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Debito Arudou’s “Micro-Aggressions”: What Really Drives the Highly Sensitive Expat Crazy

UPDATE: I’ve been thinking about this post, and I think the HSP concept may be just as flaky as the notion of “microaggressions” (at least as Debito Arudou presents it); it seems to me there’s a simpler explanation possible, which is this: many, many of the people whom I’ve known in Korea who were constantly dogged by the drive to understand why certain kinds of behaviour were so common here, were humanities majors.

Humanities majors, when they actually are properly trained, tend to be analysis machines, and just as nature only punishes the most extreme of extravangances in phenotype (the Irish elk is an example), so, I sspect, do cognitive extravagances go largely unpunished by nature.

Well, unpunished when it comes to survival and gene propagation and all that. But it can be a pain in the ass to haul around those antlers. And yet, for humanities majors, those antlers —  the analytical toolbox they got as a students, if they were at all conscientious about their studies — is what they have. It’s the fullest flowering of their personal glory. So they haul those antlers around, analyzing and analyzing and trying consciously to deduce models that explain behaviours (based on culture, based on history, based on the kinds of things they’ve been taught to base their explanations on) that they fail to intuit aren’t logically explicable because it’s not that sort of a explication that makes sense.

Maybe my explanation is like this too: maybe not. We’re often trained to understand culture as causative of certain behaviours, rather than as successfully (or unsuccessfully) inhibitive. Actions or attitudes are, for most Humanities majors, caused by some feature of culture, rather than being prevalent or rare depending on when culture inhibits, or fails to inhibit them; and people, for Humanities majors, are not assumed to be, on the whole and prior to cultural inhibition-attainment, stupid. Those inhibitory functions of society, when recognized at all, are usually seen as repressive and bad.  (Which is funny, considering Humanities majors are the only people in the world who still take Freud seriously, and Freud took the idea of culture and “civilization” as primarily  inhibitive quite seriously.)

Anyway, just a thought for those who, like me, aren’t totally comfortable with the HSP category. Though I will say that I’m not dismissing it, either. (I certainly feel like what an HSP is described as feeling, in terms of how I feel about standards of acceptable noise, bustle, and so on, here in Korea. But in the West, I would mostly consider myself “normal” because people push me to my limits far less there.)

ORIGINAL POST: While I’ve kept out of the whole expat-blog scene lately — there are some good blogs out there, but there’s plenty of dross as well — I did get interested in a recent discussion over an article by Debito Arudou, titled, “Yes, I can use chopsticks: the everyday ‘microaggressions’ that grind us down,” published in the Japan Times earlier this month.

(While I am not going to comment on Arudou’s “controversial” career, I so daresay I suspect that what I have to say about highly sensitive expats in Korea might apply to him.)

The discussion of the man’s ideas that I’ve seen has, characteristically for the Korean expat blogosphere, been a mixture of rage-filled expat bile-venting on the one hand, and high-handed (er, that is, snotty) dismissals on the other. I don’t want to get into a long diagnostic discussion of the psychology of the Korean blogosphere — who has time for that — but I will say that what is probably at work in the different reactions has as much to do with different degrees of inborn sensitivity as anything.

About 20% of people are highly sensitive; I don’t mean hypersensitive, though that is what some who are not highly sensitive like to call them. being highly sensitive is not a choice, not a decision, any more than red-haired people choose to process pain different that the rest of us. It’s genetic, and people who are within this range tend to be very sensitive across the spectrum: they are more sensitive not only to social stresses, but also to certain types of lighting, to temperature changes, to loud noises, and so on. For a highly sensitive person, a night club — with flashing lights, loud music, and artificially stressful social dynamics — is about the last place one would go for fun… and if you’re not highly sensitive, this sounds weird. You can change this feature of your makeup about as easily as you can change your sexual orientation, or your reaction to the smell and taste of durian fruit… which is to say, not very easily at all.

And yeah, HSP is a somewhat controversial concept; some psychologists and psychiatrists see the condition as a pathology. The same kinds of professionals said that about homosexuality too, as well as of non-passive women, of nonwhites who wanted equality… so, meh. I’ve read up on it, and the description of HSPs seems to apply to me as much as to a lot of other writers, artists, and intellectuals I know.

(I’m not, by the way, suggesting that highly sensitive people are smarter than non-highly sensitive people. There are different kinds of intelligence, and highly sensitive people tend towards the more introverted kinds, while less-sensitive people tend to more extroverted types of intelligence; but this doesn’t mean highly sensitive people are all hermits or that the people in the average range are all party animals. I’m just talking about tendencies.)

(I’m also not saying highly sensitive people cannot develop coping mechanisms for living in a world that isn’t made for them. They can, and many do. The fact I can live in Korea, despite being highly sensitive, amid the flashing neon lights and constant loud noise and often-stressful social interaction, is a testament to the power of coping mechanisms and management.)

You might think I’m building up to say that Korea is an especially difficult place for a highly sensitive person to live, but I don’t know that; I imagine there are places that are easier, and places that are harder. I imagine Korea lands somewhere in the very- to extremely-difficult range for highly sensitive people (both Korean and non-Korean), because of attitudes towards noise and light pollution (and general pollution), the range of acceptable public behaviours, and so on. But I’m sure there are other places that are as difficult or worse.

But the point I’m building up to is that I suspect the pitfalls of high sensitivity (and the character traits that tend to go with it) also extend into the realm of  how one deals with expat life, at least the kind of expat life one experiences in a place like Korea or Japan. I’m not the only person to have noted parallels between the “Japanese” behaviours mentioned in Arudou’s article, and countless tiring experiences I’ve had in Korea — even those expats who dismiss the concept of “micro-aggressions” freely admit to having had these experiences: they simply don’t see why it would “wear someone down.” HSP’s “hypersensitivity” baffles them as much as their apparently “thick skin” (or apparent obliviousness) baffles their fellow expat HSPs.

It probably comes down simply to how sensitive you are, and to some degree that’s something we perhaps can adjust a little, but generally speaking cannot control. Of course, the rage-filled expats tend, like most people, not too realize exactly how their own sensitivity might exacerbate things; and the less-sensitive people are simply unaware that anyone else could be configured, neurochemically, differently from themselves, so they tend to see this high sensitivity as hypersensitivity, of a willful kind.

So with all that said, I can finally address Arudou’s article myself. And here’s what I have to say:

  1. Arudou is definitely right that exposure to these behaviours can wear a person down. I have lost all patience with people whose attempts to connect with me demonstrate, from the get-go, that they are unable to think of me as anything but a “foreigner”; I am simply not interested in it.So I am self-protective, in fact, and the self-protection manifests as me avoiding people who seem likely to engage in the kinds of tiresome conversational moves that Arudou specifically calls “micro-aggressions.”Which is not to say I necessarily agree with the designation. But I think the less-sensitive expats among us are a little too quick to dismiss the experiences of whose who do feel worn down by the constant inquiries and shocked observations about the most obvious, banal of things, as well as the occasional hostility.

    In fact, I almost always sense hostility when an older man asks me if I’m American, and I get that a lot… but even the non-hostile questions or comments wear me down. Part of that can be attributed to boredom, but I don’t think a sense of boredom is the primary reason… nor do I believe it necessarily has anything to do with being “put in one’s place” or the malice of one’s interlocutors.

  2. Where I suspect Arudou has it wrong is regarding the main reason why exposure to such behaviour can wear a person down.I am not convinced that most of the people asking me these tiresome questions intend — even on a deep, unconscious level — to subjugate me or put me in my place. Certainly, some do — the middle-aged man on the subway who snarls at me an asks, “American?” or shouts at any Korean woman who seems to be there with me certainly has a negative intent. In some contexts, I think, a lot of people have negative intent towards a “foreigner.”But my experience tells me that a lot of people just are ignorant, uninformed, and/or have silly — and unexamined — misconceptions about non-Koreans.

    A lot of these misconceptions can be explained in part by a kind of popular sense of general Korean exceptionalism: the language is harder than any other, the food is the spiciest thing a Western could ever encounter (and no foreigner could actually eat it); Korean chopstick skills are amazing (and foreigners cannot live up to them).

    Likewise, a lot of Koreans seem to have weird ideas about foreigners of a kind we’ve seen uneducated or stupid people in the West having about races other than their own: such “exotic” people are often imagined to have weird genitalia or sexual appetites; are assumed to be more prone to violence or crime; are seen as taking away the jobs that “ought” to be held by the local racial majority…

    If you can imagine a patently ridiculous belief about Westerners, believe me, I’ve run into it. (Foreigners defecate only once a week; foreigners are all bisexual; no foreigner could ever be as devoted a Christian as a Korean; foreigners are more violent than Koreans — the last, actually, being the exact opposite of the truth, at least to go by reported violent crime.)

    But once again, we know from experience that stupid people in any culture think the same stupid things about people from other races or cultures. The shape of human stupidity is pretty universal, and we know this.So what gives? The problem comes in terms of who says the stupid things to us, and what our bafflement and frustration caused by their identity begins to mean to us.

  3. I think what wears down the more sensitive people is their incessant desire to understand why people keep behaving this way. That is to say, I suspect that the search for understanding is something we’ve been taught — as reasonably sensitive, open-minded individuals who believe that cultural differences can be negotiated, understood, and overcome in the search for a way of peaceably and respectfully coexisting — is a narrative and an ideology that doesn’t conform well to reality, and is precisely the kind of ideology that highly sensitive people tend to be attracted to (in part because they, so often misunderstood themselves, like to imagine that all differences are comprehensible given enough understanding).The problem is that this narrative at the core of multiculturalism — that the person who seeks understanding will eventually attain it, and with it will develop acceptance — and peace — doesn’t conform to reality. Many an expatriate (especially the highly sensitive ones) desperately want to understand Korean culture, and desperately want it to make sense to them.Well, it’s easy to understand why an older woman working in a restaurant in the countryside, or an elderly man sitting on a mountainside in the middle of nowhere and sharing a bottle of liquor with his friends, might be relatively ignorant of expatriates. One can chalk it up to lack of exposure, or old-fashioned ideas that were picked up long ago and never rethought. How often do we not just overlook, but even expect, overt bigotry among the elderly in the West? So often, in fact, that its absence surprises us, and it is something of a running gag in Western society. So, it’s easy to shrug and say, “Old folks are bigots everywhere.” Whether we excuse it, or dismiss them, or confront them, it doesn’t tend to wear us down: this kind of behaviour is predictable, expected, and unsurprising.

    Similarly, when dealing with kids, it’s easier to shrug and say, “Well, they’re just repeating what they hear at home…” But at least with kids it doesn’t seem pointless to try explain to them that, no, that idea is wrong, and makes you look silly when you express it. Or to dismiss it as childish ignorance: again, it’s not like we don’t expect this sort of thing, and while we might be thrown for a loop about what they pick up from their parents, the fact that they do so isn’t surprising.But how about the professor who earned a Ph.D. overseas, and lived in a Western country for five or eight or ten years, and marvels — as might the old man on the mountain, or the old lady in the countryside restaurant, or the little kid in the cafeteria — that you can speak a few sentences in his or her language, after living in the country for over a decade? Or how about the non-mentally-handicapped co-worker you’ve had lunch in a (chopsticks-and-spoon-only) Korean cafeteria with for months on end, who suddenly gapes in shock and says, “You can use chopsticks?” Or how about the young, apparently bright young man or woman who has lived abroad for years, but still can’t grasp the fact that yes, you have tried bebimbap during your decade of living in the country?

    (And don’t even get me started on educated people believing in, and defending, the idea that sleeping in a room with the window shut and a fan on can kill people on an average Korean summer night, or that kimchi can prevent SARS or bird flu, or that Dr. Hwang Woo-Seok was not a fraud but instead was the victim of an American scientific conspiracy…)

    When confronted with one of these stupidities, the narrative of multicultural understanding-enlightenment-acceptance-respect falls apart, and that is traumatic for a lot of people, but most especially for those who actually believed in it.

    Sure, educated people can believe obviously stupid things. Smart people can make really idiotic assertions. People who are really bright and ought to know better can have blind spots several solar systems wide, and culture obviously does have something to do with this. But for us, this realization is enough to summon up that record-scratching-to-a-stop sound they use when action halts in cheesy comedy movies, even though we never play music on LPs anymore: our fundamental model breaks down, we are thrown for a loop, and we simply don’t know what to do with what has just happened. The blithering ignorance and stupidity clashes with our expectations of what someone in a certain educational or experiential space “ought” to understand naturally.

    I strongly suspect that, as being more prone to conscientiousness (or a self-conception that includes conscientiousness, at least), HSPs are more prone to have bought into that flawed, vulnerable multiculturalism model. They tend to be very intellectualizing (not necessarily to say intellectual) —  very much living in their heads, very invested in theoretical models of the world;as people who like order, peace, and harmony, they tend to be very willing to invest in models that promise these outcomes as a way of mitigating against disturbing, hyperstimulating conflict, dispute, and confrontation. When a cherished model breaks down, it is rather traumatic to them (as it is to all of us: normal people also experience anxiety, and react badly, when their worldview is challenged, after all).

    And heaven help you if you’re around a Westerner HSP when this model of multiculturalist understanding-and-transformation falls apart: it’s not at all pretty. What happens is they discover what they think is the great secret — that cultures can be “stupid” and the culture that has baffled them up to the present must be one of these.

    Now, the wisest person can dodge that train, though it may take time. (See the rants throughout my blog’s archives if you want to see some of my struggle with it.) The wise person realizes there are idiots in every walk of life, including among the PhD holders of the world. The wise person realizes that culture does have something to do with this, but doesn’t have to do with stupidity per se; the wise person also realizes that his or her perspective is subjective, and a product of his or her own culture.

    (As Ta Nehesi-Coates argues in “A Muscular Empathy,” it’s easy to imagine oneself as being someone who would swim against the culltural flow — for example, modern African-Americans imagining they would have raised a slave-rebellion had they found themselves as slaves several centuries ago, or modern white Americans imagining that, had they been born into the slave-owning South, they would surely have refused to keep slaves; but most people don’t swim against the mainstream cultural flow, and as Nehisi-Coates points out, it’s more sensible and honest to admit (and imagine why) one likely would not have done so, if we want to understand the fact that many people historically failing to do so does have to do with culture, human nature, and weaknesses most of us today still share.)

    Moreover, the wise person also recognizes that there are things the majority of people from their own culture seem willfully stupid about — such as, for example, the quaint notion that we have, with electoral democracy, hit the final point of human political development, or, for a simpler example, the trash that most of us eat on a regular basis.

    Culture cannot make people stupid, of course. Culture can fail to punish stupidities of various kinds, of course, and one of the things that drives us mad is that Korean culture fails to punish many of the stupidities that have long haunted us, but have also (to some degree) become more openly and straightforwardly recognized as stupidities in our home cultures, and to some degree really do get punished now (so that the stupidities are isolated to the truly, congenitally stupid).

    But the serious expat for whom these frustrations emerge from an effort to understand Korean society and culture is tragically more likely to interpret those stupidities as rooted in the culture. He or she will be hard put to explain Koreans who think differently,, of course: well, this or that person is just different somehow, naturally, or something. Or this or that person has had experiences abroad, and “gets it.”

    The reality is simpler: the people who “get it” are the smart, empathetic people. They’re likely distributed about as evenly here in Korea as they are anywhere else, which is to say, they are a minority, but not necessarily a tiny one. It is also to say that back home, the truly smart people are a minority — the HSP expat, in all statistical likelihood, is not one of them. That, of course, is too much to face… so the mind avoids this particular calculation, and returns to the self-contradictory position that this or that culture somehow makes people stupid, with of course the exception of those whom it doesn’t make stupid.

    The way out is to get comfortable with the fact that (a) you’re probably to some degree similarly stupid or blinkered, in ways you don’t realize and for which which your own culture doesn’t punish you, and (b) that most people are like that, that this is a normal state of affairs on planet earth, among the human species.

    It may not make Korea any more of a livable place for you — I prefer places where a larger range of stupidities are socially punished and banished from public acceptability — but recognizing this fact can help you out of your conundrum.

And that, I believe, is why this stuff drives some of us up the wall, while barely affecting others.

As with so many other things I’ve learned paying attention to my  experiences here, it likely also applies to life in one’s own culture: politics, for example, looks interestingly different when you have a society that has a significant HSP population. You begin to wonder if, out there on the other end of the spectrum, there is also an LSP population who matches the HSP population in size, and in its inversion of their reactions to the world.

Interesting stuff.

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