What right does a ‘foreigner’ have to critique another culture?
This question is often asked here by ‘foreigners’ and Koreans alike. It’s something hotly debated in online forums and more subtly in our workplaces and classrooms. I have been told by foreigners and Koreans alike that if outsiders don’t like something, they should just go home.
Let me start by saying I was educated in the field of Religious Studies, a discipline which seeks to observe, record, dissect, and understand religious communities and traditions. It’s more like anthropology than theology. The reason I want to make this clear is that I am educated in how to approach different cultures in a sensitive but academically critical way. I have two well earmarked copies of Orientalism. I did the post-colonial lit classes, and I grew up in a milieu of radical diversity and a national discourse of multiculturalism. I ‘know’ that all cultures are to be respected; differences preserved; that cultural logic should be investigated and understood on the basis of its own logic.
This was all very clear to me before I moved to Korea.
However, this background and worldview was based on the concept of always being an outsider. As an outsider observing and researching cultural assumptions and rituals, I needed to respect and understand the gulfs between people and ways of life. However, when you not only observe the people…but start to participate in the life…and then find your life bound to the culture you thought you were an outsider of…things get a bit more complicated.
I think there are different kinds of ‘foreigners.’
1) The foreigner who visits a country for a short time. They are the tourists who see the major historic sites, indulge in the food, sometimes go off the beaten track and experience life outside of Seoul and Busan.
2) The short term or repeat term foreigner. This group lives in Korea for a specific length of time but have an exit date in mind. They experience certain parts of regular life: living in a Korean neighbourhood, working for a Korean company, or making a group of Korean friends. They are usually English teachers, sometimes business people or military, and they sometimes even have a Korean spouse. They are part of Korea for a time, but they also have a plan to leave within a certain time frame. They are concerned about the hear-and-now more than their future in the country.
3) The long term no-ties foreigner. I’ve met some people who have been here for 10-20 years. They have long term experiences here – have had multiple employers – lived in a multitude of places – and have seen long term changes in the country. However, they also live on the periphery of Korean family life, are able to leave without familiar ties and have the ability to disassociate themselves from many issues by virtue of ‘foreignness.’
4) The long term ‘tied’ foreigner. This group has or plans on staying in Korea for an extended period, and they live…or are expected to live more or less within Korean cultural standards or expectations.
Some would say that ‘foreigners’ never have the right to critique another culture. They should always respect the cultural milieu, the differentness, the assumptions, and the social issues ‘warts and all.’ They are expected to feel ‘lucky’ to live in another place and should only meditate on the goodness of their new home.
I used to think I believed this. I now know I don’t anymore.
The first group of foreigners might have less to say about Korea. This group does not stay long enough to acquire a nuanced position on the culture or the lifestyle. They tend to see the most beautiful and the most stunning, and go to places where people are used to foreigners. They experience things for the first time, and have that beautiful wonder of encountering newness. However, of course, although they do not have as much time and experience to make a sound judgement of the nation, they are the people the government – who is avidly for increasing tourist dollars to Korea – needs to court and keep happy if it wants to keep these goals. They are also awesome spokespeople for the country. Their short term experiences are carried back to their respective countries with either positive or negative effect.
The next two groups are trickier. In many cases they can leave the country if they are unhappy, but teachers, investors, and skilled/unskilled labourers are courted by companies. For the most part, they increase the GNP, they develop industries, they spend inside the Korean economy, and in the case of migrant factory workers, they do the jobs most Koreans would never do at a fraction of the price. These groups have often encountered workplace discrimination or major management differences from their home countries. They live in neighbourhoods and are thus concerned with crime rates. They work the long hours of Korean citizens or are charged with motivating and educating the exhausted elementary school students who experience extreme fatigue because of long hours spent in ‘schools.’ They are recruited from abroad only to be told on arrival that they have to find another teaching job or pay their own way home because their employer didn’t realize they were black. These foreigners might have less to say about elder abuse, apartment development, or political ranglings, but it seems strange to assert that a person cannot have an opinion about what they are experiencing simply because they don’t hold citizenship in that country. How can a teacher wipe from her mind the fact that her student will get beaten if he doesn’t get a good test mark, or ignore a child’s panic attack because she is 8 and has to do homework until midnight every night? How can a migrant factory worker not be concerned about safety when he, not the citizens of Korea, face the dangers imposed on him by his stingy-let’s-do-this-in-the-fastest-and-cheapest-way-possible-damn-the-consequences employers everyday?
The last group…the one I am part of…is a whole other mess of blurred lines. My foreign friends who are males planning on leaving Korea after a few years will never have to deal with worries they might be fired if they decide to have a baby. They don’t have to worry about their children facing discrimination because they are bi-racial in public schools, or wonder if they will be denied a bank loan for a house because they are a foreigner and therefore a ‘risky borrower.’ Those of us with Korean partners, half-Korean children, and Korean families could leave and never look back. We could forget about our Korean ties and focus on the social issues facing the countries we left long ago….but doesn’t it make sense that we are engaged in the social issues around us?
In fact, I would argue that often ‘foreigners’ or to use the more pc ‘immigrants’ or ‘newcomers’ or ‘long term residents’ may have more to say about certain issues than citizens. A white Canadian-born citizen with a plain Anglo name has less to say about racial profiling at the Canadian airport than a dark skinned person with a beard because they will never experience that kind of discrimination in that kind of way. Likewise, an ethnically Korean citizen will find it difficult to fully understand the bizarro land which is Korean immigration with its shape shifting rules because they will never have to go through the process.
However, even if people are not directly involved in something doesn’t mean that they don’t have an opinion. I don’t own a car, but I still care about road safety because I am a pedestrian with a higher chance of being hit and a bus passenger with a higher chance of being involved in a bus accident when the rules of the road are not followed.
A woman whose husband works late every night – in part because he is ordered by his boss to participate in mandatory drinking sessions – can still have an opinion on working hours, the Korean drinking culture, and management styles. She is also impacted by her husband’s health, his time (or lack thereof) spent at home, and the stress he is under. To say that this woman has no say in this matter is just as strange as a man being told he shouldn’t care about sexual predators of minors because he is no longer a child.
It makes no sense to me that people who work, pay taxes, walk on the roads, live in apartment complexes, send their kids to public schools, shop in stores, live in the shadow of the DMZ should have no opinions on the matters at hand. It would be a sad world if every time we not only saw, but experienced injustice, misery, and untapped potential, that we shrugged our shoulders and refused to get involved.
Now I certainly see the difference between complaints and critique…between bashing and meaningful conversations to discuss how to enact positive change. I am certainly at fault for being a complainer and a negative critiquer…I’m a very cynical person after all. I also fear. I fear being too vocal – even among foreign teachers who would sometimes separate themselves from foreigners with less social standing in Korea to preserve their more elevated space. I fear the wrath of Korean management and administrators who all too easily dismiss concerns voiced by ‘selfish’ foreigners when they complain of an injustice. And I also fear myself…and the lack of positive options that I see before me…that all my thoughts will come to nothingness without the opportunity for action.
But even with these fears and these opposing opinions, I still assert that to say that foreigners have no right to an opinion about their lives – and that they have no responsibility for others in less fortunate and more discriminatory positions than themselves – is incomprehensible.
The reason why Koreans have been successful in North America – why some have become politicians – others lawyers and doctors – others franchise and small business owners – and others – happily settled people living in a quiet community they fully engage in – is because Koreans stood up and worked for positive change. And the Koreans worked with and stood on the shoulders of those who came before them. And the work that past generations have done will set a framework for newcomers.
Our Southeast Asian mail order brides…our Arab restaurant owners…our Bangladeshi factory workers…our college professors from abroad…our ethnic Koreans from China…must all have the right to voice, dissect, and debate legitimate concerns about their own lives. And their voices must be heard as a way to forge positive developments in society that affect all those living within the boarders. Through this process Koreans can learn about newcomers, and newcomers can come to understand Korean methods and viewpoints at a deeper level. Community is formed through participation not apathy. We all have the right…and just as importantly-the responsibility to be part of this community.