Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kisses Sweeter than Whine?

"I can't complain, but sometimes I still do." ~ Joe Walsh

Roboseyo and Ask a Korean have set the expat blogsphere into a tizzy over their take on if/why foreigners in Korean complain so much, and if/why Koreans seem to take it so badly. People are falling all over themselves as they deeply explore why the hell they bitch so much. Or if they do. Or if they think they don't but everybody else does.

"When any fit of gloominess, or perversion of mind, lays hold upon you, make it a rule not to publish it by complaints." ~Samuel Johnson

I think the question should rather be: Does being in Korea make expats more prone to complaining than they would be if they were a) in their home country b) in a third country. But the problem with examining b is that the answer is different for each person and each country which they could be randomly placed in. If Jae-in Do were to magically be transported to Goa she might find it heaven on earth and have fewer complaints than while living at home. But if magically she were scooped up from Goa and planted in Düsseldorf, then she may well find herself miserable. Or she could be moderately happy in either. Or miserable in both. Maybe she was miserable in her home country, too.

"The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks." ~Randall Jarrell

It would be an interesting experiment to try to measure this. I would start by doing a small scale collection of case-studies by finding individuals from America (my motherland, but feel free to substitute the motherland of your choice) who intend to travel to East Asia (possibly just restricting to Japan and Korea? yes, let's do that!) Do some initial interviews, surveys, and observations to get a sense of how prone to complain someone is. Billy Aiken may bitch about everything while Viola Fussing thinks all is fabulous. Then, repeat the interviews, surveys, and observations every three months over the course of a year. Taking into account the baselines established back in the states, try to see if individual informants started to complain more. Did individuals in Japan tend to increase their level of complaints compared to those in Korea? Other way around? Did people become happier and find less to moan about? If that sort of information gathering works, expand it, have colleagues in other countries begin similar experiments, and see if people just like to complain more away from home!
If you'd like to fund my idea, please feel free ^^

"The tendency to whining and complaining may be taken as the surest sign symptom of little souls and inferior intellects." ~Lord Jeffrey

Even without data or research in front of me, I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that yes, people probably complain more while living overseas because people are naturally more stressed outside their home environment. Now, do I believe expats in Korea complain more than expats other places? Eh, I'm not convinced, but I'll go ahead and say "maybe" for at least North Americans, because by and large people who come here are less prepared for the lifestyle changes they'll encounter than if they'd gone to, say, Japan. Why? Information and images of China and Japan and England and France and lots of nations are much more familiar to most Americans, and that makes for more mental preparation beforehand. This doesn't mean that they don't experience culture shock or mismatches between perceptions and the reality of their lives in their new homes, but they still have more of a background to work from. Going to South America ? Same thing - there have been movies, books, tv shows and lots of media that incorporate images and information about those places, even when it's inaccurate. Somebody going to Korea for the first time is going to be starting with far fewer building blocks of information. But I don't think it likely that first time expats in Korea complain so much more than somebody who went to, say, the Turkic regions of China (no knocks on Xinjiang! I'm just saying that it's less familiar to many Americans than Brasilia or Beijing or Tokyo or London or Paris.)

"The world is so dreadfully managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain." ~Ronald Firbank

Of course, it's harder for me to judge than many of the people who are talking about this issue. I'm the only foreigner in my office (and possibly in my entire institute) and communicate with my bilingual coworkers mostly in Korean. Still, they're all perfectly fluent in English (more so than I am in Korean) so we can switch back and forth as needed. Our Center is primarily to promote and support Korean studies internationally, and my colleagues are necessarily excellent at communicating domestic issues and concerns for a wider, non-Korean audience, as well as used to dealing with people who already have significant knowledge of Korean studies. We're a bunch of academics sitting around talking with other academics in the same general area. In other words, most of the little things that end up driving foreigners batty don't really touch me. I am insulated from the kinds of contract problems, schedule changes, and daily irritations of working at a 학원 or school. And what's more, I pretty much always have been. I first came as an undergraduate exchange student. Then I was on a grant that had me teaching, but under the most protected circumstances imaginable - unlike most English teachers, I had extensive institutional support, a large network of fellow grantees, and a school that had to compete to get me to come and keep me happy to ensure their future eligibility. Part of why I haven't taught English here since is I know I'll never have a position so cushy again in my life. But I've almost always come for some academic purpose, which changes Koreans' reactions to me.*

"Oh, wouldn't the world seem dull and flat with nothing whatever to grumble at?" ~W.S. Gilbert

My position has also put me at a distance with how I see Korean responses. None of my friends or colleagues are automatically defensive about criticism of Korean cultures. I've usually only encountered this from people I don't know well. But those unsatisfying dismissals and explanations that so upset some expats I think are a product of a) language barriers and b) a tension between the need to give personal, reasoned explanations vs. the need to give generalized, representative explanations. When I step back and think about my own representations of, say, American foreign policy to Koreans I too simplify arguments and represent opinions not my own simply because they are the current popular ones in American society. When I have time and ability and inclination, I go into details and personal opinions. But if I have a five minute taxi ride? C'mon. I have had deeply satisfying debates and discussions with Korean people about contemporary and historical issues. There's an astonishing range of opinion, and a great deal of deep thinking going on and when circumstances are right we can participate. When Koreans are dismissive or overly simplifying things or getting mad it is usually because they are trying to shut down the debate, not open it. Yeah, this sucks, but it happens to everyone everywhere sometime or other, and it's happened to me in America as often as here. But when I start things off by speaking Korean and mentioning I have a degree in Korean studies, the debate starts off at a very different place than if I speak English and don't mention my background. Likewise, I would treat the complaints of criticisms of a random Korean person I met on the bus in Portland a little differently than I would take that of an American studies scholar who'd lived there for years and spoke fluent English.

"Untold suffering seldom is." ~Franklin P. Jones

One thing I like to try myself sometimes, and think everybody should do as an exercise in flexible thinking is to take a common issue that they talk about with their Korean friends and reverse it so that they have to argue the "Korean" line. Amazing how much logic you can find behind things when you have to defend them. . . I'm not saying this makes certain interpretations right, but it does make you think about them from another perspective. It certainly has helped me deepen my own understanding of a lot of issues.

"I personally believe we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain." ~Jane Wagner

In the end though, I think expats everywhere have complaints, and there's nothing particularly noteworthy about either the whining of the foreigners or the defensiveness of the locals. Some whines are legitimate social criticisms of their host countries. Some are just bitching to fit in with all the other miserable people. Some are whining about things that happen at home and blaming them on the country they're in. Some people have forgotten about the annoying stuff at home because there's new and fascinating annoyances here. Some Koreans are filled with nationalism that no amount of rationality will penetrate. So are some expats. Some Koreans understand that expats are just blowing off steam, and other's get in a huff because it seems like rude behavior for a guest to complain about accommodations (and both parties should take into account whether the guest is being put up in the Hilton, Comfort Inn, or Bates Motel.)

"Sweat silently. Let's have no squawking about a little expenditure of energy" ~Martin H. Fischer

*It's not fair, but English teachers who "don't get no respect" can take solace in knowing that I earn far, far, far less money. Respect and pay are not commiserate.

Bejezus! All that and I still don't think I've gotten very far in looking the myriad interactions I suspect play into this. I simply don't have the patience or intellectual gumption of the Met or Grand Narrative or Popular Gusts. Lazy, lazy, lazy!


thegrandnarrative said...

Bejezus! All that and I still don't think I've gotten very far in looking the myriad interactions I suspect play into this. I simply don't have the patience or intellectual gumption of the Met or Grand Narrative or Popular Gusts. Lazy, lazy, lazy!"

I'm sure you've got plenty of both, but unlike me you get to use them in your job. It sounds very interesting.

May I ask, are you ethnically Korean? I just ask because of you mentioning

"But when I start things off by speaking Korean and mentioning I have a degree in Korean studies, the debate starts off at a very different place than if I speak English and don't mention my background."

because again, I'm jealous. I could rant and rant about the reasons why after 8 years here, I've just about given up on having a normal conversation about any topic in Korean with a Korean person who isn't already a close personal friend, but I'm sure you know them. I just bring it up because on the very very rare occasions when I get to speak with someone for longer than 2 mins, and on the even rarer occasions I get to mention my major, then I get peppered with questions about...the Three Kingdoms Period of all things. Sigh. It's quite bizarre really. I'm dying to talk about social issues with actual Koreans, and they want to discuss obscure Silla kings.

I was surprised at how Roboseyo's meme took off, because I thought that it's premise "Why do foreigners complain so much?" was misguided, which I'm correct in reading that you did too? There definitely wasn't an "if" there in his original question anyway. I still think it's misguided, but despite that there been some pretty thought-provoking responses, including yours.

Gomushin Girl said...

I'm not a gyopo, so I have to have a strategy - the first thing is that I can be an absolute b*tch about not dealing with people who won't speak to me in English. As far as humanely possible, I refuse to speak English with Koreans I don't know well unless there's a darned good reason for it. I don't mind using English occasionally with friends, or with people whose English fluency far outstrips my Korean, but for the most part . . .
But the best strategy, I think, is to be very aggressive when starting the conversation, so that it goes to subjects you want to talk about.
Funny though, for one reason or another I have a lot of people ask if I'm ethnically Korean.
Haha, you must have the wrong major! I did anthropology and sociology as an undergrad, so people often start out with stuff like marriage rites, etc. and I just turn it to contemporary practices.
I'd be pretty darn impressed with myself if people were asking me about the Three Kingdoms Period!

Gomushin Girl said...

And yes, I agree that the question as asked was misguided. The premise seemed a little silly, I'm really wondering how this came to be a topic of discussion at all . . .
I don't think there's any widespread perception among anyone except within certain segments of the English-speaking expat community that people here complain more than the usual amount (maybe I just don't spend enough time on Dave's?) It didn't sound all that interesting to me initially, but the way that the meme took off has made me think that although I think the question as asked isn't really that pertinent, there is something (semi)important going on in the expat community here. It's definitely touched a nerve, and lots of people are doing a lot of self-reflection.

Roboseyo said...

Gomushin Girl. . . I knew you wrote about this, but I wish I'd read your reaction more carefully the first time around. I would have brought attention to it on my blog.

The more I look at it, the more I think you're right that complaining and defensiveness are no surprise.

Hi, James. I didn't realize you'd added to the discussion anywhere until I saw this while revisiting old links.

I know the first question especially was missing the "DO they really?" aspect: complex memes don't transfer as easily as simple ones; however, the reason I'm happy with how this whole discourse has gone is simply that people are looking now, and thinking about their role in Korea's society, and their own habits, in a different way (maybe) than before. I knew from the start (or to give you more credit, at least since I got your e-mail) that the question was a bit of a simplification, but I also knew that a lot of people really DID need to talk about this topic, and bring things out in the open; every expat, from first years to veterans, wrestle with the question of "what IS our role here, and how DO we participate in Korea's society while we're here?" and I think the complaining thing was an angle of approach that managed to get to the heart of that. That's why I think this meme managed to generate the thought-provoking responses it has so far. . . what say you?