The Expattes Compleynte

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Who's Complaining in Korea

Roboseyo and The Korean (of Ask a Korean) have teamed up to pose a question that really does strike to the heart of the corner of the Internet that deals with Korea in English:

Why do expats in Korea complain so much [online]?

Note that I didnt use the word “blogosphere” anywhere: though lately I’ve been spitting insults at The Marmot’s Fleas (as I call the commenters at The Marmot’s Hole) the way some cowboys (used to?) spit chaw, let’s face it, there are other sinkholes of negativty, the forums on Dave’s ESL Cafe being a prominent one, and Dave’s is not a blog. I don’t know how people brave the threads there; me, I just get turned off way too quickly.

My first reaction is, well, Descartes old formulation probably would be improved by throwing in something a little more universal to the human experience than thinking: if we amend, “Cogito, ergo sum” to “Queritor, ergo sum,” (I bitch excessively, therefore I am.”) I think we’d get a formulation that’s just a little more reflective of humanity’s attachment to complaining, its motivations for speaking out a lot of the time, the moment when volition (and the identity bound into volition) are at their peak, and all that.

I bitch, therefore I am.

It certainly does explain a lot. The whole of literature, after all, is one long catalogue of human complaints: How does love suck? Let me count the ways… War sucks… The irreversibility of death sucks, and it sucks even more if it’s your honey-baby… Hubris sucks… Women who don’t love you back suck… Being the only foreigner in the room sucks… The rest cure sucks even worse than war… Living in a theocratic monarchy with a corrupted church kinda sucks but at least we can laugh at it… The list goes on and on. If certain aspects of the world, humanity, or human life didn’t suck, people wouldn’t feel driven to sit in rooms and write about them, adding to the collective millions of hours of literature-generating that have gone on across human history.

I mean, blogging is kind of new. It’s a weird genre, really; not so much like any older form of life-writing we’ve ever had, because the step of publication is collapsed into a single, absurdly simply gesture: press the Publish button, and it’s out there. Maybe ten people read it, maybe a million, maybe only the googlebots and webspiders. Oh, to have a time machine, and introduce weblogging into the world of the Taiping Rebels, or among the crew of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria:

Who the f*** does this Colombo bastard think he is? Everyone stinks, the water is running out, I’ve had it with salt f***ing pork, and half the men are ill with the scurvy. Aye, I know that saying it aloud would be outright mutinous, but since this blog is anonymous, I post here with no scruples.

(Then again, if we could have a blogosphere that suffused all of human history, maybe that would be different:

UPDATE: Had me a look at Wikipedia and found that, lo and behold, we actually make it. Glad I’m not on the Santa Maria, though. Check out that crazy*ss sh*t!

Columbus also explored the northeast coast of Cuba (landed on October 28) and the northern coast of Hispaniola, by December 5. Here, the Santa Maria ran aground on Christmas morning 1492 and had to be abandoned. He was received by the native cacique Guacanagari, who gave him permission to leave some of his men behind. Columbus left 39 men and founded the settlement of La Navidad in what is now present-day Haiti.

Damn! But get this: that’s only the “First Voyage”! There’s three more! Rock’n’roll!

… but, you know, grandfather paradoxes aside — I mean, Wikipedia would be a mess of edits, as the Akkadians and the ancient Khmer would be fighting over who gets to take over Latin America — sending emails further and further back to their ancestors, and the Chinese and the Aztecs are looking up everything they can about this “nuclear warhead” stuff, since they’re reading of the coming war, but let’s say paradoxes are somehow avoided — can you imagine all the cuneiform comment-spam we’d be getting then?)

Er… okay, back to this question of why expats in Korea seem to complain so much online.

Anyway, the answers that The Korean and Roboseyo offer are interesting, and I’ll invite you to go read them yourselves. Rob’s is, essentially a taxonomy of expat complainers and critics — which is interesting, since I’m working on a post about Korean pop-cultural taxonomies at the moment, but anyway — and it analyzes this question by breaking down the kinds of criticisms that expats make of Korean society. The categories range from people venting the way drunk fratboy expats do — making jokes about how Korean girls have no boobs, for example — or mocking the belief in “fan death”, all the way up tothe Constructive Social Critics, which is the club I mostly aspire to be though, you know, sometimes I vent too.

That’s interesting, though I think the taxonomy could do with another dimension, which Robo only deals with briefly — the race and profession of the commentator. Robo notes:

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.

To which, I’ll add one comment. I’m a teacher, and one who’s been blessed with a great job. Despite the odd doofus I post about who seems to think she or he is entitled to an A+ for having sat in silence through 48 hours (or, rather, the minimum 36 hours) of class, I have to say, my work is relatively quite rewarding. I get to work with young people exploring things, and I get to take on the classes where they’re exploring things that interest me personally — things like refined studies of anglophone pop culture, analysis and writing of poetry, literature and multiculturalism, all kinds of stuff. Even the workmanlinke courses, the “conversation” and “debate” and “composition” courses, are at least half the time fascinating and the students surprisingly eager.

But even so, burnout is a risk. If I were not getting the holidays I do from work, I’d be burnt out by now for sure. I’ve mentioned this before, but when, in this interview (mp3, so you may wish to right click and save as), popular British SF author Richard Morgan was asked why so much of his fiction is so violent, the first thing he mentioned was not the themes of his stories (systemic exploitation and oppression of the masses by elites through systems like government or corporations). No, no, the first thing he mentioned was…

… having been an ESL teacher for many years, and the compacted sense of rage that one builds up because, not matter how vile the things you’re hearing are, your job is to make the classroom a warm, comfy, touchy-feely place to be, so that your students get more confident, try more, and ultimately get better at saying what they think — be it brilliant, or be it vile.

Morgan mentions examples of Arabic students praising Hitler, but also, tellingly, of a Korean student who, after a brief stay in London, declared the British people lazy compared to Koreans, who “love their jobs and work really hard” or something (familiar) like that. And I have to admit that, given my role as not just a teacher, but as a visibly foreign teacher, this issue is even more escalated, because when students look at me, they really do see a “Foreign Teacher.” (And my department is small enough that, if I alienate them, they’ll have trouble finding enough classes to take next semester, and the one after that, and so on.) But also, because in Korea, a Korean/Foreign social instinct seems deeply embedded, and alienating the one loser who is pro-Nazi can sometimes also mean alienating the twenty people who (quietly, or privately) think his praise of Nazism is ridiculous and stupid. Even if most of the class thinks the guy is a wanker, your telling him off violates a kind of trust they have with you as a group. Come to think of it, that probably exists in every classroom situation to a lesser degree — but the lines get draw much more clearly, much more easily, in a classroom when you’re the only foreigner, or (in classes with exchange students, like most of mine these days) the only white person. The combination of white and “in a position of authority” just compounds the identity issues in the classroom. Sometimes that’s exploitable; at other times, it’s just a pain in the butt.

So I have to admit to having a sense of what Morgan means when he describes a residue of “compacted rage” from all those years of teaching. I have traces of it too, in me, and sometimes I struggle hard to get a handle on it.

And I have long holidays. Thus, I can’t help but look at the guys who are teaching week in and week out — the hakwon teachers who go not only without the four or five months of holiday that university lecturers get, but who even teach eight or more hours a day, most of the year — and I wonder how they stay sane after a couple of years of it. In fact, I suspect a lot of people don’t, or cannot, and this might be one reason why they leave soon. Time off helps.

Being in a foreign country does usually not help, at least not in the long term, as the petty annoyances compound. Morgan was living in Britain for a lot (but not all) of his ESL career, if I remember right, but many expat teachers here have done it all abroad, and have been doing it for years. I don’t know that they complain more than teachers in similar situations would be doing in their home countries — though, things as they are, that’d be hard to test since probably fewer teachers back home blog publicly or as honestly as many expats do here, for fear of losing their jobs if they are “too honest.” Still, judging by the mockery and ranting one sees in foreigner-hangouts, expats probably do whinge more online.

Why they remain expatriates when they are unhappy is an interesting question, and there are probably a bunch of issues at work there — economics, in some cases; lethargy or inertia; masochism in a few cases; perceived or real lack of opportunities in their home country; and more — but I’m sure others can discuss it better than me.

Personally, I wouldn’t say, like Lunalil at Funk Seoul Sister in her reaction to Rob’s post, that “I love living in Korea.” That is, there are things I love, and things I certainly don’t love, and a lot of things that are just, well, whatever. Like any place, it has pros and cons, and frankly, I’m only still here because my fiancee is Korean, she’s ready to leave too, and the timing and our relationship is just such that it’s better we’re here for a while more. (Though it is worth noting that, the type of people we are and the kinds of careers we want to pursue, it’s probably better we leave sometime in the short-term.)

The other thing that I’ve noticed is that the people here who don’t have some kind of hobby tend to go sour, bitter, and ranty a lot faster than the people who don’t. One thing about Korea is, it lacks a lot of the “fun things to do” that socially developed countries have. I have a friend who’s on holiday in the US, and it was one of the things she mentioned first in an email to me: “There are so many fun things to do everywhere!” Korea has fun things too… but they’re, er, well, not much like the fun things we Westerners tend to have learned to think of as fun. Hiking a mountain, fun? Yes, I’m starting to see how someone could feel that — now. But at first, it was like, “Whaaaaaaaaaaat? That’s not fun, that’s… hiking a mountain!” Really, Korea has a very undeveloped market for entertainment, especially outside of certain parts of Seoul and maybe Busan. On a winter day, you can:

  • watch a movie at the cinema/DVD-방/video-방/at home
  • play computer games at the PC-방
  • consume some Korean food/badly-prepared Western food/alcohol/coffee/tea at a resataurant/foreigner bar/Korean bar/cafe/tea house
  • hike a mountain to visit a temple/yell from the top/shiver

There are, of course, more options than that, but not for most Westerners. Museums? Where? Rock concerts? Sure, if you know about the Korea gig guide and live in Seoul. Film festivals are, like, a week of the year. Really, the options are limited already, and unless you can navigate the searching online in Korean, or get some help, you’re going to mostly end up doing what other working people do here: watching movies, drinking with your own kind, or at home, ranting online.

(And yes, “other working people” — that is, Koreans — are ranting online too. More about that next time, because it is important and I want to give it some depth.)

Having a hobby helps immensely. The first few years I was in Korea, I played in a rock band that gigged at festivals, clubs, and all kinds of other events, and even put out a few CDs. (MP3s here, folks.) To be honest, over the years it kind of drove me batty, because I’m not a big rock music fan, and I’m not one for spending weekends on the road, and playing the same song in some bar for the Nth time is, well, less fun than you’d imagine… yes, I’m just not cut out for a career in rock music, but then again, I play the saxophone, so it was never meant to be — but even so, playing in that band was immensely therapeutic for me in terms of adjusting to Korea. It opened doors to me that never otherwise would have opened. Suddenly I was talking to Korean people about stuff they cared about — indie music — and that was a counterbalance to the world of my classes, where students struggled to make perfect sentences about things they didn’t are about at all. I was, of course, always something of an outsider, as were all the foreign musicians I knew, but we were still part of a community. And yes, a sometimes annoying one, one that operated by rules that sometimes made us crazy, a community with a few brazen jerks out to rip off others… but still, a community of sorts. A community with its own vocabulary, rules, interests, oddities and more that had nothing to do with English (and the sort of people you meet in the English zones of Korean society — great post by The Korean on that, is what that links to) or teaching or even foreignness in any way.

The expats I know who’ve adjusted here best are those who have some kind of, well, I don’t want to use the word “hobby”, so I’ll say, “interface” with Korea. They interface by engaging with the place they live in some creative, responsive, energetic way. Some I’ve known in the past made documentary films or art. Maybe they produce zines exploring the local culture. Maybe they do pop culture analysis, or perform independent research; some take on academic studies, or work as translators, or live lives of scholarly inquiry in what sounds like an idyllic familial home. Many of them get really, embarrassingly (for me) good at the language. Whatever they do, they engage with this place on their own terms, but taking into account its terms, too. They’re realistic, and probably every one of them has engaged in complaining at some point — it’s human, after all, which is why I’d bet every language on Earth has a verb that means “to complain” — but anyway they find things to get fascinated by, excited about, or invested in, despite what sometimes feels like a constant stream of messages telling them that they shouldn’t bother, that they can’t do that, or complicating the process, or discouraging them to do so.

There’s one more common — though not universal — trait among those who adjust well here. A few years ago, I would have said that they all study and develop their Korean ability, and maybe that’s true too. I’ve lapsed, myself, grown too busy in weighing the options, focused on other things, and I don’t feel my quality of life has slid too much for it, but probably, to whatever degree learning and improving my Korean ability would facilitate the abovementioned engagement with Korea, it’s a good thing. But the trait I wanted to mention is that they connect to Korean people outside of their workplace. And I don’t just mean the smiling, nearly-fluent-in-English bartender at the local Foreigner Bar. I mean they make friends with Koreans; they have arguments — of substance, about things of mutual concern, with Koreans. They may fall in love with one (or two, or three, over the years) and marry a Korean, or they might not. But they do connect to people outside of their classroom, even if it’s just adult students who become friends/sorta-friends, or their swim class at the YMCA, or the cute person of the opposite sex who chats with them every time they stop in at this particular pub or coffee shop, or whatever.

For many foreigners here — male and female, though the latter is rarer — a Korean mate is the reality check on the overblown distortion that a foreigner often seems to acquire by reading sites like Dave’s ESL, Marmot’s Hole and Occidentalism, or listening to his or her students a little too trustingly. When you have no idea why Koreans do this or that, of course, and complain to your Korean other half, sometimes it just pisses them off; Lime and I, for example, have topics we’ve learned not to bitch about to one another, because it just never goes anywhere good. (No, not “fan death,” and not the protests, about which we see pretty much eye-to-eye, but about other things that are criticizable, which we both feel deserve crticism, but which one or the other of us doesn’t handle well in practice when criticizing.) But when you ask your Korean partner, if you’re lucky enough to have someone who values dialog and if you’re clever enough to value it yourself, and you both have a sense of humor about things, and if you make the obvious investment in one another that leads to an attempt at better understanding each others’ worlds, sometimes (most) Koreans don’t seem quite so weird to you, as a Westerner, after all. Different, yes. Odd, maybe. But not really nutty the way so much critical online sniping seems to imply.

And sometimes I think the people who really adapt to living here do it with a trick of the mind: that is, they just kind of learn to mentally balance the things that drive them batty with the things that they really enjoy.

And really, that’s like living anywhere, isn’t it?

Well, actually, wait, no. Not really: Korea isn’t really like anywhere but Korea, it has unique joys and unique annoyances all bundled together in an overcrowded, loud, polluted, noisy package where…

But I’m getting ahead of myself, and anyway, that is all something that The Korean discusses here. Go give his post a read, and come back in a day or two to see what my response to that is. (I need the time, since my response is something I was writing for another post on another — related — subject, and it needs a little reworking, and since I want to do The Korean’s points justice. But for the curious, it has to do with interstellar travel, generational differences, and who else is complaining online in Korea.)

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25 thoughts on “The Expattes Compleynte

  1. Living in a different country is hard, especially when you’re a minority there. Sharing your complaints with others creates a comforting illusion of support since, as a foreigner, the only people likely to care about you are other foreigners. The act of complaining itself has more significance than the content.

    Or not.

    Anyway, Koreans in the U.S. complain a lot, too (don’t know about Canada). I never heard “미국놈” and related expressions anywhere as much in Korea as I’ve heard them from yuhaksaeng here.

  2. Hmm.

    Maybe I should have said that I don’t hate living in Korea, and that I enjoy my life here. I try to enjoy it as much as I can. Then again, that’s my current attitude who knows what will happen in the future. :)

    I enjoyed reading your opinions. Thanks for sharing them.

  3. Interesting post. We, of course, have ranting expats here in Japan, too, but I find that the longer I’m here, the less I hang out with newbies (aka nama-gaijin), and the less I hang out with newbies, the less of it I hear. The foreigners I mostly hang out with now are people who’ve been here for a decade or two and have made their peace with Japan. They’ve also been around long enough that they’ve heard (or made) all the standard complaints so there’s really no reason to rehash them.

    Donald Richie characterizes this sort of gaijin complaining as gossip:

    Oh, did you hear what the Japanese did today?

    Well, if you think that’s bad, I saw the Japanese doing . . . .

    A friend of mine says the Japanese . . . .

    And on and on ad infinitum.

    You write:

    “Like any place, it has pros and cons, and frankly, I’m only still here because my fiancee is Korean, she’s ready to leave too, and the timing and our relationship is just such that it’s better we’re here for a while more. (Though it is worth noting that, the type of people we are and the kinds of careers we want to pursue, it’s probably better we leave sometime in the short-term.)”

    From what I’ve gathered, your fiance either is a doctor or is training to be one. Leaving Korea would, I think, probably entail giving up her medical career–or being entirely retrained in the country to which you move. Is this really something she’s willing to do? This is, of course, a personal question, so I will certainly understand if you choose not to answer it. I ask because I have been involved in versions of this dilemma with my Japanese wife (I’m American), and have also seen other friends struggling with similar decisions.

  4. Hi there. Thanks for weighing in. I like your look at it, and I agree that once you get above about the third year in Korea, the complaining usually drops off. I think I need to pick up a hobby where I can meet Koreans. . . either that, or start pumping out novels and short stories and finally send them off.

  5. Rhesus,

    I have no doubt that anyone living in a foreign country — especially for their first time — complains a lot, including Koreans in the US and Canada. One point I forgot to bring up is how many immigrants to the US actually end up suffering from clinical depression without ever having had a case of it in their home countries. Google the two keywords immigrants AND depression together. We can assume the circumstances are probablty at least as jarring for Westerners here, hence all the self-medicating with ooze, histrionics in the workplace, and so on.


    I wasn’t criticizing you, just using your words as a springboard. Trying to enjoy life here is a very good attitude. I’ll say more at your site.


    Like Robo and you, I think there’s a big dropoff in complaining after some time, and “making your peace with [country]” is probably a good way of putting it.

    Donald Richie characterizes this sort of gaijin complaining as gossip:

    Oh, did you hear what the Japanese did today?
    Well, if you think that’s bad, I saw the Japanese doing . . . .
    A friend of mine says the Japanese . . . .
    And on and on ad infinitum.

    That’s so familiar I would even have recognized it in Montréal — long before I went abroad — among the many of my classmates who’d taught abroad in Japan and returned after one or two years to study Creative Writing at the graduate level. And there’s different styles of bitching, from, “I hate Japan,” to, “We’re so much less stupid than the Japanese,” to, “Look at all the other gaijins who suck,” to, “I’m only here for the money.” And man, there was this horrid form of post-expat writing — I swear, it’s a grad school creative writing program subgenre — of semi-autobiographical writing about one’s sexual awakening in Japan as an EFL teacher. Ga! (Though this one guy who’d gone to teach in Thailand — Sina Ghadirian was his name — was writing hilarious farang-loser-with-Thai-girlfriend-mocking-him mystery-thriller sex-comedy stuff, his stories were priceless.)

    As for Lime, yes, she’s a doctor. She’s licensed here, but hasn’t done her residency, and does not want to do her residency here, so she’s studying for the USMLE. If she can pass the exams, it means just shifting to the residency track in the US, doing that and a speciality, and then getting on with life. Despite some occasional lapses in confidence, it’s actually something she’s eager to do, the more and more she learns about it, because talking to other Koreans who’ve gone off to do their residencies in the US has driven home how much better the training is there, and how, well, not to be harsh but, how backwards the system is here, from medical education all the way to the end of the residency.

    (Example: When she was in med school, I discovered that she’d never been taught about how antibiotic overprescription can, over time, contribute to forms of antibiotic resistance to create superflus and the like. She thought I was talking science fiction until she asked some professor, who said, “Oh yeah, that’s true.” And when she asked why it wasn’t taught in school, I seem to remember that she was told, “Well, it’s not like it would do any good here, would it?” (Because Korean patients in general tend to expect a prescription every time they visit the doctor, and if you don’t give it, they’ll find someone who will.) So they just don’t bother teaching about it. And this was in a relatively-decent state-run university — which is better than most of the private universities outside Seoul, over here — not one of the top schools in th country, of course, but a very good school for her region of the country…)

    The decision wasn’t easy, to go to the US, and it doesn’t mean we’ll never be in Korea again… but for now, it seems like the best thing for both of us. (By the way, I’m Canadian, so I’ll still be in a foreign country.)


    Thanks, man. And thanks for starting this whole discussion. It’s good. By the way, about this:

    I think I need to pick up a hobby where I can meet Koreans. . . either that, or start pumping out novels and short stories and finally send them off.

    There’s probably more chicks in rock music (though that wasn’t my experience — Korea and groupies: choose one), but then, you’ve got a girlfriend so maybe rock’s a bad idea. Writing, on the other hand, is quite solitary and you have to be nuts to get into it. I, of course, am fully nuts. :)

  6. Gord, gidday.

    Completely agree about the ‘interface’ thing.

    Good write up. Good to see you and all getting into this topic well and good. Good on yas!

  7. Wow! reading all three of these posts took endurance. Definitely worth the time though. Gord, well written, especially about the part regarding keeping busy outside of teaching and having a Korean significant other.

    In that area over the 11 years I’ve been here, I’ve gotten an M.A. learned Korean, improved my computing skills, taken hapkido, and more recently started a business.

  8. Julian,

    Thanks! And yeah, I’m happy to see a discussion like this going on. Hopefully more people will pile on.

    EFL Geek,

    Yeah, you sound as busy as me. Maybe more. I didn’t know you’d been here 11 years. So having made it through the last economic collapse, do you think we’re due for another?

  9. I am so mind boggled by the depth of these responses to Roboseyo’s blog. I think this has been a topic that is a hot one in the expat community and is now getting some critical thinking shed onto it.

    I am dating a Korean, which I met while still in AMerica. Our time together here in Seoul I feel allows me to really feel comfortable here. I ask him a few things about what is going on around me but really I am treating the life around me like it was usual.

    For example, I laugh at what looks funny and make jokes. I would do this in America.

    My bond with Korea I feel is happening at a pace I am comfortable with. :)

    Anyways I hope this discussion carries itself further.

  10. Ugh. The first economic collapse was bad enough, I wouldn’t wish it on South Korea a second time. Although if your contract is almost up, and you think things might go to hell, see if you can get paid in dollars or euros.

    Where do you plan on moving too in the US?

  11. Joy,

    I absolutely don’t mean to patronize, but it took some time for me to find the things about Korean society that, er, bug me to no end. “Honeymoon period” or not, I’m honestly glad to see someone happy here. If and when things DO get to you, I’m sure you’ll find your way. Speaking from experience? Bookmark Roboseyo’s first post on this discussion, and you can meet me to rant over a beer, if the day comes and you guys are still in country. BK seems like a good guy, so blessed be y’all.


    Oh, no, it’s won all the way. But I was thinking of getting my piddly savings OUT of the country. No idea what’s coming, but I’m a little optimistic. The first collapse was bad.

    No idea where we’ll end up: depends on who accepts Lime as a resident. If she focuses on the speciality she’s interested in, it’s a list of mostly cool places — including Washington, actually, though I was a bit ugh! considering the crime rate — the worst of which is Atlanta. East Coast, in any case.

    Ha, she said, “I can get a placement in Brooklyn, guaranteed, but with a very high chance of contracting HIV while on ER duty.” We laughingly agreed that even South Dakota would be preferable to that, hellish as it sounds.

  12. I think you make a great point about expats needing a hobby or interest. Some friends and I made the same observation while I was living there. We, too, noticed that foreigners who endeavored to learn a skill, developed a hobby, or joined an organization were happier with their lives.

  13. Sonagi,

    … and that those who are lacking a hobby or interest or community outside of work seem to end up with more pent up frustrations. :) Or downright crazy, actually. I sometimes wonder how many of the crazy foreigners I meet weren’t crazy before they arrived, but went into a kind of social/mental form of semi-isolation and lost it.

  14. on the other hand, I think you find the same thing in N.America — people who don’t interact with others, who don’t find a vibrant community, don’t handle it so well in their home-culture, either. churchgoers, club members, hobbyists interface more back in Canada, too, that helps them to keep their heads out of their asses back home as well. It DOES take more initiative to get out and meet people here, but the fact remains, getting out of the house does a soul good.

    I should start a westerners’ makkoli-free mountain hiking/book/language exchange club. That’d be an interesting niche that’s so far unreached, so far as I know.

  15. Robo,

    True. I think, though, there are also there are more niches for even the non-sociable to slip into back home. I hesitate to imagine what the SF geeks I met in the Montreal SF club would do for friends if they ended up here. (They were way more SF-geeky than me, mind you.) I mean, living in Seoul is one thing, but when you live in Iksan, it’s a bit more like high school. A brigade of drunken fratboys here, a pair of lifer alcoholics there… we who were happily on the fringes of that world hooked up, hiked, checked out the jimjilbang, talked about books and history, and studied Korean and all that, but we usually connected by pure chance, sometimes unaware of the presence of other sane foreigners for months after the person had arrived. Hmmm. Probably the issue is critical mass: once you’ve got a big enough population of people into something — English-language literature — they can converge and someone will make a profitable venue for them. I wish I could find the few other people in the Seoul area who’d like to study Ezra Pound with me, as my brief experience with such a group in Jeonju (with another foreigner who was into poetry, and a Korean co-worker who’d always wanted to study Pound up-close) was like a breath of fresh air. Then again, I haven’t really tried, as I’m so damned busy and live outside Seoul.

    That club you describe sounds good, and sounds like one a number of expats I have known could have used. Indeed, I could too, to some degree… though there’s a difference between a club (regular meetings) and a community (that you can sort of dop into and out of naturally). Still, good niche, and all that. I’d show up for a mountain hike, at least sometimes.

  16. “For many foreigners here — male and female, though the latter is rarer — a Korean mate is the reality check on the overblown distortion that a foreigner often seems to acquire by reading sites like Dave’s ESL, Marmot’s Hole and Occidentalism, or listening to his or her students a little too trustingly.”

    I wonder how true that is. At TMH, some commenters who rarely have anything nice to say about Korea and Koreans are married to or dating Korean women, a fact they cite as evidence they can’t be racist against Koreans. As you noted, it isn’t hard for men to find a Korean mate, and it seems that most of the whinging is done by men.

  17. Sonagi,

    Good point. But just as it would be unfair to judge all Koreans by the drunk ajeoshi who tried to start a fight with me in front of E-Mart, it’s probably unfair to judge all expats in Korea (or even a majority of them) by The Marmot’s Fleas.

    Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me too much if lots of expat-Korean relationships were a little weak in the communication department. Not because of the language & culture difference, though: I find the explicit differences and challenges seem to make a lot of people try harder to understand their partner, where people from the same culture have more chance to assume they share opinions that they may not.

    Rather, I think communication might have issues because (a) many relationships tend to be that way even between people from the same culture, and (b) because the way many Koreans seem to be raised (and some Westerners too) is to avoid confrontations about issues, because talking about the issue is making the problem. The two may well sort of cultivate a comfort zone of avoiding problems, and once it becomes more comfortable not to deal with something, avoidance becomes the shared response. I can imagine that leading to a lot of sublimated venting, too.

    I also can say the following from experience: when things are going wrong with you Korean other half, it can adversely affect your feelings toward the whole country. Marriage is really a difficult institution, and people bitch about it everywhere — semi-privately, usually by decrying the opposite sex in general — but I imagine a lot of the static that comes up in marriages between foreigners and Koreans gets vented in terms of nationality or culture instead. (Instead of “Men/Women are all crazy!” it’s “Koreans/Americans/Canadians/Chinese make no sense!”)

    Maybe I should have written:

    “For many intelligent and thoughtful foreigners here who are blessed enough to be in healthy relationships…” That would, I imagine, exclude a lot of The Aforementioned Fleas. :)

  18. “But just as it would be unfair to judge all Koreans by the drunk ajeoshi who tried to start a fight with me in front of E-Mart, it’s probably unfair to judge all expats in Korea (or even a majority of them) by The Marmot’s Fleas. “

    True. In real life, most of my expat friends weren’t whingers, but our social circle is a select group, too. Regarding some whinging expats dating/married to Korean women, I cannot understand why those women would choose partners who have such strong negative feelings about the culture and the society that produced those women and their families and friends. I am critical of my own country, but I would not feel comfortable about someone of any nationality who was mostly critical or complained all the time about Americans and our culture. I wonder if those women also feel alienated from Korean culture and society. I have a good friend who is part of a mixed American-Canadian family. She is the only one who has maintained US citizenship, yet she is the most vocal in her dislike of American politics, values, and way of life.

    A curious and possibly related observation is the young Chinese hold strongly negative views about Korea, out of proportion to Goguryeo and other real and imagined disputes. In China, both Han and Joseonjok Chinese had mixed opinions of Koreans based on personal and professional interactions. Although historical anti-Japanese sentiment is strong among Chinese, Japanese residents of China don’t seem to leave as strong an impression as Koreans do among Chinese and fellow foreigners alike.

  19. Sonagi,

    Well, I know when I went through a low period and complained about aspects of Korean society a lot, it drove Lime nuts, even when she agreed (in general) with a lot of the criticisms. I have seen a lot of expat’s spouses who either shared their spouse’s deep dissatisfaction with life Korea, or who in fact wanted nothing more than to leave with the spouse.

    It may also be that, for the sake of their relationships, these expat spouses limit their bitching to conversation with other expats, or online ranting — which could help explain why it’s so fervent there, as it’s so pent-up.

    As for the sentiments of the Chinese toward Koreans, that’s interesting. I think in terms of professional interactions, though, it’s easy to see why, though. The business cultures — at least according to one of my Chinese grad students, who’s done a ton of internships — differs vastly.

    She was telling me that a ton of people were advising her to stay in Korea for a year or two and work here before returning to China. (She’s an accountant.) Her response was that she simply couldn’t stand it, just on the basis of the notions of efficiency here. She said it would drive her batty to work in a place as officious and inefficient as the few Korean businesses she’s had firsthand experience with.

    Actually, her expat complaining — as a Chinese woman in Korea — was fascinating as it made me wonder what else non-white/non-Western foreigners here complain about that differs from the more common white man ranting.

    For example, she said was that she’d been slated, in her (now current) internship at a major accounting firm in Beijing, to work as a liaison with some Korean partners or clients, I can’t remember. Anyway, this meant she had to take them out to dinner, and — in her own words — say things like, “Oh, yes, I know kimchi! Kimchi is very delicious!” or “Do you know you Jeon Ji Hyun? Yes, I think she’s beautiful too!” and other I Love Korea™ stuff. So apparently the never-ending need for positive reinforcement of Korea’s positive, iconic aspects is something Chinese expats here pickup very quickly, and find alien. (She used the word “childish,” actually. And this is from someone who liked it enough her to actually stay and do grad school here!)

    I’ve had a couple of foreign-Korean (ie. “gyopo”) friends whose complaints were more along the lines of, “No, I’m not Korean, not in the way you think it signifies,” and complained about being expected to speak Korean perfectly (or urged to speak it in situations when they just couldn’t), and things like that. One wonders what, say, Nepalese or Bangladeshi (?) expats hang around complaining about — that is, how much overlaps with what the white English teachers talk about, and how much is stuff we have no idea about.

  20. It may also be that, for the sake of their relationships, these expat spouses limit their bitching to conversation with other expats, or online ranting — which could help explain why it’s so fervent there, as it’s so pent-up.

    This is exactly my situation. There are a few topics I bitch about with the wife, the rest I complain with my expat friends over coffee. I don’t complain often, but sometimes you do need to vent.

  21. EFL Geek: I’m sure it’s pretty common.

    I bet there are things about Korea that your wife complains about, too, eh? For that and more, see the next installment!

  22. I’m kind of thinking of “hole” in the sense of “lair.” For a more colorful reading, all kinds of other terms could be used. (If I’m getting the joke right.)

    I do think “fleas” is a distinctly suitable descriptor for a certain number of the commenters there, though.

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