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Zocalo’s Questions

A blogger who goes by Zocalo left a comment linking to a recent post about imperialist white male English teachers in Asia, and I started to type a reply. The reply got long enough that I knew it’d be multiple comments in the post, so I’m putting it here instead.

Before you go on, you probably should read Zocalo’s post in full (as well as the post it links to). For those not click-inclined, here’s a snippet:

I have mentioned a few times before that I read some blogs written by Caucasians teaching English in Asia. Some of these blogs are so outrageously arrogant and condescending of ALL things local that my jaw drops to the floor every time I visit these blogs. For the longest time, I could not explain WHY I continue to read these blogs. Now I can say it is like watching a train wreck — curiosity beckons all of us. One blog in particular is written by a person who teaches English at a Taiwanese university. If you go to his blog, I guarantee you that the latest entry will be lamblasting Taiwanese education. If a reader leaves a comment, he quickly dismisses it with the opening remarks “You seem to be confused…” or “You don’t seem to get the point…”

Seriously, how can EVERYONE not get “the point” except him? I feel like I need to bring a mat to kneel on and bow when I read his blog. If your only exposure to Taiwan is via his blog, you will inevitably come away thinking, “How the fuck does this country function? These people are so stupid! It’s anarchy!”

Zocalo asked some questions, which I’ll try to answer:

  1. Is this a white male complex?
  2. Or just a white-male-teaching-ESL-in-Asia complex?
  3. Do they simply dismiss everything their students say in class?
  4. Does the ability to speak English fluently in a country where English is revered as a language engender such arrogance?
  5. If the country or system is so bad and screwed up, why do these expats keep living there? (related to the politically incorrect statement in North America of telling immigrants to leave if they’re so fed up with USA/Canada)

This is a REALLY complicated — and interesting — topic that I’ve been thinking about lately. Since I’m taking a little break from the story I’m editing (for a Halloween deadline, gaah!) I thought I’d tease out some of my thoughts.

It’s complicated for a number of reasons, and one of them I’m going to knock on right off the bat.

I’ve been living in South Korea for almost six years now, and I find that it’s not just white foreigners who speak disparagingly of Korea. Korean-Americans (Korean-Canadians, Korean-Australians, Korean-Uzbeks) actually say a lot of the same kinds of things that white, black, and Indian expats say here. (I mention white, black, and Indian as they’re the most common, but also because I’ve known or interacted with some of each. I have met a Maori expat in Korea but didn’t know her well, for example, so I can’t say much for her thoughts on the country.)

In fact, I’ve been learning in the last few years that a lot of the problems that foreign-born Koreans and other foreigners bitch about are things that Koreans themselves acknowledge as problems, and complain or debate about. The reason foreigners aren’t so aware of this is because they do their debating and discussing in Korean — and that’s inaccessible to most foreigners — or, for sensitive issues, due to a general image-conscious nationalist mindset that’s inculcated early on, Koreans just tend to avoid or whitewash the topic when foreigners are around.

(That is to say, Koreans are raised and [I get the impression somewhat consciously] educated to be very sensitive about how Korea looks internationally, and because of cultural notions about how embarrassing things should be handled — ignore, pretend it’s not there, the classic British way — they tend to avoid those embarrassing issues.)

So the illusion that the local-language-impaired foreigner develops is that for the locals, everything is hunky-dory, that people aren’t critical of the problems or don’t perceive them as such. The media only reinforces this by presenting a skewed, image-conscious version of the Korean news where the serious social problems are mostly not discussed, and while the Korean media does this to some extent as well, popular commentary online tends to balance it. Foreigners don’t have access to any of this.

One example: the Korean education system is a mess. Koreans will quite readily admit this, and foreign teachers see it very clearly. Plagiarism is rampant, the vast majority of students are too burned out from the hellish study-marathon of high school and uni entrance exams, and the first year of university is, quite frankly, as one Korean friend put it, “A year-long drinking contest.” University students here are like high school students in Canada, and University students in Canada (hitting the books, etc.) are like high school kids in Korea.

Now, pretty much everyone I know in Korea agrees that the system needs fixing. But lots of foreigners I know are less than fully aware of how the average Korean is cognizant of this.

That’s one example: a couple of other examples include labour laws that are so badly designed that they backfire incredibly; the absolute dominance and power of the Korean corporation in public life; the crappy slanted biased nature of the media here, both in newsmedia and TV entertainment. (You have no idea how bad TV can be until you see most of what’s on TV in Korea.)

A rather different case is when the foreigner is confronted with something that actually is widely perceived as, well, a non-issue, and is enraged about it being a non-issue because it’s a point of some importance in the foreigner’s home culture. One would be endemic racism. Here, there are a variety of attitudes. The white foreigners (myself included) tend to go into apoplectic shock when first experiencing some kind of negative treatment on the basis of race. Which, believe it or not, does happen to white men in Korea. I’ve known guys who were walking down the street with a Korean woman late at night and got accosted. Lots of expats have stories about being threatened in elevators or on the street by strangers, being spat on in the subway, almost being arrested by the cops just for being on the scene of a fight. (The foreigner must have started it, right?)

I’ve heard “black” foreigners (those who self-identify as black, or who are identified and treated as such by Koreans) say that the racism isn’t any worse here than in the US. So it’s a question of perspective. South Asian or Nepali migrant workers (or, in one case, a Nigerian guy I met who tried working in a factory for one day and quit because the conditions were worse than any he’d seen in his life) would probably tell a very different story.

But what’s interesting is you see white foreigners — me included — chastising their younger students in the countryside when they make jokes about how black people are monkeys that go ooga-booga, or white people have big penises and are sex maniacs, or that Chinese are dirty and talk funny. These classic tropes aren’t learned from the white imperialist men, after all: they’re classic racist tropes in the local culture. The expatriate here forgets that these things were also not uncommon in his or her home country fifty or eighty years ago, even more shockingly since the opportunities for exposure to blacks, Chinese, and other races was so much higher in the West even then.

But yes, I cringe when I see the caricatures of blacks in the newspaper, in leopard skins with bones in their noses. Korean cartoonists (and a number of Koreans) seem to think it’s funny, or cute. Either way, it’s apparently acceptable in a major national newspaper to depict African-Americans (yes, they’re Americans in some of the cartoons) as savages with bones in their noses, in animal skins. Little surprise that the most popular rapper here is Eminem.

Some other examples include the sexual panic about white men and Korean women; the state of Korean bathrooms and hygiene; attitudes among the young toward privacy and anonymity; obsession with plastic surgery to the point it helps in the acceptance and reinforcement of very sexist and ageist hiring practices.

What’s my point so far? I think there are two major ones so far:

I think these points mostly speak to the first three questions raised by Zocalo. Often, students don’t raise points for discussion on certain topics. Also, and this is my experience, the younger generation — current crop of college kids — are rather depoliticized compared to the generation before them. This is something the few politically-minded Koreans I know are frustrated about, too, but it is a fact.

[A Chinese friend suggested this depoliticization is possibly related to the fact that almost all day long, there is seemingly brainless comedy available on TV. (I don’t have a TV, so I can’t check this for myself.) ]

Now, I don’t think English is actually revered in Korea. In fact, students are embarrassed to speak it. Most people are afraid to speak it badly. I do think some people develop an ego for other reasons. One of them is that, being exotic, they get complimented a lot. Being foreign, their screwups and failings are glossed over more. Being exotic-looking males with a more deeply-ingrained acceptance of women’s freedoms, in a society where those values aren’t yet fully-widespread, where expectations by Korean male partners tend to be higher, where family issues with a Korean boyfriend can become a problem, white men do (on average) find more women express interest in them or attempt to initiate a relationship with them. And in workplaces where many foreigners are praised and, regardless of how it seems, often treated better than their Korean co-workers, it’s easy to develop an attitude.

Add in the few correct perceptions of widespread problems that people don’t see as problems, and the many more misperceptions of problems which everyone sees but the foreigner doesn’t know everyone sees, and it’s a recipe for believing the foreign society you’re living in is absolutely crazy.

And it’s not always wrong. As many Koreans and foreigners have said to me, Korea is not a developed country. They don’t mean economically, mind you — economic development here happened very quickly. But the internalization of what, say, democracy, or the concept of human rights and freedoms — freedom of speech, for example — seem not to be deep-seated. The value of human life is much lower here: emergency contingency training isn’t taken seriously — hence the case where a subway driver, noticing the train is on fire, hops out of the train and leaves the doors shut when he runs away. (And many unnecessarily die from the fumes of the cheap seat stuffing. Boom, there’s the Daegu subway fire. Only a few years ago.)

These kinds of problems are real, and not all of them are on the average Korean’s radar. Most Koreans know that Korea has almost the highest rate of traffic fatalities, and child traffic fatalities, in the world. Yet surprising numbers of kids are left to play in the street, and not many people seem to connect the deaths to the almost-nonexistent enforcement of laws against things like speeding, running red lights, and parking wherever the hell you want, including sidewalks and directly on corners, and so on. Certainly, people don’t connect it all enough to stop doing those kinds of things. And the cops haven’t started enforcing those basic traffic laws much either.

Note that so far, I nowhere have called our English Teacher an “imperialist.” To be honest, the age of empires is over. White people in Asia are not the footsoldiers of any empire. Most of the foreigners I know here aren’t trying to advance the Korean acceptance of “American” culture, but instead, are trying to experience a non-American culture.

This brings to mind Asterix and Obelix, and how that little village of Gauls held out against the Romans, I’m reminded of the fact that the “barbarian invasions” of the Roman empire weren’t really a sudden surge of northerners on the attack. It was more a long-term, slow business of encroachment, of seasonal movement. Gauls might have held out for a while, but it would take a magic strength potion for the movers and shakers in a Gaulish society to have the incentive to wholly reject Roman Imperial rule, given the kind of freedoms and benefits the Roman Empire’s subjects found (theoretically) available to them.

Korea is a little bit like that Gaulish village that held out for a long time. It’s the modernized, industrialized society that was the most closed of all until relatively recently. (And in some ways, people say, it remains the most closed.) But now, those Gauls aren’t holding out. They’ve embraced the Roman Empire. They may not all speak the language, or know the cuisine, but they’re drinking Roman wine, they’ve cooked up a Roman legal system, they coin their money like Romans, they sing Roman-style songs, they judge their dramas on Roman standards… Koreans have basically, as a society, embraced America as the new China, the source of cultural, economic, religious, and technological definitiveness… to the point that traditional Korean music or clothing looks more “exotic” to Koreans of my age than it does “familiar.” If there’s an empire, foreigners have been invited here in order for Koreans to become equipped to function within it more efficiently (and in a more lucrative manner).

The side effect of this is, of course, moral panic about the peripheral changes that occur. The change in women’s self-perception of their role in society, apparently a change rooted in Western mass media. (Sex and the City is often mentioned, but I imagine a lot of media presents alternative roles for women: E.R., Lost, and The West Wing are only recent examples.) The change in young people’s attitudes toward premartial cohabitation. The change in public handling of sexuality. (Couples hold hands in public now. Some couples even fool around a little on the subway — ie. kissing. This is cause for moral panic.) More and more young Korean women can be seen with foreign males. (The evil foreign males are “seducing our women!” is a common cry online in Korean, amid misogynist comments about how stupid and easily manipulated these “girls” are.)

Now, as for classroom evangelization: this is tough. I sometimes to evangelize in the classroom. I push for alternative views, I try to burst bubbles when they’re widely held, especially when they’re connected to racist, sexist, homophobic viewpoints. I don’t tend to evangelize directly: “Women should not have to worry about their age when they’re applying for a job!” Rather, I ask the kinds of destabilizing questions that make students question their assumptions. They also sometimes do the same to me, which is cool — I encourage it.

I do think that university is the place to be exposed to all kinds of opinions and views, to be pushed to question your own. I also think that a lot of university instructors tend to be more conservative in their views, not raising certain issues or questioning them in the way I do. (Some definitely do. But I know from the comments of my students, as well as the shell-shock they experience when they first discover how radically deheriarchized my classes sometimes are, that their other classes are more often “standard” classroom settings here, meaning more conservative venues where conservative ideas are more safe.)

In other words, I’m not so worried about the whole “imperialist white male” thing because, frankly, you can throw as many ignorantist imperialists at Korea and have them preach as much as they can: it won’t change a thing. Alleging that “imperialists” from abroad can “impose” anything on Korea is silly, and patronizing: Korean society, in its own distributed manner, makes decisions just like any modern, relatively free society. I think the “imperialists” really come off more — to Korean students and to fellow teachers alike — as plain old ig’nunt dumbasses, who tend to turn Korean students off one-on-one, but since I know how hard it is for a well-meaning, careful, thoughtful person to make a difference in the way an individual person thinks, I don’t imagine the so-called “imperialists” make much of a dent socially anyway, so it’s hard for me to be alarmed by them or angry about them. I perceive them more as just dumbasses blowing hot air, and that makes them more pathetic than anything.

(Though I will say it’s a stage a lot of people go through before their realize, “Oh, shit! I don’t know anywhere near as much as I thought I knew!” I did go through this, hopefully not as gracelessly as some, but I did. I’d even say it’s a stage of culture shock.)

Yes, too many teachers come over here thinking they will change the country. (And an offshoot of this is a fantasy about “saving” a Korean “girl” from a life of ignominy with a stereotypical Korean husband. Usually, the “girl” gets tired of being “saved.”) But I think calling them “imperialists” (or “girl-thieves”) only credits the silly idea more than it deserves.

As for the last point: if it’s so bad, why not leave?

For one thing, it’s very easy to get stuck here. I have a feeling that most teachers who’ve been in Asia for more than a few years would have a hard time readjusting to living in their homeland. The work pays better, demands less, and the side benefits — free housing, in Korea, as well as good food, and social benefits — all add up. It doesn’t help that Canada has no job market to speak of unless you’re willing to work for minimum wage and scrape for years. So, “student loans” is a good answer to that last question, and so is lethargy.

Then there’s the guys like me: I’m engaged to a Korean. I could, very easily, start working elsewhere at some point. I have the right to a British passport, so I could teach in, say, Italy or Germany or France quite easily. I could get a gig in Japan, or China, or somewhere like Thailand. But my fiancée has a life here, and, what’s more, that life could not be as easily picked up and carried on elsewhere. (Medical licensing is a pain in the ass. Important, mind you. Just inconvenient for us.) She has seen me get progressively more frustrated with Korea, and even said I should feel free to take a job elsewhere for a year, but you know, the long and short of it is, for the relationship, I’ll be spending time here that otherwise might be spent elsewhere. And that in itself makes one sometimes feel critical of the society where one lives.

But there’s a last point which Zocalo’s comment itself noted: it’s politically incorrect to tell an immigrant or foreigner, “If you don’t like it, why not screw off back to your own country?” Even when it’s obvious someone should leave, they’re burned out, there’s a problem with saying it, which is this: it presupposes that people complain out of snide hatred, or a sense of superiority. I often tell my fiancée that I complain not out of dislike for the people I deal with daily, but because I do care. I get infuriated when students tell me that for cultural reasons, they cannot defy their parents’ decree and study what they feel passionate about; I get infuriated when a Chinese student comes to me with stories of racial discrimination by a professor in one of her other classes. If I’m angry, or complaining, it’s because I care about these people, their struggles and frustrations, or about my own. And my own personal frustrations are valid, even if I was not born here. I pay my taxes, I contribute to this society as best I can. And I work very hard at my job, something else I wouldn’t do if I didn’t care.

Anyway, I think that’s enough for one night. I hope I haven’t roped myself into the imperialist white male bastard expat group. I try to be optimistic and I’m trying to be less hypercritical of Korea these days. Meeting up with friends like Xuechen (whom I saw on Friday) and Charles (whom I saw yesterday) helps. And the microbrews I had with those friends help, too.

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