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.

Frozen Knowledge

Student-centered learning is one of the hot buzzwords in higher education these days. The idea is universally accepted, and it is almost heretical that a professor, as a superior being with knowledge to disseminate, looks down on students and yells at them. Oh, I hate to be one of those professors. In principle, therefore, I understand and agree with the idea of repositioning students as the active subjects of learning. But the phrase “student-centered learning” accompanies other sub-tenets that I am less sure about “Don’t teach difficult material that doesn’t interest students. They won’t learn anything from it” is one of such tenets.

I am not saying that I expect Ph.D level research from a freshmen writing seminar. I am not advocating the teaching of material that is so removed from students’ interests as to fail to engage them. I understand that we can expect maximized educational effects when we properly engage students and adopt material that is appropriate for the student body’s intellectual calibre. What I want to ask today, though, is whether or not to teach material that students don’t get right away is such a lost cause as we are led to believe? My answer is negative.

When I was a student in Korea, I was bombarded with tons of lessons. I was a very good student with a good record of achievement, but nevertheless, I could not understand everything I was taught. Nobody would be able to process that much knowledge and information. When judged by the standards of student-centered learning, therefore, my Korean education must be pronounced a total failure. But I really don’t think it was a failure or a waste of my time. I rather appreciate having been taught a lot.

Do I remember everything that I was taught in high school? No. Two decades after graduating from high school, the retention rate of high school knowledge may not be higher than 20%, I think. Then, does it mean that the other 80% totally vanished out the window? I don’t think so. I think that the 80% of knowledge is stored somewhere in my brain, in the form of retrievable knowledge. To me, retrievable knowledge is like frozen food. You freeze food when you know that you don’t need it immediately but will need it some time in the future. Frozen food is not a waste. It is storage. It is there for the day when you need it. When you need it, you take it out from the freezer, thaw it, and voila, it becomes edible food.

Let me throw another example. As a literature major, I read a lot of novels. Do I remember everything I read? No. Also, some novels require certain types of life experience, and they may mean nothing to people who lack such life experience. Even then, however, I don’t think it is a waste of time to sit down and read them. True, they may fail to engage you the day when you read them. You may think that you wasted your time. Yet life throws all kinds of shit, and ten years after reading the novel, you may experience in your life what the novel portrays, and that’s when it rings the bell in your head. You will want to re-read the novel and gain some insight. If you had never read the novel 10 years ago, I don’t know how a chance to gain insight from the literary text would become available to you all of a sudden.

A novel which does not speak today may say many, many things ten years later. That’s why I try to read voraciously today, and that’s why I appreciate my high school education that bombarded me with knowledge I could not absorb then.What we read and are taught – once we experience it – never disappears. It becomes frozen and put on the shelf, waiting to be thawed some day.

This is why I believe that student-centered learning does not necessarily mean teaching material that is of immediately interest to students. One goal of education is to expand a knowledge base that will serve the students in the long run through their lifetime. From your education, you want to get something that you like and is useful right away. But don’t you also want to get something that will serve you well 10 years later?

“Because I don’t want to get dark”

“Because I don’t want to get dark”

This photo shows a North Korean woman carrying a parasol, but South Korean women also carry a parasol, almost religiously.  Photo credit: http://media.sacbee.com/static/weblogs/photos/images/2011/nov11/north_korea_autumn_sm/north_korea_autumn_41.jpg

This photo shows a North Korean woman carrying a parasol, but South Korean women also carry a parasol, almost religiously.
Photo credit: http://media.sacbee.com/static/weblogs/photos/images/2011/nov11/north_korea_autumn_sm/north_korea_autumn_41.jpg

Okay, I gave up my hitherto arduously sustained attempt to write a happy post. The third post of Kimchi for Thought is about racism. Yeah, that hot potato. And let me add some hot spices on the potato to burn your mouth. Are you ready to read about Korean racism? Here we go.

This morning, my friend sent me a link. (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/08/05/south-korean-university-bans-nigerian-students-ebola-fears_n_5650358.html) The link announced that a Korean university invited three Nigerian scholars to an international conference that was scheduled to take place at the university, but the university rescinded the invitation because of some concerns over the Ebola break in Africa. I was happily enjoying my morning coffee, but this news restored me to my default setting: anger and frustration.

Let me first start with disclaimers. I believe we should do everything in our power to contain the virus and to treat people who already contracted the virus. I live in the United States, and I certainly don’t want anyone to bring the virus to my neighborhood. But if we’re talking about a virus whose affected area is clearly defined (as of today, two Americans are identified as Ebola patients, and they recently traveled to Sierra Leon. And nobody in Korea is identified as an Ebola patient yet) and if “people can be exposed to Ebola virus from direct physical contact with body fluids like blood, saliva, stool, urine, sweat etc. of an infected person and soiled linen used by a patient,” as WHO affirms, (http://www.afro.who.int/en/clusters-a-programmes/dpc/epidemic-a-pandemic-alert-and-response/epr-highlights/3648-frequently-asked-questions-on-ebola-hemorrhagic-fever.html), there is something going on in this exaggerated fear, other than necessary caution.

And that “something,” I believe, is Korean racism against Africa, Africans, and blacks.

I am Korean, and it is frustrating when, on the street, a random stranger hurls at me some caricature Chinese or Japanese words. Not surprisingly, this happens to all Koreans when they travel abroad, and we all laugh at the stupidity of white Westerners who don’t distinguish and refuse to distinguish Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese. Why do they think that Koreans speak and understand Chinese? Don’t they know that we are three different countries with three distinct cultures and languages? Perfectly justifiable anger and questioning. The problem is that at the next moment, the same Korean people turn around and lump together people from such diverse countries as Liberia, Nigeria, Congo, and Zimbabwe, which stretch over a big continent! They wonder , “are they really from different countries? They are all black. They look all the same. And what, they don’t speak English? I thought Africa was a colony.” (What colony? whose colony? And “Africa”? You mean, the whole thing?)

Pull up the world map, and see where Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are located, the countries where Ebola cases are reported thus far.  (http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/06/health/africa-ebola-outbreak/) Before you close the map, please check where Nigeria is located. Google maps kindly tell you how far Nigeria is from Liberia. They are 2762 km (1716.23 miles) away from each other. For your reference, I add that the distance from Seoul, Korea to Beijing, China is only 952 km. If Koreans are denied entry to the United States at JFK because of some virus outbreak in Beijing, they will be infuriated. And they should be. But they have no problem blocking Nigerians entering Seoul, because of a virus outbreak in Sierra Leone.

This small episode reveals deep-rooted Korean racial prejudices against blacks. Examples abound. There are many private institutions in Korea that teach English to little children, and they say explicitly that they don’t hire black native English speakers, because their customers – parents – don’t want their children to learn English from black teachers. Ladies apply sunblock cream and carry a parasol when they go out, because they don’t want to get “dark.” When a Korean soccer team had a match with an African team in a World Cup, the Korean broadcaster compared the African players to “wild animals who droop vital energies of an African jungle.” And a few years ago, there was a Nike ad which combined into one image the following two images.

Imagine that these two images are juxtaposed in one shot.

Imagine that these two images are juxtaposed in one shot.

nike 2

Korea  is changing rapidly because of a vast influx of immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, etc. You will see that many of the waitresses and cooks at restaurants are women from Southeastern Asian countries. In Korea, physical, low-paying jobs are rapidly replaced by workers from these poorer Asian countries. As a result, a racial hierarchy is being established, and Koreans’ discrimination against and exploitation of these immigrants who they think are lesser than them are simply abominable. It is true that traditionally, Korea is not a racially diverse country and that most Koreans never had a chance to think about racial diversity or racism. But this history of one race country does not excuse us. It is really time to wake up. Remember that one tool of domination is to pit the subjugated against each other. It means that when you discriminate against people of darker skin color, you agree to to be under white masters and serve them obediently.

Korean Military Service

Korean Military Service

For my first blog post, I planned to choose a topic that is fun and makes almost everyone smile. But alas, life never goes as we planned it, and the first post on Kimchi for Thought will be on the Korean military service, a topic that certainly makes my blood boil and will make yours boil, too.

Let me put out the conclusion first: the Korean military service is fucked up in so many ways that I cannot even count the ways.

Some background information. South Korea has mandatory military service, and all Korean men must serve 24 months in the military. Typically, a young man goes to the army a year or two after graduating from high school. Because about 70% of the Korean population goes to college in Korea, one can assume that a vast majority of the men in the military service are freshmen or sophomores. Imagine their young faces.  And more importantly, they haven’t yet had many chances to experience society firsthand. For this reason, we often see in these young men a microcosm of Korean society, both with its goods and ills, its strength and drawbacks, in unadorned, naked form.

Last April, a young man named Yoon died, after he was brutally bullied and beaten up for 35 days in the army by his “colleagues” or by his superiors. (For more information, please see http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20140805000809) The idea of “superiors” is the first way in which the Korean military culture is fucked up. Superior? You’ve been in the army a bit longer than me, so you’re my “superior?”

The second way that the Korean military culture is fucked up is that “superiors” position themselves over their “inferiors” as a monarch with unquestionable and terror-inspiring authority. No, I am not challenging the idea that people with more experience should be respected. They should be. But experience does not translate into unquestionable and terror-inspiring power over those with less experience. In the Korean military, however, it does.

So, Yoon’s superiors (6 of them are officially reported) unabashedly and shamelessly exercised their authority and power over Yoon. You don’t want to hear what they really did to Yoon. I will give you just one mild example: they fed him some food and immediately hit him in the stomach. Yoon threw up his food, and these monsters with the face of human being made him lick the food from the floor and bark like a dog. Sexual assaults and molestation, and verbal abuse and threats were also part of their routinized violence.

These monsters organized their bullying systematically, and Yoon was subject to unspeakable violence for 35 days. And he died. On the day of his death, the monsters hit him, as they normally did with pleasure, and Yoon peed on his pants. And one piece of food got stuck in his airway. He was sent to a hospital but died the following day.

I imagine that the monsters are not much different from freshmen students that I meet on a college campus. And I shudder to think that these young guys who look happy and excited about college life can turn around to pick a weakling from a group (Yoon was picked because he was slow and did not articulate every word) and bully him to death. Where did they get the license of violence?

Some will say that when a great number of young  men who exude tons of testosterone are shoved  together into a small space, it creates a a volatile situation which will take out the dark sides of these men. Perhaps. But I think the ultimate responsibility lies with Korean society. Korean society is hierarchical and violent, and young kids just absorb it. When I was a college student in Korea, I annoyed a number of professors for disagreeing with their interpretation of novels or asking for more justification of their interpretation. I was never beaten by my professors, but Yoon’s incident and mine come from the same fabric. Korean society is barbaric and violent to the extent that we have to  teach and persuade the ideas of human dignity and equality to adults. Again, we’re talking about freshmen in college, not kids in the kindergarten. Yes, we need to teach the idea of human dignity to a 6 year old, because the idea may not be innate to human beings and we may be prone to violence and the pursuit of self-interests at the price of others’. But college students of 18 years old and above? They can drive, vote, and drink. They are fully functioning members of society. When a new batch of adults is released each year who don’t understand that violence is not acceptable in any form, I see a sure sign of  Korean society’s barbarity.


P.S Korean President made a brilliant comment about this incident. She said that she would see to it that the perpetrators and responsible military staff be severely punished. She seems to think that it is a question of a few fucked up guys. Brilliant!