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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:

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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