Thursday, July 24, 2008

Century-old expat complaints

If you haven't read Roboseyo and Ask A Korean's tag team offering on why expats in Korea complain so much, they're well worth reading. There have been several responses, though I've only had time to read Gord's so far (it takes quite a bit of time to read just those three posts). Needless to say, there's lots to chew on there, and I don't have much to add to those posts at the moment. Ask A Korean brought up the speed at which Korea developed, and being reminded of the dirt-poor old days, I couldn't help but recall the numerous books written by foreigners at the end of the Chosun Dynasty. Most were written by visitors to Korea, though visitors at that time didn't tend to just pop into the country for a week. The majority would spend several weeks or months in Korea, and their responses varied. The long term expats (many of them missionaries) tended to be more generous towards their hosts, and towards other expats (as can be seen even decades later here and here). Here are some of the travelers' complaints from those days:

In the 1894 book Corea of today, George W. Gilmore writes that
An Englishman was once heard to say that the dirtiest man he ever saw was a clean Corean, and visitors to the country would generally agree with him. It can only be said by way of excuse for the people of the peninsula, that their white summer clothing is very easily soiled, while their thick-quilted winter garments are troublesome to wash.
Many of the visitors to Korea did tend to explain the faults they found, though some were more generous than others. In the 1894 book Corea, the hermit nation, William Elliot Griffis writes of the clothing:
Less agreeable is the nearness which dispels illusion. The costume, which seemed snowy at a distance, is seen to be dingy and dirty, owing to an entire ignorance of soap.
Griffis at least displays a sense of humor, such as when he refers to the 1830s voyages of Charles Gutzlaff to Korea (which Gutzlaff wrote about here):
Deeply impressed with their poverty, dirt, love of drink, and degradation, the Protestant, after being nearly a month among the Coreans, left their shores, fully impressed with their need of soap and bibles.
Visitors didn't just complain about personal hygiene, however. In his 1894 book Problems of the Far East: Japan - Korea - China, George Nathaniel Curzon wonders why people would choose to wear hard-to-clean white clothing, and also describs Seoul:
Each street or alley, moreover, has an open gutter running upon either side, and
containing all the refuse of human and animal life. Soul is consequently a noisome and malodorous place ; and exploration among its labyrinthine alleys is as disagreeable to the nostril as it is bewildering to the eye.
Not so different from some expats today, he wasn't a big fan of Korean music:
The national dance, which is performed to the strains of a slow plaintive music evoked by a seated band, is monotonous in character and interminable in length.
Yeah, sometimes it does feel like "Tell Me" goes on forever. Back to the nature of Korean settlements, in her 1897 book The life of Rev. William James Hall, M. D. : medical missionary to the slums of New York, pioneer missionary to Pyong Yang, Korea, Rosetta Sherwood Hall offers a possible reason for the unpleasant character of Korean cities:
Imagine mud-walled hovels with thatched or tiled roofs so low that the eaves are within six feet of the ground, all built with their backs to the street, and with their chimneys pouring out their smoke just on a level with your nose ; the privies, built so that they overhang the ditch at the side of the street, only used by the women, the men and children commonly using the street itself, which is without sidewalks, and is practically but an open sewer, fortunately washed out annually by good Dame Nature at the time of the rainy season. If you can imagine these things, then you have before you a picture of the average street in the capital city of the Hermit Nation. No doubt the seclusion of women, as practiced in Korea, accounts for a great deal of this condition of affairs. Picture to yourself the probable appearance of our own streets if women had not been allowed to appear upon them for the last five hundred years.
Others, such as James Creelman in his 1901 book On the Great Highway, complain about other aspects of their Korean experience:
[T]he Coreans are the emptiest-headed, most childlike, and most generally foolish people among civilized nations. They are the grown-up children of Asia. Their ignorance is not like the ignorance of Central Africa. Hundreds of years ago, they inspired Japan with the love of art, and their literature is as old as Egypt. They are gentle and meditative. Throughout the Corean peninsula, stately quotations from the noblest Chinese odes are painted on the public buildings, in the quaint summer pagodas, and on the walls of dwelling houses. Their very battle flags are inscribed with philosophic sayings. But the Coreans are drugged with abstract scholasticism and demonology. They are credulous almost beyond belief.
In his 1908 book In Korea with Marquis Ito, George Trumbull Ladd said the same thing:
The silliness of mind, the almost hopeless and incurable credulity and absolute absence of sound judgement which characterizes, with exceedingly few exceptions, the political views and actions of even the official and educated class in Korea, was the impression made upon me by this, as by all my experiences during my stay in the land.
While some of these writers, like Creelman or Ladd, were certainly under the influence of the Japanese during (or right after) a war and may have been nudged by them in this direction, it's not so different from blog posts today about, say, "K[orean] Logic." It's worth noting that others, who had spent years in Korea, also wrote in a similar manner. James S. Gale, in a June 29, 1901 Outlook article titled "Unconscious Korea", wrote that
There is no such thing as cause and effect in Korea[...] The Korean might well be placarded the Unconscious Human. Just now round about him are gathering shadows and mutterings, the full import of which he seems to hear not; at any rate which he certainly understands not. He says the graves of his ancestors must be moved to some more propitious place. To this extent only is the national mind alive to the situation.
During the Russo-Japanese War, in early 1904, Jack London arrived in Korea to cover the war for the San Francisco Examiner.

"Seoul - raced horses down this street - Uncle Jack"

London also gives a description of navigating the streets of Seoul which doesn't sound so out of place today:
I navigated the narrow, crowded streets of the capital of Korea. I marvel at it, when I look back upon it - bulls and bullock carts, trains of Korean pack ponies, soldiers afoot and ahorse, a swarm of children, apathetic Koreans too lazy to get out of the way, blocked traffic, jams, plunging and rearing of many horses - most of them stallions, and never a collision.
At times, perhaps, the negative aspects of his experience got the best of him:
[...]the first weeks of a white traveler on Korean soil are anything but pleasant. If he be a man of sensitive organization he will spend most of his time under the compelling sway of two alternating desires. The first is to kill Koreans, the second is to commit suicide."
In his June 1904 essay "The Yellow Peril," London explained why he felt this way:
War is to-day the final arbiter in the affairs of men, and it is as yet the final test of the worthwhile-ness of peoples. Tested thus, the Korean fails. He lacks the nerve to remain when a strange army crosses his land. The few goods and chattels he may have managed to accumulate he puts on his back, along with his doors and windows, and away he heads for his mountain fastnesses. Later he may return, sans goods, chattels, doors, and windows, impelled by insatiable curiosity for a "look see." But it is curiosity merely — a timid, deerlike curiosity. He is prepared to bound away on his long legs at the first hint of danger or trouble. [...]

In many a lonely village not an ounce nor a grain of anything could be brought, and yet there might be standing around scores of white-garmented, stalwart Koreans, smoking yard-long pipes and chattering, chattering — ceaselessly chattering. Love, money, or force could not procure from them a horseshoe or a horseshoe nail.

"Upso," was their invariable reply. "Upso," cursed word, which means "Have not got."
London had a much different view of the Chinese when he crossed the Yalu behind the Japanese army, which goes to show the source of his frustration in Korea:
I rode to the shore, into the village of Kuel-ian-Ching. There were no lounging men smoking long pipes and chattering.[...] Everybody was busy. Men were offering eggs and chickens and fruit for sale upon the street, and bread, as I live, bread in small round loaves or buns. I rode on into the country. Everywhere a toiling population was in evidence. The houses and walls were strong and substantial. Stone and brick replaced the mud walls of the Korean dwellings. Twilight fell and deepened, and still the ploughs went up and down the fields, the sowers following after. Trains of wheelbarrows, heavily loaded, squeaked by, and Pekin carts, drawn by from four to six cows, horses, mules, ponies, or jackasses — cows even with their new-born calves tottering along on puny legs outside the traces. Everybody worked. Everything worked. I saw a man mending the road. I was in China. [...]

The Korean is the perfect type of inefficiency — of utter worthlessness. The Chinese is the perfect type of industry. For sheer work no worker in the world can compare with him.
Robert Neff notes in the book Korea Witness that "none of [these other critics] are held in as much contempt by Koreans as Jack London." This surprises me, as there are many reasons why there should be some respect for London here (I'll save those for another post), but one rather important reason would be that there were others who wrote much, much worse things about Korea. At the top of the list would be George Kennan. Kennan had been a critic of Russia's penal system, and when the clash between Japan and Russia began, he naturally sided with Japan. The following paragraph from his October 8, 1904 Outlook article, "The Land of the Morning Calm," reveals that the long term expats tended to be much more understanding of Korea. It also reveals that Kennan shared with London a disdain for the Koreans' "lack of virility" - though that was just one of the things Kennan hated about the country:
American friends who have spent in the peninsula more years than I have weeks tell me that the Korean, as a man, is intelligent, courteous, teachable, kind-hearted and superior in many ways to the Japanese; but in the first place, he impresses me as lacking in virility, and, in the second place, he is so abominably dirty in his personal habits and his environment that I find it almost impossible to credit him with a spark of self-respect. His apologists say that he has been crushed and disheartened by centuries of bad government. This is undoubtedly true, and it accounts for many of his weaknesses and defects; but bad government does not prevent him from cleansing his premises, nor a body of citizens from cleaning up their neighborhood. So far as my limited observation qualifies me to judge, the average town Korean spends more than half his time in idleness, and instead of cleaning up the premises in his long intervals of leisure, he sits contentedly on his threshold and smokes, or lies on the ground and sleeps, with his nose over an open drain from which a turkey-buzzard would fly and a decent pig would turn away in disgust.
Contemptuous as he is, Kennan is also a very descriptive writer, and in his October 22, 1904 Outlook article, "The Capital of Korea" he continues:
[T]he streets of the average Korean village are littered with decaying garbage, or bordered by open drains which have not slope enough to carry away the matter which oozes or is thrown into them, and which consequently are always choked with a rotting mass of semi-liquid filth, disgusting in appearance and sickening to the sense of smell.
Not everyone agreed with this, however. In 1904, Angus Hamilton published a book ("Korea") about Korea, saying “The streets of Seoul are magnificent, spacious, clean, admirably made and well-drained. The narrow, dirty lanes have been widened, gutters have been covered, roadways broadened. Seoul is within measurable distance of becoming the highest, most interesting and cleanest city in the East.” He continued on to say, “Seoul was the first city in East Asia to have electricity, trolley cars, water, telephone and telegraph systems all at the same time.”

Kennan had apparently read this, and certainly had an opinion about it:
To describe the capital, in a general, sweeping way, as a city of "magnificent, clean, admirably made and well-drained streets," where the air is "clear and sweet," and where "mud and foulness have vanished," seems to me to be inexcusably misleading and grossly inaccurate. The reality is more truthfully set forth in half a dozen doggerel verses composed by a foreign resident of Seoul:

"The houses they live in are mostly of dirt,
With a tumble-down roof made of thatch;
Where soap is unknown, it's safe to assert,
And where vermin in myriads hatch;
The streets are reeking with odors more rife
Than the smell from a hyena's den;
One visit is surely enough for one's life
To that far-away land of Chosen."
Nah, none of this feels like you're reading blog posts from 1904 at all, now does it? Of course, some of these writers were more influential than any expat blogger writing about Korea today. For example, a year later, on October 7, 1905, Kennan would have another article published in Outlook titled "Korea: A Degenerate State," which was to be the first part of a series of articles about Korea. He later received a letter dated October 15, 1905, which referred to him as "an observer whose writings will have weight," and praised what he wrote, saying "I very much like your first article on Korea, in the Outlook". The author of this letter?
U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt.

Somehow, I'm going to imagine that not many complaining expats today - in Korea or elsewhere - blogging or posting in forums or otherwise - are getting emails from any president.


Bart Schaneman said...

Well done, Matt. Your post illustrates the problems with surface observations. The real value in these old writings is in the descriptions of the place. The writers' opinions are valid, but subjective, and therefore ephemeral. I think that's what bloggers here often forget--that it's better to describe life in Korea than to opine on it.

Anonymous said...

Great and informative post.

Some thoughts: These writings of ye olde expats demonstrate my main problem with most “critics" of Korea (and other countries): they don't seem to understand that

1.) Constructive criticism that merits actual attention and straight up bitching are two different things
2.) Criticism can be delivered in a FAR MORE EFFECTIVE MANNER with a healthy dose of compassion and understanding.
3.) Honest observations are those delivered without "extreme" descriptions (saying something is 'dirty' is different from saying the 'dirti-EST.' While it may seem like mere semantics - semantics is EVERYTHING when you are trying to convey an accurate picture).

To be a true critic, your writing must be factual, unbiased, and balanced. All to often readers either overlook this or the writers themselves believe they are actually qualified to be critics.

This rings true with the above writings: every "observation" is littered with "extreme" adjectives. I personally feel that since most of the above were aiming to publish their writings, they should have made at least a modicum effort to convey actual observations without bias….but overt racism was far more acceptable back then so, no need to cry over spilled milk.

Cut to Present Expat Complainers: Sadly, I feel like Expat Complainers today, unfortunately, continue to bear the same three problems with the exception of the few. Which is why Expat Complainers have built a reputation of being racist though I would venture to say at least 50% are not necessarily so. Although blogs are not officially 'published' and 'circulated', like the books of the past, blog entries are even more accessible, read by many people, often taken at face value, and assumed to be credible since they were written by actual people in the country.

Blogs are like those old writings in that they are written by people who do not bother differentiate between actual fact and opinion. But NOW this is because the idea of a 'blog' IS supposed to be a log of personal opinions, so it could be said it is not really the bloggers’ responsibility to actual “be” credible. But a blog is inherently considered different from an actual book though in the end, the effect of reading a book or a blog are nearly identical. Personal opinions are delivered with a factual air, usually knowledge of [Korean] history is palpably nil, and the most problematic, entries usually show absolutely no attempt at trying to understand the issue and dismiss self-reflection and analysis entirely with broad statements like “those” people are “illogical, uncivilized, inefficient, etc etc”. While I would say most bloggers don’t intend to come across as hateful as they sound, their failure carefully choose their words and self-reflect make them so. I daresay most Expat Complainers just simply find it exhausting to have to think about what they are writing carefully when they just want to blow off some steam….so sadly…I feel like the number of blogs written by Angry Expats will just continue to grow.

Roboseyo said...

Thanks for this, Matt. I really enjoyed it. I'm sure glad to be complaining about bank service instead of complaining about shit in the street.

What an interesting walk through time.

Yeah, anonymous, there will always be a lot of gripers -- the main difference between gripers now and in, say, 1996, is simply that back then, if you wanted to put your gripes out there, you needed either a print medium willing to publish you, or the know-how and equipment to host your own URL, and program the code to set up your page. I have to feel pretty strongly about something before I'm willing to muckle into HTML code just to get it out there.

meanwhile, if you think of the audience those writers wrote for, their tone is more understandable: they weren't trying to relate to a bunch of Korean readers and decision-makers; they were reporting back to a bunch of smug westerners who wanted their opinion of western superiority confirmed with lurid tales of the backwards savages (and maybe trying to scare up some funds for their next missionary trip along the way).

Part of the reason for expat complaining seeming to increase isn't that a larger percentage of expats are unhappy now, but that it's so much easier to vent online now, and there are just plain more expats here, by sheer numbers.

Meanwhile, I think that the rant-blogs will earn exactly the audience they deserve, and gain exactly as much credibility as they deserve -- for myself, the histrionics get tired, and I'd rather read someone with a more solution-oriented outlook (though, kind of like that guy from Office Space who listened to gangsta rap to vent his self-hatred, it's good to know where I can go to read some mean-spirited stuff, nod my head, think, "hell, yeah!" and get my vicarious catharsis ).

The critics who ARE trying to make a difference generally do consider their audience more carefully (though, as I said before, if they REALLY want to reach the audience that needs to read their thoughts, they'd decide to learn to write in Korean, possibly under a Korean psuedonym.)

Thanks to confirmation bias, people will generally find evidence to fit their hypothesis, and people who check out the K-blogs to see who's being negative, will usually find the negative ones, while those who set out to find the thinkers, observers and commentators, great photographers or humorous story-tellers, usually find them instead.

Brian said...

Excellent work here, as always.

Unknown said...

I love your blog!So meticulously researched and presented! Keep up the great work please.

Unique Sterling Silver Crosses said...

This post gave me a hard on. The "if you don't like it here then leave" theme that if often thrown at any negative criticism is really only the same as the writings of the first westerners to visit Korea. They were simply physically turned around and led back to their boats. Koreans do not suffer criticsm well. They may rail at you over American does this, America does that, but any criticism of "Uri Nara" is unacceptable. There is no "Constructive criticism that merits actual attention," as anonymous commenter wrote. 'Those people' dont want to hear it and most importantly do not see something that 90% of the world finds offensive as offensive. You cant change the country. Hell, you cant even change one person, so dont even try. Enjoy your time here. Save money. When you leave, spend the money on a nice trip to a beach in Thailand.

King Baeksu said...

NB, I believe you have painted a simplistic picture here. Many Koreans are open to criticism from foreigners if they feel the foreigners are coming from a well-intentioned position. My last book was exceedingly critical of Korea and was in fact a bestseller here; it was also widely covered in the local media and uniformly well-reviewed. A few bloggers or Netizens may not have liked it but my understanding is that they didn't actually read it in almost every case. There is no problem with constructive criticism coming from foreigners here, as long as the points are valid and well-argued. Indeed, Pak No-ja is a very famous writer here who is Russian by birth, and he made his name as a strong critic of Korean nationalism and other conservative or reactionary tendencies here. So I feel that if you made the kind of argument that you are making here in a Korean-language context, Koreans would react negatively mainly because you just don't know what you're talking about!

Anonymous said...

Dude, what is the title of your book? I may have to give it a read ^_^

Like Scott said, I think you're being overly simplistic and failing at anon #1's number 2 (compassion/understanding) and 3 (semantics/broad descriptions).

Here's my rough take on Koreans' reactions to criticism: If you talk to old folk that lived through and still well remember the Occupation or the Pacific War or the Korean War (of which there are still a remarkable number, believe it or not); naturally, they are going to be VERY touchy since to them, it it was only yesterday they (and Korea as a country), literally survived by the skin of their teeth. Their feelings are very much like how Americans felt about Japanese for several years after Pearl Harbor except magnified by 20 years + actual fighting on your homeland.

Talk to the the generation that were born post-WWII and grew up in war-razed Korea and saw it literally change overnight. Combine this with their memories of war stories from their parents who suffered through DECADES of war on their homeland. Natural pride of Korea success + memories of foreigners (never mind which) tramping through Korea for decades = Suspicious nationalists, sound familiar? Unfortunately, most of the people in power in Korea are from this generation :P

Younger generation that grew up in modern Korea as we know it now, in my experience, take to criticism easier due to fading memories of war and of course, globalization. But this generation is still young and their parents are still alive. Also Youth + controversy = argue, which is one formula that holds true in every country.

While I would venture to agree that the average Korean could be perceived is overly sensitive, I think if Korea's history as a tiny nation cupped between two vastly larger countries explains a great deal. Wariness of foreigners, in all honesty, is the only thing that kept Korea together through centuries of constant attempts to colonize it. It's only recently this "hermit" nature of Korea is starting to work against itself.

I can honestly tell you that if you add a spoonful of compassion and demonstrate knowledge of Korea's history in your criticisms...when you talk to younger Koreans - even older ones if your Korean is fluent enough - you'll be surprised to see how many are willing to listen and even agree.

King Baeksu said...

A, the title is Daehan Minguk Sayonghugi (Korea Consumer Report). The title itself is quite provocative to Koreans, no?

Anonymous said...

Two points here: One. Much of what is reported was directly related to the expectations of the observers. Korea didn't meet those expectations, therefore, their writing tended to emphasize the negative. In the 1840s a wealthy Scotsman named William Drummond Stewart went out to the Rockies to live among the Indians and Trappers. His accounts of their lives were filled with wonder (Across the Wide Missouri", Bernard DeVoto, New York 1967) because that was exactly what he expected to find. Two: Perhaps those coming to Asia expected to find some wonderland peopled with wise sages and happy, friendly, fastidiously clean Asians, and let their pens drip with acid when describing the realities they found. Korea at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries was a tough place to live. Life expectancy, if we take the parents of Kim Il-sung as typical, was short (34 or so). It is difficult to sit in Seoul in 2008 and understand just how far Korea has come. At the same time, there is no reason to apologize for harsh judgments of a century ago. Korea is no longer what it was, but neither is it perfect. But then, neither are the homes of origin of its expats.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Matt. You always do plenty of spadework and your posts are always well researched. How you come up with all these quotes is pretty amazing.

Anonymous said...

"Old attitudes of superiority and disdain - dressed up in terms of free speech, progress or whatever - are still very powerful. Nor - as many liberals like to think - are they necessarily in decline."

Anonymous said...

reductio ad hitlerum...

Anonymous said...

Great post, thoroughly enjoyed it.

gordsellar said...

Excellent post, Matt, as I knew it would be when you mentioned it!

"'Upso,' cursed word, which means 'Have not got'" had me in stitches.

Scott, have you seen the book 한국리포트 by Wang Xiaoling? It came out in 2002, seems to have sold well, and is no longer in print as far as I know -- bookstores couldn't order it when I tried, anyway -- though I managed to find a copy in my uni's library. It's a very frank discussion of Korean society by a Chinese exchange student who was here for some time. (Not sure how long.) I'll be writing a little more about the book sometime in response to the second question that Rob and The Korea have posed, but it's another interesting example of an apparently popular book by a non-Korean that contains some pretty blunt criticism of Korean society or ways of doing things.

(I don't know how the reviews were, mind you -- I haven't scoured the net, but I did find mostly very factual articles explaining that a Chinese student had written a book comparing Korean and Chinese societies.)

It's one of those books that would fit in well into the discussion that Robo and The Korean have sparked, but I have no idea how one could contact Wang to see if she would have anything to contribute, and I certainly can't read the book, or, rather, I'm not willing right now anyway to put the time in to struggle through it.

But at least it's another data point illustrating that Nightmare Believer is possessed of an exaggerated misconception of how members of Korean society consume or handle all criticism: obviously, when they perceive someone to be informed or fair about it, many people will listen, clarify points, and exchange ideas, whether they disagree or agree. Well, it's not quite as simple as that, which is why I need to post a more thought-out response -- I don't think it's only about knowing your stuff, or being measured; time and time again something else also comes up.

But anyway, Miss Wang was not run out of Korea with pitchforks and torches, after all.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I just wanted to let you know that I've added you to my blogroll. You're not obligated to add me in return or anything, but I just felt you should know. :)

King Baeksu said...

Hey, if you stinkin' expats don't like Korea, why not go native and have a protest? Or two or three or a hundred? When in Kimchiland, do as the Kimchi Krunchers do!

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a great post. I agree with several of your readers - your postings are very indepth and well researched. When I read your posts I sometimes have to go back and check my own collection of books to make sure you did not come in the middle of the night through my window and borrow some of mine....May I ask where you do your research at? There are few libraries in Korea with extensive libraries on these early Korean narratives.
Robert Neff

Anonymous said...


"Kimchi Krunchers"? Yeesh.

I submit that comments like yours in this thread (implying that "Koreans" -- who number in the millions -- have hundreds of demonstrations about any random thing, based on a small cross-section of the population) pop out of foreigners' mouths with almost as much regularity as they do from random Koreans' mouths.

That, I submit, is evidence of foreigners having gone native. Unfortunately, they're following the example of a fringe of Korean netizens, and not even the interesting ones.

More's the pity.

King Baeksu said...

Anonymous, the candlelight protests recently passed their hundredth installment this summer. Hundreds of thousands attended. Hardly fringe.

And unless I'm mistaken, Koreans do eat kimchi every day, and it tends to be rather crunchy, most would agree.

I find myself too bored to think of anything witty in retort, except to say half-heartedly that I pee on you!

Anonymous said...

Great post!

I will be linking to it soon.

DSW said...

Brilliant post... I was researching most of those sources when I stumbled across this! Fantastic.

I love how similar the views of Korea were a hundred years ago.