December 31, 2014

Superstar K and Rabid Nationalism

It gets so tiring after a while browsing Korean videos, noticing the number of comments attacking Korean celebrities and people in general as "plastic" or "fake" when the video has nothing to do with beauty or appearance. I noticed this after watching a number of videos about a Filipino girl group called "Mica" who were featured on Superstar K. This group did not make it to the final round, so there were a number of comments from largely Filipino viewers that it was due to discrimination for being non-Korean as well as for not being "fake" like Korean stars, both of which are preposterous if you recognized the talent that was displayed on that show. I don't know of any contestant on that show that had plastic surgery and I will not assume that someone has had plastic surgery just because they are beautiful. That is offensive and degrading. Unless there are obvious surgical scars or you have seen before pictures that contradict this, you really can't say that. There were a lot of average and natural looking Koreans who made it further, so the claims about favoring "plastic" contestants were unsubstantiated. And the notion that the Filipina group was discriminated against for being non-Korean was unfounded as well. I thought the judges and the show in general were pretty generous with how far they let this group go into the competition, considering the fact that they were kind of awkward in their stage presence, messed up the pronunciation of Korean songs, and over sang a lot. Being a talented performer is not about showing off and belting as much as you can, but knowing when to pull back and be subtle. They also could have worked on their presentation because the way they dressed was a bit shabby. The other contestants didn't wear flashy clothes necessarily, but they were clean cut and presentable. Perhaps it was a budgetary problem, but they could have done a better job without spending a lot of money. As a performer, you need to take responsibility for how you present yourself, including how you dress. There were people who have shown up for Superstar K in t-shirts and blue jeans, but they were clean and presentable, so money is not the issue. I was amazed at how un-objective some viewers were in evaluating their performances just because they were from the same country as the singers. If those girls had gone to a non-Korean country, they probably wouldn't have gotten translators to help them through the competition. I believe that they were given a lot of accommodation by the judges and the show in general despite the fact that the producers would not make a lot of money from having them on the show as Superstar K does not really broadcast in the Philippines, so there would not be much revenue from that audience. Some Filipino viewers were a bit culturally chauvinistic, saying that the show should just name those girls the winner after their first appearance, never considering that it's a talent competition and a show that needs to create revenue. National ego does not supersede the fact that Superstar K is a business that people rely on for work and revenue. There are other contestants in the competition that deserve a chance and your desire to have a fellow countryman be named the winner does not negate any of that. It is a bit self-serving and arrogant as if to say, "Korea, you should bow down to the talent of these Filipinas because they are better than any of the Korean and other contestants will be."

It's ironic that people can be this nationalistic because these women, formerly known as the Gollayan Sisters, have been on talent shows in their home country, the Philippines, and yet they only went so far there despite having won a number of singing competitions in their home country like "It's Showtime" (ABS-CBN News). They went pretty far on Superstar-K, a Korean show, given their performances, yet some viewers are criticizing that show and Korea in general for not giving them a place further in the competition. Superstar-K did not have to accept these contestants into the competition. The show did not have to hire a translator to assist them during the competition. The judges did not have to be so generous with them. But the show was generous and yet that is not acknowledged by these nationalistic commenters because the only acceptable outcome would be having those Filipina women win the competition. If you want your singers to go far, why not take responsibility for that in the Philippines instead of blaming Korea for not giving them the chance? If the Filipino record industry cannot recognize their talent, why should Korea? The competition was actually too generous to those women because objectively, they did not perform as well as the other contestants. There was a lot of victim-whining on the part of some commenters, saying that the Korean judges should give those women more time to learn how to sing in Korean. This is a Korean singing competition, so it should be a given that you should know how to sing Korean well. Actually, there were other foreign contestants on Superstar K that sang much better than these Filipina girls, but they were eliminated much earlier, like Greg from the U.S. and a Muslim Indonesian singer. I don't know if they were on the same season, but they were eliminated much earlier than this girl group. I believe that they did not get as far as these women because they did not have much of a sympathy card due to the fact that they were a little older and came off as more strong and independent and better off. Those Filipina girls were barely in adulthood and gave a more sympathetic image due to their youth and hard luck image. You can't deny the importance of a profound personal story in the context of reality television. So despite the claims of discrimination and unfairness, I would have to disagree with the nationalistic commenters and say that the group was given a lot of favor despite their lackluster performances.

As a side note, Jessica Sanchez, the Filipina-Mexican American singer who was a finalist on American Idol performed much more skillfully than Mica. However, even after Phillip Phillips won instead of her, I did not notice as many negative comments about America besides the observation that it was due to race that she was not chosen as the winner. I would have to agree with that assessment as the talent level between her and the other contestant was large. She also belted too much in the beginning, but took P. Diddy's advice about holding back and she followed through with that. Mica also got a similar note from an established Korean female singer, yet they continued to belt, showing that they were not willing to learn and work on themselves. It's not just about having potential, but knowing how to realize it. That is something that those girls need to learn. Conversely, John Park did not get as far on American Idol, yet you did not hear racist or offensive comments from Koreans regarding that because objectively, he was not the best performer in the group despite being a great singer. I really don't know who it serves to respond so immaturely to such outcomes, fair or not. It's being part of the problem instead of working toward a solution. I was pretty disappointed and amazed that people could be that racist, petty, and immature.

So You Want to Marry a Korean

Reading a number of comments, it surprises me how naïve some people can be regarding this issue. You can see this on a number of Korea-related sites like blogs or videos on Youtube, etc. On one hand, you have the female Kpop or Korean drama fans who want to marry a Korean because they think that he will be like someone from a drama or look like a Kpop star, the latter actually being more realistic than the former. On the other hand, you have these foreign guys who want to marry Korean women because of what they see in those mediums as well as stereotypes they have about Korean women. Regardless of the images they have about Koreans, they will be somewhat moderated by actual experiences dating them. I say "somewhat" because even after dating, there are lingering assumptions that continue unless they are dispelled beforehand either through experience or dialogue. In order for that to happen, people need to realize what they really want out of a marriage and discuss that before getting serious. I find that people who are not Korean, yet are looking specifically to marry a Korean have a bit of a shopper's mentality, being consumeristic, looking to see what they can get out of the relationship rather than recognizing it for the responsibility and commitment that it is. Because there is an underlying assumption that they will get this fantasy marriage and everything will be great, but how are they going to make that happen when they don't really know what they want and what they need to do to create it?

There is a reason a lot of Korean parents object to their children marrying out of the culture. Because they believe that there will be a cultural gap between themselves and their child's spouse. Like every culture, Koreans have an idea of what a proper husband or wife is, what a proper marriage is, and what a proper mother/father is. And these ideas are shaped by the culture, so it is natural to expect that if you are from a different culture, that you will have at least somewhat different ideas about what those things are. There is a way to relate to parents that may be different from culture to culture. In Korea, the wife has a greater responsibility to care for her in-laws than in the West. This can take various forms, but generally more would be asked of a daughter-in-law in Korea than the son or daughter. The son would be relied upon for financial support, but more care would be required of the daughter-in-law.  The daughter, if she was married, would generally not be asked for much support as she would have her own husband, in-laws, and children to tend to. In the West, parents usually rely on their children first before getting help from their daughter-in-law as they have less of a responsibility. Of course, it varies from family to family, but generally children are relied upon first before asking sons and daughters-in-law for additional support. Non-Korean wives might be taken aback by the amount of responsibility required by their Korean in-laws. This might be minimal in the case of couples who live separately from the husband's parents or it may require more effort if the couple lives with the parents in addition to celebrating je-sa (ancestral worship).

I know of a Korean movie actress who lived in the U.S. with her husband, son and his American wife along with their daughter. Never have I seen a Korean woman so angry on a show. This woman was livid because her daughter was not Korean and so unfamiliar with a lot of Korean customs, naturally. The setup they had was that the Korean woman cooked for the family instead of her American daughter-in-law. I could understand why she chose to do that, probably because her daughter-in-law did not know how to cook Korean meals. On the other hand, I could not understand why she did not choose to teach her American daughter-in-law how to do so. At that time, the granddaughter was about four years old, so there should have been plenty of time for her to teach her daughter-in-law by then. Instead, the actress was so angry because she felt so burdened by the responsibility of cooking the family meals when she should have been relaxing as the mother-in-law. It was a very awkward situation as she did not really acknowledge her daughter-in-law and there was a lot of hostility displayed as she prepared the meals. Of course, if a mother-in-law has to spend a lot of time teaching her daughter-in-law how to do a good job, that is considered a failure because the daughter-in-law should come prepared to take on that role before she gets married. If you are not Korean, you probably aren't going to get that information because it is something that Korean mothers pass on to their daughters. That is why you see much less marriages between Korean men and foreign women. Daughters-in-law are too much of an integral part of the family that if your son marries the wrong woman, then it really disrupts the family order. As a daughter-in-law, you have to know how to attend to your in-laws, the extended family, as well as deal with friends of your husband and in-laws, most of whom will probably be Korean. If your child is brought up in Korea, you have to know how to be an education manager and deal with the Korean school system because that is what your child will need to master if they are to have a good future.

If you are a son-in-law, you will not be expected to be an education manager, as women are generally given the responsibility of primary caregiver for children. You will, however, be expected to be a good provider. Most of the foreigners that are in Korea are in the military or English teachers, both of which do not have a great reputation in Korea. They're generally not lucrative positions with a few exceptions and they do not have a good status due to bad behavior on the part of some in those groups. Obviously, there are Korean women who marry some of these men, but not necessarily with great support from their families. I've seen a lot of posts citing the advantages that foreign men have over Korean ones and I can't really say that I agree with them because they are generally based on false stereotypes of Korean men as being more sexist and too traditional.  I would generally agree that Korean men are more traditional than Western men, but I don't think that necessarily has to mean more sexist. There are a lot of young Korean men who do help out with childcare and chores when both spouses work. In traditional households, there is a delegation of responsibility where the man is considered the provider whereas the woman is considered the homemaker. I don't see one role as lesser, but just different. There have been comments about how foreign men are more accepting of heavier women, but I have seen plump women get married to Koreans. Korean men do prefer a thinner standard than Western men, but that is just one consideration and not a deal breaker overall. Marrying a foreign man would give a Korean woman the opportunity to immigrate overseas, but what a petty reason to marry anyone. It's not like there are no other ways to immigrate besides marriage and to be frank, I don't think anyone wants to be used as a green card. Those marriages tend not to last. Marrying a foreign man would relieve the Korean woman from having to take care of the in-laws, but at the same time, would you really want to marry someone who was not willing to help out with your family? The reasons presented by some foreign men about how they are much better matches do not really add up because they are neglecting the fact that the Korean woman is going to have to give up something in the process. She may get all the benefits stated above. At the same time, she is giving up the prospect of someone who is going to understand her culture and her family in a way that is difficult if you are not raised in the Korean culture. She's going to have to explain a lot of things and her husband may or may not get it based on his willingness to understand and learn. For too many foreign men, being foreign is enough to be a good husband because of all the "advantages" they confer on their Korean wife. But they fail to recognize that there is going to be a sacrifice in the process on the part of the Korean woman. The same can be said of any couple in an intercultural marriage.

Marriage requires commitment and work. You need to make sure that you are on board in regards to children, family, finances, religion, etc. It's not just about feeling good about spending time with the other person. It's about taking responsibility so that you can be there as much as you need to be for the other person. It's not about how much you can get, but how much you are willing to give in the relationship. And that is what will determine whether your marriage will work out or not. So what people really need to understand is what they really want out of a marriage and whether they can help their partner out as well. Otherwise, they are just going to waste time and be disappointed in the end. If you marry someone from another culture, it's going to be different perhaps in a way that you don't like, so do your homework and make sure that you know what you are getting into because marriage is very different from dating. It's a responsibility.

The mixed couples who tend to do the best are ones where they did not seek to marry a partner of a specific ethnicity, but through happenstance found one another. Because it is ultimately about the other person's character and understanding and if you are stuck on a label, than you are just missing the whole point. If you are going to marry someone of another culture, you better do your homework and part of that is learning enough about your partner's culture to understand where they are coming from. They have only spent twenty plus years growing up and being part of that culture, so it is a big part of who they are. I really don't understand some foreign people (usually men) who do not make the effort to understand their partner's culture. It's like they are saying that the only thing that matters in the relationship is what they can get from it. That is not a formula for a great marriage and a big part of the reason why some mixed marriages do not last, because either people do not know what they are getting into or they are not willing to do the work necessary to make their marriage great. Learning about another culture is an education and a commitment, so Korean and other parents from cultures where marrying within the culture is strongly emphasized, are not being racist, but realistic and practical. It's all about understanding and if you are too self-centered to bother about it, then don't expect your Korean partner's parents to receive you warmly. That's why a lot of Koreans prefer to marry someone Korean because they want to be sure that they will be with someone who understands and respects the Korean culture. They don't have to go through the hassle of vetting out whether someone is truly committed to understanding or not. Yes, I am sure there are Koreans who are disrespectful or disinterested in the culture and good luck if you seek to lower yourself to that standard. If you want to marry someone, I would think that you would want to bring your best self to the relationship instead of getting away with being as jerky as you can. If you really want to marry a Korean person, you should make sure that you are going to be as great of a partner as a Korean could be. That's showing the same commitment to understanding and respecting the culture as an ideal Korean partner would. If you're not willing to do the work or take on that commitment, why even marry?

Ultimately, marriage is a responsibility. Some foreigners seem to think that it means that they will just continue the same experiences they had when they dated their partner. To a point, yes, but marriage is a different ball game and if you expect it to be exactly the same as when dating, you are headed for a mountain of trouble. The responsibilities expected of a partner in a Korean marriage are different from a Western one, especially in regards to care of in-laws. That's why you need to understand the culture so that you can understand your partner and his/her family more. If you're not willing to do that, I seriously question how ready you are for marriage to anyone, period. 

December 22, 2014

Simon and Martina and the Problem With User Created Authority

Edited 12/25 - See bolded part of 4th and 5th paragraph.

There is a danger to the user created authority generated by popularity on social media. This is evident in the case of Simon and Martina, two Canadian English teachers living in South Korea who have gained quite a following on Youtube to the point where they have been deferred to as an authority for all things Korean and Kpop by many viewers and unexpectedly, the media like Al Jazeera. It is an unfortunate turn of events as they really do not have the authority to speak as experts on such matters, lacking the requisite language skills or understanding of Korean history or culture that comes from critical analysis, formal education, or experience. I am aware of this because they have posted that they feel like it is enough to learn enough Korean to get around and enjoy life there, but that they are not really focused on being fluent. So I was taken aback recently after watching a video of them talking about single mothers in Korea. I thought they generally focused on Kpop and their own reflections about living as foreigners in Korea, but when you talk about major social issues, there is an extra onus of responsibility. You're still responsible for whatever you write, but you should take extra care when writing things about a society because they are major statements that people might take literally. It's not just rambling about your opinions, but asserting a "fact" and that does affect a lot of people.

In their video, they make a number of assertions that are false and unfounded. The most basic being that there is no term for single mother in Korean. There is. It's '미혼모' , which translates to 'unwed mother', a woman who has had a child out of wedlock, not a mother who becomes single through divorce or widowhood. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on single mothers as it is used in the Korean context, which is women who bear children out of wedlock. They mention that when Koreans do talk about single mothers, that they only use the English term. They deduce that it is due to the fact that no such term exists in Korean. What they fail to recognize is that perhaps Koreans do not use it as much because there is less of a stigma to the term "single mother", being that it is an English term which is not connected to the past when Koreans had a less favorable view of the phenomenon. Based on the limited information and interaction they have had with Korean single mothers, one Korean single mother, Simon and Martina drew a false conclusion. This happens quite a lot in the ESL blogosphere because you have a group of people who are drawing upon an incomplete set of information about Korea due to their lack of social contacts, language skills, and understanding of the Korean culture. I recall reading a similar post by a female Canadian expat who claimed that Korean culture did not expect Korean men to be good providers for their families and it was only the influence of their individual families and NOT Korean culture that made Korean men good providers. This really made me scratch my head as the breadwinner role is a strong expectation placed on Korean men, much greater than in the U.S. or other Western countries where house husbands are more accepted. This Canadian woman had the experience of dealing with a Korean husband who did not do his part to support their family, so she mistakenly assumed that it was a common practice in Korean culture. That is why it's so important to study and understand another culture if you want to interpret it correctly. Otherwise, you are just projecting your own cultural models and going off on limited and incorrect information.

To truly understand the plight of single mothers in Korea, you would have to have a basic grasp of sociology, Korean history, and know enough of the Korean language to interact with the right people who would be able to direct you to the right resources. Simon and Martina are not in this position. They are English teachers with an interest in Kpop who have lived in Korea for a few years. You can live in a country for 20 years and still not know much about the language or culture.  They may be able to share their individual experiences as foreigners living and working in Korea, but they cannot share an educated or informed opinion about the country because they don't really have the skills to do so. They are basing their opinions on limited interactions with Korean single mothers and Korean society in general. As foreign English teachers living in Korea, they aren't going to get the full Korean experience because they are so sheltered. The people they work with speak some English or there is at least one person around to help them in English. In Korea, foreigners are not really expected to know much Korean or that much about Korean culture, so they are given a lot of accommodation that Koreans would not normally get. They are getting the filtered down experience that foreigners who don't make enough of an effort to learn the language or culture to great fluency do. Because when you don't take time to understand a language or culture, you tend to impose your own constructs of them based on your home culture or language, essentially projecting a Western view on a Korean phenomenon. Just because you have a hammer does not mean that everything needs to be pounded. A hammer is not right for everything as an understanding of North American culture does not always translate to understanding Korean or other cultures. There's a different tool kit required and until you learn the language and culture properly, you're just not going to have it.

A lot of Koreans look down on unwed mothers because they are not considered respectable. The view is that if you were a proper lady, you would wait until marriage to have sex. In North America, waiting until marriage is largely considered prudish or, at the very least, unnecessary outside of a few circles. You can still be considered a respectable woman even after having had multiple sexual partners, but of course, there are exceptions. Generally, it is considered par for the course in relationship and dating life. In Korea, that is generally not the case. Waiting for marriage is the proper thing to do and if you don't, then you are not respectable, you were not raised properly, you do not have the right values. Because Korea is a more traditional and conservative society, that is the prevailing attitude. I do believe that there is discrimination against single mothers in Korea, but I really disagree with what Simon and Martin said as well as how they said it. Because they do not present a balanced view of things and are making a lot of ignorant assumptions about Korean society. They say that the lack of social services is a reflection of the prejudice toward single mothers in Korea. Perhaps, in part. But ultimately, it is reflective of the social welfare system in Korea. In Korea, people are expected to take care of their families, including their aging parents. By "aging parents", I do not mean people who are in their fifties or sixties. By "aging", I mean people who are in their seventies and eighties, who probably need assistance with driving, etc. Yes, they are both aging, but the distinction is that one group can be independent, while the other group needs caregiving support. There are a lot of young couples nowadays who live separately from the husband's parents. In more traditional families, however, couples are generally expected to live and take care of the husband's parents if the husband is the eldest or the only son.In America, the expectation is that you take care of your children until 18, but it really is up to the individual whether they will go beyond that. It's nice to take care of your parents, but there is not as much of a stigma as there is in more traditional societies to put them up in care facilities. Koreans also have facilities for the elderly, but it is generally expected that if you are able to do so, you should take on the care of your aging parents. The Korean government is interested in cutting out any unnecessary spending, so why should they spend as much on an expense that is not as necessary as in Western countries who have a different social structure? I'm not saying that the Korean government should not increase its welfare spending. What I am saying is that it has not been a priority until now because social welfare has largely been the responsibility of an individual's family in Korea. In the U.S., the government has to take on a greater burden for the social support of individuals because the nuclear family is not as prevalent. There does need to be a balance in recognizing that not every one has a supportive family that can help them. But excessive social welfare is not the answer.

Simon and Martina believe that the Korean government should provide support to single mothers. I will disagree in part. Ultimately, it is the parents job to provide for their children. I understand the government's reluctance to increase social welfare spending for single mothers as opposed to providing support for two-parent families who have children. Single motherhood is not something that should be encouraged. I'm not saying that women want to have babies so that they can get government support. I truly do not believe that people want to be on welfare, but that they go on it because they don't know how to get out of it. Welfare needs to exist because sometimes, people do fall on hard times despite their best efforts and there does need to be a social safety net to support people. However, the lax attitude toward premarital sex and children born out of wedlock in the U.S. has led to the alarming rate of roughly half of all first-born children in the U.S. being born to single mothers this year (CBS News). You can blame a lack of birth control for some of that statistic, but a large part of it has to do with the social acceptability of cohabitation before marriage as well as the idea that it is acceptable to have a child without being married first. Birth control is not 100% effective. Even if it is 99% effective, I doubt that would be great comfort to anyone who is part of the 1%. There are too many people that believe that a child should not be a consideration when deciding to marry their partner. If you are not compatible, then you are not compatible and that is what needs to be recognized. At the same time, there is a responsibility to the child to do your best to give them a two-parent, stable household. The role of a mother and father are equally important and it is in the best interests of the child to be given that when possible. The statistics are also inflated due to gay couples and single women choosing to have children on their own through artificial methods. In the case of the former, of course, they're not going to be married because gay marriage has not been legalized in most states. In the case of the latter, I disagree with the prospect. It is best for children to grow up in a stable, two-parent home. I believe in a compassionate government that emphasizes personal responsibility, but if there is too much support, the burden is taken away from fathers to support their children from divorce. I believe that there needs to be stronger enforcement for getting child support from deadbeat dads and that is something I agree with in the video. Is there discrimination against single mothers in Korea? Yes, but they make it seem like all single mothers are discriminated against. But I will have to take Simon and Martina to task for a lot of their unfounded assumptions.

They make a lot of mistaken assumptions about Korea for various reasons:

  1. They are not critical thinkers. I got that the first time that I saw their videos. They mean well, but they simply look at the world in too naïve and simple of a lens. They don't know how to discern information properly. They lack the ability for critical inductive and deductive reasoning. For one thing, they say that there is no stigma against deadbeat fathers in South Korea. That is not true. There is. I don't know of any Korean who would approve of a man not paying child support or taking care of his own children. But no one is going to announce to the world that they are a single father so that other people could gossip about him. Where would Simon and Martina or anyone hear about this unless they personally knew a deadbeat father? The only way they would hear it is through idle gossip, which his baby mama, her family, his family, and their friends are probably not going to do considering the stigma of out-of-wedlock pregnancy. It's easy to hide the fact that you are a deadbeat father, but not so much if you are a single woman with a child living with you. Those are simply the facts. Are there people in Korea who might not care? Sure, but that doesn't mean that deadbeat fatherhood is universally accepted in Korea without consequences.

  1. They don't know enough Korean to know what is being said out there in Korean media and society. They have posted that they have no desire to be fluent, but just know enough to get around and enjoy their life in Korea. This is very different from having enough Korean skill to read the media and understand sociological reports and studies. They are mainly getting their information from Korean news in English and from their own Korean friends, both of which are limited sources. The Korean news in English is filtered to the interests of foreigners. Individual stories from friends are not representative of the whole.

  1. They lack a nuanced understanding of the world. They want the world to fit into their lens of convenience. The world cannot be reduced to sound bites. If you are truly committed to understanding, you won't stop until you get it. They're a bit too reductive in the way they try to understand the world and Korea. One does not have to have a PhD. in ethnic studies to understand the impact of racism. Nor does one need a PhD. in Korean studies to understand Korea, but one does need to approach things with a critical mind.

If you are going to write something, be intelligent about it. Do your research. Truly understand whether you are going to have the skills to understand what you are talking about. If you say something ill-informed, it is your responsibility to correct that. People need to be more critical about what they choose to put out. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility. If you truly want to inform the world, you need to be committed to understanding otherwise you are just going to spout out a lot of ignorant nonsense and end up doing a lot of damage. I don't understand people who say whatever is on their mind without any consideration for how it impacts their audience. If you want your words to mean something, act like it and take responsibility. Unfortunately, too many people are unconscious and just believe anything that comes to mind. Simon and Martina are well-meaning, but they do a lot of damage by posting such ill-informed videos on Korea. It's not just about wanting to do well. You've got to take responsibility so that you don't do more damage in the process.