It all began well enough. Michael Foster joined his wife, a South Korean, in Seoul in 2010 with a new doctorate in English literature and a three-year, tenure-track contract at prestigious Korea University. His aim was to build a life in a country that seemed increasingly cosmopolitan and vibrant. Two years later, Mr. Foster, an American, has abandoned his job and is involved in a bitter dispute with his former employer.In addition to intolerance of foreign criticism, Korea also has hot and humid summers and very fast internet. Is it really so difficult for people coming to Korea - especially foreign professors - not to know these things? As for what set the students off,
Now back in New York with his wife, he says that he felt unwelcome at the university from the start, and that his relationship with faculty members and others deteriorated over time. He says he was even accused of racism by one of his students. "One of the students in evaluations said that I insulted Korea," he recalls. "The student said, 'If America is so much better, you should go back.'"
Mr. Foster, the former professor at Korea University, thinks the student's accusation of racism against him began when he referred to homophobia in Korean culture during a course on the history of romance.While it's likely a knee jerk response on the part of the students, the professor may have been projecting contemporary homophobia into the past; as Richard Rutt pointed out in the late 1950s, in the past things were a little more complex.
The article also tries to understand where the negative attitudes that foreign professors face come from:
Distrust of foreigners is a nationwide issue and must be put in context, says Paul Z. Jambor, an assistant professor in English for academic purposes at Korea University. "It likely stems out of the Japanese colonial period, in which one of the main aims of the Japanese armed forces was to eradicate Korean culture and the Korean spirit."I didn't realize the Japanese armed forces were in charge of cultural policy in Korea. Snide remarks aside, that policy changed during the 35 years after annexation (which explains things like the publication of Korean language newspapers like the Donga Ilbo between 1920 and 1940 and the ability of language scholars to work on a Korean dictionary and standardize Korean orthograpy), though standard media depictions of that era tend to avoid complexity and reduce it to 'they tried to destroy our culture.'
And if it stems from the colonial period, how does that explain the Choryang Waegwan? This was a walled off compound built for Japanese traders and diplomats in 1678 which had a stone slab out front with rules such as "Whoever violates the boundary (wall) shall be punished with death" - a warning which was aimed at Koreans (and was even upheld after the walls came down in the late 1870s, when three Korean women were beheaded for having sneaked into the compound). At that time westerners were perceived as 'barbarians' who might infect morally upright, 'more Confucian than China' Koreans with their 'filthy' religion and "plunder our property and violate women at will," so this distrust of foreigners predates the colonial period, as I've noted before. When you're aware of this history, wanting to give HIV tests to every foreigner visiting Korea for the 1988 Olympics or developing English teaching robots so children don't have to interact with potentially 'unclean' foreigners starts to make a great deal of sense. The article continues:
Donald C. Bellomy, an American who teaches history at Sogang University, in Seoul, says foreign professors who want to work in South Korea must be prepared to adapt to a culture that has not always been welcoming toward outsiders, "and for good reason." The culture is, however, "in some respects more open than one would expect, given its history."That depends whether we're talking about 'history' as presented in the media and textbooks, or history as in 'actual facts.' Several years ago Andrei Lankov wrote an article which is mostly reproduced at the Marmot's Hole in which he debunked the idea that Korea has been invaded constantly and victimized by outsiders:
Rather than being a country with a uniquely turbulent history, Korea actually was a country which enjoyed stability undreamed of in most other parts of the world!If you do the math, the first 500 years of the Joseon dynasty featured three years of war during the Hideyoshi invasions (1592-3, 1598) and two Manchu invasions in 1627 and 1636. Needless to say, 5 years of large scale war out of 500 hardly compares to most countries in Europe during that same time period. But then, when it comes to nationalism, it's not what is true, but rather what one believes is true, which matters.