When a good intention does not make you less imperialist


Years ago, when I studied in Canada, my Canadian friend got so riled up about an American TV program that surveyed Americans’ perception of Canada. One of the questions was “what do you like best about Canada?” and #1 answer was “its beautiful, vast nature symbolized by polar bears.” I had a similar experience recently, so I’d like to think with you why my Canadian friend got upset and why the Americans’ “positive” perception of Canadian nature feels like an insult to Canadians.

Here is what I experienced recently. I visited my friend Jane’s (not real name, of course) campsite the other day. Jane had a nice camping car, but next to her camping ground, someone put up a tent. The temperature was dropping to the 40s, and it began to rain. Our conversation went like this:

I: I am afraid that people in the tent get cold tonight.

Person 1: Well, I don’t sleep well in a tent anyway. The ground is rocky and bumpy, and I have a hard time.

Jane: The same here. But I think Koreans can sleep well on the ground. They sleep on the floor!

Person 2: No, the Korean floor is totally different. It is flat and heated, and it is comfortable to sleep on the floor.

Jane: Really?

Person 2: Yes. And, one is a living arrangement and the other is not. When they look similar in your eyes, it doesn’t mean that they are the same.

Later, Jane said that she saw nothing wrong with her statement. After all, she tried to make a positive statement about Koreans, she protested. She said that it is unfair that she is accused of cultural arrogance, ignorance, and insensitivity, when all she tried to do was to say something nice about Koreans.

Okay. What’s wrong, then? A quick answer is that Jane reduced Korean culture to nature.

To understand what nature and culture have to do with Jane, we need to imagine 600 years ago when Europeans first arrived in Americas. I think it is accepted almost unanimously now to call these European settlers imperialists. They dominated and subjugated Native Americans, took away their lands, and destroyed their culture. What enabled and undergirded their imperialist actions was their perception of native Americans and native American culture. When they arrived, they saw terra nullius, meaning empty land. They saw no culture, no society, no civilization. They saw instead idle lands and people who lived in natural conditions, blindly obeying the laws of nature. Did Native Indians have no culture, no society, no civilization? Of course they did. But in the eyes of the European settlers, the native Indians didn’t seem to have culture, because it was so different from its European counterpart. It is this failure to recognize native Indian culture as such that enabled and undergirded the setters’ imperialist domination and brutal massacres of Native Indians. By seeing terra nullius, Europeans reduced a culture, which deserves respect on its own terms, to nature.


This is culture


This is nature

Now, it is more understandable why my Canadian friend got upset by Americans’ perception of Canada as a country of vast nature. Associating Canada with snow and polar bears may seem benign, but we need to think carefully where this association is coming from and what it is oblivious to. Similarly, yes, it is an act of cultural imperialism to say that the Korean floor and the ground look the same and that if Koreans can sleep well on the floor, they can sleep well on the ground. Why? Because you’re reducing Korean culture to nature. As Person 1 said in the dialogue above, one is a living arrangement, and the other is not. By conflating the two, you’re committing the same crime as early European settlers, who saw empty land and pre-culture in Native Americans.

Jane kept protesting that she meant well. Unlike European settlers, she didn’t mean to rob and subjugate Koreans, she would add. I hear her. In her defense, I add that everyone makes mistakes. But let me say that there is one good way to avoid making mistakes about different cultures you don’t understand. When you don’t understand Asian or African cultures, it is not necessarily your fault. Rather it is a social effect of living in a world where western cultures are dominant and influential and non-Western cultures are pushed to the background. So, when you don’t know a thing about a non-western culture, that’s okay (although I would argue you owe it to yourself to push your limits and try to enlarge your cultural knowledge). But at least, know that you don’t know. When your cultural knowledge is of a level where you can’t tell apart Korean, Japanese, Chinese cultures, for example (I can’t tell apart Malaysian and Philippines cultures, Sudanese and Zimbabwean cultures, and so many other cultures!), that’s okay, but don’t make a judgment about what you think is acceptable to Koreans and what is not. Even when you think that you mean well, there is a 99% chance that such statement reveals nothing but your ignorance and insensitivity to a culture that you don’t know. Furthermore, you may deeply hurt people who adopt Korean, Japanese, Chinese cultures for their way of life. Reducing culture to nature and saying that the rocky, bumpy surface of the ground bothers your soft body but probably not Koreans’ because they sleep on the floor, yes, that’s bad. Pretty bad.

2 thoughts on “When a good intention does not make you less imperialist

  1. Thank you for explaining it so well! I see NO RELEVANCE between backpacking and sleeping in a tent for “back to nature” reasons and the fact that in many cultures beds and bedding are not considered a necessity as in many “Western” (tired of that term but it’s hard to find another way to describe it) societies. I know little to nothing about this, but I would suspect that people from many different cultures who do not use “beds” per se would not AT ALL want to sleep on the ground, whether in a tent or sleeping bag or just the ground. I think many cultures are more fastidious than we are, and would find it repugnant to cope with the absence of appropriate ways of bathing, having homes (not TENTS) free of bugs and dirt. I remember being surprised as a child when I learned Dutch and German housewives scrubbed the front doorsteps daily. But in just a brief consideration, it DOES make sense! Thanks for sharing. I think the biggest gaffe anyone can make is thinking that they “understand” another culture, without at least living in it with open heart and mind for several years. Just to START with, learning the LANGUAGE. Not to express your thoughts. Well enough to get the JOKES in another culture. THEN at least you have enough understanding to speak with knowledge.


    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Maggie. Once again, I emphasize that I don’t find faults with not knowing enough about another culture. The kind of people you describe – people who live in a different culture for several years with open heart and mind and learn the language – are quite rare, and I am not sure if I could do it myself. I am not expecting that much. But I do expect that you don’t overdetermine what is acceptable or not acceptable in another culture. BTW, what do you think about the Canadian reference in the post? Any thought?


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