Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In Response to Roboseyo

Robseyo just recently posted a blog titled "Why are Koreans Hypersensitive to Criticisms from non-Koreans" found:
http://askakorean.blogspot.com/2008/07/ask-korean-guest-blogger-roboseyo-why_26.html (couldnt get the hyperlink to work..sorry)

He has asked for opinions from "Kimcheerleaders" to his blog, so I decided I would post my response. First of all, while I know your probably being creative in the use of "Kimcheerleaders" I highly doubt you would call other races based on what they eat like "Friedchickenleaders" or "fajitaeerleaders" because Im pretty sure in the US (Im assuming your from the US) you'd be labeled as a racist and Im pretty sure using those phrases in south side Chicago or Cass Ave Detroit would get you shot if not seriously injured. Isnt it ironic how its not ok to use terms like these for other races but its overlooked for the asian races?

I am one of the Koreans that Roboseyo described as "living outside of Korea, and not even able to speak Korean" (paraphrased). However, I believe that I am very in-tuned to Korean society, culture, and history. I have experienced and seen more of Korea and its historical artifacts than many of my Korean friends. And, even though I have lived outside of Korea for the last 22 years of my life, I still have a huge instilled since of pride. Pride that "My" country has done what it has being that its such a small nation. I get goosebumps every Olympics when "My" country gets more medals at both the Winter and Summer Olympics per capita then almost any country. So I guess based on that I am a "Kimcheerleader" according to Robeseyo.

As a response to Roboseyo:
For someone who has lived in Korea for such a long time, it seems that the a fundamental basis of Korean Society has been missed. Im not saying this as a criticism but I think it would explain what he is "missing" in his analysis.

"Saving Face" is perhaps the most important concept to understand when discussing Korean sociological issues and it seems to be missing or way too lightly considered in Roboseyo's post. It is a common mistake for foreigners being that they were not raised in this concept. Many foreigners know of this concept, but do they truely understand the concept? I highly doubt it. I don't think "outsiders" (myself included) can understand how serious Koreans take this and live by this concept. In section 4.5, Roboseyo mentions that one of his commenters responds "Like having my family's dirty laundry aired out", and his response is a little non-chalant about that. I would have to say, to Koreans, criticizing their country is way more than dirty laundry when you are openly criticizing Korea. To put it into our severity, it would be like throwing feces on the American flag. It is impolite to openly criticize (whether constructive or destructive) openly in public.

If Korea has been able to do what it has in the last 50 years, (BTW. Korea is a top 10 major player in the world economy now), then why does it need to adjust? Why is it that western cultures think Progressive means westernizing? Think if the roles were reversed (which honestly I could see happening in the next 100 years, if you factor that China, Japan, and Korea are all "major" players in the world markets and still growing and soon to be added to that list India) how do you think you would react if other countries were telling the US and other western countries that they are "behind the times" and that Progression means "Easternizing" or conforming to the Asian cultures? It definitely would not be received well.

Just because you have stayed in a country for as long as you have, something to remember is your still a visitor. Roboseyo mentioned his best friends wife and being able to give "constructive criticism" because of his familiarity with his friend and his wife. I was wondering, how do you give "constructive criticism" to a society/nation? Are your comments really going to change something and be useful/productive? if not, they are not constructive. Secondly, even with how close you are with your best friend, there are still comments, criticisms or whatnot that you keep to yourself. I can guarantee you that if you told your best friend that his wife was a slut, it would probably dramatically change your relationship with your best friend. So remember while, in Korea (no matter how long), you are still a visitor and certain boundaries shouldnt be crossed. Apparently you have found where that boundary is and my advice would be to stay clear from it. Korean society isnt like American society, its less forgiving of people who like to "stir things ups".

Here are some questions Roboseyo has asked of Koreans:
If criticism of Korea by non-Koreans upsets or offends you, why does it?
Yes. Because does anyone like being critisized? In the US people are used to open criticism, in Asian societies they are not. And to think that Korea has to "develop" and get used to this is frankly unacceptable in my opinion.

How could those views be expressed without upsetting you? Under what conditions ARE outsiders allowed to criticize Korea?
Frankly to be honest, I really don't want to hear what people dont like about Korea. Same with the US, I don't want to hear what people dont like about the US. There are no conditions in which I would openly be grateful to hear criticisms about either country from foreigners. However, What I find that works is you can discuss the differences between the visiting country and what your used too. But just because your used too it doesnt mean its better. This is a discussion of differences, and you need to remember to be overly sensitive sometimes. Remember, what you may think is "bad" or criticism about Korea maybe something that they appreciate. For example, some outsiders view honorifics as "too much" but to a Korean its the way of life. Something to remember, "Opinions are like buttholes, everyone's got one". So for every criticism you have, there are others who will disagree.

I don't think its as difficult as Roboseyo thinks it is with Korean blood out in the world and non-korean blood in Korea. The difficulty is understanding the difference. In 95% of the world determines nationality by where you live and loyalty/allegiance. In Korea, nationality is determined by blood. I think this explains a lot about the culture itself and some of these issues brought up by Roboseyo.

Here are my last responses to the last set of questions Roboseyo poses:

Whence all the negativity on the K-blogosphere, from both sides?
Personally I try to stay out of it. Its not something I want to publicize because I think it detracts from the many great things Korea has to offer. Why focus on the negatives of various cultures. Its not like the Korean society is killing anyone or committing genocide. So why the "urgency" to degrade the society?

Why do YOU think expats complain about Korea?
Because expats complain about whatever country they live in anywhere in the world. I think maybe your more exposed to it in Korea only because your in Korea. Expats tend to be ungrateful and compare everything that is happening to them to what they are used to and to their native country. They dont realize they are visitors and will always be treated as such, even though they sometimes forget they are visitors. And frankly I agree with the philosophy that if you want to complain so much, then leave. If its that bad, leave. No one is forcing expats to stay in Korea. And most of them actually get paid better for being an expat. So that is probably why I have such a short fuse for expats who overly complain. I know I may sound like a hypocrit because Im an expat and I complain about the food here in Africa. But, the food is not provided by the locals it is provided by my company in a canteen that is operated by my company to be western standards. You will never find any words of degradation or criticism of the country or people I work with.

Why do you think critiques are often taken so poorly?
Does anyone take critiques gracefully? Again, you have to understand "Saving face" better to truely understand the how much this means to Koreans in this scenario which you are exploring.

Is it just that the internet makes everything seem more extreme than it really is?
Is there something I simply missed?
I think people post stuff on the internet a little bit too freely because they are behind a computer and not face to face. It would be real easy for me to critique you or anyone out there because of the internet barrier. I could post things that I would never say person to person..

Sorry for the long post, but I hope this helps Roboseyo.


  1. I'm sorry, but I think people have the right to complain about whatever they don't like. And when you complain, people will have the appropriate answers to your complaints.

    But if your complaints are stupid ("How can Koreans eat stinky kimchi?") and/or based on cultural differences ("I think Koreans have no manners, they push me all the time in the subway!"), the answers will also be stupid and aggressive.

    I think as a group Koreans tend to be a little less accepting of criticism than others, but not as much as to justify so much discussion about it. The thing is that most complaints are done in blogs and, as we know, Koreans have a massive Internet presence. And displaying stupid opinions behind a computer screen, like some of us (by us I mean Koreans) do, is far easier than face to face.

  2. Hi there InMySeoul: sorry I haven't had time to respond until just now.

    First of all, by Kimcheerleaders, I wasn't referring to all Koreans -- if you read the "What Is A Kimcheerleader" post I linked in my article, you'd see that Kimcheerleaders are only those Koreans who promote Korean culture beyond any sense of proportion -- I was writing specifically, then, about a series of articles in the Korea Herald about the Korean wave, which did a full-page write-up about the Korean Wave in Spain. . . when there truly is NO Korean wave in Spain -- unless you count a dozen or so movies showing up in art-house cinemas in the last few years, and Spaniards asking my girlfriend, "So are you from North or South Korea?" when she travelled there. My main point was, there's enough to boast about in Korea without making oneself look needy by making stuff up the way Kimcheerleaders do, (and Canadians are known for doing this as well). In the meantime, if you wish to refer to me as a Maple-Syrup-Licker or a Hockey Goon or a Canuckistani Pinko to make your point. . .heck, it's a blog. Go ahead, just make it funny.

    (Also: you're totally correct that somehow racism against asians is not as harshly censured as racism against certain other groups in N. America, and I'm not sure what's to be done about that.)

    True, too, that Korea punches way above its weight in Olympic medal-counts. Right up there with Jamaica in the summer games, in the "per-population" medal count. Good on ya.

    Thank you for bringing up the idea of "saving face." That was a blind-spot, and I'll think about where it fits in. However, at this point, I think that saving face applies more to personal comments than general comments about the country or culture -- I embarrass Mr. Kim if I tell him "Your grammar was totally wrong there. . . didn't you do your homework?" or "In Canada it's rude to ask someone their age. How would you like it if I asked you about [insert intrusively personal question here]". In those cases, he loses face. However, as The Korean pointed out in his article, Koreans criticize their own country more harshly than any expat ever could, but generally seem to insist that Korea be presented in a positive light once dealing with non-Koreans (and as I said, Koreans aren't unique in that).

    What we're left with, I think, is what I mentioned about the way Koreans DO associate more personally with their country than Canadians do -- remember my discussion of "Why is he criticizing OUR country" as opposed to "Why is he criticizing Canada?" In which case, especially if the critique is done without tact, personal feelings CAN get mixed in. In this case, saving face does connect with criticism of the country or culture, I think, and this is why I usually stick with asking questions rather than making blanket statements.

    Next, in saying that I am still a visitor to Korea. . . I respectfully disagree, especially on behalf of the Indonesian mail-order brides and south-asian factory workers who are in Korea to make a better life, and, even after living in Korea for decades sometimes, are still treated as second-class citizens, whose children are treated as outsiders or "not real Koreans" by their gradeschool classmates. I don't want to be thought of or treated as a visitor, or only welcomed if I have nice things to say -- I want to be treated as a contributor to Korean society, because I am, and to have my voice respected accordingly. I teach kids English, which helps equip them to compete in the global market, which helps Korea strengthen its global presence. Why should I be treated and listened to as if I commuted home to Canada after work each night?

    We have a stake in Korea now, and denying us (and there are now more than a million foreigners living in Korea) a voice, Korea is poorer.

    I also disagree with your statement that it is impolite in Korea to openly criticize: I lived in Jongno and had to walk home through beef protests for two months; public airing of grievances is certainly a part of Korean culture.

    Next, I'd like to draw a distinction between westernization and globalization: By discussing international standards, I'm not going outside Korea's own wishes for its country's future -- every politician and decision-maker talks about making Korea into a hub of Asia, and a gateway to the east. . . these are goals internalized in Korea's own people, and its own leaders, not foisted upon it by other manipulative powers. Becoming a place where investors want to put their money, and tourists want to spend it, isn't Westernization; it's just competition. To be competitive, it would benefit Korea to listen when investors or tourists have a gripe.

    If China India Japan and Korea become the next world powers, you better believe Canadians and Americans will take classes in those languages. . . and some of them might well complain about Easternization along the way. . . but they'll follow the money right into those Korean classes, if that'll help, and that would be called "progress" to the Canadians signing up for those classes, because it'd help them stay globally competitive.

    There are a few other things you mention in your post which I already discussed in my first post in this series, about "why do expats complain" -- I highly recommend you check it out, but for now, let me say this: progress is progress. Eastern countries have found their own models for integrating changes in healthcare, technology, and education into their societies, ways that Westerners might never have imagined. Having cellphones and university degrees and access to good hospitals and the right to vote and own land doesn't mean Korean women have become Westernized. It just means their quality of life has improved, a universal, not Western, concept.

    For the rest, yeah, criticism is a difficult line of work, and requires tact and delicacy (as The Korean discussed in his second post), as well as a lot of background knowledge -- if a griper hasn't done her homework, I don't want to listen, either. However, if one HAS done one's homework, by putting ideas out there, critics add to the discussion, and I believe that if enough different ideas are in the mix, bumping up against each other, eventually, the best ones will rise to the top.

    I don't think this is cultural imperialism, because I'm not asking Korea to become like Canada. I want Korea to become the best country IT can be, and that's a different country than Canada at ITS best; I think engaging with the culture on its own terms, if done tactfully, in a spirit of inquisitiveness, generosity, and genuine concern for Korea's current and future prospects, I DO think that criticism can be constructive, and that there WILL be people who DO want to hear it. In the meantime, for those who don't want to hear about it, fair enough! Don't listen! The Korean Blog List is loaded with really positive sites as well, and there's no need to waste time on a site that drags a person down.

    However, the topic interested me, because I've seen a lot of this strange critic/surly defender dynamic going around, and I'd rather see a dialogue about it, than just a back-and-forth battle of "You're wrong"
    "No. I'm right."
    "You're a jerk and you're wrong."
    "No. YOU'RE a double-dog jerk and I'm right."
    "You're a . . . " and so forth.

    thanks for weighing in, I really appreciate it, and I hope I haven't bored (or frustrated) you to tears with my response.


  3. Thanks for your comments ksoje and Roboseyo..Im just glad someone took time to read that "wall of text".

    I have to agree with ksoje in that I dont think this the acceptance of criticisms really justifies a huge discussion. However, I do have a particular "bone to pick" when expats complain. Being an expat myself (2.5 years in Equatorial Guinea, Africa).

    I can't stand when I read or hear an expat complain about their location. If they feel so strongly about the situation that they felt that they had to let everyone in the world know about their complaint...then why do they "put up with it"? Easy solution, if its really that bad go back to your own country! Or if the money is too good then stay, just don't complain to us about it because either 1. they are getting duely compensated for the pain of living in a foreign country or 2. there are some other factors that they really enjoy about staying in a foreign country that outways the any complaints an expat might have.

    Let me hear about the experience that you enjoy, and keep you in that foreign country. I also like to hear when an expat says "I really miss..." or similar because that is part of the experience and helps teach others the differences in the cultures. It gives an appreciation for the home country which everyone can respect.

  4. I know what you mean -- and if you look around on my blog, I think you'd find that it's about 70% positive. I know a few writers who are almost always negative, and it bums me out to spend too much time on those ones. Plus, about 70% of the thoughts buzzing through my head (maybe more) are positive. . . so why wouldn't I want my blog to reflect that, if I'm putting it out on the forums? It's all most people know of me, and I hope they get the right idea about who I am.

    another commenter on the topic basically pointed out that people forget their blogs are public, and treat them as a personal diary that noone else can read.

    I usually don't try to complain about things like the weather or food in my place -- I just avoid the food I don't like, and deal with the weather, because weather's part of life. the other thing I always try to do is frame things positively and hopefully -- "If A wants to improve their B, they ought to C" rather than just "A's B sucks."

    I think the reasons people make hte kinds of comments they do, and write what they do, change according to how much they have invested in the place they're staying. If I'm one a one-year contract, and know I'll leave after that, my blog will read as a travelogue, with pictures of food and descriptions of amazing experiences. If I'm in it for the long haul, a lot of writers make a lot of different choices about how they do things.

    one I really respect is James Turnbull, of "The Grand Narrative" -- his stuff is a touch academic, but he does a really good job of being honest and rigorous (he really does his homework) - he's ready to explain and explore rather than condemn, but he doesn't let anybody off the hook, either, on either side of the equation. His blog is interesting, and sometimes critical, but only critical in order to reach a deeper understanding, and he never gives up hope and goes into despairing condemnation.

    anyway, it's been fun running a mini-dialogue; I quoted some of your post here on my blog (while linking and giving credit). I hope you don't mind. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  5. Everyone complains. It is a stress release and easy conversation starter. Complaining too much isn't good for anyone because the focus becomes too negative, but sometimes it is a coping mechanism as people go through their adjustment periods. It is part of the growth process that occurs.

    Even when you move within your native country, it takes time to find your place, your friends, your doctors, restaurants, recreational activities, etc. In your native country, you can speak the language and know how to navigate and find things out.

    As an expat, you don't. Now, there are some people who move to a particular country because of family ties or a strong interest in the country and they may know the language already and have connection to the people before they come, but most do not.

    Also, diplomats, military and government folks move every few years and do not always have a choice. I, myself, came to Seoul from Cairo. Egypt and Korea are different in every way imaginable. I learned to read Arabic and speak survival Arabic and then I moved to Korea when I am illiterate, once again. This time, I have a toddler and am pregnant and just haven't been able to manage the focus to learn Korean, yet (been here 5 months). It is still a goal and hopefully, I will learn it in time to make use of it before we leave Korea. Many business people move around a lot as well to very diverse countries.

    Complaining unites expats from different countries and facilitates the exchange of information. I do think you should try to be sensitive when dealing with people from the host country. Save your complaints and dramatic expressions of frustration and angst for your foreign friends who can relate and help and be more delicate when talking to host country nationals.

    I don't think that Korea is unique in a deep cultural pride. I found that in Egypt I could not be honest with most Egyptians about my frustrations because I knew it would hurt them. So, I bitched to expats and figured out hope to cope and eventually adapted to living there and those frustrations didn't seem as important anymore.

    Blogs are personal journals and they are appropriate places to air your complaints. I do agree that it is better to focus on the positive but to leave out the negative completely doesn't present the entire picture. I have to admit that I have edited posts after going back and reading them because I thought they were a bit too harsh and focused on the wrong things.

    To be specific about Korea, I like living in Korea. I like the experience of living in a different culture, but the transition from one place to another is difficult. I hate not knowing where I am going. The Korean subway system is easy to use, but the lack of addresses drives me nuts! After I stumble around and find things, I always try to put directions on my blog posts to save other bumbling expats the trouble.

    Also, I had no idea of what to expect when coming to Korea. You don't hear anything about it in the States. Most people in America do not dream of coming to Korea. Japan, China, Thailand, yes, but Korea, no. The biggest association most people have beyond food like kimchi and companies like Hyundai is the tv show MASH which, of course, is not at all helpful in preparing to come to Korea.

    Growing up in a military family, I had a lot of friends with Korean mothers so I already knew and liked a lot of the food before I came here, but other than that, I really didn't know what to expect. Every time I learn something new, it feels like a victory and when I stumble around, I do get frustrated.

  6. Thanks for all the responses. I love discussions like this and seeing everyone's points of views.

    -Cairo mama
    good luck with your endeavors to learn korean. I have decided to seriously try to learn korean. Im an engineer so foreign languages (let alone english) is tough for me. I was adopted when I was 5 so korean is technically my native tongue. Unfortunately I have totally lost that ability. Now I have to re-learn it. I just hired a private korean tutor to help learn.

    Have you tried finding a free class for learning korean? There are a lot of them in the bigger cities. Especially ones for foreign wives (it doesnt sound like your husband's korean), but I dont think it matters. Plus they teach you about korean culture and food preparation (if your into that kind of thing)

  7. There is a free class on the base that goes on a monthly basis. My husband is an engineer (U of M undergrad) and works late (as I'm sure you know) and so doesn't get home in time to watch my son for the class. I did use the neighbor's nanny while they were gone. It is expensive, but I figured the class was free so it wasn't a bad deal, but then we had an opportunity to go to Hawaii and then the pregnancy nausea kicked in so I only made it to about 5 classes. Still, it was helpful. My main problem is babysitting. Or maybe it is lack of discipline since I do have the books and could work on it myself.

    Glad you hired a tutor. A tutor or class is the best way to learn another reading system and the basics of speaking. Since you were 5 when you were adopted, you will probably be able to get the pronunciation because the language pathways were formed. The Arabic reading class was painfully boring, but very effective. I was so glad I took it, but it was two hours of going around the room reading letters, then words off of flashcards.

    It is funny, but I find Arabic wanting to come out of my mouth when I am trying to communicate with Koreans. I think my brain says,"Not English" and starts spitting out the last foreign language I have studied.

    I know a little bit of German, French, Japanese, Arabic and Spanish but I don't know any other language completely. I am hoping to put my son in a Korean preschool so he has a shot of learning the language, but he is still too young for most of them. One nice thing is that the public schools are cheap and they seem to really like having foreigners, especially English-speaking ones, because it adds to the school's appeal for Korean parents. Many Koreans prefer to send even their preschoolers to private schools which are super expensive.

    Thanks for the drink suggestions. I probably can't try the 17 tea until I am finished with the pregnancy because there are lots of herbs that you aren't supposed to have while you are pregnant. But I'd probably really like it!

  8. What a small world! I grew up in the Detroit Area.
    Also, if you read my more recently posts, I just got accepted in UofM's MBA program. Im assuming UofM = University of Michigan....I know theres that other UofM (Minneasota)...