Thursday, September 22, 2011

Free-ish Speech

Let me preface this post, which will probably bloat into an uncontrollably long essay, by saying this, right off the bat:

I am not an English teacher in Korea.

This means a few different things, starting with the most obvious: I do not have the same experience or the same types of experiences as most of the expat blogs about living in Korea. I am certainly not saying that my experience is better or worse, it's just different.

My situation gets a little weirder when one takes into consideration my Korean heritage. This is an important point because it means that when other Koreans look at me, they see a Korean. They automatically assume that I am Korean, that I have the same cultural and social references. This is, of course, not true- I may be racially Korean, but I am culturally more American than Korean, which I think is fairly obvious from my blog. Yes, I have a rather strong Korean identity, but most of my culture is from my childhood and young adulthood, which were spent in California.

There are times when I get very frustrated here in Korea, and wish that I were just Korean. Why did my parents have to immigrate? Why couldn't they have taught me Korean, so that I'm completely proficient? Why am I caught between two cultures that are so different? I do not feel that way very often; I am usually very happy with my life, including how, where, and when I grew up.

Koreans tend to be rather xenophobic and prejudiced, in my experience. While expats that aren't ethnically Korean may think that I'm lucky, because I'm automatically accepted by Koreans, I feel that the opposite is true. Non-Korean expats have the benefit of their appearance, an immediately apparent trait, to explain away any awkwardness with the language or culture. I do not have that benefit at all, and so feel like I am disappointing Koreans whenever I don't understand something that they say to me or I don't get some joke that has its roots in a cultural reference that I don't get. Koreans expect me to speak Korean like a Korean, with all the colloquial terms and slang perfected. They anticipate it, actually, and get flummoxed when I ask them to explain something to me, something that someone my age would obviously know if they had grown up in Korea.

Well, I have news, Koreans- I didn't grow up in Korea. I'm sorry that I look so Korean that I am tricking you into thinking that I'm like every other Korean you meet, but I'm Korean-American. I know that I have practically no American accent when I speak in Korean, and I'm sorry about that, too- my parents raised me in Korean, so my casual, everyday Korean is very good. I know it would be easier for you to accept that I'm American if I had an obvious American accent, but I can't very well go about faking an American accent. I know it would also be easier for you if I had a Korean accent when I speak in English, but I can't fake that, either. So Koreans, I'm sorry for being both Korean and American and just confusing you.

I'm confused, too, though, so maybe we can all get through this together.

It's been over three months since I've started working at a Korean company. It's taken probably two and a half months for people to adjust to me and vice versa. While it didn't seem all that bad when I first got here, I think back to July and wonder, how did I work like that? It was awkward. It was so awkward that it was totes awks.

One of my co-workers told me (while we were in China, actually) that my Korean's gotten better. I was all, really? I don't notice a difference at all. He was very emphatic- my Korean's gotten better, and he can tell that I've gotten more comfortable. That much is true, for sure- I don't have to think as hard during a Korean conversation, because using Korean has gotten much more natural. My gut reactions are still in English; if something bad happens, I will still say "crap" rather than "헐", I will always say "what?" before I say "뭐?" (Though I love the word 헐, pronounced something like "hull," and used very similarly to "crap" or "argh". I just find the word itself to be funny, but I don't know why- it just hits my funny bone.)

Still, though, my Korean is better. How could it not get better, when I have to use Korean every single blessed day? I mean, I would have to actively be avoiding Korean in order to not improve. Non-Korean expats learn Korean, too, albeit probably at a slower pace. English teachers in Korea are hired to teach English, not to speak in Korean. I speak predominantly in Korean at work, so my Korean's improving, a tiny bit each day. I do appreciate that, because I always wanted to be able to speak Korean completely fluently.

If you were to talk to the Korean people that I know in the States, they would most likely tell you that I am fluent in Korean. This is true to a point, as I have no problems in casual settings or in restaurants or bars. The Korean used at work, at Immigrations, at the airport, at banks? That is hard Korean, more formal and proper than any Korean that I encountered in the States (other than at the consulate, where I almost died due to frustration). That is the Korean that I do not know, the reason that I am incapable of and have no desire to watch the news in Korea. That is the Korean that I want to learn, and the Korean at which I am getting slightly better.

I just realized that I've been rambling on and on with the introduction to this post (yes, that was my introduction- don't judge me, I've been feeling this way all summer long and am just now venting!), which is really supposed to be about Korean cyber bullies and the concept of free speech in Korea. Which I will get into now, because it's my blog and I can:

The issue of Korean cyber bullies came to my attention via the Korea Herald, an article titled "Praise is meaningless if not allowed to criticize" by Rob Ouwehand, who is better known online as Roboseyo. I feel, perhaps immodestly, that I have a slightly different position on this issue (and most issues regarding expats in Korea) than other expat bloggers who have posted about this issue, mostly due to my ethnicity.

Most of the better known expat bloggers in Korea are not Korean. I feel that the majority of the blogs that I've seen are by white writers, and the majority of those white writers are male. I have nothing against white men- I've dated several- and I generally agree with their opinions. I think my race and gender just slightly skew my viewpoint so that it's a bit different from those dudes, who are having a very different Korean experience from mine.

Rob wrote about expat bloggers who write negative things about Korea while they're living in Korea. From the Korea Herald article:

This January, an English teacher in Korea had a conversation with a few other expats. All the complaining she heard made her decide to vent her negativity on a blog, so that she didn’t have to be negative around her friends.

Also a regular blog reader, she took the repeated and repetitive theme of complaining about Korea, and exaggerated it to ridiculous degrees, partly to vent, and partly in hopes that the exaggeration would prompt some of the whiners to shake their heads and say,“Wait a minute ... Korea’s not as bad as all that.” She named the blog Lousy Korea, and while she expected some defensiveness from people who missed her point, she did not expect what happened.

The teacher, whom we'll call L.K. to protect her privacy, last week took her blog down completely. Threats were being made not only to L.K., but to other bloggers who were linked on her blog, and even the families of those bloggers. Lousy Korea is not the only blog that has been targeted by death threats, nor the only expat: Korean Rum Diary is another blogger who received a death threat with detailed descriptions of how he would be murdered, and included his real name and address.

Popular blogger Brian in Jeollanam-do was recently reported to immigration, most likely because of his critical opinions, and the president of the Association for Teachers of English in Korea also had his life threatened. Some of these people were attempting to discuss Korean social issues honestly. Others took negative approaches. However, it is shocking that there are people who believe that when somebody writes something they dislike, an appropriate response is to threaten that person’s job, life, friends or family.
Honestly, when I first read this article, my hackles rose.Well, who are these people, anyway, to be all writin' bad things about my motherland? I am being completely frank, that was my initial reaction. Initial reactions cannot be faked or controlled, after all. (Yes, I get all Southern when my hackles rise.)

Then, my second thought: What is wrong with people? Why are they making death threats?! Because ultimately, I believe people are entitled to their opinions. They can think negative things about Korea, because it's hard to be in a new culture and feel completely happy about it. I'm Korean, and I'm not having a totally bump-free time in Korea. How could someone who isn't Korea, who doesn't know Korea, have an easy go of it?
So what’s with these negative blogs, anyway? They’re misunderstood: A lot of the people who complain online save all their negativity for the Internet, so that they can be pleasant and polite during the day to their friends and coworkers. These people are not publishing their articles in famous magazines or newspapers -- they often aren’t writing for an audience at all: They’re participating in a group therapy session, dealing with culture shock by talking to others who also feel culture shock. Posting their thoughts where anybody can find them might not be the wisest choice, but such people deserve pity more than hostility.

Meanwhile, in the same way that hyper-negative bloggers leave a bad impression of expats in Korea, the extreme reactions from netizens, who really believe they are protecting Korea with their hateful behavior, creates the impression that Korean society can’t stand criticism. This tiny, angry minority of hostile people can be very noisy, and they’ve chosen different targets at different times: ask Park Jae-beom, Vera Hohleiter (the “Loser” girl from Misuda), Dog Poop Girl or Jim Hewish. These people do not realize that rather than protect Korea’s reputation, their behavior actually damages it by creating a false image of a country full of thin-skinned, reactionary and hostile netizens.
I was torn about this, and still am: if one writes negative things on the internet, someplace where anyone can see, then one should be prepared for the repercussions. I don't particularly pity people that do such things, because if they didn't want to rile people up, then they should lock their blogs or block certain users. For example, I still have no pity for Alexandra Wallace, because she did a stupid thing. Do I feel that the consequences were severe? Yes, I do. But the consequences of our actions can never be accurately predicted, particularly when our actions are public. I always write my blog with the assumption that reactions, if there are any, will be stronger than I would assume that they will be. Isn't that the reasonable thing to do? Are people just lacking common sense, that this doesn't occur to them?

I also think that Rob is unintentionally pointing out something that is actually mostly true- Koreans can't stand criticism. Saving face is an art form in Korea, particularly in the workplace.

William and I were chatting in a cab while I was in Daegu when the conversation meandered into Korean suicides, and how commonplace suicide seems to be. We both agreed that suicide is regarded to be a viable option to Koreans, at least more so than to Americans. Facing shame and ruin? Suicide. Teenaged and pregnant? Suicide. Cheated on your spouse and got caught? Suicide. Americans would rather be publicly humiliated than kill themselves, which is so much more reasonable, in my opinion. What's a little public shame when compared to your entire life?

In order to save face, Koreans will go to insane extremes (suicide, in my opinion, is insane in this day and age). Because of that cultural trait, Koreans are terrible with criticism, constructive or deconstructive (and everything in between). I have first-hand experience with this, as I've been quite critical in the workplace while in Korea. I get away with the amount of criticism that I spew simply because I'm American.

You see why I'm confused? First, I'm treated as though I should be totally Korean. Then, when I do something un-Korean (criticize, for instance), I'm treated as though I'm American. Oh, it's okay for her to do that because she's AMERICAN. There is an implied sneering of the lip when I'm called American in certain situations.
During Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorships, people were afraid to say anything different, difficult, or provocative, because people were regularly jailed for criticizing the regime. Even today, the situation is similar in North Korea. It is really sad that a few angry and aggressive commenters can create a culture of fear online, so that, once again, people are afraid to express their opinions. It is shameful that even though many Koreans alive today can still remember those dictatorships, some people are celebrating Korea’s new democratic freedoms by using the same fear and intimidation tactics Korea’s old dictators did, to stifle opinions they dislike.

Free speech is the lifeblood of a truly free society, and while free speech does not mean speech without consequences, there are acceptable responses to speech, like written responses, angry comments, criticisms and negative feedback, and there are unacceptable responses, like threats to someone’s privacy, job, safety, friends or even family. It doesn’t matter if someone’s opinion or method of expression is unpopular or even offensive: If their free speech is not also protected, nobody is really free to express themselves.

These days, Korea seems to be especially concerned with how it is perceived by countries around the world. Branding is the buzzword in food, business and tourism promotion. Positive mentions of Korea are repeated, but criticisms are met with outcry.

On the blogs, it’s the same: Everybody congratulates the happy bloggers for truly understanding Korea; however, if bloggers do not feel free to say what they really think, if they are writing positive things because they fear violence when they criticize, then their positive comments are as empty as the songs of North Korean school children praising their leader, for fear of the prison camp.

To comment, e-mail; Rob Ouwehand’s other writings can be found at the blog; the opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of The Korea Herald – Ed.

By Rob Ouwehand
It's an interesting, thought-provoking article that I really appreciated, because it points out, very clearly, the observations of an expat that's been in Korea, living among Koreans, for several years (since 2003). He's also married to a Korean woman, I believe (and they're expecting in October, congratulations!), which adds another element to his perspective.

I honestly do not feel that the situation is quite as dire as the article makes it out to be, but perhaps it's because I've never gotten a death threat because of my blog (that's not an invitation to start threatening me). I also believe that unless something changes drastically, I won't necessarily be on the bad side of those few angry Korean netizens, because I don't hate Korea.

Perhaps non-Koreans think that my blog only says positive things about Korea, that I'm biased because I'm Korean. This may be true, to a certain extent. It's my blog, and I have no reason to be impartial. However, I am not such a nationalist that I can just blindly adore everything about the land of my birth. I just choose to focus on the things that I like, rather than nitpick about the things that I dislike.

Another thing that I've realized is that yes, the free speech rights of bloggers should be protected. But doesn't that also mean that the free speech of commenters should be protected, as well? Free speech doesn't mean smart speech. It just mean free, and whether that speech is ignorant, savvy, sarcastic, stupid, or reasonable is up to the person that is speaking (typing).

I wish everyone could just get along already, but that's never going to happen. I'm not passionate enough to go around and lecture people, but I am just opinionated enough to take the time and write on my blog.

Everyone's entitled to their own thoughts. These are mine.


william,  September 23, 2011 at 1:59 AM  

i agree with almost everything you say. i would also like to add something. i've always held the belief that being the person that you are (white, asian, black, male, female, gay, straight, etc.) entitles you to be critical of certain groups. for example, i can say bad stuff about gay asians or chinese people or men because i am all of those things. if i start saying stuff about things that i'm not, then i should be pretty careful about what i say. even though i also hold the belief that everyone is equal (very american) and everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, i think one really needs to look in the mirror to see what one is and determine whether one is entitled to say publicly what one is thinking.

i'm not precious about race or gender or sexual orientation. a black person is black. a gay person is gay. a woman is a woman. we don't live in a world where everyone is equal, so i personally don't think that everyone has equal right of speech.

do i sound like a communist? i may also be off-topic.

anyway, my opinions.


jeanny September 23, 2011 at 3:13 AM  

I'm with you. Just like I can give my sister crap, but if someone else does, I will snap at them. Nobody's allowed to criticize her except me.

For Koreans, I suppose nobody's allowed to criticize them (us) but themselves (ourselves).

I very firmly believe that we are not equal, because there's no way to all be equal. Besides, what fun would that be?

You're so not a Communist. Maybe just an elitist?

Diana E. Sung September 23, 2011 at 5:46 AM  

I think debate, disagreement, and (yes) criticism is actually a fundamental core value of American intellectualism. All of our founding documents are rooted in it. The very notion of American equality is predicated on the idea that peoples' minds and opinions are equal and therefore, equally important. When was the last time a junior Korean employee felt comfortable debating politics openly in the office with his 15 years older boss at work (or even after work at a party)? This happens DAILY at my American workplaces.

I know a lot of Americans who get into trouble with this living in countries where the notion of "friendly debate" does not exist. Free speech is necessary in America because we value the expression of minority opinion.

I taught debate as a part of American culture class when I was in Korea because it was a very subtle yet pervasive aspect of American culture (and yes SPECIFICALLY American--Canadians and Brits are not quite as abrasive. One could make an argument that Aus and New Zealand have their own history of argumentation and protest that make them kind of similar, but it comes from different impulses--their reactions often strike me more as French in nature, which is a whole other conversation) that people from other countries take years to absorb as immigrants. The kids were so funny--they worked TOGETHER as opponents to coordinate their debate so that no one "lost." It was so strange. I had to explain how in America, people don't need to agree at the end of a debate. I can fight with my friend--vehemently--about issues of abortion, education, economy, and at the end we can still have completely different opinions and express them to each other and still be friends. In Korea, the younger person usually at least SAYS they agree at the end of a similar discussion.

I think a lot of those bloggers (and the ones cited in the article, LK and KRD I've always found distasteful and gross) just don't get that "satire" and open criticism from a person whose country is not Korea is just harsh. Americans invite it. Our own president regularly compares America unfavorably to Korea in areas of education and trade development. We would not mind if Koreans did the same, so we assume they would not mind.

Thanks for this. I needed to think this morning ;-)

JLR September 24, 2011 at 1:09 PM  

I agree with pretty much everything you said, except where you said that "doesn't that also mean that the free speech of commenters should be protected, as well?" I am not clear what you meant there--are saying that "free speech" that consists of threats, especially death threats, should be protected? If so, I can't agree. Even in America, where we looove to talk about free speech, that's not protected speech.

If you want to foster an environment where people can feel free to express disagreement, you can't make it acceptable to tell someone "I know where you live, and I'm going to kill you for criticizing my country."

But I agree with the rest of what you said. I also agree with Roboseyo. You both make some very valid (and interesting) points.

jeanny September 25, 2011 at 3:19 AM  

Diana- moving to Korea has made me think more. Who knew that moving would have such a drastic effect on my brain?

JLR- I meant free speech as far as the laws go. I believe, of course, that everyone should follow the law and, even more simply, that people should respect each other. What I meant was that it wouldn't be right if someone were allowed to publish something, like their blog, in a public forum, and others were not allowed to comment upon that. I definitely don't think people should be threatening each other or even name-calling, but that's my personal opinion.

Thanks for reading!