October 13, 2011

Don't Bring Your Baggage to Korea

Of course, I mean that figuratively. Don't bring your baggage to Korea. Korea is a different place with different customs and practices from your home country. It's easy to try to make things fit in a schema that you understand, but certainly not accurate. And that is why so many expats have problems in Korea, a big reason at least.

But if I can't understand Korea in the way I know how, how am I supposed to understand it? How will I be able to learn about it? By keeping an open mind and observing your environment, asking questions of those who are more experienced in this society, Koreans themselves. You think that because you don't hear Koreans complain about the country that they have no complaints, that they are unaware of what is happening in Korea? What a naive assumption. You really aren't in a position to know until you are in a position to KNOW what is going on around you, until you are able to engage with Koreans in a way that is meaningful, connecting to them emotionally and intellectually, approaching them with a certain level of empathy as well as communicating with them in their own language. Until you are able to communicate with Koreans in a way that allows a full exchange of ideas, you are not really seeing them for all that they are and all that Korea is. Empathy does not mean agreeing on everything, but it does mean approaching people with an open mind and heart. Too many expats are too quick to condemn/judge what is happening in Korea, so it is not a surprise that they are not able to see what is truly happening in Korea. How can they? With that kind of negative/judgmental attitude, what Korean person would really open up to them? What Korean would be so eager to share the weaknesses that they see/observe with a foreigner who judges/attacks them?

One's attitude is a form of personal baggage that one brings to Korea. That is not something that can be blamed on the country as we alone are responsible for our own mentality. But attitude is also something that we internalize from society as well. The more conscious an individual is, the less likely he/she will be affected by this cultural conditioning if he/she chooses to do so. But too many English speaking expats are not aware that they bring this conditioning to Korea and so they see their own perspective as the "norm", how things should be. They may say that something is racism when it is just rudeness like when they are bumped into on the subway. "For many foreigners, Seoul's notoriously abrupt public spaces remain a minefield, a realm of often too-few smiles where pedestrians rarely apologize for or even acknowledge accidental brushes or outright collisions (Los Angeles Times, Glionna)." Not to excuse racism or rudeness, but many Koreans can complain about this as well. When someone bumps into you on the Korean subway, it is most likely due to lack of consideration/awareness on their part, not something to be taken personally.

Racism does exist in Korea, just not to the level that many white English speaking teachers claim they experience. I would say that mixed race Koreans and foreigners with darker skin would have a much more legitimate and credible claim to the argument of racism. Mixed race Koreans have been discriminated in terms of being denied equal educational and work opportunities. Many were adopted overseas to avoid the discrimination that life in Korea would bring. But after Hines Ward became famous here, laws have been passed and there has been some progress on this front. Darker skinned foreigners are sometimes looked down upon for being dark and the negative associations that some Koreans have of dark people. White people are actually given preference over ethnic Koreans when it comes to certain jobs related to English/international business. Although ethnic Koreans may have grown up in a Western country and speak English like a native, many Koreans do not see them as credible sources of English language and Western culture due to their Korean face. They cannot believe that someone who looks Korean could be understanding or knowledgeable about Western culture/language in the way someone with a white face can. When I hear white teachers claim that they know what it feels like to be a black man in America due to their Korean experience, I am truly stupefied and amazed that some people could really be that ignorant. They don't know what it's like to be discriminated against in employment, education, etc. They don't know what it's like to be pulled over for driving while black. White people in Korea and many other non-Western places receive many advantages that are not afforded the native population. They come into a country where they have a very favorable image due to Hollywood movies and American pop culture. Why do you think some Korean girls are into white guys despite the lack of exposure to whites in Korea? It is certainly not their parents or society who strongly encourage marrying within the group and have reservations about foreigners, but the conditioning done by Hollywood media. Those Korean girls think that white men will be like the "gentle", romantic hero in Hollywood movies like Bradley Cooper, to take a modern-day example.

I have seen average looking white people receive treatment in Korean establishments that would be unprecedented for an ordinary Korean. I have seen an English guy ask the manager of Angelinus Coffee to carry his tray of drinks to the second floor. Most Koreans would not dare ask this as it would be considered poor taste to burden such a worker in that manner, especially one of that position, unless there was some special circumstance like disability. I have seen U.S. military officers IN UNIFORM order frozen yogurt IN ENGLISH without a flinch, acting as if it were perfectly normal to order that way at a Korean establishment. This store was FAR from the military base and not where one would expect English service. I have seen other instances of white people speaking English casually at a pharmacy and other establishments in Korea. The fact that some individuals act so casual and nonchalant about this and receive service in kind tells me that something is wrong, that some people are too ignorant of their own privilege.

Koreans don't expect foreigners to know anything, really, about Korea, whether it be the culture or customs. Foreigners are seen as guests and Koreans want them to have a good image of Korea as well as extend them hospitality that should be afforded to guests in Korean culture. So too often, foreigner faux pas are accepted as quirks unless completely egregious. Koreans are very understanding of foreigners and their lack of knowledge about the culture/customs of Korea. It is unfortunate that some foreigners do not extend the same courtesy toward Koreans.