Friday, July 25, 2008

Korea Days

A friend of mine calls me every once in a while and says, “I’ve had a Bad Korea Day.” I know what she means by this. She means that she caught a taxi to go somewhere and the driver didn’t understand her. Or she was trying to roam her phone at the airport, which she’s done a hundred times, but the rules have changed and suddenly she can’t because it’s not registered under her own name. Someone was unkind. She was annoyed by the twittering of the girls walking in the streets. She needed a new pair of shoes and nothing fit right. The bathroom didn’t have toilet paper. I’ve had these days too, I know what they’re like.

We have bad days in our home countries too, but then they’re just bad days. There’s nothing and nobody in particular to pin the blame on when frustration and anger arise from a succession of unexpectedly difficult or uncomfortable situations. And those situations aren’t exacerbated by miscommunication and cultural difference.

There’s been a discussion going around the Korea-related blogs about why ex-pat bloggers complain so much. I’m not sure that they do necessarily complain more than anyone else -- the feeling that the do may arise because people tend to read and remember sound bites and emotion-inducing rants rather than not long commentary. But this reminds me of something I had been writing (and never finished) in June. I don’t have time to edit so I’ll paste my notes in here.

Notes on being a “Korea” blogger

I began blogging about two years ago. At that point I had already lived here for three years and had built up, in my mind and heart, a collection of observations, theories, stories, and feelings about living abroad. I was just starting to assemble these into categories and attach tentative causal relations. My husband kept bugging me to write down the conversations were were having and I resisted just because I don’t like being told what to do even if the advice is good. But once I started writing things down I found the process cathartic. Writing gave me a chance to sift through, collate, and analyze what I had collected and to some extent order and unload the mental and emotional baggage.

I have become, by default, a “Korea” blogger (though not a very popular or prolific one) -- someone who blogs about “Korea.” And perhaps because my dissertation was supposed to be about late 19th and early 20th century missionaries’ production of secular knowledge (on “Korea,” on the “West,” on medicine, education, hygiene, etc.), it has always been in the back of my mind as I blogged that like the missionaries I am also engaged in knowledge production about Korea, about the U.S., about George Clooney, Bunco, and various other topics. That hasn’t stopped me from writing but it has often made me hesitate and feel uncomfortable with the process and with the label of “Korea” blogger.

I tend to blog about my experiences (rather more well-defined topics such as food, history, news, politics, teaching English, etc.), but when writing as an American living in a foreign country “experience” can be a charged category -- emotionally, politically, and socially. It is often very hard find the line between individual experience and cultural/social commentary. How significant is my individual experience (and my interpretation of it) and how much does it really speak to larger cultural or social trends?

Although the comment threads in any popular blog tend to disintegrate into “You’re an asshole,” “No you’re an asshole and an idiot,” conversations, if you can wade through all that without being sincerely disturbed about the human condition you can find a debate running about this tricky category of experience.

Let’s look at a (perhaps silly) example. A few weeks ago one of the writers in the group blog Marmot’s Hole (one of the most well-read English-language Korea blogs) blasted a piece written by Gabe Hudson in the NYT Magazine. Hudson’s piece was about living in high-tech Seoul and concluded with an incident in a restaurant in which a Korean man bothered Hudson and his Korean girlfriend while they were having dinner. The Marmot blogger commented, “Frankly, if I had a chance to contribute an article about Seoul to NYT Magazine, this probably wouldn’t be the topic I’d discuss, especially if I’d only been in country for a couple of months and knew nothing about the place, but hey, to each his own.” I quickly scanned the almost 300 comments. A good chunk are about how Hudson comes off as a prick (to say it nicely) in his article. But let’s look at the others:

1. Many comments dealt with the frequency of incidents in which interracial couples are harassed by locals. Many readers offered examples from their own experience, including amount of time spent in Korea and how often the harassment occurred. I see this as a collective assessment of how representative the situation is. One could also see this as a group effort to determine and define a sense of what Korea is like for those who don’t live here. One could also see this process as an attempt to construct a set of guidelines for what kinds of experiences count and what kinds don’t count when appealing to the label “Korea.”

2. Many comments, like the original blog post, dealt with the appropriateness of discussing this incident in NYT Magazine. If you’re given the chance to write about life in Seoul, why would you choose to write about this, to propagate this particular picture of what Korea and Koreans are like? Goes back to the process of assessment in #1 -- if the incident is representative that perhaps justifies calling attention to it in such a forum.

I suspect that some of the anger at Hudson himself has to do with the fact that he hadn’t built up any street cred in the ex-pat community. There are a good number of Korea bloggers out there, and many of them spend a lot of time and effort (as I do) picking and choosing which aspects of our lives here to discuss and not to discuss. To write for such a large audience and to do so with so little knowledge and through must seem like a slap in the face to those who have spent years developing a reputation of authority and knowledge in the blogging world.

3. Another set of comments have to do with whether these incidents are really one-sided or how much the incidents are somehow provoked by the couple in questions. These comments complicate the story and the possible conclusions. Hudson, as far as I can gather, doesn’t speak Korean and has only a recent and casual acquaintance with Korean culture and history. We don’t get the other party’s point of view, so we only assume (as Hudson did) that the other guy was mad because the relationship crossed racial lines, not because of something the couple did or said. But how trustworthy is Hudson’s account? How can we, the audience, be sure that the person describing the incident has captured all the relevant information?

4. There is a possible comparative stance that I didn’t see in my quick read but could have been easily made. Hudson alludes to it when he says that, “I should say that if I were in New York City and I saw a fellow American accosting a Korean man and his date this way, I’d want to break the American man’s face too.” These incidents happen in the U.S. too; my husband (before we met) dated a Belgian woman for several years and got harassed for it. Racism still exists in the U.S. too (isn’t that what Borat was about?) although as a society we have spent more time consciously combating it and we have more people of different colors and backgrounds to interact with on a daily basis.

This would naturally lead to the counter-argument: this is a post/blog on Korea, it doesn’t need to be comparative.

And the counter-counter-argument: that as an outsider commenting on Korea, the comparative stance is implied. Insert relevant arguments about differential power relations here.

5. That discussion may lead to the argument (made by at least one commentor) that this is racism which should always be noticed and censored. No matter what the context, shouldn’t we be vigilant and call attention to any incident, no matter how small or uncommon?

6. A reference to history: lingering anger at servicemen knocking up Korean women and abandoning them, attempting to explain the anger not as pure racism but as historically motivated. There’s a “don’t get on your high horse so quickly” kind of reminder here, which also serves to complicate any kind of emotion and make it not just rooted in the present but subject to the influences of historical consciousness. This move complicates emotion and actions in general, and also notions of responsibility on both sides. Is someone less accountable for their anger because of this history?

7. The contextualization of emotions such as anger, as well the knowledge that I blog partially to purge myself of emotional build-up, makes me think that an argument could be made about Hudson’s right to deal with this emotionally. I didn’t really see this but I can imagine the comment, “Why shouldn’t he write about something that clearly bothers him and that he has experienced?” Why should any experience be invalidated? He doesn’t claim this is universal or that Korea is a racist place, though by referring to the incident is not uncommon, as an example of a set of similar incidents, there is that sense of larger cultural criticism. The brute and angry quality of “break his face” in comparison with the rest of the piece marks the emotional significance of the incident for Hudson. He’s angry. As I would be. Does that mean it was ok for him to post in NYT Magazine, though? Which brings us back to point #2.

The vitriolic comment sections of this and any major blog underscore the emotionality of blogging. To take a more complicated example, in the discussions over the recent protests against President Lee Myung-bak and American beef (I would argue they are more about the former and not the latter), many commentors have blasted the protesters as illogical and too easily swayed by emotion. But what I found interesting is the emotion of the bloggers/commentors themselves -- the anger at the protesters, the furor at “Korean” systems and ways of thinking.

At this point the post starts to go in a different direction, but mainly I want to say this:
1. Blogging fulfills psychological needs. Hell, WRITING fills those needs. Analyze anyone's blog long enough and you can see their insecurities (as people quickly jumped on Hudson for presumed issues with his manliness or attractiveness) -- how often does the blogger assert his/her intelligence, education, knowledge, the validity of his/her experience? We write (OK, I write) to get a handle on the world around us/me, to gain a sense of control. I spend a lot of time doing it. I spend that time because I enjoy it and I need that catharsis.
2. There's a labeling issue. A "bad day" becomes a "bad Korea day." To steal a quote from my friend Emily (a psychologist, who uses examples like this all the time): "If you're getting a divorce and your mother is dying from cancer and you encounter someone who is mean, you feel furious at the mean person even though what you're really upset about is that you're getting divorced and your mom is dying." I'm not sure how she stays sane while doing that job. Being an ex-pat is much easier. But it's not easy, and it is easier to give that discomfort the name "Korea" rather than investigate more thoroughly.

Added later:
I may regret posting this and pull it down in a few hours (I have not slept much lately and am not firing on all cylinders, or whatever the metaphor is -- sleep deprivation messes up my language centers). The Korean has made the point that Korea, despite its futuristic look, has changed a great deal in the past few decades. My husband, who isn't THAT old, grew up with strict curfews, being tear gassed by riot police (accidentally, since he and his friends happened to be in the area at the time), with his mother being kidnapped and interrogated by the KIA for no good reason. I have met people who didn't realize that foreigners had the same blood types as Koreans and who really don't have much concept of what the rest of the world is like. And living in the U.S., a place which has been developed for a lot longer, I also meet people who don't know what the rest of the world is like. I've met college educated people who don't understand that Koreans and Chinese speak different languages. I would hope that we bloggers would be better ambassadors and producers of knowledge to bridge the gaps in language and experience (but as gord selller amoung others points out, most ex-pats aren't really aware of what Koreans themselves discuss).


Anonymous said...

Well said. I really enjoy the way that you write and must admit that I am a bit sad to hear that you are leaving Seoul (I just found your blog) but at the same time am excited for you and your family's move to Shanghai - also for all the new posts that will result from it (selfish, sorry ^_^).


Jennifer said...

Thanks, Joanne! I suspect I'll still blog about Korea a lot though... I still have things I want to say. I'm just slow in writing them down. Plus it's going to take a while to get my bearings in Shanghai!