in mind, I am going to give my observations of what I have seen in Melbourne through connections with my wife.

I like to make things absolutely clear for readers, because I have absorbed a fair amount of criticism on this blog, so what I am about to say is an observation, not a statement of fact (and this has always been the case, and was even written into the description of my blog).  I am writing this blog as an observer, not a journalist.  I don't have the time to sift through data or interview community leaders.  These are my opinions based, not solely, but mainly on my own observations.

So, do Koreans integrate?  My answer would be largely, no.  I find they mainly stick to having Korean friends and associations. You will always find examples of people who do, and I think it is obvious to say that the children of Korean immigrants in the past are far more likely to do so, but in general the Koreans I have met don't really integrate into wider Australian society.

What I think you'll find happening more and more in western countries is also that foreign communities will begin to integrate less and less due to the high volumes of their own country men and women coming over.  The reason for this is that in the past, the first immigrants had to associate with wider society in a range of areas; for schooling, services, and friendship.  However today, increasingly all these things can just be comfortably done within their own communities.  For instance, what you'll find in many Muslim dense areas of the UK is that kids go to Islamic schools, you can hire a Muslim plumber, go to a Muslim-owned grocery store, and people only socialise with other Muslims.  They might as well be in their own countries.

The Korean community in Melbourne often works to my benefit, as I find that having access to them through my wife can be very useful.  If I ever want a job done well, I usually hire a Korean.  If I need a taxi to the airport, someone to help move house, a builder, a visa agent, etc, I get my wife to look into the Korean community first.  I usually find them cheaper, quicker, better quality, easier to get a hold of, and generally less bogged-down in bureaucratic procedures.  I am sure they do all these services without the proper government-approved license, but quite frankly, I am glad of that as they are better at what they do as a result.

I am not suggesting that this lack of integration is the fault of Korean people (or indeed Muslims) either, I just think this is a bit of a fact of life that, in reality, happens in most foreign communities.  After all when in Korea, the same occurs with people from English speaking nations, they all hang around together.  The critical thing is, though, does this lack of integration really matter? In the case of Korean people, I think it doesn't.

With very few exceptions, Korean people have cultural values which enable them to be excellent newcomers to Western societies.  They are hard-working, law abiding, and tolerant of and adaptable to the different way of life that they have migrated into. Many even embrace the ability to throw off the shackles of Korean society and just be themselves.  But even if Koreans don't enjoy Western liberalism, individualism, and life in general, they usually just deal with it and get on with their lives without complaint.

Perhaps I am just ignorant of any downsides, but I cannot recall any problems Far-Eastern communities have caused in Western countries.  I just don't hear of any unrest involving Koreans, Chinese, or Japanese.  Individual exceptions again will always crop-up, but they really do seem like rogue individuals, out of sync and unrelated in their behaviour with their wider community.

Contrast this with Muslim communities in many Western countries, especially in Europe. Now I know there is a lot of right-wing media out there cooking-up a storm about this, but at least some of it does appear to be quite valid.

It isn't just the terrorism, in Britain we have had issues with Muslim rape gangs, tens of thousands of cases of Female Genital Mutilation going completely unprosecuted, and death threats to journalists and public figures for, sometimes the most benign acts of freedom of expression against the prophet Mohammed.

Like it or not, there is an extreme side of many inside Muslim communities in the West that not only doesn't integrate, like Koreans, but appears to actually want to defy the laws and customs of the countries they come into and have their own power.  They want their own legal system, their own areas, and seek special privileges (especially the right to not have their religion mocked or prophets depicted).  On top of this, there looks as though there is an issue with members of the Muslim community not speaking-up against truly unsavoury, dangerous extremists who exist within their communities. This is both out of solidarity with them as fellow Muslims and out of fear of violence against them.

From my observations of Koreans and what they say, they don't hold nearly the same fears or feelings of loyalty with fellow Koreans (not to mention their lack of extreme behaviour).  Indeed many of them don't want to make too close friends with other Koreans, as they end up facing the same issues with societal pressure just in a different land.  For this reason, I am sure there are a number of pretty lonely Koreans in Australia, who find it difficult to make friends with non-Koreans, yet also don't wish to get too close with the Korean community either.

I hear a lot of generalisations about immigration, but really we have to be quite specific about it if we want to realistically make multi-culturalism work, if it can work at all.  As I have said many times in this blog, culture matters, and different cultures can throw-up different challenges when it comes to living side by side with each other.  Some cultures, like Korean culture, can be radically different to ours yet in ways that make them easy to be neighbours with, and some can be different in divisive ways that cause trouble.

I think Western culture generally has far more in common with many Islamic cultures than it does with the Far East, but the specific small differences between the West and some Islamic cultures (being general here, I am aware of the many cultures occurring in Islamic countries and indeed the subtle differences in Western countries also), are far more problematic than the big differences between the people of the West and the Far East when it comes to living with each other.

These subtleties are always lost when we talk about immigration.  Phrases like, "diversity is our strength", or, "immigration benefits our country", are far too broad to get to the heart of the matter.  The truth is that sometimes diversity is a good thing and sometimes immigration is of benefit to our countries, and that it very much depends who and where those coming in are from, and in what numbers, as to whether this immigration is of benefit to the economy and society as a whole.  I have yet to ever hear this nuance in any debate on the subject.

The migrant crisis in Europe would be problematic wherever these people were coming from, but I think it is stating the obvious to say that if we had millions of Koreans flooding into Europe right now, we'd have significantly less troubles than if it was millions of Muslims.  Before we can sit down and logically talk about uncomfortable truths such as this, I see no hope for multi-culturalism worldwide, and particularly in Europe, and I do fear for the well-being of my country of birth in the years to come.