The Deleterious Experiences of an Expat in Korea, and Their Causes: An Essay in Seven Parts
You are in a foreign country, culturally almost diametrically opposite your own. You struggle to fit in and do your work well, serving as a teacher and never giving up in the face of a great many health and comfort-related inconveniences. You deal with guilt of having been racially selected. You deal with incredible amounts of pollution. One day you meet someone and you change one another’s lives. You love one another, but this person is not allowed to be with you… because you are different…
I Just Want To Be Helpful
This essay will describe judgements I have made, based on feelings, observations, and wounds I have suffered, of an intellectual and emotional–perhaps even a spiritual in nature. I wish to make it clear to you, the reader, that these judgements are based on seventeen years of experiences dealing intimately with a wonderful group of people, but to be sure, a group of people who by their own proud and often sad admission–have a distinct way of life that is not only difficult for others coming in contact with them, but for themselves. My only intention is to shed light on what I have learned and on the pain I and others have suffered, so these wonderful people and others interacting with them can perhaps be the wiser, and so that progressive change may occur in their lives and the lives of others like myself. My goal is for people to be allowed by one another to pursue happiness–specifically in that most important and soul-uplifting area of human life we call true love.
Someone very special to me in Korea once said that I was going to be alone. Well, I am, now–though it is largely by choice. Probably in her view, at the time, it was because I tended to make ‘trouble’ wherever I went. How so? By gently, (and sometimes not-so-gently) and firmly standing up to manipulation, neglect, poor management, disrespect, ignorance, and lack of consideration. But to be fair to myself, I must say that it is far easier to be socially inappropriate in this manner–in Korea–than in other places, because in Korea people are known to hold their tongues. In fact, they are supposed to do this. They suffer in silence. This is very different from life in many places in the West. In Western countries, we are expected to say something when treated unfairly. We don’t have to be rude about it, but we are encouraged to seek justice.
Losing Your Cool
This was an issue in public, and in private. It wasn’t just me. Foreigners get the impression that in Korea, locals will say one thing and do another, whether it is due to some kind of “auto-pilot”, fear, cunning, carelessness, a lack of respect, or incompetence. After a while, many of us wind up losing our cool because of this. Losing one’s cool is not cool in Korea, like in most Asian countries–but perhaps there more than elsewhere. To be fair to Koreans, when you do lose your cool, Koreans are enormously forgiving–after all, they often do it themselves.
In fact, one can eventually get into hot water with one’s Korean girlfriend for exhibiting what we in West see as chivalry. For example, having a waiter take something away that was not served correctly, or requesting that a bus driver drive more safely, that he turn down the heat in the advent of summer, the air conditioner in the fall, and so on–can bring gentle scorn from a Korean. Or, she won’t say anything at all–or not for a long time–but you may find out later that you have erred for doing what in our culture is a no brainer and correct. Koreans believe in enduring, which I admire about them enormously. However, as much as this endurance can be attributed to Korean virtues, it can as likely be attributed to fear–because the Korean society is not only based on the virtues of harmony, but heavily on hierarchy and maintaining face. So, when you do not endure–and you express displeasure–it can be embarrassing for them.
Koreans hold their tongues so often, that a Korean may help you raise an issue–as many Koreans, like the Japanese, feel a near obligation to be helpful–and then, in private, they may tell you how embarrassing it was to have seen you do it–even if you had done it very politely and quietly, and in the interest of everyone. I had this very same thing happen with the woman I loved dearly.
Of course, like all of us in the human species, I had my own issues that were not related to others we encountered in our relationship, as did my wonderful girlfriend–but usually our issues resulted from dilemmas over family involvement, our attempts to avoid it, or culture shock–which any honest expat living in Korea will tell you is enormously frustrating on a daily basis–to the point that it causes most people who leave Korea to leave because of it.
We aren’t idiots. We know Korea is another country with its own ways of doing things, and we willingly came to Korea to experience another culture. The problem is that Westerners are rooted in a diametrically opposite culture from that which Koreans are rooted in, and it invariably comes down to values about the individual, comfort, logic, justice, and respect. And on these points there is conflict every single day in Korea–whether you keep silent about it – or you say something about it. And if you are a thinking Westerner, one who is a Westerner because of your views of these ideas–it tortures you.
The Greatest Injustice
I have always been adaptable. This comes from my sense of compassion for others. Where that breaks down–however–is where I find injustice. No matter how indignant we may become over the injustice we see beyond ourselves, the hardest injustice to brook is that which is leveled upon us, personally. The greatest injustice I felt in Korea was not being cheated for work I had done, not being pushed or passed over in public settings, not being excluded from public places because of my skin color and “race” (I couldn’t care less; whilst my friends, some of them famous, wanted to do something about it, I felt, ‘let more of these places crop up, showing the true racist nature of the Korean psyche.’), and not even being compared to a monkey for the hair on my arms. The greatest injustice I felt in Korea was being rejected by the “Christian” parents of the girl I had fallen in love with–and who loved me–before they had met me. I cannot express to you without a long diatribe or screed how fundamentally and humanly wrong I feel this is. And I will never forget it for the rest of my life. After all, we were perfect for one another, had everything in common, were very attracted to each other, and I treated her like a princess–taking her to the hospital when she was ill (even when we were not together), paying for a procedure that identified her health issue, even saving her family by helping her get a great job (all unbeknownst to her father).
Meet The Parents and Criticize with Love
About her parents, who never met me formally, but disapproved of me and barred me from their church and from seeing their daughter–I imagine that within the context of Korean society, they were nice people. After all, they raised the most kind, caring, considerate, and wonderful human being I have ever met, and one who was a great artist and intellect, too. However, as politically incorrect as it may be in polite company to criticize another culture–it is more than proper to do it in an essay, especially when the structure of that culture causes unnecessary pain for people who don’t deserve it, and most especially when that pain is something that results from institutionalized unfairness that only benefits those doling that unfairness out. Finally, it is the parents in Korea–and the children who won’t politely but firmly stand up to them which perpetuates this antique system of sets of discrimination. Indeed, in certain ways, this discriminatory society actually sets up many situations wherein its citizens can and do benefit for their discriminatory practices, to the tune of using people–in labor and personal situations.
When one can learn English by spending time with a foreigner (enormously important in Korean society), a foreigner whom you do not really have to introduce to anyone; when you can gain sexual experience with a foreigner you do not have to actually continue a serious relationship with; when you can date, receive gifts, and acquire cultural experience from someone you are likely going to have to break up with once your relationship is known to your parents; when you can let your hair down, escaping the strict judgments of your home culture (a Confucian one)–an escape-oriented relationship (or a string of them) can become hard to resist, and so becomes your unconscious goal and MO for achievement through dating.
Indeed, it is a well-known fact and feature of the Korean society that there are boys for dating and boys for marrying. Korean girls are raised to be in one mode or the other. This is not something geared only toward avoiding foreign men; it is practiced with their own kind.
More About The Ubiquity of Unscrupulous Behavior
If you are an employer, the in-place prejudices about foreigners can be your way around abusing them and your excuse for not following the agreed upon elements of labor contracts. Korea is a place that is a weird amalgam of strictures and laxness which come together to endemically and passively (as well as actively) encourage corruption — familial-ly, personally, academically, professionally, and governmentally–down to the graces and prejudices that underlie the national philosophy.
The “Bad Foreigner” Many Korean Women Secretly Love
Now, of course, for the foreigner who just wants to sleep around in Korea, a situation wherein the girls do not want or are not allowed to have serious relationships is quite conducive to that. Indeed, the argument can be made that many, if not all people–at one time or another–just want “a little warmth”, as my ex described it. And of course there are those who might describe themselves as the non-monogamous types in any culture. I am not here to judge them per se, or those times when people find themselves between points where serious relationships are wanted. However, I am trying to create awareness about the circumstances in a country where people go with open hearts, only to have their hearts and minds broken–largely because of the “racism”, nationalism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance of Korean parents and elder friends and family members, making Korea one of the most racist countries in the world–which is, unfortunately, the proof of gross ignorance and spiritual decrepitude on the part of otherwise well-meaning people who are (in international terms) quite unaware of themselves and how they are perceived. Remember, there is,scientifically-speaking, no such thing as race. Look it up.
In the end–if you are dating a girl in Korea who comes from a traditional Korean Confucian family–the responsibility rests with you as to whether you will adapt and remain, fighting on in chivalry and loving dedication (as I tried to do) or you leave that beguiling, charming (and as I am apt to say) “knuckle-whitening” country. Being a man from the West, I decided to stick it out. I was smitten with the girl I loved, and I was willing to do anything to be a good man for her, but perhaps, knowing the odds I was up against, my attempts at showering her with gifts, love, poetry, kindness, and dedication… were a bit too much. I over-compensated. However, it might not have mattered, even had I gone a lot more easily. Here is why:
How it Starts
I have met many Korean women in their thirties and forties; unmarried, divorced, or unhappily married. They speak English. Perhaps they work in the ESL industry. Perhaps they are just parents who love their husbands, but whose lives lack any excitement or romance (which is changing, as affairs and “secret boyfriends” and even remaining single indefinitely have become all the rave in Korea). They know something about Western culture… and they are enamored by it; its exotic nature, its freedoms, the beauty of Western countries, their expansiveness — and of course, their egalitarianism and open-minded multi-culturalism.
Korean women like the chivalry of Western culture, and the freedoms won by women in the Western civil rights movements. And so, they are caught dreaming of these virtues, attributes, freedoms, and characteristics of the Western world, and endlessly dating Western men (many of them “high society women” with six-figure husbands).
Working against this affection, there is an ever-present bulwark against it that is the national attitude that marrying Korean is better. Parents tell their children outright that marrying foreigners is forbidden. Korea was dominated by China, then Japan, who brutally de-acculturated Korea as much as possible; then Korea was occupied by the former Soviet Union and Union United States, with the latter of the two nations now being her military protector since 1953. A lot of terrible things happened whilst we helped the Koreans attain democracy, which we Americans were responsible for. This has engendered some deep-seated resentment. I understand that, and so do most educated foreigners. However, we are no evil occupiers, and many tens of thousands of Americans died and many hundreds of thousands were injured defending Korea in her terrible civil war.
There is this ridiculous notion among “conservative” Koreans–only now beginning to be distanced from–that says that Koreans should aim for a “Pure Blood” society. Apparently, the idea in genetics that says the mixing of DNA types (“races”) is beneficial to the human species is little-known in Korea — or it is side-stepped in favor of exclusionist ideologies that border on racism and xenophobia. This notion of Pure Blood arose among Koreans in Japan, when Korea had been annexed by the Japanese (1910-1945), and those Koreans who were abducted to build the Japanese war machine sought to create an ideology that would unify them and augment their efforts to galvanize pride and survival among them–as they struggled in the face of Japanese domination.
So, “Koreans”–as one of my best friends, a professor of political science and a former lecturer at Korea University, has said–“have a national identity crisis.” Like the small number of discriminating Japanese conservatives in Japan who are afraid of having their culture diluted by Korean immigrants in the present day, Koreans are afraid of disappearing as a culture and a “race” as well, which many of them believe they are (a distinct race). This fuels an anti-foreign agenda (along with the burgeoning–albeit immature varieties of–Christianity, which has, to some degree, become a movement to downplay, discredit, and even destroy Buddhism in Korea, a religion that is probably most socially responsible, historically, for the better part of the grace and restraint in Korean people).
I also firmly believe there is a great deal of penis-envy in the Korean male population, leveled at the anatomically more-endowed Caucasian and Negroid social groups, evident in the Korean male populations’ attempt to be more “gentle”, and in their mad rush for phallus surgery.
The “Good Girls”
Unlike the expats with “yellow fever”, who often look at Korean women as if those women are a box of chocolates to be endlessly sampled (in some cases because it seems hopeless to try to be serious with them–both because of their racist parents and friends, and because Korean dating scenarios when serious are often–if not always–quite childish and enormously frustrating, by Western standards) some of these Korean women are caught up trying to figure out why they keep choosing “the wrong ones” from The West. Sometimes, these women are not even able to admit what they are doing. I could get into the social, gender-related, and cultural reasons for this, but it’s for another piece of writing, another essay. The general simple reason why Korean women dating foreigners are unhappy is, akin to the reason which befalls Kyopos: they are caught between two worlds.
Why is She Giving You A Hard Time?
And when they do love their boyfriends–but face the difficult issue of “convincing” their parents to let them love whom they wish, many Korean women (and men) are too polite, afraid, attached, and not grown up enough to face their parents, and are too afraid to choose the man they really want. Indeed, the reward for giving up the taboo of dating a foreign man is nothing less than credit for the restoration of normal relations with Mother and Father, and a return to being in their graces.
Koreans are raised to not only honor “thy father and mother”, but to virtually worship them, and to nary go against their dictates, at pain of “disappointing” them — something anathema to the culture. And of course — no strange fact to any expat with a few months experience in Korea (as Koreans will unabashedly tell you themselves — as if it is acceptable and normal elsewhere in Westernized democracies): ‘well, you know, our parents don’t want us marrying foreigners.’ This is said in the most matter-of fact way, with no shame at all.
How Do They Look at Us?
Korean women also tend to judge the Western man by Korean standards; This is a big mistake, if you are a Korean woman who would like to keep your Western boyfriend. Their criteria is based on a lot of idiosyncrasy particular and relevant to Korean men and Korean society, not to Western men. What’s worse, they are raised to see foreigners as morally inferior, unclean, diseased, and maligned. National broadcasting stations actually regularly produce “documentaries” teaching these ideas, and they add the notion that Korean women are doing something wrong, unpatriotic, and racially impure when dating foreigners.
An added problem is, the old expression, “When in Rome…” is not a cute platitude in Korea, but ‘a correct’ belief bandied about as a defense in Korea — in a serious way, and with serious intent — for example, when a teacher tells his managers that something they are doing is ineffective, unfair, or against the contract already agreed upon.
Koreans en masse are simply not taught yet — although this is slowly changing — that people have a right to maintain their own values and culture, when visiting Korea — and that most contractual labor language is universal in its fairness and should be followed. Certainly, they see this concept as understandable, but quaint–not something worthy of support and worthy of what I would call “maxim status”. And to this end, I feel, many Koreans–in their pride–find it hard to accept that many foreigners coming to Korea are not actually in Korea trying to assimilate completely (which immigrants are not expected to do in their home countries, except by the most jingoistic members of Western society). Many Koreans–I suppose the younger ones, most of all–seem to have the attitude that foreigners have come to Korea to immigrate, not to help, make money, or simply “find themselves”.
Simply put, Korean women don’t know enough about the West to do what they should do, if they would like to succeed in love with their foreign boyfriends; look at Western men–who are raised to be tolerant and supportive of other modes of thinking, recreating, loving, working, believing, and living — in terms of their own Western individuality and culture, which is to say, Korean women need to judge Western men by Western ideals, instead of judging Western men by Korean ideals. Indeed, those of us from the West who believe in egalitarianism and in our civilization’s ancient Greek roots, feel this is the hallmark of our society; diversity of thought, action, and lifestyle! These women have spent little or no time abroad, and worse, are not raised in egalitarian ways; they are raised in soft totalitarian values–being told what to do and when to do it by everyone older than they are. That’s why they often cannot even begin to understand the freedoms of the mind and body–possessed by the Westerner, and instead… often see the Westerner as “a hippy”, or someone who does not have respect or love for his parents. The Westerner in Korea–at first–finds this innocence, this ignorance, and this prejudice to be a kind of naiveté, and often finds out far too late just how endemic and serious it is — and that it is worse than naiveté, because it is rarely outgrown and often passed on.
Doesn’t it Go The Other Way? (And, Why It Often Cannot)
If you are reading this and thinking as I am–as I write it–that a defense could be brought up, for Koreans… using my own logic, congratulations. I will address it: Why shouldn’t “foreigners”, as we are annoyingly called no matter how long we are in Korea, judge Koreans by their standards. We do. That is precisely why we forgive them and do not give up on them when they present us with a patronizing and false front (even when trying their best), racism, and dysfunctional behavior; lies, taciturn personalities, mundane sameness in their points of view, evasion, tantrums, manipulation, childish modes of speech, infidelity, off-the charts jealousy, invasions of privacy, and even violence. All these behaviors are, by the way, what one should expect from a culture that is hierarchical, ageist, sexist, chauvinist, racist, and in high admiration of a part of history called “The Three Kingdoms Period”.
I’ve never seen such obsessive focus on princes and princesses in the West, The Philippines, Japan, or even in England (because we fought this and outgrew it, creating modern-day democracy–something that was virtually handed to the Koreans; Democracy is simply not a high value, there–or, at least, it is taken for granted… not having been earned in such a way as would enable Koreans to see the clear difference between democracy and ‘relative freedom’ under a king pretending toward it; Korean society can give the Westerner the feeling that democracy is a broom in the closet, taken out for utilitarian purposes–from time to time.
Koreans do not give a foreign citizen the impression their society is imbued at all levels with at least the fundamental essence of Democracy and democratic principles–or the egalitarian ones that are its underpinnings. On the contrary, one gets the impression that virtually every element of the Koreans’ lives is proscribed. Every ritual–and there is a ritual, often a quaint and cozy one–for almost every aspect of their lives. Indeed, I never heard ‘it can’t be helped’, or the equivalent of ‘there’s nothing (I/we) can do about it’ more than in dealing with Koreans presented with a dilemma.
In Korea, it seems everyone is intent on wealth and kingly power; that is what’s valued–apparently–in what the West has won them). Now I know Koreans fought the North to avoid Communism–alongside the US, Canada, Ireland, Aussies… nineteen nations, as I learned it, but their society does not seem to celebrate democracy. It seems to use it, and value… totalitarian principles, more. Westerners in good conscience cannot adopt these modes of behavior, nor even admire them in a nostalgic way, without destroying what we were raised to be: brave, tolerant, op open-minded, and free! To be otherwise is unconscionable to us. I am not trying to scare anyone away from Korea– indeed, part of why I stayed there so long was I possessed a love for the hearts of the people, a love for their kindness, and a love for helping my students embrace more than tradition; I was there to help usher in the new age, and of course, I was in love with my beloved and am a man of enormous steadfastness in love. I am also not here attempting insult anyone over sour grapes, spilled milk, or missed kimchi. I want you to know what I feel, what I felt, and what I saw and learned in seventeen years of dealing with Korean people, for their benefit and yours. Korea taught me a lot, but in the end, she broke my heart–perhaps irreparably. I don’t want that happening to others, to Koreans or to visitors in Korea.
Love in Korea, Out of Korea, and in The Heart
Remember, when in love, this is your greatest hour of certainty, confidence, and courage. That’s “why” love is “given” to us, or why we have love in our lives; to be inspired by that confidence to do the impossible that love empowers us to go: to grow as people, to achieve, to say ‘I love you’ in circumstances we normally cannot, and to make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. And this is never achieved by logic. It is all driven by sentiment–and when we are blessed with that all-empowering sentiment and emotion, we should never squander it, nor should we let others sabotage our attempts to. We have to follow the heart, because the mind is like a pie. Everyone wants a piece and everything in the world is unstable–from the climate, to the economies we make, to the politics, to your job. However, our hearts–usually belong to one person. If you keep it that way, you can dedicate it to one person. This makes all the difference in making life simple, beautiful, and easy.
Many Koreans see love as a luxury, a fantasy, a chemical reaction that lasts about three years. They are unaware that in the West, where “the love marriage” (as opposed to the marriage decided by logic, family-wealth & status, and “compatibility”) is the standard–we have a love that has evolved beyond the “love” of the imperial age and its fiat, estate and kingly concerns, economics, and greed–perhaps the survival of a daughter, or a family. I call this ‘peasant love’, or, ‘squirrel love’. Modern love, or true love is an art, a process, a way of practicing self-care, the care of others. It is the perpetuation of romantic relationships and marriage itself. I have heard many Koreans say they do not believe in love, or when they do, it is easy to see the betrayal of a belief as I just described–to them, love is often a sort of pre-marriage ideal–meant for fantasy.
How it Ends
If you want an easy time of understanding things and people of a Western nature, if you want to succeed in having a life-long love with a Western person, either truly listen to that Western man (or woman) who loves you, and as soon as you can get on a plane and go see his or her country for at least five years. No Korean , born in Korea or born abroad, can ever solve the mysteries of your heart, nor can he tell you the truth about this person in your life or about his culture–ever.
And you cannot love this person until you understand that, deeply. So follow your heart and find what you need to know. Love depends on knowing someone. Or fail at love and be obedient, and contribute to Korea staying the way it is.
In closing, I would like my brethren in Korea to consider what a fair employment looks like for people in the West. This was taken from Craig’s List. It is an add for teachers to come and work I n California. This is what you should aspire to:
“We encourage applicants of diverse backgrounds to apply for any open position in which they feel qualified. We are committed to embracing diversity and consider all applicants for all positions without regard to color, ethnic background, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, or any other legally protected class. Cal/West is committed to providing inclusive opportunities for all prospective candidates.”
That’s the way good people consider others for all opportunities, including friendship, love, club and community organization, and sports… not just those relationships involving work.
Peace, Love, Joy, and Imagination,
Carl Carroll Atteniese