Monday, January 21, 2008

Expats and Korean Culture!

Dokdo Rocks!
Expats, Get in the Rhythm!

A little over one week ago, I got together with Gord Sellar and Charles La Shure for a meal and conversation, as I noted on my blog, though without going into details, for that evening was just one part of a rather long day, but I do recall the three of us discussing the way that many in the expat community react to life in Korea.

Those readers interested in hearing more about this specific point might want to visit an online site that fellow-blogger Big Hominid has called to our attention, Expat Interviews, which has posted an interview with Charles in which he expresses views that encapsulate some of what he, Gord, and I discussed that evening. I particularly concur with the substance of his answer to the question about whether he had any tips for readers about living in South Korea:
This answer is probably not going to win me too many friends in the expat community here, but I have very little patience for foreigners who come to Korea and spend all their time complaining without bothering to learn about the culture. I'm not saying that all foreigners who complain do this, but a lot do. I'm also not saying that we don't have a right to complain when we are treated unfairly. But understanding comes first. Without understanding, you won't even know exactly what it is you are complaining about. Without understanding, you will get little understanding in return from those whose opinions you seek to sway. So my tip would be this: I don't care how long you plan on staying in Korea -- you could be here on a one-year teaching contract or you could be here for a few decades -- you owe it to yourself to at least try to understand the culture. If you're going to insulate yourself from the culture, don't complain when things don't go your way. ("American Expat Charles in South Korea")
Charles also had some words on the process that one undergoes if one does engage with the local culture:
When people first encounter a new culture, they usually go through a "honeymoon phase" where everything is so new and wonderful, and they are enchanted by their host culture. As they become more accustomed to the culture, though, the cracks begin to show, and this leads to a swing toward the opposite end of the spectrum -- an intense dislike of the host culture. Some people never get past this stage, and they become bitter. Others learn to adjust and find their place in the host culture. ("American Expat Charles in South Korea")
As I've already noted, Gord, Charles, and I talked about these two, related issues in our dinner conversation. I recall telling Gord and Charles that a lot of the expats who waste time complaining about life in Korea seem never to have lived abroad before and don't realize that they would be having much the same negative reactions to the local culture no matter where they might be living their expat lives. I lived in Germany for six frigging years, and I remember going through a 72-month stage in which I complained about the stupid Germans doing stupid things in their stupid German way. If I had been living in Korea instead, I'd have been complaining about the stupid Koreans doing stupid things in their stupid Korean way, but because I'd already gone through that sort of thing in Germany, I circumvented this stage here in Korea, so I almost never complain about the stupid Koreans doing stupid things in their stupid Korean way.

Instead, I try to learn as much about Korea and Korean culture as I possibly and sincerely can, and I'm fortunate to have authoritative sources for doing so. Some readers will recall my MemoRive post of a few days ago. Well, in addition to providing me with the means for dealing with my 'big data', the good Korean people at MemoRive offer this important and fascinating tidbit concerning Korean culture on a piece of cardboard included in the packaging:
Dokdo consists of two tiny rocky islets surrounded by 33 smaller rocks. The Dokdo islets are located about 215 kilometers off the eastern border of Korea and 90 kilometers east of South Korea's Ullung Island. The islets are an administative part of Ullung Island, North Kyongsang province, under the control of the Department of Ocean and Fisheries. Dokdo is also 157 kilometers northwest of Japan's Oki Islands. Its exact position is 37° 14' 45" N and 131° 52' 30" E. Of the two Islets that make up Dokdo, Suhdo (the West islet) is a steep-sided rock about 100 meters high, while Dongdo (the East islet) is 174 meters high. The approximate total surface area of Dokdo is 0.186 square kilometers (56 acres).
Obviously, Koreans are a people of high culture, the sort of people who offer fascinating and informative encyclopedia entries about culture even on pieces of cardboard that Americans would reserve for such lower, purely utilitarian functions as explaining how to use one's purchase correctly, which the packaging neglects to do (even in Korean, as my wife has noted).

I also like how this informational tidbit capitalizes "West" and "East" -- as though the two tiny islets somehow stand for something greater than themselves. West meets East, or something. Sort of like my Western self being in this Eastern place.

The cardboard piece even includes a helpful map showing the location of the Dokdo islets in the middle of the East Sea -- otherwise known as 'Sea-That-Must-Not-Be-Named', but being that body of water lying just west of Japan, it could also perhaps be safely called the West Sea.

My cardboard further informs me:
The Korean flag flies at Dokdo. The Chinese characters declare Dokdo to be Korean land.
Chinese characters! Now that's culture! There's even a photo with proof of this, the national flag flapping in a stiff breeze high above a huge sign with enormous Chinese ideographs that I can't read but that doubtless declare, convincingly and with impressive authority, that Dokdo is Korean land.

I wish that I knew Chinese so that I could feel the full impact of Korean culture on this crucial point. But even without my knowing Chinese, Korean culture has made a forceful impact impressive enough for me to quickly and explicitly acknowledge Korea's claim to Dokdo, and I've found that openly accepting this bit of Korean culture helps enormously with my fitting in here.

I can therefore agree with Charles La Shure that expats would fit in a whole lot better here on the peninsula if they took the time to learn at least a bit about Korean culture -- the significance of Dokdo, for example. Charles deserves our collective expat thanks for his reminder about the importance of culture.

I also ought to thank Charles for mentioning my blog as one of the few that he reads regularly:
I do have some friends who live here in Korea, . . . and I read their blogs on a regular basis . . . [because] they do offer insight on life here . . . . The Gypsy Scholar is a university professor and a medievalist with a quirky sense of humor.
Professor. Medievalist. And a real quirk. All three of which qualify me as a man of insight...

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At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You guys suck, man. Scooped on my own story twice now. I really need to get on the ball.

Anyway, I heartily support with your campaign of awareness for Dokdo. Have you considered submitting a proposal to the UN suggesting a World Dokdo Awareness Day? No, wait, a day really wouldn't be enough, would it? I think we need World Dokdo Awareness Month.

Just doing my part in the fight for truth and justice.

At 4:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The Big Ho and I only appeared to be reporting on your story when we were in fact promoting our own blogs. Had you not mentioned my illustrious blog, I would have ignored your own feeble efforts at self-promotion.

On Dokdo, however, we appear to see eye-to-eye -- except that I would propose a World Dokdo Awareness Year, held annually, as the best means for calling attention to the world-historical fact that Dokdo is Korean land.

Oh, and the waters surrounding it are Korean waters.

I therefore join you in the fight for truth, justice, and the Hanguk way.

Also, fan death is real.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cannot comment on quirkiness, having no conception as to its' meaning. But I do find charles' comments very apropo.

We here in the Ozarks have a rather large ex-pat group living in Mountain Home. And as charles notes, they do not seem interested in learning the local culture.They look with disdain at the locals when they hear the word, "Ya'll" especially when it's uttered, "Ya'll?"

Scholar, might you write a letter to the Baxter Bulletin and describe your experience in Germany?


At 5:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Herschel, is that expat group German? I recall hearing some German spoken while I was in Mountain Home once.

Or are you referring to 'Yankees'? If so, then I say, "Yankees, Go Home!"

Damn Yankees...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Horace,

This is Karel Lukas, COO at Yugma ( I'm writing to tell you about our Yugma service. Yugma is something that I think will be of great interest for blog readers. I recently came back from Europe where I spent 7 years as an expat (5 years in Italy and 2 years in Switzerland). I personally know how important it is for expats to have highly effective communications skills and tools to keep everyone globally "on the same page." I've found that one of the most powerful tools was the ability to instantly share my computer screen with others - to show people what I was talking about. I know there are a lot of web conferencing tools out there, but I found them all to be very klunky, hard to use, expensive, and they didn't work at all across different systems (e.g., between Windows, Mac and Linux). Wouldn't it be great if there was something really easy to use, that worked across all computing platforms, works with all applications, integrated with Skype, and was economical? Enter our web based application Yugma (YOOG-MA) to beef up the expat's arsenal.

Yugma is an award winning venture capital backed “Web 2.0” company with leading edge ideas. We know how to accomplish sharing and collaboration more easily than just about any company around. As an aside the name Yugma is actually from a word from the Sanskrit language meaning "the state of being in unified collaboration." Yugma creates that state simply, easily and effortlessly for the physically disparate groups of people who need to be together virtually in many business, professional and personal settings.

We were at Macworld recently showing off our easy to use Skype Web Conferencing plug-in that quickly, and very easily, fosters collaboration amongst connected online people who need to share ideas, documents, files and desktops all at the same time. Now a part of the Skype eco-system, our Skype centricity extends the available user audience to the largest cross section of expats anywhere.

We offer both free and paid web collaboration services. Yugma enables people globally to instantly communicate and share content and ideas using any application or software over the Internet. Whether people are using Windows, Mac or Linux computer, they can connect on-demand and real-time with co-workers, clients, friends and family -- regardless of whether they are across the city, nation or even the globe. Now with the optional Skype plug in available, those who are talking or seeing one another over the ‘Net can do a lot more “together” and “collaboratively” without ever leaving their computer regardless of where they may be.
I'd like to supply you with a demo account. If you wish, I can also give you a personal demo so you can see for yourself how powerful Yugma can be for expats. It would be as if you were meeting face to face. I would also greatly appreciate it if you could mention us to your blog community, as something worth trying out. Anyone can sign up for free at

Please let me know before Jan 31 if you're interested in a demo account that is good through the end of this year, and if there is a good time for us to get together.


Karel Lukas
COO, Yugma
karel [at] yugma [dot] com

At 3:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hi COO...

...though your post is a bit longer than 17 syllables.

Anyway, you mention a deadline of January 31st . . . but you didn't say which year. Did you mean 2008, or some other year?

If you mean this year, well, I might not be able to get back to you before January 32.

I'm pretty busy talking to various expats here in Korea who know about Korean culture, Dokdo Islets, what I actually write about in my blog entries, and how I should addressed by "Jeffery" rather than by "Horace" -- precisely as I always sign myself off:

Jeffery Hodges

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