Sunday, May 2, 2010

Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans

John Glionna of the Los Angeles Times has discovered Min Byoung-chul. Or at least his readership now has.

I've heard a few too many Americans go on and on about the inherent bigotry of Min's observations — some of them Americans who make similarly inherently bigoted statements about Koreans — but I give Mr Min a pass because he's an equal opportunity social critic and his intent is to build bridges of understanding (yeah, I realized how corny that sounded as I typed it).

As in any social or sociological observation, there's always a danger in making broad statements about a group of people, but recognizing them as common (even if not predominant) archetypes may make it more palatable.

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8 comments:

  1. Interesting article... and I like Min's attitude - not judgemental.

    I've seen "Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans" in bookshops, but don't think I'd ever buy it - I've lived in Korea long enough to be very familiar with the cultural differences it covers. It might be useful for someone thinking about coming to Korea for the first time, but it would probably be easier to just search online for tips.

    The danger with just looking online, though, is that a balanced description of intercultural misunderstandings may not be so easy to find.

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  2. I actually own that "Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans" book. It's not bad. Helps put things in perspective, a little.

    I think that the thing people realise here is that the social rules Koreans and foreigners break aren't that of the other culture, but their own. Foreigners and Koreans are both very rude here because they break all their own customs.

    But then I'm falling into the trap you mentioned: generalising. But without generalising, we can't have helpful guides like this. We can't talk about cultures and differences, and we can't really try and understand one another effectively.

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  3. Is he really an equal opportunity social critic? I read only the first version many years ago, and from what I recall, some of the social faux pas were presented inaccurately. For example, Americans were called "champion gum chewers" and admonished that Koreans chewed gum discreetly. This is a half-truth. Koreans don't chew gum at work, but when they do chew gum, they often do it very loudly, with an open mouth and lots of snapping. On a train I could actually hear an ajosshi chomping away over the sounds of music being played as loudly yet safely as possibly through earphones I was wearing.

    I also recall that explanations of Korean behaviors had a tone of empathy and understanding while those of Americans sometimes contained a seemingly snarky comment like the example above.

    No matter how one tries, one cannot be neutral or objective in comparing and contrasting one's culture with another.

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  4. Schplook wrote:
    The danger with just looking online, though, is that a balanced description of intercultural misunderstandings may not be so easy to find.

    I think that's true. Min's book seems to bring a whole lot of things together which sort of provides a theme that you can pick up on. Sort of.

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  5. Korean Rum Diary wrote:
    I think that the thing people realise here is that the social rules Koreans and foreigners break aren't that of the other culture, but their own. Foreigners and Koreans are both very rude here because they break all their own customs.

    That's a pretty astute observation, KRD. To a large extent, many of the goofball foreigners are acting in ways they wouldn't back home (though the problem with some goofballs is that they are acting exactly as they do back home).

    And among many Koreans who interact with non-Koreans, there is a feeling that the 답답한 social constraints they would have to abide by among Koreans need not be abided by with "foreigners." That can lead to good results, but sometimes very rude or disrespectful outcomes. (And I noticed something similar among some Japanese as well, more so among Japanese in Hawaii than in Korea).

    But then I'm falling into the trap you mentioned: generalising. But without generalising, we can't have helpful guides like this. We can't talk about cultures and differences, and we can't really try and understand one another effectively.

    Well, that's why I made the point about archetypes over stereotypes. Even if, say, the gum-hacking ajumma is a minority of the population that can't be generalized to the majority, she still is a type (and one that most KoKos find annoying as well, from what I see).

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  6. Sonagi, it's been over ten years since I read the book, so I don't remember, though I do recalling being annoyed by some of the "Ugly American" points but feeling that overall it was pretty fair.

    One thing in particular that annoyed me, however, was that he talked about Westerners blowing their nose at the table. I remember thinking to myself, "Come on! Who does that?" and then, almost as if on cue, I started noticing Westerners (on the military base) doing it all the time!

    There's no point to that story, except that maybe if we keep pointing out problems then that's all we see. Back when I was a teenager, I didn't notice so many KoKos had thick ankles until someone (a kyopo from Chicago) pointed out to me, "Oh, my God! All these Korean chicks have fat ankles!"

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  7. I believe it's also important to realize that all the reading and knowledge in the world can not fully prepare an individual for what he/she will encounter in a different culture. Until one actually experiences that different culture, they don't know how they will react to any particular situation.

    Cliche - Experience is the best teacher.

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  8. True that.

    And all the reading in the world carries with it the danger of creating a filter that acts as a distortion lens.

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