Friday, December 27, 2013

Problems of Mass Immigration and Multiculturalism in the UK - How Korea has Shaped my Perspective

In a few days, I will return home for a month long vacation.  It is a terrible time of year to visit the UK, January is cold and dark, but at least I will be there for the New Years celebrations and I will meet friends and family I have not seen for over two years.  It is amazing how the time has flown by.

As well as January being one of the most depressing months of the year for weather reasons, there is another reason Britons have cause for concern this January and that is the anticipated mass immigration of Romanians and Bulgarians.  From the 1st of January, restrictions will be lifted on these countries which will enable them to move freely to the UK and other countries in the European Union.

Immigration is of great concern for the British public, when Poland was allowed easier access to the UK in 2004 due to the enlargement of the EU, the then Labour government predicted 10 000 Polish would come; the actual number was more like half a million.  Much of the population is also concerned with the effect that growing Muslim populations are having.  The graphic murder of Lee Rigby on a London street encouraged some hysteria against Muslims, but terrorism is just one of many concerns people have.

In a report by the Democracy Institute, a think tank in the UK, it is predicted that 385 000 Romanians and Bulgarians will come to the UK once the borders are open to them after January 1st.

There are a number of red herrings in the debate on immigration in the UK often peddled by those on the right and those in the increasingly popular UK Independence Party (UKIP) - although the party does make many good points on immigration also. Apparently, migrants from Eastern Europe take our jobs, put strain on the economy, claim benefits, and commit crime.   This article from The Economist makes the argument against all of these and although there could be some debate about what they say, I am willing to accept it for the sake of argument as it makes no difference to mine.  I am sceptical about the benefits such mass immigration has on my country and this scepticism stems from my experiences with Korean culture and my marriage with a Korean woman.

Why is this you might say?  Surely I should be pro-immigration and longing for a world without borders.

Well, let's start with a rather controversial comment on my blog a while ago from someone who said they were against inter-racial marriage and breeding.  I invited him to debate me over e-mail as to why he would say such a thing, as I obviously am against such a position.  What I took out of the exchange was certainly not agreement with his point of view, but he did lay-out quite a bit of evidence to suggest that such unions tend to be more troublesome for the couples in question and for their children.  I acknowledged such relationships are generally more difficult, I just didn't agree that necessarily translated into inter-racial and cross-cultural relationships being something we shouldn't do.

The difficulty of such relationships is fairly obvious when you think about it; the pressures of a world that still places quite a high importance on the colour of one's skin is one reason, but also many inter-racial relationships are also cross-cultural, like between my wife and I.  We have unique problems that people of the same culture would not have in areas such as, personality, sense of humour, family, core values, and geography, to mention but a few.  These issues can be worked through with love, an open mind, and an appreciation of the enrichment these differences can have on each other's lives.  However, these can still be big problems that not everyone is capable of overcoming.

Perhaps you can see what angle I am taking here; replace one couple and their families with millions of people within a nation and people whose motivations to cope with these kinds of problems is not so strong and I think you can see why friction could be created.

I have been writing this blog for nearly two years now and it has become a bit of a library of how British and Korean culture can clash.  I am never short of material in this regard and this fires-off warning signals in my brain.  My wife and I have spent time in other countries, we understand where our difficulties arise based around our cultures and we can absorb and understand them.  I don't think this is the case with the vast majority of my fellow countrymen in the UK and the immigrants that go there.  The British people have tolerance hammered into their brains, not understanding, and the people coming into the UK lead largely separate lives in islands within the British Isles.  The combination causes a culture of blame, resentment, frustration, inequality, and prejudice.

In my post, "The Hypocrisy of Western Prejudice", I now believe I was too harsh on some of my fellow Brits who found it awkward to make friends with my wife.  Perhaps some of them could have been more open-minded and made the same effort as my wife was making, but the fact is that this kind of openness to others is something that tends to be learned - most often by travel or living in another culture - and doesn't come naturally. Tribalism and discomfort with people of other cultures is what comes naturally to most, even the very warm-hearted and kind.  That's where the hypocrisy comes in, they are told that everyone should be treated equally and to be open-minded to people of other cultures and they say they believe it, but until they actually practice being this way, it doesn't really happen in reality.  Interaction with people from other cultures often has to be practiced, it is like a skill, and like any other skill, there will be some people that pick it up easily and some that will require much more time to get into the swing of things.

All of this takes time and hard-work as a couple, let alone a population of a country.  Mass immigration is a recipe for disaster because it takes away the ability of the native people to adjust slowly and comfortably to people from other countries and cultures.  Some of these people are from cultures that, until relatively recently, have lived apart for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years and whose value systems are completely different, even opposite on occasions.  Whether the country is benefited economically by immigration or not is largely irrelevant to most people when they see behaviour from others that abhors them because their core moral values are so different.

Immigration has always been a part of Britain, and as some people like to say, "most of us are immigrants".  But figures don't lie, Britain has had an unprecedented rise in immigration from a decade or so ago.  Now, in London, only about 44% are White British.  Such a rapid change in the make up of the British population is a concern for many and it is causing racial and cultural tensions.

What we see in Western countries in particular is constant talk about how life-enriching and beneficial all this mingling of different cultures is for all of us.  This is true, I know it from my marriage into a Korean family and wouldn't change things for the world now.  But I also know that the difficulties are significant and seriously under-addressed and the problem is that when they are addressed they are often dismissed because the people who address them are regularly right-wing nut-bags, like the EDL or the BNP in the UK (UKIP are often perceived this way also, although unfairly, I think), who are genuinely racist and genuinely closed-minded.  Because of this, when people speak-up from a similar position who are not prejudiced and have genuine concerns, they are shouted-down by a culture of progressive liberalism as belonging to groups of racists and neo-nazis.  We end up with too many people being extremely pro-immigration and too many extremely anti-immigration with not much sensible argument in the middle.  The extreme pro-immigration side has been winning for some time - at least in the political arena - but that may change soon with right-wing political parties gaining popularity all around Europe.

Another issue, which we are at pains to address, is the fact that the people from different cultures that enter the UK are not all equal.  Western Europeans and North Americans, for example, are not likely to disrupt the traditional culture of the UK and create as much tension as some others, like people from mainly Islamic countries for example.  This is a hard problem to acknowledge, but we must honestly address it because it is causing significant difficulties in many European countries at the moment.

The Importance of Cross-Cultural Relationships

There could be a significant amount of self-interest involved in what I am about to say, but still I think it is true.  A year or so ago, the British government made it a lot more difficult for married couples - British nationals with non-EU member nationals - to come to the UK (this is the reason I am not in the UK now and planning to live in Australia instead).  I believe this is a major mistake (a mistake motivated solely by saving a little money for the economy and making headlines) because if there was ever a chance for different cultures to truly interact with each other and for multiculturalism to really work, these kinds of couples hold the key.  They are the ones who can comprehend the difficulties and know how to overcome them and they are the ones who can create positive interactions between different cultures and communities living in the same country.  They can encourage true integration because they can share the same friends and family as their spouse.  This is the kind of immigration that is genuinely beneficial and the chance of better unity and communication has been squandered in an attempt to show that the government is "getting tough" on immigration.

Living together in peace, equality and harmony is the goal, but we won't get there by forcing mass immigration on people that are not ready yet, it must occur more slowly and in a way that encourages integration.  We are failing on both in the UK and there is trouble ahead because of it.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Culture Bias in Reporting of Korean Culture and Plane Crashes?

I might have some issues with TheKorean's writing, but that does not detract from the fact I read his blog more than most others.  His opinion on many matters seems to run opposite to mine and I enjoy hearing my opinions challenged, which most of his writing does, in an eloquent, well thought-out way.  It is easy to think that just because people disagree with each other that this necessarily involves hatred or even dislike. I do not see it this way, so I'd like to begin this post by saying that I really appreciate TheKorean's blog and the time he has taken recently and in the past to respond to me.

I do, however, still disagree with him about his theory on cultural explanations and culturalism.  I will explain why in this post.  I do believe TheKorean's ambitions in his first post were greater than the position he is taking now, but the way I understand things now - and with his arguments stripped down as generously as I can - it goes like this:

1. We should not posit a cultural explanation for something, especially if the issue is a sensitive one, before we know the facts or at least have explored other avenues first, with particular responsibility placed on the media.

2. In the West, we jump onto cultural explanations when it comes to the non-Western countries and we don't when it comes to ourselves or other Western countries.  This is an example of a bias called "Culturalism."  Here are some quotes to verify this:

"If national culture is such an important concept that must be examined to promote airline safety, why does the discussion about cultural factors never happen when a European or an American plane crashes?"
 "The honest answer to these questions must inevitably involve the concept of bias, for culturalism is a form of bias."
 "This is why Europeans and Americans get a pass from the culturalist desire. It is not that Europeans and Americans do not have a culture that impacts their behavior; they clearly do. It is that Europeans and Americans are always afforded the luxury of being treated as individuals who are not slaves to their cultures. The same luxury is rarely afforded to South Americans, Middle Easterners, Africans and Asians."
"CNN will continue running stories about Korean culture whenever a Korean plane crashes, while never raising questions about American culture when an American plane crashes. That is the discrepancy that I want you to think about."

As I said, I think his ambitions were greater than this in his original post, but I am not going to dwell on it and I am willing to concede that it may only be my mistaken interpretation of what he wrote which is the cause of me thinking this.  This is what he is saying now, so let's examine it.

The first part of his argument I have some sympathy to, but the second part is simply showing complete indifference to the multitude of situations where culture is used by Europeans and Americans to explain their own behaviour, their own problems, and their own disasters, rightly or wrongly (and the behaviour of other Western countries).  Culture isn't used specifically for explaining plane crashes, he's right, but it is used in many other situations which include (and are glaringly easy to find); obesity, gun crime, healthcare, and education in the US, soccer hooliganism, violencebinge drinking and anti-social behaviour in the UK, and the economic crisis in Southern Europe.  Whether all these cultural explanations are correct or even justified are irrelevant to the 2nd point, because it does definitively show that there is no bias and Europeans and Americans don't get a pass from the "culturalist" desire as he says. 

When TheKorean talks specifically about plane crashes, the reasons for supposing a nation's culture might cause them is absolutely vital in the positing of a cultural explanation.  The fact is that we had good reasons with Korean culture, the reasons are not so clear with Western countries (even if these reasons turned out to be wrong, I think you can see how it is someone might hold them based on Korean hierarchical respect culture).  If I was to start talking about traditional Korean food culture as playing a role in rising obesity in Korea, it would be ridiculous and difficult to comprehend.  But if I started to talk about American food culture seeping into Korea and that being a cause of rising obesity, you might begin to think I am making some sense judging by the fact Americans have the highest calorie intake on the planet on average and have high obesity rates, and American food is generally higher in calories than traditional Korean food (especially fast food, which is becoming more popular in Korea).

In a reply to me, he did however, express another factor that could be involved.  He argued that problems, say, in American culture are often localised or universalised and that we didn't do this with Korean culture and airplane crashes.  He gave the examples of people not talking about Korean pilots coming from the military and the effect that might have (localised) and people not talking about "cockpit culture" being a factors across all countries (universalised).  For example, in education the problem isn't so much American culture, but arguments are given relating to the poor within America or the immigrants from other countries (localised).  And in the 2008 financial crisis, again American culture wasn't directly blamed, but corporate greed or "the one percent" a problem we see everywhere (universalised).

I think he was wrong about this because I distinctly remember reading articles in the Western press talking about military pilots becoming airline pilots in Korea, and this possibly being a factor in past crashes, and a large amount of talk about "Cockpit culture" not being uniquely Korean.  So the accusation that we don't localise or universalise with other cultures is false, at least in the example he uses.  I provide these links to show this:

In the second article, the Guardian never even mentions Korean culture in the Asiana crash investigation findings. 

When it comes to point 1, however, the justification of the reasons we make for culture being an issue are important.  It could very well be that the people in Western countries are too quick to jump to cultural conclusions and they shouldn't (especially in the media), whether it is about themselves, other Western countries or non-Western countries.  This may in fact be true of people from all countries and cultures.

In my last post, I outlined the reasons why I thought we had good reasons to suspect Korean culture as playing a role in potentially catastrophic failures of communication in plane crashes.  I think it was fair enough to speculate that this was part of the reason for the Asiana crash (especially in light of the previous cases), I also think it is perfectly fine to speculate about it on a blog.  A slightly trickier question is whether it is responsible of a major world news corporation to speculate about it in the wake of the crash when it hadn't been fully investigated yet.  The truth is, I am not sure about this.  When it's put like that it doesn't sound good, for sure.

However, without the obvious signs of a mechanical failure and a history of Korean respect culture playing a role in other crashes - according to crash investigators - I do think they were justified in bringing up the subject of the reasons for previous plane crashes of Korean airliners.  After all, if a British Airways plane crashed tomorrow, the news would probably bring up previous crashes of British Airways and other British airplane disasters, especially if circumstances looked similar.  So in Korean airline companies, the history of previous crashes will hint at the same reason applying for the current crash, so I guess drawing the same conclusions is unavoidable.

It is of course quite natural for us to look for cultural explanations for bad things we see happen connected with cultures that are not our own, this is the tribal instinct at work, perhaps.  I understand why TheKorean is against this, just because it is natural doesn't make it right and it is perhaps an urge that we all should fight against.  But I think Western culture does, quite uniquely, fight against this.  While I have written myself about the frustrating levels of prejudice still present in Western culture, institutionally, in politics, and in the media they actually sometimes take positions that are too relative and too "fair" to other cultures, to the point where we even do not apply our own laws for fear of being insensitive to another culture.  We often disregard objectivity, equality, and human rights to the detriment of our own countries and the detriment of vulnerable people who are immigrants from other countries.  Examples can be seen of this in my own country lately with the brouhaha over the allowing of segregation of men and women in universities by Muslim speakers (which has now thankfully been rescinded after an official watchdog and the government voiced objection to Universities UK's decision).

The Issue of Freedom of Speech

The wonderful thing about free speech and expression, is that when you say or do something that is lazy or is motivated by pure prejudice without reason, logic and evidence, it tends to show up.  You look like a dumbass when you're exposed, you feel like an idiot, and after a period of licking one's wounds, hopefully your opinions get changed.  This is why my heckles are raised significantly when the word "racism" is used in these kinds of arguments.

TheKorean did explicitly state he did not equate culturalism with racism (also note he remarks that culturalism is something Americans do to other Americans in this quote, which seems to contradict his 2nd point):

"I am not willing to equate culturalism and racism, because the two terms do not overlap completely. For example, culturalism is evident in the manner in which the rest of America discusses the Deep South, in a way that racism is not. But as I wrote previously, culturalism and racism are related, as they are two streams from the same source--the desire to reduce an identifiable group of people to some kind of indelible essence."

However, he is creating a strong connection between the two and he made pains to make this clear in his original post:

"Like racism, culturalism puts a large group of people beyond rational understanding."
"Like racism, culturalism distracts away from asking more meaningful questions, and obscures pertinent facts."
"like racism, culturalism destroys individual agency"

The problem with doing this is that he should know that as soon as the word "racism" comes up in an argument people from the opposing side tend to back down for fear of being labeled a "racist."  It has been a tactic used by the far-left progressives for some time now.  It is corrosive to free speech and I believe encourages a festering of racism because people's actual racist views or border-line racist views are left unchallenged.  This is the whole debate on the right to offend in freedom of expression in a nutshell and I firmly sit on the side of the right to offend (without going out of our way to offend just for the sake of it).  Of course, TheKorean is perfectly entitled to write what he does, but this is my response to it.  It is an important debate to have because it has not really been settled yet.

Because of all this, then, if he had made point one without bringing-up the subject of racism or indeed culturalism or any prejudice at all, I might have been more inclined to agree with him, but his second point was the biggest problem.  I think he alienated many people who see good reasons for making cultural explanations/opinions/speculations because they simply honestly see that there could be a large dose of truth in them.  Most are not "culturalists", or even have any prejudice at all and they resent being linked to racists. 

This is a game the progressive left have been playing with conservative opinions for some time now, and whilst I actually have mostly liberal opinions, I have great sympathy for those that hold conservative opinions when they are shot down for being racists or bigots, or simply labeled as ignorant and prejudiced.  Some undoubtedly are, like some liberals are, but I know by having known many of them that most probably aren't and they would not discriminate or show any malice against individuals on the basis of race and culture. 

It is not wrong to have an opinion about a culture, it is wrong to apply this opinion to discriminate unfairly against individuals, that is the bottom line.  By speculating that Korean culture might have been a factor in a crash, how did anyone discriminate against an individual or violate their human rights?  If then some airline company chooses to use this speculation to not hire a Korean pilot, for example, then we have a case of discrimination and this is unfair.  However, is that really likely to happen?  Perhaps it does, but that would be exactly the area we would need to clamp down on.  Not the honest musings about how culture effects behaviour, but the treating of individuals as individuals.

People were totally within their rights to challenge the assumption or the evidence that Korean culture was involved in airline crashes, but until TheKorean did so, perhaps the argument simply wasn't out there.  It is pretty difficult to report on a side of an argument that doesn't exist yet.  One should give credit to TheKorean for questioning Gladwell's lack of thoroughness and people's blind acceptance of what he said and giving the other side of the argument, but to call it "culturalism" and an example of prejudice is going too far, perhaps it was simple ignorance.  There is nothing wrong with ignorance as long as it is not willful.  By putting your opinion out there, you invite others to enlighten you and critique your position, the key is having an open mind.  I would also note how well received TheKorean's article was going against Gladwell's previously accepted theory, he certainly wasn't silenced.

Speculating with an open mind is fine, with a closed mind it is wrong.  Speculating and making it seem like fact, that is another problem and which TheKorean took Gladwell to task on.  Sloppy work motivated by culturalism?  That's a step too far, as I said, I'd say simply sloppy work and perhaps he is a 'culturalist', but I think he should be given the benefit of the doubt that he is not and his work should not be marked as motivated by a form of prejudice.  In fact, TheKorean's conclusion about Gladwell and those that accepted his work hints at a fair amount of hypocrisy because he is the one saying we shouldn't jump to cultural conclusions and says it is unfair and insensitive.  Yet at the same time he is jumping to the conclusion of prejudice, which is just as - if not more than - unfair and insensitive itself.

There will always be examples of people with prejudice, or even whole TV stations or newspapers with prejudice, but to accuse it on the whole culture or the journalistic profession in the West is unfair and not true.  And as I have mentioned, I think even the bad ones do it across the board with all cultures, including their own.  Also, defense of other cultures in the Western media is quite vociferous and a popular position to take among liberals these days.

One newspaper or TV network does not speak for the whole of Western culture.  If TheKorean's point is merely to enlighten us when we see individual news reports about their inaccuracies and jumping to cultural conclusions, he must surely know that CNN, for example, have been roundly trashed for doing both by other news networks, newspapers, political commentators and comedians.  Let's face it, sometimes, especially 24-hour news networks are so desperate for something to report, that they will report nearly anything.

The issue TheKorean brings up is not about prejudice, it is about politeness, sensitivity and accuracy in media reporting and writing, and that is something I could be persuaded upon to change my views when it comes to using cultural explanations, of any culture (when it comes to sloppy work in the media generally, I am already sold).  I would still need to be convinced that being overly-sensitive to a reasonable criticism of your culture from other countries is necessary or essentially understandable (logically speaking, I think it is not).  You are not your culture and should not be offended as if a criticism against your culture was a criticism of you personally, one should listen carefully and see if they have a point about the culture you live in, then dismiss it if they are wrong and try to change things if they are right.  Perhaps this is not very realistic (perhaps as realistic as trying to stop jumping to cultural conclusions), but this is how we can truly grow and create a better society with which to live in, and importantly, live together in.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Asiana Crash - Korean Respect Culture Under the Spotlight and Justifiably so

Even before the Asiana crash, I had been warning of the perils of Korean respect culture.  Then immediately after it, the suspicions about the cause of the crash started to resemble Malcolm Gladwell's cockpit culture theory, which was critical of Korean culture before with other plane crashes.  Ask a Korean then wrote about it on his site, pointing out that Gladwell wasn't as thorough as he should have been.  He was right about that, but he never proved Gladwell wrong and he went a step too far in insisting that talk of Korean culture being a factor in plane crashes was an example of a kind of prejudice called "Culturalism", which he compared regularly (and wrongly) to racism.

TheKorean's post struck a chord with many people on the left because there is nothing more popular than someone who strikes down an argument against a non-Western culture.  All cultures are equal, don't you know, in all given situations, they just do things differently and there is no such thing as right or wrong (except when it comes to the West, and the US in particular, being wrong) and those poor non-Western cultures always need (our) protection.

I wrote a response to TheKorean, I did so because I was disturbed by three things: 1 - One should not discount all possibilities when investigating a crash, truth is what counts, not cultural sensibilities when it comes to life and death; 2 - I was worried that comparing such thoughts about a culture to racism may dissuade people from honest truth searching for fear of being labeled "Racist"; and 3 - I knew the possibility of Korean hierarchical respect culture playing a role in the crash was a very plausible one.

In his most recent post, I feel TheKorean is doing some serious stretching of his previous arguments in his first (without acknowledging that is what he is doing) and he seems now to think that the first of my concerns above was something he was never arguing against in the first place.  What did he say about entertaining a question like whether Korean culture had anything to do with the crash?

TheKorean - "If entertaining that question seriously wastes time and distracts from asking the more realistic and pertinent questions, the question is not worth thinking about."

So he says all possibilities should be considered, including culture, but ..... it is silly and wastes time to do so. As I said in argument with him at the time, does asking the question really waste time?  Does it really stop a full investigation of all possible avenues?  Does TheKorean think that, when it comes to air crashes, investigators are not going to be as thorough as humanly possible?  It is ridiculous to think that they would turn around and say, " Hey, it was because of Korean culture, right?  Okay, let's just not bother doing any more work and go home."  Anyway, the fact that Korean culture was trotted-out as an explanation clearly annoyed him, if not why did he write what he did?

So why was I still so suspicious that Korean respect culture might have contributed to the crash (even before reading recent findings confirming that it surely did)?

The answer stares everyone in the face everyday, if you are living in Korea.  I suspect even many Koreans themselves know it as well, but like most of the foreign visitors to Korea also, they don't want to see it. Every time a woman automatically makes the coffee, every time an older worker gets away with being lazy simply for being older, every time younger people are forced to attend company dinners and get drunk at them, every time younger workers are given more work than their elders, and even every time when anyone has to "talk up" to anyone else.

Respect culture is unequal and discriminatory by nature, to be frank it is flawed by nature as it is sexist and ageist.  When it comes to children and grandparents it's nice, but when we all grow up it stops being useful. It is not necessary because respect of our elders comes naturally or not at all.  And as we all know in Korea, one person only needs to be a year older than the other to cause a significant difference in how they are spoken to and treated (a kind of fundamentalist ageism, don't you think).

In Korea, many people don't respect their elders - it depends on whether they earn respect or not, just like everywhere else - but they almost always fear their elders, or at least fear to not show their respect to elders. The difference is important because if you respect someone, being honest in disagreement shouldn't be a problem, but if you fear someone, being honest in communicating with them becomes a serious issue.

Some of the situations I mention above seem trivial, but they are not, they are everyday examples that habitualise a way of living and a way of being that is hard to be snapped out of.  The fact is that, in Korea, if you are older or in a higher position at work - and especially a man - you are more likely not to be told of your mistakes, if you are younger you will probably hear about them non-stop (over and above what naturally occurs in other cultures also).  I have no statistics to back up this statement, but it this seems so undeniable that it is a close to an unadulterated fact as you will ever get. Everyone knows this is true and I have never met a Korean who has denied it.

So when TheKorean makes an argument that says why would a pilot risk the lives of everyone on the plane just to be polite to his elders or those of superior rank, he misses the point entirely:

TheKorean - "No sane person would be willing to die for the sake of keeping up with manners"

It is more than likely there is no conscious choice going on inside the head of the pilot, he is simply acting in way he has been conditioned to behave over his entire life.  He would not be playing eeny, meeny, miny, moe with couple of hundred passengers, himself and his co-pilots on the one hand and his concerns with politeness on the other, that would be absurd.  The whole point of the cultural explanation is that it works around logic; it is behaviour that has become ingrained and hard to break out of, even in possibly critical situations.

People from countries without respect culture are also prone to not speaking out against their superiors and this is the argument for, "cockpit culture", generally and that this is just a fact of life across all cultures. Sure, it can happen in anywhere, but what kind of cultures are more likely to have a problem with questioning their superiors?  Honesty and common sense points you towards the Far Eastern respect cultures. Korea's hierarchical respect culture is still so rigid that it will be prime suspect when it comes to possibly life and death breakdowns of communication and should always be investigated.  Forget offending another culture, this is about moral responsibility to discover the truth, which is far more important.

Bobby McGill over at BusanHaps gave a good summary of some of the recent information from the interviews by crash investigators of the pilots.  Now, I'm not going to be all smug and say, "I told you so", just yet but things aren't looking good for those who think, not only that Korean culture had nothing to do with it, but that it was wrong to even think of it as one of the leading contributory factors.

Before the Asiana crash my wife had signaled a number of warning signs to me when she talked about her job as a nurse in Korea.  This is when I became convinced that cultural etiquette in the form of too much "respect" (I would call this fear) could be life threatening.  She recanted a story which I shared in the post I mentioned earlier, "The Perils of Respect Culture", of nurses fearful of speaking out to their superiors as they witnessed a patient's blood pressure dropping precipitously, failed to act with enough urgency to then tell the doctors for fear of being scolded, and finally - after the lucky escape of the patient - younger nurses were not listened to regarding the possible cause of the patient's near death, despite one of them having witnessed a similar case in another hospital, while the others were generally flummoxed.  Other stories of patient care compromised by a failure of honest communication were also forthcoming on a regular basis.

So in a situation with any chain of command, any natural hierarchy of rank or age, I think we are right to be a little suspicious of Korean culture.  In my time here, there have been too many times people have not proved consistently able to handle these kind of circumstances in a satisfactory manner.  There are often too many crossed-wires and too many unfair, and illogical decisions going on from those of high rank and in my experience they are rarely, if ever, questioned by younger or lower ranking individuals.  Until Korean culture can sort itself out in this regard, the culture brings the suspicion upon itself.

This is not an attack on Korean culture as a whole, just one specific aspect of it.  Much like when there is a group of football fans causing trouble or violence in a city holding an international football tournament, many people from other countries might think of English supporters first, sometimes countries or cultures can deserve some of the judgments made about them.  This isn't to say you should look at a random English football supporter and discriminate against them or automatically think they are trouble, but I don't think I'd blame a bar owner being a bit worried about of a group of rowdy English supporters coming through their doors after England lose an important match, for example. 

In a more recent example, the PISA results for student performance in different countries has given many Western countries great cause for self-reflection about their own culture of education and that they might be doing something wrong and some of the Far Eastern countries are doing something right.

To sum things up, I think I will just use the words of another because they are so damn good.  A comment was left on TheKorean's recent post (posted by "Michael") that hit the nail so squarely on the head as to close the matter entirely, especially the last paragraph:

TheKorean - "CNN will continue running stories about Korean culture whenever a Korean plane crashes, while never raising questions about American culture when an American plane crashes. That is the discrepancy that I want you to think about."

Michael - "CNN (and most other news sources) usually discuss American gun culture whenever a mass shooting happens. Yet I don't recall any discussion of Korean culture playing a role in the Virginia Tech shooting. Is this unfair to American culture? No, because we have no reason to believe that any aspect of Korean culture was relevant to the Virginia Tech shooting. 

With American plane crashes, we've never had reason to believe that culture played a role. With some Korean plane crashes, we DO have reason to believe that culture was involved. That is why it gets discussed. 

If you suspect that an aspect of American culture played a role in an American plane crash, please discuss it on your blog. I would probably find it interesting. And I certainly wouldn't get offended or upset if someone were to investigate whether my culture played a role in an airline accident."

Note: Also read Michael's other comments (here and here) don't mean to be overly complementary (which is not usually my style), but he is now my new hero and makes perfect sense.

I hope I have explained well enough why we do have reason to believe Korean culture could very well have played a role in some of these plane crashes and are justified in suspecting so.  One can't help but also think that if there was no reason to suspect Korean culture as a cause, why did the theory ever come up in the first place?  It all seems a clear case of cultural relativism to me.  We have a right to point out the cultural theory and Koreans need to listen carefully and decide whether we have a point and whether they need to change this aspect of their culture or at least work extra hard on making it disappear in the cockpit.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Land of Distraction - Smart Phone Zombies

According to CNN's "10 things South Korea does better than anywhere else", over 78% of people in Korea have a smart phone and this rises to an incredible 97.7% in 18 to 24 year olds.  As a result of this I have even noticed a change in the language used in my English classes, the word "cell" as a part of "cell phone" never makes an appearance anymore, it is now an almost extinct term having been completely replaced by "smart phone."

As time goes by, South Korean people seem to be becoming more and more reliant on these things, not only is it a fascinating curiosity to see literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people a day with their heads buried in them, but it is also starting to become an annoyance for me.

I don't drive in Korea, so to get from a to b in my daily routine, I use a bicycle.  It is not the safest form of travel on the roads due to Korea's slightly dodgy reputation for driving, so it is quite fortunate that the city where I live has many cycle paths on the pavement along the routes I need to go.  However, this has its own disadvantages, the main one being people on smart phones.  No one really takes notice of the cycle paths anyway, but at least some people can hear or see me coming and move out of the way or at least stick to going in one direction.  I say some, because a great many do not do this.  As time goes by, my regular commutes are turning more and more frustrating as I approach people walking in zig-zags along the pavement with their heads down focusing on their smart phones and their ear-phones in.  With almost complete sensory deprivation to the outside world, I struggle to predict where they will go next.  Some of these smart phone zombies often get so uncoordinated with it all they regularly stumble into a 90 degree manoeuvre just as I approach them, sending me in all directions.

I believe the problem has steadily got worse, people even cross the road without looking and with ear-phones in, and with Korea's horrible - almost third world - statistics for traffic accident deaths, you would think this kind of behaviour would be significantly discouraged, but it appears that no one cares.

Perhaps I simply have heightened sensitivity towards excessive smart phone use, but I am now noticing it in places I never did before.  As well as cycling, I also run 3 times a week.  I try and head out to the mountain or park trails for this.  Beforehand, I do have to wade my way through the smart phone zombies on the streets first, like I do on the bike.  However, once I actually manage to find the relative peace of a mountainous trail, I still can't get away from the smart phone.  Sometimes I still have to dodge the people walking through the beauty of the sights and sounds of the forest because they have their eyes down in their smart phones and either headphones in, or simply music blaring out loud spoiling the peace and quiet.

Then I go to the gym for a workout and what do I see.... a man sitting on a piece of equipment I want to use, playing games on his smart phone.  He does one set of bicep curls, flexes and admires them in the mirror and then sits down to exercise his thumbs once more for another few minutes.  I am sure this wasn't happening before, even as recently as last year.

It seems I can't escape these blasted devices, where ever I go.  On a trip to the hairdressers the other day, I had to wait for a boy to have his haircut first; he was about 7 or 8 years old I guess, and in front of him, crouched down, was his mother showing him a cartoon on her smartphone.  As the hairdresser moved his head and herself to cut different angles, so the mother adjusted her position.  When she became distracted and was late to move, the boy whined in disapproval and she quickly corrected herself.  It looked absolutely ludicrous, and goodness knows what this was teaching the boy in question.

Of course, we all know the prime example of smart phone zombies and that's on the subway system.  It amused my mum and dad when they visited Korea earlier this year.  They could look down a carriage and probably 80-90% would be transfixed on their smartphone screens.  It is hard to not think there is something drastically wrong with it all when you witness such a spectacle. 

A friend of mine, with slightly conservative views on life, can't stand it.  He thinks it shows an inability to be entertained by one's own thoughts, shutting oneself off to the outside world, a lack of self-reflection, and a loss of patience.  I think I agree with him in most cases, however, when it came to situations of waiting, like on trains or waiting for buses at a bus station, he appeared less concerned with people reading books and I am not sure there is much difference in this kind of situation.

When I visited Japan a year or so ago, I was struck by how many people were reading books or comic books on the subway system, in stark contrast to those being fixated on their smart phones in Korea.  Maybe now, a couple of years on, things have changed in Japan too, but anyhow, whether it is a smart phone or a book, I actually don't see much of a problem in killing time immersed in either, in a situation of passive waiting as long as it isn't all the time. 

There are some circumstances, though, where I think this smart phone trend is rather harmful; sometimes it is not good to be distracted too much.  When it comes to walking, especially in the mountains or in the countryside, there seems something particularly sad about drowning-out nature with a smart phone.  There are also some situations where we should not want to be disturbed and we need to focus and our lack of focus is troublesome to others, like in the gym or on the street.  When it comes to chances of injury or even death, at least South Koreans don't have to worry about the "Knockout Game", but there are plenty of other dangers out there to which many are oblivious to because of an addiction to smart phones.

"All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking" - Friedrich Nietzsche

Perhaps the greatest of all down-sides to this obsessive smart phone use is the time it is sapping from self-reflection.  One of my issues with South Korean culture has always been the feeling that many people are just on the treadmill of life and it simply keeps on rolling.  This happens everywhere, but I do think Korean culture runs a greater risk than most because of their adherance to strict social rules, and people's similar life goals, causing a rather set and unquestioned way of life.  Time with one's own thoughts, is something we all need to weigh-up where our lives are going.  This can sometimes be depressing, especially if we are not going in the right direction or going nowhere and struggling for meaning, but it is vitally important.  When I am feeling a little sad or depressed it serves as a sign that something needs changing and it requires time to figure-out just what needs fixing and altering sometimes.  A walk in the countryside or to the shops, the bike to work, silent contemplation at home, or even waiting for a bus can provide the time necessary to set things straight.

The modern world is full of distractions, but it appears as if Korea has become the masters at providing it.  Their high-tech, hard-working culture has brought the people prosperity, but it has also brought them misery in the form of the highest suicide rates and unhappiness in the young.  In the land of distraction, many people do not think about and confront problems, they appear to distract themselves from them (perhaps this is also a factor in the love of computer games).  Without time for a bit of self-reflection, things aren't going to get happier any time soon.

"An unexamined life is not worth living" - Socrates

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Necessity of Lying in Korea

Picture by  Stepher Uhlmann (

One of my favourite writers and speakers currently is the neuro-scientist and philosopher Sam Harris.  In his most recent book, "Lying", he sets-out his case that the world, and indeed our individual lives, would be much better if we dispensed with the fibs and were just honest in almost every situation.  He gives some examples of when lying might be necessary, but they mainly involve situations that could result in violence and therefore lying then becomes a means of self-defense (I will let you imagine some scenarios).

I personally agree with him, we would undoubtedly be better-off if we could all be more honest with each other.  However, I have noticed how difficult it is to meet his suggested challenge of consciously making a point not to lie (even the tiny ones) for a whole week - to see how often we might do it - while living in Korea.

In a society with Confucian values, elders are to be respected at all costs and I do think this puts extra pressure on the ability to be honest; sometimes honesty actually feels disrespectful and when the clashing values of two different cultures go at each other head-on this can cause some significant difficulties which may necessitate lying.  Even without cultural differences Koreans appear to lie to each other surprisingly regularly, especially when it comes to their family, which has shocked me a little.  Since day one, I have always disliked respect culture because of this necessity to lie.  It is not a measure of true respect that one needs to lie to people and especially family, I think it shows the opposite and the behaviour is more motivated by social pressure and fear.  In this confusion between fear and respect, South Korean culture makes the same mistake as the regime in North Korea.

The times I am regularly tempted to dish-out a few porky pies occur in two situations in Korea, at work and with my wife's family and I am going to give a few examples of dilemmas that have cropped-up from time to time.

When it comes to my in-laws, my wife tends to do the lying for me, partly because I am exquisitely uncomfortable with it and also because my Korean is not quite up to it.  One, rather massive fib we told my in-laws occurred a couple of years ago during my winter vacation from work.  There was only a small window my school allowed me to get away for a few weeks and I was thinking about a trip to Indonesia.  The only time I could get away, however, clashed with the Korean New Year holiday (Seollal).  My wife told me that her parents would never allow me go away at this time and that I should be with the family; my response was to say, "Well, I am not asking them, I will go if I want to, period."  Knowing that this would be a problem (my poor wife is often stuck in the middle in cultural problems such as this), my wife told her parents that I was going home to visit my family in England.  With the tensions that are often experienced and expected between the parents of married couples in Korea and the importance of family, they would not disapprove of this. 

To me, this seemed a bit immoral, I would have rather stood-up to them, apologised, and ultimately tried to explain how important travel and new experiences were to me and my freedom to make my own choices.  On good authority, however, I have been told many times that such a show of honesty would have been a big mistake if I valued my marriage.

These sorts of situations occur quite a lot; I have often got last minute requests to join my parents in-law for drinks with their friends - on a couple of occasions just as I was preparing to go to bed.  I simply refuse, which gives my wife headaches, but again she lies and says I am sick or I have an English class with someone or some other work to do.  I have to say, I have become more comfortable with doing this as time goes by.

Of course one of the tricky things with all this lying is the potential to slip-up at a later date because you have to remember all the lies you've told (as Sam Harris mentions in his book).  Even this aspect of lying is something I find completely different in Korea to living in England.  I find in England, people really are more interested in the truth, and especially parents, but in Korea not so much.  I believe the showing of respect holds greater importance.  This all means I rarely, if ever, get tested on the lies my wife and I have told.  In the Indonesian example, I visited there in January and February and came back with a markedly different skin tone, with tan lines where I had worn sunglasses.  Now, it could be that my in-laws were just ignorant of English weather in January and February, but they never remarked on this rather telling sign.

"He who is not sure of his memory should not undertake the trade of lying" - Montaigne

In fact, they never test me or my wife, ever.  I suspect they know, at least sometimes, when my wife lies to them to avoid conflict in such cases, but I am convinced that they don't really care.  The above quote is simply not relevant to me.  Goldfish can get away with lying in most situations in South Korea.

When it comes to my job, I have also had circumstances where being honest has become incredibly difficult.  Duty and being part of the group are very important factors in Korean culture and this holds particular relevance at work.  One of my personal bug-bears with Korean culture is the forced participation and enjoyment of workplace functions and activities.  I think it is particularly troublesome for women, but I have found it rubs me up the wrong way also.  Obligatory attendance at staff dinners and outings (and the forced drinking that results) are things that I am sure many Koreans hate about their culture, especially as they have to pay for them.  On paper they are not mandatory, but everyone knows the consequences for not joining in, which include ostracism at work, a generally harder time at work, and even bullying and the loss of a job or promotion opportunities.  The whole thing is one huge mess of dishonesty; younger, lower-ranked workers never want to participate, yet say they do and all the older, higher-ranked workers know the younger ones don't want to join them, but make them do it anyway.  They are lies the culture necessitates and that everyone accepts.

A special case of this occurred with me at around the time leading-up to my school's yearly festival, often quite a big deal in Korea.  It was the time of Gangnam Style's height of popularity and so it was decided that some of the younger teachers would do a Gangnam Style dance routine as a performance.  Most of the younger Korean teachers had been practicing for about 3 weeks before I was finally asked if I wanted to join in.  After replying that it wasn't really my cup of tea in as polite a manner as I could, several times, I was cajoled into going to a practice session.  The reality of it was they were demanding that I'd be in the centre of the performance and practice "diligently" (as they like to say) outside of my school hours to get up to speed with the rest of them.  The routine was also devilishly complicated for a slightly reserved Englishman with two left feet.  On top of it all, I had really grown a special hatred for that song because of the Korean obsession with it at the time and the amount it had been played.

Needless to say then, I refused to join in with the rest of them and no matter how many times I said this, "no" was simply not an answer they were willing to accept.  I was beginning to think I should have lied, like I had a bad knee or something, I think I would have only needed to say this once and then they would've eased-off and I would have heard nothing more about it.  Instead, though, I was hounded and told in the end that it was my obligation to do it.  With my heckles raised at this point, I tried very hard not to get angry and calmly disagreed.  I eventually had to sneak out of the school when they were not looking to get out of one more practice session, which they were going to physically drag me into doing.  I actually had to craftily tip-toe my way out of the door, can you believe it, no honesty was going to get me out of this mess.

The result of this was the cold shoulder treatment for a month or so and the implicit suggestion that they might not renew my contract for the next year.  If I had lied, my life would have been a hell of a lot easier and they would have liked me more.

On a smaller and more regular scale, one of the teachers I truly like at my school often takes me out for lunch every week.  While I appreciate this, I become a little uncomfortable because he always pays and I am saving for emigrating to Australia, so I cannot return the favour.  He is still happy to pay, but I really feel as though I am in his debt.  I also really enjoy the lunches at my school and this doesn't eat-up my entire lunchtime, like it does when I go out for lunch with him.  I wish we could just have lunch together in the school canteen.  In Korean culture, though, I just don't think being honest with him is feasible without causing a fair bit of offence.  At the time of writing, I just refused the offer of a biscuit from the admin lady in my office and her reaction was as if I had just ran over her dog or something, she looked genuinely upset.  I should have lied about wanting the biscuit and just hid it under some papers on my desk if I didn't want to eat it.

I'm not saying I never lie or that I am perfect, but I do try and live my life as honestly as I possibly can and I can remember past lies that came back to bite me when I was found out.  Having to remember all one's untruths is also a hassle I could really do without.  Along with the practical reasons for not lying, I feel a pang of guilt surging through me that makes me extremely uncomfortable when I do lie, so I still don't do it very much, even in Korea.  I do often let others do the lying for me though in Korea, and this is especially relevant with my wife and her parents.

In Western society too, being honest can hurt you, and I think Sam Harris brought-up the examples of people who exaggerate their CVs (resumes) having an advantage in employment over those who are honest and write a true CV.  However, I strongly feel that honesty is far more valued in Western countries, and if you are discovered to be lying this is deplored far more than in Korea at least, and possibly Far Eastern culture generally.  I also think people in Western countries are more interested in exposing liars and this holds especially true for parents and their children.

With this in mind then, while I agree whole-heartedly with Sam Harris about an honest world being a better one and a honest life being better for the individual, I must say that I think it depends.

I think Korean society would certainly be a better one if people lied less, just like Western society would be, but for the individual I am left scratching my head a little as to the best answer.  When it comes to our everyday lives, I think it is much easier to be honest in Western culture and that the fruits of the labour of being honest can be enjoyed fairly swiftly.  In a respect-based culture like Korea, on the other hand, I am more sceptical; honesty in this culture can cause real problems, not just in getting ahead in matters to do with work, but also in relationships generally.  For the benefits of not lying to show themselves to the individual, the whole culture would have to change, but I don't think this is the case in the West.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Should Race and Culture be Off-Limits in Comedy?

Image by Gage Skidmore
Image by Gage Skidmore
Having lived in Korea for nearly 5 years now (and married into a Korean family for over 3 years), the way Korea and Asia as a whole is portrayed in Western media and the entertainment industry and the reaction to this portrayal has been something that has interested me quite a bit. I can remember the kind of picture that was painted for me before I lived in Korea and now I can actually analyse whether there is any truth and fairness to how they do it. However, as to whether some of the material put out there is offensive and wrong - and if so how we should deal with it - well that appears to be a matter of some debate.

The entertainment industry is an area where the subject of racism towards Asian people comes up frequently in the field of comedy. Let's first focus on Seth Macfarlane, who has come in for a fair bit of criticism recently for some of the scenes he promoted for his new sitcom "Dads" - weeks before the pilot even aired - because of its use of some Asian stereotypes as a subject for humour. Many have also argued that the show that made him famous, Family Guy, also has gone too far and stepped over the line (numerous times) into racism, not just of Asians but other races too.

Huff Post Debate
Dads on CNN

A couple of other examples also became prominent recently on Jimmy Kimmel and on the Dutch version of X-Factor when a Chinese man auditioned.  Both are neatly summed-up in this article in the Atlantic.

I actually agree with the conclusion in the piece in the Atlantic that anti-Chinese (and even Asian generally) racism is a greater problem than many people realise in the West.  As I wrote in a post on my own site a couple of weeks ago, I myself was shocked at how people in my own country treated my wife when I lived there for a year with her.  There is a big taboo on criticising or making fun of race and culture in the UK, but it doesn't seem to be helping much in alleviating people's ignorance on the matter and making Western countries free of prejudice.  I do believe the taboo on race and culture has reached the limit of its effectiveness and it is time for some honesty and open dialogue.

Jimmy Kimmel and the Dutch judge on X-Factor appear to be pretty cut and dry examples of attempted comedy that is not funny and that stepped over a line.  With the Dutch judge it is easy to see why he was wrong, he simply discriminated against another human being, treated him differently, made a joke of him as an individual in front of the audience, and made him and everyone else feel mightily uncomfortable as a result.  With Jimmy Kimmel, the joke was bad taste, but the fact that such a nasty thing was uttered from the mouth of a child also probably helped push the joke into being something wholly distasteful.

When it comes to comedy generally, however, I do see a great many issues and it is not clear to me how best to handle things and where to draw lines, if that's indeed what we need to do.

Being Offended by Possibly Racist (in fact any) Jokes is Almost Always Counter-Productive

The minute people become offended by something, when it is presented as comedy, they run the risk - 90 times out of 100 - of only benefiting those they are upset with. If you are the member of any sports team, you may learn to pick this up quite quickly. The producers of "Dads" played the game perfectly; they got their exposure on the news and had people talking about the new show. When the show actually aired its first episode the probability is that more people tuned-in. Of course, they ran a fine line between notoriety and a ban, but if they had agreed this plan of action to their broadcaster beforehand, there was very little risk of that actually happening.

The other reason becoming offended works in the comedian's favour is that the jokes they make only end up being funny precisely because of the potential offence they might cause. If it could be plotted on a graph, one would see a steady upward curve showing a correlation between a joke's potential hilarity and its level of offensiveness, perhaps until you hit a subject that truly isn't worthy of humour and then the line will become a sudden precipice, the Holocaust for example, although even that is not completely untouched territory. Even AIDS in Africa can be manipulated by comedians to get laughs. Now I am not supporting these kinds of jokes (especially the AIDS one!), but the reality is that if a bunch of people get offended by them, it is more than likely a comedian has done nothing more than forwarded their career.

The sad fact for those who wish to rid the world of racist, culturalist, sexist, ageist, or in fact any bad taste humour, is that there is nothing less funny than political correctness and taboo and nothing funnier than breaking it. Offence simply feeds the desire to produce more of it and if you go down the road of constantly banning and monitoring everything, we end up living in a world lacking freedom of expression, controversy, one that is devoid of a sense of humour, and the ability of people to grow their own thicker skins and defend themselves (this is arguably already happening in the West). A good way to combat it is to confront stereotypes head on and expose them, and it turns out that comedians are often some of the best qualified to do this too.

Another way to kill a subject fit for humour is to make it commonplace, dull, uncontroversial, and tired. To do this, those on the receiving end must brush it off. It sounds a pretty insensitive thing to say in this day and age when we all worry about not offending each other and just getting along, and when some people are more vulnerable than others, but it is simply being pragmatic. Offence is like a defibrillator to a flat-lining joke that brings it back to life again and again.

Many a True Word is said in Jest

Trawl through some clips of Family Guy on youtube, for example, and one can find a large number of little sketches on Asian stereotypes. Here are a few examples:

How God Made Asians
Asian Woman Driver
Asian in-laws
Asian Santa
Asian Family
Asians are Good at Maths
Japanese Girls Laughing
Chinese Dry Cleaners

On all of the above clips I think I can safely say I have known many Asian people born in the UK who are nothing like this and indeed many Koreans who are not like this, but the reason they are quite funny is that I have also known a considerable amount of Asian people during my travels that have fitted each of these stereotypes rather perfectly, far more so than people of a Western background. They are generalisations about behaviour, but they are - it must be said - quite accurate when it comes to identifying patterns of behaviour in at least some Asian people, especially those who were not brought-up in a Western country, let's be honest.

What I would really love to see is a comedy program created in a non-Western part of the world that has similar themed gags about Westerners, especially White people. Perhaps I could even suggest a bit of material for them; licentiousness (especially when drinking), being over-weight, arrogance, dumb kids, reality TV shows, clinging to the past (UK in particular), bad dancers, slow runners, lazy workers, ruining beautiful parts of the world, etc. What most of these categories and the Family Guy videos on Asian stereotypes show is that the vast majority of these jokes are not about race at all, they are about culture. Asian, Black, or White racial characteristics just make people more identifiable as belonging to a certain cultural heritage. Here are a couple of specifically White racial/cultural jokes from Family Guy, but you can also find plenty of jokes based on stereotypes of other Western countries and a great many about my own:

White Guys in a Race
White Guys Scared of Other Races
The British

Besides, much of the comedy that revolves around using stereotypes these days makes fun of the people who really believe they reflect the behaviour of everyone in a particular group and use it as a means to discriminate, as much if not more so than the group they seem to be mocking.

Western Culture Rebels against Censorship, Thrives on Disobedience, and Enjoys Disrespecting People Who Want to be Respected (at least in principle)

Of course, there is the historical and power dynamic at work here, which makes the whole situation so volatile and it should not be over-looked. Non-Whites will argue that the history of the world makes it a fair bit easier for White people to take a joke about either their race or cultural heritage and there is no doubt this is true. The scales are not balanced, it is simply not fair. The problem is that the world is not fair; how are we to balance the scales? Have an age where Black and Asian people enslave, impoverish, and belittle White people? Would this then make it fair on both sides, so we can start afresh and not worry about joking around with each other? This is not how the world works and not how it moves forward and I realise this is all very easy to say as a White guy, but you can't get around it.

It probably is true that many people from Western countries (again especially if they are White) have a slight superiority complex, particularly when it comes to non-Western cultures, so how can people of other cultures and races get past all of that? Complain to a culture that values freedom of speech and disobedience to authority that, "You can't say that", "It is not fair", "That's not funny", or "We demand you stop and be more respectful." It sounds horrible to say, but this is just not realistic when it comes to comedy. Such things will only fuel the flames and are like a red rag to a bull for many. The ironic thing is that most of the calls for censorship of sensitive material regularly come from Western far-left liberals on the other culture's behalf and it doesn't realise that it simply encourages it even further. Like a vicious circle, the more offended they get, the more they have to be offended about and the more other cultures become the butt of jokes.

Some of the Reasons for Making Fun of Others are Down to Insecurity

This is following the same line of argument as the people who make fun of and bully gay people being the most likely to be closet homosexuals. Unfortunately, race is still an issue for people in the world and culture also, so with this in mind the rise of the East may have unsettled more than a few Westerners and perhaps especially Americans, who have held the honor of belonging to the richest and most powerful nation for a while now (I have certainly noticed more Asian-dissing comedy in the US than the UK). When joking around goes too far or when racial or cultural comedy is taken too seriously, we can often expose jealousies, fears, and insecurities, which are present in many people with regard to Asians and Asian countries. A realisation that this is indeed the case in Asian communities may well help them soften the blows, provide piece of mind and indeed aid them in fighting back.

Try not to be Too Serious or Over-React

Personally, I was a little shocked at the recent reaction to a group of young people dressing-up as the Asiana pilots at Halloween. The article I have linked was so pathetic that it almost served as comedy itself, especially as the writer obviously couldn't see the irony in his little flow diagram at the end. I don't think there was really any harm in wearing what they did, but I am pretty damn sure it didn't deserve the attention and general vitriol that it got either.  In a more recent example, Katy Perry's embarrassing, but harmless performance at the American Music Awards garnered a similar reaction and calls of racism, culturalism or at least disrespect.  Both serve to show-up what is an over-sensitivity towards issues of race and culture.  This over-exaggerated response of outrage clouds minds to more serious issues caused by a shocking level of ignorance among many people.  I believe this is because of lack of dialogue about the problem of racism down to political correctness and social taboos.

When it comes to comedy at least, making fun of others is pretty much the norm, it isn't going to go away and if you really think about what makes you laugh on a day to day basis, no one should wish it to disappear. All one needs do is acknowledge it as comedy and not fact and therefore treat everyone you come across as a separate individual, without prejudice. The argument is, however, that allowing such comedy just reinforces people's stereotypes of others. What the factors above tell us though, is that getting angry and trying to ban a brand humour merely is the best way of perpetuating it, promoting it, encouraging it, making it a lot more interesting and funny, and stops people from having serious debates about it and learning from it.

"A joke is not a joke unless it is at the expense of someone else." - Unknown

For comedy to be effective, one need only pick up on patterns of behaviour in others, and generalisations of this kind can offend, but I think we are all going to have to live with it and at the end of the day.

There is however, a time and a place for the more edgy and possibly offensive kinds of comedy.  Racial or cultural jokes have no place on the news for example.  More responsibility and care must be taken and I do seriously wonder sometimes whether Western news media are doing a good enough job in this department, let alone other TV programs that are meant to be more family orientated like X-Factor, but we will leave that for another day.  When you tune in to a show like Family Guy, you should expect that some of the material is going to be offensive to some people, when you go to watch a stand-up comedian like Ricky Gervais, Billy Connolly, or Jimmy Carr you should expect the same (sorry, I don't know many stand-up comedians of other nationalities).

To sum things up then, I think I am going to pull a quote from a previous post on stereotypes:

"I have always thought of humour as a key ingredient to getting along with anyone and I think this also applies between groups. When we can make fun of and laugh at each other, without worrying too much about offending each other, this is often a show of acceptance, respect, and generally liking someone and being friendly. In fact, jokes at other's expense are often a test and an invitation to join the group and to test the water as to whether we can trust the other person, especially in men."
There will of course be examples of jokes that are genuinely insulting and done for the purpose of maintaining power or just simply being nasty.  Sometimes outrage is necessary, but we don't need many of the over-blown reactions common in Western culture at the moment in matters of comedy and entertainment.  It does us no favours in ridding the world of prejudice.  Putting social pressure on controversial statements or words in the form of social taboos had an effect, it reduced prejudice and discrimination and raised consciousness, but now it is time to move on and be able to talk openly and honestly about race and culture to take equality and friendship between our fellow human beings to the next level.  Comedy often thrives on blunt honesty and could be the best way to set us on the path to a better relationship between the races and cultures.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Anti-Education and My 50% Success Rate at Answering Korean English Exam Questions

So, I am an Englishman flown in to South Korea to help educate their young in English.  In my school my level of English is obviously unmatched (I am English after-all) so why is it I am so bad at answering English exam questions in Korea?

Perhaps I only ever get asked about the tricky questions, or maybe I am just a dumbass, but it turns out that I am right about 50% of the time in my estimation.  In many ways it is embarrassing, why can't a reasonably well educated native English speaker, from England, who has spoken, read, listened and wrote in English all his life, answer questions correctly in a country where the overall level of English is poor (this is not a criticism, just simply that English is not their first language)?

You can get an idea of the type of questions that come-up in the college entrance exam (the big one) here at Ask a Korean.  They are not easy.

Personally, I was intrigued by a couple of things recently.  I have just finished correcting about 40 essays for our innugral and now annual school English newspaper.  The vast majority of them are sound efforts indeed - much better than I could do in Korean - however, they are riddled with mistakes as you might expect.  Sometimes it becomes very frustrating to check because the meaning is so difficult to grasp without actually going through the essay with the student who wrote it.

One of the few teachers in my school I have the ability to be honest and candid with, asked me to check one such essay the other week.  After a while of struggling through it, she asked me what I thought; I said it was fairly similar to all the others I had checked.  In reply, she said that the original piece was by a student at our school, but which had almost totally been re-written by her brother, who has just finished high school.  I replied that it was still difficult to understand and she remarked that her brother just received a perfect score in his English college entrance exam.  Shocked, I asked her honestly how this was possible and her reply was that the exam is all about reading and listening and not speaking and writing.  I guess we all knew this, but it really did bring home just how messed-up the system of learning English in Korea really is.  The kid got a perfect score in the biggest exam in the country at English, yet his essay was all over the place and was not what you'd expect from someone who just aced a very difficult English exam.

One of my perennial gripes with education in all countries is teaching to the test and in Korea they have perhaps hit the pinnacle of "excellence" in this regard.  Tests are not completely useless and I suspect in subjects like mathematics and mainly theoretical subjects, they are valuable as tools, not only for assessment, but for motivation a well.  In regard to English, though, I can't imagine a worse thing to be doing.

My colleague's brother had been taught for years and years and spent countless hours studying to pass a Korean English test and not to how to use and communicate in that language.  The tests and the education system that surround them are to get into universities, period, they serve no other purpose.  In terms of communication, every student in Korea would be better off spending 3-6 months in an English speaking country learning English, rather than 14 years in a Korean classroom.  I really do believe this, I'm not over-stating things, and I can't help but think that this waste of time is almost immoral.

I will give an example of a question passed to me the other day by another English teacher at my school.  Answer the following question by giving the correct response:

A: Can you tell me why you were so upset?
B: ___________________________________________________

1. I got some money for good grades.
2. I got the book I wanted for my birthday.
3. I'm angry because my brother broke my MP3 player.
4. I feel happy because I won first prize in the contest.
5. I couldn't sleep enough because I had to prepare for an exam.

Got it?

Actually, this is an example of quite an easy question; it can only really be two answers 3 or 5 and 3 is in the wrong tense, so it must be 5.  On first attempt, however, I slipped-up here.  Again, maybe I was just being a dumbass, but I think it part of the reason is because of a profound difference in the way Koreans see the English language and how English speakers see the language.  English speakers are communicating in English and therefore I think the relation between upset and angry is far stronger than upset and tired.  Everyday English conversation teachers all over Korea receive responses from students to verbal questions like this; i.e. that are perfectly understandable but have errors of grammar, like answer 3, and I personally grasp what Koreans are trying to say to me, even though they make simple tense errors like this.  My wife's English was not perfect in the same sense when I first met her and for quite a while after, but she was an excellent communicator and easy to understand.

The amazing thing is that probably 95% of my high school students would not be able to even give the incorrect response that's understandable, let alone give a spoken response with perfect grammar.  Only about 5% can achieve a speaking or writing ability good enough to get their thoughts across in any meaningful way, but I bet the majority of students answered the above question correctly. 

I have the sneaking suspicion that if I took the college entrance exam, I would not get a perfect score and probably would not even be in the top 10% of students.  I would love to see an experiment done on foreign teachers in Korea to this effect, I think it could be very revealing.

The ignoring of the spoken and written aspects of the English language in Korean exams is a telling one because it is speaking and writing that are the creative and interactive elements.  I think that creativity and interaction are things that Korean culture as a whole are exquisitely uncomfortable with, especially in a classroom situation.  Creativity involves individuality and interaction may involve disagreement and possible embarrassment, especially when another language is being used.  Korean culture has always appeared to me somewhat ill at ease with the concepts of individuality, disagreement, and embarrassment and many Koreans strain to avoid all three over and above what obviously occurs in Western culture also, but in smaller doses (mainly in disagreement and embarrassment).  Korean students are comfortable sitting quietly and passively in class with their heads in their books and listening to their elders/teachers bark instructions and information at them.  Korean teachers and parents are also very cozy and content with this situation.

The fact that the Korean education system doesn't confront the clear issues in its culture and education of the young regarding these factors is a local symptom of what education has become world-wide.  What is driving it are the ideas of conformity, tolerance, the fear of failure, meeting targets, societal values, and saving face.  I would argue this is not education but anti-education.  If you only ever do things that are inside your comfort zone, how can you ever truly grow?  It's like going to the gym and never increasing the weights you lift, the reps you do or the time and resistance on the bike, rowing or running machine.

What I see all over the world is the teaching of youngsters to conform to other's wishes and views (not necessarily always bad), to be concerned about the idea of free expression in favour of tolerance and to have a fear of failure that is reinforced by never taking students out of their comfort zones and by continuous testing.

What is knowledge of a language good for if it is not to communicate with it?  Korean education is so caught-up in understanding all the little nuances and academia with it as well as saving face by not speaking it, it ignores the whole purpose.  I see the same thing in science education, which I trained in as a teacher, in England; everyone was so caught-up in teaching the facts and doing experiments with Bunsen burners that everyone ignored the whole point of science, to ask questions and to be in wonder and awe of the world around us.  I can't remember any wonder or awe from my school science classes when I was younger and there was no wonder, creativity or questions raised in my science classes when I taught either.  All that was required of me was to whizz through all the facts and the silly practical skills in the syllabus as quickly as I could to fit them into the school year and to make sure they missed nothing for their exams.  If I digressed to explore something in greater depths or answered questions that went off at interesting tangents from the class topic, I was chastised for it by the teachers that were "training me" to be a better teacher. 

This is anti-education, but it is what passes as education and it really elevates my blood pressure.

Apparently, Korea sits at number 2 behind Finland in countries with the best education systems.  I think really this is nonsense, the wording needs changing; Korea actually is number 2 in schooling, not education because if there was ever a land that matched the following quote from Mark Twain more closely, I haven't heard of it:

"Don't let your schooling interfere with your education" - Mark Twain

Sound advice, which people in all countries should take note of, especially Koreans.

Note: I think this post goes quite nicely with a great piece written by "the Boss" over at