[Viewpoint] Xenophobia Korea’s most shameful flaw

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[Viewpoint] Xenophobia Korea’s most shameful flaw

Chung Jae-suk
This month, an American-born member of the pop group 2PM was driven out of his band and the country for having made derogatory remarks about Korea several years ago. He isn’t the only celebrity to experience this kind of backlash recently.

Catherine Baillie, a New Zealander who was on the KBS talk show “Talk With The Beauties,” was forced to leave the show after using critical language in an interview, while Vera Hohleiter, a German who was on the same show, found herself in a similar situation after publishing a book of essays titled “Sleepless in Seoul” in Germany and being attacked for describing Korea negatively.

It is never easy to live in a different country. Frankly, when foreigners confess their love for Korea despite the great cultural and geographical gaps, we all doubt their sincerity. They might just be expressing how grateful they are for the country that became their personal land of opportunity. Maybe they love Korea because they found a means to succeed in our society.

In contrast, many Korean expats who live in Western cultures for decades often criticize the countries they live in and complain that no matter how long they are there, they find it hard to put down roots. It disturbs me to think that these foreign beauties saw through the weakness of Korean society and its people but were all smiles only when they were on television.

The pop singer who left 2PM voluntarily and returned to Seattle is a 22-year-old third-generation Korean American. It is only natural that a boy who grew up in the United States found it hard to get used to Korea. Everyone is different from others, and we all come from different backgrounds. If people cannot accept such a natural and reasonable thing, society has a serious problem.

We should feel grateful that the New Zealander saw problems of Korean society, inside and out. Her point was quite painful. She said that Koreans’ egos seem to be shallow or vain. I’ve heard the same criticism from experts in Western culture and literature, and, surprisingly, the young foreigner condemned the entire Korean community in the same way. The criticism might sound a little absurd to Koreans who do not share the concept of Western individualism.

Let’s go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when Korea was less developed. When people argued, one would say, “Do you have any idea who I am?” If asked “Who are you?” the first person would probably say that he was a distant relative of some powerful figure. Even today, we try to define ourselves by what school we went to or what connections we have.

For a long time, Koreans have tried to define themselves against someone else. The young Baillie hit a sore spot in the immature Korean ego. The pride of Koreans has been hurt.

The Republic of Korea is young and dynamic, but in many ways, it is not mature. I blush as I think of a few examples. We advise first-time drivers not to signal when changing lanes. Lining up for the bathroom, we feel safe only standing right behind the person in front, so as not to lose the spot. We don’t smile at strangers. A society where the one with the louder voice always wins cannot say it is civilized or cultured.

Let’s be reasonable. We need to change, and realize that we can overcome our shallowness only when we acknowledge differences and respect others. A grown-up with a mature ego listens to and learns from criticism.

For years, we have claimed that Korea has a spiritual civilization while the Western world has developed a materialist civilization. But the term “spiritual civilization” is more suitable for some island country with a higher happiness index. Let’s not rely on others and pretend to be noble. Let’s frankly admit our materialism. Then we might be able to live calmer lives.

*The writer is a cultural news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Chung Jae-suk
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