Prejudice and Being Accepted in Western and Korean Culture

:

I often start getting a bit uncomfortable when I post a string of mostly negative blogs on Korea in succession, which could be argued that I have done in recent weeks.  It is amazing how negative stories pop into my head when I am feeling negative or when I am having troubles relating to Korean culture.  It feels like I dislike Korean culture in my blogs more than I actually do.

I often start getting a bit uncomfortable when I post a string of mostly negative blogs on Korea in succession, which could be argued that I have done in recent weeks.  It is amazing how negative stories pop into my head when I am feeling negative or when I am having troubles relating to Korean culture.  It feels like I dislike Korean culture in my blogs more than I actually do.

On top of all of this I was reminded by a Korean reader of my blogs that things aren’t that great in my country – or in the West generally – either in a response to my post on Korean Fatigue.  It seemed from her comments that my troubles with Korean culture were being mirrored in her case but in Australia and England.

Her comments were honest and well put and without the least bit of anger, despite the fact what I said in the post could have been taken badly.  This is often what I find when Korean people reply to my posts, very sensible, well put points that are without abuse or slander.  Maybe only the nice ones read my blogs, or the ones that are comfortable with Western culture having traveled and learned English, or maybe they can take a little criticism without screaming ‘Racist!’ or ‘Hitler!’ – a common problem I see in Western dialogue at the moment based on a taboo on criticizing culture coming as a reaction to some of our nastier escapades in the past.

I noticed it cropping up regularly before Piers Morgan’s infamous, worrying, but entertaining interview the other night on CNN with Alex Jones about guns in America.  In the UK, the US, and everywhere else in the Western world people on opposing sides of arguments are brandishing the ‘Hitler’, ‘Stalin’, ‘Mao’ and ‘Racist’ cards with ever increasing regularity.  When George Bush was in power, the Liberals called him the new Hitler with posters of him sporting a little mustache on placards based on his invasion of Iraq and now Obama is the new Hitler for the Conservatives based on healthcare reform.  We can all find things Hitler did or was and find comparisons to others; I was a vegetarian in England, Hitler was a vegetarian and implemented many policies protecting animals so that must mean that what I write will encourage us to kill millions of Jews.  When are we going to stop arguing like this?  It is not an appeal to reason but an appeal to fear.

Anyway I digress, in this post the title says, ‘Western countries’, but I am only talking about two of them, Australia and England.  I am well aware that when I usually talk of Western culture I am generalizing a little as countries in the West are all different but I am constantly amazed at just how alike we really all are when I meet different people from English speaking Western countries in Korea.  Our core principles are the same and it shows when we have dealings each other.  Even when I meet people from non-English speaking Western countries our values and principles are so similar it always feels like we are reading off the same page, I rarely get this feeling with Koreans.

The reader I was talking about wrote about the pressure on her to conform and the racial abuse she received in Australia in the form of loud verbal abuse, and the more subtle form she received in England in the form of glares, subtle comments, and general ignorance.  Here is some of what she wrote:

“in Australia, I have to deal with racism everyday with people insulting me and others directly but if I challenge this in anyway they usually say “can’t you take a joke?” “I wasn’t saying anything racism, that guy is an asian **@#. hahaha!” or there can be threats of physical violence. You have strangers coming up to you to tell you in a very public way what is wrong with you. Some absolutely love seeing the pain in your face and be encouraged to shout louder.”

“in England I had a wonderful time there but still felt pressure to conform. The only difference was that people wouldn’t directly tell you or confront you. It was more subtle, glares, may put into conversation in a round about way that you don’t do something that way, ignore you, talk about you behind your back.”

I can completely back up what she says about this kind of thing and add that in England it is not always as subtle in prejudice as she experienced.  In England, my wife and I were on the receiving end of very vocal verbal abuse also, especially when people happened to be drunk (I strongly believe that the UK has an alcohol problem causing many of the social problems there at the moment).  My wife also said she experienced the same in Australia when she studied English there.  I include myself in this abuse because the abuse took a different form if I was with my wife compared to when she was alone.  When I was with her she was my Thai bride that I bought on my travels, but when she was alone she was a ching, chong Chinawoman with funny eyes. Intelligent stuff, I know and we never took it to heart, but it singles you out sometimes on busy streets and makes you feel rather uncomfortable.

As well as this, in Australia, Korean news reported recently on attacks on Korean immigrants and travelers.

We all know that prejudice is alive and kicking in Korea also, and I dare say pretty much everywhere around the world.  We are all as bad as each other, right?  Well, not quite.  To me it is clear that prejudice and racism occurs everywhere but they do exist in different forms with differing levels of intensity and threat.

What is very difficult is for a white person to judge effectively the level of racism present in a given society and just how damaging it is because white people are often the least victimized.  For example, I used to think rather naively that when I brought my wife to England all the prejudice we received as a couple in Korea would not be present, and that there we would be accepted.  I really couldn’t have been more wrong the whole experience was a real eye-opener.

Even in Korea, as a white person, it is difficult to judge just how nasty people’s prejudices can be.  Sure, I experience a level of discrimination in Korea but it is really not that bad.  I am sure there are examples of Koreans punching the odd foreign white person in the face in a racially motivated attack, but it is rare I think.  I would personally like to know what Black, Middle-Eastern, and South East Asian people think of their treatment in South Korea because I have the impression that they might have a much harder time.  But just like I could not really know England’s attitude to having an Asian wife before I was married to one, I am ignorant of how Black, Middle-Eastern and South East Asians feel about how they are generally treated in Korea, with the exception of a few stories I have read about in the news.

Even admittedly being ignorant of this important factor, however, it does seem as if the form of prejudice taken in England and Australia is more in your face and more upsetting and threatening than the form it takes in Korea, which on the whole is more subtle and subdued (but can still be extremely infuriating).  In the case of the ethnic minorities I have mentioned, however, the articles I have read in the news are an especially uncomfortable read.

Being accepted is another thing entirely and if people don’t accept your individual ways of doing things this does not necessarily mean that this is a type of racism.

Pressure to conform exists in every culture and it occurs regardless of whether you were born into it or not.  Personally, in England I always felt pressure to conform; to drink a lot of alcohol, to act cool, to wear the right clothes, to eat meat, even extremely minor issues like to not enjoy a cup of tea after a squash match and drink beer like everyone else.  This came in form of aggression as well as mere jeering from people that I sometimes knew quite well.  If I came from another country to live in England and people behaved in this way, perhaps I might view it a prejudice, and maybe it is, but it might not be about skin colour or nationality and certainly was not in my case.  It must of course be noted that having a different race and culture might aggravate these situations.

In Korea, I feel the same pressure to conform and it is not because of racial prejudice because the more I fit in with Korean people and am accepted by them, the more I feel it and the more I see the pressure piling on Korean people themselves.  I do feel that the pressure to conform is greater in Korea because of the group-centred nature of the culture.  I sense this in empathy for the Koreans I see succumbing to it and not solely for myself.  I think Korean people really suffer sometimes under the weight of conforming to other people’s expectations and I can sympathize with them.  I see this same suffering in people from my own country but not with anywhere near the same intensity and also the advice and encouragement we typically give to friends or family when they are having trouble with others is usually something like, ‘just be yourself, they will appreciate you in the end, and if they don’t they are not worth caring about.’.

With enough stubborn persistence and courage I found that my unconventional ways (in the eyes of my friends and peers) was eventually accepted and I believe I received a lot of respect and gained a certain charm in people’s eyes for standing up for myself and being an individual.

Because of the Western respect for the individual I think that this attitude can win through in the end, but make no mistake it can be a battle to not do what is expected of you and not conform to social norms.  I think this could be a difficult thing to realise for people from the Far East when they live in our countries, that they still have to fight to be respected as an individual and for Western people to value them for who they really are.  Western culture talks a good game of this respect for people and human rights but most people don’t follow through on it in practice.  It shouldn’t be this way but this is the reality of relationships within a naturally tribal species.

The other big problem at the moment is that in the West you have to take care in who you stand up to and display your own personal character.  For whatever reason – maybe the growing gap between the rich and the poor – England appears to have a growing underclass of ignorant yobs and hooligans and from what I hear the same thing is occurring in Australia too.  Not only do they not appreciate the finer points of individuality with people from within their own culture but they often have an undercurrent of almost militant nationalism, which also makes them very often prejudiced against people from other countries and people of different race.  The growth in popularity of mickey mouse political parties like the BNP (British National Party) and UKIP (The UK Independence Party) is a sign of this growing nationalism and hatred of foreign immigrants within this underclass of the British population who blame many of the ills they are suffering on the convenient scapegoat of foreigners taking their jobs and their money through taxes.  The bleak economic climate may be fueling this attitude further.

Stand up for your right to express yourself in front of these people and you can expect a knuckle sandwich for your trouble, or an egg and water thrown at you from a car going past you down the street.  These things might even happen when you are not expressing yourself.  I have experienced each of these in England, the last two personally, just minding my own business walking and causing no trouble at all alone without the company of my wife.

What must a foreign visitor to our shores think when something like this happens?  While I think some – maybe even most – cases are racially motivated attacks when they involve people who are non-white, one cannot rule out the possibility that they are just randomly selecting people for this treatment because at the end of the day they are simply mindless morons (it was just for kicks in my case, and I didn’t stand out from anyone else walking down the street).  These cretins just have to be ignored and somehow tolerated by all of us.

In fact, the nice thing about Korea is that I don’t have to worry about people like this, they simply don’t exist where I live in Suncheon.  I can go out for a run through the park in the morning wearing my silly-looking Jesus-like running sandals (Huaranches for the ‘Born to Run’ people) and, despite a few funny looks, I know I can survive the experience and come back unscathed both physically and mentally.  I seriously have concerns about doing the same in England, I am fairly certain I will receive more than just a few quizzical glances for my trouble.

Walk past these guys in England and there is a good chance you will take some abuse, no matter where you are from.

In my reply to the Korean lady who wrote to me I rather clumsily worded my response and said that I did not like Korean culture.  I think with regard to relationships between people I don’t but there are many other aspects that I do like.  I like so many Korean people, especially the younger ones, and all the students I have taught in my time here have been truly fantastic, but the culture has continually got in the way of me having honest interactions with anyone but my wife.  I really resent having to placate so many people and not be myself with them and it is all down to the culture of conformity and respect.  This is something that I see not only foreigners struggling with but Korean people themselves as the battle to express individuality is never really fought in the first place because of almost certain ostracism.  Unless you can find success down to your individuality and be a movie star or earn lots of money, it just seems impossible to be respected for it here in Korea.

Weirdly enough though, if I walk down the street or do something in Korea that is a little bizarre I feel far less threatened and under less pressure to conform.  This has lot to do with the fact that I am English and England is my homeland and Korea is not, but it is a sad state of affairs that my own country is so failing the Western ideals of freedom, equality, and individuality; principles that I and many of us hold so very dear and principles that should welcome people of other cultures to our lands and help us all to be ourselves and not fear to be who we really are.



Leave a Comment