Koreans, Criticism, and the Korean Language

(Taking too close a look at the frogs in the well? Source: FARK)

For those of you that don’t already know, yours truly was briefly mentioned in an article on how Koreans handle criticism by foreigners by Bart Schaneman in The Korea Herald on Monday. It resulted in a lot of hits on the day, and even some offers of being paid to write from some other sources, so all in all pretty good for something that I originally declined to respond to. Citing his space restrictions, I thought that replies of mine to Bart’s email questions would be reduced to mere one-liners, but obviously I relented, and to his credit he did manage to get a lot of information into the article. You can see a full PDF of that here; in this post I’ll just clarify and expand upon some of the points in my own short contribution to it:

…We’re not that different

New Zealander James Turnbull runs The Grand Narrative. He calls it “An irreverent look at social issues.” Much of his work deals with Korean advertising and media as well as social commentary. In his eighth year in Korea, Turnbull teaches English in Busan.

“I find the notion that only Koreans are ‘permitted’ to speak about Korean problems simply absurd,” he said. “That isn’t to say that all foreigners’ opinions on them are equally valid, but if the roles were reversed then I’d be quite happy to hear the opinions of, say, a Korean person who had spent some time in New Zealand and who made an active effort to study and know New Zealand society and learn the language. In fact, probably more so than someone who was merely born there.

(I should really give credit to Gomushin Girl for at least the inspiration for that last point).

One thing I would add to that, albeit too egotistical sounding for me to have offered to Bart, is that I think that I’d probably be more likely to feel that way more than most New Zealanders themselves, or indeed the natives of any country. As a teenager I moved around a lot, at one point going to six different high schools in three countries in three years(!), and while it was a difficult and much resented experience at the time, it did at least mean that as an adult I’ve tended to be a bit more objective about a country’s good points and bad points than the natives. The flip side of that, though, is that to a greater or lesser extent I’ve always felt like an outsider in all of the four countries I’ve lived in, which goes some way towards explaining my newfound sympathies for the experiences and opinions of Koreans living there.

But neither that ability, nor the fact that I’ve been here for eight years automatically makes my opinions on things Korean more accurate or helpful than a newbie’s; actually, they’re just as likely to be simply more cynical and jaded instead. My point in the article then, admittedly not very subtle, is that the right to have one’s opinions about Korea to be taken seriously has to be earned, regardless of whether you’re a newbie, old-timer, or even Korean yourself. It’s true that that process takes a little more work in Korea than in many countries, but still, I wasn’t lying when I said the next:

“The majority of netizens aside, I’ve actually found a significant number of Koreans to feel much the same way about the opinions of non-Koreans.

The following though, really does suffer from lack of the example I gave to justify it, but once you read my expanded version of that below then you’ll understand why Bart left it out.

“Another advantage to using and considering Korean-language sources as much as possible is that it makes you realize how much you may stereotype and generalize Koreans yourself without being aware of it.

I wrote that because a few years ago, I realized that I was very guilty of both myself. Not despite me being a Korea studies geek; actually, probably precisely because of it.

The occasion was listening to the radio on the bus home one night in 2005. Frustrated with never getting any Korean listening or conversation practice, and being unable to find a Korean drama to watch that I didn’t find nauseating and/or wholly unrealistic, I spent my commuting time those days listening to the traffic channel on my small hand-held radio (94.9FM in Busan). Not an obvious first choice, no, but there was minimal music, and it did have a lot of interviews and talkback callers whose conservations I could usually at least get the gist of. That day, a woman from the Ministry of Health and Welfare was on, and she was explaining the numbers of HIV positive and AIDS cases in Korea and how they contracted the disease.

Naturally my ears pricked up at that, because, as we all know, not only do all Koreans think that both are “foreign diseases”, but they also believe that there are absolutely no Korean homosexuals. So how on Earth were she and the interviewer going to work around those?

Korea LGBT(Source: InSapphoWeTrust; CC BY-SA 2.0)

In short, they didn’t. She calmly and patiently explained the number of cases contracted from drug users, mother to foetus transmission, homosexual partners, heterosexual partners, homosexual prostitutes….and so on, in a matter-of-fact manner that indicated that there was nothing exceptional or noteworthy about the subject. Neither did the interviewer nor later callers question the figures nor get into any racist hysterics about “foreign gay contamination of Korean blood” either. What the hell was going on? It was just as sedate as any similar discussion in any Western country.

And then I realized that in fact I’d only ever read that Koreans thought like that, and I’d never actually asked a single Korean about homosexual Koreans and/or AIDs myself. That may sound strange, but then I saw no reason not to believe the books, and I can think of more appropriate free-talking topics for conversation classes.

Why did the books say that then? Well, because undoubtedly a majority of Koreans once did once think like that once, and, as this recent case of teenage prostitution illustrates, some still do, but despite that clearly most Koreans had long since moved on from whatever book on that particular aspect of Korean society I’d read was published. Hence my next and final point, and kudos to Bart for also retaining my (indirect) criticism of the very paper the article was printed in:

“Without any Korean ability, foreigners are usually forced to rely on either the limited English language media or books for the bulk of their information, and both have problems: the former for often presenting a rose-tinted version of Korea to the world, and the latter for being quickly out of date in a country as rapidly changing as Korea.”

It sounds obvious, but it took me five years to realize that, like I said probably because I’m more of a Korea studies geek/bookworm than most. But I’m glad I did, and on the plus side – although my Western and Korean friends will scoff at this – it has made me a bit more humble and circumspect in my comments and criticisms about Koreans and Koreans ever since.

Update: Anyone further interested in the numbers of HIV and AIDS cases in South Korea, please see here and here

4 thoughts on “Koreans, Criticism, and the Korean Language

  1. This is one of them time when your intelligence increases and you can almost feel yourself getting wiser. well done, you have swallowed a myth, it has infected you, but you have deposed of it and are now on your way to a healthier state. there are many myths out there, even more that are believed by expats about korea, however you can now see that it is more complicated. And you are right, listening to the conversation radio is a good way to hear and learn whats going on. As your listening skills get better youlll learn even more things that will startle you. Its all part of getting over your pre-judices, and i mean it in the traditional sense of the term.


  2. Great points. It always bugs me a little when people pour scorn on these so-called ‘Korean attitudes’ when they have never actually spoken to Koreans about it. I’ve personally never met a Korean person who denied that there were Korean homosexuals, or claim that Kimchi is the cure for cancer… or whatever. I’m sure that there are people out there who do believe those things, but to claim that it’s some sort of racial belief is ludicrous and smacks of ignorance.

    In my experience, the one disputable claim that Koreans do generally agree on is fan death, but according to The Marmot’s Hole, even that might not be as crazy as it sounds.


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