Sunday, July 13, 2008

Ask A Korean! Guest Blogger - Roboseyo: Why Do Expats [Hate Korea] Complain So Much?

It’s an exciting day here at Roboseyo: I have an interesting topic I’d like to discuss, about the relationship between expats and Koreans, and in order to address the topic properly, I contacted a Korean blogger, named, um, The Korean, who runs the excellent site, “Askakorean”. We’ve agreed to do a joint post about this topic, in order to get a variety of voices out there. I’m interested in this topic, and I sincerely hope it starts an interesting discussion on the K-blogosphere: if this topic interests you, consider yourself tagged: let me know what YOU think, too. The Korean and I will each write two articles, so you can have an expat’s view, and a Korean’s view on these two questions:

This week, we'll discuss the question, "Why do expats complain about Korea so much?"
Next week, we'll roll out the question, "Why do many Koreans take criticism of Korea so poorly?"

Here is my contribution on question one; the next post will be the Korean’s view on Question number one.
Then, after a "talk amongst yourselves" break, I will post my thoughts on Question two, followed by the Korean’s view on it.

Without further Ado:

There's an elephant in the room. Three, in fact. On the (English language) K-blogosphere in its entirety. Nobody wants to mention it, because everybody knows what happens once we toss rocks at the hornet's nest. The situation is similar in real life; those elephants sure get around.

The three elephants are the following, and all three are on a hair-trigger:

1. the kimcheerleaders, out to promote Korea's virtues, sometimes well into the realm of fiction, given the opportunity.

2. the expat complainers, quick to whine and gripe about Korea

3. those same kimcheerleaders, now with hurt pride, getting prickly, surly, and sometimes even mean, because of the expat negativity.

From there, it's a back-and-forth, ad hominem grudge match between the kimcheerleaders and the bashers; sometimes the bashers are Korean, sometimes they're expat; ditto for the kimcheerleaders (though the expat kimcheerleader is the rarest of the lot: the AB- blood-type of commenters, if you will), and when the dust settles, nobody’s happy except the trolls who write poisonous things to get attention by upsetting people. They're kissing mirrors to make lipstick prints and congratulating themselves in the third person. And the K-blogosphere is poisoned by negativity. Again.

You better believe those three elephants are reading over my shoulder every post I write, crossing out lines, rephrasing things, smoothing my cynicism into sarcasm, and my sarcasm into gentle irony.

Now, I've already talked at length about the Kimcheerleaders; they're mostly harmless, and a source of a fair bit of comedy, as well as the target of a little satire and sarcasm. They're also easy to appease, if I praise Korea from time to time: toss them a bone, and they'll leave me alone.

The expat complainers are a bit more of a puzzle. Like Bruce Banner flipping the rage switch, and morphing into the Illegible Incredible Hulk, a criticism too harsh will turn certain Kimcheerleaders into big, green, angry K-defenders. Their hurt, defensive, even visceral response to the critics creates an interesting dynamic. It's human nature to complain, but this whining expat/K-defender grudge match is puzzling. I can't say whether this dynamic develops between griping expats and nationals anywhere else, but I digress.

I'm writing this post to look at some of the reasons Expats in Korea seem to complain so much: Metropolitician has had a lot of experience with defensive kimcheerleaders, and recently blog-buddy Brian has also come under fire, getting linked by a Korean netizen who basically wanted a cyber-terror attack on his site, and even went after his job, trying to publish his employer's phone number, so people could phone his boss and try to get him fired. The comments he wrote on why Brian should be cyber-terrorized are dripping with condescension and hate, basically saying, "Let's CORRECT this ignorant foreigner's behaviour" as if they were training a dog not to piss on the carpet. This kind of bullying of people with whom one disagrees reminds me of a certain other group of nationalist boosters who have a very effective way of shutting up those who disagree with them.

So let's look a bit closer at expat complainers, but before I say anything else, I'd like to mention three things:

1. Complaining is human nature. People everywhere complain, about pretty much everything. Let's be honest about that, and recognize that until Laura The Expat Who's Lived Everywhere weighs in with, "Yeah. I've lived in sixteen different expat communities over the last thirty years, and things are way worse here than anywhere else," there's no reason to think things are worse on the K-blogosphere than elsewhere. The reason it's a topic at all is because of the dynamic that develops between gripers and defenders, and because of the perception that things are especially bad, and because people are acting on those perceptions with things like cyber-attacks on bloggers, however, it has not been demonstrated that expats in Korea complain more or less than expats anywhere else.

2. It's the internet, folks. Everybody complains on the internet. Why would you expect the K-blogosphere to be any different than any other corner of the world wide whine? Plus: as usual, in places where people write, instead of talking face to face, things seem worse on the net, and in print, than they are in the face to face conversations I've had: on the whole, the interactions I have with the people around me are overwhelmingly positive; with the online stuff, less so. If most of what you know about Korea comes from comment boards and rant-blogs, I pity you for the dim and distorted picture you must have of both Korea and expats. Get out of the house and visit some heritage sites with some friends, or go to the Korean restaurant in your town.

Weird netizens are everywhere. Not just here.

3. Some people actually do have a bad time in Korea, whether because of disappointed expectations or crooked Hogwan directors or whatever. The question here is not "how is it possible to have a bad time in Korea" but "why do some spread that negativity so far and wide, so aggressively?" let's give people the grace to allow for a reasonable amount of complaining, because we're expats, not saints, and these are blogs and comments and conversations with friends, not press releases or travel advisory warnings from international organizations.

Now that that's out of the way:

I like to divide complainers into the cathartic complainers and the social critics. Let's make that distinction, and then immediately muddy it up by saying sometimes they bleed into one another (for example, when the Metropolitician goes on a rant).

I'm going to try to list these reasons in ascending order, starting with the basest complaints, that deserve the least attention, and moving on up to the critics and criticisms that deserve careful attention and sober reflection:

Class 1: Cathartic Complainers (because you need to get it off your chest sometimes)

Bottom Rung: The Snark Olympians:
(Harsher! Meaner! Ruder!)
For a certain stripe of expat in Korea, it's practically a sport, almost like a secret handshake, to moan about Korea: you can prove the validity of your experience and time spent in Korea by the depth and clarity of your complaint. After two months, Johnny Firstyear moans, "Korean moms are too intense! My boss is totally unprofessional! They put CORN on PIZZA! Cheese is so expensive!" but Annie Expat can prove her cred by going deeper. She drops a few phrases like "Neo-Confucianism" and "credential society," blames Korea's social ills on Park Chung-hee or Japanese colonialism, maybe drops the names Michael Breen and Bruce Cumings. ("I won't even listen to your opinion if you haven't read 'The Aquariums of Pyongyang'") The expat who's been here longer, or knows more, usually holds the floor in these cases; between expats with approximately equal experience in Korea, it becomes a race to say the meanest thing about the country, and I've heard some doozies.

But keep this in mind about the Snark Olympians: they usually don’t stay for long, and moreover, this kind of complaining has very little to do with Korea really, and everything to do with the complainers, and the fact complaining is fun. I've said a few awful things about Korea too, in my day, to get a laugh, or because it was well-phrased, and not really because I meant it. Uproot Joe Firstyear and Annie Expat, and put them in New York City, and they'd be doing the same, but crapping on the New York Knicks, A-Rod, or Mayor Bloomberg instead. Heck, given the chance, some of this group of whining expats would probably complain about Shangri-la, if that's where they found themselves. "Love-slaves 24, 46 and 71 out of 72 are kind of chubby, and love-slave 32 sweats a lot. . . what kind of sham paradise-on-earth is this?"

The same way a parent shouldn't take it to heart when his angry kid shouts, "I hate you!" snark-fests should be taken for what they are, and tolerated, but ultimately ignored: why waste your time reading it, and even more, why waste energy getting your hackles up? You won't convince them to stop. Complainers like these are the reason a lot of expat lifers don't spend too much time around first year English teachers: the complaining is a drag, and it's kind of boring when you've heard it all before, read James Turnbull's five part essay and Mike Hurt's rant, and written an op-ed piece to Korea Herald's Expat Living about it.

Next Group: The Misdirected Culture-Shockers and Disappointed Orientalists

Next rung up on the ladder are the expats who complain not so much for the sport, but because they don't know any other way to articulate the culture-shock they're experiencing.

This category also goes for people who expected their (often first ever) time overseas to be very different than it is. "What? Bosses here overwork their employees, too? People don't wear hanbok every day? People live in apartment buildings instead of hanok houses? People drink Starbucks instead of Sanghwacha when they meet? Not every girl wears a short-skirted school uniform? This is TOTALLY different than I thought Asia would be after reading Manga, watching 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' 'Memoirs of a Geisha,' 'The Last Samurai,' and 'M*A*S*H*'!"

Got this:
Instead of this?


Got this:

and this:

and this:

Instead of this:

And this?

I hear ya. Reality's rough.

This is a little closer to honest criticism, but while Snark-Olympians are at least having fun, these two groups might be the bitterest and meanest of the lot: a former coworker poisoned the entire atmosphere in the staff room, as she took her failure to adjust to a different culture out on everyone around her. Eventually, she went home early, but not early enough. Again, a grain of salt should be taken with complaints of this kind: when certain people are thrown into a new situation (especially ones having their first overseas experience), it takes them a little while to figure out that "this is interesting" or "I can learn about this" are better default reactions than "this is bad," when they encounter something unfamiliar, or that new situations are best approached with open minds, rather than preconceptions. It ain't pretty, but hopefully we can cut them a little slack (though, again, it would be better for them if they vented their frustration in appropriate directions, saving it for people who knew them well enough to take their ranting in stride, and let's also ask, if it's online, who is choosing to read their complaints?).

The next level goes especially for people who complain online, or expats who always run Korea down when they're around other expats: The Off-Duty Diplomats

See, most expats realize that we are guests in Korea; because we (other than some Asian-hypenated expats) look different than the rest of the people around, we know we're being watched, in curiousity, or in judgement. In our own neighbourhoods, and around our Korean friends, most of us feel the burden of representing our home countries: we're diplomats, saying the "right" things about how Korean women are beautiful, and Jeju Island gyuul are great, and those mean Japanese textbook writers ought to get their facts straight! Is it any surprise that after a long day of diplomacy, we come home, hop online, or huddle away with other foreigners, and criticize, in the same way most table-waiters come home from a long day of fake-smiling for tips, and act rude and surly to their housemates?

Ranting Englishman makes no bones that his blog is saving his and his wife’s sanity. Sorry you had to be privy to that, but can you really hold it against him? My Mom once told me, when Peter talks about Paul, we learn more about Peter than we do about Paul, and while it's not pleasant to watch or read or hear, remember here that you're reading the literary equivalent of a hotel receptionist spending her day off wearing sweatpants, a baseball cap, and no makeup. For many of us, this is when we aren’t putting our best foot forward. Putting the negativity online, or keeping it between friends in a club somewhere, is better than spewing it at work, where careless words have more consequences.

(Another thing about these first three types of complainers: telling them to stop actually makes them complain MORE, in the same way that telling kids not to do something immediately makes it fun.)

This level and those above are often mixed with this: Alternate View Pointer-Outers

Now, due to various reasons (homogeneous society, intense and intentional cultural programming [especially during the '60s and '70s], a culture of suspicion of those who hold unconventional ideas [leftover from the anti-communist red-scare days], an atmosphere of conformity strong enough that old ladies have been known to correct how I eat my soup) which are mostly beyond the scope of this post, and would require masters' theses to do them each justice, many westerners are surprised at how little diversity of ideas there are in public forums here in Korea; meanwhile, when a group DOES get loud about something, the rest of Korea usually shuts up and lets them rave, rather than shouting alternative viewpoints just as loudly. (If you disagree with this, kindly explain why the pro-FTA, pro-America, pro-LMB conservatives were so quiet during the first month of beef protests). This means some expats take it upon themselves to argue a different point of view, for the sheer sake of having a different point of view.

For example: every time I talk about education in Korea, I run into the EXACT same arguments, as if they were memorized in high school, along with the phrase, "Fine, thank you, and you?"

everybody say it along with me:

1. Korea has few natural resources
2. Korea has many people; people are Korea's best resource.
3. Korea has so much competition, because of overpopulation.
4. Education is the only way to gain a competitive advantage.
5. If you go to SKY* universities, you're set for life
6. Therefore, even though it's stupid and counterproductive and hurting Korea, and hurting students, and everybody knows it, I still must push my middle-school-aged son to study until 1am every day from now until the end of high school, to do well on the test and get into an SKY university.

(*SKY Universities are Korea's top three: Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei Universities. It's generally accepted that if you graduate from a SKY School, you're pretty much set for life.)

Good god! Somebody needs to toss a monkey-wrench into that tired cycle of thought, and suggest that there must be another way to raise kids into successful adults -- some noisy expats (maybe self-importantly) offer up other options, and are sometimes resented for it, and when we get the rote response, some of us feel like we're butting our heads against a wall, and depending on the expat, that prompts some of us to give up, and some of us to butt harder. Hard butts can rub some people the wrong way.

Next level: Closely related to the off-duty diplomats are The Kimcheerleading Counterbalances

I've blogged before (in my kimcheerleaders post) about the way an unfortunately large number of Koreans seem to approach every conversation with a non-Korean as a promo-op, a chance to promote Korea, rather than as a meeting of minds between two human beings. (remember that I'm speaking in broad generalizations here) -- some of us may feel overwhelmed by the Kimcheerleading.

Imagine Chul-soo. He's proud of his country. When he chats with a foreigner (which happens two or three times a week), he takes two minutes to explain that Kimchi is the world's healthiest food. It's only two minutes in his day, and he loves Korea -- good for him, I say!

But that foreigner might have similar conversations with many Koreans who also take just a few minutes to explain how garlic is healthy and Koreans use every part of the animal. Those few minutes' add up, when a dozen people a week spare a moment to promote Korean culture. It's even worse in the Korean English Language print media, where that dull, downer story about a double-murder-suicide, or a rapist on the loose in Daejeon, often get cut, but articles like this one ALWAYS make it in (HT to Brian in Jeollanam-do), the sports page is covered with a full, half-page "Park Chan-Ho pitches four innings, gets No Decision vs. Padres", ("Tiger Woods Wins Fifteenth Major in a Thrilling Come-From-Behind Finish" goes on the bottom half of the page) and "What's So Great about Korea, Maarten" still grins at us from the English section of every bookstore.

Faced with such a flood of positive Korean promotion, it's almost natural that we Westerners (who, at least among North Americans, have been programmed by movies and stories to go against the grain, and to prefer being right and alone over being wrong with the crowd), might start to push against the flood of Kimcheerleading with a bit of counter-balancing negativity, just so there’s a conversation, instead of just a room full of people nodding their heads in agreement.

Now, add to THIS the fact, because of our language limitations, a lot of us can't access the Korean language media in print or TV. This means that, while there might be a very lively discussion of Korea's social ills in Korean, because the English media editors and producers diligently excise almost all such topics from the pages of the English dailies, we have no idea whether social critics set the agenda in Korean public discourse, or whether Koreans just sit in circles repeating to each other the same things they say to us when they meet us!

If Arirang TV is anything to go on, Koreans spend all their time having conversations like this:

Chul-soo: "Yi Sunshin was probably the greatest naval commander in world history."
Hye-mi: "I've heard that's true. It might be because he grew up eating with chopsticks: studies have shown eating with chopsticks increase your IQ."
Chul-soo: "Ah. that might partially explain why Koreans scored higher than any other country on standardized IQ tests."
Hye-mi: "Indeed. Though I would credit that more to the fact Koreans are extremely diligent students."
Chul-soo: "It's because our young people are raised in such strong families: Confucianism values the family as the lynchpin of a healthy society"
Hye-mi: "That's why we have more jung."

It sounds ridiculous when I write it out like that, but The Korea Herald and Korea Times and Arirang TV (which no foreigner I've met watches) sometimes start to sound that way after a while, and for all we know, the local, Korean language papers might be the same way, from top to bottom! No wonder we feel like we need to balance out the kimcheerleading with a little negativity! (the simple solution here is that we ought to learn more Korean and see for ourselves what fills the pages of Korea's papers, but until then, that's where a lot of us are coming from.)

The Next Level: The (Maybe You Didn't Notice It Was) Affectionately Sarcastic

Some readers and listeners don't notice, can't notice, or intentionally ignore, the fact that some of us comment on this stuff because it amuses us, and we're not trying to be negative at all: some of the strongest reactions to posts of mine have been from readers who didn't quite notice the irony, sarcasm, or bemusement in my tone -- I wasn't trying to run anyone down, I wasn't trying to make anybody look stupid, or imply that the one dummy I met yesterday stands in for all Koreans everywhere -- I was just telling a story. However, a reader or acquaintance who doesn't have a lot of experience in spotting irony or verbal satire, who is looking for a reason to get upset and defensive, will probably find one. People who only read the critical rant, and skim the positive stuff, glancing at the photos, might miss the generally cheerful tone of my blog, and my usual affection for Korea. They might get more upset than they need to, about my mode of expression, in the same way the table-waiter's roommates think he's a rude jerk, because they don't see how well he treats his customers and his mother.

And, finally, the two highest levels:

The Social Critic:

These people HAVE paid their dues; they're not speaking in ignorance, or jumping to conclusions. They've done their due diligence, read up, qualified their statements, and started pointing out areas where Korea is not what it wishes to be. These people play an important role in a healthy society. It may seem they're negative, but as one of my favourite writers, Flannery O'Connor once said, when somebody accused her of only talking about the negative aspects of her society, and why couldn't she just write something nice once in a while, "If I write about a hill that is rotting, it is because I despise rot." (original quote by Wyndham Lewis)

Naming a problem is the first step to solving it, and maybe some of these critics are attempting to be legitimate part of that process -- that is, they're writing because they want to see Korea become a better place. . . in which case, Koreans who are upset about non-Koreans criticizing Korea need to stop and take a careful look at why that upsets them, because the problem does not lie in the complainers or their intentions.

To be fair, sometimes the social critics' intentions are good, but their methods are poor: the sometimes bitter and mean tone of certain critics can be hurtful, and as I've said to some of my friends who complain about Korea with a rude or condescending tone: "when you talk so harshly, even when you're right, you're wrong, and even if you win the argument, you still lose" -- but then,

1. polemical writing gets more blog hits than diplomatic writing
2. polemical writing sticks in peoples' heads for longer than diplomatic writing, which means it ultimately has a higher chance of changing a person's pattern of thinking!
3. polemical writing stirs up emotions, which means it will start more discussions, than diplomatic writing, which might not poke through someone's guard.

Bare fact: A scalpel is a better surgical tool than a pillow, and sometimes, a social problem must be sharply criticized to bring about change; gentle phrases just won't stir up a strong enough reaction.

Finally, at the top of the pile, the last group who complains about Korea: The Constructive Social Critic

The CSCs have also paid their dues. They know Korea, they've been here a long time, and maybe, their outsiders' views give them insight into topics that even Koreans miss. The only difference between them and the category above is that they are solution oriented, rather than problem oriented. Sure, they name the problem, and that's important, but for them, naming the problem is simply a step toward finding a solution, and their complaints end either with a suggestion of their own, or with a feeling of "now that we understand the problem very well, let's get working on a solution!"

Most of the critics I enjoy vacillate between these two categories, depending on their areas of expertise, and emotional state at the time of writing. CSCs write out of knowledge and love for Korea, out of a real desire to see Korea grow and improve, and mature into a world leader. Again, as with the social critic, if Koreans have a problem with a non-Korean producing THIS kind of writing about Korea, then it's really time to take a careful look at why it upsets them for someone with knowledge, insight, and compassion, to clearly articulate their wish for Korea to become a better place. My wish would be that more of the CSC's learn Korean well enough to get their ideas into the Korean media without risk of having a reader misunderstand it, or a translator twist it to their own ends (at the same time as we also need CSCs publishing about Korea in English, the international language).

So, there are a few reasons expats complain. I've probably missed some, and I'm not making excuses for rudeness (though I am suggesting it's best ignored), but that's at least where we're coming from, and as I said before: the stuff that goes online is harsher than what happens in face-to-face situations, so if the K-blogosphere is getting you down, don't use it to get in touch with Korea; get out of the house and climb a mountain, visit a temple, have lunch with a Korean friend, or (if you're outside Korea) go find a Korean restaurant nearby or watch a DVD of Welcome To Dongmakgol. Seriously.

"I would sooner have you hate me for telling you the truth than adore me for telling you lies."
Pietro Aretino, quoted in this article, from the BBC to angry Chinese defenders.

Here are a few typical responses that Koreans have to expats' complaints (some of these are borrowed from the Metroplitician's excellent, "Why Be Critical" post, one of the K-blogosphere's must-read posts, and an article without which this post would probably not exist at all. The comments on that post are also very interesting, for numerous reasons.)

1. Why are you airing out our dirty laundry? (One commenter on my blog once wrote about the critics, “It felt like my family’s dirty laundry was being aired to stranger and strangers were now telling me how to fix my family’s problems”) This one can also be phrased as "Why are you prying into Korea's internal issues?"

Answer: Well. . . if Korea is your house, then there are people living in your house that didn't live here before, and some of your family members have moved away and never looked back, and the windows are bigger than ever before, so a lot of people can see in now. South-Asian wives of Korean farmers and international investors and long-term teachers live under this roof now, and Korea's own people are more cosmopolitan and well-travelled than ever before, including many ethnic Koreans who haven't even been to Korea, transnational adoptees, Kyopos with various degrees of affinity for their parents' home -- it ain't Dongmakgeol any more, if it ever was, and the world is too interconnected to believe Korea can still exist in a bubble which doesn't affect other countries. A lot of us have invested a lot of time and energy into Korea; we have careers, families, kids, and connections here: this is our home, and we have a stake in Korea! Why shouldn’t we want our home to become better?

2. Why do you hate Korea?

Answer: I don't. If I did, I would have given up and left, as I am still free to do. The very fact I'm here is proof I like Korea enough to stay, and care about Korea enough to pay attention, and comment on it.

3. "You should learn more about Korea."

Answer: This is a Korean's way of chunking me into category two of the expat complainer: "If I decide your complaints are borne of ignorance or culture shock, I can dismiss them." It falls apart if I can demonstrate knowledge of Korea (at which point this one often leads to number 4, revealing the true nature of the objection.)

Often, what this one REALLY means is, "I'm trying to find an excuse to ignore what you've said," or even, "It's easier for me to dismiss what you've said than to reexamine my idea of Korea." If I should learn more about Korea, then I'd love for you to explain it to me!

This one wears especially thin for those who HAVE been in Korea a long time, watching and listening carefully, but are still lumped in with Joe Firstyear, so be careful about using this one, because it often reveals more about the speaker's attitude than the complainer's knowledge.

4. You CAN'T understand Korea.

Answer: Translation: I refuse to listen to you. More at Metropolitician on this one. Sometimes this comes up when "You should learn more about Korea" is rebuffed by a demonstration of extensive Korea-knowledge, at which point, the K-defender is cornered, and starts saying stuff like this. Basically, this comment reveals more about the one who says it than the one who's complaining: what would it take to convince the person who says this that a non-Korean understands Korea? What kind of pedigree would it take, other than having Korean blood (and why does having Korean blood legitimize a complaint: who knows more about Korea? An expat who's lived here for ten years, or a Kyopo who can't speak the language, and has never visited, but has 100% Korean blood)? Where do pure-blood transnational adoptees fit on the spectrum of “allowed to criticize Korea”?

5. "I don't like when a foreigner criticizes Korea"

Answer: Why not? Again, this comment reflects more on the speaker than the complainer. What's so terrible about a foreigner complaining about Korea? The worst thing that can happen is that the foreigner's wrong, or the discussion gets emotional and unproductive; the best thing that can happen is that both sides might learn something.

7. "You should be a more gracious guest while you visit Korea!"

Answer: That might be so. . . but maybe I'm not a guest, and don’t want to be thought of as one; maybe I'm an active participant in Korean society, and wish to have my views respected as such. I've lived here for five years now, watching and asking questions: that's so long away from Canada that I no longer feel qualified to comment on situations back in Canada. If Korea isn't my home, nowhere is.

8. It's just as bad (or worse) in X country!

Yep. And when we're talking about that country, we'll address it. Right now, we're talking about Korea: there are very few things that are unique to only one culture -- but just because Japan, China, Iran, England, or America have the same problem, doesn't mean that Korea shouldn't be trying to fix it here, while those countries work on the problem there. If Joe's a jerk, and James is a jerk too, that doesn't mean Joe's free to remain a jerk; it just means that Joe and James both need to change their attitude.

9. If you don't like it, go home.

Fair enough. K-defenders are entitled to that opinion if they choose. However, I hope they’d think for a moment about how unhelpful that attitude is. If I don't like Korea, and I go home, whatever -- I'm just one guy, and I can put up with a lot, as long as Korea puts food on my table. But what about when an international investor doesn't like something? What if ten-thousand teachers, or ten-thousand migrant workers, or five-hundred loaded, foreign businesspeople looking to invest, don't like something? When does the onus fall on Korea to look inward, rather than on outsiders to get lost? Is telling that investor to take his billions and invest them in Hong Kong instead, going to help Korea become the global leader it wants to be?

And if a K-defender wants Korea to go back to its hermit kingdom days, and pickle in its own juices, he’s free to that view, but that "my way or the highway" has another name in North Korea: juche, and it didn't work out so well for the starving farmers over there. If Korea wants to become a globalized, cosmopolitan hub, and a destination for business leaders and investors, then, "If you don't like it, let's work something out" would be more productive.

10. Why don't you talk about positive things?

This is a fair critique, as is "why don't you say things more nicely/politely," and extremely valid, IF the complainer DOES only talk about negative stuff, and/or use rude, condescending tones. . . but don't use this one after reading a single post; save it until after you've read a bunch of posts, or had a number of conversations, so that you can back up your accusation. I get frustrated hearing this one, when I word damn hard to stay to stay positive and keep my criticisms edifying, and the commenter fires this off after reading a single one of my posts.

11. Go easy on us: we're just a developing nation!

Answer: Put very simply:
Still developing:

Finished developing:

Congratulations! You're part of the club! You're playing with the big kids now!

In terms of infrastructure and wealth, Korea is no longer a developing nation. Top fifteen economy in the world, people from South Asia coming HERE to work and send money home -- in the ways of the won, Korea's made it. It's a major player. Other countries look to Korea's development model to figure out how to raise their standard of living and set up infrastructure. One of the drags that comes with being one of the big boys is being a big target, and people pay more attention, and take more shots at big targets. Griping about facing criticism from the international community that Korea worked so hard to join, is like the little boy who wants to play soccer with his older brother's big friends, and then cries when they knock him down with a sliding tackle. More on that later.

12. You want Korea to become like America.

Answer: If I want to live in a place that's exactly like America, I'll just move there. Given the history of the last 100 years, and the fact North and South Korea are as different as Summer and Winter now, when in 1935 their situation was exactly the same, Korea of all places should recognize that cultures are constantly changing and developing. The ones that don't end up artifacts and oddities, like the Amish, who are interesting, but basically irrelevant, and don't attract much foreign direct investment. Yeah, it takes some wisdom and discernment to figure out when you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or bringing in what The Joshing Gnome calls "cultural junk DNA", but if Korea can go through the upheavals of the last hundred years and still have a unique culture, isn't it time to lay the "our culture's going to disappear completely" objection to rest?

13. But you're telling this to the wrong crowd! You should learn Korean and say this to Korean; telling it to other expats is preaching to the converted, and not very helpful. The people who really need to hear culture-changing ideas are the ones who can't read English, who are captive to the Korean language media.

Answer: You are absolutely right.

Two final thoughts on Expat complainers that didn't conveniently fit into the above categories:

1. (generalization ahead. . . ) One of my English Teacher friends has a lot of non-English teaching expat friends -- from other parts of the world than England, USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, with skin-colours other than white, and notes that loudest and bitterest complaints come from white males from English-speaking, first-world countries. She thinks it's because, for first-world WASP males, coming to Korea is the first time white male priveledge hasn't managed to open every door to them: only most doors.

2. A new way to look at complaining. . .

Reflect on the fact that complaining is an act of hope. Really. When there's no hope that a bad situation will improve, people stop complaining and learn to bear it, or (in the case of first-world expats in Korea) go home. The very act of complaining is an expression of hope, of the conviction that Korea DOES have the potential for change, and for growth.

Criticism is also a sign of respect, a recognition of Korea's climbing status in the world. It is much better to have people criticize Korea and hold it up to international standards (with the implicit affirmation that Korea is now a world leader), than to approach it as a place so backwards and stubborn that engaging with the culture would be useless for anyone but observers and documentarians. Such an attitude would cause less stress to the K-defenders, but do they really want Korea to be treated delicately, like a quaint oddity, rather than like an international heavyweight? (Case in point: look how much international criticism the world's MOST powerful country, the U.S.A., receives from other countries -- the fact that Korea now catches the attention of international critics just proves how much Korea's influence has grown. Would Korea rather be a criticized heavyweight like the USA, or a delicately approached cultural oddity, like Bedouin nomads? Which treatment is more respectful, really? An honest criticism, or a condescending, "Look at these interesting specimens!"

If you think about it, criticism isn't a bad thing at all: it's an opportunity to learn something, to improve something. The person who ignores valid criticism does so at his own peril; I would argue that it's the same for countries (look at how bad USA's international reputation is these days, because of plowing ahead with its plans and ignoring the international community). So yeah, because it's all in English, a lot of the K-blog complaining doesn't read the audience that would benefit most from hearing it, but starting the discussion can only lead to deeper insight, right? So bring it on!

Readers: Korean expats and Koreans: Do YOU think expats complain about Korea too much? If so, why? Should they complain, and how? Why is the relationship between expats and Koreans online so adversarial? What's an appropriate mode and medium for complaint, if not online? What can we do to have constructive criticisms heard? Write about it, blog about it, weigh in; e-mail me your thoughts to roboseyo [at] gmail [dot] com and I'll post them here; tell me where to find them online and I'll link them. Weigh in on my comment board. Let's talk about this honestly and reasonably. It's about time.

(Flannery O'Connor Quote from "Flannery O'Connor's Religion of the Grotesque, by Marshall Bruce Gentry)


  1. Okay first of all Ask a Korean why do you focus so much on underdeveloped countries in Africa, are you not aware of Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania hello. Just asking

  2. The Korean has heard of them, but what's your point? None of the countries you listed is what anyone would call "developed".

  3. What's the general level of western expats living in Korea? Are they successful people who chose to teach/work/study in Korea or just plain mediocre people with a BA who didn't make the cut in their countries and decided to make an easy buck teaching English in a foreign country while at the same time chasing easy Asian girls?

    1. YES. they are all weaboos who need to leave.

  4. takes all kinds, ksoje. just like any demographic.

  5. Ask a Korean how would you know if they weren't developed and hearing of them in what? a conversation? My point is there are other countries in the world that are not developed let's look at them ALL!

  6. if korea is becoming cosmopolitan, then immigration control can solve the problem of noisy whiners. honestly, is cosmopolitanism the answer?


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