Before ya'll get to thinking that I am irritated only by things Korean, just remember that my blog is young and ya'll don't know me so well yet. Let me relay a little story of an exchange I overheard that irritated the sweet bejesus out of me this past weekend, when I attended a little soirée for a group of foreigners who had just completed a year of good work spent in Korea. I will say, without naming program names, that these are some of the best-trained and well-intentioned group of Americans working as teachers in Korea, having received extensive language training and cultural workshops over a two-month period before being placed in Korean middle and high schools in a program jointly run and maintained by both the American and Korean governments. As a whole, the quality of people you get is far and above the rest of other foreigners - as a whole - but when we get down to the individual level, exceptions start becoming apparent.
So a white kid, probably around 23 or 24, is talking to this Korean American kid over hamburgers and macaroni salad and lamenting how "everything is Korea is so opposed to my personality and everything I believe in." He was going on and on about how "in Korea" people do this, and "Koreans" do that, ad nauseum. The arrogance and ethnocentrism that laced his every utterance was astounding. I was ashamed to have come out of the same program as this kid was about to, albeit eleven years previous to him. He had fallen into the ethnocentric trap of what I call the "Dark Side" of foreigner thinking.
It's a tempting way to think, and it takes quite a bit of time to conquer. It goes something like this:
Everything bad that happens to you in Korea is because of...well, "Korea." Everything good that happens to you is simply filed away, going unchecked against the unconscious yet ongoing tally of everything bad that happens to you while in this country.
So some pimply-faced, greasy-haired 19-year old is rude to you in a Lotteria? Well, it's because customer service sucks in Korea and not because you're being served by a pimply-faced, greasy-haired 19-year old working the front counter of a fast food chain for 2,500 won an hour. Here, there is no organizing logic used to rationally break down and process one's experiences when it comes to the bad things – something we generally utilize to process our experiences in our own respective cultures.
When it comes to the good things, such as that co-worker who dropped 100,000 won on dinner on you when you first arrived and still hadn't yet started looking at money with dead kings on it and that came in different sizes and colors as real money, this experience usually goes unchecked. Forget about the fact that that dinner was 1/20th of his salary, and I make twice as much as he does for far less real work – I better get bought some dinner! I can't be eating all this fish and weird other stuff every night, and I better get some karmic compensation for getting such bad service in Lotterias, right?
The problem is in point of view. Too many people, on both the Dark Side and the Light, see Korea as...well, Korea. One tends to look at this place as a singular entity, alternatively lashing out at us and not offering us good customer service, or sometimes being inexplicably being pleasant, or inviting, or downright endearing.
So this kid, who had been teaching in some small town in Korea, hadn't been thinking complexly and was too caught up in his Dark Side thinking to realize that had he been living in rural Kentucky for a year in his own good ole' United States of America, he would probably come up against some values that went against his hallowed, vaunted belief system.
Yeah – as if the United States is the pinnacle of progressivism and democratic thinking. Wait a minute – isn't that what a lot of Americans (and let's face it, most other people from developed Western countries) come to think about their countries? "In America..." tends to start leading off a lot of sentences for people in possession of blue passports sporting a stenciled eagle on the cover. There are different versions for people with passports of different colors and designs who come from the West, but the gist of the sentiment is the same – everything that is bad or "backwards" is so because it is quintessentially Korean," while anything that isn't is the exception that proves the rule, or the influence of non-Korean things (e.g. "I'm glad Korean is finally catching up with America.")
So we don't have hicks in equally "backwater" America still donning white hoods and throwing beer bottles at black people, or tying them up to the back of pickup trucks and dragging them until they are dead? Are we not a "culture" with homophobic thugs who kidnap and murder a man who "looks gay?" At least Korea has developed enough to realize that trying to replace the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution with the Genesis chapter of the Bible violates what (ahem) the United States established as a basic principle of its own Constitution (and myriad others that came after it). Residential segregation is now higher than it had been before the Civil Rights movement began. (Yes, I don't have any real non-white friends and neither do any of those friends, but I'm not a racist. I live in my community because it's "safe" and hey, I liked Chris Rock in Rush Hour. Or was that Chris Tucker? I mean, they both look the same, right?)
But we Americans would defend our country against the queries of Koreans who might point out such things by saying, "Yes, but those people are pretty rare" or "That doesn't usually happen." Wait – that person is an exception? A non-representative example? And beyond even that, my take on it is that, in American history and culture, there's something more to it than an exception. Would you want to be a flaming gay man walking downtown in a sleepy town in Iowa? Or a black man holding hands with a white woman in Howard Beach, New Jersey? Or a brown person driving in any major city in the US, who is constantly pulled over by the police on the flimsiest of pretexts? Oooooooooooooooooooooook. I don't even think that such incidents as mentioned above are even "exceptions" – but even if they are, why can't we look at Korea in a similar way?
Maybe – just maybe – the drunk ajussi on the subway who starts yelling at you isn't REPRESENTATIVE of all Korean people. What a novel idea! But isn't such a radical idea completely untenable? What about those pushy ajumma? But we've never had one of those old ladies make us another plate of food, or offer us up a seat next to them on the bus, have we? (I've found that certain young, princessy agassi would always rather stand for an entire 30-minute bus ride than take a completely empty seat next to a smelly, foreign, savage man like me. It's a standing insult (literally) that irritates then hell out of me.) Your conniving language institute manager is representative of ALL Korean people, right? Or might we rightly take such people with a grain of salt, given the nature of this tainted industry itself? I've never met such people as who might take my passport from me, not give me my salary, or even physically attack me. But I've also never stepped foot in a language institute. Maybe that's just a coincidence. Somehow, I don't think so, though.
I am talking about an American (and usually white) privilege and ethnocentrism that causes us to look at a foreign, "inferior" country monolithically without doing the same to our own. What negative aspects of "American" thinking are there? What about aspects of the culture that manifest our arrogance, racism, sexism, homophobia, and unilateral thinking? What makes us think we have the right to deride people for the "lack" of English abilities when we are a guest in their country? How many white westerners can even speak Korean in complete sentences? What does that say about our relative privilege as well as the comfort with which we can live here in that we often don't even feel the pressure to learn the language of this place?
So us waegukin get all indignant when we see Koreans displaying some obvious prejudice and bias in our direction. Hey – I get irritated, too. The middle school girls. Spectrum-gate. Anything regarding foreigners in the Korean broadcast media. I'm sick and tired of being the ideological whipping boy every time there's an economic dip or stupid, so-called "scandal" involving white men, Korean women, and recording equipment of some type.
But let's look at ourselves monolithically, not allowing us the room for individual cases, the many exceptions to the rule, or the fact that it is the monolithic view itself that has created this false picture in the first place. Then we might understand some Koreans who might be thinking, "Fucking foreigners. Can't STAND 'em!"