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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!

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