Saturday, July 26, 2008

Ask a Korean! Guest Blogger: Roboseyo - Why are Koreans Hypersensitive to Criticisms from Non-Koreans?

Soundtrack time: hit play and start reading.

Everything about You, by Ugly Kid Joe.

So, the next big question, and it's a biggie, is: When Expats, or other International voices, or basically, Non-Koreans DO criticize Korea,

Why do Koreans get so damn defensive?

Michael Breen, writer of a book every person should read in their first month in Korea, and Korea Times columnist, wrote an article criticizing Korea's beef protests, and was criticized in return for not understanding the true meaning of the protests, and/or for being too critical of Korea (I didn't read the letters to the editor, or possibly the avalanche of comments on the Korea Times website, to which he was obviously responding). responding to those who dismissed his criticisms of recent Korean protests as base K-bashing:

The other thing to remember is that people are extra-sensitive to what ``foreigners" say.

The Korean view of nationalism is race-based. In other words, the thing that you are taught in Korean schools and homes that distinguishes you, as a Korean, from other nations, is your race. Although the world is politically structured around the concept of the nation, few countries distinguish themselves by race. Korea is one and that means that when a bald white face such as mine leers at you from the pages of this newspaper, it is immediately recognized as foreign. Yes, it is a vision of beauty, you find yourself thinking, but no, it is not Korean. That means that, even though I've lived and paid taxes here longer than most Koreans, I am immediately perceived as an outsider commenting from my hotel room. Thus, any criticism is taken to be the rudeness of the visitor. 

And even when that is the case, it is never meant. OK? Group hug? 

Now, Breen's lived in Korea a long, long, long time, but as soon as he criticizes Korea, he is demoted to "an outsider commenting from my hotel room." Conversely, I've discovered, if I tell people how much I like Korean barbeque, and how much I enjoy Kim Kwang Seok, and name-check Korea's top five pop-stars, I'm told I'm practically Korean -- a blue-eyed Korean, if you will. I'm welcomed into the club. . . as long as I only have nice things to say. This kind of double-think reminds me of a movie I watched when I was a kid, where every time a father saw his son do something well, he'd say, "That's my boy. Look what my son did!" but whenever he stepped out of line or did something disappointing, the dear old man would point at his wife and say, "Look what your boy just did!"

Without the defensiveness, the expat complaining would be a non-topic -- the dynamic is what makes this interesting at all. I'm still not convinced that expats in Korea complain more than expats anywhere else, but there's a perception going around that they do, and that put-upon attitude is reflected in many, many comments all around the blogs about Korea (poke around yourself: won't take long to find them). As far as mentioning beefs and complaints in person, to Korean friends and students, I've had the full range of responses, from interested attention, to a surly, "if you don't like it, you should go home".

Myself, I don't mind a reasoned defense, I don't mind a discussion or a debate, but I DO mind being accused of hating something when I'm only trying to discuss it, and I DO mind attempting to learn somebody's views on something, only to have my questions or suggestions met with an emotional backlash, or a slogan, and I really mind the attitude, not that my complaints are incorrect, or formed upon false assumptions (which the debater is capable of pointing out to me), but that my non-Koreanness means I shouldn't be saying what I'm saying, like the Korean who suggested his netizen buddies try to "correct" Brian in Jeollanamdo's critical attitude.

So assuming I've expressed my complaint reasonably and fairly. . . whence the defensiveness, as if some people think we expats are not allowed to criticize?

Now I have to defer to The Korean on this topic, and acknowledge first that, not being a Korean myself, I'm sure there are nuances or points I'll get wrong, or miss completely, even as The Korean warned me in an early e-mail "you know, I'm only one Korean -- I can't REALLY speak for everyone -- just remember that, K?" (paraphrased) However, when I run into the attitude that I'm not allowed to complain, because of things about me which I can't change (for example, my race, age, birthplace, or mother tongue), there are a few things that I think to myself, to calm myself down. They're generalizations, but you know, looking for patterns is something we humans naturally do -- Grok, who notices patterns in animal tracks, is a more successful hunter, and has a better chance of surviving to reproduce than Throg, who just kind of goes into the forest and does whatever with a sharp stick in his hand, and hopes he lucks into some food for his wife (whose behaviour he is completely incapable of reading--which doesn't help him propagate, either, especially since she invented a couch for him to sleep on). I don't think making generalizations is wrong in and of itself-- if generalizations are used to try and understand otherwise mystifying phenomena, they can be useful. If they're inflexible agents of judgement, that's when they get hurtful instead of helpful.

Apologies and butt-coverings aside, let's acknowledge, first of all, that anybody gets defensive when you slag something they love. Let's be fair. If I talk smack about my buddy's wife, I'm gonna get what's coming.

So explanation number 1: It's just human nature, dummy.

And, as with my buddy and his wife, if I have some critique that's well-thought-out and carefully phrased, and especially if my buddy knows I have a long history of being respectful and kind to his wife, and I know her well, he'll listen to my critique a little better-- generally, the Koreans I've met respond much more positively to constructive criticism than to straight-out ranting (which expats really shouldn't lay at their feet, anyway).

Explanation 2:
As with the whining expats, it's the internet, remember? The complainers, the K-defenders and the uber-sensitive Kimcheerleaders are all noisier, and more surly online than anywhere else. If a hundred Koreans read my article, and ninety-eight agree, but two disagree enough to leave poisonous remarks in my comment section, I still come away feeling like Koreans can't take criticism, even though almost everyone actually argreed with my points. . . quietly. Surly k-defenders are much more likely to take the time to drop a little "just go home, jerk! Korea treats you well and you're an ungrateful turd" into the punchbowl. If Joe Expat is getting tired of them, I strongly recommend that he go hang out with some real Korean people (the other 98%), rather than taking his lumps from Korean netijens (who, like netizens of every nationality, often hide behind anonymity to act like jerks, because they can.)

(Soundtrack, part 2: hit play, and read. Patience - by Micah P. Hinson: warning: one bad word.)

Next soundtrack song will be happy.

Explanation 3:
Some expats are too critical, never offering Korea a shred of grace for the fact it's come a bloody long way, and managed (mostly successfully) to cram 200 years of development into 50 years. (This comment is a really good, emphatic look at that, as is Gord's Part Three on "Who's Complaining in Korea," here.) Korea's still a work in progress, and while I don't think it's fair to ask every expat commenter to praise unreservedly, nor to maintain some magic ratio of praise to critique, or add a disclaimer at the beginning of each post, it kind of behooves some of them to offer the benefit of the doubt from time to time. Because of Korea's 5000 year history, and because Kimchi cures SARS? Not really, no. Because 50 years ago Korea was poorer than Haiti? Heck yeah.

The pundits, bloggers, commentators, and general blowhards who are too ungenerous damage their own credibility, I think, and frankly, in the same way that I don't revisit many restaurants that serve me bitter food, an expat's blogging or conversation style will turn me off, and deter me from visiting their site or answering their calls, because I don't like doing things that bum me out, and that includes reading things and hanging out with people, that are graceless, tactless, ungenerous, compassionless, and just plain rude and condescending.

As I said before, if they're blogging to get it off their chest, I'm glad they did, in the same way I'm glad you feel better after barfing up that rotten egg-salad sandwich you ate for lunch, but in both cases, I'm not going to stick around and watch, thanks. If people are blogging or talking to draw attention to things, and contribute to the discussion, they ought to consider their tone and audience . . . all-bashing is just as one-sided a discussion as all-kimcheerleading, just as likely to venture into the realm of self-parodic hyperbole, and just as likely (and worthy) to be ignored.

From here on in, let's be very clear here that the rest of these are theories and guesses and generalizations; don't take this as the final word on the topic by any means. This next theory is kind of cumulative -- a lot of influences piling on top of each other, to provide a kind of context for the K-defending.

Explanation 4: The Explanation Pu-Pu Platter or, in Korean: 모듬 명분 (HT to Google Translate)

4.1. In forty years, Korea went from a country that needed aid, to a country that could offer aid. Countries that NEED aid are approached with a very different mentality -- look at how far backwards international aid organizations are bending/bent, to convince Myanmar and Sudan's leaders to allow relief workers into their countries. Look at the lengths to which countries are going to accommodate Kim Jong-il's ludicrous demands. When people need help, the international community approaches its leaders on its leader’s terms, in order to facilitate the helping of civilians. "We should understand their culture" or being "culturally sensitive" makes sense in that kind of situation.

However, when a country is trying to attract international investment or gain influence in geopolitics, the onus is no longer on the international community to suit THEIR needs; now, the onus is on a country to adhere to international standards. (Or, like China, to bend the rules by offering cheap labour and suppressing their currency's value, so that even though China doesn't meet international standards for working conditions etc., it remains extremely profitable to outsource there.)

Here in Korea, we're only a generation and a half removed from kids running behind US Army jeeps shouting for American GI's to throw them some chocolate. Some of my students remember days when silk-worm larvae was the closest thing they could afford to meat, and the oldest son was the only one in the family who got to drink pricey milk. Korea has gone from being helped to meet international standards, to being judged according to international standards in a very short time, so this whole "member of the international community" is still pretty new territory for Korean society as a whole, and they're still figuring out how to take their lumps.

4.2. Add to that the pride in having risen in the international community so quickly (as well as the heady feeling of all the good press Korea had during the early 1990s: "Here Comes The Asian Tiger!" -- “why can't the international media write stories like THAT about us anymore?”)

4.3. Add also a feeling of historical grievance from the perceived and actual humiliations Korea suffered during the Japanese Colonization, a period of much controversy to historians, and the still raw humiliation of having needed such extensive aid during the 1950s and 1960s -- that image of Korean kids running behind US Military vehicles shouting "Gimme chocolate" is an embarrassment to many of the older Koreans who used to do it.

(huge flag photo from expat jane's site)

4.4. Add to that, the fact many Koreans identify with their ethnic and national roots in a very strong, emotional, even visceral way -- many Koreans don't say "Korean" when talking about their language, they use a possessive -- and not just a possessive, but a PLURAL possessive -- say these three sentences out loud, to see the difference this makes:
"Does the DVD have Korean subtitles?"
"Does the DVD have subtitles in MY language?"
"Does the DVD have subtitles in OUR language?"

Pretty striking difference, eh? That's what "Urimal" means: "Our language."

Now try these three sentences:
"Why is he criticizing Korea?"
"Why is he criticizing MY country?"
"Why is he criticizing OUR country?"

Koreans often say "Our country" (Urinara) to refer to Korea. Again, striking difference.

Whether the use of "our language" and "our country" is a cause or an effect of this deep personal identification with country is moot to this discussion; however, the use of language provides a pretty clear illustration of how personally many Koreans connect their self-identity with their nation, and that helps to explain why criticism often meets such visceral reactions.

With that sense of ownership in mind, that familial pride, think again about how these Koreans think of criticism from outside:

Imagine a guest coming to your new house (the building of which almost killed you), running his finger along the mantle to check for dust, checking the brand labels on the china in your cabinet (hmm. Made in Pennsylvania? Not even from England?), noting loudly that your living room sofas are not Corinthian leather, unlike his sofas back home, and commenting under his breath, as you introduce your children, "Your daughter's a bit chubby, and your son has bad posture, and your other son speaks slowly . . . are you sure he's OK in the head?". . . it'd start to rankle, wouldn't it? Especially if he's constantly talking about all the virtues of his house and his family (and admit, in a moment of honestly, that we've all occasionally given the situation back home more credit than it quite deserves, especially in areas like social welfare and education, where Korea has shortcomings, and knows it). Right or wrong, like it or not, this seems to be how it feels to many Koreans when outsiders criticize.

Soundtrack 3: hit play and keep reading. If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out, by Cat Stevens.

4.5. On top of that, is the fact that the almost entirely homogenous society in Korea, along with the Korean language media, gives Korea the illusion that Korea can still operate like it did in the 1800s -- as an island shrouded in mystery (Korea didn't earn its 'Hermit Kingdom' moniker for nothing). Sometimes, reading a critical blog to Koreans is, as my commenter put it, "Like having my family's dirty laundry aired out" Part of the reaction to a critical K-blog is simply embarrassment that domestic issues are being presented in English (the international language) for anyone to read: "can't we keep our in-house issues in-house?"

This is a mistaken assumption, that it would benefit Koreans, and especially the Korean media, to realize: Korea no longer exists behind a shroud. The language barrier is getting porous, as more Koreans can read English, and now, more and more internationals can read Korean. When a Korean makes comments that play to the home crowd, those comments get translated into other languages now, where in 1970, probably they didn't, or nobody cared anyway, and Korea's leaders and media could pretty much say what they wanted, without much risk of being called to account, as long as they spoke in Korean.

Now, if a Korean factory owner rips off his Indonesian employees, thanks to the internet and the ease of world travel, Indonesians hear about it, where twenty years ago, they wouldn't have, and one ripped off factory worker returning to Indonesia broke, one English teacher cheated out of his severance pay, back in New Jersey complaining, one Vietnamese imported bride murdered by her Korean husband, damages Korea's international reputation more than half a million dollars of "Korea: Sparkling" newspaper and TV ads in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Jersey, can repair. Meanwhile, the ripped-off Indonesian’s uncle blogs about the dirty crooked jerk Korean factory owner, and again, a Korean READS that blog post, where in 1985 it would have been a hot topic around the Indonesian village, and no Korean would have known that Korea was being bad-mouthed somewhere in the world. Communication is better worldwide, Korea’s behaviour at home is reported worldwide, and Korea’s reputation is affected. The sooner Korea realizes this, the better it will be for everyone. As international communication increases, countries will increasingly get exactly the international reputation they deserve, whether they think they deserve it or not.

[rabbit trail: the Korean media will resist acknowledging this truth for as long as they can, because they will then have to come to grips with the fact that as more Koreans' English improves, they will need to improve their product to compete with Reuters, CNN and BBC, instead of just with each other, or they will lose their formerly captive audience.]

4.6 Add to this the fact Korea IS a major world player now (top fifteen economy and all), so Korea is attracting a lot more attention than back when it was mostly farmers and war amputees and beggars. This is good for Korea, but it's difficult taking criticisms, when within living memory (and that can’t be emphasized enough) Korea used to take humanitarian aid (which goes down much easier) instead.
Unfortunately, that's part of being at the top of the pile (a major playa): I'm sure Austria would have loved for that news story about the kidnapping/confining/rapist father to disappear into their own language media, and if that had happened in Burkina, maybe nobody would have heard about it, but instead it was covered on every network. Canada gets embarrassed by a serial killer who kept going for five years longer than he should have, because he was killing Vancouver prostitutes, and mostly First Nations ones at that, and nobody important cared enough about First Nations prostitutes -- the most disaffected, marginalized subsection of probably the most disaffected, marginalized group in all of Western Canada!. . . there's no hiding from that shame anymore, and everybody gets their turn in the spotlight, both for good (KJ Choi wins Sony Invitational) and for bad (PD Diary faces criticism by CNN for crap journalism).

Soundtrack 4: saved the happiest one for last. Be Joyful, by Rock Plaza Central

My question, then, for Koreans, is this, and this is a genuine question that I'd love to hear answered, by as many voices as possible:

While other posters and commenters have made the point that Koreans complain about Korea better than anyone else. . .

If criticism of Korea by non-Koreans upsets or offends you, why does it? How could those views be expressed without upsetting you? Under what conditions ARE outsiders allowed to criticize Korea? (And is it just a tiny minority who feels that way, but they happen to leave a disproportionate number of comments?)

If you have an answer to that question, I'd sincerely love to hear from you. Write in to roboseyo[at]gmail[dot]com and tell me: why do YOU think Koreans take criticism of Korea so poorly? Is that a completely mistaken impression to begin with? When, under what conditions, WOULD criticisms of Korea be taken with an open mind, and judged according to the content, rather than the speaker? If your answer is interesting, I'll publish it on my blog. Throw it down in my comments section if you like, or publish it on your own blog, and send me the link.
I think this question is getting harder, because there are people with Korean blood living around the world, who can't speak the language and barely know anything about Korean culture, while at the same time, there are people from other countries who live in Korea now, who have invested a lot in Korea, in money, time, energy, and passion. Can we dismiss the opinion of a fluent Korean-speaking Ph.D. in East Asian studies, because he has no Korean blood? What about the Indonesian wife of a Korean farmer who's lived here for ten years? Is her opinion more valid if she's mothered children with her Korean husband? What about a Kyopo who has Korean blood but can't speak Korean? What about one who can't speak the language, but reads every book, and follows every news and opinion source he can? What about a pure-blooded transnational adoptee from Korea, who grew up in Denmark, and knows nothing about Korea except that she was born there?

I've given my thoughts; fill me in if I missed something!

Expat Bloggers as well: this question is for you, too. Whence all the negativity on the K-blogosphere, from both sides? Why do YOU think expats complain about Korea? Why do you think critiques are often taken so poorly? Is it just that the internet makes everything seem more extreme than it really is? Is there something I simply missed? Send me your thoughts, or post on your own blog, and send me the link. Let's have a discussion.

(p.s.: Where the hell is Burkina? Here)

A clip and a picture that didn't fit anywhere else:

"Duty Calls" from

Still feeling bummed? Watch this.


  1. Q1) Why are Koreans so sensitive to criticism from non-Koreans?
    A1) I think your explanation 1 is about 95% of the reason, it is human nature. Geez, isn't it obvious? It happens everywhere. My wife complains a lot about her parents and other relatives, but if I say something slightly critical about them I know she will be upset. Try going to any other country and talking smack about their culture and see how they like it. Koreans or not, they won't be happy. The other 5% can be accounted to the closer association Koreans have with their race and country. Any criticism to their country is a criticism to the people, to the race and ultimately, to themselves. I may be the dirtiest man on earth but if you point it out to me, I will be upset.

    Q2) If Koreans are so sensitive about it, how would a non-Korean go about criticizing Korea without offending anybody?
    A2) Like I complain here in USA, very carefully. Understand you are talking about a country and culture to which you don't belong. Try to throw in a couple of compliments in between complaints. For instance: "The USA are the least racist country in the world but I'd love if the media here didn't stereotype Asian men as martial artists or geeks". See? It's easy, I started with a compliment and then followed it with some criticism.

  2. ksoje,

    The Korean thinks the most telling part of your comment was: "Any criticism to their country is a criticism to the people, to the race and ultimately, to themselves."

    In fact, that logic is distinctly nationalistic! Americans, who are less nationalistic, would not necessarily subscribe to that logic.

  3. Korean,
    could you direct me to some of these expat blogs full of complaints about Korea? I'd like to see what that's all about.

  4. I wrote a response Roboseyo on my blog. It was too long for the comments section.

    You can find it at

    I hope it helps. I hope it doesnt come off critical of you or your concerns because that is not my intent. I was just trying to help clarify this issue? feel free to respond :)

  5. Ksoje: two of the best places to start are the Korea user discussion forums on "Dave's ESL Cafe" and The Marmot's Hole at (especially in the comment boards)

    from there, is a pretty comprehensive list of Korea blogs, and they run the full gamut from "Good god, I love this country!" to "I hate this place, but the debt collectors won't find me here, so I'll stay, but I'll bitch about it"

    richard: thanks for the entry; I've read it, and will respond to it when I have the time.


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