Issue 1: Asian people comparing themselves amongst other Asian nations.
When I first came to Korea I wanted to find out how Korean people compare themselves against other Asian countries, specifically Japan and China. I have come to discover that generally people tend to center themselves towards their country of origin and then go from there. In other words, Koreans treat Korea as the center of the Universe and their point of reference. We all do this, I believe, when comparing ourselves with other nations.
Yet I do feel Korean people take it to a higher level. To put Korea front and center means that Korean people tend to feel that Korea is always better than their Asian neighbors.
My coteacher was merely just being Nationalistic. Yet their eccentric Nationalism I feel sometimes overlooks the truth and gets in the way with critical thinking.
South Koreans are nationalistic. Part of the nationalism stems from the compulsory national service required of South Korean men. Part of the nationalism stems from the fact that they are still at war with the north. Part of the nationalism stems from a desire to prove they are different from Japan and China.Take that last part there, "...desire to prove they are different from Japan and China." I for one feel that is very true and why when talking about Japan or China with Korean people it can become a touchy subject. It isn't random, of course, because it stems from a long history of invasion and hibernation from the world.
Korea has been invaded, annexed, occupied, liberated, and sometimes unwillingly protected, by Japan, China, Russia/The Soviet Union, and the United States over the past few centuries.Koreans tend to see themselves as members of a "race" that has been fighting for it's independence from foreign domination for centuries. This can result in Koreans being overly defensive towards anything they see as a threat to their way of life. This also makes many Koreans easily swayed to any point of view that plays upon nationalism.The examples of this that come from living in South Korea are that you can have a really hard time talking about Korea in a critical thinking way with other Korean people. As an outsider one wants to understand why Korean people do what they do and also what they are thinking. Therefore one tries to find these answers by talking to their Korean colleagues. Yet in the end the result is usually of more confusion and that you possibly just pissed off the people you work with.
In my opinion, I don't think Korea has to change its Nationalistic attitude or all of sudden become a nation of people that don't see themselves as #1 amongst other nations. All I know is that when I come face to face with Korean pride that I have to take a step back and let this person have their moment.
Issue 2: How Korean people embrace and interact with non-Koreans.
When thinking about this issue I feel I need to try and get into the skin of a Korean person. To look at their world through their eyes.
What I see myself doing is when I walk down the street and see a foreign looking person that I slow down and stare at them. Maybe the child holding my hand will point and tell me that there is a foreigner nearby. We both stare and nod in agreement. Then move on.
Let's just say that recognizing and gawking at the outsider around you isn't specific to Korea. I believe that in any part of the world where the majority of people surrounding you are all of the same type of race will lead you to naturally recognize someone who looks different. Small town America is still like this, but I feel most people in America are use to diversity either around them or on their television set.
For a long time Korea has mostly been full of, yep you guessed it, Koreans. Day-to-day Korean people see dark hair and dark eyes all around them. Then slowly, more and more, people with different color eyes, hair, skin, body shape, speech and so on started to arrive (and stay).
The reactions of Korean people vary from the subtle staring to shouting and being aggressive either in speech or within an online group that promotes racism. The interaction of Koreans with foreigners and their acceptance of them is at times horrifying and at other times humbling. Take for example this excerpt from the hate group Anti-English Spectrum:
It goes without saying that I have experienced being treated like an outsider.
Bothered by this, and gathering our power together, our consciences would not allow us to overlook this tragic story as if we were looking across a river. We are aware that loving your country does not only mean taking up arms and fighting in a war. Against illegal, low-quality English instructors who prevent our land from learning English and against English Spectrum, who debased and degraded the image of Korean women to that of one country's filthy national brand -- this is our strong fight!hmm...
It goes without saying that I have experienced being treated like an outsider.
It comes in various ways:
- There was a recent quarrel where myself and the other foreign worker became fed up of the overly use of Korean in our office. We get it, they are Korean and communicating in Korean is easier than English. But often we hear our names and then laughing or sighing afterward. We wonder what they are talking about and it leads to paranoia, which ends up festering. We tried to make the point that when we hear them use our names while speaking Korean it makes us feel insecure. That they should think about how it makes us feel to speak Korean most of the time in the office with our presence. They didn't get it. They thought we were overreacting and being silly. They told us that they can't help but speak Korean. But they didn't get that they should include us in their group and when they always speak Korean about work or other issues they leave us out. Leaving us out makes us truly feel like the "other".
- In a nutshell this is an example of how at work you can often feel like the "other" and outsider due to that your Korean collegues don't see you as truly part of their group.
- There is the staring. The pointing from children.
- Parents make their children speak to the foreigner.
- Whispering about the foreigner.
- Note that I have never really had a terrible experience outside the house here in Korea. I have gotten use to the staring and forget the reason why. The hardest part seems to be riding the subway when you are in a tight space and anything could happen. I want to note that other foreigners (especially women) have had unsettling experiences.
- "Talk with Beauties" is a show that puts up beautified foreign women and talks with them in Korean. The conversations are scripted and most of what they talk about is junk. This kind of show takes the foreign woman and makes them exotic. Something that is really not helpful to our street image.
- Contrastingly there are many shows that show the foreign (especially white) man as a sexual predator. Because of this I have come across many Korean women (young and old) that believe foreign men just come to their country to do bad things and be a sexual predator.
All of these are examples of how Korean people are confronting and dealing with the foreigners around them.
Conclusion and Reflection:
I am curious to know how Koreans embrace others from different cultural backgrounds. For now I believe that I am sure it is of no real big deal over there. That they coexist in a peaceful and sometimes hostile way. But I can't help but think that underneath the surface that some people may still feel some kind of historical and cultural opinion towards an outsider.
Those were my final thoughts from my original post on the subject. I believe I was definitely wearing rose colored glasses. Certainly the Nationalist feeling is strong here and reflects how Korean people see themselves amongst the other Asian nations.
Yet I think it is important to remember that there are millions of Koreans on this peninsula. Young and old I am sure you can find differing opinions than what was presented here.
In the end I keep in mind a philosophy that I use to keep myself sane while living here. That is: It is their stage and if they want to act and present themselves in a certain way in front of me than that is their choice. I am just the observer. And...the critic.
*I hope you enjoyed this look back on my old post and that I showed how over time one's opinion can develop and change. It has been a while since I brought up politics like this and I hope I wasn't too broad. Thanks!