It is to Flunk

I was grading a stack of student assignments — specifically, feedback on readings, which I make them do on the theory that it helps them prepare for discussions of the texts — when I ran across a particularly saddening passage in response to “The Multiculture,” an essay about Torontonian multiculturalism, which I’ll only paraphrase here:

If I were a Torontonian, I would look at foreigners in two ways. In one way, I’d see them as invaders, because they would be speaking foreign languages and bringing foreign customs to my land. But I would also see them as bringing new life into my country, just like in Korea, where I can see so many Japanese signs in some neighborhoods, because of Japanese tourists. It makes me feel like I’m in another country. On the other hand, immigrants are developing the country because they’re making a living and having a better life after they flunked in their homeland.

And yeah, the emphasis is mine.

Here’s what my response was to that little bit of the sentence:

Why do you assume this? Do you assume all foreigners in Korea came here after “flunking” in their home country? Is “flunking” the only reason people would ever have to go abroad, and do you really think the only people attracted to Korea — the only people who would ever actually choose to live here — are those who “flunked” in their homelands? What an insult to your country!

It’s a quite sad and perplexing self-contradiction, this: so often people who say they love their country and are proud of it, also speak of it in this subtly disparaging way.

I know, I know; arguably, it’s the idea that nobody would actually choose to emigrate at all (to anywhere including Korea), rather than the idea that Korea’s a bad place to which to emigrate, that underlies her sentence. Arguably, but I’ve seen this sentiment expressed so many times, in so many ways, and more often than not the sense I get really is, “Why would anyone who was actually skilled or intelligent move here?”

The myth of how all expats in Korea were once Wal-Mart/McDonald’s/Burger King employees (not to mention unemployed, AIDS-ridden, drug-addicted pedophiles) is so widespread and deeply ingrained now that a law (which has immensely complicated immigration to Korea, not that this is a bad thing) was passed on the basis of one case of a Canadian pedophile with no criminal record.

(And yes, I do believe the Myth was the real foundation of the law, not the case of Chris Neil. Otherwise, why suddenly test all incoming E-2 visa applicants for AIDS (but not for other health conditions — I mean, testing for HIV might be fine but on its own it says something pretty weird) and why try to implement a test for THC, as was originally suggested but later abandoned?)

I’m not saying freaks don’t emigrate to Korea. (They do, in large numbers, mainly because emigration to Korea remains relatively easy compared to lots of places, and because any dolt with a BA and white skin can get an English-teaching gig.)

What I’m saying is that there is, it seems to me, a link between the myth that all foreigners in Korea came because they were losers in their homeland, and the self-image of Korean society. Or am I wrong? Do French, Chinese, and American citizens go around assuming that the only people who ever want to emigrate to their country are losers or idiots? Even Canadians, plagued by an inferiority complex all their own, don’t tend (in my experience) to assume that!

12 thoughts on “It is to Flunk

  1. Interesting. When I came to teach ESL in Slovakia, I also had to get tested for HIV. I understand now that this was less about foreigners being filthy scary sex criminals and more about Slovakia having a very low HIV rate (less than 200 cases nationwide in 2006) and wanting to keep it that way. Could a similar dynamic be at work in Korea?

    (Apropos of nothing, the usual Slovak reaction to foreign workers was not “Why would anyone with a future move here?” but rather, “How could you bear to leave your mother’s cooking?”)

    1. Tristan,

      Well, the HIV testing is only for English teachers on an E2 visa, and under the rubric of protecting children. If the government cared about HIV, they’d be targeting the real vectors of transmission — adult Koreans — by aggressively educating the public on the subject of condom use and HIV-awareness. So, well, I could say it’s a misguided desire to keep HIV low, informed by the mistaken belief that foreigners are the people bringing AIDS into Korea… but with the caveat that anyone who actually cares enough to look into it will see that the transmission via foreign English teacher is unlikely to be the main vector.

      (If you must ask, I’d guess the general attitude toward the sex trade and the greater mobility of Koreans, especially Korean businessmen, is the cause of a bigger vector by far, though one student said the biggest chunk of the HIV-infected population in Korea is gays, and that it was this part of the populace that most desperately needed educayion about “safe sex.” She was citing government statistics from 2005 or 2006. Not sure how they hold up now. I do know that friends who’ve traveled in other parts of Asia have spoken to locals and heard saddening things about the reputation that Korean businessmen have earned their homeland in those places, especially in hotels; the “No, massage really means just a massage!” conversation is one I’ve heard recounted time and time again. Again, I have no stats, I’m just guessing. There isn’t much of an effort to control HIV here, in any case, and the HIV test was just tacked on… in 2007 or 2008, by the way, long after the outbreak of HIV and long after the influx of foreign people, and only for E2-visa-holders, not all foreign nationals.)

      And yeah, lots of older Koreans have said things to me about missing my mother’s cooking. I quip that not every son has a mom whose cooking is easily missed. Which is true. I love my mom, but she was never much into cooking…

  2. Gord,

    Interesting post. As noted in Donald Clark’s Living Dangerously in Korea:

    “The [first Korean American] writer Younghill Kang once described two kinds of missionaries in Korea: the kind that was “educated and sincere,” and the type “that cannot get any job in the West so he comes to the East where he can live cheaply and have a cook and a waiter and a gardener and cherish a superiority complex over the ‘heathen.’ He announces that the Lord has called him for service, but in reality the West has kicked him out for being unfit.””

    That’s from the 1930s!

    Also, here are some stats about AIDS published recently:

    The number of men with HIV/AIDS in Korea is ten times that of women – 5,955 men versus 544 women. 2061, or 31.7% are in their 30s, 1544, or 23.8% are in their 40s, and 1475, or 22.7% are in their 20s. 3208 people, or 59.9%, were infected through heterosexual contact, 2095 people, or 39.1% were infected through homosexual contact and 46 people, or 0.9%, were infected through blood transfusions or infected blood products.

    Among the 6499 people infected with HIV between 1985 and the middle of this year, 125 are youths between 10 and 19 years of age. 46 were infected through heterosexual contact, 52 were infected through homosexual contact.

    E-6 ‘Entertainer’ visas require HIV tests, and it seems E-9 (EPS migrant worker) visas do too.

    As for how HIV tests came to be put into place for E-2s, I laid it out here. I’m sure you’ll find it interesting.

    What’s not mentioned there is that it’s not actually a law, as Benjamin Wagner discovered. It was put into place as an internal policy memo, and strengthened to a regulation after this was pointed out by Wagner. It still doesn’t have the weight of law…

    1. Bulgasari.

      Hey, thanks for the info. I have been too busy to research anything except this paper I was working on.

      I remember that quote from Clark — I think you posted it elsewhere. And hey, yeah, I often say something comparable — that a lot of the people teaching in hakwons here are just young men looking to extend the length of their fratboy days. Still, ity’s one thing to assume lots of people are abroad to have an uninvolved job and party, and another to assume they’re failures in their homelands.

      I wonder how effective the testing has been in dropping the numbers of non-Koreans with HIV down to almost-zero? I’m kind of doubting they get many of the laborers, but on the other hand, if they do get close, it’d be a very interesting moment. What would they say on Anti-English Spectrum then? Probably start calling for the mandatory infection of foreign men so that Korean women will “behave” and stay away from them?

      I’m wondering how many of those teenagers are famile — I’d guess none of the kids who got it via homosexual contact, but maybe a majority of those who got it from heterosexual contact? And I apologize for the misinformation about it only being E-2 visas. It’s still weird it’s not E-1 or certain other visas. Do people on ancestry visas not get tested, I wonder? Hmm.

      And the post was interesting. If it’s not a law, but it is a regulation, then… what? What does that mean in practical terms?

  3. 1- Korea got HIV because Korean men fuck whores on a regular basis.

    You should remind people of this when they start talking “gay plague”

    2- Even though my view on this is biased, being one myself, I figure anyone crossing the world to get a job is a damned sight more worthy of respect than someone staying at home and collecting welfare because a B.A. isn’t worth a sack of beans in the job market.

    3- Korea is a bi-polar sort of culture. Off and on, light and dark, sweet and sour. And it’s idiotic policies… and cultural attitudes… towards it’s immigrant and guest worker populations are a reflection of that.

    4- It’s been a year and a half since my penance in Korea ended, and I too can’t understand why intelligent, skilled people would want to live there unless it WAS to take advantage of the easy access to money, sex, and to “…live cheaply and have a cook and a waiter and a gardener and cherish a superiority complex over the ‘heathen.'”

    It’s not frat boys who make up the majority of the expats there. It’s mercenaries. I’m not saying this as a reflection on the quality of character. Though in a lot of cases it is.

    I don’t see much of a reason to live and work in Korea other than mercenary motives.

  4. It means they’ll do whatever they want, I suppose. Andrea Vandom planned to challenge it (by handing in everything necessary for her visa renewal except the HIV test) and had Gong Gam’s lawyers ready for immigration to react, but they just renewed her visa anyways, and didn’t say anything until she went to the press with it (Immigration initially said she did hand in the HIV test) but then went after her. Her case is to be taken on by the constitutional court, and immigration has said they may change the rule if the court rules it is discriminatory. Other HIV tests may be removed (not from E6 though – you’ve got to have HIV-free ‘entertainers’ – something that makes the so-called drive to stamp out prostitution even more of a joke). HIV visa restrictions are to be lifted in the US as well. E2s also include non English teachers (about 1100-1200) and in one account I heard immigration wasn’t too concerned about a Japanese teacher not having a criminal record check on hand when renewing.

    Off topic, I finally read Lester Young (the podcast was put on my ipod and disappeared into the unlabeled ether – fricken’ itunes) and enjoyed it a lot. One question – did Steve Reich have any influence on the idea of blurring?

  5. William,

    1. Well, okay, but we could put it another way: it’s the prevalent acceptance of prostitution and prevalent effect of poor sex education that has resulted in HIV spreading as it has in Korea. But yes… not a “gay plague.” Or a “foreign disease,” any longer.

    2. Biased, yes. While working abroad is better than collecting welfare, I don’t think that’s the real pair of alternatives. I suspect the real pair of options are mostly, “Stay and ‘grow up’ or opt out.” Which is definitely one thing for artists and creative types, but quite another for the guys who’re just putting off the move away from fratboy life to, well, whatever comes next. I don’t think it’s all mercenary. For some people, the lawlessness and jumble of Korea is more comfortable than, say, the rigidity and politeness of Japan.

    BTW English majors on welfare — well, I remember seeing employment stats for English majors in grad school, and they were pretty good. Students with my department’s BAs are thhe most highly-employed in our Uni after graduation… though I don’t know what sort of jobs they get.

    I also think there are a lot of economic/cultural/social refugees in Korea; it’s not always mercenary. It is also a way of dropping out of the system, for which one could have many reasons. Sometimes, expatria in Korea looks like a refugee camp!

    3. Korea’s bipolarity — definitely, and yes, it shapes the handling of non-Koreans as well as countless other things in this society.

    4. I can imagine other reasons for living in Korea, though admittedly a number of them (not all, but many) involve having a Korean partner or spouse.


    Thanks for the info on Andrea Vandom, and good for her. Though, again, it feels vaguely Quixotic to me.

    HIV visa restrictions are to be lifted in the US as well.

    On the grounds that it violates human rights, yes?

    E2s also include non English teachers (about 1100-1200) and in one account I heard immigration wasn’t too concerned about a Japanese teacher not having a criminal record check on hand when renewing.

    Right, they’re the minority exception, but yeah, they do exist.

    And hey, I’m glad you liked “Lester Young…” Steve Reich did indeed have some role in the conception of blur, though so did Quantum Mechanics. But yeah, I was listening to some tune by Lester Young on a loop, and then one of Reich’s phase pieces. Speaking of which, check this:

    Dude playing Piano Phase solo, on two pianos. I mean, man!

    (I think it was Violin Phrase I was listening to, however.)

  6. (I need to check the ‘Notify me of followup comments via e-mail’ box)

    There’s also Benjamin Wagner’s complaint to the NHRCK, which has moved up to the next level (apparently it’s considered worthy of interest to them) in addition to Andrea Vandom’s case at the constitutional court. We’ll see what happens. Immigration has moved from saying that there’s nothing wrong with the HIV tests to saying that if the court rules against it they would likely have to get rid of it.

    As for the Youtube vid, I can only say ‘Wow.’ Thanks for that.

  7. Bulgasari,

    Yeah, check that box! :)

    It’s salutary to read your post on Wagner, and maybe things are on the upswing in terms of improvement. But I also suspect that it’s one of those situations where such things are going to have to be challenged one by one; we won’t likely see sweeping reforms, but rather tiny changes coming into effect after each pitched battle. And of course, policies are much easier to change than unspoken rules, or private practices.

    I’ll give one small example: I know several PhDs who were hired to tenure track positions recently. None whom I know well enough to discuss pay scales is being paid even close to what I’m being paid (as an MA on tenure track), and I’m not being paid anything like what a Korean prof is paid. I was just lucky enough to squeeze in one semester before they chopped the pay scale down so much, and managed a slight raise over the pay rate I had before, as a “guest professor.” (Who knows if that’ll stay consistent next contract, though?) The pay difference between myself and the new hires is substantial in some cases. Which makes me wonder whether they’re actually making 30-40% of what a Korean prof with comparable qualifications makes. All of this is guesses, mind you, not solid numbers, but… pretty reasonable guesses.

    Which will have the long-term effect of manifesting exactly what my student said: Korea will not attract the best foreign faculty possible (to put it mildly), the massive effort to globalize higher education will continue to be mostly nominal, and plenty of folks seeing this will just nod happily, affirming that after all only losers who worked at Wal-Mart “in America” bother to come to Korea.

    Glad you liked the Steve Reich. He’s the first composer I was crazy enough about to emulate (though no recording remains of the piece I wrote, I still have a score and plan to rework it for two pianos and two string quartets, I think), and the guy performing it is slightly scary. There’s an audio recording of that performance available online too, if you check out the Youtube page for the video there’s a link, I think…

  8. It’s an uphill battle, that’s for sure. Succumbing to pessimism over it isn’t so difficult, unfortunately. The initial reaction to Andrea Vandom’s letter to Naver over at Anti-English Spectrum was interesting though. “정말 어이없다.” They really are convinced that they’re correct.

    Music for 18 Musicians was the first Steve Reich piece I ever heard, and was certainly something that made stop and go, “What is this?”

    1. Ha, any group that forms as Anti- something, especially something as pathetic, cheap, and irrelevant as English Spectrum’s website, is just so pathetic that I hardly care to give it my attention. Anti-Child Abuse, cool. Anti-2MB? Sure, why not! Anti-English Spectrum? Good grief, have they no lives?

      The thing that gives me a little hope is that I meet more and more young people — even guys who are out of the army, I mean — who actually do think that things like human rights matter and that non-Korean humans have them, and that this needs to be reflected in laws and such. The thing that diminishes my hope is how thick-headed some people I meet are. I usually find someone who’s lived abroad has a better sense of such things, but there’s one person (who is actually relatively bright) who recently asked me what it was like to live in Korea as a non-Korean. I told her some of the good and some of the bad, and she stared at me in shock, finally telling me that she’d felt much the same way when living in Toronto for a year, and she never imagined that it was like that for foreigners in Korea–as if it takes a great imaginative leap to figure that out or something? (“At least Canadian websites are accessible to you without a Canadian National ID number!” I said, later.)

      My first Steve Reich piece, I think, was Electric Counterpoint. The album where Pat Metheny plays it, and then the Kronos Quartet plays Different Trains. A week later, I’d signed out everything by Reich and was listening to it all, and it was Music for 18 Musicians, Octet/Eight Lines, Drumming, and the older phase pieces that really got me. I remember seeing a live performance of Piano Phase while studying music in undergrad and being amazed at all the auditory illusions the piece created — I could hear distant helicopter sounds above the piano, and it sometimes sounded like there were notes bending in the piano, like a bent note on a guitar or something. It was amazing. Live is a very different experience from on a recording, for those phase pieces!

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