Sunday, July 13, 2008

Why do Expats in Korea Complain So Much?

Dear Korean,

Why do expats in Korea complain about Korea so much?


Dear Roboseyo,

The Korean welcomes the first joint-blogging effort for Ask A Korean! in conjunction with your well-written blog. This will be Part I of a two-part series, and both Roboseyo and the Korean would be writing about two topics at the same time. Roboseyo's post follows this post.

The Korean must first admit that this is really the topic for Roboseyo. The Korean himself knows very little about expats in Korea. He never met too many of them, and never hung out with them. In 1997 when the Korean moved out to sunny California, it was still a rare occurrence to see a non-Korean on the street. But recently, a few expat blogs began linking Ask A Korean! to their blogs, so the Korean began to visit some of them from time to time. And boy, expats are a complaining bunch.

The Korean has to be fair to expats: truth is that people love to complain, no matter where they are. People are also more vocal about the things they dislike than about the things they like. Expose people to a different environment, and there are always things to complain about simply because things are not familiar.

And to be sure, there are a lot to complain about Korea. The Korean does it all the time! Aside from racism in Korea about which the Korean constantly complains on this blog, there is a disgusting amount of sexism, xenophobia, materialism, etc. On a smaller scale, the Korean incessantly complains about: traffic jam in Seoul; too many people crammed into a small space; shitty weather for 8 months out of the year; lack of open space; lack of toilet paper in public bathrooms (although the situation has recently improved); no decent food other than Korean, Japanese, and Chinese; awful selection of Scotch; and numerous others. (The Korean is convinced that he was born to live in Southern California.)

However, many complaints from expats that the Korean has seen show a certain level of ignorance. This is not to say that complaining expats are dumb. It is only to say that were they more aware of certain things about themselves and about Korea, they would not be complaining as much, and the pitch of their complaints would not be as strident. So this post probably does not answer conclusively about why expats complain about Korea. However, it would try to answer why some expats complain in the way they do.

What Expats do not Understand about Themselves

Among the expats from different parts of the world, the Korean can only speak about Americans because the Korean has little knowledge of other countries. But it is safe to say that many Americans lack the knowledge of their country’s place in the world, and in world history. Therefore, instead of having a proper perspective of where their opinions stand in the range of possible opinions in the world, Americans tend to define their opinions to be correct, rational, and logical, and define others as incorrect, irrational, and illogical. (This frequently leads to the familiar charge that Americans are arrogant.)

Take for example Americans’ emphasis on individuality. Everyone is supposed to think of themselves! If you don’t, you are a part of the herd, a dumb lemming who would follow the one in front of you to a precipitating death. (Sound familiar? This was every other post in expat blogs during the beef protests.)

But this type of emphasis on the individual is a particular product of American/Western history. There is no inherent reason why (regardless of any references to “God-given liberty” or “self-evident truth”) individuals must be valued over a group to the extent that Americans value individuals. Societal interaction for majority of human history has been group-driven, and even in modern era group-driven societies work in their own way. (Even within America “identity politics” holds a powerful force. Here is Stanley Fish’s exposition on how identity politics could be rational.)

So American expats, because they are so cocksure of their opinion as a self-evident, God-given truth instead of an accidental product of their history, complain and dismiss whenever they see something different in Korea. And they complain rather than truly observing and engaging the Korean way of doing things because they lack the basic respect towards the Korean methods that is required to make a meaningful engagement.

(Aside: Although the Korean is talking about expats here, Koreans themselves are not much better. The only difference is that Koreans, instead of dressing their accidental product as “rational” or “logical”, dress theirs as “the Korean way” that non-Koreans just don’t understand.)

Another thing that expats fail to appreciate is how little of Korea they are actually seeing. The Korean often tells his Korean friends that no matter how long one has lived in the U.S., it is impossible to appreciate how large of a country America is unless you travel to six different cities: Boston, New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Only after seeing how different those cities can be within a same country can someone from a small country like Korea truly understand how big United States is.

In the similar vein, no matter how long one has lived in Korea, it is impossible to appreciate how deep the generational gap runs among Koreans of different generations unless one has meaningful interactions with Koreans in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and above. On one hand you have your Koreans in their 60s who grew up in constant danger of death from war and starvation, and on the other hand you have your Koreans in their teens who are self-absorbed, battling obesity problem. And guess who is more important in the formulation any society’s political and cultural direction? But because most expats do not learn high-level Korean, the only Koreans with whom they have meaningful interactions (if they do at all) are Koreans in their teens and 20s.

On top of that, expats rarely venture out of large cities in Korea, and they only really interact with Koreans who are fluent in English. Do you know what makes a Korean fluent in English? Money, tons and tons of it. So not only are expats insulated from older Koreans, they are also insulated from younger Koreans who are poorer. What kind of understanding about Korea could an expat possibly have with this kind of limited exposure?

Everything in Korea that appears odd to expats has its own logic, and once explained (as the Korean tries to do in this blog,) they are completely understandable and not very odd after all. But because expats never talk to the people responsible for creating such logic, (it is, after all, people in their 40s through 60s who run the country,) the oddities continue to remain incomprehensible. And instead of coming to an understanding, expats go on with their complaining.

What Expats do not Understand about Korea

A cursory look at Seoul shows a fantastically futuristic city. People carry around crazy technological gizmos. Internet works at blinding speed. Everywhere you go there are flat screen panels showing some type of moving images, just like the visions of future that we used to have through sci-fi movies of yesteryear.

One cannot help but feel a little bit like Homer Simpson as he was marveling at the dancing fountain/toilet in his hotel room in Japan: “They are YEARS ahead of us!” Upon seeing this spectacle, it is only reasonable to expect Korea to be a fully modern country, and its citizens to behave in a fully modern way.

But this outlook cannot be more misleading. And this is really the point that anyone who wishes to understand modern Korea must know – Korea has only become this way in the last 15 years. All the people who were born and raised in the pre-modern era are not only alive, but they are the people who are in their 50s and 60s, leading the whole country and educating the next generation.

Few people (including younger Koreans themselves) understand this point, no matter how many times the Korean screams about it: only 50 years ago, Korea was DIRT FUCKING POOR. It was one of the poorest countries in the world. Here is an example: when the Korean War happened, Ethiopia was one of the countries that sent a contingent to aid South Korea. Ethiopia! The same one with $823 per capita GDP! (Current South Korean GDP per capita = $24,783 in 2007) Can you imagine Ethiopia helping South Korean with economics, military, or anything at all in 2008? (Perhaps a few skilled marathon runners?) But in 1950, Korea was the lesser nation between the two. In short, Korea occupied the place in the world in which the poorest African countries occupy now – completely helpless, unable to survive on its own without aid from other countries.

In the abstract these words do not sink in, so let’s put it this way. It was commonplace for Koreans to have nothing to eat. There is a uniquely Korean expression of describing how poor a person is: a person is so poor that “his asshole would tear out.” This expression came to be because when Korean people were starving, they would peel tree bark, boil it and eat it. (This is still going on in North Korea.) Since tree bark has little nutrition and a lot of indigestible fiber, one’s anus bleeds as one excretes after eating tree bark. Can any expat, all from wealthy Western countries (regardless of how poor s/he may have been in that country,) imagine this level of poverty?

The degree to which (South) Korea managed to pull itself out of such abject poverty into the wealth it currently enjoys has no precedent in history. For this achievement Korea and Koreans deserve all the praises in the world. But mind you, it was definitely not a normal thing to happen. A country does go from $87 per capita GDP in 1962 to $24,783 per capita GDP in 2007 without something happening to it.

This incredible, borderline mutative economic growth could not have happened without the attendant mutative changes in Korean society and culture. Richard Posner said this about Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who was a brilliant judge but had troubled personal life: “With biography and reportage becoming ever more candid and penetrating, we now know that a high percentage of successful and creative people are psychologically warped and morally challenged[.]” Same could be said about Korea’s success; it could not have happened without collectively warped psyche.

And truly, this is the keystone in understanding any aspect of modern Korea. Everything about modern Korean culture, in one way or another, is an outgrowth of this history. This, for example, is the reason why the generational gap runs so deeply in Korea.

Almost every question that the Korean has received so far is related to this central keystone in one way or another. Why are Koreans always in a hurry? You can’t afford to be slow if you are desperate to get out of poverty so fast. Why do Koreans always want their children to be doctors? Because no matter what happens in a country (even in a war in which the country is at the brink of elimination,) doctors never suffer poverty. Why do so many Koreans believe in rank superstition? Because the people who believed in magic and witch doctors are still alive and well in Korea, and are often in the leadership positions.

So believe it or not, when Korean people say expats “just don’t understand Korea”, they are correct in an indirect way. No other country has the kind of history that Korea has experienced, so the cultural oddities in Korea are unlike any other country. Appreciating and understanding such cultural oddities take a lot of effort and a lot of studying. And too often, a complaining expat does neither. It is faster, easier, and more mentally satisfying, to complain.

Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. A very good analysis. As an expat, my view is that often expat complaints aren't actually wrong, they're just unreasonable, unempathic and/or just out of touch. I disagree that complaining is more immediately emotionally satisfying, mentally it is a far more mentally pleasant experience to try and understand why things are the way they are. As time goes by and my Korean language skills and general knowledge improves, so to does my lifestyle. There is a frustrating lack of ability to the lives of many expats. But while I sympathise a bit, I find it bizarre to encounter people who have been here 5 times longer than me who seem to not know anything. When I compare the lives of English teachers with the lives of most Koreans and especially the lives of other kinds of foreigners in Korea (such as foreign labourers), it's pretty obvious that English teachers have an insanely good deal. My mate from Andong works like a slave 6 days a week, for a pittance (half of what I make, and I am just some asshole with a degree). I can't justify complaining all the time when I know information like this, and I think many expats just don't.

  2. Very well written. The generational gap is indeed huge and, in my opinion, not possible to surpass. The ability to truly empathize comes with shared experiences, and, as you point out, older Koreans lived their lives in a completely different world as compared to their younger counterparts. If Korea is fortunate enough to maintain its economic advantages and keep their current level of comfort, maybe a balancing out effect will occur, as more and more of the people develop a culture reflecting a shared existence.

  3. This collaboration was a great idea. The both of you have given us all something worth while to think about and discuss.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Excellent post and clever collaboration, it's very informative. I'd like to add that the American sense of individuality that we promote (to a fault) is relatively new in our own history and it's problematic that we don't acknowledge that fact. The restrictive citizenship, immigration and voting laws in varying degrees of existence until the mid-20th century prove that “God-given liberty” and "self-evident truth" have not always applied to every type (race, gender, age) of person residing in the United States. A little self-reflection on the part of Americans at home and abroad would help combat some of the complaints.

  6. Why do expats complain so much? What else are we supposed to do, reflect on our own shortcomings and cultural limitations, grow as human beings and then apply the lessons learned abroad to our understanding of our own lives and home countries? Ha! As if.

  7. Now why would Ethopia be the country to help South Korea? I knew an African country had to be somewhere in the blog just like countless of other blogs LOL

  8. "There is no inherent reason why (regardless of any references to “God-given liberty” or “self-evident truth”) individuals must be valued over a group to the extent that Americans value individuals."

    Don't want to be demeaning, but there are plenty of philosophers and economists (e.g. J.S. Mill) who make coherent - if contested - arguments that the individual should indeed be emphasized over "group harmony."

    Aside from that point, thanks for the great post. Very insightful.

  9. Seems a little unreasonable to dismiss complaining as cathartic. If you've just gotten to a new country, or have been there for a while and are still trying to adjust, many things can seem illogical or irrational and take time getting used to. I think it's the same for many Asians in the west.

  10. Seanchile,

    thank you for the kind words. The Korean thinks you are misreading -- the point made in the point was that there is no reason to think that valuing individuality is always absolutely true. By extension, while Mill and his ilk are convincing (the Korean likes reading Mill), there is a lot of ways through which one may disagree, and such disagreements are rational as well.


    welcome back! The Korean's post makes some space for what you just described. To borrow Roboseyo's language, the Korean's post is more guided towards "snark olympians" and above, and not really toward "cathartic complainer".

  11. Dear The Korean,
    Your blog is awesome. But you probably already know that. I'm living in Korea, and I find myself Raging quite often, but I like to think I temper it with enough reflection and contemplation that it all evens out in the end for my readers.
    I don't know how you feel about awards, but I definitely put you on my list of blogs to receive the Brilliante (with an E, I'm sorry. I know you don't appreciate incorrect grammar, but I didn't make the award, I just hand it out) Weblog Award. You can check it out at Rage in the A.M. where I hope my complaining is reasonable and seasoned with cultural awareness and thoughtful observation!

  12. The main thing I really complain about is institutionalized discrimination.

    I'm one of those expats who is pretty well read on Korea, has learned the language, the culture etc, but who still doesn't get why I'm considered unreasonable or not understanding of the Korean situation for stating that Korea still has a lot of growing up to do.

    1. HAHA, institutionalized discrimination.... so in the history of the world, you and people who look like you have been unable to live their lives because they have been colonized, controlled, and systematically discriminated against by the people of korea, who just can't respect how much you have to teach them about themselves? read all the books you want but with an ignorant perspective like that, you won't ever understand a thing. i'm going to go vomit now.

  13. db,

    thank you for the award, but the Korean is afraid the red tape is hindering the acceptance! Namely, the Korean reads only a few blogs, and giving this prestigious award to, say, Deadspin, feels a bit silly. So the Korean will accept your good will for now, and claim it later when the Korean finally finds 7 worthy blogs.


    you will like the next post in the series. Stay tuned.

  14. Korean opines that Americans place a high value on individualism and contrasts that value with the Korean value on the larger group. Right, and did you know that Korea has mountains and four seasons?

    So when Koreans push past other shoppers and jump lines it is because they value the group? When drivers cut everyone off to move to the front of merging traffic it is because they don't value their individual rights? I suspect Korean's parent emmigrated to the United States precisely because it was an individual choice that placed their own material benefits and those of their children above the larger family and Korean society. Koreans emmigrate in huge numbers as percentage of their population precisely because that group of emigres places such a high value on individuality that they have left their homeland,their families and everything familiar to achieve individual goals.

    Indeed many of the expat complaints about Koreans revolve around the way in which so many Koreans seem to be uncaring about society and assert their individuality to a point of excess.

    I recall when a group of Korean mothers protested the placement of a school for handicapped children in their neighborhood because they didn't want their children to have to see handicapped children in wheelchairs as it would be "troubling" for them. Those mothers exhibit a level of individualism unheard of in Western society. The only thing that matters is their kids and not society's greater good in educating disabled children.

    The list goes on and on and I'm sure others can find a host of examples of extreme individualism practiced by Koreans.

    While it is certainly true that Asian society as a whole certainly places a higher premium on the good of the group over individuality, one reason Koreans are so fundamentally different from their Asian neighbors is that they are more motivated than other Asians by their individualism. I'm sure that if Korean puts his mind to it, he will discover a number of similar examples of Korean individualism in comparison to Japanese or Chinese behavior. I certainly don't intend this as a criticism of Koreans in the least. Their economic success was fueled in part by individualist Koreans who went out into the world and achieved great things motivated by a strong personal desire to improve their own lot in life. One reason I admire Koreans is because they can really teach us all a thing or two about self-confidence and individualism.

    I often cite this example of the difference between Koreans and Japanese. When riding on a subway in Japan, I noticed several young college students reading rather difficult books in English and asked one of the students "do you speak English?" The students all looked at each other in a near state of panic and shook their heads "no." They were all deathly afraid to even try a few words of English although they had probably spent 10 years studing English in the classroom and had achieved a sufficient level of understanding to read English novels.

    As an experiment, I asked that same question on a Korean subway. Nearly every Korean student responded eagerly and with self confidence "yes I can" regardless of their real ability. Koreans really are a "yes we can" society even when the reality may be "no they can't." Again, if you reflect on Korean behavior one can find hundreds of examples of Koreans acting with an often unreasonable level of confidence which is again, grounded in their individualism. It isn't "we can, as much as "I can."

    I do take Korean's point about the limited universe of experience Westerners have when limited by their inability to speak Korean. I used to ride my moped around the backstreets of Seoul with my helmet and dark visor covering my face relishing the ability to observe Korean street scenes without my presence as a Westerner being a distraction. Despite American presence on the Korean peninsula for over 50 years, very few Koreans have ever conversed directly with an American and those that do indeed represent a subsection of English speaking Koreans who may not indeed be representative.

    Final story. I was on a train from Kyongju and seated next to a young college student. We conversed in Korean and she informed me that she was a college student and like most college students she didn't like Americans very much. "Have you ever met an American?" I asked. She had indeed never met an American and certainly never spoken to one but assured me that all college students don't like Americans. Then I asked her what she intended to do when she graduated. She responded that she wanted to go to graduate school at UCLA. "I have some bad news" I replied, "UCLA is in America, there are Americans there." She laughed and we continued to talk and she admitted that she had family in LA and she hoped to live in the United States someday and that was why she really wanted to go to study in America. The point is that as part of "the group" she had the mantra down and hated Americans, but that individual side of her was tugging at her to someday go to America where an individual can still realize their dreams.

  15. dmzdave,

    The Korean truly appreciates your insight. But did you really think the Korean did not know about what you wrote?

    The contrast in the post is not between American individualism versus Korean groupthink. The point about American individualism in the post was that Americans are not as individualistic as they think. Then the proper contrast becomes: Korean people are not as group-driven as they look -- exactly for the reasons that you list.

  16. "Why do so many Koreans believe in rank superstition? Because the people who believed in magic and witch doctors are still alive and well in Korea, and are often in the leadership positions."

    Similar as in America. Most of the people in US believe in Christianity, what is in most European countries considerd as a superstition bull%$#...

  17. Many Americans are Christians, as is the Korean. So let's tone it down a little, shall we?

  18. DMZDave,

    Collectivism emphasizes group goals and interests over individual interests. Group in this case can mean various things: a nation, a region, a city. In Korea, this group is the family. Collectivism is the outreach of self interest to people beyond oneself that he/she considers to be part of one's "society." Families are the most basic societal units of mankind.

    Many of the examples that you listed are exactly examples of collectivism at work in Korea. Collectivist mothers/children seeing their self interest ultimately tied to those part of their society.

  19. I probably souldn't use b word, but read your words again, 'Why do so many Koreans believe in rank superstition?', you looking down at people that are superstitious when in opinion of millions christianity is nothing else, well maybe better organised and more jealous about others ones.

  20. Don't you think defining your "group-driven society" as the "Korean way" just breeds more racism? Americans appreciate individualism because they have a long history of having overcome racism in the U.S. and have learned that when one racial group drives society, minorities are abused. I see this lack of individualism as a lack of experience in multi-cultural society, which may have worked for Korea in the past, but Korea will have a painful reality check when Koreans have to face the globalized future.
    Maybe this reflects the superiority complex you alluded to Americans having on this subject, but I'm not even American.

  21. While reading the part about how a Korean, from a small country, can appreciate the hugeness of the USA only by visiting different cities, what came in my mind was the Chinese colleagues laughing at my words about Korea being so big. Eheheh, from the point of view of a Chinese, it might really sound like a joke. But I'm from a country which is half size of South Korea. ehehehehehhe

    Before comming to Korea, it was a dreamland for me, just like Japan is for the otaku (I used to be one, by the way). I was aware of some "bad sides" and uncomfortable things, as I had studied about Korea for myself before comming. Either because I was interested, either to make myself prepared. The feeling is so different when you actually really face what you had previewsly learnt. I thought I was strong enough to get through all of this. Did I overstimate myself? Maybe. Or maybe not. I guess it just takes time. Anyway, it was quite stressfull in the beginning, but I have been having also great times.

    Actually I was complaining about my own country as well. And I started complaining about Korea only after I gained enough experience to really understand it. Because at first I was like "oh, it's my fault, I have to study it more". And well, I did and I'm still studying it more.
    I complain, sometimes... But I'm ready to defend Korea as well when it comes to some stupid prejudice from people lacking some knowledge to talk about certain topics.

    Maybe I'm just the type who likes proving people wrong. ^_^

    Anyway, exploring the Korean culture, I was amazed how a country on the other side of the globe is actually simmilar to mine (Croatia, Europe). I have wrote an essay (as a homework) where I compared our two cultures.

  22. the Korean, Love your blog! this blog was indeed well put. I agree with the American arrogance. I am American-born Korean, and I see expats as no different than my parents who came to the US in search for an opportunity. Expats go to Korea, one of the goals being to make money. What makes them any more superior than immigrants in the US? Complaining is OK. I mean, I question some things about Korea whenever I go to visit, too. But I ask those expats to start seeing other cultures without the bias. Not like America is any more perfect.

    K, America has in no way "overcome" racism. Making baby-step progress, maybe, but it still exists. I experience it everyday. It began with "Show me your belly button. My Mom says chinks don't have 'em." when I was in elementary school. To just yesterday, "You speak English so good." "Yeah, I was born here. Your grammar isn't so good."

  23. Korean,

    I came across this old link and read the posts over at Roboseyo and here and I enjoyed your take on the subject.

    I agree that we tend to complain when things are different than what we are used to. It's a typical human reaction we all experience.

    Long ago when I went on my first overseas duty station (Spangdahlem, Germany), I was told to learn, listen, and have fun. Learn about the country and the language, listen to what others had to say and not to judge what they do as their ways are different than yours, and to have fun (self explanatory). From what I learned on that duty station I took with me when I was stationed in Korea.

    I purchased a few books on Korean culture and tried to learn a smattering of Korean so I do small things like say please, and thank you and to address people somewhat correctly. (nice thing about not being a native, you are allowed to make mistakes and people will not pay much attention to you when you do). Overall it was a rather "interesting" experience. Korea is vastly different than the US, but the people are like most other cultures, wanting nothing more to make the lives of their children better than the ones they have experienced. Yea, they do have some aspects that are quite "unique" (the aroma for one), however, if one remembers to treat people with the respect they deserve, you'll end up making some friends in the end.

  24. There are two types of expats: one group of educated people that come to Korea respect the culture and elders and go back home with a good experience in hand, the second group are drama queens and narcissistic males who think they deserved to be treated like kings and queens some of them fetishist and just want to find their Korean whore and like to stay in Korea. Korea does not need Expats from the second group. Go home you bastards!


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