Fair Coverage: Rude Canadians in Korea

A funny memory hit me today, in the light of the comments to my post yesterday. I mentioned how there are rude people everywhere, but I feel I must give fair coverage to some Canadians I’ve known who were living as expats in Korea.

It’s a memory from my first year in Korea. Now, that first year, I experienced a lot of strange, bizarre crap. Not all of it was from Koreans; in fact, most of the weirdness was from expats teaching in Iksan.

One of the more interesting was seeing how young men who left Canada for Korea suddenly, within the space of about four to six months, ended up becoming raging assholes.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve met British, Australian, and American assholes here. (I can’t recall any Kiwi assholes, but I’m sure there have been a few.)

But it was the Canadian guys who tended to become full-on frat boys in short order. I remember, for example, a few young men complaining of the one decent coffee shop in town being run by “racists” who had kicked them “for no reason.” That “no reason” was that they’d come in with bottles of liquor and a deck of cards, and started gambling right in plain view of everyone.

Never mind that gambling over cards is technically illegal in Korea — or so we all understood it then, and these guys actually gambled with real (ie. sizeable amounts of) money to boot; never mind that the coffee shop was not licensed; never mind that they had ordered no coffee (ie. were not customers); never mind that they were politely asked to stop doing what they were doing.1

Never mind all that, and ask yourself: how would it sound if a group of young men walked into an unlicensed coffee shop in Toronto with liquor, cards, and sat down without ordering to a game of high-stakes fratboy poker? The fact is, they would never dare do such a thing. They know better.

But as an expat, living abroad… hell, anything’s okay! Fratboys live forever!

So, trust me, there are plenty of Westerners here whom I consider pigs, and whom I will probably end up telling off as I follow my rule of calling people on bullshit behaviour. That’s not to say I think this happens in a vacuum: the same general timidity of nice folks here (Korean and foreign alike) to tell people to stop behaving like shitheads that enables assholes of the Korean persuasion to act as they do, also facilitates the asshole behaviour among non-Koreans here.

I do get it, I do.

1. Or, at least, that’s what I was told. I wasn’t there, though another expat I knew told me the story since he had been there. (And he frankly told one of them to shape up and stop making a bad name for us foreigners; “Don’t ruin the one coffee shop we have,” I think he said.)

9 thoughts on “Fair Coverage: Rude Canadians in Korea

  1. During my short stint in Korea, I saw some of this as well. As a Canadian, it made me feel quite embarrassed, though I saw a lot of that frat boy behavior from so many people that over time, I had lost track of it all.

  2. My wife’s cousin worked in a bar in Busan. She told us that foreigners would constantly bring their dogs into bars, even though there were signs, even though they would never do it back home. And then get all mouthy when asked to leave (or take the dog out.) Dog crap on the floor and stuff. Not nice.

  3. Wow, those are really similar-looking comments, for showing up on the same day, but from IPs on different sides of the Earth. Curious how both of you landed here on the same day! Anyway…

    Bucky, I don’t feel so embarrassed myself, since I reject the whole classification by race thing. There are many Koreans who behave like utter crap, and more than enough non-Koreans do too. Those are the crap people. Then, on the other side, there are plenty of Koreans who have manners, act decently, and are sane. And there are plenty of non-Koreans like that too. Those are the cool people. That’s my baseline category. It’s far more useful to me than thinking of it in terms of race… though in Korea, it’s only through the lens of race that it’s ever, ever discussed.

    And Anotherguy,

    Okay, what? People taking their dogs to bars? They had to put signs up to tell people not to do it?


    Is Busan radically different from Seoul? I see Koreans bringing dogs to coffeeshops all the time (no dog crap on the floor, though) but I have never seen a foreigner bring a dog into a bar here, let alone “foreigners” doing it habitually. And, besides, most of the foreigners I know here don’t even *have* pets like dogs or cats to begin with, they’re too transient to bother with pets.

    Which makes me wonder, given this is secondhand, whether there’s a case of a couple of bad incidents being generalized into “foreigners do this.” I am not saying it’s total bullshit, but it is one of those kinds of stories I hear from time to time, where I ask a question or two (how often did this happen? Was it many different people, or the same few time and again? How long did it go on for?) it starts to fall apart, with “foreigners do this” to “these two people did it once, and it was really memorable and annoying.” (Well, yes, but it’s random idiots, not “foreigners,” that do that bad thing.)

    You’ll note I used an example that was familiar to me through foreign sources, including the dumbasses who actually did the fratboy crap. I knew one of them directly, and heard the story from another Westerner.

    I’m leery about taking for granted generalizations made across culture, because:

    (a) people tend to make more false or hasty generalizations, and
    (b) it’s extremely common for such generalizations to go unchallenged, or even to be actively reinforced by know-nothings, both in Korean society and in the expat underworld.

    I’ll give you two examples: while Miss Jiwaku and I (she’s Korean) struggle to catch a cab in most neighborhoods in Seoul — yes, seriously, even on the rare occasions when I dress up. We’ve defaulted to me turning my back to the street and pretending I’m not with her just to trick cabs into stopping to pick her up, and surprise, yeah, we’re together. (It makes me think of that Branford Marsalis tune titled, “Brother Trying to Catch a Cab on the East Side Blues” because, in this one little aspect, I can kinda relate.)

    Tonight was no exception: after seeing a concert, we stood hailing cabs for at least 20-25 minutes. Why? Cabbies hate white guys, or interracial couples, right?

    Not really. Some people would assume that, but we were at the Seoul Arts Center. That’s near Gangnam, where more lucrative cab work is available. So while we did stand waiting while about 50 cabs sped by, pretending not to notice us, it wasn’t a race-hate thing. (They did it to Koreans too. The cabbies were assholes, and might be racists, but that’s not why they ignored all those fares.)

    Second example: Miss Jiwaku once studied in a language program abroad — not English. There were Anglophone westerners in the program, but also lots of Japanese and Koreans. The Japanese seemed to get along passably with the Westerners, but the Koreans kept warning her that the Westerners “hated Koreans” or “didn’t like Koreans.” When she finally talked to them, she discovered that was obvious hogwash. The Westerners just didn’t behave like hakwon teachers — no huge smile, and exaggerated wave with two hands, and super-slow greeting like, “How are you, Yoon-jung?” Instead it was just, “Hey, how’s it going?” They were acting like normal Westerners, but a disturbing number of her Korean classmates interpreted this through some twisted conception of how Westerners are supposed to act, and ended up seeing this normal behaviour as rudeness and bigotry specifically against Koreans.

    So yeah, despite my dubiousness, I’d love to actually hear details about the dogs-in-a-bar story. It really does sound like the fratboy behaviour I described — plausible enough — except that I’m dubious this was ever really that common a practice. Unless, like I say, Busan is VERY unlike Seoul. (And from what I’ve experienced there, it’s friendlier and more polite, but not that different.)

    Anyway, I do try even to apply a pinch of salt to my own interpretations, though not to the point where I’m willing to pretend that having to hide my face to catch a cab isn’t indicative of a systemic problem in Korean society.

    Oh, also, on your line, “though they would never do that back home…” — well, don’t be so sure. The one card-gambler I knew was canny enough to admit he wouldn’t try that shit back in Canada, but I’ve run across plenty of mentally questionable expats here. Korea is a little too easy to come to and to get work in if you’re a white Anglophone, and while there are great expats here, the dregs of the Anglophone world seem to accumulate in Korea, as if the country were somehow the TEFL industry’s sink filtration unit or something.

  4. I wasn’t trying to classify by race (I’m a Chinese Canadian myself). I saw some people of Korean descent behaving just as badly, as well as “Korea Koreans.”

    My family is from Hong Kong and when I went there, I didn’t see so many non-Hong Kongers acting so badly. Same goes for Beijing, where my brother works. I don’t know what it is about Korea (and Canadians in Korea) that sparks this.

    Perhaps it’s Canada itself. Since coming back to Vancouver, I’ve had a lot of “…Really? Like, REALLY?” moments towards a lot of people. But then again, we’re Vancouver.

  5. Bucky,

    (Note: I’ve edited this a bit.)

    Ah, I see, thanks for clarifying.

    I honestly think there’s a couple of things at work:

    1. Koreans tend to write off bizarre shit foreigners do as “Well, foreigners do that…” or, “Maybe it’s cultural difference?” and so, in my experience, people with obvious mental illnesses that should put them out of the running seem quite able to hang on to teaching jobs and visas here. So I guess they get away with it more.

    2. Like most Canadians, I came here for a number of reasons, and some of them were economic ones. Korea was my choice at the time because I had a connection, but even without a connection and a job offer almost as soon as I started looking for work, I would probably have ended up coming here, because Korea was, for a broke young Canadian coming out of grad school (or undergrad) the easiest place to go: no rent, and my plane ticket (the first one) was paid for. Which, while you’ll get some good and dedicated teachers that way, is probably not a good way of filtering people.

    3. It may also be that Canadians, particularly, react to being outside Canada. I find Canada a very, I don’t know, socially regulatory place. There’s always a sense one ought to behave, there, one out to think of others and be considerate. (This is something I miss, but it’s more than that; in Canada, when you hold a door open for someone they usually acknowledge it with a nod or a thank you. In Korea, when you do this, people rarely thank you or even acknowledge it. Consideration of this kind just isn’t on the social behaviours map the same way.) So maybe, when they get here, some Canadians kind of depressurize to the point where they deflate all that consideration out, and fill it with whatever takes its place here, which, anyway, isn’t that kind of genteel, friendly-to-strangers consideration.

    (My broad experience is that in Canada, someone will hold the elevator for you 9 times out of 10 without you asking; with Koreans, I’ve had it happen more like 1 time in 5, and only if I call out and there’s a woman on the elevator. But while I still hold open doors and hold elevators, I have even gone native in a way. I remember being surprised, like, “Oh, yeah, manners, damn,” when, sitting on the airport shuttle bus after a long flight, a man looked at me as if we were trying to deliberate something silently, which baffled me, and then he got up and offered his seat to a young woman who’d boarded after us. I’d kind of forgotten people did that, since, in ten years in Korea, I can count the number of times I’ve seen someone offer a seat to an unknown woman who wasn’t elderly (and even then) on the fingers of maybe one hand. Even pregnant women, when they’re offered seats, are offered by other women, not men.)

    Anyway, I wasn’t meaning to rant about Korea’s lack of consideration, but my point is — people do go native, and maybe go even farther along that line. Maybe in a place where the expectations for politeness and consideration run so high, it’s common for people going somewhere without those high expectations to snap into a reaction where they will fail even the lowest expectations for consideration and politeness?

    4. I don’t know about Vancouver very much, but it would explain some differences in perception between me and another Canadian friend who disagrees with me about what normal, average Canadian behaviour looks like. Or maybe it’s a big city thing?

    (For Seoul, as well as for Vancouver? Visiting Jeonju a few times, I find it almost idyllic in comparison. The stuff that drove me nuts there was mostly the same kind of ignorant-but-not-malevolent stuff I remember from Saskatchewan, and unlike the more malevolent crap I see in Seoul regularly.)

  6. I lived in Korea(Busan) for a couple of years and never saw any foreigners with dogs either, but I also didn’t hang in the bars like most teachers did. But anyways I would still have seen foreigners with dogs at some time. Most of them who I worked with wouldn’t have wanted the extra responsibility.

  7. I don’t think it’s a big city thing. I’ve spent time in three cities much larger than Vancouver, and I think it’s just a Vancouver thing. It’s more Asian-influenced than “Canadian”-influenced, perhaps due to geography (first landing point for those from Asia and blocked from the rest of Canada by the Rocky Mountains). The behavior of the people around here reflects that; those I know who were raised elsewhere in Canada have noted that Vancouver is more “rude” (and I’d venture to guess that it’s because of the Asian etiquette standards having an influence here).

    “Canadian” behavior is a relative idea in so many ways due to these differences. I don’t know if you recall but Vancouver was accused of not acting/being Canadian enough during last year’s Stanley Cup Finals. I hate the Canucks but found it amusing that the rest of Canada was using that as ammunition during that time.

    Re: the dogs comment… Besides the guys at EatYourKimchi, I didn’t know anyone who even wanted the extra responsibility of a pet either. For most single expats, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea anyway.

  8. re: Vancouver and manners, fair enough, I don’t know the city well.

    But ha, Vancouver not being “Canadian” enough — I thought that was just anxious distancing from the other parts of Canada, as the idiocy was familiar to me. I may not have seen riots that bad, but I remember property damage from idiots one year when I was an undergrad and a Canadian baseball team lost out at some advanced position in, I want to say “The World Series” but I don’t know. I just know everyone was talking about the Blue Jays except me, and that idiots had gathered and broken windows and committed other acts of stupidity.

    As for pet-keeping, I’ve known a few expats who had pets, actually — cats or dogs, mostly — and some were older, some younger, some settled here and some relatively transient; but I can’t imagine one of those people I knew actually bringing their pet to a bar, is the thing. I think most people get more responsible about having a pet, instead of more fratboyish.

    Which makes those stories of “foreigners bringing dogs to the bar” in Busan so difficult to buy, at least as presented.

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