I have a friend. She is beautiful, intelligent, an entrepreneur, a fashion model, and eerily devoid of neuroses. Alas, she left Korea years ago, and I miss her more every day.
"Normal" people are hard to come by in this country, and I wondered: what evidence, albeit anecdotal, do I have to make such an assessment?
A few years ago, I wrote a column called "Bad foreigner," more or less detailing the myriad of ridiculous behavior some foreigners display in this country: the drunkenness, the fights, the racism they display toward Koreans and to others, the lack of social decorum, and I sat down to write this and realized: it hasn't changed.
Meanwhile, Korea has gotten (slowly) better at welcoming foreigners to the country, especially in large ways: the Tourism Hotline (1330), the Seoul Global Center, foreign language services at banks, government agencies, and the Post Office.
Unfortunately, foreigners, particularly of the Western country variety, haven't upgraded very much in the time since last I wrote on expats behaving badly.
I occasionally attend a writers' workshop in Seoul from time to time. At the end of the workshop, one of the writers invited everyone to a hiking club sponsored by Koreans, where the hiking would be conducted all in Korean. No one wanted to attend. Speaking in Korean proved far too worrisome a task.
There are chat rooms and online blogs of expatriates working and living in Korea. If you are intrepid enough, venture to some of them. Too often, you'll find a litany of complaints and criticisms worthy of a documentary decrying racism.
Some of the language on these sites is so colorful, so foul, I can't repeat it here or anywhere. The sites are useful, however, in exposing what I already knew was at the heart of some of those who participate in these forums.
These are but a few of the rank, racist comments I've experienced whispered, or not, online, and off, interspersed throughout the expatriate community: "Squinty-eyed." "Garlic-breath.""Rice-pickers.""These yellow demons." "I don't know how to speak Korean and I've lived here forever." Charming.
Just as unpalatable as these obviously racist gems are the more subtle forms of prejudice to which some expats subscribe. Last year, a friend of a friend came to Korea on a tour of Asia. He lamented how Koreans are too tall for his taste (he being short). He didn't like the well-paved streets, the clean subways, the first-world prices, the developed infrastructure and skyscrapers of Seoul's cityscape. He wanted an "authentic" Korea. That is, the normative state of Asian countries is necessarily poor, underdeveloped, and unwashed. Conversely, Western countries are always and only supposed to be wealthy, developed, and replete with tall buildings and the like.
The aforementioned friend of a friend not only disliked the "unnatural" development of Korea, but was surprised, unlike in other Asian countries, he was not openly praised and exoticized as someone desirable and semi-divine. He wanted to be wanted, not from some inner virtue he possessed, or because he had a great talent, or a superior intellect. No, he wanted to be wanted simply because he was Western and white, and so necessarily a step above everyone else. Luckily, I was working on a second martini when I first encountered him, so I was content on listening to him make a fool of himself, enjoying the show.
Some Westerners come to countries with a sense of entitlement. They envision themselves worthy of worship, and expect the natives to act as such.
This is not the way societies should operate, and we've seen this story play out, where racial and ethnic metrics are used to help stratify the population into castes of hierarchical worthiness. We know what such stratification leads to: nothing good. Why would a thinking person want to perpetuate such a system?
That was a rhetorical question.
Luckily, most foreigners do not approach living in Korea in the ways I've illustrated. The problem: when you have a minority within a minority behaving in this fashion — impetuous, vulgar, insensitive, and even profane, it can color the entire group as being of that same mindset.
All societies have problems. I've written and will write on the social ills in Korean society. A glaring example: the visa process for foreigners in English education, whereupon E-2 visa holders have to submit to drug tests, blood screenings, and criminal background checks, while no other group of workers, such as E-1 visa holders like me, have to.
Multiculturalism, racial acceptance, respect, and a more cosmopolitan atmosphere is a two-way street. Host countries have to give some, as well as foreigners. Sometimes, I feel Korea and Koreans are expected to do all the work in this regard with no reciprocity. I'm sorry, that's not the way it works.
Deauwand Myers holds a master's degree in English literature and literary theory and is currently an English professor outside of Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.