Words by R.M. Adamson, toon by Lee Scott
There is, I think, some value in speaking the truth about what you feel, even if others disagree–even if they disagree enough to want to hurt you because of it. More often than not, these are precisely the things that need to be said, the things that others most need to hear, even if they often would rather not.
It’s not the same as to say that you should proselytize your opinions, and coercion ought never be employed. As expatriates we often run headlong into problems that often stem from culturally-based conflicts, I often find that if I see, hear or experience something that irritates me or makes me angry, taking a little time to reflect on it is the best thing. Just because something finds its basis in some cultural pattern or norm doesn’t prevent it from being inefficient, irrational or even cruel, though it always helps to try to understand the underlying root causes of what is going on – oh, and sometimes I even change my mind, though most often I find better reasons than I had before. The times when I change my mind turn out to be the times for which I feel most grateful. Arguments and even bitter conflicts can help us change and grow, if we are willing to use them that way.
But there are other times when we feel that remaining silent and neglecting to lodge a reaction is, possibly, the worst way to react. At such times, we are falling down if we shut up and let things pass. Recently, something has come up that has brought nearly everyone to this point of having to speak up.
For the past week or so there there’s been another Topic of the Moment, the thing everyone is talking about over here right now–which, come to think, is the same topic as it was the last five times there was one, the one about xenophobic and racist attitudes Korean people express about foreigners. The latest instance is a video segment on one of the premiere broadcasting stations, MBC, that talks about foreigners involved in relationships with Korean women.
It is racist. Yes, most certainly. It targets expatriate men, especially American men, and presents them as some kind of danger to Korean society, especially to Korean women, depicting foreign males as sexual predators who target vulnerable young women and then make them pregnant or infect them with sexual diseases. Just as bad, it demeans Korean women by implying that they are easy to fool and unable to make rational choices–it speaks from a paternalistic frame of mind that a modern country ought to have moved beyond by now.
It’s nothing new, though, and I’m generally not interested in saying one more time what has been said and is currently being said again by, well, almost everyone. A couple of other bloggers have put links up on their pages that point to all the other places it is being discussed. ForeignerJoy has a post up in her sibling blog Expat Abundance, and Scroozle’s Sanctuary has a slightly larger compendium. Even the most comprehensive such list will be almost immediately incomplete as someone else chimes in … as I am doing now. (Busan Hap’s Bobby McGill put an amusing spin on it here.)
I’ll try not to repeat much of what others have said, but it’s going to be hard because this kind of thing pops up every few months, it seems.
First off, the segment lasts less than five minutes–a lot of commercial breaks take up longer swatches of program time–and so far, none of my own adult students or Korean friends appear to be aware of it. I have a strong feeling that if some expatriates had not snagged it and stuck it up on Youtube, no one would care. I don’t think Korean people at large are aware of anything controversial here.
In my experience, the views depicted in this video are very much minority opinions among Korean people, certainly among those I come in contact with myself. Most people here do not hate and fear the foreigners in their midst. Some, perhaps. Most, no. That is, again, my own experience based on the Korean people I have come to know over the years. Your own mileage may vary, of course.
As one blogger has pointed out, things are getting better. The good news is that at least this time we are not getting painted as junkies and pedophiles. Not this time, though I suppose there is a limit to how many lies can be jammed into four and a half minutes of video.
Is there any truth at all to the aspersions and innuendo? Among the thousands of expatriates living and working here there are bound to be some who are callous toward young Korean women that they meet in the fleshpots and drinking holes that foreigners frequent, who see them as convenient avenues for sexual adventures, and there are probably some who decide a plane ticket out of the country represents a simple solution to getting a local girl pregnant. A large percentage of people coming to Korea to teach are young and male and just out of university, and find that it’s not impossible to continue the same lifestyle here as they had enjoyed in college. This is a fact, and we expats ought to be able to acknowledge the presence of such people among us–BUT the percentage of such people still represents a small minority, likely the same small percentage as the number of Koreans who harbor such xenophobic distrust as borders on true hate. And while it’s not hard to find foreigners who at least would appear to fit such an image (because the parts of the city that attract them are well-known), it’s not so easy to point a camera at those of us who are committed to our students or to our jobs, contribute to the neighborhood via volunteer work and the like, and then go home in the evening to rest and recharge for another shot at the same the next day.
The primary lie contained in this video is that it purports to describe ALL western males living and working here, and counts as nonexistent the thousands of us engaged in long-term relationships and marriages (with children) and who see Korea as our home, whether temporary or permanent, who see ourselves as, yes, a part of the society we are living in. Among the foreigners expressing anger right now, it is this omission that seems to be producing the most bile.
Korea has slowly been becoming a better place to live as a foreigner as the country opens up and tries to make an impact on the global stage, but the apprehension felt toward those not part of the Han culture persists among many here, and the root causes of the xenophobia remain complex and go back not just decades, but centuries. In recent history, it concerns the abuses endured during the half-century of Japanese hegemony and colonialism, and a Cold War era that put the country under the protective umbrella of the U.S., which tolerated and to some extent supported the brutal dictators who ruled by fiat until the late 80s. The sense of being overshadowed and controlled by outside countries would inevitably bring about a sense of weakness, and shame at being weak, and at times a fatalistic helplessness in the face of history.
The compensatory response ought not to surprise us much: hysterical nationalism around certain issues regarding Japan such as the territorial dispute over Dokdo, irrational and violent street protests about the Free Trade Agreement with America, and the occasional animosity and ill will toward those of us who have made the choice to come here to live and work as seen in this video.
And it’s possible that there remains something primal and deeply disturbing to some Koreans about Korean women mingling, having sexual experiences and even raising families with foreigners, thus endangering the notion of “purity” enjoyed by Koreans in their conceptions of themselves as a people–it’s more than possible, and certainly a viable consideration, especially among some more traditionally-minded people. Seemingly unrelated aspects of history such as the plight of the “comfort women” who were used as sexual slaves by the Japanese military during the war and the period of massive numbers of children put up for adoptions almost certainly contribute to an underlying sense of shame at not having been able to keep and protect the weakest members of Korean society, the women and children who provide a conduit for the bloodline.
The normal human response to shame is resentment and anger, then a desire to strike out at those who brought those emotions into being. At a certain point it becomes a rarely-spoken and largely unacknowledged hinge upon which many interpretations of events find a common center, and feeds divisive and prejudicial attitudes even without conscious awareness on the part of those people who make a welcome place for them in their psyches, and then disseminate them by means of various mass media.
We might guess, after seeing the video, that the producers of this segment deliberately set out to incite hatred toward minority groups in Korea, but as described above, the worldview that produces this kind of “journalism” comes from a place so deeply embedded that even after the fact and in the face direct critical response, it isn’t seen for what it is. In a piece written by Paul Kerry for the Korea Herald, members of the production team seemed surprised at the resulting brouhaha.
The lead writer for the show, made by external production company Pan Entertainment, said that she did not consider the content to be controversial, and claimed it was an accurate representation of the situation.
“Our report is based on the facts that we found as we were covering the story and it strictly reported on the present situation. We have made it clear that it only reflected the few,” she said.
In truth, it’s difficult to watch the video without concluding that the intent is a blanket generalization and condemnation of all foreign males in Korea.
MBC’s only response to criticism coming from expatriates surrounding this video segment has been to say that the video was outsourced, coming from people not on their own staff, though for most observers this does not absolve the company from responsibility for airing it. In 2005, MBC came under criticism for coverage of Dr. Hwang’s fraudulent stem-cell research, and a few years later came under fire again over a multi-segment PD Notebook series (“Urgent Reporting! Is U.S. Beef Safe from Mad Cow Disease?”) that included large numbers of deliberate falsifications and misleading translations of video clips. Large numbers of the news staff of this network have been on strike in recent months due to perceptions that the management has shown excessive favoritism toward the conservative ruling party. The shoddy quality of the journalism from MBC has been consistent, it seems, and this latest incident is simply more, not different.
Is there anything good that might come out of this? Perhaps the best outcome will involve a rallying of expats in the direction of promoting positive images to provide a counterbalance. I suspect that some among us who possess skills in video are working on a rebuttal that would show the other point of view–will MBC air such a thing? Groove Magazine has called for submissions of photos for a collage showing mixed couples, including children, and the Facebook page alluded to earlier is trying to organize–wait, no, not a protest march, but rather a picnic, a public event hopefully covered by the media with mixed couples and their kids, all in one place and not a threat to anyone. Despite the implied negativity in name chosen for it (“Fight Against MBC Korea”) that page currently shows nearly 8,000 members and has also been serving as a central hub to distribute information about places foreigners can go to volunteer at orphanages, unwed mother support networks, language programs for disadvantaged youth, animal shelters and even the local branch of Habitat for Humanity.
These are not bad things, obviously, quite the opposite, and when we think of how angry responses usually get channeled–into disruptive rhetoric and divisiveness–I’m more than a little thrilled to witness positive intentions behind what I’m seeing right now.
R.M. Adamson lives in Seoul. He sometimes makes repairs at Bobster’s House. His last piece for 3WM was “Geishas and Gamma Rays: Expat Bloggers in Japan Recount the Tohuko Quake and Tsunami.”