My “honeymoon period” is over. That is a nickname many expats use to refer to the first few exciting months abroad. Most of the things that I once found strange and exciting have become either mundane or annoying. Though Korea still has a wealth of new experiences to offer me, few remain in my daily routine.
It occurred to me recently that my time in Korea has become something of an emotional roller coaster. My opinion of this country is constantly evolving, usually affected by my most recent interaction with a Korean. This morning, after an unintelligible argument with my bus driver, I noticed a pattern. My bad experiences with Koreans almost always involve people of my parents generation or older (50+), and most of my good experiences involve young people. This is the exact opposite of what I expect in the US.
I have a three-part theory to explain this pattern of negative interactions with older Koreans:
1) Language Barrier: Almost every Korean learned some English in school, but until recently, few schools focused on listening and speaking. Many older Koreans are able to read basic English, but most cannot understand the most simple spoken phrases. An added complication is that English sounds aggressive and harsh to some Koreans, and Korean often sounds aggressive to westerners. The multitude of emphases and tone variations in English contrast sharply with the guttural monotone of Korean. When my Korean friends translate for me, I am occasionally surprised to learn that what I thought was an angry tirade was actually a compliment. The language barrier make any communication, no matter how mundane, potentially confusing and frustrating for both foreigners and Koreans.
2) Nationalism: I use the term “nationalism” because “racism” feels mean-spirited. However, many older Koreans walk a fine line between strong nationalism and overt racism. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that Korea served as East Asia’s proverbial whipping boy for many centuries. Until the latter half of the 1900’s, almost all foreigners on Korean soil were invaders. Despite the understandable distaste for foreigners, it can be difficult to remain empathetic when an old Korean man is yelling obscenities at you for being friends with a Korean (especially a woman).
3) Rude Foreigners: Not all of the blame lies with the Koreans. Much of the problem stems from the fact that many foreigners are terrible guests. Westerners are notorious for expecting people to speak their language and offer the food and amenities to which we are accustomed at home. This problem is compounded by the US military’s bad reputation in Korea. Some Korean businesses (especially bars and night clubs) have strict no-soldier policies. Although the soldiers who cause problems are a small portion of the overall population, they are the most visible. To make matters worse, foreigners (especially white foreigners) are constantly portrayed in a negative light by the Korean media. This only serves to perpetuate the idea that westerners are amoral and predatory. The following news story is not a joke – it was aired by one of the oldest and most reputable TV news shows in the country.
*Notice that the story uses some second-hand accounts (foreigner spreading AIDS) and lacks specific evidence to back up statements made by interviewees. Unfortunately, irresponsible reporting is less likely to be questioned in Korean because of the collectivist culture.
It is important to mention here that I love living in Korea. Every day, I’m happy to be here. In fact, I like it so much that I have signed up for a second year of teaching. This post is not a rant – it is an evaluation of the reasons for some social issues that exist between some foreigners and some Koreans. Most foreigners are treated very well by most Koreans. Negative interactions are not an everyday occurrence for me or my friends. If the aforementioned issues affected all of my interactions with Koreans, I would be on the first plane out of here.
Until next time.