Monday, August 14, 2006

Ugly Americans, Young White Men, Korea and Me

Oh this is funny…

Well, yet again in my time here I’ve managed to butt heads with another white guy.

Now there is no way I can avoid coming off as fair or balanced here, so I’ll acknowledge that fact right from the go.

With that said, a bit of background is probably needed. Living and working here in Korea has been interesting to say the least. I came here I realize very sheltered believing that I was more worldly than I actually was. However, that was the drive that pushed me to live abroad for, at least, a bit of time. I knew I needed to learn more about the world around me and the people in it.

Man, I have learned a lot. Unfortunately, some of it has been through direct conflict with others, which I haven’t had a lot of experience with and which still shocks me when it happens. I find that when I'm in it, I'm as aggressive as they come, and I won't back down easily. Clearly, I’m still learning to deal with it and learning how to avoid or mitigate it. This is because now I realize that life for me was pretty smooth sailing when I was in California. The folks I know there tend to be fairly nice, friendly, educated, progressive and tolerant. Even if you have a differing opinion they can handle it, and you both still end up having an enjoyable lunch in spite of differing opinions. I was spoiled living in a tolerant world of university educated folk who were also just open to other ideas or perspectives. As a result of this, I’d never had conflicts on the level of which I’ve had in Korea.

This leads me to the topic of this post. While on a visa run to Fukuoka, Japan, I met a guy who seemed nice enough. So before the Kobee hydrofoil docked in Busan, I gave my email info to him and the other folks I’d met. I’ve been here long enough to know that sometimes the person you meet who initially might not be all that engaging can end up being a close friend while the person you thought was the best can end up being the worst. This situation is definitely coming from the latter category.

Initially, this new acquaintance seemed to be nice enough and, as these days I mostly socialize with my Korean classmates, I figured getting to know a new foreigner wouldn’t be a bad thing. However, as I’ve expressed to my classmates, I tend not to like most of a lot of the foreign EFL teachers I meet in Korea and, if I have the choice, I prefer to spend my time with Koreans or foreigners here on business or other fields.

Why is this?

Well, I grew up in L.A. and moved to San Francisco. Both cities are very diverse and there are a lot of people from all over. I find that people in either of those cities aren’t shocked that I listen to and like Nirvana or Green Day just as much as I like Mary J. Blige or Usher or that the first concert memento I bought was a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers t-shirt or that I studied German in both high school and university. However, the foreigners that I meet here are often shocked by my tastes or at the things I’ve done that people I meet back home seem to pretty much take for granted.

When I say foreigner I realize I need to be specific. I don't mean the diplomat or business person that I meet here. I mean the white male EFL instructor who is probably in his 20s or 30s. I've singled them out simply because they dominate the market here. That's what most Koreans want, so that's what most Koreans will import. Let me say that all aren't bad. I'm not making that accusation. What I'm saying is that when I have these conflicts, it's usually with some white guy who feels he needs to inform me of something I probably already know in a situation in which he's probably the one who needs more information. My theory is this is probably unique to the community I'm in as I don't have conflicts like this with my white male counterparts when I'm on the Upper East Side in NYC having a cocktail or when I'm in Santa Monica enjoying a nice sunny day.

These guys are unique in that they frequently express shock at the fact that I’ve never had to work in a Korean 학원, hagwon, and have only had university jobs since I’ve been here. They also assume that I’m as miserable as they are when in reality I’m pretty content. Expatriate life here isn't not perfect, but I’m not expecting Western convenience in Korea. However, I have access to almost all of the Western products and services that I want. What I’m not interested in is participating in a bitch-fest on Korea and Koreans. If you don’t like it, go home. Someone will gladly take your spot, and I truly hope it will be a female, a Korean foreigner or someone else of color because I’ve had it with these guys. However, it also makes me wonder what he hell is going on in their heads because the females and other ethnic expatriates I meet aren’t half as amazed by the life I live here. That’s probably because both females and other ethnic minorities have to deal with the same crap from these guys from small town or, more specifically, small minded, wherever.

This is always grating and annoying simply because I feel they come at me with these limited and preconceived perspectives. It seems like they think black women don’t like rock music, we don’t speak foreign languages and we certainly don’t have a higher level degree than they do because we aren’t educated. If we are it’s simply because of affirmative action because we just aren’t very smart. That might not be what they’re thinking but that’s how it feels when there is shock and awe at what my life is like here. Shit, I’m not that impressed by it as I know tons of folks with advanced degrees doing all sorts of stuff, but I guess in their world women like me don’t have advanced degrees and we certainly don’t have any intellect.

Also, I’m just now exiting an intensely emotional period of my life. I fell for another expat, took a leap of faith, it didn’t work out, and that really shook me up. Simultaneously, I’m trying to figure out which path in life to take while also dealing with my diabetes, Graves’ Disease and the complications that go with it. These are all highly charged for me, especially the Graves’ Disease as I thought I was dealing with diabetic complications and then had to deal with my hormones being all over the map instead. It’s a typical life story in that I’m not trying to get any special sympathy because I know that everyone has their own madness to deal with but just laying it out there to say I have a lot on my plate and not a lot of time for a hot plate of stupid mess.

This unfortunately is stupid mess. I was about to start writing on Korea’s opposition to a possible Koizumi visit to the Yasukuni Shrine when I get an email from this person who went out with me and a friend on Sunday evening. In this email he accused me of being an ugly American because he claims I was rude to my Korean friend. He went as far as saying that I needed to apologize to her for being an "idiot". He also accused me of claiming that Canada was poor which I didn’t do because I have not much of a clue about economics, I have no knowledge about the Canadian economy and wouldn’t claim to know anything about either.

Basically, I’d met him a couple of times for lunch. The first time he “introduced” me to a neighborhood and an Indian restaurant that I already knew full well about. In fact, a friend lives in the luxury high rise right around the block from where the restaurant is located. The second time I took him to a Mexican restaurant I’d discovered, and, unfortunately, we got on the topic of Ralph Nader who I think helped Al Gore loose the 2000 presidential election. Now I don't think Nader was the sole or even primary reason, but he didn't help. That's the extent of my argument on that. This person is someone who worked for Nader and strongly believes in his message.

Okay, fine, we can agree to disagree, right? No, I’m first accused of being yet another person beholden to mainstream media who didn’t come to an opinion on her own but only because CNN or some other news source told me to think it. When I said, no, I came up with it on my own I was accused making a purely emotional argument because this person has studied psychology. Let me mention that this person doesn’t have a graduate degree in psychology. I’ve found that these guys who’ve “studied psychology” and use it to analyze me frequently have only “studied” it on the undergraduate level which isn’t in depth study. What made it funnier was he accused me of being an anti-American fascist. Yes, I swear I'm totally serious here. Anyway, since then I hadn’t had contact with him and wasn’t really expecting any. But I got an email and text message from him suggesting we meet for drinks. Considering I was already put on high alert due how he chose to handle himself with the Nader issue, I invited a friend as a foil and met her in advance to thoroughly brief her.

Clearly, he was unaware of any of this. I was uncomfortable and hyper-aggressive the whole time. Think of a cat being cornered and said cat bearing her claws. It was a torturous evening that took up way too much of me and my friend’s time and lasted until almost 4am the next day. The funny thing is Beyonce Knowles was part of the discussion that night. It's just funny how transparent these guys are. Maybe it was an attempt to prove he was cool and worth listening to or maybe it just was conversation. However, he launched into complimenting Beyonce which is great because I think she’s one of the best things going in entertainment these days. However, I am critical of her speaking skills. But he made the mistake of saying she was more beautiful than Halle Berry. That got to me because they're BOTH stunners and why is it that there can be beautiful white women all over the media but you have to compare the stunning black women celebrities as if there can only be one. It's just stupid. You don't hear people say oh well now that Charlize Thereon or Angelina Jolie is in that Uma Thurman is right out. There is room for them all and it should be the same way for black women entertainers. It didn't help that he tried to imply that I was saying Beyonce had no talent. I told him bluntly that I hadn't said that at all. In fact, I think she's gorgeous, talented, but needs a diction coach. So, white folks, expressing your admiration for a black entertainer doesn't necessarily earn you points with a black acquaintance. Please tread carefully.

So to get an email from him full of judgment just made me laugh because this guy didn’t even clue into what was going on. The thing is I’ve seen the exact same thing with guys similar to him. They don’t think you’re reacting to them, they think you’re lashing out in frustration over Korea and Koreans. They also assume that they know much more than you do. They hence go into judgment mode because it seems like it's their duty to school and censor you on how to behave with the defenseless natives.
I can tell you right now, my Korean classmates can and do put me in my place if they feel I’ve said or done too much. Specifically, my friend who was with me that night has pointed and laughed at me many times over when I've made mistakes or errors. The funniest ones seem to be when we've hung out and I’m sure I’m getting on the right bus or subway line and she knows that I’m going the wrong way. Usually, she’ll wait and there I am creeping back to the right place. It’s humbling to have that happen and it’s one reason I really like her, she’ll call me on my stupidity in a heartbeat. She doesn't need his protection, but all he can see is the aggressive black woman and meek Asian woman dichotomy.

It just shows how ignorant yet arrogant he is. This ignorance it ends up being both extremely condescending and sadly hilarious.

Here are a few more examples:

1. I’ve had a few situations where a white guy goes on and on about how a girl he’s met speaks Korean, English and either usually Chinese or Japanese (maybe both). What I find amusing is in addition to English I’ve studied German, French and can read and function in low level Korean. However, since I don’t walk around reciting everything I’ve studied, and I generally will sit back and let these guys talk and talk it’s assumed that I’m not multilingual. At this point, I just smile because it's funny enough to just let them keep thinking what they're thinking.

2. Recently, I went to a lecture on the North Korean economy. The lecture was put together by a friend of mine, and it’s something I was interested in learning more about. After the lecture, as is custom here, the lecturer was taken out to a Korean restaurant for a meal, drinks and conversation. My friend invited me along and eventually introduced me to a guy who seemed interesting as he’d been in Korea for a bit of time. He has written a couple of books which makes him very interesting to talk to, but he is bitter because he lacks a graduate degree hence no one pays attention to his books. Since I'm someone with a graduate degree who is ultimately wants to pursue an academic career where people pay attention to you because you have something interesting to say as well as having an advanced degree, parts of my initial conversation with him were tense to say the least. He was a bit strange, but that’s par for the course here in Korea. He was quirky enough that I figured it would be interesting keeping in contact with him.


The next day he sends me a very strange email about some obscure Korean term he wanted English interpretations of. This term essentially is a derogatory one that labels Korean women who date and socialize with foreign men or GIs. We then unexpectedly meet again at a bar where a friend we have in common is performing with his band. He introduces me to a Korean girl he’s talking to. The next day we have an email exchange. I say the girl struck me as a bit fake and dense. Even though he’d labeled her with this derogatory term which is exactly what made me feel safe in saying what I really thought of her he immediately switched into "a defend the girl who can't defend herself" mode and turned tail and started defending her honor in reaction to my assessment of her. I was seriously wondering why he gave a crap what I thought. This went back and forth until I simply told him to stop pestering me with his point of view because nothing he has to say is going to change my point of view. He then accuses me of being the prototype of the ugly American which I was simply because I trying to get him to leave me the hell alone.

3. Another was when I was having a beer when a young man started speaking to me. He came at me with every stereotype in the book. His first question was whether I was with the military here in Seoul. I essentially sneered at him and I said I wasn’t, he then said something like he guessed I wasn’t that stupid. Now I sneered not because I look down on the US military but because it’s common that folks see a black person and just assume that they must be here in that capacity. I fully realize and will tell a person quite forcefully when they start attacking the US military that if it wasn’t for my country’s military they wouldn’t have the privilege of being here because, most likely, South Korea wouldn’t even exist. It didn’t help that he followed up his assumption by implying that people with the military were stupid, therefore, implying that he assumed I was stupid. Then he asked me if I was an English teacher which again was wrong because last year I’d quit my job and was only going to school.

Since he was all out of ideas of what a black American woman could possibly be up to in that would give her access to a foreign embassy, he asked me what I did. I told him that I was studying for my masters in international studies, and I’ve never spoken to him again even though I still see him frequently.

4. Another interesting one happened just a few months after I first arrived in Korea. I ended up working with someone who I was in direct competition with for my first university job here. We were both on the same short-term assignment. When he heard where I worked, he claimed I’d taken his job. I thought he was being light-hearted about it. However, he went on to say that I didn’t have teaching experience which at the time Korean immigration required a year of to even get an E-1 visa. How he assumed I didn't have experience was beyond me. He then moved on to attack my degree, basically saying that I was less qualified than him due to the fact that I had a law degree which is more professional than academic. He was chagrined to learn that I was equally or maybe even more qualified.
Believe me, I've had more but as I just don't bother with these kinds of guys much these days, I'm trying to excise it all from my memory.

What I find most interesting in all of this is it is pretty much only white men feel that they have the right to have strong views or express them strongly. If you express strong views then you're all sorts of adjectives that usually aren't complementary. What's also offensive is that they have the nerve to come at me so blatantly. They're the only ones I’ve ever dealt with here that feel beholden to tell me that I’ve behaved badly when usually the only thing that has happened is we disagreed, and I held my own against them during a disagreement.

It’s interesting to me because I’m seriously wondering why they think they have more of a clue about what is going on and furthermore think they have the right to blatantly chastise me? Doesn’t it occur to them that ironically it’s the gold standard of rudeness to sit in judgment of someone’s behavior like you’re their parent when you're not?
It’s something that other people just don’t do with me. I usually find my social interactions with people to be relaxed and pleasant. I also find that my interactions with people is much more pleasant when these particular types aren't around.

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