Meditations on Junk, #1: Ugly Koreans/Ugly Americans


I’m flipping through Min Byoung-Chul’s Ugly Koreans/Ugly Americans. (Which is, by the way, insanely overpriced on It’s a sort of typical book in Korea, basically intellectual junk crammed full of East vs. West generalizations and “explanations” by a Korean who doesn’t himself quite grasp what he’s taken upon himself to explain.

(Also, to be frank, the first half of the book seems to be made up mainly of genuinely rude, disgusting, or dangerous behaviours common among Koreans, while the second half, supposedly balancing this, is full of very tame gestures and comments about how Americans are “impatient” with people who butt into line or show up ridiculously late for appointments, set what are actually pretty healthy boundaries, some bizarre stereotypes that baffle me, and even a couple of ridiculous things–like “Speaking English too quickly, as if Koreans don’t speak Korean too quickly for most newbie foreigners to even try to follow. The best is when the author uses a point that should be in the first half of the book–how Westerners get annoyed at how so many Koreans simply can’t be bothered to queue for buses or ticket counters–as an “ugly American behavior.” Uh, yeah, no.)

Still, though the book is really rather crappy, it’s interesting because of the ways in which the author reveals his failure to grasp things: those weird little disconnects where he almost understands, or does understand on a superficial level, but doesn’t seem to realize there’s a bigger picture there to be explored.

I’m actually thinking I’d like to do a series of posts on the misperceptions in the book, as they seem to reflect a lot of misperceptions I’ve encountered over the years in Korea, and because they’re interesting. Consider it an exercise in meditating on junk. In particular, I find page 64 interesting:


What’s actually interesting about it is Min’s explanation:

In general, gender-mixed groups are the norm in the U.S. In Korea, there is much more gender-grouping, with certain activities reserved for either only men or only women. This seems rather strange to Americans.

Min’s grasp explanation appears rather facile, because it is rather facile. Ask an American why this seems rather strange, and you’ll probably get something like, “Well, they seem like a bunch of third-graders split up like that.” It doesn’t just seem strange to us: it often seems infantile.

In my classes, I made a point of teasing the young men who were always scrupulous to avoid pairing up with female classmates when given the choice to pick their own partners. I’d always comment, “You know, when I was a student, if I was told to pick a partner, I wouldn’t be looking at the other guys in the class. I’d be looking at all the attractive women and figuring out which one I wanted to be partners with.” The class would laugh, and the women would sometimes pick male partners, but the reverse was rarely the case except with a minority of guys.

And it never failed that, eventually, the guys who always avoided contact with women would complain that they had no girlfriend, couldn’t meet women, and so on. I’d always say, “Next time I say, ‘Find a partner,’ remember you complained about this!”

Of course, it’s a product of cultural training.We North Americans see it as childish in part because we were children when we had this socialized out of us. We were encouraged or even pushed, in our youth, to go into mixed groups. We were trained to do so, through multiple exposures, and were pushed to be more comfortable with it. Indeed, we were pushed to the point where sitting in a corner with a bunch of guys acquired a kind of negative connotation. That didn’t happen in third grade, of course: it happened in middle school, at approximately the average onset of puberty… so that our entry into adult life, into self-awareness (however awkward or convoluted) of our sexuality was accompanied by a pressure to be heterosocial: to spend time with friends of the same sex and friends of the opposite sex. At the same time. In the same place.

I can’t say Koreans don’t learn to spend time with the opposite sex: they do, of course, and in some circles quite comfortably. (The SF fans I know are pretty integrated as a group, for example.) But if you spend some time listening to the interactions between strangers around you, you’ll notice some extreme awkwardness. Like, for example, that time in the elevator I’ve mentioned here before. (Edit: The link was missing, but I’m talking about an episode I described here.)

In fact, Mrs. Jiwaku has one group of friends who are very close to her, but whom I almost never see… because they get very awkward around me. I thought it was a foreigner thing (lots of Koreans do get weird around non-Koreans) but when I commented about it, Mrs. Jiwaku corrected me: no, it’s just around men in general: the group turns awkward whenever any of the group’s boyfriends are around, even though most of them are dating Korean guys.

But when I say Min is missing the point, it’s because I see a deeper level to this. His words are just as suggestive as they are obfuscatory:

In Korea, there is much more gender-grouping, with certain activities reserved for either only men or only women.

Nudge nudge, wink wink.

An exercise for the reader… sort the following list into activities reserved only for women, versus only for men:

  • Being promoted to an important, powerful position within your company.
  • Being fired (or expected to quit) once you get married or announce that your family is going to have a new member soon.
  • Going out boozing (or, maybe even whoring) with the boss until the wee hours, because it’ll get you promoted.
  • Doing the dishes after having a huge family gathering… after having done all the cooking for days beforehand.
  • Wasting an hour a day, minimum, on makeup.
  • Smoking wherever the hell you want.
  • Having people who have the same genitals as you dominate the government.
  • Fighting off the drunken advances of your boss.
  • Having a cigarette slapped out of your mouth anytime an older male in the vicinity feels like doing it.

The astute reader will grasp that I am trying to make a point, but before I make it explicit, I’ll critique one aspect of the Western understanding of this “gender-grouping.” While Min’s perspective is largely ahistorical throughout the book, North Americans can also be pretty ahistorical when they like.

Remember above how I wrote:

We North Americans see it as childish in part because we were children when we had this socialized out of us.

Here, I’m speaking in the personal sense: we, as individuals, has this gender-exclusionary trait socialized out of us as teens… or, at least, it wasn’t socially prolonged or entrenched by our environments.

But in the historical sense, there’s a cultural change that lurks in the background. If you read a little bit about what the Victorians were like, you’ll find a similarly awkward, gender-exclusive-tending social life. The hot word in academia is “homosociality.” That’s not the same as homosexuality, mind: it’s the social tendency to spend most of one’s time with the same sex. For people of a certain (elevated) social class, the home was the woman’s place, and the outside of home the man’s. Women spent time at home with other women, while men were so eager to spend time with male friends that they even hung out at men’s clubs where they could stay the night. Men still had sex with women–perhaps not their wives, for they didn’t wish to burden them thus–but their social world was structured to be extremely male in focus and in terms of time spent.

(Which brings to mind, at the moment, Sons of Anarchy as a very Victorian sort of social world, in some ways, versus Community as, well, the opposite of that in other ways.)

To be clear, yes, I’m comparing the clubhouse in Sons of Anarchy to a Mens’ Club in Victorian London. This bike gang is seriously homosocial a lot of the time.
(And yeah, that means this is modernity. Which ain’t so bad.)

This is not the first time I’ve seen connections between Victorian culture and Korea today. Though the world of Tolstoy’s Russia is not Victorian England, Mrs. Jiwaku once made the very astute observation that in terms of attitudes toward marriage, love, and society, the worlds of Austen, Tolstoy, and Seoul today share much more in common with one another than any of them do with the contemporary Western world.

A lot of questions bubble up from this, which I’m not sure I (or anyone) can answer at the moment, though I can’t help but see the strands of connections stretching out between the points:

  • To what degree is the growth of heterosociality in the West a direct result of the growth of feminism, and a product of consciously-designed educational policies? (At least somewhat, I’d guess, but probably not completely.)
  • Can a society become more egalitarian without making the transition from homosociality-tending to heterosociality as the dominant mode? (I doubt it.)
  • Is the transition from dominant-homosociality to dominant-heterosociality simply an inevitable step within the process of modernization, whether or not that modernization is conflated with Westernization? (I suspect so.)

There is one question I do feel we can answer, though:

  • Does the Western historical context matter when we analyze and interpret these kinds of “cultural differences”?

I would argue that the answer to that question is yes, unarguably so.

This is not to act as an apologist for things that Korean society collectively should address: its gender inequality is a serious problem, which affects millions of women. It costs Korea in wasted talent, in heartache, in general unhappiness and misery. Women are held down here, as they were long held down everywhere, and that is a problem. To understand how that compares to the West a century ago or more is not to ignore the problem, or defend against calling it one.

Nor is it some kind of defense based on the West’s historical imperfections… I hate that kind of argument more than almost any other. A student of mine once complained that Westerners are too critical of economic imperialism today, when, less than a century ago, they themselves were involved in outright colonialism. The implication, sometimes directly stated, is that “You had your chance to exploit poor brown people till you got rich; now it’s our turn.” It’s understandable on one level, until you point out that maybe Korean society ought to learn from our historical mistake, rather than repeating it.

To recognize historical parallels is not to justify or excuse. It is simply to observe, because if you want to understand what you’re looking at, the place to start is not in justification (as Mr. Min seems to be doing) or in condemnation (the tack that most expats seem to prefer): rather, it is in holding up the phenmenon you’re looking at, trying to shine the light through it and see to the other side. It’s a bit like trying to understand how little respect there is for public order: once you rethink things, and realize that urban spaces in Korea have only been relatively modern for about a century… but most Koreans haven’t really been living in those modern urban spaces until very much more recently.

There are other interesting questions that bubble up from this kind of analysis, as well, of the kind that interest people like me–those who wonder about the future. Of course, one wishes to avoid any kind of telelogical sense of cultural development: cultures can and have developed, and will continue to develop, in all kinds of divergent ways. (In other words, Asimov’s Hari Seldon–the psychohistorian who predicted the future history played out in the Foundation series of novels at great length–is a fanciful and impossible figure: history doesn’t work that way, nor does cultural development and change.)

But just as environment and the nature of DNA limits just how far natural selection can push evolutionary adaptation, one wonders whether, within the infrastructure of  modernity–the range of relationships and interactions that are built into it, and the limits on what precisely can be ported successfully into it–there are sorts of implicit algorithms for further development forward or backward along the track of modernity.

One could always argue that speaking of modernity in the singular is wrong, because there exist multiple modernities; one could argue that modernization needn’t be the same as modernization. And those things may well be true in the abstract, but from my travels, from my studies, that’s not how it seems to look on the ground. It doesn’t look that way when I look at the world the West was before it became modern, nor do the other societies worldwide that are embracing modernity seem to be expending much effort in building their own, unique, non-Western-influenced forms of modernity.

Now, I’m about to suggest something interesting. That means I need to be careful: interesting points are often easy to misinterpret.

If you haven’t studied computer science, then you will understandably think that the word “destructive” has only the fundamentally negative connotation we find in standard English… and you will not understand the term “destructive operation.”

So allow me to explain what a destructive operation is. In computer science, this refers to how one does a procedure involving computation: how one juggles data from one variable to another, how one combines data, and so on. But I’ll explain it with a metaphor. Let’s say you’re trying to figure out how much sugar is in your coffee. You get a scientific instrument that can measure how much sugar is in a liquid, and you measure it, and… bingo. You get a reading. Your scientific instrument is digital, and it displays the reading.

Now, let’s say you decide to add some more sugar. You can do one of two things. You can add it to a second, identical sample of coffee, thereby maintaining your sample. Or you can simply add it to your first and only sample of coffee. But if you add the sugar, then you’ve permanently changed the coffee. You can’t go back to the earlier level of sugar, at least not without going back to the start.

That’s a “destructive operation”: you haven’t destroyed your coffee–well, not necessarily, unless you added a TON of sugar to it–but you have destroyed its former state, in the process of creating the new state. That’s inevitable with coffee, but with data, you can always copy your data to a new variable, mess about with it, and still have the original data tucked away in the original variable. (A non-destructive operation.)

Well, the thing I want to say about cultural change is that it seems to be a “destructive operation.” This is true when it’s a positive change (women enjoying greater equality) and it’s true when it’s a negative one (like increasing rates of depression among lonely, isolated city dwellers).

My point is this: the external trappings of modernity are Western, yes: there is a degree to which modernization was, that first time through, a non-destructive operation. (And in other places, superficialities are surviving other modernizations.) But that non-destructivity was only skin-deep: beneath the surface, premodern Western culture is in some ways about as alien to us as Korean culture is… or, indeed, since Korea is in the throes of its own modernization, I’d say pre-modern Western culture is even more alien than Korea could ever manage to be today. In a sense, Western civilization is gone, and in its place is a Modern civilization; one among several, with more on the way.

Not only that, but one of the reasons I have such a strong suspicion about the pseudo-algorithmic nature of modernization is the pseudo-algorithmic nature of premodernity. Go and read your Jared Diamond and you’ll be reminded that, yes, not all cultures followed the same path… but that basically everyone who could, everyone who had access to the bronze age, the iron age, and so on, did follow. We talk a lot about the differences between medieval Europe and medieval Asia, but those differences are, in some ways, not so penetratingly deep.

When you’re searching the sky for a glimpse of Andromeda, astronomers will tell you to look at it with your peripheral vision, since that part of your retina is more sensitive–the middle is kind of burnt out a little more from constant use. Well, I’d say that if we want to understand humans well, we need to look at them with a little more of that peripheral vision: things that seem important and deeply distinct get blurrier, but a certain clarity suddenly pops: Confucian justifications for monarchy and patriarchy aren’t really so different from the European “Great Chain of Being”: they’re both justifications for a more instinctual approach of human social organization, privileging powerful males (or the descendants of powerful males). Same goes for religious institutions, caste systems, systems for establishing territorial rule, and so on.

I’m not wholly convinced that there is a single algorithm within modernity-in-itself, or the systems that preceded modernity, but once you throw in human beings, the likelihood increases. Probably other intelligent species in a different environment, with different evolutionary and psychological histories, would do things differently, even radically differently. But we’re human, and that means a lot more than we usually like to admit. We have specific behavioural tendencies, and ranges of tolerance for systems that don’t fit with our wiring. Just as most religions involve invisible, “spiritual” beings of some kind, and a means of power over one’s own fate contingent on some kind of religious duty or observance, I would tend to think there are fundamentally unchanging systems in the human mind that relate to our political lives, our social lives: that culture itself is delimited in the forms it can take by our neurological wiring.

Which makes modernity a kind of story: a story that explains its own existence within the context of that wiring. Modernity, in a context like that, becomes both the problem and the solution–but that suggests that the algorithm itself arises from the interaction between the externals of modernity (the infrastructure, social systems, etc) and the environment (human brains). And if that’s the case, and we’re the environment, then a quick peek at gardens in Korea shows they grow a lot of the same things that grow in European gardens. A certain homogeneity of development patterns in the past suggests there may well be a continued homogeneity in the future as well… and if so, I’m curious to see what they would be.

Here, things become political, because (among other things) politics is the modern world’s repackaging of witchcraft and magic–that is, the way we assert power over the world and over the future through figureheads talking mumbo-jumbo. The conservative-capitalists talk about continued growth of economies; the socialist-liberals talk about better lives on the ground; the technolibertarians talk about the Singularity (as a good thing); and others paint even more bizarre pictures.

But if we step away from our political convictions, and ask ourselves how modernity will move forward, while humans (on a deep level) continue to stand where they have since before our memories began… now that’s an interesting question.

And that ends my first meditation on junk. We’ll see if I ever get around to another!

14 thoughts on “Meditations on Junk, #1: Ugly Koreans/Ugly Americans

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  2. Thanks! We’ll see whether the junk book survives the culling process and makes it into one of the boxes I’ll be bringing along when I leave Korea, but I kind of feel motivated to bring it, if only to write a few more meditations like this one…

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  4. First of all: I love reading about SF culture in Korea. This is a side of Korea most expat blogs never even scrape the surface of. And from a Canadian, no less! But I have to take issue with your criticism of this book.

    I actually own this book! I found it in Kyobo back when I first moved to Korea, and it was indispensable in negotiating the dos and don’ts of basic social interactions.

    I found it telling that you described the ‘Ugly Korean’ side of the book as containing a large number of extremely inappropriate behaviours, and the ‘Ugly American’ side as stretching itself over a few minor faux pas, when in fact the book was very well balanced (On the Ugly American side: doing the ‘come here’ gesture with your index finger, jogging without a shirt on, shaking hands too firmly, etc.). Granted, some of the entries seem more like gentle prods for foreigners to no be opinionated jerks (i.e. ‘don’t complain that Seoul is dirty’ **people are actually that fucking rude to bitch to their korean friends about this? WTF?**), and a few of the entries towards the end just feel like filler, but as an introductory reference to manners in Korea, this book is quite useful.

    Notwithstanding your analysis of the particular page you rest the bulk of your argument on here, I would hope that you give the book a better read-through, rather than brashly throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


    1. Steven,

      Glad you like my discussions of SF in Korea. It’s a lovely scene full (almost completely) of wonderful people. I can’t recall whether I’ve posted about the Seoul SF&F library, but I recommend dropping by there if you’re in the city.

      I’m curious as to how long you’ve been in Korea now.

      You may think it’s rude for Westerners to complain about the filthiness of Seoul, but does it change your opinion when I point out that most of the Koreans I hang out with also consider Seoul a filthy, rude, and somewhat nasty place? Because they do. They much prefer places like Jeonju, Jeju, or Gangwon. In fact, on my honeymoon in Jeju, my (Korean) wife several times commented on how Jeju City’s streets were so amazingly clean, so much nicer than Seoul, because people in Jeju City actually like their city and want it to look nice.

      In that context, if foreign people are complaining about the filth, stink, rudeness, and chaos of Seoul, what’s the problem? They’re just observing what plenty of Koreans find annoying too… and which some of them even dare to complain about to one another. You should hear my wife comment on the behaviour and the public disorder she experiences pretty much ever trip in to Seoul. (And since we live close by, and she has lots of occasions to visit the city, I assure you, it’s not just bad luck that puts this crap in her path.)

      As for your critique of my argument specifically: I knew someone would offer the criticism you are making, and have this to say:

      1. This post probably shouldn’t be read as a discussion of the whole book. However, it is the remnant of a much longer post in which I explained this very issue–how unbalanced the book is. No insult intended, seriously, but I suggest you give it another read-through after a decade or so in Korea: things may look different then… they do to me. (And yes, I’ll admit there’s a certain frustration to that belief… an unceasing frustration not uncommon among people I know who’ve been here a decade.)

      2. Even given the examples you mention, I don’t see the book as balanced. First of all, I’ve almost never seen Americans jogging without a shirt in America (during my travels there) let alone in Korea… but even if they did, how is taking one’s shirt off worse than hiking it up to expose the belly, as many older Korean men do in hot weather? What, the difference is the visibility of nipples and armpits?

      The come-here gesture: I’ve never seen a Korean who actually didn’t realize that Westerners simply didn’t know it was rude here. I’ve been around lots of newbies over the years, and every time one of them did that, the Korean they did it to either explained that in Korea it’s not done, or just skipped that and asked them what they wanted. (And to be honest most expats I’ve known in Korea learned not to do that within a month or two.)

      And finally, as for shaking hands “too firmly”? Sorry, but Koreans adapted that gesture from Western culture. If they prefer to gently grasp one anothers’ hands for three minutes when they first meet, fine, but telling Westerners that they’re doing handshakes wrong is a bit like a dumb Westerner making kimchi with ketchup and telling Koreans that it tastes way better that way, and Koreans to kimchi wrong. (Or, for a closer example, a Westerner going to a Buddhist temple and then complaining that when Koreans genuflect to the Buddha, they do it wrong because he can’t scrunch down to the ground as much as they can.*) The handshake is our cultural tradition; of course, I don’t really care how Koreans shake hands when they shake hands with one another. The local accepted norm is fine. But however disorienting it is for them to encounter a proper handshake for the first time, it’s utterly nonsensical for a Korean to tell a Westerner that we’re doing handshakes wrong.

      (*The example being from my own experience. I didn’t want to bow before a Buddha statue but it seemed to mean a lot to a friend so I tried it once. Immediately a lady monk told me I was doing it wrong, and tried to push my butt lower to the ground. She learned that, no, not everyone is that flexible. But I didn’t turn around and tell her that Koreans bow to the Buddha wrong, because that would have been ridiculous.)

      And like I said above, a lot of the “norms” that the book presents are things that don’t just puzzle or aggravate Westerners: so many of those also bother the Koreans I hang out with. Maybe they’re not the average Korean–well, if they hang out with people like my wife and I, it’s unlikely–but that doesn’t make them not-Korean. The book does occasionally try to show that Koreans sometimes dislike certain “Korean” behaviours–the spitting page is an example–but it ignores just how often, in how many of those behaviours discussed, there’s a range of attitudes about it.

      That said, I think I will probably bring the book with me: it seems like good post-fodder, and maybe will be useful as I try process what it means to have lived in Korea eleven years, and what it means to have left. As things begin to annoy us wherever it is we end up, it’ll be handy for me to look back into this book and be reminded of things that annoyed us more back in Bucheon. (And I’ll add that Bucheon seems singularly brutish. Well, everywhere on the subway/train Line 1 seems to be, really. We were on another train line the other day and marveled at how quiet, clean, and unconfrontational people were. My wife says it boils down to this difference: in Korea, you can lump together in behavioral terms the middle and lower class; in the West, middle class tends to aspire much more to upper-class behaviours. One can trace the development of etiquette manuals for middle class people to at least the time of Erasmus of Rotterdam in Europe, whereas in Korea I have the impression they’re a much more recent development, which would explain that general difference.

      Anyway, like you, I felt that a lot of the entries toward the end read indeed suspiciously like filler. I can imagine for a total newbie it might seem useful at first: there are certainly some things in the Korean side that, at least taken with a grain of salt, could help someone learn the dos and don’ts, and know what to expect. It’s also full of all kinds of weird misinformation, though, and especially all kinds of simplistic explanation. That’s probably in part the nature of the book: it doesn’t advertise itself as a thorough, deep analysis of intercultural misunderstandings and clashes… but it does advertise itself to reflect an understanding that I see as only skin deep in many places.

    2. Oh, one more thing:

      A few weeks ago, I experienced for the first time a Korean who was angry that I’d crossed my legs on the subway. Mind you, the train was nearly empty, and he was probably just miffed that I and a Western friend were talking to one another in English, but he shouted at me, declaring that I ought to obey Korean culture.

      A few seats to his left, a couple of Korean guys in their twenties were sitting, ignoring his shit. One of them had his legs crossed.

      Which is to say two things:

      1. Some of the stuff in that book is either so dated that much of Korean society has moved on. This was the first time in more than eleven years in Korea that someone actually said something about my crossing my legs, and there were others in the vicinity doing the same things.

      2. There is always some asshole who is eager to tell you you’re breaking the rules and doing everything all wrong. Some guy once told me I was mixing my be bim bap wrong, and took over for me. And… it looked basically the same when he was done with it.

      I’ve had people critique my chopstick etiquette (even as most note I do it like everyone else); I’ve had people complain that my Korean isn’t good enough, or I don’t speak it enough. I’ve had people complain that I’m not dressed formally enough to take the train, while kids in trainers lounge nearby. You name it, I’ve had a Korean criticize me for it. One guy even criticized me for being a pervert because I was talking to a female bartender. (She taught me the word for shrimp chips, at which point he decided I was a pervert.)

      Such, ahem, people won’t tell Koreans off even when they’re doing the same thing… but they love to “instruct” foreigners on their “violations” of Korean culture… the truth is, a lot of the time this is purely fantastical, a chance for a few deranged pricks to work out their postcolonial rage on “Americans”–which they stupidly assume all white people are, and which they stupidly conflate with one particular idea of what it means to be American.

      This in fact is part of a larger social dynamic in which the normal rules of social behaviour don’t seem to apply when you’re talking to a non-Korean. A lot of the things expats seem to believe is normal in Korean culture simply isn’t. I mean, Koreans don’t (normally) ask Korean strangers how much money they earn at work, or rifle through Korean strangers’ grocery carts at the first opportunity, or stare at Korean strangers on the subway: each of these things would be the height of rude behaviour if done to a fellow Korean… but when dealing with a non-Korean, all those rules of etiquette are somehow suspended for a lot of people.

      One way you can test this insight is to tell any adult Koreans you know well, and who are relatively fluent in Anglophone cultural norms, about the kinds of things that happen to you on a regular basis. They will be wide-eyed, shocked, and disbelieving, because that shit isn’t supposed to happen on a regular basis and because, given their exposure to foreigners, they would never imagine behaving that way because they see us as people. Those who don’t, basically can’t imagine the rules of basic Korean etiquette applying to us.

      And I’ve found the easiest way for someone who doesn’t believe you to suddenly move past the doubt to realization is to catch a Line 1 subway train with them. I’ve happened to run into university students of mine at the subway station and without fail, every one of them has had an eye-opening experience about this very dynamic. (Staring, nasty comments, you name it.)

      Of course, as I pointed out earlier today, I live in Bucheon, which is basically a slum, and the subway line I ride most is #1, which is basically the worst in the city. (Not only running through slums, but also passing many of the biggest red-light districts.) Whenever I end up on other subway lines, I’m a bit awed by how much more civilized the behaviour is on the trains. But Line #1 is horrid.

  5. Well, for starters, you win for mileage covered in Korea. I’m more of a frequent visitor, with no more than a couple years out of the last five. I’ve lived in Korea for travel, teaching (yep, did the gap year thing), and on business for Canadian companies, but rarely for more than six months at a time, and usually less than one. So I am admittedly naive. I’ve experienced many of the same situations you describe, but I haven’t lived in Korea long enough for it to really get at me.

    I approach Korea with the attitude of a guest in someone’s house (learning very early one that as a foreigner you will only ever be a ‘guest’ in Korea), and I saw this book as being a reminder to take your shoes off when you come in the door. As a foreigner, you will always be held to a double standard … a resident of a home can comfortably complain of the smell and the dust, but it would be the height of rudeness for a houseguest to do so. The book helped me understand why some people seemed mildly shocked when I did certain things (like gesture with my index finger), but the only folks who were really bothered when I messed up some of these ‘rules’ were the old trolls and the angry xenophobes — but every country’s got those.

    As for the many many exceptions to the rules listed in the book, I think it is important to keep in mind the generation of the author. Having lived in Korea for ten years, I’m sure you can tell more than I can how quickly things have changed there. His understanding of etiquette and his perception of foreigners’ behavior and attitudes is far different than the college students you teach.

    Regarding running without a shirt: I hail from Vancouver these days, so its actually hard to find someone here who actually jogs WITH their shirt on. And there were times when I first arrived in Seoul when I was tempted to rip my shirt off and go for a run (that desire was quickly extinguished when I first experienced the smog that blows in mid-spring).

    For most of my residency I lived outside of Seoul, and much of that was in the Jeju countryside. So I can’t speak to your experience in Bucheon because, well, Jeju is freaking fantastic. It’s like it’s not even the same country. It smells great. And the people are awesome. They’re like the Newfies of Korea.

    As for handshakes, the only people who would be disturbed by an overly-firm handshake would be your elders, so it’s a good thing to know if you want to make a good first impression. But, like you say the content of many of these tips is only as useful insofar as it can be reference for a newbie.

    1. Steven,

      Thanks for your reply. I should say, it’s not like there’s a contest about who’s lived here longest; it’s just that living here a long time, one begins to see things that are not apparent in the first year or two (or more), or after short stints here. That’s not to say everyone who lives here a long time sees things as I do–I have friends who’ve been here longer and are less embittered than I, and I’ve met people who’ve been here longer and are still very clueless–but experience often does lead to a better understanding… and with Korea, I find that a better understanding tends often to lead to people being more critical of this society’s flaws, not less… and it also leads to diminished patience when someone who has less experience speaks authoritatively on the subject.

      (For the record, what rubbed me the wrong was was being told to read the book again when I’ve read it twice and both times it was clear to me the book was shallow and wrongheaded in a lot of ways.)

      As for approaching Korea as a guest: where I come from, if I told an Asian immigrant that when he or she complained–or even had that unspoken expectation–I’d be an asshole. I don’t remember ever feeling that defensive of Canada, in fact… I do remember as a university undergrad (and high schooler) having Taiwanese, Japanese, and Ethiopian immigrant/foreign student friends and when they criticized something about Canada, I listened, tried to understand, and commiserated. (Just as, when one of my friends in Arizona complains of things that piss him off there, I try to understand because his complaints are valid, after all.) To hell with thinking of myself as a guest: at this point, I’ve lived here long enough to be entitled to permanent resident status, to vote in civic elections… I think I’ve earned the right to criticize problems and to be pissed off when people expect me to STFU because my skin is white.

      (Besides, I think the “houseguest” relationship is a very poor analogy for living and working in another country. I don’t think Koreans ought to feel like they should play the host for us expats to begin with… and many Koreans certainly don’t anyway. The houseguest/host relationship is a two-way street, after all… and while some Koreans do feel eager to act in a host-like manner, plenty more are indifferent or actively hostile. My experience of that hostility may be more pronounced because of where I live, but I am just as often treated as an “unwelcome intruder” as I am a “guest”. My wife and I are often greeted with rudeness, hostility, judgmental stares, and the like; and the natural human reaction is not to respond by playing the good, dutiful houseguest.)

      As for your comment about negative reactions being limited to old trolls and angry xenophobes… sadly, if you develop your Korean language abilities or live with a native Korean speaker, the blinders come off and you learn just how widespread the xenophobic hate is. For example, My wife was talking today about how there’s a popular TV show (Infinite Challenge is a rough stab at the title) where a guy keeps getting told he looks Chinese, and he responds by doing the Korean equivalent of “ching-chang-chong”; this show is incredibly popular here and now it’s a common joke, when someone says, “You kinda don’t look Korean,” to respond with, “What do I look like, Chinese? Ching chang chong!” Oh, and of course, the entertainer being singled out as looking Chinese is (obviously) fat and ugly. As I’ve blogged about before, my wife’s friends have known me for years, and yet they still don’t get why she might be offended by their bitch-and-gab sessions about how expats in Korea were losers in their homeland, are perverts hunting for loose Korean girls in night clubs, and how foreigners are all dangerous. They kept talking that shit even when she pointed out that, statistically, the safest place in Korea to be is among expats, that plenty of Korean guys are “losers” too by their crazy standards, that plenty of Korean men in night clubs are hunting for casual sex partners, and that women who date foreign men are not all “loose girls.” But it took her full-on saying to them one day, “Look, let’s NEVER talk about foreigners again, okay? You make me mad and you hurt me every time you do it.”

      As for the many many exceptions to the rules listed in the book, I think it is important to keep in mind the generation of the author. Having lived in Korea for ten years, I’m sure you can tell more than I can how quickly things have changed there. His understanding of etiquette and his perception of foreigners’ behavior and attitudes is far different than the college students you teach.

      Make that taught: as everyone who knows me well (and who knows my wife well) can attest, we should have left Bucheon a while ago.

      I’ll admit that things have changed, and that some things have even changed for the better around here, but I’ll be frank: from all I’ve seen, generalized anti-foreigner xenophobia seems to have risen, not declined, in the last decade or so. A decade ago, it used to explode in little outbursts, and then subside as the media got everyone riled up about something else for a while. But in recent years, it’s become more of a low-level constant, especially in Seoul. I get the sense anti-foreigner xenophobia is more deeply embedded in the zeitgeist now than it was a decade ago, and probably is tied to the fact that an increasing proportion of the national population is foreign, along with the continued failure to recover (on the personal level, in terms of many families) from the Asian financial crisis of ’97. (The national economy has recovered, but that hasn’t trickled down, and in fact the gap between have-recovered and have-not-recovered is widening.) Certainly the background radiation of anti-American (and especially anti-foreign-English teacher) sentiment has risen, in the wake of one prominent hate group that was very active and got a lot of media play. Anti-Chinese sentiment has also exploded in the last year, to the point where not long ago I noticed people constantly speculating about any violent crime that it had to be Chinese immigrants who’d perpetrated it (even though Koreans statistically are more prone than any other group in Korea to commit crimes, violent or otherwise; last I checked, murder was the only exception).

      The only form of xenophobia I’ve actually seen noticeably decline is anti-Japanese sentiment, really, but even enjoys normative status here.

      And, in fact, when I discussed this book with a friend who’s been in Korea twice as long as I have–a discussion prompted by your and my discussion in this very comments thread–she told me some very interesting stories about this author, and his long-ago prominence in Korea. I’ll save that for my next post dealing with some other page of this book, but I am even less inclined to credit him with knowing anything about anything (except cashing in on the TEFL industry) after what I heard.

      As for jogging: ha, maybe it’s just the conservative culture of Saskatchewan, but I am pretty sure I never saw anyone go for a run in Saskatoon shirtless. Local cultures differ, I guess.

      In Korea, too: yes, having recently been to Jeju, I agree: the place is clean, friendly, smells wonderful, and feels like a wholly different country… one filled with wonderful food, to boot. While I value having things like world-class performance venues for the arts, and access to the SF scene, and so on, I can’t help but feel that the experience of Jeju is what the experience of Seoul ought to aspire to… except people in Seoul simply fail to get that Seoul could be like this, if only people collectively tried.

      Jeonju is for me a kind of middle-ground: amazing food, nice people, but still some of the xenophobia and rudeness, and some of the disorder and filth in places. But Jeonju still has a special place in my heart.

  6. Hello Mr. Sellar,

    Your post was well written and I can see how some people might share your views regarding the content. However, as someone who has reviewed the book and taken part in revisions for various editions, I would like to make a couple of points:

    1. The book was not written as an anthropological study of Korean and (or versus) American (or Western) culture. Rather it was based on interesting observations by the author and other contributors about misunderstandings that arise when people from these cultures meet and interact. The author saw the need (and the value to readers) for a short, accessible volume to explain why we act the way we do.

    2. The purpose of the book is simply to help people who have not had the time (or inclination) to read about the place they are traveling to better understand the local population, and perhaps avoid some unfortunate misunderstandings. And further to encourage people to think twice about interpreting actions of others only through the lens of their own culture.

    Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans is not perfect to the extent that people from any given culture do not all behave the same or share the same views. But it is an honest attempt to help people from different cultures understand each other better and provide its readers with one or two “A-ha” moments where they think to themselves “So that’s why they acted like that!”.

    By the way, the latest edition has just been published. Some of the outdated entries have been replaced and others refreshed. The author would be happy to send you a copy and would welcome your feedback, though constructive criticism aimed at improving the content would be welcomed most.


    1. Hi Mr. Dusthimer,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s rare to hear back from someone whose work you have critiqued online, and especially in such a measured tone. (I myself avoid responding to critics of my own publications as a rule, actually, for that reason.)

      Anyway, your comments are sensible, and your points are understood, and frankly it’s a fair point: as one of the commenters on that very post notes, some people (him included) do seem to find the book helpful for short visits and so on. In general, when I’m actually reviewing a book, I tend to try to take the author’s apparent intention into account: there’s nothing worse than a book review that’s basically predicated on, “I wish the author had wanted to write some other kind of book than the one s/he did write…” after all: at some point, one ought to simply say, “This book was not for me.” Obviously the post above wasn’t intended a review of the book, though: I did discuss the text–and what I see as the deficits of the older edition I saw–but overall I pretty much used a single page of the book as a springboard into my own reflections on how we talk about cultural difference.

      Still, it was perhaps unkind of me to characterize the book “junk.” Given the intent and restrictions you mention, as well as all kinds of restrictions you don’t mention, but which we both realize are surely a part of the self-presentation of Korea to the world in English-language publications here–as well as the apparent limitations of the audience, who want something simple and cut-and-dried–perhaps this book performs its intended purpose well.

      Those restrictions trouble me, though, because they represent to me a just-so story about the status quo, a status quo that clearly has beneficiaries (among whom, as an older male Korean, it seems obvious the author is clearly one). The sanitization and exclusion that’s necessary to say, “Well, men and women socialize in gender-exclusive groups, 그냥!” requires so much suspension of critical awareness it alarms me. One could — and I think most feminists, for example, would — read such a “just-so story” as implicitly defending the kind of sexism that for centuries in both Korean and Western culture was coextensive with this sort of behaviour.

      I mean, let’s be frank: we’ve both attended this party ourselves, right? Who prepared the food, and who will do all the cleaning afterwards? Whose friends were invited, and whose friends excluded? Which group has people who are systematically excluded from promotions, pay raises, and even the workplace after marriage or childbirth? Which group is fairly regularly subjected to critical commentary about their looks, and which group was pretty much required to cake on cosmetics as a matter of “politeness”?

      To me, the image isn’t just a “그냥, 이렇게 한다” kind of image: it’s a snapshot of how prevalent misogyny deforms social relations in a culture… and of course, how it deformed them in your and my cultures as well, if we only have the historical memory to recognize it.

      (That’s to say nothing of how out-of-date this idea is: I’ve attended a number of parties (house parties, events in public, and work events) with Koreans in their 30s and 40s where gender-mixing is the absolute norm, and where any attempt to gender group would have been seen as bizarre. But those, of course, were with intellectuals and progressives: humanities majors, people involved in the speculative fiction subculture, artists and filmmakers, and so on.)

      So I am distrustful of the idea that a quick-capsule explanation of “culture” can be politically neutral: on some level, actually, I see this as an example of the kind of bulwarking that sexism enjoys when it is manages to be presented as “culture” (eternal, inherently valid, deserving preservation) rather than as a social ill (cirumstantial, questionable, amenable to change). And, well, to be frank once more, for the businessmen who make up the apparent target audience of this book, that’s probably hunky dory. Maybe not so for the rest of us, though…

      In other words, my real problem with the book (at least in the edition I read) is that from any remotely progressive position–not just radical, but even moderately progressive or merely “liberal”–a lot of it reads as a reactionary defense of the older generation’s assumptions and behaviours, in which “culture” is used as a shield against critical engagement. That’s maybe not the intention, but I think it’s worth questioning the claim that it’s simply the desire to “keep it simple and accessible” that is at the root of the way things are presented.

      I mean to say that usually, easy explanations help us to avoid the complex subterranean motivations, and, well, I note from our earlier correspondence that the author was male, as were all the consultants you CCed in your email. It’s actually a bit suggestive of the very scene in the image: where are the western and Korean women whose opinions on the explanation and the phenomenon might offer another angle or insight? When I showed it to her a moment ago, my wife had very interesting things to say about the example page posted above: things about Korean history, about why women might choose to segregate themselves from men in such a setting, and so on. (Basically, after cooking all day, and when you’re bracing yourself to clean up after a bunch of man-children who won’t even wash a single dish, the least you can do is socialize with other women so you don’t have to hear their sexist blather all through the party: not a wholly surprising reaction from a woman in her 30s, but, note: she’s Korean. She’s as Korean as Choi. And yet, somehow, she seems to live in a very different Korea than the one he presents as universal.)

      In that, it definitely fails in terms of getting people not to judge other cultures through the lens of their own: it just privileges a lens that white Americans might not have considered. That may be of some limited value, but we cannot simply call that privileged lens a “Korean lens”: it is specifically an “older male Korean lens” that is privileged by birth-sex, age, and presumably status and social position as well.

      Now, the book–the edition I read–is far from alone in this: it’s a problem that permeated Korean media and publishing generally for a long time, though that’s finally changing: younger writers and filmmakers are taking up the fight, and cable channels are increasingly questioning the deformed picture that Korean elites present to Koreans themselves. It’s always a balancing act when you’re working with Korean publishers, who after all are faced with a public where anything perceived as public-global-stage criticism of Korea is seen as anathema. However, in terms of Korea presenting itself to the world, I think that will probably take longer.

      In any case, I fervently believe it is possible to write an accessible text that avoids these pitfalls: to say, “But it needs to be non-academic and accessible!” isn’t an excuse for just presenting the kinds of just-so stories that exclude and minimize actual struggle, and vanish the complexity of social changes going on in Korea today. I’m too busy at the moment to attempt such a book — for now — but anyway I’m not sure my own responses and criticisms are the ones the book needs. For not much more page space, and not much more ink–and only at the cost of Choi’s explanations losing their authoritative tone–the book could present a much more compelling, interesting, and accurate picture of social change and flux.

      That would require a more complex (and more representative) cross-section of both Korean and “American” societies. I’m curious what a Korean feminist, or a gay Korean man, or a Korean political progressive in her 30s, or a mixed-race Korean college student, or a Korean-American living in Korea, would say about these things. After all, this is a book about Korean society: ought an elder male to be the sole spokesperson? Likewise, an American progressive, or a working class African-American woman living in Korea, or a North American lesbian working here. Such people are not a rarity: I can think of individuals I know for most of these demographics. (Indeed, the range of experiences represented in Richard Harris’ Faces of Korea seems a reasonable graph of what one could try for.) I’m sure with careful, thoughtful, judicious editing, and a cooperative group of contributions given clear guidelines, it’d be possible to collate the most compelling and summative comments from a group of six people onto a two-page spread sized slightly bigger than the original edition of the book, addressing each cartoon in Choi’s book — though I also imagine it’d be necessary to replace some of the most dated or negligible comics with other comics addressing issues and situations that would never have come to the minds of Choi or what I take, from the CC list on your earlier email to me, to be his stable of consulants on the recent edition of the book.

      Yes, that would obviously be harder work… but then, that’s the price of higher quality, and a more informative and interesting product… and one that actually elucidates the same observable phenomena in a more informative way. And I suspect you could do it in a way that wouldn’t lose him his original market, but would win him a much bigger market.

      That said, I haven’t seen the new edition and perhaps some changes have been made that address these issues. If Mr. Choi feels open to my comments after this more careful explanation, please let me know by email and I’d be happy to give you my address so you can send me a copy of the new edition to look at. (I’m between addresses at the moment but will be settled in March.) However, I don’t believe what is most urgently required is the point of view of yet another white male, progressive or otherwise: I think the most valuable counterpoint would be that of a younger, progressive Korean woman in her 20s or 30s–someone whose social experience is diametrically opposite to Choi’s. I’d also add an American woman–especially a nonwhite one–to the feedback group, if there isn’t already one on board.

  7. Can you by any chance point me to a place to get a decently priced copy of this book? I’m not quite sure what is happening with the Amazon price but there must be another source. I’ve checked Kyobo and a few local book markets with no success. Is the author still selling copies?

    1. MW,

      If you check out Mr. Dusthimer’s comment above, you’ll note that there’s some kind of new edition that’s been put out recently, or is coming out, or something. I’s guess that’s what has caused the price to change. Sorry, but I don’t know where you could get it any cheaper, though, since you’re in Korea, I’d suggest taking a look at the cheapo discounted book stands in some of the subway stations next time you visit Seoul; chances are the old edition got remaindered and can be hard for a song.

      … or you could try get your hands on the new edition, when it is available.

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