“Low Quality Foreigners” and Mockery Thereof

Right, so if you’ve been around the Korean expat blogosphere at all, you’ll have seen this image:

Handsome Bignosed Teacher and His Adoring Korean Students. Beats selling hamburgers back in Ohio or Oshawa, right? Click the image to see the Mongdori post and a few more images.

Okay, so yes, this is a cartoon about a “low quality foreigner,” a creature which has been a bugbear in several different communities in Korea, not all of them Korean. Yes, mostly it’s Koreans who’re talking about it in terms of “low quality foreigners,” because that’s how the term gets translated and that’s the kind of terms Korean media would use to say what Westerners living here would call “total f*cking losers who don’t belong here.”

But before I get into that, I want to say something that needs saying about this cartoon. Racist it might be—though personally, I think it’s much more sexist than racist, in its implication that Korean women are so dumb as to open their legs en masse to any white guy, no matter how weird or stupid he is.

The allegation of racism, though, is pretty hard to sustain when you look at precedents in the comics scene. I discovered this while reading the first chapter of Sheridan Prasso’s The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient. Right there on page 7 is a strip from the indie-expat comic “Charisma Man,” which ran in a Japanese zine for several years and apparently was all the rage among Western expats in Japan, too (for example according to this article in the Japan Times). This is the strip Prasso excerpted (also included on the page from which you can order yourself a copy):

Hamburgers, adoring babes, badly spoken Japanese... theres a common set of tropes here.
Hamburgers, adoring babes, badly spoken Japanese… there’s a common set of tropes here. Copyright is Larry Rodney (writer) and Glen Schroeder (artist). Click to visit the Charisma Man website.

Seriously: when you see the same tropes in a comic by Westerners in Japan ridiculing aspects of expat life in Japan, and (apparently) by a Korean about Westerners in Korea, ridiculing aspects of expat life in Korea—right down to the fact the guy was working a crappy job back home, and suddenly becomes a babe-magnet on his arrival in Asia, you have to start asking yourself whether this is, exactly, racism.

Is it racism when a Korean does it, but not when a Westerner does it? Isn’t that a racist way of reading these comics in itself? And aren’t we a bit thin-skinned, if we’re that irked by stereotypes that we know, all too well, exist for a reason? No, maybe most expats aren’t like this, but enough of them are, and very unrelentingly so, that it’s an understandable nuisance, and those always attract more attention than the normals.

This weirdo definitely stuck out, let me tell you!
This weirdo definitely stuck out, let me tell you! This shot is from back in the rock’n’roll days.

That’s something to think over, for those who are pondering the apparent sensitivity Koreans have to foreign criticism. Foreigners are often pretty touchy about criticism from Koreans. And yeah, you, me, we’re not like that, but how many foreigners here are? There’s a reason Charisma Man caught on so big among expats in Japan… and if a Westerner were cartooning the same here, I think a lot of us Westerners would get a big kick out of it.

10 thoughts on ““Low Quality Foreigners” and Mockery Thereof

  1. I dunno, I found the Korean cartoon pretty bad. The series of three on Mongdori interestingly follows the same trajectory as that Japanese one you posted, but in the Korean one it’s a guy who starts out at Wal-Mart. You’re right, it’s sexist too, and both foreigners and women face are subject to scrutiny at times.

    What’s also, um, interesting about the Korean one is that, at least on the Mongdori site, the girls fawning over the whitey are supposed to be his students . . . so not only is he a womanizer, he’s plowing through his students, who naturally can’t resist his charms. Plays into the stereotype that foreigners are bad teachers and are sexual menaces.

  2. Is it racism when a Korean does it, but not when a Westerner does it?

    is that any different than black people using the “n” word and it being okay, but it’s not okay for a caucasian?

    for the record, I consider both to be wrong.

  3. Brian,

    You can find more of the cartoons after that first series of three in the forum on Mongdori, if you care to. It gets much more nasty, but still, mostly, to me, more sexist than racist.

    Well, I don’t know whether Charisma Man is a bad teacher, but given that a major portion of the caomic is devoted to mocking him in the classroom (he’s daydreaming about being an astronaut, cowboy, whatever), I have to say there’s an implication he doesn’t take his work seriously. But I think Charisma Man teachers little kids, so the college students he sleeps with aren’t his own students.

    Whether or not Charisma Man has adult students and sleeps with them, I know of one individual (or maybe two) at my workplace who definitely has done so (getting one girl — and I do mean girl, legal age but barely — pregnant, apparently, though one miscarried before he moved on to another student).

    And his co-workers actually say he is a bad teacher, mostly playing the same games in a college classroom that you would play in a hakwon class with little elementary schoolkids.

    Again, loser “plowing through students”? Bad teacher? Sorry, but I think that’s not so unusual here. (I also don’t think it’s necessarily any more common than Korean teachers or professors doing the same, and it’s a pity nobody’s lampooning them yet… but it’s starting.)

    EFL Geek,

    Well, I don’t know that using a racist epithet with that kind of long, brutal history involving things like enslavement and lynching is really in the same neighborhood as mocking a truly-existing — and, compared to back home, seemingly unusually large — segment of the foreign teaching population in a 17-part cartoon series. I mean, that’s a case of apples and nuclear bombs, really, and if a mere 17-parter has us throwing up our hands and whining about racism, our skin is too bloody thin for us to live here very long.

    It’d be different if it were a miniscule minority of Westerners here who were this kind of freak. My experience suggests it is not the majority, but is also far from a mere anomalous segment of our population: there are a fair number of people like that, on the rough order of one in every workplace.

    Is it racist to focus on the improprieties of one group and not another? Well, maybe; but that doesn’t erase the fact that such improprieties exist in higher numbers than they ought to. Sadly, the “measures” taken to address it won’t do anything: being an alkie and dating your students won’t show up a criminal record check.

  4. Interesting post. Thanks for writing it.

    I’ve been thinking about how maybe the low quality foreigner is kind of like the ajeosshi asshole. . . (though not protected by confucianism from being called out or criticized the way ajeosshi is) — while most ajeosshis are perfectly nice people, it’s only the drunken assholes who make a mark on our memory. Likewise the low quality foreigner, though I wish I’d been here in Korea back in 1996 or so, when, apparently, the teachers here DID represent the bottom of the North American barrel, much more than now.

    Foreigners being as sensitive to criticism as Koreans. . . again, good job putting the shoe on the other foot. I think there might be two factors here: one, as I noted in my essay series, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to discover that the foreigners most sensitive to Korean criticism and stereotyping are the first world white males here, as it’s the first time in their experience that their demographic hasn’t held just about every meaningful string worth pulling in the society, the first time they’ve had to DEAL with a glass ceiling (or an iron ceiling) rather than being the ones who pass through it. On the other hand, back to the ajeosshi comparison. . . there are always some people willing to say, “We should go easy on the namdaemun arsonist. He had a hard life.” I’d be interested to know how common it is to hear “We shouldn’t judge the foreigners so quickly; they’re far from home, and lonely and not accustomed to Korean culture” when foreigners get criticized.

  5. Of course there are foreign teachers who hit on their students or do other bad things. And of course there are foreign teachers who are fresh out of Wal-Mart or McDOnald’s or whatever. I kind of take exception to stereotyping employees of those places as people who can’t get work anywhere else, or as people who are stupid, or as people who have no choice but to go to Korea. I guess I take exception b/c I’ve worked at both of those places, and I don’t consider myself or many of the people I worked with stupid.

    Foreigners are a little sensitive to criticism, it’s true. Part of it is due to probably being a minority for the first time. (But as somebody who was working at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart to support myself during school, I’m familiar with being economically disadvantaged in cities, universities, etc., where money talks). Another reason is because people pay attention to the news, or the forums, and don’t see too much good news coming out. I mean, how often do you read about English teachers being good citizens? About the volunteer work they do? About the efforts they make in teaching children? News everywhere is usually negative, but foreigners here for the first time probably aren’t used to being the target of so much of it.

    And, finally, I’d like to say that I don’t think it’s being hypersensitive to take exception to cartoons like that, to the xenophobic rant from Seoul.com last week, or to any other of the “foreign menace” stories that come out from time to time. They don’t represent all Koreans, true, so it’s as misinformed to judge “Korea” based off them as it is to judge “English teachers” off of an extreme minority of do-badders.

    Look at that English Spectrum stuff a few years ago. Of course the people involved in those threads were jackasses, but I don’t think that justified that backlash directed at a wider scope of foreign guys.

    I just don’t think it’s being hypersensitive to take exception to cartoons like that. If something like that ran in the states, it wouldn’t be enlightened to call people hypersensitive if they were offended by those caricatures (sp?), however a trend lately is to label foreign complaints as ignorant and uninformed.

  6. If you’re attacked, in whatever way, it’s reasonable to be offended. It doesn’t matter if 5% or 80% of the people you’re being lumped-in with are idiots who aren’t the same as you. What matters is that you’re being attacked. Of course in this case it’s a very trivial attack, but still.

    @Roboseyo

    I went to Korea in 1996. Between then and 2006, I didn’t notice much change in the “quality” of English teachers where I worked (a university in Seoul). Most of them were competent and responsible, with a small number of cranks (generally around 8~10%). I didn’t really get out much, though.

    I met more incompetent kooks the year I taught in Japan than in the whole time I was in Korea.

  7. Roboseyo and Brian,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I think the “ajeoshi asshole” stereotype actually is, for younger Koreans, similar to what the “low quality foreigner” is to expats like us. That is, we know it’s not just a stereotype–that there’s an obvious reason the stereotype exists–but as in Brian’s comment, we prefer to believe they’re not so common. Personally, I don’t really buy that it’s an extreme minority at all. Every place I’ve worked had at least one foreigner, sometimes more, who’d slept with one or more students WHILE the student was in his or her class. (I’m not so scrupled about people dating ex-students, as I know some couples who met that way and are just excellently matched, along with those that are more icky.)

    To add to that: some of the younger Korean women I know are just as anti-ajeoshi as the most rabid foreigners online. Lime refuses to go into a restaurant if there’s a group of three or more of them, whether I’m with her or not, because they just make the place no fun to be… and she’s not the only one. Little wonder young women flock to Starbucks and Outback and other places that have taken over the young female consumer niche — these places are ajeoshi-free most of the time!) Likewise, among a certain set of foreigners here — er, loosely corresponding to educational level and age, I’d guess — there is a kind of reticence to hang out regularly at foreigner bars… after all, they are Charisma Man’s natural habitat.

    I’d be curious to hear about whether Koreans defend foreigners the way you describe, Robo. Surely it would be less common, but I know from my interactions with some older Koreans — like the ajumma in my swimming class years ago — that there definitely can be a sympathetic sense that the foreigner is “all alone” without family or long-term friends, and that this can engender compassion or whatever. (Long ago, on first hearing that Lime was dating a foreigner, the mother of one of her friends immediately sent me a huge assortment of kimchis and other side dishes, because she was so saddened by the idea of some guy out there with no mom nearby to make him kimchi, if you can imagine that.)

    So who knows? Maybe that–and the ubiquitous tendency to mistake the signs of mental illness for signs of mere cultural difference–explain how freaks manage to get by here so easily. Though I think that would also get mitigated by the perception that foreigners here have a relatively easy life, once they’re here.

    And Brian, I agree that the backlash sometimes does become overwhelming, and that the media is absolute crap for jumping onto that bandwagon, but realistically, the crappiness of the media is more of a problem in other ways that affect the society much more profoundly. (For example, if the media were more trustworthy, maybe people would have a better sense of what’s going on with the economy. Good news = cause for panic, in many minds. And there’s never bad news until it’s undeniably bad news, right?)

    We can’t count on the newspapers giving us a good face here, that’s for sure — nobody outside the Blue House can count on the papers for much of anything–but it’s noticeable that the one effort to collect stories of foreigners here–by Scott Burgeson–is looking at freaks. Freaks are really interesting, I guess. Who wants to read about normal, happy people? Actually, if they’re sufficiently interesting–well, I do. I liked that book Faces of Korea by Richard Harris, and would love to see something similar done in Korean, involving interviews with smart, interesting foreigners here and their impressions, feelings, and honest comments about what it’s like to live in Korean society, and what they imagine Korea will be like in the coming years, what they think should change, and how. I think Koreans in gerenal would be more interested in that than most give them credit for, just as I suspect more Koreans dismiss the crap in the newspapers than we foreigners tend to give them credit for. (Especially, again, but not only, younger people.)

    I do think, though, that the closest thing Korea has to a foreign media — the blogosphere — is also chock full of negative stereotypes about Koreans of this or that that age, sex, and social class, or gleeful speculations on the sanity of the Korean race. Chock full. So it seems not just unproductive to rant and whine and put on the victim badge, but also very hypocritical. I mean, when’s the last time any of us took another blogger to task for posting racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted depictions of Koreans? Hm?

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