Well, actually, I am a nice guy. I consider myself pretty well-adjusted, am polite to people, and tend to smile easily. In my spare time, I don't talk "shop" and tend to just talk about things "normal" people talk about: the virtues of the Mac, my new bootleg X-Box game, girls, et cetera. I like to leave my work at work and chill at home. Often, people who meet me for the first time are surprised to hear that I am an academic, in the final stretch of my long race to get a Ph.D., and that my work tends to focus on some pretty serious social issues.
What I think about as an academic is, admittedly, pretty serious stuff. My undergraduate degree is a double one in History and American Civilization, while my graduate degree training is in the department of Comparative Ethnic Studies, where my affiliated discipline is History, which meant that I was required to take a number of courses in that department as part of my coursework.Both Brown and Berkeley are considered liberal – to a fault – by many, although I'd have to say that these reputations generally describe a quite healthy atmosphere of debate – sometimes quite heated – that characterize the atmosphere of these institutions. Sure, there were some silly kneejerk "liberals" – which I guess is just as well, given the legions of knee-jerk "conservatives" out there – but the hammer of "political correctness" did not fall with the weight and seriousness that certain outspoken conservatives tend to point to as they complain about their aggrieved status as the only truly "open-minded" voices on such campuses.
If anything, my outlook, attitude, and the tone of this site reflect the atmosphere of open debate in which my intellectual maturing took place. One can accuse me of being "left" or "progressive" (guilty as charged), but you would have trouble defending a claim that I am close-minded, tow any supposed "liberal" party line, or don't examine the assumptions upon which my opinions rest. I'm consider myself a critical thinker, which leads me to closely examine the ideologies, histories, and other source of social control that leads people to think and do certain things.
My academic training in Ethnic Studies and History is inherently critical – through the lens of one's affiliated discipline, society is examined through the lens of social inequalities and brings to light new ways of examining the culture; instead of certain traditional lenses that tend to inform views from an "economic" perspective, or a "top-down" analysis of American history, perspectives in our field range from a traditional (for us) view that might focus on how "race" has been constructed as a social category in the United States, or something as new as using "queer theory" to take a critical look at heteronormativity (for those who might now know, this can be basically thought of as the culture of the "straight" majority that dominates society). A lot of non-academics like to scoff and eyeball-roll at such things, perhaps as they point out how "useless" such academic endeavors are; yet they miss the point and are quite uninformed as to what we really do.
Academics – especially in the humanities – are the people who are supposed to develop new ideas, concepts, and all kinds of social critiques that exist in the realm of theory, or at somewhere outside of what one might call "practical." Although you might not know it by virtue of a superficial glance around the bookstore or look at the culture, a lot of the stuff that undergraduates and the academically untrained pooh-pooh away as "irrelevant" are actually quite the opposite. Arguments and ideas that first popped up in academic conversations about the state of post-modernity, critical race theory, literary theory, all kinds of feminist theory, nationalism studies, or the new field of "whiteness studies" have all popped up in the lay culture. They have offered frameworks to think about after the fact – as well as given ample warnings about before – things such as Katrina, the nature of police brutality, social inequalities in the criminal justice system, problematic patterns of media representation in the media, major problems in American social policy, warnings about the failure of the public education system, and why Eminem has actually said some really smart things about white privilege.
Fields, departments, and disciplines such as Ethnic Studies, Film Studies, Gender/Women's Studies, African-American Studies, Queer Studies, American Studies, English and the like actually offer the freshest and most relevant academic ideas coming out of academia these days, many of which produce extremely useful information or ways to think about some pretty important things going on in our society. The eternal problem is that we new-wave academics often get blasted for the stuff that isn't good, or sometimes downright ridiculous; while a problem for new fields such as mine, don't think that bad and silly dissertations don't get produced in other departments; they're just not held up to the scrutiny and suspicion that the new ones are. And on the flip side, if you knew how many smart and academically innovative people came out of such departments, and also acknowledged how very much these people add to society's greater knowledge about itself – perhaps in ways that the stodgier old departments don't as much – you wouldn't scoff.
Ah, but such is the life of a beleagured academic – never appreciated, always snickered at, the collective nerd who is still given a wedgie in school. Yet, that nerd is the one who writes society's software, although most of the users don't inquire too much as to how the sausage is made, except for the occasional time when nasty things happen, or what we make occasionally offends society's traditional sensibilities. It's sort of like when you may have found out that Jello™ is made from the ground up hard parts of animals; I didn't eat it for a long time – the same was true with Spam – until it became the next time I ate it. Simple as that – I got over it because, well...who doesn't eat Jello? Tastes pretty good. Mixed and perhaps inappropriate metaphors aside, this is how I think of academics; we're useful, but nobody thinks so until after the fact, someone happens upon a topic that becomes the fad of the day, or until somebody needs and expert talking head. Good examples: people studying Farsi now, who were Asian/African-American Studies around and after the LA Riots, or writing "useless" computer software in the 1970's.
But you have to know that most real academics in the humanities don't get paid well, never will, and actually get the eternal nerd treatment for just being who we are. Our parents always ask us when we're going to get a "real" job, and many of us progressively find it less and less fulfilling to talk to non-academics. It's a lonely, dirty job, but one truly easily explained because of the fact that we love what we do. Why and how the heck else could anyone do it? So no matter what you may think about a particular idea or new book that came out, don't just dismiss it as "talking out of our ass." Remember that it is because of smart people doing just that very thing that much of society's good ideas, greater inspirations, and necessary criticisms come from people like us. We may not always say what people like to hear, produce the art that is comfortable to take in, books that are safe bestsellers, or teach ideas that are popular at the moment – but just remember that it's an ongoing, greater conversation and that it is never, ever the end of the world (or the culture). People've been saying that ever since there has been a culture to say it in, which is something that will never change. So – relax.
That being said, I now come to the topic of why I don't say more "nice" things about Korea, which is a question I've been asked many times before and that also popped up again in a recent comment posted to this blog. I've said it before and I'll say it again – I take the role of this blog pretty seriously. As you may have noticed, it's not a personal blog, a daily chronicle of my life, or witty musings on "funny" things that Koreans do. It's not a news site, nor does it have a particular agenda, such as focusing on the lives of GI's here in Korea, or is the community site for a certain social scene. If there's any rhyme or reason to the blog, it might be best described as the less formalized writing of an academic who is used to analyzing, typifying, classifying, and theorizing. In the process of doing so, sometimes things get oversimplified, possibly misrepresented, and even may reify things as things that perhaps actually aren't. And sometimes, such as in the last sentence, I'll say things that pretty much only other academics will be able to make sense out of, but usually, I don't engage in pure academic-speak.
So if I do have an "agenda," it is to use my academic training, focused through years of experience researching, teaching, writing, photographing, interviewing, and doing all kinds of idea-related work here in Korea. I don't think I'm an irrefutable expert, nor do I think that everything I say is necessarily correct, nor the proper way to think by virtue of the fact that I have said it. I've never assumed that level of arrogance and never plan to. Of course, I do think that a lot of the things I say and the arguments I make are correct and perhaps even a proper way to think for reasons that I make an effort to make clear, which is something that anyone with opinions to share should do; otherwise, why write a blog, publish a book, enter into a debate?
Point is, I try to make this blog a source of useful academic and intellectual thinking about Korea. If only for the facts that I have been here a long time, entered this country and culture in a different way than a lot of the people who are presently here, and therefore have thought a lot about many of the issues that come up for expats here in Korea; I notice that a lot of people get to thinking about issues of race, gender, the meaning of culture, the processes and effects of social change, cultural relativism, and comparisons between different models of multiculturalism; foreigners, in all their various ways, get to talking and thinking about challenging artificially constructed social categories, questioning the notion of "progress", examining issues of imperialist cultural power and white privilege, rethinking notions of "Americanness," re-examining state nationalism, and thinking harder about the fuzzy line that separates race and culture; there are a million things we think about in our respective sojourns away from our home cultures here.
These debates are not articulated in this way, with these words, but these are the conversations I see happening in abundance nevertheless. I just described them in academic terms, and although the actual conversations are not overtly academic, the issues they deal with could stand to have a dose of theory, history, and the application of a more rigorous logic when examining tricky issues. Too often, people – both here and and back home – tend to treat issues such as "race" or "culture" as simple, easy-to-think things that can be discussed in terms of "common sense" logic and convenient little catchphrases; "Love is colorblind" or tricky notions such as "Korea is a traditional culture, America is a modern one" sound good, but they leave out way too much to actually come together into something more profound, something that gets above the fray of Saturday afternoon BBQ small talk.
Especially when dealing with issues, ideas, and most importantly – emotions – that were forged in the fires of many kinds of ideologies and interests, were often partially hidden at the time and have only been revealed to the eyes of history later, and were so tied up with other societal factors and functions – having such conversations without the benefit of a look to some concrete history and a little bit of theory doesn't really result in anything. We just talk in circles, amongst people who are have similarly superficial (if yet divergent) views on an issue, with none of the people in the conversation having really spent much time outside of that particular conversation actually thinking about, looking into, reading, or gaining some kind of direct and particular experience in that issue.
Take for example, the hot-button issue for many Americans – affirmative action – and all the arguments that ensue when this issue is brought up.
"It's reparations for slavery, we deserve it!"
"Since it looks at skin color, it's racist."
"I don't support quotas."
"It's discriminatory against Asians."
"I didn't discriminate against anyone, so why do I have to be penalized for it?"
While I always allow room for difference of opinion, the statements above are all based on either false assumptions caused by poorly-defined definitions and/or factually inaccurate information. In order to understand the real issues around affirmative action and the law, as well as come to an informed conclusion about the subject, one cannot just make grandstanding speeches about what is right or wrong about affirmative action without even actually understanding what the mechanism is. Here are the basic facts of the matter that are simply required knowledge:
Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment (yeah, you heard of it, but have you read it lately and understand the wide ramifications for much of civil rights law?)
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the logical and 100 years overdue federal law that actually put teeth into preventing discrimination. Few people believe that it should legal to deny certain groups of people equal access to facilities, jobs, housing, or any other part of the public sphere, right?
President Johnson's U.S Executive Order 11246, later updated by Executive Order 11375 and others. This was the origin of the term "affirmative action" and the requirement that certain organizations had to take it.
Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke, which really set the initial terms for the way affirmative action would find expression in higher education. If you know this case, you'd know that quotas have been illegal since 1978. Since then, racial classifications have had to meet the standards of "strict scrutiny," meaning that such classifications are looked at with suspicion, and have to meet the standards of having a "compelling interest" to the university community.
Anyway, once you break a few things down, and also become familiar with the many categories that are defined as a "compelling interest" to a university community, or other factors that inevitably affect admissions, such as:
Geographic diversity (e.g. purposely taking students from underrepresented states and regions) keeps the school more full of different experiences and points of view.
International diversity, which works with the same rationale in the international sense.
Legacy admissions, in which sons and daughters of alums get a tip of the scale in their admissions profile to keep the alumni donors and families happy.
Special, non-academic talents, such as playing the oboe, being an all-state swimmer, being a star quarterback.
Financial status, in the case of universities not flowing in the cash (i.e. they cannot offer "needs-blind admissions"), is something taken into account for a percentage of students (depending on the university's financial limitations) when looking at their profile.
Racial diversity, which is certainly as beneficial as either geographic or international diversity, no?
So, given the fact that there are at least as many other students who receive a tick in their favor on their admissions file for non-academic considerations, such as coming from Iowa, or Germany, or being the son of a alumnus, or being able to play the oboe, or just being able to afford the full tuition without financial aid – why is the only thing that is attacked as "unfair" because the minority students in question are allegedly not entering according to the same conditions of "merit" is affirmative action? If people were so concerned about merit and qualifications, then there would be broadside attacks against legacy admits, as well as students from public high schools in the Midwest getting an easier shot at going to an East Coast ivy League School. But isn't it interesting that no one is attacking those students? That no lawsuits are being filed because of the underqualified sons and daughters of rich people? Do they deserve to be there any more than a Latino kid from the barrio who had to work twice as hard to get the points in his admissions file from a public school with no AP classes, no access to SAT and college prep courses, who is perhaps the first person in his family to even think about attending college? I'm not saying that this person needs to be felt sorry for and deserves a spot more, but one can see the argument that this person might deserve that spot no less, no? Especially since we're tipping the scale for other categories of freshmen?
I'm not saying that the system is perfect; I'm just saying that the system isn't unfair in the way most people think it's unfair, because they don't actually know 1) the details of the admissions process and how many universities actually rate prospective students, and 2) most people are completely unfamiliar with the legal basis for the practice of affirmative action, and are actually talking in circles about things that are simply not factually accurate.
Here's my point: most hot-button, controversial issues are at least this complex, if not more. Is the high level of controversy not a hint that this is true? If the issue were simple, cut-and-dry – it wouldn't be controversial, now would it? These issues – such as the origins of racist stereotypes in Korean culture – are worth thinking about and getting down and dirty with, but don't do the issue the injustice of simply dismissing them with a passing thought and total lack of information; it's like saying, "Well, since I don't really know much of anything concrete about it, I guess there's not much really to consider." It sounds ridiculous, but I see this happening all the time:
"It's just part of Korean culture. We're not used to foreigners."
"It's the same everywhere; why are you attacking Korea?"
"It's all the American media's fault – don't blame us, blame yourselves!"
These aren't answers. They're vague, intellectually undisciplined ways of brushing aside the issue. My blog is written in the effort to try to answer these questions in terms of real, plausible theories based on evidence and informed analysis. Now, some people simply don't like people being critical or putting uncomfortable subjects under the microscope; they think it "makes Korea look bad." Trust me when I say that if every foreigner who saw something in Korea that "makes Korea look bad," there would be no foreigners here at all. Anywhere. Seriously.
And the other thing is that in the West, there is a pretty healthy culture of public debate, and in developed countries, there is a lot of room for social criticism. One might be accused of being "unpatriotic" or something equally silly, but you don't often hear people accusing journalists, writers, photographers, or artists fretting about the country's international image.
I know that Korea's a country that was just yesterday a developing country trying to throw off the chains of sadaejuui, colonialism, and national devastation after the war. However, now Korea's a developed country, has self-consciously styled itself as such in the international arena, and is actively taking part in international organizations, has sent its military to several theaters of conflict, and is playing an increasingly larger role in international trade, among many other things.
My job isn't to sit here and fawn about the beauty of the "morning calm" experienced on a spring morning in front of the Kyeongbokkung Palace or talk about my 14th visit the Yongin Folk Village. I live here. I'm not a tourist. I'm doing the job that I would do in the States, according to both my formal academic training and intellectual inclinations.
The types of foreigners, as well as the varieties of work we do, and the increasing level of familiarity some of us are starting to have with the language and society, is starting to increase and diversify. A few of us, as we start to diverge from the demographic profile that can describe the majority of foreigners here, are going to start talking, writing, researching, photographing, or making art about the society we find ourselves in; some of us may even start to dissolve the line that defines the boundary between here and "home"; some of us may even start to develop so many affective ties here that this place may start to seem more like home than the places from whence we came.
Have we not then earned the right to add out opinions – yes, even our critical ones – to the public sphere? And have any of the critics of our apparent criticism ever stopped to think about why a lot of us may tend to have negative experiences or a critical attitude about certain aspects of Korean society? If there is a moral aspect to some of these things – i.e. perhaps such things as discrimination, sexual harassment, or the rights of access to certain sectors of society that Korean citizens enjoy – are we not entitled to raise our voice? I mean, "Korea" has a self-stated goal of becoming an international player, of wanting to "globalize", of engaging in a program of "internationalization." One can't, in the same breath, just say, "Well, you don't have the right to say anything. It's Korea. You're not Korean. So stop saying bad stuff."
Well, I pay Korean taxes. I participate in the economy. I teach students. I've done work and research that directly benefits this country. I've learned the language and put in my time here. I'm a human being, entitled to certain basic things. Take your pick – I think I'm entitled to make my voice heard without being called out because I'm not being "nice" or my opinions are too "negative."
That's an ill-thought and short-sighted provincialism that is not only insulting, quite frankly, but patronizing and condescending.
Anyway, to paraphrase Cedric the Entertainer, "I'm goin' say something."
My obligation isn't to be some "nice" foreigner who likes to stroke the egos of nationalist Koreans, to be the dancing clown on TV who puts on a hanbok and sings Korean folk songs while the audience oohs and aahs and revels in this performance of buffeting national pride. Yeah, most Koreans love those fools and bristle at a foreign face actually sitting down and saying something substantial. I think, unfortunately, that many Koreans prefer a foreign clown to a critic.
Sorry – I'm not gonna play the clown.