Friday, May 23, 2008

Korean Anti-Americanism?

What's he doing here?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Let me copy here for your edification a morality tale that I read yesterday about anti-Americanism on a peninsula at the end of a continent:
In the spring of 2001, through a rather absurd set of circumstances, my understanding of Korean anti-Americanism took at great leap forward.

One day, an editor of the New York Times travel section called me and said she needed something in a hurry. They were doing a feature on "farm stays" -- working farms that accommodate visitors who want a taste of the agricultural life -- and were an article short. Could I find such a place in South Korea and write it up pronto?

It didn't sound like my cup of tea, but I promised I'd look into it. Within an hour, I'd located a farm in Gangwon-do that sounded suitable and booked a room for my partner, his brother, and me.

A few days later we were there. High on a remote mountainside, it was the opposite of what Americans think of when they hear the word "farm": this was no patchwork of cornfields stretching to the horizon, but a cluster of small weatherbeaten wooden buildings surrounded by rocky scrubby earth, most of it far from horizontal, on which a few dozen goats and chickens grazed. It was, admittedly, picturesque: our room afforded a spectacular view of the valley and of a steep green mountainside down which narrow waterfalls trickled, like tinsel sparkling.

But the experience was ruined by the proprietor's behavior. Much of the point of a "farm stay" is to watch the farmer farm -- and our farmer obviously hated being in our company, and seemed determined to make his own company as unpleasant as possible. The three of us all came to the same conclusion as to why he was treating us this way, but I'll keep our speculations to myself; suffice it to say that I'd never encountered such incivility on the part of an alleged host. We'd planned to stay two nights but left after one.

Had there been time, I would've found another farm to write up; but since the Times needed something right away, I did what I had to. Though honesty required that I mention the host's conduct, this was a travel article and not an exposé, so I tried to be as positive as possible. I sent the piece in, and it appeared a couple of Sundays later. The next day, South Korea's newspaper of record, The Hankyoreh, ran a story summing it up. Now, what I'd written wasn't remotely newsworthy; the only reason the editors of The Hankyoreh thought otherwise was that South Korea had been mentioned in the New York Times. The attention surprised me.

Even more astonishing was what happened next. The owner of the farm, irked that I'd made a point of mentioning his rudeness, got his revenge by telling reporters that I'd demanded McDonald's hamburgers for dinner instead of that most South Korean of delicacies, Hanwoo steak. Though this was a transparent fabrication (his farm was in the boondocks, far from the nearest golden arches), the South Korean press lapped it up. The story received high-profile coverage all over South Korea and dragged on for days. After somebody at The Hankyoreh tracked down an essay I'd published in a Washington, D.C., policy journal, criticizing various elements of South Korea's statist economy and praising the at least somewhat market-friendly Grand National Party, the newspaper ran an article helpfully explaining that I didn't just hate the farm in Gangwon-do; I hated "pretty much everything about South Korea."

Meanwhile our inhospitable host became an instant folk hero. The next weekend, he was accorded a cozy ten-minute segment on MBC's Sunday evening -- the South Korean equivalent of being profiled on 60 Minutes. By the time the story had run its course, our unpleasant weekend trip had been transformed into a morality play about the threat posed by vulgar American urbanites to cherished native traditions. (Though two of our party of three had been South Koreans, we were referred to by more than one journalist as "the Americans.") I was flabbergasted. But my erstwhile host obviously wasn't: he knew his country; he knew its media; and he'd known, accordingly, that all he needed to do to spin events to his advantage was to breathe that talismanic word, McDonald's.

For me, the episode raised a few questions. Why had the South Korean press paid so much attention to a mere travel article? Why had it then been so eager to repeat a cartoonish lie and obsess over it for days? Were these actions reflective of a society more serious, more thoughtful, than the one I'd left? Or did they reflect a culture -- or, at least, a media class -- that was so awed by America as to be flattered by even its slightest attentions, but that was also reflexively, irrationally belligerent toward it?
This sort of story will sound depressingly familiar to many expats living here in South Korea.

However, the story isn't about South Korea at all. It's about an experience that Bruce Bawer had in Norway and recounts in pages 96-97 of While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within. Another, shorter version of the story can be found online, in Bawer's article "Hating America,", Vol. LX, No. 3: Autumn 2007.

Here's the code for deciphering the story posted above: Korean = European; South Korea = Norway; Gangwon-do = Telemark; The Hankyoreh = Aftenposten; Hanwoo (i.e., Korean beef) = reindeer; South Korean = Norwegian; Grand National Party = Conservative Party; and MBC = NRK.

Many of the American expats that I meet in South Korea have never lived elsewhere abroad. They therefore experience culture shock and anti-Americanism for the first time and conclude that South Korea is uniquely hostile to America, but we see that Bruce Bawer's "morality play" recounts an experience eerily similar to one that an American expat could easily have here in Korea.

Or elsewhere in the world.

In addition to living here in South Korea, I have lived in Switzerland, Germany, Australia, Israel, and -- of course -- the Democratic People's Republic of Berkeley, so I'm quite familar with the anti-Americanism of other lands.

Korean anti-Americanism merely fits into a common, easily recognizable pattern, so I didn't let it rile me much when I first encountered it since I'd already experienced the European (and Berzerkeleyan) variety.

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At 7:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I recall correctly, your spelling on the last word,

"Korean anti-Americanism merely fits into a common, easily recognizable pattern, so I didn't let it rile me much when I first encountered it since I'd already experienced the European (and Bezerkelean..."

Should be "BERZERKELEAN" although I'm not gonna bother going through the archives I think it may've even contained an "I."

It was just that daddgoned missing "R."

BeRzerklians are gonna be pissed at either you or me.

(If it is me, tell 'em I live in Nova Scotia). Next to the Dunkin' Donuts.


At 9:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, JK, I've adjusted . . . and readjusted (on the model of "Berkeleyan").

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:11 PM, Blogger kwandongbrian said...

booked a room for my partner, his brother, and me.
our farmer obviously hated being in our company, and seemed determined to make his own company as unpleasant as possible. The three of us all came to the same conclusion as to why he was treating us this way, but I'll keep our speculations to myself

Unless the partner was his business partner, is there any reason to assume the farmer wasn't homophobic? I know that you posted only a fragment of a full story, but from my read homophobia seems as likely at first as anti-Americanism.

By the way, here in Korea, I identify myself as 'North American' - I don't know if that displays solidarity with Americans but that is my intention here. Americans are only the figurehead for xenophobia here so standing up for Americans is the same as standing up for other nationalities.

At 1:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you know, this is an issue I've spent a lot of time thinking about.

I haven't spent more than 6 months in Europe - in France - and in that time , I only caught a glimpse or two here and there of anti-American attitudes. I've caught more of it from the press and events than when actually there.

I wish I could test some of the ideas you hear about Korean vs Other anti-US attitudes.

But, the heart of the matter for me doesn't need to get into this discussion at all.

What makes the one crucial difference to me is:

The US doesn't have 30,000 soldiers stationed in a European country facing down a very dangerous, committed blood-enemy perpetually teetering on the verge of collapse and possible explosion outward.

An explosion that is technically supposed to pull in hundreds of thousands more US troops to defend Koreans who might or might not have anti-US habits just like everybody else in the world.

That is the importance of Korean anti-US culture to me.

The potential cost of being in Korea is extraordinally high. That makes the institutional nature of Korean anti-Americanism count more in my book.

On the example used. As I was reading it and thought it was about Korea, my first thought was that using a farmer isolated on a mountain as an example of a trend in the whole nation probably doesn't work. We have hillbillies here in Georgia....

But, the stuff about the press and McDonalds fit right in with the norm in South Korea.

At 3:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kwandongbrian, I think that Bruce Bawer's implication about the farmer's reaction on that point was precisely as you thought: homophobic.

What happened in the wake of that reaction, however, was classic anti-Americanism and played on many of the same, tired old American stereotypes.

Thanks for the solidarity, by the way.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

USinKorea, I first went to Europe in 1986, still the Cold War era despite Gorbachev, American troops still faced Soviet ones, and much of the European population, especially the young people, were strongly anti-American in spite of being protected by the American military.

In Germany, they chanted, "Ami go home!" The abbreviation "Ami" meant "American," of course.

During the Bosnian crisis of the early 1990s, many people on the Left refused to call for intervention to stop the ongoing genocide against Bosnian Muslims because they knew that NATO would have to act and -- as they told me -- "We're against NATO."

At that point, I lost a lot of respect for Europeans.

I still identify with the place, however, and don't want to see them fail in the greatest crisis that they've ever faced: dhimmitude.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:30 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Pleasure on the link your way. I have only recently started linking to others as if I really men it, and I am still getting the hang of it. I should include the blog name next time.

At 5:05 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Getting the hang of it takes time. I keep discovering new things...

Jeffery Hodges

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