Image source: Movieposter.com
I have very little respect for Puccini, simply because of this opera.
My friend once met a marijuana-selling Frenchman in Seoul who said:
I want to stay here forever. In France I would never, ever get laid, but here, girls are hitting on me just because I am French”
He seemed to be under the impression that yellow cabs still exist. I would like to tell him “Hey, dung attracts flies!“.
Being a foreigner means many things in Korea. You’re “different”. This “being foreign” status entitles you to many advantages as well as prejudices (It’s really up to you to choose which to focus on). For instance, it you are a Caucasian-looking woman, men will assume you are slutty. But on the other hand, if you are a Caucasian-looking man, your mother-in-law-to-be won’t grill you with “What do your parents do? “Where is your hometown?” “Do you own an apartment in your name?” “How much do you make?”, like she would a Korean son-in-law-to-be.
Korea attracts a very wide array of expats. There are the English teachers. The businesspeople. The Korean Studies students. Or, those passing by, on exchange student programs, on a Korean government (NIIED) scholarship, on an internship for a foreign embassy.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF FOREIGNERS YOU WILL MEET IN KOREA
I have met many foreigners in Seoul, most of them students (both exchange and regular) at universities. Some I found wonderful and eager to learn about Korea, others just enjoying student life, and some disrespectful and downright barbaric. I like to call this last group “The Tourists”, since their lives here are superficial (In fact, actual tourists might have a better understanding of Korea, and I hope I’m not offending them by using this term). Here are how some people from each of those groups behave:
- The “Into Korea” Group: Take Korean lessons, love some aspect of Korean culture, want to come back in future, have some knowledge of Korean history, and read many books and newspapers about what’s happening here. The girl who came here on exchange and then transferred to Korea University is an example, as well as the guy who came here on an exchange, went back, then started working at the Danish embassy here in Seoul. Additionally, the truly hardcore group will criticise and look down on K-Pop, while the tourists will love it (because it’s the only internationally marketed type of Korean music).
- The “Enjoying Life” Group: Take some or no Korean lessons, but like Korea and its cheap food and alcohol, as well as the vibrant nightlife. They enjoy travelling to Jeju Island as well as nearby Asian countries. They will probably not come back, while keeping fond memories of this faraway country.
- The Tourists usually do not show any eagerness to learn the language (and hence do not learn anything about the culture except for the photos they take at tourist destinations), and have little or no respect for Korean culture and people. They’re here to shop, or…actually I’m not really sure what they’re here for. Hong Kong is probably a better shopping destination, in my opinion. And, since, most expats in Korea are North American, so are they. On the other hand, there was this Dutch guy who only ate fried chicken and McDonalds because “he couldn’t learn how to use chopsticks” over the 4 months he spent here (My German friend who spent a month practicing so he could eat properly here disagrees with the Dutchman’s “Chopsticks: Mission Impossible” theory).
A surprising majority of English teachers here are tourists, even if they are here for years, even decades. The excuses I have heard are:
- “Korean is useless. Nobody speaks it [outside Korea]” (rude)
- “I don’t have the time, between my job teaching and all” (lazy)
- “It’s so difficult” (lazy)
- “Korea is too backward. People are so conservative” (hmm, and everyone from your country is liberal?)
- “Korea is too weird. People don’t accept me because they think I’m weird” (are you sure you are not confusing weird with deviant?)
- “I’m black / latina / gay / lesbian / fat / skinny / hairy. People don’t like me here” (oh dear)
- “Koreans don’t get jokes, they’re no fun” (because we should have exactly the same jokes everywhere in the world)
And with these excuses, they only spend time with other expats, or Korean-Americans, or Westernised Koreans, which leads them even further and further astray from getting to know anything about Korea at all (By the way, I know black, latina, fat, skinny, hairy, tall, gay, and lesbian foreigners who have settled down in Korea quite well. What do they have in common? Oh, they speak some Korean, and don’t blame everything on Korea).
Korea is different from Western countries. And yes, we have social problems. But you adapting to Korea is mostly a matter of personal effort. Have you read books on Korean history? Have you talked with Koreans? Have you actually, really, tried to learn the language? After all these efforts, have people treated you in a discriminative way based on some aspect of your personal life?
Just flip the story and think: a Korean who lives in the US while working a job doesn’t learn the language at all and fails to integrate into society. They’d probably call the person problematic: Didn’t she have any friends? Didn’t he have a life there, I mean, what did they do for five years?
WHY DO THE TOURISTS BECOME TOURISTS?
At the root of this phenomenon, are one or a combination of the following problems:
(1) A feeling of cultural superiority; and
(2) Resulting sense of entitlement;
(3) Some deep personal issue they are projecting onto Korean society. (This last reason is completely irrelevant to Korea per se)
A major problem is the sense of entitlement. The “I’m from (insert country name), so why isn’t everyone interested in me?“. I find this attitude most common among Americans somehow, but this could simply be due to the large American population here. I fail to understand where such an attitude comes from – If you are a foreigner, doesn’t that mean you need to make more effort to break into established social groups, or “cliques”? Could it be a lingering sense of colonialism from the Americans “helping” Korea during the War? (Yes, I said it, colonialism).
This entitlement issue stems from cultural superiority. Korea isn’t fair. Korea discriminates foreigners but we don’t, therefore we are superior and, why isn’t Korea like us? (Which is wrong in itself, because clearly you have not looked at the issue from the immigrant in America POV) Yes, why isn’t Korea exactly like your country? Because Korea isn’t America or Australia or Autria! Why this is so difficult to grasp, I don’t know. You are far, far away from home. You are in a different culture. There are supposed to be differences, and if you want to live your life exactly the same way as in Europe/US/Wherever you are from, why did you hop on a plane and move all the way here?
Another issue is the projection problem. Whatever personal issue they had, they somehow connect it to Korea, and turn it into a “Korean” problem.
“I’m fat, so I won’t fit in Korea. Everyone hates fat people here” is an example. You being fat will only be an issue if you keep obsessing about it and worried it will get in your way from making friends. That’s you holding your world back from reaching out, and you would have the same problem if you were anywhere else. I’ve seen people with varying physiques in Seoul, and in general, Koreans are much more lenient towards foreigners with less or more weight.
The “I’m black” issue is a little different, since Koreans are not used to seeing black people (I say black because not every black person is African-American. In fact I have met more Africans than Af-Ams here),and do hold unreasoned prejudices against them.
Often, black men are taller and bigger than Koreans or Caucasians, and thus physically intimidating to the petite Korean males (and females). Koreans are also scared of Kor-Am men who are bulky and all muscled up, by the way. Not to mention, American GIs are famous for getting drunk and being rude to people in the subway, and since among them there are few African Americans, they stand out more (Also, an American calling himself “Quincy Black” was taken into custody earlier this year for soliciting sex from underage teenagers and taping them without consent) [The race issue will be dealt with in another post, since it is a complex one]
But getting back to my point, I know several Kenyans and Nigerians who have settled in Korea, given they learned the Korean language, worked hard at academics/their jobs, and tried to understand Korea. I am aware they’ve faced unfounded discrimination at first (particularly from strangers), but once their peers got to know them on a more personal level, they accepted Koreans were just misinformed.
TO AVOID BECOMING A TOURIST
Learning Korean is a must if you want to settle in Korea. Why? Hello, it’s the national language. You are not in the US or the UK. The newspapers run in Korean, the government runs in Korean, and, well, aren’t you going to the supermarket sometime to buy yourself groceries? Have you ever heard a French person complain in the UK, saying “Oh mon dieu, why they cannot speak French in this country!”. If you did, you’d have thought her or him strange, even rude.
Read a Korean newspaper, preferably in Korean. Reading about Korea from foreign sources is a good start, but there probably will be less coverage. Joongang Ilbo runs the Joongang Daily, Hanguk Ilbo runs the Korea Times, and there’s also The Korea Herald. However, all three are not always written in quality English, and sound like Anglicised Korean (Konglish). I would recommend the Korean versions of Donga or Joongang Ilbo as a main source, since Chosun still uses Hanja characters in the headlines and articles. The reason I am not recommending more ‘progressive’ journals, Hankyoreh and Gyunghyang, is because the top-tier journalists go to Chosun, Donga and Joongang, and have better sources. It would be balancing to read a ‘progressive’ weekly magazine as a supplement, though.
Make Korean friends to learn about Korea. Not the kyopos, nor the English-speaking Koreans (like me). Koreans who speak English extremely fluently are likely to not be too “Korean” themselves, and probably want to leave Korea because their values are too similar to European or American ones. They may or may not be interested in Korean politics. Meanwhile, a Korean who speaks mostly Korean will probably be more interested in and knowledgeable about Korean traditions and current state of affairs. They will have a more “Korean” POV and outlook in life.
P.S. Synopsis of “Madame Butterfly”:
16-year old Japanese girl marries older American soldier. American soldier has sex with her, then returns to America right after wedding day, and marries an American woman. Meanwhile, Japanese girl has given birth to a son from said soldier, and hopefully waits for his return. People tell her he will not return, she does not listen and waits (apparently this is what Puccini found so ‘beautiful’, the waiting). American man returns together with American wife, demands Japanese girl hand over her son so they can raise him. She says yes, smiles, goes to the back room, and slits her throat. Dies.
This opera should be banned for its demeaning attitude – looking down on Japanese women as well as women in general.