Saturday, September 29, 2012

What is it with Koreans and Plastic Surgery?

It is fairly common knowledge that South Korea is plastic surgery capital of the world  Every person living in Korea currently will also know why they do it and it is most commonly down to achieving a more 'Western' look.  Nose jobs and double eye-lid surgery are very popular to achieve this as most Koreans have a fairly low nose ridge and have inconspicuous eye-lids.

Having a the white Western look (and not the browner South East Asian look) is an obsession in Korea right down to the make-up they put on their face also.  While white people in the West are always striving for more colour to their skin with a healthy brown glow, Koreans go the other way and protect their skin at all costs from the sun when they are outside and most of their skincare products and make-up have a skin whitening ingredient in them.  The picture (below) shows the lengths some Koreans go to avoiding the dreaded tanned skin, and this is often seen in the summer in the middle of soaring temperatures.

This is one of the true enigmas of Korea I find.  Many Koreans have an obsession with all things Western; the fashion, the skin colour (white people), travel, and their general appearance.  They are also immensely proud of any Korean who makes a splash in Western countries, such as what PSY has done with Gangnam style.  This exposure is forever talked about on Korean TV, and I for one am getting tired of seeing youtube videos and talk shows in the US all performing their own versions of the song and trying to do the horse dance, as much as I like the song and video.

But with all of these obsessions about the West, when you live in Korea - despite being called handsome or pretty on a daily basis and all the 'love yous' from your students - there is a great sense that some people very much entertain the idea of Korean superiority in almost all departments.  This comes in the form of the purity of Korean blood, the food, their history, their companies, their dedication to work, and their sometimes excessive patriotism.

This, obviously, has to be tempered with the superiority complexes most foreigners have when they land in Korea, of which is all too easy to witness and I have talked about this in previous blogs on racism and anti-Korean sentiment.  Westerners (especially white) I'm afraid, are regularly the most guilty in feeling that they are superior to others but unlike Koreans they are not striving to be like anyone else.  The truth is probably that Western people really do believe they are the bees knees, whereas Koreans do not.  I am not sure what position is worse, maybe those that think this way are just as bad as each other.

Plastic surgery goes to the very heart of the mystery, in that I assume by asserting the greatness of Korean blood they mean that their genes are some of the very best around.  Why then they feel the need to change their personal appearance in record numbers to mirror that of a different race becomes puzzling.  What is even more extraordinary is the attitude Koreans seem to have towards getting plastic surgery. 
My wife wants to have the nose job and bizarrely her parents are not at all against it and even partly encourage it.  There is no discussion with me, I like her the way she is and she has absolutely no need for any plastic surgery.  My wife also tells me that almost all of the friends would have plastic surgery if they could afford it, indeed a couple of them have had plastic surgery already from money given to them by their parents.

My students are all boys and therefore have slightly less of a desire to have any procedures done on them but again strangely have no issue whatsoever in girls having plastic surgery and most thought plastic surgery was a good idea.  In the lesson on things they like about Korea, every class said that plastic surgery was something they liked, saying that it could make girls prettier (they thought this could only benefit them).  Not one student said that the commonplace nature of it was a bad thing.

Viewpoints such as these is one of the most interesting parts about living in a different culture.  I am almost always totally against the need for surgery except for special cases, and I guess this is the prevailing attitude in most Western English speaking countries.  The argument is that we are all beautiful so just get over the urge to mess around with your appearance.  But this is just not true for some people and many Koreans think that not everyone can be born pretty so why not have a few things changed.  The argument starts to make sense in a perverse way, why rely on the lottery of your genetics when you can pay to make youself look better?  The fact is that some people are just downright ugly for no fault of their own, so from the Korean standpoint they should just have themselves 'fixed'.

While I can sympathize with this argument a little, there are some underlying uncomfortable truths.

a) The really ugly people will still not be attractive after plastic surgery.  It cannot perform miracles.

b) It is often those that are quite attractive already and who don't need it that have surgery, this is especially true in the case of Korean women, most of whom look great already.

c) People usually gain very little from surgery - even if it is largely successful - because most of the people who matter to them are usually happy the way they were anyway.

d) There are risks and procedures can go horribly wrong and be counter-productive.

e) Personally, I have always thought it to be a terrble waste of money.  In Korea, people break the bank to have procedures done, often incurring debt (Korea has a massive debt problem) and asking loved ones to fund the costs.

I believe there is only one good reason to have plastic surgery and that is to improve confidence and self-esteem and I am sure in some cases it can really help.  I used to know a girl in England who had the biggest nose I had ever seen.  Apart from her nose she had a good body, a nice personality, and a pretty face.  She would have been so attractive if it was not for her nose.  Everyone I met used to say, 'lovely girl, but shame about that huge nose'.  She must have been well aware of this so decided to have plastic surgery to reduce its size.  The next time I saw her, it was incredible the difference it made, not only to her appearance but to her levels of confidence and she was delighted with the results.

With all this in mind, perhaps since living in Korea I am not so anti plastic surgery because I have had more exposure to the other side of the argument.  However - and this is especially true of Korea - the need to have plastic surgery, I feel, is still only in a limited few.  I don't think I will ever be persuaded that it is a good idea in the vast majority of people, and particularly not with my already lovely wife.

(Note: I also recognise the health benefits of some surgeries, but this post is about purely cosmetic plastic surgery where the person has no major facial or bodily disfigurements or health problems).

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Smoking in Korea

There are a few things I dislike about Korea but nothing irks me quite like smoking.  I have always hated the habit right from a small child when my father smoked.  I can remember warning him that it was unhealthy and even threatening him with pouring a bucket of water over his head when he was failing to quit.  He was not amused with this and retaliated with, 'you had better not!'

In the end he did quit but it wasn't because he heeded my warnings, he actually ended up having a heart attack in his early fifties.  This was the kick up the backside he needed and has been fit and healthy ever since, and quite spritely looking for a now 67 year-old, I hope I inherit his anti-aging formula.

In England, thesedays, smoking it pretty much banned in all public places, with bars being the most controversial of these places.  Outside business premises, bars, and restaurants it is always possible to see a group of people huddled together enjoying a cigarette or two, sometimes shivering away in the winter months.  English people also rarely smoke while walking along the street or outside shops.  This is great for me as I never feel more unhealthy than when I am sucking in the dreadful stench of someone else's cigarette smoke. 

It is no secret in the Western community that many Korean men are not always the best in the manners department, so when you combine this with smoking, things become even more frustrating.  They hang around on street corners blowing smoke in your face, smoke profusely in restaurants, in bars, and most annoyingly of all, in toilets.  I am sure every single toilet in Korea smells of smoke, the combination of smoke and urine creates an almost uniquely disgusting odour.

The inappropiateness of the location of the toilet also does not stop them.  Teachers smoke in the toilets at my high school, while unleashing their fury at any students caught doing the same.  This strikes me as a tad hypocritical and not worthy of the respect of the students that they demand.  I was especially horrified when one day in my local gym, the toilet - right next to the workout area - was being utilized by three men for a fag (cigarettes for you Americans, not homosexuals) break in between their weight training sets.  I desperately needed the toilet so had to wade through a cloud of smoke and made my feelings known by coughing very loudly the whole time (although I found it extremely difficult to pee while coughing).

The ban on smoking in all enclosed public spaces came into effect in England on July 1st 2007.  Since that date I have enjoyed going out with my friends for the odd drink a lot more.  I am not a big drinker, and sometimes I have just decided to go out and drink water, but still be social.  This can be done in England because I then go home feeling fine and without stinking like an ashtray. 

In Korea, however, no such ban is in place but I hear that there are rumours the government want to introduce one by 2015.  It appears that they are starting to get tough on smoking in Korea.  Too late for me, as I will be returning home next year, so I guesss I will have to suffer for one more year. 

In an interesting article I read recently on smoking in Korea,( it said that some Korean companies were taking smoking into account when handing out promotions at work, trying to discourage people to smoke.  While I praise the motivation behind such a move, I do not approve of their tactics as it sounds awfully authoritarian.  What people do with their lives is entirely up to them, they can smoke if they want to and it should not affect their promotion chances, but their smoking should not affect others detrimentally.

I try to avoid smoky places whenever possible in Korea, and this means that I rarely venture out for nights out in bars and clubs.  The reason I avoid these places is purely because of the smoking, which I now have an even greater loathing for.  This probably makes me less social in Korea than I should be with my fellow English teachers, because bars are really the principle place to meet people and socialise.

The final straw for me (and probably the reason behind this rant) came a couple of weeks ago while having a drink with my mother in-law as part of her birthday celebrations.  I had got up early to exercise that day at 5.30am as I knew I had no time to do it later, I had an extra English class after work and I was busy the whole day.  I had to psyche myself up for possibly a long night with the in-laws, which I managed quite well.  After a pleasant dinner we arrived at an empty, quite pretty little bar for a few gentle drinks.  I was tired but in a good mood, but then about five separate groups of men entered and every single one of them started smoking.  I felt horrible fairly immediately, as I now have zero-tolerance to smoking.  I made my feelings known but I had to stay for a little while longer. 

By the time it was ready to leave I was very fed up, feeling unhealthy, and my clothes stunk.  When I got back to my apartment building someone had been smoking in the lift, so that stunk, and then when I walked in the door, someone had been smoking on the balcony above us and because we had our doors open the apartment stunk of smoke.  To rub salt into the wounds even the toilet in my apartment smelt of smoke because we share the same air vents as other people in the building, and obviously somebody somewhere had been smoking in their toilet, so that stunk too.

There are many people in England that want the smoking ban reversed, they say it is their human right to be able to smoke and that it is a factor in the closing down of many pubs.  Well, I am sorry, what smokers are essentially doing by smoking around other people who do not smoke is showing they don't give a damn about their rights or for their health.  Smoking in private is fine, a person's health is their own business and if they do not mind risking illness that is up to them.  Smoking around others, however, is selfish and irresponsible behaviour.  I am not a fan of big government, telling it's citizens what to do, but a smoking ban is necessary to protect the rights of people who want to be healthy from those who care about as much for other people's health as they do for their own.

I love the proverb, 'The shoe that fits one pinches another.  There is no perfect recipe to life', however, some people's idea of a perfect fit hurts others.  This is what laws are for, to protect people from harm by others and is the reason that governments around the world that are enforcing smoking bans in public are doing the right thing.  I wish Korea could speed up the process.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Funny, sad, and revealing answers to questions from Korean students.

I think most Native English teachers living in Korea really end up quite liking their students.  There are also many that despise them, but if you can build up a rapport with them I find they are really great.  I have always found that I am unable to do this with very young students of about 10 years old and younger, but have always enjoyed teaching the older students.  This was something that was the same back home in England when I worked in schools and coached squash.

In Korea, I have taught in two different Hagwons (private academies) and an all-boys high school, with the high school being my favourite place.  Still, working in the Hagwons I was able to have some good relationships with the students, but with the very young students I more than once had the temptation of picking them up and throwing them out of the 3rd storey window.  I never get this urge with my high school students.

My problem with young kids was, and still is, that I treat them like adults and I have no idea how to behave with people in any other way.  This on the other hand is a great advantage with high schoolers who desperately want to be treated like adults and I think this explains why we tend to get along so well.

Anyway, the fact they are quite comfortable with me does bring up some humorous situations as I explained in a previous blog post on 'My Students'  Over the last few months I have been jotting down some amusing - and sometimes sad - answers to questions which I thought were worth sharing.  Their answers also give an interesting perspective on Korean culture and how young Korean males think.  Strangely, most of these answers came in just a few special lessons:

The 'likes and dislikes about Korea' lesson

I asked the students, 'What do you like about Korea?'


Student: 'I like Dokdo because there is plenty of Methane Hydrate.'
Me: 'You really like Dokdo because of that?'
Student: 'Yes, why?'

This is all about the contentious island of Dokdo and the national obsession with the sovereignty of the island being Korean and not Japanese.  They learn all about the island at school and I have even seen a small textbook devoted to the subject.  The answer seemed to convey very little of the students own thinking on the matter about possible resources located near the island and therefore its importance.  It looks like an example of a sort of forced caring for a subject that they should probably have no interest in.


Student: 'I like Korean girl groups because they give our sight satisfaction.'
Me: 'I agree.'

The first of a few amusing comments on girl groups.  Girl groups really are pretty in Korea, there is no doubt about it and this is not lost on young men with hormones raging.  However, this subject of Korean girls did lead on to what they disliked about Korea.

I asked the students, 'What do you dislike about Korea?'


Student: 'I hate that Korean girls have a small bust, average A cup.'


Student: 'I hate that Korean women have small chests because grip feeling not good.'

As a teacher, I should not be overly impressed with responses 3 and 4, I know, but they were quite funny.  This shows that Koreans are not that much different to us in the West, in that they want what they do not have.  If they lived a long time in the West they would probably complain about the lack of short skirts and great legs.

The 'Insults and Compliments' Lesson

This lesson was about making insulting comments and complimentary comments about others (asking for trouble, I know).  The students relished the insulting part of the lesson, 'you son of bitch, what the hell, you ass hole' and more was what I asked for and got in the lesson, but one comment in particular showed the racial prejudice that exists in Korea, even though it was delivered with a kind of comedic poetry to it.

On watching a video of a very dark-skinned Englishman of Pakistani origin doing a poor singing performance, one boy commented:

Student: 'My heart is black because you are black.'

He said it was a joke after and, of course, quite a few laughed but the number of times the students call their slightly darker-skinned classmates 'nigro' or mention that 'he is from Africa' does tend to show up a classically unwelcome prejudice that many Korean people have.  Despite always showing my disgust for such comments, the odd one still does crop up from time to time.

The 'Religion' lesson

I thought twice about delivering this lesson as I was afraid it could upset people but in the end there was nothing to worry about and they approached it as light-heartedly as ever.  As part of the lesson they had to give arguments for and against the existence of god (obviously put in much simpler terms).  It turned out that the vast majority of students did not believe in a god but they worked well and gave answers from both points of view, the most amusing coming from the perspective that there is no god:


Student: 'There is no god because Jeong Seon's (his friend) face is disaster.  If there is a god, he will be killed but he has already lived 17 years!'

I was really trying hard not to laugh at that, although the boy it was aimed at did not seem too bothered and just punched his friend in the arm.  This is a fairly typical example of Korean classroom banter.


Another student simply had this to say: 'There is no god because monkey, evolution = upgrade.'

Richard Dawkins himself could have put it no better.

The Superheroes Lesson

One activity involved choosing their five best superpowers (translated for them) and saying what they would be, followed by giving themselves a superhero name, here is what one group had to say:

Student: I would have, invisibility, teleportation, shape-changing ability, x-ray vision, and telepathy.  My superhero name would be 'Pervert Man'.

They would later explain to me that all of the above were methods of either sneaking into places they could see naked girls, disguising themselves in these places so they could not be seen, looking through walls and clothes, or using the power of their minds to encourage girls to take off their clothes.

The 'Emotions' lesson

The grammar point of of the lesson was for them to say, 'I feel _________ when I....'
They needed to insert the emotion in the blank space and say when they felt upset, angry, happy, excited, etc.  I received an especially depressing and sad answer from one student, who can be immediately recognised as educationally sub-normal and a target for bullies.

Student: 'I feel upset when I look in the mirror.'

Said with not the least bit of a smile on his face, I felt like giving him a big hug, poor kid.  There is surely bullying in schools all over the world but in Korea, where students can spend 14 hours a day in school, it must feel like it is impossible to get away from bullying if you are the victim of it.  This must contribute to the Korean problem of suicides of students, especially in high school.  I make sure that this student is treated well in my class and have had words with his classmates when I feel like they are making fun of him.  In general, though, the class seem to have mostly a feeling of warmth towards him.  This does not stop him feeling bad about himself, however, as a lesson on personal pet hates showed.

The 'Pet Hates' Lesson

The same poor student had this to say about one of his hates: 'I hate myself because I look terrible and I am not smart.'

I genuinely did not know what to say to him after he said that, I really worry about him sometimes.

The last comment is quite funny and a bit troubling at the same time, coming from the same lesson from a very high level - but cheeky - student, about his Korean English teacher.

Student: 'I hate Lee Gang Ho because he hit me with a light bulb.'
Me: 'What, a light bulb?!'
Student: 'Yes, he smashed it on my back.  Look there is a light bulb missing above your head.'
Me: 'I don't believe you.'
Whole class: 'No, really!'
Me: 'Why?!'
Student: Because he was sleeping in the class and I told him the principal was coming.  He woke up suddenly but when he realised he was not coming, he hit me.'
Me: 'But why with a light bulb?'
Student: 'He forgot his stick.'

I wasn't really sure whether to believe this story but all the students in the class backed him up and this particular teacher is infamous in the school, and from experience with him personally he is a bit of a strange kind of guy even by older Korean man standards.  If true, surely this is a prime example of corporal punishment gone a little to far.  Corporal punishment is often used by teachers in Korea.  In my school I have witnessed it a few times and it has really been no big deal, in fact it tended to work rather well.  However, I would quite like to be a fly on the wall in the infamous Mr Lee's class to see just how he utilises it.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea

The latest scandal involving Korean xenophobia has stirred up more controversy this week with a bar in Itaewon - probably the most popular area in Seoul for foreigners - refusing entry to anyone who did not have a Korean face.  This was all filmed and posted on youtube  for the foreigner community to become enraged about, something that seems to be happening with increasing regularity these days.  But maybe I am just surfing the internet more at work at the moment.

It occurs to me that people should be outraged by such things.  I feel like I am in a minority that try to understand such actions by Koreans, and because of my family ties am a little more tolerant and realise that not all Koreans are this way inclined.  I also understand that because of their history, this sort of thing is what one would expect.  I will even grant them this; I understand that they feel like Westerners can behave poorly in Korea when drunk and American soldiers have not given the best impression to them in this regard especially, and that this could be the reason they refused entry to them.  I will accept all of this, yet still I am offended and we still need to draw their attention to these events when they occur.

The legitimacy of their reasons for refusing entry to foreigners may be partly warranted if they have experienced bad behaviour from these people in the area.  But the essence of racism is that you cannot make judgments on everyone else just because a few bad eggs share common skin colour/s.  The fact is they would have refused anyone with a white or black face regardless of their background; they could even have been Korean citizens for all they knew with Korean family. In another case of refusal of entry, I was also told of a nightclub in my town, Suncheon that did not allow foreigners.  The reason – which I was told of by a Korean friend – is that Westerners drew too much attention to themselves, and especially drew too much attention from Korean women, which Korean men did not enjoy.

I happen to be very lucky in that I am a fair-haired white man, pretty much what they expect of a foreigner in Korea.  I receive some forms of prejudice when I am with my wife but rarely when I am on my own.  If I do experience any discrimination it is in a positive way, with comments about how handsome I am, or just general friendly greetings that single me out in a crowd.  Sometimes, though, I wish I could spend a week of my life in a different skin colour, maybe black or South East Asian looking and feel what it is like to be them in Korea.  I have the suspicion that I would have to grow a pretty thick skin and never learn Korean to a good standard; I do not think I would want to know what they are saying about me.

My students - who I really do love most of the time - give me an insight into just what they think by frequently saying racist remarks about black people.  But the thing is that these kids are fantastic the rest of the time, they are great and I cannot hate them for saying any of these things.  Perhaps then, we should use this as an example in the best way to react, with anger at the culture of racism and at each situation when it occurs but not at the individuals.  These students are not bad, they have merely been brought up in a culture suspicious of foreigners.  Their dislike of black people must have come from somewhere, and I can only think it must have come from us in the West.  We have carried our own bigotry over with us when we first started having relations with Koreans and may continue it with subtle prejudice in movies and music.  The thing is we have moved on a little because of our more multi-cultural societies, we have seen the bad times and learned from them, Koreans have not.

It is easy for us to judge, but Koreans simply do not have the experience of dealing with these situations.  Over the past 20-30 years they have had more exposure to these issues, but it will clearly take a lot longer for them to be resolved, so expect another scandal involving discrimination to be coming sometime soon.  We sure deserve to be angry about them when they come about but we must be careful not to judge Koreans too harshly when these incidents occur.  After all, what they are not doing is lynching foreigners, shooting them, or shouting foul mouthed abuse at them (at least I have not experienced this), all situations that our own countries experienced in the past (and less frequently in the present).

With all our experience in the West we sit atop an exulted position on the moral high-ground on many issues regarding discrimination, human rights, and general fairness.  We also are regularly insulted by the lack of good manners in many Korean people.  What we must realise is that Korea as a civilised society is still relatively young.  It is not they are less intelligent than us or do not have access to current knowledge, they simply have not experienced what the societies we have been brought up in have experienced. 

To illustrate this point I will use a sporting analogy; I have been a reasonably good squash player for many years and with this ability it tends to give me a natural awareness of other sports that are hand-eye related, all of which I pick up technique quite quickly.  I usually can therefore watch a Tennis player, like Roger Federer, and copy his technique for a top-spin backhand and when I come to play Tennis I can play the shot fairly decently.  The more I practice, however, the better this shot becomes (obviously).  The same premise operates with Korean society with issues of prejudice and fairness.  They know the arguments, many know how they should ideally behave but they simply have not had enough practice yet.  They have had more dealings with white people and markedly less with black people and this shows in the less prejudiced view of white people.  I wonder what proportion of the population have even seen a black person, let alone had any interaction with them, which could amend some of their prejudice.

These may be seen as excuses by some people but they are not, they are explanations.  Explanations do not excuse, they just give some insight so that it may be possible to understand.

Because of the above, Western society is 50 to 60, maybe even 100 years ahead on issues of racial equality compared to Korea.  My grandfather was undoubtedly a racist by today’s Western standards; did that make him a bad person?  No, he was just a product of his time.  In another example - one of the most admired men in American history - Abraham Lincoln's comments on black people can be deemed incredibly offensive by modern people:

I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes.” – Abraham Lincoln in the fourth debate with Stephen Douglas.

This was just one example of plenty I could have used.  This does not take away from any of his achievements and we cannot really tarnish his reputation with this.  The fact is that most white people in America (indeed the world) were racist back then.

While the treatment of black people has significantly improved in the West, be rest assured that we still hold prejudices by race ourselves.  Not in law, and licensed establishments cannot have them but they regularly show up in our societies nonetheless.  As a white man I thought that they had almost disappeared.  But as I walked down the street on a Saturday night in my country with an Asian girl on my arm, I could see and hear that they were still very much alive.  And not only that, I myself had stirrings of suspicion going on in my mind when an acquaintance I knew from an opposing squash team turned up with his fiancé of the same age who he met in Thailand.  If he was 60 and she was 20 perhaps I would be right to be suspicious but surely they should be given the benefit of the doubt as they were the same age.  It is my reckoning that this doesn’t happen for them an awful lot.  

We also still experience many race hate crimes and these tend to be more severe than in Korea.  So when we jump too much on our high-horse, Korean people can quite rightly point out these problems in our own societies.

With all this in mind the reaction to past, present, and future stories of racism in Korea should be one of almost equal outrage and understanding, we are right to be angry but we could temper this with the realisation that own culture has traveled a long way and still has further to go.  Korean racism exists and their prejudice probably occurs in a greater percentage of the population than in the West, but it is possibly in a less destructive form.  This perspective could hold the key to better relations between us and rid ourselves of the ridiculous notion that the colour of people's skins can determine their character and behaviour, something that deep-down is an idea that more of us indulge in than we would care to admit.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Anti-Korean Sentiment in the Western Community

We have all heard of the Anti-Western sentiment within the Korean community, but what I find a little worrying from our own perspective is that Anti-Korean sentiment in our own community seems to be alive and kicking as well, which is making relations a bit prickly sometimes.

Since writing the odd article about Korean culture, writing the blogs, and generally reading more articles and following the news more closely, I have noticed that tempers tend to run rather high on the subject of Korea.  It does feel like Western visitors often show, not just a dislike, but even a hatred of Korea by the time they leave.  The same feelings emanate from Koreans too, of course, but are perhaps more well reported.   Some of the comments I have received on my articles have shocked me and not just the anti-Western toned article on drunken foreigners, but also on more mild articles that are simply neutral or pro-Western.  Even a mild and humorous blog, featured on, received some rather hateful comments, not so much regarding my writing but of Koreans generally  There were also those that went completely the other way and commented that one should never criticize another culture or that Korea is actually much better than the West.  Sometimes, though, it is clear that criticisms on either side are justified and what's more important to point out.

I can fully understand where some of the frustrations with Korean culture come from as I myself went through a period of discontent in my first year here.  It should also be noted that some Korean people bring a certain amount of dislike upon themselves with there sometimes vehemently pro-Korean stance on life.  This can bring up some quite legitimate criticisms about their conduct, especially towards foreigners in their country.  Even at the very beginning of Western involvement in Korea after the second world war the Americans found it difficult to get along with them and, much to the dismay of the Koreans, prefered the company of the Japanese.

Of course there is nothing wrong with being difficult to get along with per se.  I have been reading into the history of Korea recently and it seems to me that Koreans have a history of being quite insular and wanting to be left to their own devices (much like the North is now).  Foreigners have always historically been unwelcome and until the Japanese invaded and the Americans came, Korea was quite an isolated place.  This originated from the late 16th to early 17th century when invasions from Japan and China nearly destroyed the Joseon Dynasty.  This lead to an increasingly harsh isolationist policy and this is where the origin of the term 'The Hermit Kingdom' comes from.  This may explain a lot about their current attitudes and their sometimes unique way of looking at things and indeed for North Korea.  However, I think there is a nobility in wanting to conduct matters in your own way and I think explains some of the uncomfortable assimilations with Western culture in many regards.

On a recent visit to Japan, I had the fortune of bumping into some fellow English teachers who were teaching there.  I brought up the subject of anti-Korean sentiment within some of the Western community and wondered if they had similar problems there.  The answer I got was an almost overwhelming 'no'.  A few teachers have problems but they said most just saw the differences and rolled with the punches and were generally a lot more comfortable with the culture than their counterparts in Korea.

This all seems to suggest that there are some problems in our relationships with Koreans.  Are these issues down to Koreans, Westerners, or both?  It feels like most native English teachers living in Korea are firmly blaming the Koreans.  This could be an illusion as 'The wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the most grease', and perhaps people who don't think this way just do not comment or make their voices heard.  I do feel, though, that there is an air of superiority and attitude about many Westerners who come to Korea.  I cannot provide any evidence but it is just a general perception I get.  I know I had it in the bad times, but with increased exposure to Korea's true culture and a more intimate knowledge of it through my Korean family my opinion steadily changed.

This is not to say that I do not have criticisms about their culture, I do and I do not tend to hold back, especially because I tend to feel the sharper edge of some of their prejudices being in a relationship with a Korean.  However, I do understand why some of the negative aspects of their culture exist and I think this aids me in tempering any anger that could build up.  I also realise where Koreans are coming from when they criticise foreign visitors to their country.  They are sometimes justified and sometimes not when it comes to their complaints about foreigners, and I do think the Western community need to handle these complaints better and learn from them.  Too many visitors to Korea bull-doze their way through cultural faux pas with a complete lack of understanding and sensitivity for where they are.  We cannot all be familiar with Korean culture to a large extent and their is nothing wrong with a certain amount of ignorance with it, but a little more care and thought should be taken sometimes into how we are conducting ourselves.

So the answer to who is to blame for slightly dodgy relations is obviously both, and if one side is more to blame than the other, the lesser party is certainly not blameless.  Even if someone has been a victim of prejudice or bad behaviour from the other side, let us hope that with a little more work to understand each other, better relations can be achieved.  If everyone were to treat every situation anew and not bring any baggage into it, people around the world would get along a lot better and would realise that the vast majority of all people, all around the world, and in all different cultures are good and kind.  This is my experience of my travels, and another experience is that culture has consequences on people's behaviour.  If an aspect of culture is good is should be praised and possibly embraced by other cultures, but if it is bad it has to be called out.  What this doesn't entail is discriminating against the people within the culture itself.