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11 Sep

Scattered thoughts on a recent visit – Well, it’s now over a week into September and time just keeps sprinting along. I have a few weeks before the first draft of my dissertation is due and I still have quite a bit of work ahead of me, but I made a promise to post at least once a month. If only for my own sanity and nothing else, I think it’s time for another journal entry.

“...the one who looks like he should speak Korean can’t, but the one who looks like he shouldn’t be able to speak Korean can.”

This past week a friend of mine from the States, Dave (no, not “That David Guy,” although I suppose it is curious that the only close friends I have left in the States are both named David), came to visit for about four days before continuing on to Shanghai and then Beijing. It’s been years since I’ve seen him, so it was good to catch up, and it was also nice to have someone visiting me here.

For his part, Dave mentioned that he didn’t really feel like he was in a foreign country because I was here. That is, he didn’t have to deal with the things that you usually have to deal with when traveling to a foreign country, like communication difficulties, navigating cultural minefields, etc. He also said that he finally realized that I actually lived here. I know that might sound strange, but the way he explained it was that he had always just thought of me as his American friend who was visiting Korea. But once he visited me here, he realized that I was now “Korean.” I had to laugh when he said that because that’s the sort of thing Koreans will say to you when you have adapted to some fiendishly difficult aspect of Korean culture, such as being able to use chopsticks without gouging your eye out.

Here’s another thing that might not make sense at first: with Dave visiting, I felt more foreign than I have in a long time. I suppose it’s because I don’t really hang out with too many foreigners here and spend most of my time around Koreans, and most of the foreigners I do hang out with can speak Korean and have adapted to Korean culture to a certain extent. But traveling around with Dave for four days, showing him the (limited) sights, introducing him to Korean cuisine, and speaking English all the time really did make me feel out of place.

The most interesting part of it all was how Koreans reacted to the two of us. Dave is a Chinese-American, so just about everyone mistook him for a Korean. I, on the other hand, could not be mistaken for Korean in a million years. Koreans would invariably speak to Dave in Korean and be shocked or surprised when I answered. At least three or four times during his visit someone said something along the lines of “the one who looks like he should speak Korean can’t, but the one who looks like he shouldn’t be able to speak Korean can.”

I’m not going to lie to you—even though I played along and laughed it off, this began to irritate me very quickly. It highlights the fact that most people have a very hard time looking past skin color when it comes to judging others. This applies to pretty much every culture, of course, but in Korea it seems to be particularly widespread. Koreans pride themselves on their homogenous society—despite the growing number of interracial marriages and the children that these marriages produce. The reality doesn’t matter, though, it’s what people think that is important. And many Koreans are convinced that they belong to a homogenous society.

The result of this is that everyone who looks like they don’t belong is treated (to some extent) like an outsider, and everyone who looks like they do belong is held to certain standards, whether that is fair or not. Take overseas Koreans, for example. A lot of them come to Korea with very limited language skills, and a lot of Koreans treat them like children or mentally challenged individuals simply because they can’t speak like a native speaker. Again, this phenomenon is not limited to Korea—I think we all have a tendency to underestimate the mental capacity of an individual who cannot speak the lingua franca well. If the language is their first, of course, such a judgment might not be somewhat understandable, but if it is their second language it is completely unfounded.

I had assumed it would be like that just about everywhere in Asia, but Dave told me that people in Taiwan were always very nice to him, even complementing him on his Chinese (I have no standard by which to judge Dave’s Chinese, but he tells me that it is good enough for everyday conversation but insufficient for deep discussion). They would ask if he was from America and seem really excited that he was visiting. I was very surprised to hear this because, judging by what I have heard from overseas Koreans here, this is pretty much the opposite of what happens in Korea. Overseas Koreans get special visas that allow them to stay here as long as they want, but they don’t really get much of a welcome from Korean society.

Like many other countries, Korea suffers from what is known as “brain drain.” What this means is that a lot of smart people go abroad to study, either in Europe or in the States, and never come back. These smart people are usually native Koreans, but I think you can extend the concept to apply to overseas Koreans as well. Education is very important in Korean culture, and this tradition is often carried on by Korean parents abroad, so many overseas Koreans are very well educated. When they come to Korea, though, either to visit or maybe even to study the language of their parents, they are often treated like children simply because they can’t speak Korean fluently.

My wife teaches Korean to foreigners, and a good number of her students are overseas Koreans. Just the other day she was telling me about one student of hers, a young guy, who spoke like a Korean grandmother. Why? The answer is obvious—because he learned all the Korean he knew from his grandmother. My wife admitted that she subconsciously thought he was less intelligent because of that fact. Then she heard him talking in English to another student and realized that he was in fact very intelligent and well-educated. Now imagine what people who don’t have as much experience with overseas Koreans might think. It’s no wonder that overseas Koreans with limited Korean skills become very frustrated here.

This may not at first seem directly related to the brain drain issue, but I think it is. The solution to brain drain is not pouring money into the problem. Incentives might serve to draw people back in the first place, but if they are not satisfied with their lives they are just going to leave again. The real solution to brain drain is much more complex and much harder to accomplish. It basically requires a change in the culture. Why do smart Koreans often not return from studying abroad? Why do a relatively small amount of overseas Koreans return to their parents’ country to live as productive members of society? Most likely because they feel that the quality of their life is better where they are now.

Take the whole issue of Confucianism, for example. I’m not talking about Confucianism as a religion, I’m talking about Confucianism as a guide to human relationships (that is, what is generally known as Neo-Confucianism). More specifically, I’m talking about the way Confucianism has been twisted by those in power as a means of retaining that power. What you end up with is a very rigid social hierarchy that favors age over everything else (some have tried to explain this to me as favoring “experience,” but I don’t buy it—age comes first, and experience is subordinate to that). Is it no surprise that young, smart Koreans would want to stay abroad, where they can be judged on their abilities and not their age, rather than return to Korea and be pushed down by the hierarchy.

This is not to say that the West is a paradise without its own forms of discrimination. Every society has a hierarchy of some sort. (So please don’t email me telling me that the West has its own problems. I know the West has its own problems, but that doesn’t make my point about Korea any less valid.) But the Korean hierarchy happens to be very rigid. If Korea really wants to stop this hemorrhaging of smart people, some fundamental changes need to be made in the society and culture. Unfortunately, this is not something a government can achieve, so they will most likely continue to throw money at the problem and hope that the influx of both foreign-educated Koreans and overseas Koreans (as well as foreign intellectuals, businessmen, etc.) will begin the process of change and become a self-perpetuating cycle.

Well, that was a bit of a disorganized ramble. I had no idea where I was going when I started, but this is where I ended up. I’ve written about similar subjects before in more detail, and I’m sure these thoughts could use some polishing and cleaning up, but I’m pretty much going to leave it as is—as a stream-of-consciousness musing on one aspect of Korean society.

The rest of September is going to be hell for me, so this will most likely be it for this month. Once the dissertation fever goes down, there should be more writing. Feel free to rummage through the Archives in the meantime.

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