Monday, December 15, 2008

"Nothing but scandalous"

I've been reading Donald Clark's Living Dangerously in Korea (The Western Experience 1900-1950), which can be found here, and it's a fascinating book. If you have any interest in Korean history, or in the history of westerners in Korea, then it's well worth reading. I imagine I'll write a few posts based on quotes from this book, but for now, I thought the following quotes were worth looking at, starting with Korean American writer Younghill Kang's opinion of foreign missionaries expressed in his 1931 book The Grass Roof:
The writer Younghill Kang once described two kinds of missionaries in Korea: the kind that was “educated and sincere,” and the type “that cannot get any job in the West so he comes to the East where he can live cheaply and have a cook and a waiter and a gardener and cherish a superiority complex over the ‘heathen.’ He announces that the Lord has called him for service, but in reality the West has kicked him out for being unfit.”
If you're thinking this sounds familiar, perhaps these anti-English teacher comics from anti-english spectrum will help illustrate the post.

"If I stay in my hometown working at WalMart,
no girls will ever talk to me."

Now, whether most Koreans felt this way is hard to know (Clark explains why Koreans thought westerners were strange, including the idea that traveling far from home was generally considered to be traumatic for most Koreans); perhaps Kang felt this way because he was educated and had experience with westerners in both Korea and North America. Of course, as Clark relays in a footnote,"Not surprisingly, Younghill Kang’s remarks about missionaries in The Grass Roof elicited bitter comments about his ingratitude from several Canadian missionaries who had helped him as a student and arranged for him to study in the West."

Even more interesting is the following story about how the Korean social ethics banning casual dating prevented women from fraternizing with American soldiers during the U.S. occupation of Korea between 1945 and 1948, making it difficult to find Korean secretaries.
[T]he young, educated women who worked in USAMGIK offices were often approached for dates. The women, their families, and Korean society in general misunderstood these overtures, andthey put the women in a difficult position. For example, one morning an American officer found that his Korean receptionist was very upset by a leaflet that a man had handed her on the way to work. He ordered up a rough translation and found that it said:

"WE COULD NOT OVERLOOK YOU, WOMANHOOD, when you fool around with Westerners in just showing your vanity and worldly devices, which is nothing but scandalous, while you should put all your strength on establishing the state of new Korea. From now on any one of you who shows the following scandalous actions beware that you will be insulted right in front of public.

1. Those women who are quite animated in riding automobile with Westerners.
2. Those women who wink at Westerners in saying “Hello gum” and “My home” and such short words.
3. Those women who chew gum and stroll all over town.
4. Those women who are whispering to the Westerners in the night.
5. Those women who go into the dance hall just because they are crazy about coffee and chocolate."

So then: girls must be glum when riding in automobiles with westerners (even though riding in anything other than a bus must have been quite rare for most people at the time), can't wink and say "Hello gum" (??), chew gum (these guys must hate gum) and stroll around town (suggesting that they should then go around town in a car... glumly... if they're going to chew that hated gum?), and should not whisper to Westerners in the night (but should talk in a normal voice?). As for disparaging girls "just because they are crazy about coffee and chocolate," that may go to show that the "doenjang nyeo" is not such a new phenomenom (indeed, you could probably write an interesting paper comparing the 'modern women' of the 1930s with the 'doenjang nyeo' of today).

In Outlanders: Tales of Korea, a zine published by Scott Burgeson, Zane Ivy's story "The Limits of Segyehwa" details his experience with a Korean company producing EFL materials in the late 1990s. When the head of his department, a Hispanic American in his early 60s, began dating a 36 year-old Korean divorcee, "the company apparently "got a call" from the security guard at [his] company-leased apartment, informing the company that he had been having a "young Korean girl" staying over at his apartment." In response to this, the company president demanded he break off the relationship and write a letter of apology. When he did this, he was then asked to resign, which he did, returning to the U.S. with his Korean girlfriend. The story concludes with:
We learned that while Koreans might be receiving a lot of government-inspired pressure to embrace segyehwa, there seemed to be a limit to how much "embracing" that permitted... if you wanted to keep your job, at least.
This reminds me of my first boss in Korea, who said that he'd be happier if none of us had (Korean) girlfriends or boyfriends, to which my co-worker Jill replied, "Yeah, that's just want you want: sexually frustrated people around children."

One thing is for sure - Anti-English Spectrum Cafe and its xenophobic, "we must protect our women from the barbarians (and themselves)" attitude, as expressed by member Lee Eun-ung, is nothing new, and in fact is part of a long, proud tradition, involving even the "the father of Korean American literature." On the "low quality" front, Canadian missionaries have been updated as Canadian English teachers, and the "nothing but scandalous" behavior of some licentious women, instead of involving U.S. soldiers, now mostly refers to English teachers. Of course, soldiers still get mentioned often enough, such as in the brouhaha over the U.S. State Department naming Sinchon and Hongdae dangerous zones in Seoul, where Korean newpapers went to lengths to prove there was no anti-foreigner violence there:
Lee Seung-hwan, an official with the non-profit organization, “Club Culture Coalition,” which promotes a healthy night life, said, “Since the clubs in the Hongik University area banned the entrance of American soldiers, there was hardly any incident involving foreigners.”

Lee added, “In the past, there were many brawls between American soldiers who inappropriately approached Korean girls and Korean men who responded to the situation.”
While I'm sure incidents like that happen often enough, it's interesting how Korean overreaction gets omitted, such as during the 1995 subway incident.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting!! long back i too had a chance of reading few books related to this, i am just recollecting them as i read this post.Its really good that you posted this artile so many more can know about it.Good.

King Baeksu said...

Matt, good post. One is tempted to argue that as Korea has transitioned from a Confucian to hypercapitalist society, class has slowly begun to trump race or ethnicity as the primary dividing line by which assimilation into the local gene pool is either accepted or rejected by the broader society. It seems to me that these days, foreign English teachers and/or GIs are considered by many locals as simply not good enough wage earners to be socially acceptable dating or marriage material -- at least for proper Korean women (and their male "guardians"). If you are a foreign businessman, lawyer or doctor, on the other hand, the social taboos against dating foreigners here seem largely to have dissolved.

In other words, the modern-day undesirable here is the low-income earner, regardless of one's ethnicity. English teachers or GIs should therefore simply mind their place as low-status laborers on the Korean plantation, and not be so damn "uppity"!

Anonymous said...

My first teaching job was in a hakwon in Seoul in the early 90s. The female staff would not date any of the men and had to fraternize even with the women on the sly as they had been specifically instructed never to meet any of the foreigners outside of school for any social interaction.

Anonymous said...


Class has always trumped race and ethnicity. Foreign English teachers and GIs are no longer desirable because local incomes and living standards have risen dramatically over the last twenty-five years.