Sunday, March 7, 2010

Kicking Against the Pricks

Reports: SKorean Internet addicts let baby starve -

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When something awful happens in Korea, awful enough to make the news--police killing protesters, sexual predation, parents killing their children, a President committing suicide--the entire culture seems to participate in a collective and public embarrassment and dread regarding answering what it means that something that awful could happen in Korea. They don't want to talk about it; it puts everyone into a real funk. It's an entirely different response to similar and more common incidents in the United States, where I feel Americans expect such spectacles and especially on the evening news. I was about to ask a Korean colleague about the Internet Addict story the other day and found myself pausing suddenly and changing the subject. I realized that I was only asking because I wanted to make her uncomfortable. I was a little shocked at my motivation.

When considering the seedy United States, Koreans hear old and new stories about lynchings, rapes, fathers killing their families then killing themselves, an increasing number of convicted sex offenders, and rampant drug addiction. Anything spectacular happens in the US, and I will be asked about it over lunch. My interviewer will study my response with a subtle yet shocked expression as if to say, Really, you seem all right but what's wrong with you guys? (Lately, the questions have been about health care. Why don't you want everybody to have health care?)

Not that I'm bothered for a moment that Koreans believe Americans are perverts. So much of this is based on naive acceptance of gossip as fact, and I'm kind of the example that proves otherwise. On the other hand, the history of Americans in Asia, and Korea in particular, is far from exemplary. Sure many of us are doing good work here, but that's not enough to change the overall perception of the US and American culture. And judging from the activity I've witnessed here, it wouldn't surprise me to find out that my Korean friends think we're childish and self-centered snobs. I've heard as much, but with an apology because I'm not that way but America seems like it is. Add to the suspicions that we are, in fact, the most militaristic nation, consistently driven to protect economic interest through participation in foreign wars and maintaining a militarized presence in many countries, and you know it's safe to say that you'd have to be a jingoistic prick to not sympathize with their lack of trust and faith.

Anyway, I have to admit that Americans are often treated like the perverted 14 year old down the street who the parents tolerate but keep at a distance because they think he's been humping their dogs while they work. Or, at least that's how I sometimes feel about the stares I get from women, grandmas, and old men while I'm walking around town. Many of my friends complain about how we're perceived, but it's going to take a long time for Koreans to collectively decide there's true value in global multiculturalism and to learn to reform the nationalist spirit with which it shelters its racism and racists.

I would be a little more interested in my fellow expats' complaints if included in them were, for example, any compassion for other workers, other immigrant laborers who live here and are truly oppressed, like say the thousands of Chinese who live in close to abject poverty in my Gu, who slave away in Seoul's restaurants. But this is representative of a general disconnect white Americans have from the reality of oppression. White folks love to complain about how they are treated while ignoring the horrible oppression of others. Throw them an orphan to cuddle or an old comfort woman to cry about on weekends and they're back to complaining about racism at Monday night dinner. The excuse for complaining ad nauseam being that nobody should be treated this way. I hate the "least of all me" mentality most: the notion that we are to be treated well because we are here habit.

I don't buy it. I think it's easy to look at Koreans in Korea and criticize their failures at understanding what multiculturalism is all about. It's easy, not because Korean society is so monolithic, but because Americans fail at achieving the benefits true multiculturalism can provide a diverse society. We fail at it, yet we expect Korea to open it arms to us and provide with access to its culture without expecting us to assimilate and while permitting us to appropriate.

This story about the baby who starved while her parents were playing a video game where they were raising a virtual child has scandalized Korea and Koreans. They abhor stories like this and are extremely embarrassed by them. I was in a devilish mood the other day and thought about going around asking folks about it, teasing them I guess, like they ask me about American embarrassments. But I checked that little devil and let the temptation pass. Who needs another white guy telling them that their country has problems? Especially when I am one their problems.

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