Expat Social Fallacies, Part 4

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Five Expat Social Fallacies

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#4: It’s My Right

(Sung to the tune of Bon Jovi’s “It’s my life.” Heck, I’ll even throw in the video for you to listen to as you read the rest of this.)

I once heard a British woman speaking in loud, slow English to a Laotian waitress, with a very thick accent. So thick it was hard for me to understand. She was telling the girl that she’d brought the wrong type of tea, and would have to go get another. The tea was dirt cheap, and the rest of her cohort was urging her to just let it go and enjoy the tea. The waitress was unable to understand a word anyone was saying.

“Let it go,” the woman’s friend said.

“No,” the woman said emphatically, “They have to learn.”

I’m the first to grow a little dubious when anyone who’s taken a few semesters of critical literary theory, or maybe just read an excerpt from Edward Said, starts throwing around words like “colonialist mentality,” but you have to admit, that definitely does look like the genuine article.

In Japan, the popular word for this seems (widely enough for me to have heard it from a few different lifetime expats) “Gaijin Smash.” As in: is there a rule you’re trying to enforce? Aha: Gaijin Smash! I flout your silly non-Western rule! It’s my right!

(Obviously, it’s a term that arose in Japan, but it works pretty well for the dynamic in Korea, and “It sounds better,” as one friend commented to me, “than Waegukin Smash!“)

Gaijin Smash! is often executed by the foreigner simply by pretending he or she doesn’t understand the local language, or doesn’t know it well enough to communicate or understand what’s being said. Or sometimes it’s the inability of the Korean involved to speak English that allows the advantage: the Korean cop at a breathalyzer spot checkpoint, or who has caught someone speeding, for example, may feel it’s not worth his or her trouble to deal with some bumbling, linguistically challenged foreigner.

I won’t be a hypocrite and pretend I don’t sometimes enjoy not being beholden to Korea’s sometimes stifling social expectations. Frankly, I signed up to teach here, to work and live here. I did not, and would not, sign up for the kind of stress and pressure some of my Korean friends experience in their working lives. Huh? An all-day Saturday workshop for students to get jobs, all in Korean, at which I’m expected to… sit there all day? “Uh… but I won’t understand!” (Actually, I’ll understand more than you think, but… Gaijin Smash!) It’s reasonable for the expatriate in Korea to recognize that no matter how much he or she works to bridge the gap, he or she will never be really accepted into the “in” group as a Korean would be. The tradeoff for that is, one is not so generally subject to the expectations and stresses that our Korean friends and colleagues sometimes mutter darkly about (or even crow about — some Koreans enjoy fulfilling some obligations, like drinking outings with co-workers… one person’s poison is another’s pleasure).

I’ll even admit to using Gaijin Smash! passive-aggressively in the past. I remember back when I was traveling on the bus a lot from Jeonju to Seoul and back. I’d request a specific seat on the bus, because some buses are extremely uncomfortable. They’re hot, and I wasn’t confident in my Korean abilities to ask the driver to turn down the heat. (And Koreans almost never complained about it… sweating, roasting, wiping their foreheads in distress, they’d stay sitting and try to sleep.) Riding those buses was painful. Sometimes I’d end up with a seat directly over the one block heater on the bus, and roast. Sometimes I’d end up on the side of the bus where the reading lights, for no apparent reason, were shut off and couldn’t be turned on. In other words, trapped for hours in a small, unnecessarily uncomfortable place with no control over anything in the situation. My one joy would be to open a window for a minute and get some fresh air.

But the ticket booth lady would ignore me when I asked for seat #23, and give me seat #11. Maybe my accent was bad. Maybe I was incomprehensible. Maybe she couldn’t read my writing. Maybe she just didn’t care. But I’d get a ticket for seat #13 or #19 or whatever, and I’d ignore it. I’d go sit where I wanted to, in the back where the only openable windows were located. And when some Korean came on and looked at me, puzzled, I’d either shrug, or looked puzzled back, or pretend I was asleep. Usually they’d end up in my abandoned seat. Gaijin Smash!

(This continued till I got good enough to ask for a specific seat, and then when I was given the wrong ticket, as I always was, I could hand it back and specify the seat I wanted again, until I got it. And then, shortly after that, I stopped having a reason to travel anywhere by bus anymore… of course.)

In that case, Gaijin Smash! was, yes, kind of obnoxious, but it was an obnoxious response to an obnoxious situation. Ah — see, there’s the justification. There’s always a justification for using Gaijin Smash!

Still, there’s a point where Gaijin Smash! becomes a way of disengaging from the society, or indeed an act of the repudiation of society itself — not Korean society specifically, but society in the general sense. It becomes a self-conscious attitude of privilege and of self-importance. It can become quite obnoxious. The Westerner who passes the driving test for a driver’s license despite a mistake that would flunk a Korean, because driving while receiving instructions in a foreign language is difficult and stressful and the mistake was understandable, is one thing. The Westerner who goes in with an expired driver’s license knowing he shouldn’t be able to get a Korean driver’s license with it, but figures, fuck it, it’s my right to try loophole my way past the system, simply is not respecting that there need to be rules that apply to everyone.

(And while, yes, yes, there are Koreans who don’t respect that, this is no excuse for it. You either respect that certain rules have to apply to everyone, or you don’t. flouting rules that are openly ridiculous, or which Koreans flout, is one thing. flouting rules that are sensible and fair is wholly another.)

White Western people have been coming to Asia and flouting (or selectively changing) the rules to benefit themselves for ages now, so it may well be there is a residue of the colonialist mentality at work. But it seems to me this as much comes from a kind of petulant, extended-adolescence type of thinking. More of an opportunistic thing than anything. Were Koreans likely to just say, “Listen, you petulant little f*cker, the rules apply to everyone. Now get back in the motherf*cking line!” then Gaijin Smash! would not be possible. But then, Korean society would look pretty different — at least, if everyone were expected to follow the rules. The porousness of rule-systems in Northeast Asian societies, at least for the hierarchically privileged, seems to me an inherent part of why Gaijin Smash! is possible. Older people can flout the rules. Westerners can flout the rules. Rich and powerful people? You betcha.

This ESF overlaps with ESF#3, mind, in that “going native” (as the high-minded expatriate, who thinks himself somehow better than Koreans for his love of pansori, or for knowing about some bit of history that the average Korean doesn’t appear to know) or, conversely, repudiating everything the host country offers (as in the example of the newbie above) seems to be excused by this fallacy. Sometimes, the expat argues, Koreans simply won’t understand the value of their culture until a foreigner points it out to them. Oooh, ahh! Gaijin Smash! Or, Korea will suck and be world unfamous until it caters to the expat’s tastes. Gaijin Smash! Forget addressing why Korea’s so worried about succeeding in the eyes of the West, or suggesting there might be more constructive things to worry about. Forget dialog about different ways of seeing some aspect of culture. Gaijin Smash! I’m right, and you’re lucky. (Lucky I’m here to school your sorry ass.)

For carriers of ESF#4, criticism from Koreans is almost always dismissed either as “bullshit” or as “racism” on some level. Indeed, even failures to live up to the expat’s expectations are sometimes constructed as racism or as a culture-wide, society-indictable crime. One has the right to do things one would never think of doing back home, because this isn’t back home and one believes one can do things with impunity here. Gaijin Smash!

Criticism from fellow expats is, given the size of most expatriate populations outside of Seoul, often not forthcoming; when it is offered, usually it is trumped by ESF#3.

ESF#4 may, in part, be one reinforced by Koreans’ behaviour towards an expat. For example, when my new coffee machine recently broke down, the guy at the shop I contacted actually picked up my machine in person, dropped off the replacement machine (which I traded up for, sijnce they couldn’t fix the broken one but had a much nicer one for only a little more money). When he offered to pick it up, I said I could ship it, no problem, but he insisted on dropping by and picking it up on his day off. When he called to arrange a drop-off time, I insisted again I could pay for shipping, no problem, but he insisted on coming by in person. And he gave me a bunch of free coffee pods, cappucino mugs, and other assorted paraphernelia, to boot! Refused when I offered to pay for his gas or whatever, too.

I sincerely doubt the average Korean customer whose new coffee machine broke down would get that kind of service from the service center guy they happened to call, even if he did happen to live in their neighborhood. It was nice of him… too nice. Because in my experience when a lot of people get special treatment, they begin to expect it.

And carriers of ESF#4 expect special treatment as a matter of course.

Well, that’s it for Expat Social Fallacy #4, folks. One more fallacy to go! That’ll be up tomorrow!

Series Navigation<< Expat Social Fallacies, Part 3Expat Social Fallacies, Part 5 >>

10 thoughts on “Expat Social Fallacies, Part 4

  1. RP card? I don’t know that acrnoym, but it looks like an M:TG (Magic: The Gathering) card. And it’s hilarious… even as someone who never got into those card games (I was warned off, told they were “crack for gamers”) it’s still wholly comprehensible to me. He says the same thing as me, basically — and no, I never saw it before — except for the difference of me framing it as part of a connected system of social fallacies.

    Ha… this series has me wondering, again, how useful it would be to write some kind of remix of Fanon’s Black Face, White Masks but looking at sexuality between Koreans and non-Koreans of various kinds. (The structure would have to be different, hierarchized. The pairings get more complex. And I’m not sure I’d be qualified to talk about a number of the combinations that would be part of the text. [Then again, was Fanon?] Or maybe not… I need to think about structure and all. Perhaps a project for sometime in May, like festival week, when things are relatively quiet around here? Or maybe I’ll just make a trip to Japan for the weekend instead?)

    Glad you’re finding it interesting.

  2. Thought the last comment posted – guess it didn’t… Yeah, I’m guilty as charged as well – but there is a bit of a social dilemma here. At what point does the demand to accommodate someone else mean more to us than doing what’s best for us?

    The acid test seems to be thus: Does playing the foreigner card needed for a genuine benefit, to avoid a loss or problem, or just to f*** with a local? Not giving up my subway seat to an belligerent ajosshi when other seats are close by? Fine, or reasonable. Not moving over one empty seat to allow a couple to sit together? Probably unreasonable, unless scooting over that one seat puts me next to the aforementioned belligerent ajosshi.

  3. I think “RP card” might be shorthand for “role-playing card” but could always be mistaken on that.

    This whole series is great and I weighed commenting on the earlier posts before realizing that a lot of my response would be “Yes, I understand where you’re coming from and agree with your observations”. Not sure how helpful that would be, though.

    One issue that I’ve found grating when interacting with other English teachers here (it has yet to crop up in discussions with expats who don’t teach) is the belief that some aspect of Korean culture is ‘broken’ or ‘wrong’. Given that a culture if fluid and evolves to fit the needs of its constituent members, that – to me – suggests that one should look ‘beneath the surface’ to find the reasons behind unfamiliar or seemingly nonsensical behavior. However, coming from a different background with a different response to a similar situation (as is likely the case with expat English teachers) seems to create a situation where it’s easier for some to employ the Gaijan Smash!

    As you pointed out, the reaction does have a lot to do with ESF#3. Does an expat reject the generally accepted way of acting because it’s too different (or ‘dumb’) compared to ‘Western’ responses or because it’s too different (or ‘inauthentic’) compared to ‘traditional’ local responses? Hmm.. I suppose this comment is just a long-winded way of agreeing with your point?

  4. Sean,

    Aren’t we all?


    I agree that sometimes Gaijin Smash can be used in a way that’s less icky (to me, anyway). Often, I have less problem with it when they’re compensating for a disadvantage (like the case of the ticket-seller ignoring my specific seat request above because my Korean wasn’t very good, or because she just didn’t care), or when it’s an alternative to some other loophole or circumvention strategy commonly used among Koreans. (ie. Koreans will sleep, or zone out with their DMB-equipped phones, which makes it harder to pressure them to forfeit their sets to, say, an elder. Westerners tend to do this less, but may simply use Gaijin Smash! to avoid the same — though, frankly, I think that unless one has a LONG way to go, it’s an asshole move (Korean or non-Korean alike) not to surrender one’s seat to really old people.

    Also, I think there is some pragmatism involved in some uses of Gaijin Smash!, in that, realistically, I think that in some workplaces, no matter how one plays along with the conventions of workplace expectations (for example attending all the interminable office drinking/karaoke parties), one will not really be “one of the group” the way a local would become.

    I can’t complain personally, mind you. My department’s faculty doesn’t actually have official drinking parties for me to bail on (aside from student events), and since coming onto tenure track I’ve been treated like it too.

    But I can see that in some workplaces, it might be the case someone might be thinking that participating in the social dimension would translate to peripheral benefits in the workplace, and be mistaken about it. Some workplaces are just like that.

    Not just in Korea, either. At my last job in Korea, which was literally a family business, non-family members mostly kinda felt as if we were part of the family… and worked like it. And then got a rude awakening when push came to shove. But I’ll save that for a post of its own.


    Hmm, yeah, I think your guess is probably right, but I’m wondering if people who played M:TG actually used the acronym or not.

    I’m glad your impression is that I’m on the right track here.

    I too struggle with the whole urge to diagnose Korean problems. One thing that has caused me to back away from being so reticent to talk about it is, trying to weigh in socially or in discussions when Koreans bring it up first.

    The thing is, while it’s true as you write that “a culture if fluid and evolves to fit the needs of its constituent members,” when those needs change, cultures are much slower to follow the change. As I wrote a few times in other places, “Society changes at the speed of birth, and culture changes at the speed of death.” That’s more or less depending where you are; in a society where age has a relatively higher disproportionate amount of power not just over things like government and work, but also over cultural change, I’d tend to think it’s more true — just as it was in the West not so very long ago.

    That is to say, I think your statement above focuses on the functionality of culture, but cultures — all cultures, including something as small as “expat culture” in Korea — are not merely functional; they are simultaneously dysfunctional, often in specific and important ways.

    What you end up with is a mass of younger people who are actually quite frustrated, annoyed, and eager for change… but unsure how exactly to make it happen.

    (And this is suggested by more than anecdotal evidence of living in Korea; it also squares with those polls one sees every once in a while where depressing numbers of young Koreans express a wish to either emigrate, or to have been born instead in another country. Epidemic suicide rates, too, not only among the young but across the board can’t just be because of different attitudes towards suicide, either; they bespeak a lot of frustration, pain, and pressure that Korean culture seems not to have found a functional way of dealing with.)

    Which is hardly surprising, since Korean culture’s freedom to change and adapt was artificially hampered for most of the century, under one authoritarian regime after another. Even now, the Web in Korea seems to be increasingly pseudo-authoritarian in nature, secondary schools by all reports seem all too often to replicate authoritarian systems, and the military-culture influence on how many businesses are run seem to suggest authoritarianism has merely been privatized in many ways.

    Which sounds a lot like complaint and diagnosis, right?

    I think the useful metric here, though, is whether people are diagnosing something as broken because it’s inconvenient for them personally as an outsider, versus broken because of the effect it seems to have on Koreans in general.

    Probably the litmus test is when one brings it up with Koreans who are comfortable talking about this stuff, and they agree it’s a nuisance and talk of their own frustration with it, versus when they say are baffled that this would annoy a person.

    (For example, the pressure on young women to marry by a certain age is something many Korean women agree with me is a “broken” part of Korean culture, something that needs to change for the quality of life among Koreans to improve. This is something worth talking about. Bitching about how people in cinemas seem to like being jammed up against strangers even when there’s plenty of empty rows in the place seems less sensible, especially since Koreans don’t often get why personal space matters so much to us silly Westerners.)

    I guess it also depends on whether you agree with Mark V0gel and Y0ung-Hae Chang (in “What Is An Intellectual?”) about whether intellectualism really is a kind of “complaining” and whether intellectuals are “that rarest of birds in South Korea.” Certainly my own students have complaints that they find difficult to articulate (in Korean or English alike) until we discuss concepts like “internalized misogyny” or “internalized racism.”

    But I have a feeling the kind of complaining you’re talking about doesn’t make gestures towards even a little analysis.

  5. Hi Gord,

    Very entertaining diagnosis of the obnoxiousness that being an expat tends to bring out. I have a novel coming out dedicated in part to similar themes; mostly a lack of empathy towards and fear of engulfment by Chinese culture, manifested in a difficult relationship.

    Gaijin smash! Or lao wai smash: one of the things I noted is the fallacy that book learning is sufficient to understand “the Chinese”; that those twenty or so non-fiction books, mostly written by foreigners, will give you all you need to know and require no adjustment. Follow this simple rule and you will stereotype every Chinese you meet into an identikit victim of the cultural revolution. Handy, because you don’t have to think about why your Chinese colleague/acquaintance/girlfriend has different feelings and thoughts than you. Handy, because when confronted by an inconvenient rule or expectation (for instance, that plagiarism is de rigeur and tolerated in Chinese universities so long as tuition fees are paid), you can dismiss all your colleague’s behaviour as robotic and stupid, without considering the social context your friend is operating in, and must operate in, to support her family, or whatever. It’s the Chinese (spectacularly corrupt) way, one hears too often, without considering the skills that many Chinese use to intelligently negotiate their system.

    There are many other illustrations. I’ve observed Westerners becoming indignant and incredulous when a Chinese doens’t know somehting about N American culture, overlooking that they know next to nothing about Chinese culture and history; if they do know something, it’s invariably out of date, because they don’t know what’s going on around them–they haven’t the language skills. Such people seem offended that people are different than them, although they publicly rail on and on about “individuality” and “freedom” , assuming that these things mean nothing to Chinese, and how important it is to be…well, like us.

    I have been guilty of many of these errors, and it took me a while to correct my own behaviours. It takes great patience to allow the time and superficial contacts and exchanges to build yp so you actually get to know someone well enough to understand who they are. Along the way, you are encouraged, because you can speak Chinese at an intermediate level, to pronounce on “the Chinese mind” by other expatriates. This I finally decided to refuse, saying “There is no such thing. Find out for yourself.” If only I had been wiser, sooner.

    Great posts. Good luck with your writing!



  6. Steve,

    It’s great to have an expat in China weigh in on this. When’s the novel coming out, and where?

    (I can certainly attest to the fact that relationship difficulties will exacerbate some or all of these ESFs.)

    I wonder whether there’s such a phenomenon in China as in Korea, which I think also helps promote this monolithic view of “The Koreans,” which is that plenty of Koreans push the same view too — and those who disagree are unlikely to say so except one-on-one, in private.

    I remember a teacher and writer I knew who was incredulous and self-righteous about all kinds of ways that Korean culture wasn’t American culture. He was, I am not kidding here despite the bizarre non sequitur of his thinking, disappointed that a major political protest didn’t turn into a massive sexual revolution in Korea, and seemed to think Korea was doomed because it was not Americanizing enough. Beat-era literature somehow figured in this too. It was kind of sad.

    I, too, am guilty of a lot of these ESFs, and wish I’d wised up sooner. (And hope that in some way these posts help me firm up whatever ways I have wised up, and if someone else wises up along the way, cool. Though in my experience, one learns this stuff the hard way, or not at all.)

    By the way, I regularly (ie. both times I’ve taught it) include one or two of your poems from Ghost Country in my Literature in a Multicultural Society course. The reactions are always amusing…

  7. 1- I occasionally hear expats in Japan issue complaints along the lines of “I have to do four classes today! Can you believe it?” Which of course makes me think “You pussies wouldn’t last a week in Korea”


    I won’t be a hypocrite and pretend I don’t sometimes enjoy not being beholden to Korea’s sometimes stifling social expectations.

    This is the kaiser roll on the shit sandwich that is Confucianism. Any “Giajin Smash” that’s applied to it is applied rightly and justly, in my opinion.

  8. Ha, I suppose I shouldn’t mutter darkly about having 3 classes (6 hrs, total) on Tuesdays, then! But I have this long lecture right at the end of my day… :)

    And yeah, I certainly don’t feel much guilt in subverting the stifling expectations with Gaijin Smash! There are some things I think people should never have to put up with. Period.

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