Estimated reading time: 15 minutes. Photo by bruce mars from Pexels.
Many thanks to Menelik Lee (@LiMing6859), for all their hard work translating a long interview of me by Yiyi Zhang for Qdaily last year.
As you’ll see, unfortunately a lot of nuance is lost when going from English to Chinese to English again. The misunderstandings and factual mistakes multiply too, which crop up even when interviewers and interviewees share the same native language. Most are very, very minor though, which is a real testament to Menelik’s skills, so I’ve only corrected or clarified the most glaring ones [indicated in brackets]. Please pass on your rants or raves, or let me know if you’d like any further information about anything mentioned in the interview. Thanks!
An Englishman Who Writes a Feminist Blog in South Korea: Sex, Gender, and the Elephants in the Room.
Almost 20 years ago, Englishman James Turnbull was just starting his life in Korea. [W]hile traveling through the wild open countryside in his boss’s car [during one of his first jobs there], “I don’t know where it sprang from, but suddenly a hotel appeared in the middle of this vast emptiness.”
Just like every person that harbors a sense of wonderment for the culture of a foreign land, Turnbull immediately blurted out, “What’s that? [What tourist would come here, in the middle of nowhere?]” He learned from his boss that the establishment [actually] functioned like the much-fabled love hotels of Japan.
He soon discovered that in Korea such establishments are actually [common in rural areas, not just the cities]. These unassuming structures facilitate both the sex trade and the secret trysts of [lovers]. They have arisen because premarital sex is still heavily stigmatized in Korean society. However, unlike Japan, Korea’s “love hotels” lack neon signs and themed playrooms. If asked about such things the proprietors will simply evade the question.
“Everyone pretends they don’t exist, but you can tell they have a bad reputation. Anyway, it’s always been something that [just] shouldn’t be discussed.”
After having lived in Korea for 18 years, with a family and two kids of his own now, Turnbull looks back and realizes that the problems surrounding sex and gender in this culture are just like that little hotel in the wilderness. They’re arresting, painfully obvious, yet everyone turns a blind eye and carries on regardless.
In his 7th year in Korea, Turnbull launched The Grand Narrative, a blog sharing and analyzing Korea’s sex, gender and pop culture from the viewpoint of an English author.
Besides blogging, he also holds down a full-time job at Busan’s Dongseo University. He spends so much of his spare time and energy maintaining and updating his blog, it’s almost a kind of volunteer work at this point. Over time, his blog has gained the approval of the mainstream—[most recently, he was quoted for several stories for CNN in 2018]—and Turnbull became something of an authority on Korean feminism and pop culture in Western media. Occasionally, he has even been invited to give guest lectures at Seoul National University and other higher education institutions.
But most of the time he stays in his own wheelhouse, silently typing away under the glow of his computer monitor. Over the past 11 years, he has written hundreds of articles on topics ranging from sex and K-pop, to the politics of body image, from gender in advertising, to abortion and contraception. In the world beyond his writings, the transformations wrought by the Korean women’s rights movement have moved with breath-taking speed.
“This has been the product of the last decade or so of painstaking labor, maybe it’s time to talk about it a little.” Turnbull tells Qdaily.
The first [post] about women’s issues on The Grand Narrative was posted in 2007. [From his Korean female friends, Turnbull learned that when they] graduated and entered the job market the problems they ran into came thick and fast. One of the most prominent issues was the fact that as soon as they fell pregnant they were laid off.
“As soon as a woman has a child she is forced to leave work; after a year it’s basically impossible to go back. The hierarchy in Korean companies is very strict, those who have worked there the longest always have the final say and the most opportunities for advancement. When a Korean woman is married with kids, she simply can’t keep up professionally.” Turnbull also speaks about the low birth rate. Because all women have to face this decision, many women from this generation have decided to simply forego having children.
The BBC reports that because of this, Korea has developed a new social phenomenon: the Sampo Generation. “Sampo” means to abandon three things: relationships, marriage, and children.
Before graduating and coming to Korea, Turnbull [had already had some experience of fitting into] different cultures. Thanks to his parents, he moved from the UK to New Zealand, then to Australia, and from there back to the UK again. [In just three years], he attended six different secondary schools in three separate countries, “it was pretty crazy.”
One may say that the cultural differences between these three countries are small when compared to Korea, but they each have unique values and lifestyles. [When he was a teenager,] every time Turnbull questioned an [adult in New Zealand and Australia about some aspect of their countries, and even in the UK if they knew he’d lived overseas], the answer was always the same: “This is just the local culture.” This answer was rolled out like a panacea. No matter what the situation, no matter the problem, it could be used to explain it away. But when he seriously thought about it, he realized that adults were simply using this because they had nothing else to say. “I’d had enough,” he recalls.
So by the time he got to Korea, he simply couldn’t [let “culture” be used] to explain everything away. “It’s not [unlike] a fish in water, unable to sense the water. Some things are [genuinely unusual and noteworthy, only considered normal by people who’ve known nothing else].”
In his conversations, Turnbull found that many Koreans harbored a strong sense of nationalism [too], and so talking about the negative aspects of the country [with a foreigner met a lot of resistance]. However, this did not mean that they [themselves] were satisfied with everything that was going on.
“If there’s something in Korea that you don’t like, there’s a very good chance a lot of Koreans aren’t happy with it either.” And this is something the [English-language media often chooses not to cover]. Many debates [are to be found on the Korean internet and social media platforms], and the English-language media has trouble [relaying] these trends, so they [can give versions] of Korean sexual culture that are extremely superficial.
“When reporting on cultures outside of Asia, readers generally won’t afford you much credibility or value as a reference if you don’t understand the local language. But when it comes to Asia—China, Japan and Korea—the majority of the [Western experts or reporters] have a very limited understanding of the local languages and cultures, yet the audience is really forgiving—it’s a very strange double standard.”
Turnbull provides an example. In 2013, the South Korean Ministry for the Interior introduced “Pink Female Parking Spaces,” with extra room for the exclusive use of women. In no time, this news was plastered over mainstream media pages around the world. Almost all of them claimed that the policy demonstrated prejudice against female drivers because the spaces implied that the women wouldn’t be able to park properly without them.
“[To be more specific, one report quoted an anonymous source that claimed that the larger spaces were necessary for ‘unskilled women drivers.‘ However, ultimately that source appeared to have been made up.”] Turnbull says that, in actual fact, the spaces were created because the vast majority of child care duties are born by women, and the policy provided larger spaces for them to use prams when they go shopping—[as most of the Korean media accurately reported.]
“There’s obviously [still] a problem here: the idea that the role of primary carer is naturally filled by women. But it’s a completely separate issue to what the [overseas] media were saying. [Had overseas media outlets just taken a little more time to investigate, or, you know, spoken to someone who actually spoke Korean, then this ‘crazy Korea’ news story, which just plays to Orientalist stereotypes, would never have gotten off the ground.”]
Between the cracks of cultural misunderstanding, Turnbull saw his chance. Having been an English teacher for far too long, he was anxious to prove himself and open up further professional opportunities. As a result, when he first began writing about Korean culture, it soon transformed into writings about sex and feminism.
“Turnbull’s blog has continued to focus on female representation in Korean popular culture, including advertisements, soap operas, music videos, and more.” Source, right.
Turnbull’s blog was in its infancy ten years ago, but even just five to six years ago there was [almost] no one else doing the same thing. [“That doesn’t necessarily mean I was writing well, or that I was particularly knowledgeable—just that I was the only one writing about these specific topics. I’m quite serious when I say that, for a long time, I really was pretty much the only person on Earth writing about Korean feminism IN ENGLISH on the INTERNET.”] For the longest time, when opening Google’s search engine, Turnbull’s blog was the first thing listed under “Korea” and “feminism.”
According to Turnbull, he grew up in a very left-wing family, among piles of his father’s psychology and sociology textbooks. At university, he also spent his time on feminist research and sociology projects.
His foreign identity also opens the door for dialogue to some degree. “The reality is, if someone is truly interested in your culture, you’ll also be curious to find out where that interest comes from.”
Furthermore, in a Korean society that has always considered [open discussions of] sex to be taboo, Turnbull exists like a wanderer, beyond the normal customs and social networks of everyday Korean life. Thus, those around him [tend to be] happier to share their views on this topic [compared to how open they would be sharing them with a native Korean], disregarding his age and social position, they can trust him to be discrete. “It’s precisely because you’re a foreigner, people don’t have the same kinds of psychological barriers—they can pour their hearts out.”
This makes everything sound free and easy, but the reason he focused his gaze on women’s issues is because the urgency of the problems they still face simply cannot be overlooked.
“One day, a colleague rushed over to ask me a question: can abortions affect your health?” Upon further inquiry, he found out that this woman had had eight previous abortions, because she had never used—[and wasn’t even aware of]—any contraceptive methods. “I was totally shocked. To this very day, the lack of [adequate sex education in Korea] is astounding.”
As a non-academic, much of Turnbull’s understanding of social phenomena comes from his personal experience. His blog articles are written from the first-person perspective, but when compared to other news articles about the same events, he’s [often] much quicker than they are to cite authoritative sources.
From his perspective, feminism has never existed in isolation, and sex and gender issues are important because they are intimately connected to the everyday lives of all people.
Before becoming an English teacher at a university, Turnbull worked in a regular [Korean] company for almost two years. The hierarchical culture of humiliation in Korean workplaces really took him by surprise. “Every week our department head would make everyone stand up, and castigate each and every [employee] about every aspect of their work [regardless of how good it was]. On some level he had no choice, [because] angry or not, this was [just] how things were done.”
The sense of hierarchical oppression permeates most of everyday life, and in such a stratified society, standing up for oneself can make things even more difficult.
Despite himself, after coming to Korea, Turnbull says he can’t help pondering social stratification and rebellion. This is especially reflected around issues of sexual misconduct. “In Korea, if an older family member wants to hug you, you can’t refuse even if you want to. As a child or a young person, there are many people who can order you to do something even if you don’t like it.”
Once you’re a little older, this evolves into a power disparity between the sexes, “If a boy likes you, you just have to accept it, you can’t complain about it. Because of this, men don’t understand what constitutes “consent,” and women who reject others feel guilty.”
This attitude engenders deep seated emotional resentment, and Korean society is thus plagued by gendered violence and frequent sex crimes by spurned lovers. According to survey results released in 2017 by the Korean Institute of Criminology, 80% of males surveyed admitted to having previously abused a romantic partner.
“This is why I feel so surprised and proud that in the space of just a few years so many young women have come out to demonstrate. Because in Korea just doing that can be incredibly difficult.” He says that many demonstrators have to cover their faces, but the effects are deep and far reaching. Korea is undergoing a dramatic change towards gender equality and sexual minorities.
According to QZ, the watershed moment for the Korean women’s movement came in 2016. A woman was brutally murdered in a public bathhouse not far from the entrance to Gangnam Metro Station, one of Seoul’s busiest transport hubs. Following the incident, women came out onto the streets to protest sexual violence, and women’s rights groups stepped up their online activism. With the global acceleration of the #MeToo movement this year, Korea’s feminist wave has also picked up pace.
While this was happening, Turnbull was observing the heating up of what may be called a “gender war.” As all of society’s feelings of discontent and dismay were foisted off on the shoulders of women.
South Korea has one of the highest rates of tertiary education in the world, meaning that most young people will attend university. However, without a proportional level of demand in the job market, the youth unemployment rate is almost 10%—that’s three times higher than the global average. After graduating, most people can only find work in convenience stores and coffee shops, relying on the lowest paid positions to make a living. Still others choose to delay graduation despite the fact that there are no more classes for them to take.
Against this backdrop, [a vocal minority of] young men are blaming young women for having stolen all their opportunities. What’s more, some are beginning to question [compulsory] military service, claiming that it is unfair on men and are now seeking compensation.
In 2014, according to a South Korean National Statistical Office report, in the last four years there was a historic reversal in employment rates of males and females aged 20 or older. The female employment rate exceeded that of males for the first time since records began. “A female tornado” is one of the terms being used to describe what has become the latest hot topic.
Turnbull believes it is a term deliberately employed to cause agitation—the disparity in male and female employment rates is actually only 2.1%. However, the male groups of society have reacted swiftly and with mortal urgency in a massive backlash. Some men’s rights organizations have even called for the abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. In fact, according to a World Economic Forum 2015 report on Global Gender Inequality, South Korea still ranks 115th out of 145 countries. In the “economic participation and opportunities” categories, South Korea is 125th.
Issues of gender equality are always fiercely debated, and the ongoing economic stagnation throws that much more fuel upon the fire. But lines are not only being drawn between the gender camps. In a universally anxious social atmosphere, people will always seek to set up a common adversary to set off against their own in-groups. Turnbull provides an example: this year, over 500 Yemeni refugees were detained on Korea’s Jeju Island, sparking mass public protests. Unlike trends seen before in most other countries, where opposition to refugees is strongest among older generations, in Korea the exact opposite is the case. Against all expectations, younger people are the heart of the movement.
“In April, female MBC news anchor Lim Hyeon-ju caused a stir by becoming the first Korean anchor-woman to wear glasses while on-air. Shortly after this, Korean media released the results of two studies on gender bias.” Image source: YouTube.
“Middle-aged, white, male, heterosexual; I’m pretty much a member of the most hated group on the planet.” Turnbull jokes during the interview.
Upon first finding Turnbull’s blog, not all readers are supportive. “The main reason they hate me is because of my identity.”
“No one wants to hear about Korean feminism from a middle-aged white dude.” And Turnbull admits that this wariness is not without good reason [James—I put it much more strongly during the interview: when studying and writing about what—who—I do, there are many conceptual and practical issues stemming from my privileged background; I can only always be aware of them and strive to overcome them as best as I can, most notably by relying on as many native Korean sources as possible, and especially on Korean women themselves]. In his first few years in Korea, he [admits he naively and arrogantly] thought that he’d already come to understand everything about the country [partially because, unlike most expats, he’d already studied Korean history and society at university], and was more than ready to lecture others about it. But soon enough, he came to realize that he had been very wrong about this. “I’ve probably deleted about half of my previous articles, just because they no longer reflect my current opinions [and/or later proved to be completely wrong, as often pointed out by my female readers—many of the most vocal of whom would become my best friends later!].”
But the internet has a long memory. A little over a month ago, he received an email, a 3000-word polemic referencing a 10-year-old piece he had already deleted [9 years ago!].
[A significant proportion of those that take] issue with his work are [Asian-American women]. Turnbull mentions a slang term, “yellow fever,” used to describe white men with a [fetishistic] preference for [East] Asian women. [Because of it], many Asian-American women [regularly] have to face [sexual stereotyping and harassment from white men] in their everyday lives, and so talking about sex in Korea as he does often brings him under [immediate] suspicion [of being no different to those men]. [The vast majority of those that actually read his work soon see that he is not, but] some have penned vicious attacks against him, and still others have posted fake pictures of him online. [James—I feel compelled to add that a significant proportion of my fans are Asian-American women too! :) But the actual question was about my trolls, and I wasn’t going to lie. It just is how it is.]
Turnbull’s blog used to provide a popular space for discussion. In the comments section people would air their views, and readers from all over the world would have lively debates with one another. But with the sudden onset of the social media age, people had a great many more ways of accessing news, and the number of hits and comments his blog received decreased significantly—[although] thankfully, the number of attacks decreased accordingly as well.
Nowadays, Turnbull seems to occupy an awkward position. He occasionally attends LGBTQ marches or feminist demonstrations [in Korea], but only rarely. “As a middle-aged white guy [who sticks out like a sore thumb at these], I don’t really want to [draw people’s attention away from the issues the activists are demonstrating about].”
Even today, he can’t envision things as he did when he was starting out. That he could, through his blog, make the outside world believe that a foreigner could be more than just an English teacher.
He even laughingly tells us that these days a decent number [MOST!] of the hits on his blog come from people searching for porn. Unfortunately, most rarely stick around to read the articles!
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)