This is a speech I gave to a Korean NGO, the Better Korea Movement.
To help prepare for Korea's hosting the 2002 soccer World Cup,
they invited several foreigners to speak on the difficulties foreigners face in Korea.
The Ups and Downs of Living in Korea
I am honored to be asked to speak to you tonight, to make my small contribution to improving understanding between Koreans and their foreign visitors. I apologize in advance for the not completely thought through quality of my remarks. I was not given much time to prepare.
Koreans are very proud of the progress they have made in the past 40-50 years and rightfully so. From the yoke of colonial oppression and the devastation of the Korean War Korea has risen up to take its place among the more advanced nations of the world. Korea is admired around the world for its great accomplishments. More and more international companies are doing business in Korea. More and more foreigners have become aware of Korea's long history and are curious about its culture and its people. Tourist visits and international business travel to Korea are on the rise and will almost certainly continue.
While this is a good thing, increased contact with foreigners has put pressures on a society that has long lived in relative isolation from the other peoples of the world. Most Koreans have welcomed the influx of foreign visitors. Korean business, government, and citizens groups have tried to make Korea more accommodating and accessible to their new guests. Great strides have been made, but Korea still has a long way to go in truly opening up its doors and becoming a comfortable place for foreigners to visit or to work. The questions posed to the panelists in this program show that many Koreans are quite aware of the remaining problems and eager to deal with them. The very fact that this symposium is being held, along with others like it throughout Korea, shows that progress on these issues will continue to be made.
I have lived and worked in Korea for nearly seven years now. I find life in Korea stimulating. I have many close Korean friends and many more acquaintances. I like it here and I intend to stay many more years. Generally, I have found Koreans to be a friendly, sociable people.
However, in my seven years here I have also had many negative experiences with Koreans. I want to recount for you some of my worst experiences, not in a spirit of bitterness, but in order to help Koreans face and resolve the difficult issue of how to make Korea a better place for foreigners to visit. Seven years is a long time to accumulate both good and bad experiences. In my time in Korea I have been physically attacked by young Korean men, cheated by employers and shopkeepers, mistreated by arrogant immigration officials and private sector managers, and fearful for my life and others' lives in traffic. I hope each of these stories I will tell shed light on problems Korean society has in dealing with foreigners. Most Koreans are good people, nothing like the people I will describe. But just as a relatively few gang members in the U.S. shape everyone's perception of what it is like to visit the U.S., so a few "ugly Koreans" can have a major effect on how foreigners perceive Korea.
The thing that I dislike most about daily life in Korea is Korean behavior in crowded places. Many Koreans constantly bump, jostle, push, and cut in front of each other in stations, department stores, on the street, etc. Westerners in Korea constantly remark to each other how rude the think Koreans are in crowded places. Every foreigner who stays for more than a few days in Korea has had the experience of being unnecessarily bumped or even have strangers put their hands on them while walking down the street. Foreigners who try to line up at a busy department store counter to make a purchase not only see Koreans repeatedly push ahead of them but also often have the clerk refuse to meet their eyes and try to avoid waiting on them because they are shy of foreigners and afraid the might have English or some other foreign language spoken to them. I often eat in the cafeteria of my dormitory where at least there is the custom of forming a line. But at least once a week I have students crowd up against me or bump into me when there is plenty of room to avoid contact. Whenever this happens I feel a conditioned response of tightness in my muscles, emotional revulsion, and quite honestly, a desire to strike out at the person who touches me. Perhaps I overreact, but North Americans in particular hate to be touched, much less bumped, by strangers.
Young Korean men in particular often walk through crowded public places without paying attention to where they are going or the people around them, simply expecting others to get out of their way and carelessly bumping those who do not. I myself am a very large man. When someone, even a relatively large Korean male, carelessly bumps into me, it is always him that gets knocked backwards. That is often a shock to these rude young men who are used to people getting out of their way. I often hear them cursing at me as I walk on. On at least three occasions I have been attacked or grabbed from behind by a young Korean man after he has cut across my path, bumped into me, and been knocked backwards and I have walked on. In each case bystanders have intervened to keep a fight from occurring, although in one case the man delivered several ineffective Taekwondo kicks at me. Now compared to the truly dangerous youthful gang members carrying guns in the U.S. these young buffoons are almost comical. But I would think visitors less committed to staying in Korea would certainly be discouraged just by the constant jostling in daily Korean life, much less direct attacks on their person.
It is quite clear that most Koreans think foreigners should be treated differently than natives. This generally works to the advantage of foreigners because most Koreans treat foreigners like honored guests and are unusually kind and polite to visitors. But there is a significant minority of Koreans who see foreigners as a gold mine to be exploited in any way possible. This symposium is not really about foreigners who work in Korea, but I feel my experiences as an employee in Korea are relevant to the general issue of Korean attitudes toward foreigners. I have known dozens of language teachers in Korea. Almost all of them have some experience of being cheated by their employer. Every single language teacher that I have ever talked to about this issue has at least one, usually several, stories to tell about outright lies, payments promised by not delivered, housing promised but not delivered, benefits promised by not delivered, etc. I am talking here only of outright lying, not the much more common misunderstandings or ambiguities interpreted in favor of the employer, the shadings of complicated issues in which both sides have a reasonable case but which the employer always gets his way. This is not just true of private institutes but also of respected universities. I worked for one university for several years. When I left that school, under Korean law I was entitled to several million won of severance pay. Despite my repeated requests, the university refused to even answer my correspondence or calls. It was only when I threatened legal action and going to the press that I received the payment, more than a year after it should have been forthcoming. At a prestigious national university, a faculty member pursued a vendetta against me by falsifying records and making false statements about me to university officials. Incidents like this almost caused me to leave Korea several years ago.
Most visitors to Korea will not be working here, but a large part of the impression of Korea abroad is formed by the people who have had extended stays in Korea as language teachers or doing other kinds of business. Former employees of Korean institutions often have a lot of good things to say about Korea. But the many who have been systematically cheated by Korean employers are going to tell a different story.
The lying, cheating Korean employer is mirrored in the lying, cheating shopkeeper. Just a few days ago, the earpiece on my glasses broke. Even though I brought my own Korean interpreter with me, the shopkeeper spotted a foreign "mark" (victim/fool). All I needed was a new earpiece. But the shopkeeper insisted it could not be fixed, the glasses would have to be entirely replaced. I said through my interpreter that I did not have the prescription for my lenses. The shopkeeper insisted he could copy it from looking at my existing glasses. I was dubious, but my interpreter, believing the shopkeeper, convinced me to go along. When I tried on the new glasses I was careless. They seemed to be alright, so I did not check them for reading, only for ordinary sight. They seemed OK so I paid and left. A few hours later I discovered that the optician had not correctly copied my lens prescription and that in fact I could not read with these new, inferior glasses. I did not even bother to return to the shop to demand my money back, as I would in the US. I had already imposed on my interpreter for one favor and I could not ask him to return to the shop with me. In any case, I know enough about Korea to know that asking for my money back from a dishonest merchant would have been futile.
Now this story has another part, one that shows the other side of Korea. A few days later, with another interpreter, I went to another optician. He also said repairing my old frames was impossible and tried to sell me some new glasses. But after I dug in my heels and refused, he did replace my broken earpiece, free of charge. Perhaps he was shamed when my interpreter told him the story of the other cheating optician.
I have also had mixed experience with Korean immigration officials. When I first arrived in Korea I found immigration officials arrogant and unhelpful. They demanded many pictures for their documents, which in itself is a reasonable request. But despite my repeated requests they would not provide directions or the address to any photoshops where I could have these pictures taken. Today it would be simple for me to comply with that request. I now know how widespread small photo shops are and how to identify them from the ubiquitous baby photos they all seem to put in their windows. But at that time I was just a few days in Korea, did not speak the language, and could not find my way around. So I was unable to meet their requirements, which led to additional, unnecessary trips to the office, cancelled classes for my students, and considerable frustration for me.
But the worst time I had at immigration was when I changed jobs. For some reason, which was never made clear to me, the immigration officials were reluctant to approve my change of sponsor and address. On one trip to immigration I took a friend of mine to translate. Altogether I have known this person for more than 5 years. She is one of the calmest, most patient people I have ever met in any culture. I have only seen her lose her temper once in five years--when dealing with these immigration officials. One official said he would not speak to her, he would only speak to me, and only in Korean. Although I could not understand their conversations in Korean, from my friend's reaction I also suspect that he made suggestive remarks to her about her relationship with me as a foreign man.
Recently, however, immigration officials have been courteous and helpful to me. Waiting times have been reduced and my documents have been processed in a timely and professional manner.
Another sore point for foreigners is Korean road behavior, both drivers and pedestrians. In my time in Korea I have witnessed several accidents involving drivers, pedestrians, and bicycle riders. I tell newcomers to Korea not to assume a green light means it is safe to cross a street. I say most Korean drivers interpret a red light the way an American regards a flashing yellow light--caution, something might be in your path, if not, proceed. At my current university there is a traffic light at the busy main gate where dozens of pedestrians are always trying to cross the street. The light goes red for one side before the other to allow drivers on the opposite side to make a left onto campus a little further down the road. Students have to wait to cross the street until the light on both sides of the street go red before they can cross the street. 90% of the time many drivers, seeing no pedestrians in their way, go through that red light, trying to beat those trying to turn onto campus.
You might think this habit of going through red lights when there is no obstruction does no harm. But I have seen accidents caused by this behavior. Once I even saw an accident caused by the assumption that a driver would run a red light. Several cars were in line as the light went yellow. The first car reasonably proceeded through the yellow light. The second car reasonably slowed, because the light would be red by the time he reached it. But the third car in the queue sped up, assuming that the first two cars would hurry through the changing light and he wanted to make it too. He rear-ended the second car whose driver's only sin was being a reasonable driver.
Once I was in a taxi that only luckily averted a serious and possibly even fatal accident. We were on a four lane road, stopped at a red light. My driver was in the left lane on our side when the only driver in the right lane saw no pedestrians in his way and promptly ran the red light. My driver saw his opening and sped into the gap, trying to beat the people crossing from the other side of the street before they reached our side. But there were two school girls on our side who had been talking while waiting for the light to change and had not seen the light turn green. One of them suddenly noticed they had the green light and stepped into the road without looking. My driver must have been doing 40 kph when he had to swerve to only miss this poor young girl by just a couple of inches. This young girl was almost hospitalized or worse so the cab driver could save 30 seconds.
Now I honestly don't know what can be done about general cultural attitudes like those of young males who think everybody should just get out of their way in crowded places. But there are easy solutions to drivers who thumb their noses at traffic laws or dishonest shopkeepers who cheat foreign customers. Police can easily ticket those who run red lights at busy intersections. Shopkeepers who gather multiple complaints from customers should be severely fined or even prevented from doing business in areas where foreigners frequent. At the Seoul Olympics the Korean government resorted to massive force to keep political demonstrators from coming anywhere near the foreign visitors. A much less draconian, but equally serious, effort to enforce law-abiding behavior by Korean drivers and merchants could greatly improve foreigners perceptions of Korea.
Similarly, Korean immigration officials could be surreptitiously monitored by their offices to observe if they respond politely and helpfully to foreign visitors with visa problems. As a general principle, the immigration office should recognize that whenever they put a duty on a foreign visitor, they should also provide a means of accomplishing that task. For example, in my case they required new photos, so they should provide a list of nearby photo shops with addresses (in English, Japanese, etc.) and phone numbers. Most foreign visitors are willing to follow Korean law, but sometimes they just don't know how.
The tourist industry in Korea has tried to make Korea an attractive destination for international travelers, with mixed success. I have told some stories from my experiences and other speakers may comment on specific difficulties they have faced. But as a general principle I feel that one of the difficulties Korea faces as a tourist destination is the lack of a widespread ethic of service in its service industries. When I lived in Japan I often heard the slogan, "The customer is god." I have never once heard a Korean utter that phrase. Let me be clear. I have had many experiences of kind and helpful waitresses, hotel clerks, and shopkeepers during my time here, many more good experiences than bad. But I have also had taxi drivers who passed me on the street because I looked foreign or refused to take me all the way to my destination even though I was carrying heavy packages because it would be inconvenient for them. I have often been disturbed while eating in small restaurants by loud TV programs that only the staff seemed to be watching. Sometimes I have sat and waited for service as waitresses watched TV or chatted with each other, either ignoring all customers or avoiding me in particular because they didn't want to face a foreigner.
But the experience that best symbolizes to me the incompleteness of the ethic of service in the Korean tourist industry came when I stayed at a hotel specifically designated as a "tourist hotel," even though as far as I could tell I was the only foreign customer at the time. While I like Korean food very much, sometimes I prefer to eat Western-style, particularly in the morning. On the surface, this hotel appeared to be trying to please tourists with an extensive Western menu, including several different breakfast items. That morning I read the menu carefully and chose something that looked good. Using an interpreter (because no one on the staff seemed to speak English well), through room service I ordered my first choice. I was told that was not available today. I was disappointed, but I made another selection. I was told that also was unavailable. So I asked what was available. I was told nothing on the Western menu was actually available, only Korean-style breakfast. This in itself is a trivial matter. I had a nice Korean-style breakfast. But it drives home the empty, symbolic but not real, aspect of much of the "internationalization" of the Korean tourist industry. This hotel projected the appearance of service for the foreigner, but did not really have much service spirit.
This lack of a service ethic seems to me more of a problem with officials and administrators than with ordinary service workers. The strict hierarchical nature of Korean society means that government officials and managers in the private sector often view their clients or customers as subordinates and feel entitled to treat subordinates in a way Westerners find arrogant and unfeeling. Moreover, Korean officials and managers often seem to "blame the victim" when a foreigner presents them with a problem. For most of my stay in Korea I have lived in dormitory rooms provided by the university. From time to time I have had the ordinary maintenance problems everyone has in their residence such as defective electrical appliances, infestation of insects, etc. While student assistants have always been respectful to me, the paid dormitory staff who have the real authority have almost always been slow to respond to complaints and inevitably made me feel like it was my fault I had a problem, even when it clearly wasn't my fault. Once, when an old chair in my room collapsed when I was merely sitting in it, the dormitory supervisor had the temerity to lecture me as if I were a student about my "bad attitude" because I had complained and requested a replacement for the broken chair. This man clearly thought of me as a subordinate rather than a client, and a troublesome subordinate simply because I had a problem. I believe most of my past problems with the immigration office were caused by a similar arrogance of officials and the attitude of "blaming the victim."
Again, there is a huge gap between the public image and the actual behavior. On the floor of my dormitory reserved for foreigners there is a poster by the elevators giving office hours and the phone numbers to contact dormitory staff and promising that there will be English and Japanese speakers available to help us with any problems we have. But when a problem arises there are rarely English speakers available, and in any case anyone who presents a problem to dormitory staff is treated like a naughty child for having the nerve to bother the staff.
I have been living in Korea for almost seven years, so I no longer think like a tourist. But even for me, the language barrier is the greatest difficulty in ordinary life. I am constantly imposing on my students and Korean friends to act as interpreters and translators for me. When I first arrived in Korea I was surprised by the high visibility of English, from subway ads to road signs. I commend Korea on its effort to make things easier on English speakers visiting or living here. But I must admit that even after seven years I am reluctant to travel beyond my familiar places without a Korean guide. I have no practical suggestions, but anything that can be done to increase the number of English language signs and to make English language speakers more accessible to visitors would certainly help.
I have just one more observation, this one about food. As you can see, I love to eat. One of my greatest pleasures in living in many different American cities and then overseas has been the vast variety of foods I have been able to enjoy. I especially like Korean food. It is as spicy and exciting as the Korean people themselves. There are few experiences to compare with the eager anticipation as the savory scent rises from a sizzling Korean barbecue. Like many Americans, I especially like kalbi and pulgogi. But I also like many peppery Korean stews and soups like kimchi chige, taenjang chige, and bone soup. However, many foreigners are not used to so much pepper and salt in their food. At one of the universities I onced worked at there was a lunch buffet for faculty. I remember one day as I sat with some other foreigners, they were complaining that despite having a choice of more than half a dozen dishes, there was not one dish that was not heavily peppered. The cafeteria where I now work has a simple solution to this problem. When it serves bi bim bap, it does not mix the gochujang with the vegetables. Instead, they put out a bowl of gochujang so students can add as much or as little a they like and season the meal to their taste. Of course, for some dishes this method is not possible. But as a general principle, foreigners should always be given a choice of foods that includes items that contain little or no pepper.
Let me conclude by noting again how much I like Korea, its people and its culture. There is so much to enjoy here. That is why it is a shame that many people are deterred from coming here by the stories they hear. I know Koreans are striving eagerly to overcome these difficulties and I wish you success in your efforts.
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