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Pet Sins September 2004

Those who demand respect should also give respect

In my personal experiences, I have noticed what S.F. mentioned in the article Korean slurs Japanese and Chinese culture and morality, specifically resentment by individual (by no means all) Koreans towards the international appeal and reach of Japanese culture. This resentment also manifests itself as competitive attitudes in the fields of cars, animation and electronics. Opinions I have heard in person are often expressed in a virulent and negative way, their main message can be summed up as, "We're better than the Japanese, but the world doesn't pay us as much attention as it pays the less moral, less sophisticated Japan, so the world is stupid and uncultured!"

By no means am I claiming that all Koreans hold such a negative attitude. (There are many people who believe in peace, cultural exchange and coalition-building) Nor do I think that a little healthy competition between neighbors is bad. But I think the focus on "we have to do this well so that we can beat them" is unhealthy. The main motivation for excellence should be a desire to surpass oneself, not a fixation on beating someone else. (Seeing someone else as an inspiration to learn from, a standard to aspire to or even surpass is one thing, a focus on "I hate him for being more successful/well-known than me, so I have to beat him" is another thing.)

Quite often, from what I've observed, the individuals who complain that the people of the world do not recognize the beauty of Korean culture and instead admire Korea's "more vulgar", "less civilized" neighbors, themselves make rather poor cultural ambassadors. They harbor latent scorn for non-Koreans in general (not limited to Korea's neighbors). In their personal dealings, this latent scorn becomes actual rudeness and disrespect - they alienate the non-Koreans they interact with, often by making racist, chauvinistic remarks, and then they complain that non-Koreans in general have no interest in learning about Korean culture. Well, perhaps if you don't push people away, they will have more interest in learning about your culture.

Sometimes this desire for the world to recognize our worth takes on ridiculous and chauvinistic expressions, and it backfires. Instead of getting the respect of those we're trying to impress, we make a bad impression. To give an extreme example (and perhaps not the best because the individual involved is clearly mentally unstable or even insane), this is an incident I overheard (I am not a professional eavesdropper, or even a habitual one, but I do find myself in the position to overhear many conversations ;-):

Two non-Korean women of East Asian descent were on vacation in a Southeast Asian country when a Korean tourist at a sightseeing spot approached them. "Are you Korean?" he asked them. When they said, "No," he asked them where they were from, whereupon they told him their country of origin. The man's response was to hurry past them and when he gained a fair distance, he turned back and shouted at them, "Korea Number One!"

The women were mystified, and wondered what could have motivated this strange behavior. Yes, not all bigots are as blatant as that individual who sees taking a few physical steps ahead of people who are not even 'competing' with him as scoring a point for national pride. But I hope that more 'moderate' individuals could examine themselves to see if they carry the same chauvinism inside and realize the unconstructiveness and indeed the ugliness of their us-vs-them attitude. Because this attitude diminishes the very thing they think that they deserve - respect from the rest of the world.

From the tone of the conversation I overheard, the people conversing, which included the two women involved in the incident, did not in any way generalize the behavior of one crazy Korean to the entire Korean population. They were just recounting a bizarre act done by one individual. Whereas more often than not, the Koreans whose conversations I overheard tended to blame any personal conflict on 'race', specifically the other party's non-Korean-ness, e.g. "I stopped being friends with that person because the values and behavior of Vietnamese/Japanese/African Americans are incompatible with Koreans," or "Her American manners are too confrontational and rude so I stopped seeing her." Never for once did they entertain the possibility that themselves or a fellow Korean might be at fault.

In general, I have not overheard non-Koreans speak about Koreans with the same hostility or tendency to generalize as I have noticed when I overheard Koreans speak about non-Koreans. For example, more often than not, I've heard Japanese and Chinese express favorable impressions of Korean individuals or Korean culture in general, but Korean comments about Chinese and Japanese in general are negative more often than not. I'm not implied that prejudice against outsiders does not exist among Chinese and Japanese, but it seems to be less pronounced and less openly expressed than that expressed by Koreans. I've also heard a fair deal of American-bashing among Koreans, but I've seldom heard non-Korean Americans discuss Koreans at all, except when they relate the racist behavior they experienced at the hands of Korean individuals or groups. (And yes, white Americans have been victims of this too.) Of course, this only reflects the conversations I have had opportunity to overhear in the course of my daily dealings, and is not intended as a generalization of entire groups.


Comment from 'W.D., 6/22/2000'
In this sort of incident, and many other similar ones I heard of, it seems Korean prefer to separate themselves from other Asians. Another such example comes from the Asian American political action committee called 'the 80-20 initiative'. I think it was started primarily by middle-class Chinese Americans in 1998 or 1999. Soon after its inception, the 2nd largest group of Asians in America, the Filipinos, also joined 80-20. Then the organizations representing the Japanese, Indians and the Pakistanis also joined 80-20. The Koreans did not join. A spokesperson for some Korean American organization said Asians are too diverse to be represented by an umbrella group.