Korea, the media and the scapegoat

  • Published : Mar 30, 2010 - 12:45
  • Updated : Mar 30, 2010 - 12:45

More Rude Korean Studies
J. Scott Burgeson & Friends
Eunhaeng Namu publishing
436 pp
15,000 won
Language: Korean

By Matthew Lamers

Despite bombastic government rhetoric touting an "age of multiculturalism," Korean society has become more self-absorbed and closed over the last decade, according to best-selling author J. Scott Burgeson.
The 42-year-old American said his new release is an effort to start a sincere national dialogue on the positive participation of Western expats in Korean society. But the mainstream media have ignored him.
The book, his fourth in Korean, counters the negative stereotyping most expats say is rampant in the media. "The book is an attempt to counter these negative stereotypes of Western native ESL teachers in Korea as being `drug-abusers, sexual predators and unqualified losers who can`t cut it in their own countries.` So in a sense, I`m indirectly calling out the Korean media for their often sensationalistic and irresponsible coverage of Westerners here."
Burgeson agrees that discrimination is a far greater concern for Asian migrant workers, but said that`s no excusing the fact that native English teachers have become, in his view, the new GIs in Korean society. As he writes in the book`s introduction: "Just as GIs have traditionally been seen here as a necessary evil who are only tolerated for the good of the country, and were widely resented in the past when they were still relatively rich by local standards, it seems that many South Koreans today view native English teachers here in much the same harsh light."
"More Rude Korean Studies," is written in Korean and has been a bestseller since its release in mid-October. It reached as high as No. 7 in Kyobo`s Politics and Society section, where it currently sits at No. 10.
Burgeson said the country`s media is guilty of spreading an unfair image of expats, particularly native English teachers.
Despite statistics from the Korean Institute of Criminology and a National Assembly representative that show native teachers of English are more than five times less likely than Korean citizens to commit a crime, the media here continually use foreigners as scapegoats for social problems ranging from rape to pedophilia to drug use.
"A lot of these people in my book have been here for at least 10 years and are trying to be productive members of society," he said.
One example he pointed out is the Hongik district is central Seoul.
"I read articles on how foreigners are `corrupting` the Hongik environment, but in fact Westerners have helped to establish it. The essay in my book `100 Days of Solitude: Macondo and the Early Salsa Movement in Korea` by contributor Kelly McCluskey is an example. Koreans, especially the media, seem to be trying to write that history away, in effect making us invisible." McCluskey was the founder of the first salsa club in Korea.
But mischaracterization and not giving credit where credit is due is just the tip of the iceberg.
In years past, the mainstream media lined up to review Burgeson`s Korean-language books, which were all bestsellers. But write a book that talks about Western expats` positive contributions to society - especially Korean media`s favorite scapegoat: EFL teachers - and things quickly change. Despite "More Rude Korean Studies" being a bestseller, the mainstream media have essentially ignored it.
"In my new book I was trying to provide a counterpoint to the recent wave of stereotyping EFL teachers, especially in the local media and online. I guess the media don`t see that as worthwhile to pay attention to. It seems the media will only cover expats if it`s helpful for them," he said.
"I literally haven`t done one mainstream media interview in Korea for my new book, which is quite interesting."
In the interview with Expat Living, he presented several theories as to why.
His first argument suggests that many Korean men are threatened by Western men. "Many seem to have a complex about it. There is `Misuda,` the TV talk show featuring non-Korean women, but no equivalent program with expat men. Obviously, cute young foreign women aren`t so threatening to the status quo." Burgeson notes that a "Misuda" panelist also recently released a book in Korean, and although it has sold far fewer copies than "More Rude Korean Studies," the country`s biggest newspapers tripped over themselves to get an interview with her.
Another theory, maybe a more accurate one, is that the mainstream media are ignoring his book because it is mainly focused on alternative sub-cultures, which is a common phenomenon in most countries` mainstream media. "If we`re offering an alternative view to society, they either can`t relate to it or are threatened by it."
His strongest theory as to why the media are ignoring him boils down to economics. A national dialogue on the positive participation of expats in Korean society simply doesn`t sell newspapers. "They can sell more papers demonizing Western males rather than being more inclusive," Burgeson said.
That is, after all, why he wrote the book in the first place.
Aside from being a bestselling author, Burgeson has been touring the country lecturing on multiculturalism in Korea. The lectures, which he described as critical, take aim at the motivations behind Korea`s recent multiculturalism drive.
The reason Korea is embracing multiculturalism now, he said, is because of the thousands of foreign brides that are pouring into the country that are mostly married off to otherwise-unmarriageable bachelors.
He points out that Koreans marrying non-Koreans is nothing new. "U.N.-mission soldiers and Western EFL teachers have had tens of thousands of biracial children here since the 1950s. And yet they were mostly social outcasts until only very recently.
"It`s what I call `gendered multiculturalism,` in service of the patriarchal structure here," argues Burgeson. "Korea is not a multicultural society, considering the number of non-Koreans here is less than 2 percent of the population. I`m from a multicultural society myself and there are periods I just don`t feel accepted or comfortable here. After all the time I`ve been here, I`ve come to realize I`m just more compatible with a multicultural society, and Korea is really the opposite of that."
For Korea to take a sincere step towards multiculturalism, Burgeson suggests, it should start with embracing an alternative to the word "oegukin," or foreigner. Another goal of the book was to introduce the term "expat" to the Korean public to use when referring to long-term non-Koreans living here.
After all, many expats have lived in Korea for decades, contribute positively to society, but still carry around the label "foreigner," suggesting that, even though they have put in much of their lives, they still are not accepted.
Burgeson said the word oegukin is dehumanizing because it is not a positive identity and doesn`t say who you actually are. He chose to use "expat" as a loan word in Korean, since the Korean-language equivalents mostly have negative connotations. He believes oegukin is too vague and doesn`t distinguish between tourists and long-term residents; an expat is a kind of intermediate or third category between tourist and Korean.
"For some reason the nation`s mainstream media don`t want to start a dialogue on the role of foreigners in Korea," aside from cash-rich business people, "and they don`t seem to want to embrace my idea of introducing the term `expat` into the Korean language. I guess they`d rather just keep using the word oegukin."
"Anyway, if they talk about my book they have to talk about the issues I raise in it. But it seems they don`t want to. And it`s in Korean, so there`s no excuse. People always say, `If you write in English in Korea, Koreans won`t notice it. So I put this out in Korean, and yet it still gets ignored by the mainstream media here.
"How long do you have to live here before your views will be accepted? We`re not Koreans, but we`re not clueless tourists either."
The author is leaving Korea for China on Jan. 2 to work on his new book, a novel about Korea. For more information, go to his website