Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Asia vs. Asia: A New Look

Two years ago when I was fresh to Korea I wrote a post titled "Asia vs. Asia: (Series: Ugly Korean)" and since then it has been one of my top blog hits. Yet I am not proud of this post and fear that people come onto it in search of reaffirmation of their personal beliefs on Korea. It was my intention to share an experience I had with my ex about his world view amongst other Asian countries. I never really went back to that topic and so now would like to revisit it and offer up my insight after living in Korea for two years.

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.
Take for example, when I have talked about my Japan travels with my coteachers. One of my coteachers asked me if I felt Japan was better than Korea. I said yes but explained why with details from my trips. I told her that certainly living in another country is different from just visiting it. She concluded with, "Korea is better." But gave no real explanations as to why.

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.

Can I, the foreigner, really look at the world from a Korean's perspective? 
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:
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!

It goes without saying that I have experienced being treated like an outsider. 

It comes in various ways:
At work:
  • 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!


  1. I dont watch Misuda religiously, but I watch it if it's on. I find it to be quite an entertaining and candid look into the lives of non-Korean people in Korea. One episode that springs to mind was a discussion of things the Misuda girls "wished they had avoided" in Korea (can't remember the exact phrasing), which included being hit on by married men and being harassed by Koreans who wanted to practice their English. I think Misuda presents a positive image of foreigners in Korea overall, and it's often one of the first things Koreans will bring up with me when I meet them. They talk about the countries the girls are from, and the things they have to say about Korea. And the conversations are overwhelmingly positive.

    The ladies may get the topics beforehand, and be warned not to say anything critcal of Korea, but I doubt it's scripted (just from the way the answer).

    It seems that the people who have the biggest problem with Misuda are the people who don't watch it.

    Also, I dont think you could describe Korean coworkers mentioning your names as "not seeing you as part of the group." In this case, I think it is your responsibility to learn Korean to realise that they are not saying anything negative about you.

  2. Did you mean "egocentric" rather than "eccentric" in this sentence..."Yet their eccentric Nationalism"....?

    Maybe since it IS their country and speaking Korean is what Koreans do, IF you learned & spoke Korean they would have more respect for you? Does the school have a policy re: what language should be used in "mixed" offices?

    Interesting topic....Exactly why tho do Koreans feel that they are better than other Asians...I don't think you actually addressed that point, did you?

  3. Lady ~ I have watched the show. I recognize your comments and do agree with you. However, I still can't help but feel that the diversity of body types on the show is lacking. I wouldn't mind seeing an alternative show of foreigners out together we each other and having conversations there. I just feel that the women on the show are taken out of context and made to look a bit cartoonish.

    On the learning Korean. I do feel we are being left out of the group. Maybe I wasn't too clear. The point I was trying to make is that they didn't grasp that their actions make us feel left out. That they don't even consider that by speaking Korean most of the time around us that it would make us feel a certain way.

    Sure I would love to learn Korean more. Note that I can read it and have lots of phrases memorized. The effort to go to class till 9 or 10pm after work hasn't been made. Because I am tired from working all day.

    It is the English department and I feel they could make an effort to speak the language they are being paid to teach. The concept I feel is not far fetched but to them is something alien.

    We make a huge effort to respect Korean culture and accept that we aren't involved in everything. Certainly an effort could be cast on the other side of the spectrum.

    *Note that I do understand what they say when they speak Korean. But just bits and pieces.

  4. In the case of Korea, nationalism is necessary for her survival. When you are surrounded by larger countries, your very existence depends on how you protect your country. I believe the concept of nationalism is not strong in the USA because America have never been threaten from outsider so for most Americans they do not understand why Koreans act the way they do.
    On the subject of Koreans having difficulties with foreigners. You see, even though Korea is a very old country, she never had to deal with any significant numbers of non Koreans until only about 10 to 20 years ago. USA is about 200 years ahead on this issue. In the beginning, American history is full of violence when dealing with minorities. It was not very long ago in America when a black person was hung for just looking at a white woman. At least in Korea it is not this violent. Give Korea a few more years, hopefully not 200, and I am sure things will get better. This is call a learning curve.

  5. About the cartoonish and clownish treatment of the women on Misuda--have you watched another Korean show? They do this on EVERY show except dramas, where the actors themselves are often so ridiculously melodramatic one doesn't need to mock them. Seriously... watch some Korean tv and then see if you think they're treating the women on that show much differently. I don't like it from a feminist perspective (why do we HAVE to couch intercultural discussion in a show whose premise is to stare at pretty women?) and it is fairly scripted (even the Korean audience reactions), so it's suspect, but still... it's not as horrible as the alarmists on Dave's paint it up to be (like so many other things in Korean culture, actually).

    And... basically this boils down to 1) you have to learn Korean if you plan to stay here longer and want to start fitting in more, especially at work. No excuses. 2) your role as self-appointed critic is probably responsible for 90% of your bad experiences in Korea. You know that you can think critically without criticizing, right?

    I'm not saying this to be mean, but surely you learned in your art criticism classes that the lens or frame with which you approach something you see changes what and how you see it. You're limiting yourself in Korea severely by rejecting the language and judging the culture rather than simply observing or enjoying or exploring.

  6. Yes...learn Korean already & communicate in BOTH languages w/your co-workers! There are online programs so you can do it "whenever" it's good for you & not only when you're tired!
    Your excuse Joy is wearing a bit thin after 2 years there!!
    ---------------------------------- David....I take issue w/the comment re: USA & nationalism, etc...
    The US was attacked by Japan in WWII & 9/11 by ?? (middle east terrorists, who to this day, recite "Death to the USA") so we are constantly under attack! The threat is real...we are living in a cloud of threat from the outside! I take it you're an American in CA?! Don't kid yourself the threat is v. real!!!

  7. I agree with David in that "nationalism" is something that has been necessary for Korea's very existance. If it weren't for the preservation of its unique identity, unity,and its nationalism, the tiny country may as well turned into another Okinawa (Ryukyu Kingdom)or a part of China.

    "Han" is a deeply ingrained trait of their culture. "Han" which denotes deep lament and oppression is reflected in the passion that is present in their dramas, movies, music, personality, and even their red hot peppery NATIONALISM.

    What I disagree on is the comment that US is not as nationalistic. I'm American -- born and raised here in the States. If a worldwide poll were taken, America would probably rank as one of the most nationalistic and arrogant countries among all developed nations. However, I believe healthy nationalism is a good thing -- in fact it's important for any country. It unifies the nation and keeps the country going strong. It's like a sports team -- if the team doesn't have team spirit, self-confidence, and unity it's impossible to reach #1. Furthermore, sports wouldn't be any fun without rivalry. I see this in the same light as Korea and Japan. Though it's a love/hate relationship, it comes with many benefits for both countries.


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