Saturday, June 29, 2013

Are Westerners Living in Korea Developing a Persecution Complex?

It has struck me that, for quite a long time, I have noticed a sort of heightened sensitivity in the foreign community living in Korea to any form of discrimination they might receive while living there.

Let's first note that there is quite a lot of racism in Korea, there is a fair amount of prejudice against non-Koreans.  This is usually in the form of general ignorance, however, rather than malice.  There are, of course, exceptions to this rule just like there is in almost every country in the world. 

There is also a general, almost institutionalised racism present in Korea that is slightly different to what I have noticed in many Western countries.  In the West, the media, the government and most well-educated people realise that racism is wrong and do not promote it.  General, sober, conversation between people often also has a guarded feel when the subject has a racial element to it.  Any form of prejudice expressed can be jumped upon by the liberal crowd and quite rightly so.  I do think, however, that there is an undercurrent of disquiet and discrimination that is still present pretty much everywhere.  As with most people, if you want to know how they really think, throw a few beers into them - this seems to do the trick quite nicely in the UK with regard to exposing the racists.

In Korea, things are different.  Sometimes it does feel like some forms of discrimination are enshrined in law and general everyday routine and awareness has to be raised about it.  It is easy to understand how laws on HIV and drug testing and mainstream television programs singling out 'foreigners' as specific generators of violence, sexual crime, and immorality make people upset, for example.  This is not just some moron on the street shouting racial abuse because he is drunk or just plain stupid, it feels like voicing your disgust could actually do some good and is needed to break a kind of spell of prejudice over some of the population in Korea.

Because of all of this perhaps, there do seem to be signs of a persecution complex forming in the Western community that live in Korea and in those that have left and tell their stories when they get back home.  Many Korean people do discriminate against us sometimes and what is important to recognise is that this can be both good and bad for us.  Strangely, I have always found it is the times when Koreans do not discriminate at all which regularly upsets me the most and I think many Westerners living in Korea fail to notice this when they are genuinely advantaged by discrimination and when they are disadvantaged by just being treated like everyone else.  Many simply want to have their cake and eat it and this might not be possible, perhaps we have to take the rough with the smooth.

Maybe if you are generous and patient enough to look through some of the negative articles about Korea I have posted on this blog, it might not escape your notice that they are mainly concerning the effect some of the negative aspects of the culture have on Koreans themselves.  Women and young people, in particular, appear to be severely hampered by their duties to older people and petty jealousies and worries over status - so important in a culture with a traditionally Confucian society - make so many people's lives a misery here.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted an article about the shabby treatment of native English teachers.  In this post, I readily admitted that Korean and South East Asians have a much harder time at work than Westerners.  Native English teachers have pretty sweet contracts and are mostly protected from any monkey business from their employers, especially if they work in a public school.  I accept that there are many horror stories, however, (which I mentioned in the post) but I have heard far worse from the mouths of Koreans themselves and what is so troubling is that they often just seem to accept it as normal practice in the workplace.  The major problem for most foreign teachers is the lack of discrimination they receive at work, though, and not vice-versa.

The point I was trying to make is that schools in Korea cannot get around their responsibility to their foreign teachers.  Native English teachers are usually young, have traveled from a culture that is completely different, and normally don't speak Korean too well.  They need help.  The fact is, though, that many schools in Korea do this very begrudgingly in my experience,  Trying to have them do something for you, even minor requirements, is a bit like pulling teeth.  This is not down to discrimination, however, it is because they are treating you as a normal member of the group at work.  Actually, we tend to get better treatment than any normal young new employee.  Korean people new to a job often have the hardest time of all; they usually do the most work, run around for their superiors, and may even be bullied.  Most of the time Westerners are discriminated against, in that they aren't made to perform all the duties of a new employee.  Native English teachers should really be thankful for the discrimination they receive in their schools.

There are a great many situations where we Westerners search up our sleeves and play the 'Foreigner card' roughly translated to a 'get out of jail free card.'  This has saved my bacon or avoided a myriad of awkward situations time and time again.  If I was a young Korean man or especially a young woman, I would have had an almost limitless number of mind-blowing situations to sit through in the last 3 years or so.  My good fortune to be a foreigner who is discriminated against is not lost on me.  This does not mean that I avoid all difficult circumstances in Korea, but I do slink away from a good fair few.  Koreans themselves are not so lucky and this is what I mainly get rather upset about, particularly as this often includes my wife.  As well as my natural empathy for her as a husband, I also get a bit of an earache and headache at home when I have to hear about what members of her family or work colleagues have said to her or the trouble they have put her through, all because she is a woman and/or younger than them.

The unfortunate thing about Korea - which is shared all over the world, but with perhaps a more of an ingrained intensity in Korea - is that high status rules.  If you are old and a man, you can expect to be treated well; if you are young, a woman, or an outsider, you will not be considered so much or treated with very much care and attention and perhaps not trusted so much either.  The handy thing about being an outsider is that many older Koreans don't understand us and we can also plead ignorance.  The one thing against us non-Koreans is that we receive even less trust than low-status Koreans because of the fact they can't comprehend us.  People will always fear and distrust things that they don't understand.  Historical isolation, invasion, and colonisation have further fueled a natural distrust of the outsider in Korea.  This is obviously the source of the xenophobic, insecure, and defensive atmosphere that one can experience in Korea sometimes and maybe why many foreigners feel persecuted.

There is this sense, though, that some feelings of persecution are going too far.  Often, some foreigners get so down on Korea that it seems as though everything Korean people do and say to them is an example of prejudice, suspicion, or even hatred.  I do not believe this is at all the case, most of the time we are not receiving special unwanted treatment.  I have a grumble every morning when I cycle to work when I notice about 10 examples of dangerous or at least inconsiderate driving in 10 mintutes, but this is not directed at me because of my big nose and blonde hair, many Korean drivers are just indiscriminately terrible with regard to others while driving, whether it be pedestrians, cyclists or other motorists.  My non-Koreanness has absolutely nothing to do with it and I suspect this is the same for many other situations that rub a lot of us up the wrong way while living in Korea.

Korea is topsy-turvy land, I do believe it can be a very odd place to live and I think the evidence from many foreigner's complaints is that it can certainly be infuriating, especially to Western eyes.  There are many things I personally don't like accepting, I want to change them or at least try, yet at the same time acknowledge that I cannot do that much (I do not think it hurts to try, though, one should not be defeatist about everything).  I don't believe that any of it is down to a special malice or nastiness within Korean people, however, they are generally as nice and kind as anywhere else I have lived or visited and there are many joys and lessons to be learnt from them and living in Korea in general.  They can sometimes make me annoyed, even outraged, due to some of their attitudes that are mainly caused by a cultural difference, but I have to say that persecuted is not a sensation that I feel while living here.

There are examples of persecution sometimes for sure, but let's not go over-board, not every problem that afflicts us in Korea is down to discrimination, far from it.  In my experience at least, my biggest issue is when they treat me like just another Korean.  I want to be understood as an individual, not as part of the group, I require some special attention and special understanding because I am not like them and I am not like anyone else either.  Indeed Koreans are not all alike, they differ from one another and one of my major complaints with the culture in this part of the world is that too often people aren't treated as individuals.  The group ethic has some huge drawbacks because of this and I believe the foreign community identifies and feels this with a greater degree of sensitivity.  It could be that this is the root of many of our problems with Korea and not persecution or discrimination.  We want to be recognised as individuals but instead get lumped into groups, sometimes with the Koreans at work and sometimes the best of us are thrown in with the bad and the ugly, like when the inevitable odd  foreigner turns out to be a criminal and all of us are tarnished by them.

A natural tribalism exists everywhere; grouping people into, 'us and them', is something that almost everyone does to some extent, it is an incredibly hard urge to resist.  Treating people as individuals without prejudice is the way forward and maybe a group-centred culture makes this more difficult.  Being outraged about poor treatment certainly has a place, but foreigners in Korea should stand-up for everyone receiving it in Korea, not just themselves.  It is not, 'us against them', we are all in this together.

Friday, June 21, 2013

English Speaking Competitions: All Status and No Substance (and Certainly No Learning)

So what is getting my goat in Korea at the moment?  English speaking competitions.  These little contests seem to be cropping-up in many schools this month in my area, perhaps June is 'English Month'.

Now, I can only comment on the English speaking contests I have had the experience of knowing about, many are run in a different format and especially those run by foreign institutions and for those at high levels, but every one I know of in public schools in Korea is really not about speaking at all.  More specifically they are about writing essays in English, which the students then speak out loud to a set of judges.

Perhaps I am being pedantic, you think, it is still speaking and after-all it is their own work, right?  Well, very often, no it isn't their own work.  Let's start with the students in my own school and their "speaking" contest.

At the time of writing this, my school held this competition yesterday, and the process leading up to this left me with a number of curiousities into the purpose and the effectiveness of the whole project.  If you were going to set up a system of learning in a school that might actually garner negative results in student education and is totally illogical, you might want to copy the way many Korean schools are handling these events.  Here is my little list of the problems I see:

1. They hold an English speaking contest, but the best person in the school to judge the contest is not utilised to judge it, i.e., the foreign teacher.  I was, of course, quite happy not to be asked at it was out of my contract hours, but if there is one job a foreign teacher could do really well in Korea, it is judging students speaking levels.  Not even thinking about using them for this purpose is just plain weird.

2. It is labelled a speaking contest, but essentially it is a writing and reading contest.  Again, why not utilise the foreign teacher and have dialogues between students and the teacher?  I have never seen or heard of this in my province in Jeollanamdo, maybe this does happen elsewhere, anyone care to comment?

3. The written essays are checked by teachers.  In a classroom situation this would be fair enough and also after the contest, as students require feedback to improve, but how can you judge a student's English ability when all they have written has been corrected by an English teacher before the contest?  Surely, then you are just judging the merits of the essay itself, so why not just have it written in Korean?

4. The written essays are sometimes completely altered by teachers.  One student came to me this week and asked for me to check his work, which I did.  A day later he came back and asked me to check again because his Korean English teacher (this teacher is one of those that can't really speak the language at all well) had noticed some mistakes.  Actually, what he highlighted were not mistakes, just perhaps a few awkward sentences that I did not try and completely alter.  There were other parts where he suggested completely different sentences to be written (which were also grammatically incorrect).  I had only corrected grammatical errors and spelling, the Korean teacher was suggesting whole changes to the material to make it read better.  What is the point of this?  Whose work does it become?  I then had a slight argument with the student who didn't believe me when I said that his sentence was perfectly OK and he didn't need to change it.  He then asked another Korean English teacher for his opinion, still not trusting me.  I thought then and there that this would be the last time I corrected any student's work for a speaking contest; he was wasting my time, his time, and insulting my intelligence in the process.  Who would you trust to correct your English?  An Englishman or a Korean English teacher that can't speak English?  Apparently, a non-English speaking Korean is a better option.

In short, it is pretty obvious that I am hinting that speaking competitions (at least the ones I have been privy to) are a complete waste of time.  There are more issues, however, that go even deeper (and more annoying) that actually make some of these contests drive a kind of anti-education.  What I mean is that what teachers and parents are encouraging is not only a waste of time, it is teaching young people all the wrong things.

Checking students from your own school is bad enough, but when you get requests to correct work from people you barely know, or even don't know, my knickers really do get in a twist.  This tends to happen to me quite a lot.

My wife is a hagwon teacher at the moment, but even when she was a nurse - because of the fact people knew she was married to an Englishman - she would receive requests to check English essays and tests (or have me check them).  This month, not only has she been given lots of 'speaking' contest essays to check (and I have to help with them) from her hagwon student's parents, but she even had a woman that has seen her in the gym ask her to meet her for 30 minutes on a Saturday to translate her daughter's work.  This woman had never met my wife, just asked for her number from another member of the gym she goes to.  She even had the audacity to ask if she wouldn't talk to anyone about helping her and to keep it secret.  Needless to say, my wife did not meet her, but she e-mailed my wife her daughter's essay nonetheless, which was entirely in Korean, her daughter did not even attempt to write in English.

I know what you will all say, we should tell them where to go or just not reply, but those that aren't linked into Korean culture or aren't Korean cannot possibly know how damaging doing this can be.  If my wife refused to help a student at her hagwon she would risk losing her job as parents are quite happy to fiercely complain about almost anything to hagwon bosses, after-all there are plenty of other hagwons that can take their place.  Even the woman in the gym can make my wife's life difficult and word gets around in a small city fast about disrespectful, selfish, young women, don't you know.  I can refuse to help, I am a foreigner, it doesn't matter if they think I am acting selfishly, my wife on the other hand is Korean and Korean society can make life hell for those that don't do their duty for others, especially when they are the younger person.  Korea really is a gifts and favours culture; people are not afraid to ask for them and they are not afraid to abuse you to other people if you don't give them.

So, using the example of this rather cheeky woman who didn't know my wife but thought it appropriate to ask her to write an essay in English for her daughter anyway, what is the motivation and the effect of behaviour like this?  Here are some thoughts that immediately came to mind:

1. The girl was an Elementary school student, surely the teachers at her school would know that this was not her work.

2. The teachers at the school must be aware of this particular student's English work and level in class, so surely they must be able to figure out that this cannot be her work.

3. The purpose of an English contest must be to motivate students or assess the best students, neither is being done if people are seeking outside help and at worse not even bothering to try to write English themselves.

4. The mother is teaching her child to cheat, plain and simple.  Don't even try, just get someone to do your work for you and pass it off as your own.

5. Given that there are obviously a number of people entering Englsih contests from schools with perfectly composed English essays, does this mean that they all seek outside help?  Because, if they don't, their essays will look really dumb compared to the rest. 

6. Are the prize winners really just a product of wealthy parents who can pay for private tutors to help their children, audacious parents that don't mind asking strangers for favours, and/or lucky parents who know a native English speaker or a proficient Korean?

7. What are parents getting out of such endeavours?  My suspicion is the ability to proudly boast that their child won an English speaking contest.  In other words, parents put to the back of their minds whether their child is actually learning English as long as it appears that they are.  It serves as a bit of a status symbol for them and is a lesson for us all in the power of wishful thinking, delusion, deception, and denial.

8. What are the children getting out of such endeavours?  This is perhaps the most troubling aspect, all I can see is that this is:

a) A waste of time
b) A lesson that cheaters prosper
c) Deluding a child into thinking their ability is higher than it actually is
d) Teaching a child that cutting corners gains results
e) Teaching a child that winning is everything, no matter how you achieve it
f) It may even breed a strange arrogance in them

Are their any benefits at all?  There are not many, but I can invisage perhaps one and that is encouraging them to stand-up and read English out loud to people and the handling pressure that comes with it.  It could be that Korean children have enough pressure to deal with in their education already, however.

What Should be Done Instead

Firstly, if you are going hold a competition that is billed as an "English Speaking Contest" make it a speaking contest, not a reading and writing contest.  Schools can use their foreign teacher and/or a high level and confident Korean English teacher to have interactive dialogues with the students.  This would certainly sort out those with true English ability and "pretenders" need not apply.  It would be nearly impossible to blag and cheat your way through a situation like this.

I am fairly convinced that education worldwide is pretty poor at the moment, but the problems in Korea are more obvious than most and especially with regard to English education.  These contests show this clearly.  What could be more obvious than having proper speaking contests, like I mentioned?  Why is this not being done?  The answer is that Korean people have created a culture of their own around learning English.  English is learnt like history, as an almost endless stream of events to memorize, but in English's case, words and grammar.  It is not learnt to communicate, if a student wants that, then they have to sort that out for themselves because their school is not in the business of teaching English for this reason.  People fear to speak it and they fear embarrassment, it is just not a comfortable thing to do.  What is comfortable and safe is sitting at a desk and passively learning grammar rules and endless vocabulary.  One should also be worried about the culture of cheating and corruption that is occurring in this part of the world relating to education.  As grades become more and more important, so true learning becomes less and less meaningful.  The score is all that matters and cheating is one way to achieve it.

For Koreans to genuinely improve their English - indeed for anyone to improve at almost anything - they need to step out of their comfort zone.  For me personally, coming to Korea has been one of the greatest learning experiences of my life precisely because I am regularly taken outside my comfort zone, and this is especially true with regard to my wife's family.  All those awkward moments, the moral outrages that come with clashes of culture, and the frustrations add up to greater knowledge, understanding and wisdom in the end.  This is what education and learning should be all about, not memorising, cheating, show-boating, and denial in order to remain comfortable or to be respected.

Note: Maybe we should not stop students cheating in competitions and tests, we might have riots on the streets and in the schools!

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Privilege of Having Korean In-Laws

Having fairly conservative-minded Korean in-laws can be extremely frustrating, but I do sometimes forget the tremendous privilege it is to have a Korean side to my family.  It is an cultural experience every time I go and see them and gives me a great insight into a very traditional and rural Korean psyche.  On top of this, they really are genuine people and very kind to me.  I often feel very guilty about the amount of complaining I do.  Our differences cause a fair amount of problems, but their cause is nobody's fault, we just have ingrained cultural issues with one another that are not easily fixed.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited my in-laws at their house in rural Jeollanamdo at a place called Woldeung, about half an hours' drive from Suncheon and about an hour from Gwangju.  Woldeung is a small village famous for peaches and is pretty in spring when the peach blossom on the trees comes out in full bloom.  It had been about a month since I had previously visited them there and was amazed by the amount of hard work they had put into the place.  They had created a place to live and an atmosphere straight out of a textbook example of what you would expect rural Korean life to be.

They bought the house in the Winter, after having lived in modest accommodation in the city of Suncheon for the past few years.  Before moving into it, however, it needed extensive work done, indeed this was the plan as my father in-law is a builder.  Koreans have a reputation of putting in all the hours god sends and my father in-law was no exception when working on the house.  Between working for his building company, he would literally work the whole day and night fixing the house and often without eating.  In a couple of months, his usually thick-set look faded into a much slimmer looking older man.

The following pictures were taken in the winter, at this time my father in law had still done quite a lot of work on the place, it must have been a real mess before he started.

This final picture is of the old tradition-style Korean house they also have on their property.

In those few months over winter and early spring he made the place livable, but between May and June, my in-laws had really transformed the house into a home.  They had built an extension onto their main living area and completely renovated their old traditional-style Korean house also.  In the area where I had helped them shift a number of large rocks, they used them to create a terrace for pots of kimchi, bean paste, and chili paste.  The back garden, which was a desolate, unkempt, and rocky wasteland only a couple of months ago, had been converted into a highly productive vegetable garden where, they they were successfully growing pumpkins, cucumbers, tomatoes, hot and cool chilies, peppers, ginger, lettuce, watermelon, and many more.  When I showed-up on memorial day, my father in-law was watering them all in his very Korean-looking straw sun hat.  I was seriously impressed.

These are the most recent pictures, although there is still work that my father in-law is planning.  The pictures obviously look better because of the change of seasons but it is also down to a heck of a lot of work:

Last picture is of the living room and if you look close enough you can see me in the family picture taking pride of place in the centre of the room.  That picture was extremely daunting for me the first time I saw it in their old house.
After helping my father-law with collecting sand from a near-by pit to use for concrete on a later project, I was treated to lunch.  It was my birthday the following weekend, so they decided to treat me to lunch with some Korean food they knew I quite liked.  On the way to their place we picked-up some octopus and abalone, which they had already paid for.  Although being for many years a vegetarian, they know I am quite fond of seafood and proceeded to cook up a special lunch for me.  

If there is one thing I can do with regard to blending into Korean culture and making Korean people happy, I have found it is that I can quite happily devour all of the food they cook for me.  To be a vegetarian in Korea would be a significant disadvantage to me, as the joy on my in-law's (as well as other Koreans I know) faces when I eat their food is a sight to behold and most Koreans are not especially keen on the idea of not eating meat and seafood.

As an appetiser, my father in-law cut up the still very much alive octopus for some san nak-ji - for those of you that don't know this is octopus tentacles that aren't cooked and moving on the plate, served with seasame oil and salt (it's actually not bad).  After this, my father in-law continued to be chef, cooking-up a spicy and delicious mixture of chicken, octopus, abalone, and the vegetables they hand-picked from their garden in the morning.  I was being treated like a king and it was quite clear that they were quite happy in doing so, not only because it was my birthday, but because I had helped them a little and - most importantly, one feels - that their daughter and I were visiting them, full stop.

This may sound a weird or even slightly horrible thing to say, but this sheer unadulterated joy at seeing us is usually something that makes me exquisitely uncomfortable.  I usually don't feel like I have earned it and I can't possibly return the sentiment or convincingly 'fake it' that I feel the same way.  I am actually far more comfortable if I have spent half the day moving rocks, sand, or furniture for them because I have at least some feeling that I have deserved to be treated well.  On top of this, every time I plan to be at my in-laws for a few hours, it turns into a whole day marathon as their enthusiasm for seeing us makes them hold on to us for dear life for as long as they can.  This creates a vicious circle of me not wanting to go round there very often and in turn makes them hold on to my wife and I more once I actually go round there.

Still, the whole day was a total experience of Korean culture; wriggling octopus, a Korean old man wearing a big pointy straw sun hat, spicy food, kimchi pots, doting parents, a traditional Korean house, a sleepy Korean village, and fresh Korean home-grown produce.  Perhaps there are people who come to Korea and pay for the privilege of experiencing true Korean culture like this and never get anywhere near as close as what I live through on an almost weekly basis.  I complain, but I do at least have some understanding of how lucky I actually am to be able to experience it all.  I think it has had a great effect on me as a person and has given me an interesting perspective on life that many others could not have even imagined. 

If only I could express the genuine contrasting feelings I have about my in-laws to them.  The culture difference prevents me from doing this; on the one hand I have tremendous amounts of frustration and discomfort, whilst at the same time being truly humble and appreciative of all they have done for me, the care they show, and the experiences we have shared together. 

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Saturday, June 8, 2013

He's a White Westerner? He Can't Say That! - A Civilised Disagreement

This blog gets re-blogged on on another site ( and I had an interesting discussion with someone who commented on it.  I think the exchange was quite civilised and shows two fairly distinct points of view on the subject and thought it was worth highlighting in a blog post in its own right on this site.  This might make for a longer blog post than normal, but thought it was a good debate about some important issues that was without shouts of 'racist' or 'bigot' just because we didn't agree with each other's point of view.

Reply from Stan_hkg to my original post
Let's say you are walking, and you approach a group of a thousand people that aare walking the opposite direction. Would you expect that whole group to suddenly turn around and walk along with you in your direction? What would be required for such a group to change their behaviour?
Maybe all thousand of them would prefer to go in your direction, it is downhill and thus much easier than walking uphill. They agree with you, but instead of turning around, they keep walking uphill. Why, because that's just the way it is. In Korea you walk uphill, not downhill.
Let's say you start asking them questions. Isn't it easier to do it my way? Isn't it better? They will agree, but they keep walking uphill.
In other words, everyone will sometimes feel annoyed in another culture. Heck, I am the first to admit I sometimes feel annoyed by my own culture. But you can't expect society to change. All you can do is change yourself, try to feel less annoyed by things and focus on the positive.
Just my two cents. I'm not an Einstein either, but almost 6 years abroad have learned me not to focus n the annoyances anymore, and it is much better for my health.
South Korea Inside Out (Me)
Your example is benign and therefore does not really get to the point I made. I wasn't even complaining about the effect of the culture on me, but on vulnerable Koreans. 
Let's take a more extreme example, you are in Afghanistan and there have been a series of gruesome incidents involving men assaulting young girls for going to school. Is it ok to just sit back and do nothing, say nothing, try not to effect change? Let's say you work in the country, do you just get on with it or leave out of protest? Under your argument you would just sit back and ignore it because it doesn't effect you.

Even a less extreme example, sexual harassment and bullying at work. My wife received it at the hospital she worked at when she worked as a nurse. So she and I should just accept that sort of treatment? Does it not involve me at all? I would be ashamed to just accept such treatment of my wife without even voicing my opinion about it all. Why should it be any different with someone I don't know? Does not knowing someone mean that I shouldn't care about their possible suffering?

We should stand up for the vulnerable full stop. Ignoring our responsibilities for others just because we are in another culture is unacceptable. It is political correctness at its worst. Granted we can't do much, but voicing an opinion about it can't hurt can it?
I was replying to your post in general terms, not replying to bad thing that may have happened to you and/or your wife that were not mentioned in your post and which I do oppose.
All I am saying with my 'benign' and therefore 'not to the point' reply is that cultural things somtimes do not make sense and that things sometimes are just the way they are in a culture. Going against it is a mere waste of time. If you can't beat them, join them, and if you don't want to join them (for whatever reason) try to get out for your own sake. It goes for countries, clubs/groups, work, relationships etc..

Like someone replied to one of your other posts, "Living amongst the savges must be so tough"...
South Korea Inside Out
The examples I gave are examples of possible criticisms of culture, though, you cannot get away from that. If you oppose these examples, then you agree with me in principle, that we should stand up against certain aspects of another culture and criticise them. Besides, all manner of things might come back to bite you, whether you are concerned with them now or not. You live in South Korea, are you not against their driving culture? Can't beat em, join em? You really think it is OK how they drive? What if you or a friend of yours is run down by a careless Korean driver one day? (Korea has the highest pedestrian death rate in the OECD) Caring about these issues and bringing them to light is in your own self-interest, in almost all cases. You might not change anything, but highlighting problems to as many people as possible is at least the first step to change.

As for this comment, "Living with the savages must be so tough". What a completely hypocritical statement. It is those that don't care about people just because they are form another culture who should be accused of thinking of others as "savages". My wife is Korean, some of my family are Korean, my students are Korean and, shoot me, I care about them and other Koreans I don't even know. That is why I get animated by aspects of Korean culture that causes them suffering. Koreans are people, simple, I try and get as upset about things that cause problems in British culture, I don't discriminate.

I am interested, do you care about issues within your own culture? Do you care about people in your own country? Why should your attitude change because you live in a different one?

You sound like you just want to avoid any controversy or conflict, what a shame, as I think people learn so much from both. I find the conflict of interests between myself and Korean culture most often highly interesting and enlightening, it is not a source of great unhappiness in my life, indeed it is quite intellectually stimulating and life enriching.
"I am interested, do you care about issues within your own culture? Do you care about people in your own country? Why should your attitude change because you live in a different one?"
As a matter of fact, yes I do care. And a lot of the issues that we have in The Netherlands (I'm Dutch) originate from people not accepting different cultures. Dutch are being raised to believe they are tolerant (gay marriage, legalized prostitution, legalized soft drugs). We are so tolerant, but yet we complain about immigrants not integrating in our culture. My root cause analysis is that people in the Netherlands believe they are so tolerant, that being a little less tolerant is still morally acceptable and way above average. However, maybe the Dutch are not that tolerant and being less tolerant results in being a bit racist?
Although I am not in Korea, my wife is Korean, I speak the language, I often visit, yet I live in Hong Kong. I have experienced my own rejection of Chinese culture, I have seen my wifes rejection of the Chinese culture and of Korean culture as well when she realized that so many things are easier in Western families. I have learned to recognize the rejection process, something we all go through when moving abroad.
The culture won't change, we will have to adapt (walk uphill). Korea, nor China nor Hong Kong, will change for us. No matter how right we are and how rich the experiences we have are. We can only walk uphill with them, and learn the strenghts of their culture, be proud with them, and then utilize these to create grounds for our thoughts. You may be right with every letter you write and every word you speak, but being right doesnt bring you anywhere. Only if people agree you are right they will walk along with you, though they might come with different solutions for problems or not solve certain problems at all and let it linger.

Every person, every nation has its own proud of past successes and cultural heritage (proudness is something you must have noticed in the Koreans) and only if we acknowledge these, people will be invited to learn about us and from us as well.

Finally, I love statistics but so often they do not reflect true situations. Sure, I have seen some crazy driving in Korea, but it is much better than in many surrounding countries. The fact there is more pedestrians dying in Korea than in any other OECD country does not bring us directly to the root cause of the problem. Is it bad driving behaviour, or does the infrastructure of small back streets/alleys (골목길's) play a role, or the drinking behaviour of the Koreans. I frankly don't know, but knowing the real root cause can make a frameshift in the perception of it.
South Korea Inside Out
Needless to say, I think you are so wrong on this point, but I am enjoying the dialogue.

Of course we should accept other cultures, there isn't only one way of doing things and the world is richer for it. However, some ways of doing things aren't benign and can cause major problems, not just for the culture in question but for the planet as a whole. It would be lovely to think that if we just let every culture go about their business and leave them be, that the world would be a happier place. I think this is a little naive, especially in a globalised world when so many of our actions are interconnected. The problems of ways of thinking and acting in other cultures (including our own) will come to your doorstep anyway, there is no avoiding them. Honest dialogue has to prevail.
My point wasn't that you don't care, but that you surely do care about the welfare of your fellow countrymen. Your point about your own country's intolerance points to the fact you would want to change things within your own country to avoid the unnecessary suffering of others. My point is, have those feelings and extend it to others regardless of where they are from or where you currently reside.

As far as your own country goes and much of Western Europe as a whole, I think there are legitimate concerns about immigrants not integrating into our societies. By immigrants, I think you and I know what group in particular we mean and that is Muslims. I agree that there are racists that pigeon hole all Muslims as radicalised nutters, but there are a great deal of valid problems brought by an influx of Muslims into Europe. I won't go into them all here but I will give an example of how problems will come to your doorstep. Violent protests in the streets, death threats, and the burning of Danish embassies. Why? Because the Danish government weren't prepared to change their own country's laws on the censorship of the free press, i.e. drawing cartoons of Mohammed. One culture is for freedom of expression the other is not. One side is wrong and it is important to win the battle against them or would you like Sharia law in your country of birth? We can't avoid this battle if we want to maintain our own cultural values, it is as simple as that. The issue of freedom of speech is an ongoing battle with many supporters of Islam.

When it comes to Far Eastern culture, we can and should pressurise cultural norms with better ideas and it does bring success. Japanese whaling, for example, has come under significant international pressure and although it hasn't stopped completely it has been markedly reduced and the Japanese people themselves are growing in their lack of support for it. There are so many other examples I could give, but one more from my own country. The UK has got some serious issues with drinking and violence. We export this to other countries in Europe and in Asia when we go on holiday or when we watch football matches. I have also been to your fair country and seen them causing trouble on the streets of Amsterdam. Because of this your country is in the process of changing its laws of tourists using marijuana legally in bars to try and reduce the influx of people coming to Amsterdam for specifically that reason. My own culture needs to take and accept some criticism for their thuggish attitude to drink and having 'fun' on nights out. We can do this and still accept the kind praise for all our historical and cultural achievements (I have praised Korean historical and cultural achievements many times on my blog).

Finally, I wonder if you genuinely believe driving is acceptable in Korea. Sure it is better than some other countries but not with similar economic means. The death rate is the worst in the OECD and if you wanna chalk that up to the back streets and drinking behaviour then fine, but that still does not change my point that Korea could do with improving its driving culture does it? Pointing this out is the first step to greater research into the problem, changing the culture and reducing road deaths.


I will start with the last point. I am not saying traffic in Korea is great, my whole point is that as long as I don't understand the root cause of the high traffic deaths, and I may not, any claim on the 'why' of these metrics would be a mere assumption. Korean society may not be as open as Western societies and thus I wouldn't even know if the government is having attention for it or not. I'd be interested to learn.
Ever seen a sign in Korea that says "고래 고기"? Thats where they sell whale meat in Korea. I have seen it on the fresh market in Busan as well. But not only Japan and Korea are catching whales, Iceland and Norway are too. And yes, even Alaska (US) allows whaling. Just like fishing, there is quota and rules and they should be respected by individual countries. Imagine if India would suddenly impose a ban on eating cow meat on the rest of the world? Or if the muslims and/or jews would try to ban eating pork? 
The whaling example shows that for both Asian and Western societies cultural point of views cannot be changed easily and even despite international treaties both western and eastern cultures have a hard time adopting to new standards especially when it touches cultural issues. 
My personal world view is that we are humans that all strive for the same things every day. We have families, children and parents to feed. We want a roof over our heads and clean water to drink. We want to take care of the people that are dear to, have security and if possible, we want something additional money and opportunities to enjoy ourselves. There is really no difference whether you are European, American, Eastern Asian, African, Central Asian etc..  
Based on different cultural backgrounds we choose different ways to achieve the same goals. As long as we don't judge on others and try be tolerant to differences, we may realize there is no perfect world or country and that each country has its strengths and weaknesses based on cultural beliefs, religion and rich history. This is exactly why I don't try to criticize the country I live in, there may be too many historical and cultural things that I don't understand that make the society and that are vital in decision making processes. 
When we move outside our countries, we bring with us a set of ideas and principles that we have learned from the day we were born and whatever we do in life, these will always be with us. Western European countries asking migrants to 'integrate' is a silly demand in my opinion. We should not ask people to change, on the other hand, migrants should also respect the local culture in the country of arrival. If cultures are too different the only thing that really works is to be tolerant and acknowledge the difference, not to reject it or try to change it.

In my opinion, if things in Korea ain't right, it is primarily the responsibility of the Korean people to change it, unless it directly affects other countries or the world. There is simply too many things we may not understand.

South Korea Inside Out
I'll try and deal with these points in order. 
The fact is that there is a problem with car accidents in Korea. Unless people start making a song and dance about it, we will never know the underlying cause for sure. I have some theories that I am pretty confident about, but that may be a topic for a whole separate blog. I know one thing for sure, highlighting the problem and even making fun of their driving is not going to make things worse and might possibly make them stand up and notice it a bit more and start dealing with the problem better. 
To me, I could have easily picked Norway or Korea for the whaling example or the Ivory trade, rhino horn, and sharks fin for the Chinese. There is a difference between banning pork or beef and banning whaling and that is certain whale populations were becoming critically endangered, much the same as rhinos and elephants. Since reduced whaling the numbers have recovered. The Japanese are not respecting the quotas, however. The Chinese might have been a better example, as for the sake of a medicinal system that is mainly guff, they endanger a great number of rare animals on the planet that are also very ecologically important. They should be criticised for this, especially as what they are killing them for is totally unscientific. 
In one sense I do agree with you about all people being essentially the same, wanting the same things, but going about it in different ways. Some ways some cultures achieve the same goals are harmful to people and other cultures, however, and I think dealing with this is where our difference of opinion lies.  Historical and cultural reasons for behaviours explain things well and we should try to understand them, but regardless of the history some things are right and wrong and the bad practices are worth changing. 
I find I absolutely agree with you on the integration point. We shouldn't ask people to change, people should be able to live their lives how they want in a free society as long as they don't harm others. I do think that there needs to be an honest dialogue between cultures in the same country, though, or you get situations like in the UK where you have the black community, the Muslim community, the Jews, the Hindus, the Eastern Europeans, etc, all isolated in their own separate groups. Religious people even send their children to separate religious schools. I see this as a problem because there are many different cultures living in the same country that don't really know about each or are friends with each other. This is bound to cause issues of misunderstandings and fear of the unknown. 
Finally, I think we can reject harmful aspects of some cultures. We can't be too relativist and say anything goes because we don't understand the root cause of it and the culture's history. I agree again with you that we can't hope to force a change in culture (we are finding that out in Afghanistan and Iraq) but I see dialogue and honesty and promoting opposing ideas to people as a way for them to affect their own changes if they wish. To do this we must be able to criticise their bad ideas, just as they should be able to criticise ours.

 For the full discussion, including replies from others please go to

Saturday, June 1, 2013

He is a White Westerner? He Can't Say That!

I grant two things about White Westerners: 1) Their ancestors did a lot of bad things in the past and oppressed people from countries all over the world, and: 2) They are usually still in a position of privilege compared to other races and nations.  It is perhaps easiest for them to criticise given their their exalted position and that their ancestors have had it easier than others.  For these reasons how can they possibly understand other cultures, races, and countries?  Who are they to comment?  What right do they have, given their track record, to advise others on how to behave?

Well, this depends.  Do white westerners have a right to dictate to others?  No.  Do they have a right to be proud of themselves and belittle others?  No.  Do they have a right to suggest that things in other cultures or countries aren't right and that they could do things better?  Absolutely, yes.  Should they just sit idly by and watch as people suffer (and as they suffer themselves) under injustices?  Absolutely, no.

I am a White Western man, guilty as charged.  On this blog I criticise aspects of Korean culture, guilty as charged.  But hang on a minute, I live in Korea and I am married to a Korean, does this not entitle me to have an opinion on the culture?  Is that how it works; you go to live in another country and you just accept how they treat you and each other without questioning it?  I think not.  What difference does it make where I'm from or what colour my skin is?  If something is being done badly or wrong, those doing it should be ready for some criticism.  If they can't take this, then it is their problem; it is not like arguing a point is threatening violence, they are words and words alone.

Now words can be harmful and incite violence sometimes.  Ideologies are some of the most deadly aspects involving human nature.  Bad ideas can end up killing millions of people, so I am not saying words don't matter, of course they do, in fact very much so.  The only way to feel safe in a world of conflicting ideas and ways of life is to encourage ideas and opinions to be heard and for all sides to be dispassionate and reasonable in dealing with disagreements.

What I do find slightly ironic when I get accused of prejudice or am criticised about making arguments from a 'White man's' perspective is that most of these criticisms come from people who live in Western countries.  These are the people that are meant to be standing-up for freedom of speech and expression in the world, yet it is they who are the biggest callers for my silence on this blog and on other sites.  When I talk about this to my wife or some of my Korean friends, they give me a quizzical look and say things along the lines of, 'why is saying something bad about part of Korean culture so wrong?'  In fact what often gives me confidence in making my arguments on this blog is that I have run them by Korean people first and they often agree.  What I dislike about Korean culture is exactly what many Koreans themselves dislike about Korean culture, and especially those Koreans lower down the hierarchical tree of status, i.e. women and young people.

I can't also help but see some hypocrisy in the way Western liberal-minded people deal with some of my posts.  If I write something positive about Korea, I receive kind comments (gratefully received of course) saying how I have really hit the nail on the head and how it is obvious how I understand and love Korean culture.  If I write something negative, however, I haven't gone into the culture in enough depth, need to read up on the subject, or obviously hold a deep grudge or prejudice towards Korean people.  I have even been accused of suffering with depression after writing a negative blog post about Korea.  So in summary, if you live in another culture and are immersed in it like me, you are only talking with knowledge and authority when you say something nice.  If you are not saying something nice you are either ignorant or some kind of bigot.  I must, however, acknowledge the many kind messages of agreement with my less positive posts that I receive on my blog, and encouragingly these kind words are regularly posted by Korean people themselves.

It is, of course, quite possible that I do write some unjustified codswallop about Korea sometimes, after-all I am a simple blogger and no Einstein.  It is quite probable that during the course of writing a great many blogs now that I have been wrong about a number of things.  If so, however, the best course of action is to counter those specific arguments with better arguments, not play the 'White Westerner, who is he to comment on anyone else but his own race' card.  This move is basically to accuse the person of a degree of racism, it is a soft way of warning the person against being a bigot or at least be careful not to turn into one.  I find this troubling, and although I hate throwing around the word 'racist' as it occurs all too commonly these days in all manner of arguments, it seems to me that criticising people of all different races and cultures as objectively as possible is very anti-racist and those who say I can't comment (or at least should be careful commenting) because I'm white are the one's with the explaining to do.  Most of my problems with Korean culture are born out of the suffering of Korean people within it, not of me personally.  I criticise because I care about these people.  If I don't like something, I go for the culture not the people, there is a big difference here.

Anyone who knows me, and especially my friends from back home in England would also know that I am often equally scathing (if not more so) of my own culture, it is not only one-way traffic on Korea.  This is not to say that I hate my country, I don't, I have a certain love for my homeland and I also have genuine fondness for Korea.  Korea is a place that is not especially well-known in the UK and my friends often have a slightly negative view of the place and think it is a little more backward than it actually is.  In their company I will often tell them the good things about Korea, of which there are many and this blog deals with those too.

As I have said before, there is a negative bias in reporting stories generally and this bias probably extends to this blog also.  Just think if you were an alien and got all your information about the human race from the news; what a sad reflection on human nature it would show, but there is more to us all than that.  However, this doesn't mean that valuable lessons can't be learned from regularly watching the news, as long as it is with an open mind and and a critical eye.

Perhaps it is difficult to trust a white man and what he says about another culture, but maybe you could give me the benefit of the doubt.  I criticise because I care about people (and non-human animals), especially the vulnerable, no matter what colour they are, where they are from or what culture they subscribe to.  However, I don't give a damn about offending them if they are wrong, and especially if they are using cultural traditions for their own advantage over other people or infringing on their rights because of cultural philosophies best left in the past, which have no reasonable basis to back them up.  I am a white man, an ancestor of the those that were part of the British Empire.  This doesn't mean I am who they were, but I am guilty of criticising a culture that I wasn't born into and I am proud of that fact.