Expat Social Fallacies, Part 3

For those just joining us, this post is part of a series. I recommend that you skip this post for the moment, and check out the menu at the bottom of the post to start reading these in order.

Expat Social Fallacy #3: Everyone’s Got Standards

Not to be confused with the Korean Social Fallacy of the “Good Expat” versus the “Low Quality Expat” (one that has also started to creep into expat discussions and thinking, mind you), this is the social fallacy wherein certain expatriates see the role of the expatriate in Korea, at least, as sharply delinated in terms of duties, obligations, and moral codes, particularly those which the carrier himself or herself safely can claim to fulfill.

Some of these include:

  • learning (or not learning) Korean to a specified level depending on the length of one’s stay in Korea
  • acquiring and conspicuously displaying (or publicly repudiating) picked-and-chosen elements of Korean etiquette
  • always (or never)  conforming to the specific moral standard set by the expatriate himself or herself, even when it’s much higher (or lower) than the moral double-standard one finds among some Koreans, let alone the moral standards of expatriates in general

As the negations in the list above suggests, this can manifest in radically different ways. For example:

  • The “lifer” who has lived in Korea long enough to have acquired a lot of Korean. He or she tsk-tsks you grimly for having acquired less than he has, offers to teach you to read Hangeul. He lectures you on the dating scene and the importance of respecting Korean culture, even when it seems wrong. (For example, the way drunk women are sometimes beaten up by their drunk apparent boyfriends on the street, or the widespread nature of the sex trade in Korea.) He also, on the sly, implies that he or she knows all there is to know about Korea, more than the average Korean knows, and insists that when you drink together, nobody pours his or her own drink, according to the Korean custom.
  • The “new arrival” who has fallen in with a crowd that has demonstrated for him that the rules simply do not apply to foreigners. If he walks into a coffee shop with a bottle of beer in one hand and a pack of cards in the other, and begins to drink and gamble — in an unlicensed coffee shop — and is kicked out, this is unfair racism and the place should be boycotted. Foreigners who speak a lot of Korean, pay attention to Korean etiquette at all, or socialize with Koreans will never be called Uncle Toms (because these lads mostly don’t know the term), but anyone who hangs out with Korean men for any reason other than sports or sex — or Korean women for any reason other than sex — will often eyed by members of this group with more than a little suspicion. Members of this group mispronounce the few Korean words they know almost willfully, when they bother to at all, and tend to make the same kinds of assumptions about Koreans that too many Koreans make about expats: that they don’t understand what’s being said.

Both groups (or individuals from each group) have a set of behavioral standards that most normal people find onerous and off-putting. But do they get criticized by those who are put off? Mostly not: theres a weird sort of behind-enemy-lines mentality some have that prevents critique, and for those who have been around to see this stuff before, mostly, they tend to just avoid these people. So the critique never really comes out in the open.

Which, of course, means that these dolts tend to persist in their off-putting behaviour for as long as possible, until they find that they, too, don’t fit in here, and start in on the bitching…

Well, that’s it for Expat Social Fallacy #3. More tomorrow…

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6 thoughts on “Expat Social Fallacies, Part 3

  1. In one of my classes, I use a self-published book written by an American who stayed in Korea during the late 1980s to build a subsidiary and a factory for an American company. (So I guess you can sort of count him as an ex-pat, though he is no longer in Korea). He classifies foreigners in Korea and Korean ex-pats into three categories: “Natives” (More Korean than Korean); “Withdrawl” (Ignore Koreans, and pretend he is still at home); and Alcoholics (surprisingly many wives). Maybe things have changed a lot in 20 years, maybe not.

  2. Junsok,

    Wow, what’s the title of that book?

    I think there are a few more niches for Westerners here now, thank goodness, but these responses nonetheless seem to be pretty common ones even now.

    I’d add Fanatics — people whose complete social lives are stabilized, defined, and given purpose by (and whose interactions with Koreans are mediated by) membership in a specific and well-defined group, could be a church or something else — and Shut-Ins (which I’ve lately become, it keeps me productive).

    The problem with categories like that is that of course the most extreme cases are also the most colorful and memorable. I have a number of friends who have integrated well into Korean society in their way, often through more rigorous langauge study than I’ve pursued, and through their marriages to a Korean, who walk the line, balancing what it takes to fit into Korean society with what it takes to remain truly and honestly themselves.

    And they’re usually the most interesting expats around. I used to think it took 10 years to get there, but I have one friend who’s only been here a few years who’s like that. (But he’s a physicist and you know how those people are, ha!)

    And wow — this post is very short.

    And obviously, I have struggled (and continue to struggle) with this ESF myself. ;)

  3. The title of the book is “Korea: The Hard Way” by Frank Kiska. (The book is published by Xlibris, which is a “self-publish”er. Thus, the book has not gone through a “professional” editorial process, which has its good and bad points). Most of the book, though, is not about ex-pat life in Korea, but about troubles dealing with Korean bureaucracy, and Korean culture. (One of the more interesting ways to use the book is to see what has changed since the late 1980s which is when the events of the book took place). There should be a copy of it in the university library.

  4. Very interesting series. Don’t have much more to say on it now, but just wanted to add that.

    Oh, and I’ve given a lot of thought to the crowd I first fell in with in Korea. At the hagwon where they tell you all the office gossip, tell you the “good” students and “bad” students, tell you all the problems with the place, and tell you which coworkers ought to be ignored, all before you’re even acclimated to the country. That doesn’t fit your second example, but it’s a group—a common one, it seems—that exists almost divorced from the country around them.

  5. Thanks Brian, and yeh — I definitely spent a lot of time thinking over the first crowd I sort of slipped into. It was a smaller town, so there were more tensions being held back — small villages are like that, and the number of Westerners in town was on the scale of a village at the time. And yeah, there’s definitely a group who lectures on all the particularities. In fact, I struggle not to turn into Mr. Know It All when around newbies. Not sure how well I’m succeeding, but I try not to do it.

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