A good long time ago, James at The Grand Narrative urged me to write about the things I discuss below. I thought it was a good idea, but relented at first, thinking that maybe I might get fired the way Gerry Bevers was for posting about Dokdo.
Then I got busy, and stayed busy.
Then I left Korea. And here we are.
But this video came up again, where I live now, as part of a discussion about sexism and racism in Korea, and I realized that I’d never gotten around to it, and that I should. Because I learned a few things from the experience, including things I think both Koreans and expats in Korea (perhaps especially the latter) ought to think about.
For those who know nothing about it, back around this time last year, the Korean TV network MBC aired a “new” report about… well, you can figure out what it’s about, if you watch it:
Among foreigners in Korea, MBC is kind of notorious for airing racist content, so this was no shock.
Note that word, though: racist. What was interesting is how few expats commented, early on, about how sexist was… probably because it operates at that point where racism and sexism intersect; it’s not just bigoted against Western males, but also against Korean women. The whole premise that Korean women are being “victimized” by Western men–in ways that sound over-the-top ridiculous–and that their true motivations are hidden, their shame is hidden, and so on… it’s all so familiar, but of course most Korean women share the bigoted bias that the Korean men who wrote this crap obviously have.
After discussing it with my then-fiancée (we’re married now), she watched it and pointed out how outrageously sexist it was, and we decided to make a video of our own.
What we finally made was this:
I was careful to pass the link on to some expat bloggers in Korea whom I know, and asked them to share it. (To make it harder to trace back to us, basically because, as Anne explains in this post on A Deceit of Lapwings, the kind of humor we were engaging in just isn’t that common in Korea, and I really felt there was a possibility I could get fired, or we could get witch-hunted by a league of mentally-disturbed netizens, over it.)
Then, we sat back and waited to see how the discussion would go.
And that was the eye-opening part.
It was eye opening for several reasons. One of them was the connotations attributed to the Author of the video. I was surprised that most of the expats commenting more than just approval or amusement said some variation of, “If this was Koreans, more power to them. If it was expats, shame on them.”
Those who didn’t say this, said half of it: they assumed they knew that either a Korean was behind it (yay!) or that an expat was (boo!). The former camp tended to see this as incisive, funny mocking of the bigoted Korean media establishment; the latter camp tended to think it was in poor taste for white men–and they assumed it had to be men, implicitly, a lot of the time–to make jokes hinging on the size of Korean guys’ penises. (Missing the point that the jokes were mocking the very common Korean stereotype that white men have huge penises, as well as the more pernicious assumption that if a Korean woman were to disgrace herself by offering her “holy, sacred vagina” to a Westerner, it would have to be either because she could get free English lessons, or because he’s hung like an ox. I was especially surprised when one blogger, a specialist in literature, missed this completely (in a discussion on Facebook, which I can’t link here), and just focused on the racial politics of dick jokes… completely missing that the joke took place in the social context in which the hypertrophied interest in white men’s penises, and where they go at night.
And if you think that Korean women involved with Western men don’t encounter that insulting, dehumanizing, and sexist assumption, well, all I can say is that they do. (So do Western women dating Korean men, on different grounds.)
(For the record, the chart with the Korean and expat mens’ incomes? That was drawn by a Korean woman. The Korean actor n the scene where it’s used? He laughed at it, and riffed on the “white colored foods” that Korean women were supposedly eating too much of. Our (intelligent) Korean friends we first showed it to–two guys–got it all right away. They were howling all the way through, because of course they know exactly what stupid myths in Korean popular culture we were playing on, and how sexist and racist they were. I swear, they howled all the way through! Meanwhile, expat men were wringing their hands in worry about whether the “dick jokes” were “too much.” There’s a subtle racism in play there… the gentle, pathetic racism of lowered expectations, essentially.)
This idea that a statement should and must be evaluated by who is saying it, and that who is saying it must be categorized in terms of race and sex, is a troubling one. If a white Westerner lampoons sexism and racism in Korea, it’s in poor taste; if a Korean does it, it’s a brilliant send up of a society’s problems? That overlooks a lot… and partakes of the very same crap that most expats in Korea find frustrating, namely, being told that they cannot have a valid opinion about something because they are not Korean. To see expats engaged in that kind of lame silliness–well-known expat bloggers, people whose blogs have gotten them international attention and whose posts have even gotten them into the international media–didn’t surprise me, but it did disturb me. It speaks to the amateurism of the expat blogosphere, the lack of nuance and of critical reasoning out there. And I say that not because I’m miffed–in the end, I was half-amused by the clown show–but surely we can do better than this?
(Or, maybe, we could talk about Stockholm Syndrome among expat bloggers in Korea. Or maybe there’s some other explanation. But to me, it seemed critically and intellectual sophomoric.)
Likewise, the criticisms tended to focus on the dimension of race, completely overlooking the issue of sexism in the original video. This is something my wife constantly talked about when she read the comments, both on Youtube and on Facebook. As far as the expat blogosphere was concerned,the problem in the original MBC video was racism. Sexism did come up in some discussions, but much less, and later on. Astonishingly, this was true across the board among expats: almost nobody caught on that the video was exploring the intersectionality of racism and sexism in Korea… that is, the way that racism and sexism intersect and interact and reinforce and play into one another.
Even a lot of Westerners married to Koreans seemed to focus on the racism for quite a while, only afterward grokking that, oh, wow, that was also really sexist toward Korean women. At least, that was the pattern I saw in discussion on Facebook. I’d say one voice in ten or a dozen pointed it out, and people mostly just ignored them. This was true even of a number of expat men whose partners were Korean, which, to be frank, is outright shameful.
The other singularly disturbing thing was the idea that authorship had to be either Korean or expat. Even though the video itself features Korean and foreign actors, it seldom occurred to anyone that a video like this could be the result of intelligent, pissed-off Koreans and intelligent, pissed-off foreigners.
That’s very telling, and also something we ought to think about. Not every institution, not every creative project, is either one or the other. For the parody video above, it was very mucha collaborative effort, not just in front of the camera. I, a Western man, wrote the first draft of the script. Then my fiancee (a Korean woman) edited it down. Then we shot it, with her directing, and mostly various Koreans working the camera. Afterwards, she edited it and we collaborated on the subtitles (if I recall correctly) in both languages.
Can’t get much more intercultural, interracial, and cooperative than that. Watching the video, that should be obvious: but in the expat discussions I saw, expats constantly wanted to slot it into one or the other category. In a lot of the heads of foreigners in Korea, there’s a similar sense to what we so grouchily find in too many Korean heads: that East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet… let alone collaborate on comedic mockery of assholes. Again, even expats who have Korean partners were falling into that trap. It’s kind of sad.
Especially since so many creative projects I’ve seen that got off the ground in Korea involved a mixture of expats and Koreans working together. Take, for example, the beer scene in the Itaewon area. There are pubs offering “local” microbrew, like Craftworks and Magpie Brewery. The thing is: the people involved in the process of making that beer aren’t all Korean, or all-foreign. It’s a mixture. (Obviously: the Gapyeong brewery Ka-Brew is actually brewing their beer, with Korean brewers. Whatever tensions exist there, it’s still a collaboration between Koreans and non-Koreans. And that’s a positive thing.)
That this suggests is that if expats are held back from being a part of Korean society, as so many seem to feel and to say every chance they get, then at least part of the reason for this is the barriers in their own heads.
In any case, we planned to do more videos, and we still have a few we want to do, maybe during a visit to Seoul sometime. More videos might have established where we’re coming from in a way that would help people learn how to read this kind of biting satirical comedy in a Korean context. But we got busy with other things, so those other videos are in the to-do-sometime folder.
One more thing: the Youtube comments are amazing, mostly to the degree of stupidity they display. The number of people who’ve seen the video and failed to realize it was parody is astonishing. (The expats who do so tend to be all up in arms and shocked at Korean racism; the Koreans who’ve been “fooled” have tended to rally behind the video and what they think its message is.) But that’s Youtube: I expect stupidity in Youtube comment streams, that’s par for the course. I expected a little less stupidity in discussions where well-known bloggers were discussing it.
It makes me think of what one expat I knew said when he left Korea to go home to the USA after a couple of years: “Korea, it’s really mediocre, as countries go.” Well, maybe, and I certainly understand what he meant. Mrs. Jiwaku and I chose to leave for reasons that could be boiled down to something like that, among others. But it’s worth pausing and recognizing that many expats there seem perfectly suited to that environment. (Every country gets the expats it deserves?) And indeed, since so much of those expats’ mutual experience of the country seems shaped by the echo-chamber discussion of the blogosphere, I’d say to some degree they have a hand in that.