In celebration of Christmas I'm having some pizza, listening to some Christmas music, and will probably watch Love, Actually. I've been sitting on this post for a bit, and have been unsure whether to post it. I cut a lot of it out because it was getting quite rambling, as rants are wont to do. It does kill the holiday cheer, and it is a little weak in spots, but it's been on my mind for the last few days. Thank you kindly for not pointing out the holes in my argument, but for instead emphathizing with a shitty day and with a frustration I'm sure a lot of foreigners feel from time to time.
The other day I made a stupid rookie mistake: I got into a political conversation with a couple of Korean friends. They are Jeollanam-do residents currently living in Seoul, and they asked me my opinion of Chung Dong-young, the candidate who took 78.7% of the vote in Jeonnam. I said that I didn't like him and that I didn't like the way some South Korean politicians had cozied up to the North.
I was surprised by how riled up that got them. In an exchange over the next few minutes they said a number of things I really didn't expect to hear from them: they really liked North Korea; they considered the US the main obstacle to unification; they were glad North Korea had a nuclear weapons program in order to stand up to the US; North Korea was not responsible for the 1950 invasion; that they hated Japan and would never visit there because of the 1910-1945 occupation; they reiterated the importance of 민족 (race) and that the most important thing was to have "their own country," free of outside interference. To counter some of the 민족 talk I brought up the huge influence China has had on Korea over the past few millenia, and the very visible influence the US has had over the past century, although I think that just strengthened their belief that Korea needed its own country. And when I brought up starvation and prison camps in the North, they said that it was because the US was antagonizing the country and forcing it into isolation and poverty. Finally, they trotted out the stand-by of practically all discussions with Koreans: that I couldn't understand because I'm not Korean.
These are all opinions found with varying regularity among Koreans, and nothing I hadn't heard before from papers, books, and students. I was just really surprised to hear these opinions coming in a flurry from two well-educated, well-travelled adults.
I usually don't talk politics with Koreans because I'm sure they find musings from foreigners about as welcome as Americans find Koreans' takes on US policy. I'm also aware of how rigid groupthink has made such conversations painfully impossible, and that Koreans do have some pretty ugly opinions that I'd rather not hear in person. But I felt comfortable being honest because these are two people I'd known for over a year, and I had spent several holidays and vacations with them, their friends, and their families. One makes her living as an interpreter for an international trading company, and the other works in the traditional Korean industry of computer animation. They were good friends to me during a fairly lonely stretch out in the countryside, practically the only friendly faces I saw for a while, and I felt comfortable answering a question I figured harmless among friends. This wasn't some cab driver going off about mixed-race couples, or some bitter woman blaming prostitution on white people. These were people who, at least superficially, had expressed interest in foreign cultures and languages, had travelled around four continents, could converse on a surprising number of topics, were friendly with a number of foreigners of many nationalities, and who prefered coffee to soju, musicals to pansori, and t-shirts to hanbok.
I really hate the "you're not Korean, you can't understand" line that is considered a proper conclusion by many folks here. It is a rather dismissive sentence that, unfortunately, reveals what seems to be the pretty widely-held belief in the incompatability between Koreans and everyone else. When I was back in school and just starting to learn about Korea, I kept running into a problem while thinking about getting into Asian Studies. Foreign scholars who wrote on Asia had no credibility with the people they were writing about. A writer who might be considered insightful back home is brushed aside as an outsider in Asia. You'll find jabs like that all the time in the papers, and even in academic literature that values native opinions over those of outsiders. (Of course, there are foreign scholars who have made serious contributions to the collective knowledge on Korea . . . I just think credibility goes so far, because even these people get pestered by children, get asked if they can use chopsticks, and get asked---by Koreans in t-shirts and blue jeans---why they're wearing Korean clothing). And I don't think I'd be too dismissive of this white guy's opinion because he, unlike 78.7% of Jeonnam residents, didn't pick the wrong guy.
I guess I was surprised, too, by the ease with which all of these opinions came out, prompted by a comment about a presidential candidate most Koreans don't like. I'm not upset that people hold opinions different than mine, or that two people would dare disagree with me. Just that by answering a fucking question on a topic they fucking brought up in the first place, I feel like I played into a trap and was hit with lots of well-rehearsed lines about 민족 this and America that.
The encounter has contributed to an already rough couple of months. I've written elsewhere about the paradoxical relationship Koreans have with English and its speakers. I've written that I don't understand how Koreans can be so obsessed in a language but be so resentful of its speakers. The positions seem mutually exclusive, but when English is viewed as an economic commodity and not as a cultural artifact it becomes a little easier to understand. The unease I feel on that point continues onto political topics, and I find it really incomprehensible for people to so unabashadly embrace foreign cultures yet revile them and hold them responsible for a nation's shortcomings. (How many American WW2 vets drive Toyotas?) I don't think they found it all ironic that this rant came as we were enjoying light displays set up for Christmas, along a stream constructed by their arch-enemy Lee Myung-bak, all while wearing sneakers and earrings, talking on cell phones, passing by buses, cars, skyscrapers and neon lights on our way to a rock concert and dance contest at a shopping mall in 東大門市場.
What gets me is I don't feel particularly welcome in a place when even some of the smart folks think I'm the enemy and maintain a fairly warped and unflattering view of history. And, what must vex ambassadors and military folks is the knowledge that the bazillions of dollars and priceless know-how given to the South over the past half-century will eventually end up with the Dear Leader. On a personal level, I couldn't believe that these opinions were right under the surface, and I felt disappointed by two people I had considered my friends.
I'm curious to know how widespread these opinions are. I do remember back to a tabloidish survey conducted in 2005 that asked South Koreans what they would do if the US attacked North Korea. 47.6% said they would support the North, 31.2% would support the US. Here's a different take, and you can find others online, though I think such surveys are a little limited. Based on the mainstream English-media, I estimate that South Korea receives a more white-washed version of North Korea than Westerners are perhaps used to. South Korean politicians have consistently pledged their support of investment projects in North Korea, and have tried to avoid angering their brothers and sisters above the DMZ. President Noh Moo-hyun said he would not press North Korea for an apology regarding past aggression. Chung Dong-young, the candidate I mentioned above and former Unification Minister, and his predecesor have done much to exempt the North from any accountability. Anyway, this isn't meant to be a link dump, and you can easily find enough news reports to support whichever opinion you want.
Anyway, the whole exchange that night rubbed me the wrong way, and I left with a disbelief-induced headache. My cynicism had been festering over the past few months based on the whole xenophobic moral panic and I had been wondering how welcome foreigners really are.
I'm going to wrap up this unwieldy entry now, for the sake of brevity, because I can't seem to go in a direction without unloading a few paragraphs onto each point. I'm still too upset and disappointed to really write coherently on everything I'd like to say, and I don't have the knowledge to pull together the million different ideas running through my head. I know I'm not making sense . . . I hope I just have bad luck with meeting people, but part of me doubts that.