A generalization trap
But the question I never know how to properly respond to is the one that begins, “As a foreigner, …?” Very often when someone asks my opinion about Korean politics, cuisine, culture, or almost anything else Korea-related, this prefix comes attached. The person asking it isn’t merely asking my opinion, but he or she is working under the assumption that I represent all “foreigners.”
I wish I did represent all foreigners in Korea. Maybe I could charge them all a fee for being their spokesman. I can’t, of course, but my answer to the question will likely elicit an “Aha, foreigners think in that way…,” making me rush to say “no, no, it’s just my personal opinion!”
Similarly, a magazine interviewer recently asked me, “How should we promote Korean food to foreigners? Will foreigners like Korean food?” In general, government promotion of Korean food overseas has been almost as counterproductive a use of public money as the four-river restoration project. But, more specifically, one must ask “who are these foreigners you’re talking about?” Does one really have to state the obvious and say that a young man from Toronto might have different tastes to an old woman from rural Spain? If there are 70 million Koreans - let’s count the North, since I’m sure they like Korean food, too - then 99 percent of the world are “foreigners.”
I recently read a news article about Korean beer, a subject I have a great, perhaps notorious, interest in. Three Westerners had appeared on a TV show, saying that they enjoyed drinking the mass-market beer brands here. On the basis of this very small sample size, the article stated, “In contrast with what former Economist Seoul correspondent Daniel Tudor said about Korean beer in 2012 when he said, ‘Korean beers are less tasty than North Korea’s Taedonggang Beer,’ Korean beers were popular among foreigners.”
Clearly I’m out of touch with reality because someone was able to find three foreign people who drank Korean beer!
It seems that this area is one in which the media lags behind the general population. For instance, people I meet tend to just treat me as Daniel, the oddball from England. But when I see foreigners on television, they are mostly presented as pure caricatures. They are made into larger-than-life figures and representatives of foreigner-ness designed to confirm stereotypes or give viewers a cheap laugh.
I’ve had acquaintances who’ve been paid well to play the arrogant, rapacious businessman, the boozed-up, skirt-chasing English teacher or the violent U.S. soldier. When I first came to Korea, I was offered such a role in a film myself, but visa problems meant I couldn’t do it. I later came to see that as a huge blessing in disguise: I’m glad I wasn’t recorded for eternity, pandering to stereotypes in what also turned out to be a pretty bad film.
I also have virtually no experience of acting. I often struggle with the thought that half (or maybe even all) of what I’m able to do in Korea comes due to the fact that I’m a foreigner. Every time I’m asked to write something, speak somewhere, or am given some other opportunity, it’s in the back of my mind: Do I really deserve any of this? Do I really possess any talent for the given task? And even if I did, would I ever get to know it?
It’s actually quite easy to exploit such stereotypes for personal benefit. It’s also easy to exploit the idea of one foreigner as a representative of all foreigners, or the naive perception that Koreans and foreigners are extremely different. If you speak French and like onion soup, nobody will put you on French TV. But a French person who speaks passable Korean, especially in a regional accent, and likes cheongukjang (fermented soybean paste soup) has a chance at becoming famous here. There are TV talk shows full of this kind of stuff and quite a few people have made decent careers out of it.
Some of them probably don’t even really like cheongukjang.
* The author is the former Seoul correspondent for The Economist.
BY Daniel Tudor