The responses on Facebook were interesting:
Note that it was in the second response that the discussion suddenly focused on stupid things Koreans say to white people, like, “Wow, you can use chopsticks!” or “Please marry someone from your own country.” The second comment.
It’s interesting because, as outsiders in a culture, people often tend to try fit their experiences into an understanding of that culture. Which, you know, is skewed by the fact that people tend to remember most clearly, the most offensive and idiotic exchanges they’ve experienced.1 In other words, some people seem to develop their expectations and their opinions of a society based on the dumbest things said by the dumbest people within it. It’s like going to a Men’s Rights Movement convention and then, while you’re leaving, muttering to yourself, “Wow, North American men are way more backwards and misogynistic than I thought!” Well: you’re basing your sample on a disproportionately dumbassed population, so of course your results scream dumbass.
That got me thinking about Bev. I don’t remember her family name, but I wouldn’t post it here even if I did remember, because what I have to say isn’t particularly flattering. Bev was a woman I worked with at Coles Bookstore when I was an undergraduate in Saskatoon. I don’t know how or why she ever got a job in a bookstore: she happily confessed to never reading books, and indeed to not having read a book since high school.
Indeed, while other people on staff read books during breaks, or during quiet time when they were on the till and other work was done, Bev only ever flipped through magazines. And when I say magazines, I don’t mean The New Yorker, or Harper’s. Hell, I don’t even mean Time. I’m talking about People Magazine. One day, she tried to engage me in a discussion about how pretty
Priscilla er, I mean, Lisa-Marie Presley was, and how wonderful it was she married Michael Jackson.
In that particular conversation, I said, “Why are these people so important to you? I mean, do you like his music?”
“No,” Bev said. She was more of a Garth Brooks lover, as we all knew.
“Does Lisa-Marie Presley sing or something?”
“Uh… I dunno,” Bev said with a shrug, already bored.
“It’s just because they’re famous?”
“Well…” she paused. “It’s because they’ll have such pretty babies. Anyway, who do you think they should do articles about?”
I turned and looked at her, baffled. “What?”
“Who’s more interesting than these beautiful people?” she said, holding the magazine up.
I took a deep breath, let out a sigh, and said, “Thoreau? Maybe… Thomas Paine? Mary Shelley? Igor Stravinsky? I don’t know… Mohandas Gandhi?”
“Gandhi?” she said. “Who’s that?”
(I swear to you, she said, “Gandhi? Who’s that?”)
“You’ve never heard of Gandhi? He’s like… important. He was a really important person. He lived in the India… he… you don’t know this? How can you not know who Gandhi was?”
“Well,” she said, “If he was so important, wouldn’t I have heard of him by now?” A few minutes later, when I showed her a picture of Gandhi that was in one of the books in the store, she said, “Oh, that guy. They made a movie about him, right? They took us to that in high school.”
“So you do know about Gandhi?”
“Nah,” she said, her focus already having returned to her magazine. “I didn’t watch it…”
Bev seemed harmless enough, the sort of small-town moron who you’re pretty sure would vote for a KKK member if he promised to lower taxes for the white middle class, her ignorance generating a sort of stupidity field so that even her mere proximity was enough to make you feel stupider for a moment.. But it seemed she (probably) wouldn’t go so far as to, you know, burn crosses on the lawns of Jews or Cree families or anything (which were the people the KKK in Saskatchewan targeted back in the old days, by the way, along with Ukranians and Mennonites and such). Bev’s the kind of person who made me feel like maybe there should be a general knowledge exam required of people before they’re enfranchised to vote: she made me thing maybe people should be free to just read People magazine, but should be expected to give their your say in how the world is run as part of the choice to stop paying attention to the world in general.
But general stupidity and laziness usually have a darker side to which the more magnanimous among us turn a blind eye. For example, she once explained why she hated when Playgirl ran nudes of black men, because, according to her, black men could be handsome, but not if you saw their penises. A white man’s penis looked good, but (according to Bev) a black man’s penis always looked “like a big long poo.” Nobody had much to say to that, really, for various reasons, but mostly because you might as well argue with a brick wall about the sentiments expressed in the graffiti painted on it, as call Bev on her crap. Neither the graffiti nor the wall ever change even a bit… and neither did Bev.
I’ll never forget the day Bev showed up to work twenty minutes late. “Are you okay?” another co-worker asked. I forget her name too, but I think it was Heather. She was older, and had worked retail all the way back to the early 80s. She was tired of it, but still very kindly and nice to work with.
“Fucking Chinese!” Bev declared, as if that explained it all. She hurried to the bathroom, leaving us all hanging.
She did fill us in, finally, and the story “impressed” me so much that I actually wrote a poem about it, which has sat at the bottom of a hard drive waiting to be shared with the world, so here you go:
universal sufferage is a dangerous pun
a woman i worked with once said ‘who the fuck
would fuckin learn fuckin chinese? what a
stupid fuckin language’ to which i (ignoring her
obviously poor grasp of her own language) replied that
‘i find it kind of pretty, actually’ and she said
‘its fuckin useless who fuckin talks fuckin chinese
anyways’ to which i mumbled ‘a quarter
of the human race?’ and she got pissed at me,
accused me of ‘always having to disagree’ and later
admitted it was all because ‘two fuckin chinese
bitches from japan cut me off on the fuckin road and
they fuckin gave me the fuckin finger, and after they come
to our country’ but after all this was the smalltown
dyed-blonde line-dancer who asked the jewish woman
on staff in shock whether there were ‘really jews in israel? and
nobody talks “jewish” anymore, just in the bible, right?’, and
once said to me “if this Gandhi guy were so important
I’d know who he was by now, now wouldn’t I,
Let’s set aside whether I’m a judgmental, ungenerous, arrogant prick for another day, and just ask ourselves: would it be fair to base one’s assessment of Canadian society and culture on experiences in conversation with Bev, and the people she calls her close friends? I don’t think so.
But expats–especially in Korea, in my experience–do the exact equivalent on a regular basis. The way they talk sometimes, you’d think Canada was a place where everyone is aware of the necessity to respect people because of their differences, not despite them, because the morons get left out of the equation. When grappling with a foreign culture, the morons end up at center stage: could this be because it’s the easiest way to “explain” another culture? Find the idiots, focus on them, and the explanations you generate will be simple and straightforward… and, at least within your little, bitter expat circle, unimpeachable, because everyone has met the same kinds of morons too?
Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that when the idiocy one runs across is a familiar sort, it recedes into the background, discarded from the picture we carry with us, and that only increases with distance and time away. The place where you are now, when you’re an expat, rarely benefits from the same sorts of editorial omissions; rather, the same confirmation bias suddenly cuts the other way: suddenly, the idiots become, in your limited and constrained circle of experience, some sort of emblem for the whole.
1. That’s not to say that dumbassery of the sort discussed in the comments section I mentioned is rare in Korea; I’d argue it’s actually more common and more socially acceptable than in Canada, and less filtered out by advanced education or experience abroad than it would be in a Canadian context. (One routinely hears Korean PhDs in the humanities in Korea say things that seem to me to be potentially career-destroying in a Western university setting.) But all the complexly nuanced context and explanation aside, I’d say it’s still dumbassery, even in a Korean cultural context, because Korean culture, like any culture, spans broadly enough to include Korean progressives who see such behaviour as obviously unacceptable.