I've noticed a few patterns of argument in many of the comments over the last several weeks, as well as in the occasional posts that actually got some people riled up enough to start some controversy. It seems that certain people seem to have the idea that being critical of Korea is in some way inherently negative and/or out of bounds. Let me dismiss the following typical arguments I've been getting, which are not just limited to this blog:
"We're just a poor, little country."
Well, as the wise old saying goes, you can't have your cake and eat it too. Most Koreans point with pride to having risen out of the ashes of the 1950's to becoming the 11th largest economy in the world, the national coming-out party that was the 1988 Seoul Olympics, being the most wired society in the world, being a leader in the production of semi-conductor chips, and myriad other minor miracles, such as apparently having started a "Korean Wave," or being the "hub of Asia" or the new "hub of stem cell research." Umm, well, scratch the last one. Point is – Korea's got a strong economy, high overall standard of living, and foreign workers who immigrate here to send money back home to countries over there. Sorry, Charlie – you've joined the club – you're an "advanced nation" now, you've reached the ever-so-coveted status of 선진국. Whether by dint of concrete economic markers, public perception, or the inflow of foreign workers come here to get ahead, Korea's officially made it to the status of "developed." Now, it's time to step up to the plate, take responsibility for one's own collective actions, and become open to international criticism because you now constantly demand to be considered (and rightfully so) an international player. Don't go crying "foul" when you get treated as a big playa should, for better or worse. Nobody's buying it anymore.
"Look in your own backyard."
Related to the above argument, critique of Korea is not only bad, but it's ethnocentric and even – let me sit down here – "racist." Or it's tantamount to "Korea-bashing." Sorry, I don't accept that as legitimate, either. I look in my own backyard all the time, and use the same analytical/critical eye to identify problems inherent and endemic to my own society. I am a trained academic, have a complex understanding of American history and society, and have the rhetorical and pedagogical skills to put this all to good use. Yes, I point out a lot of things in Korean society that may be uncomfortable, but given my academic training, my complex understanding of Korean history and society, and those same rhetorical and pedagogical skills, I think I am capable of doing so in a constructive way. Sure, I am still an "outsider" and have to rely on some crutches, but this still doesn't mean I am not able to point out useful things, especially as they have to do with things outsiders are especially good at seeing. So when I bring critical social theory and ethnic studies attitude to the Korean context, it usually adds up to something interesting and productive. To the people who would say that what I'm doing is harmful – I check myself all the time with younger Korean students, undergraduates, and fellow intellectuals. It's also part of the reason I blog. I'll listen to and engage with intelligent debate; poorly articulated comments by identity politics nationalists with a grade-school knowledge of history don't do much for me; and I often wonder to myself just what productive discourse do such people actually believe they're producing, anyway? OK – for example, so there's racism in America. And sexism. And homophobia. Who said there wasn't? I'm not talking about that right now. I'm talking about Korea, in a Korean context, dealing with the issue in terms of the particulars of the Korean situation. If I had been constantly referring to America as the source of my critique, wouldn't I be guilty of true ethnocentricism anyway? Think about what you're saying, people.
"You shouldn't air our dirty laundry."
Sure I should. This is an argument as old as the hills and is not specific to Korea. And it sometimes has a point. There's a time and place for everything. Focusing one the internal political strife within the Black Panthers during the late 1960's probably would not have been a good time to do that. Breaking ranks and criticizing one's political party probably isn't something you want to do right before an election you'd like to see it win. But sometimes – most of the time – this argument is just a bullshit cover for being uncomfortable with challenging the status quo, or just being plain uncomfortable. But embarrassment has its benefits, if you are familiar with history. The treatment of Blacks during the 1960's was embarrassing to the US's image abroad, especially in our Cold War fight with the Soviet Union for the right to look right. Pictures of dogs being sicced on peaceful demonstrators while being picked up off their feet by firehoses were placed on the front pages of Pravda and used to ridiculed America's boast of fighting for "freedom" in the world. That embarrassment led the federal government to want to solve the problem quickly, the sending of federal troops to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, and was generally responsible for the institutional support of the Civil Rights Movement. I am pretty Hegelian in my belief that progress comes from the inherent clash between thesis and antithesis, one that leads to a better, higher balance between opposing forces. For Korea, now is the time. In a country that has developed and now needs and wants to live up to its own stated principles of "liberal democracy" and "freedom", it's time to put up or get come-upped. Photographers and writers, performers and artists, intellectuals and academicians, politicians and pundits – it's time to air out them dirty secrets and try to get 'em cleaner. And by the way, in an increasingly globalizing economy and world, there's no such thing as any "dirty laundry" that outsiders can't see, anyway. Maybe that was true for a Korea nobody cared about, in which there were no significant numbers of Korean-speaking non-Koreans, in which no one really had any real stakes in this place. But now – we read ya'lls books, newspapers, and watch your television and movies. Isn't that what you wanted? Which brings me back to that cake saying...
"You can't know Korea."
Ah, the argument of cultural essentialism. Resting upon faulty assumptions that "culture" is some magical commodity passed down through the blood, or that a real understanding of Korean history is only available to those possessing Korean surnames, is the idea that foreigners have nothing really useful to say about Korea because foreigners are incapable of really knowing anything about Korea. The seemingly innocuous version of this manifests itself after, for example, having given a complex, highly theoretical conference presentation on changes in the nature of Korean national identity in relation to the growth of the economy in the late 1980's and early 1990's, in which I talked about all sorts of esoteric things that rely on obscure primary sources in Korean – afterwards the Koreans sitting around my table at dinner marveled at the fact that I could order food in Korean. How the hell did you think I did all that research if I couldn't speak Korean? I scream to myself in my mind. The truly irritating flip side of this is when I make assertions about Korean history or offer my informed opinion about some aspect of Korean society and am dismissed by some university undergraduate who has never cracked a textbook that wasn't approved by the Ministry of Education, and wants to point out my American "bias" and how there are some things that "only Koreans can know." Oooook. Just being "Korean" doesn't guarantee a knowledge of Korean history, nor does it mean that person has the right – and certainly not the qualifications – to speak for all Koreans. Too many times, I've heard in heated conversations that "No Korean would ever..." or "You just don't understand how Koreans think" deployed in order to prove a point. In all such cases, I know or know of lots of Koreans who have done just that thing, and I think I do have some sense of how Koreans think, but I just happen to disagree with the speaker's point. Equating me disagreeing with a Korean on a specific issue with "Not understanding Korea" is a rhetorical cheap shot and just plain arrogant. And most of the time, the "No Korean would ever..." argument is easily refuted by simply reading the newspaper. Korea's a big society, with lots of people doing all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. It's telling that most of the people I've ever heard utter this argument come from sheltered families, probably do not read the newspaper, nor think critically about what it does and doesn't say, and accept state propaganda as fact. Like the female grad student who butted in on a conversation to offer her "expert" opinion that sex work (the topic of much conversation when the government released new statistics at the end of 2002) wasn't like we were anecdotally describing and that we were just weird foreign guys looking at Korea the wrong way. When I irritatingly asked her, "Then do you think they actually give haircuts at barber shops?" she snapped back, "What else would they do there?!" When we told her about the almost universal experience of most foreign guys who walk into these places with the barber sign and quickly learn that there ain't no hair being dealt with in the damp, dark depths of these mostly underground establishments, she was near tears. We decided to change the topic because it's hard to be unplugged from the Matrix against one's will; it's a shock to the system. But for foreigners – especially foreign people who actually know a thing or two (and who were actually relying on the government's own stated conservative statistics in this case) – encountering this kind of argument is really irritiating: "I'm Korean. Don't you think I would know?!" No, actually, I'm saying that being Korean doesn't mean one is automatic "expert."
"Only Koreans can understand certain things."
Well, if there are only certain things that people can know – if there is nothing universal in the pursuit of higher knowledge – I guess we all better stop studying each other's histories, translating great works of literature into other languages, and stop trying to understand different people's views of the world based on their individual experiences and identities. What's the point, eh? Knowledge is too particular for the Other to want to gain it, anyway. Let's leave things to the red-faced, self-assured undergraduates and angry nationalist bloggers to educate the rest of us. After all, "It's an X thang; ya'll wouldn't understand." All irritated complaining aside, I do believe that our experiences and identities allow insiders a point-of-view that is somewhat unique; but I refuse to believe that the nature of human experience itself is so specific that one cannot empathize by affective analogy and sympathetic imagination. Can a man understand being raped? Can a white person understand a black person being called "nigger?" Can a Japanese person understand many Koreans' anger towards them? My answer is a resounding "yes." One might not understand actually having the experience, but every human being is wired to have the same emotions, even if we all don't have the same exact experiences. But the human ability to imagine by analogy, to generalize from the specific, is endemic to the way our brains work, to the way we organize the world, to being what we define as intelligent creatures. And regardless, ghettoization of both identity and the intellect leads us nowhere. At least striving in the other direction – that of empathizing with analogous experience – leads in a positive direction. So when Koreans say that the emotions of "jeong" or "han" are things that foreigners can't know, or that only Koreans could really possess the "soul" to make a traditional instrument sing, I beg to differ.