Saturday, June 4, 2011

Angry Foreigners in Korea and Japan

This afternoon I read an article on CNNgo called “12 Rules for Expat Life in Korea.” The link was sent to me by my friend in Tokyo, Hikosaemon, a long time resident of Japan and blogger, who was curious about my thoughts on the topic.

For those of you familiar with my blog, previous to coming to Japan, I lived in South Korea for more than five years.

I have to admit that the article did have a lot of truth to it, and was a bit of a laugh since I had experienced some of the things mentioned. I also have to admit that I found a slight feeling of tongue and cheek “bitterness” to it. That was also something I can relate to in a way.

I want to delve a little bit into the world of the “bitter foreigner.” An entire book probably wouldn’t be able to properly discuss this topic, but I’m going to scratch the surface a little in this post.

After my 5 plus years as a teacher in Korea, I left with a chip on my shoulder (I’m not proud to say that.). There were many reasons I left Korea with a less than positive feeling about the country in my mind. In the same way Korean people (or Japanese for that matter) feel negative feelings when they see a group of drunken English teachers acting like jackasses on a train late at night, I had too many run ins with ill-mannered, drunken old Korean guys. I had more than one employer short change me on pay and basically, should have just moved on a little sooner than I did.

There are many people who move to Asia with great expectations only to become jaded and angry. The reasons are varied and often there are many. Some people are screwed over by shady employers. Some are screwed over in the romance department (something that happens in every country and culture). Some don’t like the food. Some don’t like the cultural belief systems. Some are close-minded. Some have serious inferiority complexes and need someone to blame for their own issues or simply to look down upon. Some angry foreigners are people who simply should have never left their small little hometown in their native country.

During my first year in Korea, a period of time when I was simply in love with the culture and everything it had to offer, I had two young Canadian women in my Tae Kwon Do class. After only being in Korea for a month or two, they hated everything. They complained about the language, the smell of kimchi, the fact that they could not buy Kraft Peanut Butter (which I love btw) and anything else you can imagine. They were angry from day one! Those two ladies were a prime example of people who just aren’t cut out for life abroad. I’m sure that they would be angry in any other country that wasn’t Canada. To be honest, they probably wouldn’t be happy with life in Canada either!

Some foreigners get bitter about life in a place like Korea or Japan over time. They start off happy. They love everything about the place for a few years, but begin to grow cynical over time. They begin to spend more time bitching about the place they are in than simply living life. Often, groups of like-minded foreigners get together and spew negative energy (birds of a feather tend to flock together). Sadly, those sitting around them in various bars, coffee shops and restaurants (Korean and Japanese people) can often understand some of what they are saying. It simply paints a very negative image in the locals’ minds about foreigners and their opinions.

Often, once people form negative opinions about the place they now work and live, they share it. People tend to blog about it. The most negative people tend to scurry around in the comments sections of online newspapers and forums of major English teaching job sites. From time to time those angry people will draw the attention of local netizens, which leads to online flame wars.

Please don’t think that all expats living in Korea of Japan are negative. That is by no means the case. I suppose the reality is that the negative people tend to be the loudest. I was that way too, once upon a time. When you have a chip on your shoulder or are angry, you really want people to know about it. When you are content, you tend to just live life in a happy way. You may not feel the need to climb to the highest mountain and shout about it.

After a few years in Korea I became a pretty negative guy. Now I live in Japan. After a few years here, I am not a negative guy (unless I am sick for too long….that would happen anywhere). There are many reasons why I think things are different. I’m not going to compare and contrast the two countries and use that as a reason. I think there are some other very basic personal reasons why I am not a bitter foreigner.

1. When I lived in Korea I was a single guy. Now I am happily married to a wonderful woman and have a family. I have more important things to think about than bitching about insignificant aspects of life.

2. I am a “family man” in the true sense of the term. I rush home every night after work to have dinner with my wife, play with my son, give him a bath and help put him to bed. I no longer spend my free time in pubs and bars complaining about stuff with fellow foreigners.

3. I run marathons (literally). My hobby of long distance running means that I spend a lot of my free time running and focusing on running goals. Those are all positive things. Running brings joy to my life. I didn’t really run in Korea. I wish I did. I probably would have been a happier expat!

4. My job. Although not perfect (is there such a thing?), my job challenges my skill set as an educator. My jobs in Korea didn’t. Simply put, I am busier and more challenged.

5. My wife is Japanese (and I live in Japan) and she helps me a lot with the day-to-day life things that I wasn’t able to do by myself when I lived in Korea. (i.e. filling out tax forms, ordering things online).

6. I spend more time with local people (Japanese) than foreigners. I’m not one of these “I’m better than other foreigners cause I hang out with Japanese people all the time idiots! Not at all). I sort of wish I had more foreign amigos. I just tend to spend more time with my wife, her family and friends. I also have a neighbor who is a runner.

7. Charity work. For the first time in my life, I started doing some serious charity work. I have combined my hobbies of running and blogging to create the Running to Help Japan project. I am training hard to raise money for Save the Children Japan and their earthquake/tsunami relief efforts.

8. I have no time to be bitter. After reading 1 though 7, you can see that I’m pretty busy! I don’t have time to be negative.

Not all people who come to Korea or Japan become negative. Some do however. Those negative people can be pretty nasty to be around. They are the ultimate buzz killers. My suggestion, if you are around them, change company. Hang out with people who are more positive. Hang out with more local people (indigenous persons). Maybe you can find some positive hobbies. Start video blogging, playing some sort of sport. Cooking and art classes are always a great thing to do and they are easy to arrange. I’ve met people who have learned to play instruments or even get their masters degree in their free time while living in Korea and Japan.

Sometimes it can be hard to live and work so far away from your home. At times it can feel like and adventure and at times it can be a true test of one’s patience. You can make it a positive expeience though. Sometimes the positives come easy, but other times, you just have to work a little harder!

You can follow this "Non-Angry" foreigner on Twitter: @jlandkev


gaijinwife said...

well said. I find myself with very little patience some days, particularly at the moment, but overall I love my life in Japan. Blogging is my vent for the small stuff (and some of the big stuff and all the shite in between). I wish I had a few more female foreign friends in the immediate vicinity but. It's hard being a woman. I have so many thousands of words I need to use in one day...

Anonymous said...

Excellent and insightful post, Kevin. I especially appreciate how you mentioned that the most discontent are usually the loudest reviewers of a place. After all, misery loves company. Before I came to Japan, I was trying so hard to have a "balanced" mindset about Japan not being a perfect place and I ended up reading so many negative, hateful blogs masquerading as merely "realistic" that I was quite convinced I would be miserable here. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, my job and living situation aren't perfect... but nowhere is, right? You definitely hit the nail on the head when you said the two miserable Canadian girls would have been miserable anywhere. That's a personality/heart issue, not a cultural one.
I think many people have a romanticized view of living overseas. They expect it to be an extended vacation with celebrity perks. Those type of people are typically, what I find from my own experience, looking for an easy ride in life, unwilling to put in normal hard work and lacking emotional maturity when adversity arises. This would affect them anywhere but is compounded with cultural misunderstandings and language barriers.
No matter where one finds oneself living, life is still going to be life. There will be moments of tedium and nuisance. Vexation will come. That is the human condition, isn't it! Hopefully, one can look past that and remember that those moments exists back home as well, where home is. Being able to recall the good and the bad with equal balance will certainly make living in a foreign much more of a positive adventure... hopefully! haha
Well written, Kevin! ^0^

jeffrey said...

6. I spend more time with local people (Japanese) than foreigners. I’m not one of these “I’m better than other foreigners cause I hang out with Japanese people all the time idiots! Not at all). I sort of wish I had more foreign amigos. I just tend to spend more time with my wife, her family and friends. I also have a neighbor who is a runner.

This is tough as ex-pats in Japan fall into two general categories - lifers and short-timers and they couldn't be more different in interests and "goals." The short-timers, whether they are English teachers or working for a foreign firm, tend to be party boys and party girls. Great, if you are in the same boat, so to speak. And a lot of the lifers are, well, just plain weird with some being, for lack of a better phrase, losers that stayed in Japan because they didn't fit in at home.

Once I met the woman who would become my wife, my interest in spending much time with my co-workers (limited in any case) or the larger ex-pat community diminished greatly. I didn't become a lifer as we returned to the U.S. after two stints in Japan totally six years. But I'm now "married to it" and still think of Japan as my second home. So, when I'm "back home" I have little interest in hanging out in gaijin haunts and prefer to spend my time with my family.

Benjamin said...

umm..Hello Kevin.
Thank you for posting this. I really don't know what to say, but somehow your post just for now has stopped me from feeling angry.

I have lived here for three years. I haven't been home. I am married and have a 1.4month old son. My wife is going to give birth a couple weeks. But the only thing that has come over me...that fills my mind day after day is has been this sense of how do I stop what I am doing and Japan isn't letting me do what I want.
I am an ALT yes. It's not my professional direction but, it pays the bills. I am a designer that just can't seem to get any design work. And so, I feel upset about my situation. I love this country, but doing what I want where I live is an incredibly difficult challenge. So it makes me angry. It makes me want to leave. But I would never leave my family.

Anyways, I probably said too much.
Again, thank you for writing about this.