Friday, April 09, 2010

Commentary on "Sickening Face"

I just posted this at the bottom of yesterday's "Sickening Face" post, but decided to make it a separate post as well.

We've seen the portrayal of the 'shiftless vagabond from France who teaches language and lives well in Korea' evolve in the August 21 Donga Ilbo article "Jibberish" and in "Sickening Face." As 'Jibberish' told us, "There was one penniless “French” young man. He was from “Lyon”. There he was a restaurant delivery boy." Note that the Le Monde article makes no mention of Lyon or restaurant delivery boys - these were made up by the Donga Ilbo. That article also mentions that this "French" young man came to Korea with only a "shabby suitcase" and that he "married a respectable Korean woman," which combines the stories of Luc and Pierre as told in Le Monde.

Now, in "Sickening Face," we're told of "A Parisian dishwasher living in Lyon [who] ended up flying to Korea." Lyon appears again, but this time the "French" young man is a dishwasher instead of a restaurant delivery boy. The intent is the same - to portray him as lowly as possible so that he is seen as being unworthy of marriage to a "maiden from a distinguished rich family." It also relies on the "Korea treats these foreigners too well" theme, as well as the "lucky foreign bastard" theme in portraying him as having a leg up because of his "exotic outward charm" and his mother tongue and also describing this marriage as having "made him a rich man overnight" - a theme seen in these well-known anti-English teacher comics (click on the first result). It also mentions that "Other Parisian dishwashers, shoe shiners, and car washers are calling en masse the Korean embassy in France," an obvious reference to this Joongang Ilbo article. The only problem is that the examples given in that article were of people who were all qualified to teach. At any rate, the reader should fear that more nice, rich girls are going to marry the 'French wave" of dishwashers, shoe shiners, and car washers about to wash over the peninsula.

As for how the writer feels about this, one need only look at the way the article moves from the story of the marriage between a foreign dishwasher to an adulterous couple, to "sickening" examples of hermaphrodites, fish species where the males parasitize females, " sexually-reproducing, impudent vertebrates," talk of anuses in strange places and wicked servants. It's interesting, however, that the last example he mentions is of "ask[ing] questions of sheep in wolf’s clothing." Since they are sheep, they aren't as dangerous as they're made out to be, and can be dealt with, something a Joongang Ilbo editorial had called for the day before "Sickening Face" was published, and the next translation to be posted in this series.


B_Wagner said...

You mentioned the porn cartoons and the "lucky foreign bastard" theme.

Where is that paragraph of text allegedly written by a foreign male about the Korean girl he marries with the "Chamsil apt." which inspired these final images?

And what is the story behind it?

louve9 said...

Obviously, the arguments that are being used currently against English teachers are recycled from an earlier time. Often, such attitudes are displaced in the Korean psyche, if they are acknowledged at all. Accusations of foreign language teaching monsters are generally both fictitious and a tacit attack on Western learning, or Sohak [소학]. On the rare occasion that a Korean apologist acknowledges the rampant bias of attacking non-Korean people because they are not Korean, it is generally attributed to Japanese colonialism, which is in turn an attack on the Western learning that Japan embraced when it modernized. But such arguments are shallow at best. Indeed, as many know, the xenophobic, ultra-nationalistic, and anti-foreign attitudes in Korea are much older.

To illustrate this, look at the Chosŏn Neo-Confucian government’s lack of enthusiasm for the adoption of Western ideas of philosophy and religion. The Chosŏn government persecuted Korean Catholics for hundreds of years, and it was because they embraced a religion that conflicted with Neo-Confucianism. This was mainly because the ideals of Christianity were analogous to the ideals of Buddhism, which Neo-Confucianism had successfully deposed in the fourteenth century with similar arguments of Buddhism being a licentious, homosexual religion that came from a foreign land. One should note, the accusation of foreign peoples being licentious, homosexuals is a trait often affixed to foreign enemies in many cultures.

Neo-Confucian Koreans saw Catholicism as a similar invading force that was incompatible with Confucian orthodoxy, despite the fact that Catholicism was presented as the spiritual aspect that coexisted with Western sciences, which the Chosŏngovernment wished to integrate into their culture in a syncretistic manner. The Neo-Confucian attitude toward both Buddhism and Catholicism can be summed up in an excerpt from the Pak Chega: Memorial of 1786, which states:

"Some might say: Emperor Ming [58-75] of Han welcomed Buddhism, a pest that is still with us after many ages. The Europeans are an entirely different race and live ninety thousand miles away from China and believe in the heterodox creed of Catholicism. Moreover, they have contact with all the barbarians across the seas, and thus their minds cannot be fathomed (Ch’oe, Lee, and De Bary, 108)."

This disturbing perception of Buddhists and Westerners was endemic of the prejudice that Neo-Confucianism bred in Korea, and still often breeds even to this day. Indeed, xenophobic fear of foreigners seems to have been the legacy of Neo-Confucianism.

The same thing is occurring now with the English language. The South Korean government believes that it can usurp the English language, divorce it from Western culture, and integrate it into Korean culture. Language, however, is the conveyance of philosophical points of view about culture. Simply put, there is a fear of Korean Neo-Confucian civilization disappearing when a new language and ideas are adopted. The way Koreans are trying to fight the perceived demise of their society is to create boogiemen out of the messengers of other cultures—teachers.

It seems that history does repeat itself.

Works Cited

Ch’oe, Yŏng-ho, Peter H. Lee, and Wm. Theodore de Bary, Ed. James B. Palais Trans. Sources of Korean Tradition. Vol 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.