Posts Tagged ‘stereotype’

It’s not all that long ago that a popular stereotype of East Asians was their love of taking photographs.

In 80s films it was quite common to have them depicted as trigger-happy photographers. Typically, a camera would either be hung around the photographer’s neck or firmly attached to the eye as they rapidly took pictures. As action in the film unfolded, they were pictured never far behind – manically capturing images of fallen victims left lying in the protagonist’s wake.

I realise now that in Korea this stereotype is not far from the truth.

When I lived in Busan and then Ulsan (Korea’s second and fourth largest cities) I became the subject of several ‘memory photographs’. This is where the locals stand and stare and in some instances point as they seemingly attempt to burn the image of one’s face into their brain. Neither Busan nor Ulsan could be described as rural, yet being in a public place meant that eyes would constantly be on me. Generally, children were more obvious when doing this and if they happened to be caught out were less likely to be deterred and simply continued staring. On two occasions I was actually doing something as normal as standing at a bus stop lost in my own thoughts when slowly, through whatever primeval sense it was, I would become aware that someone was staring at me. In both cases it was a

child facing me wide eyed and pointing at my face whilst saying; ‘Waygook! Waygook!’ (foreigner, foreigner!)

Thankfully, on each occasion it was a different child; otherwise I would have been seriously concerned that I was being stalked by a malevolent midget.

I must confess that the first few times people looked at me it gave me the elevated feeling of celebrity status. But as the incidents increased this sensation quickly faded away to be replaced by a feeling of discomfort. But all that is now in the past. Since moving to Seoul, an international city, that particular intensity of undesired scrutiny is rarely encountered.

Today, cameras are commonplace. Technology has merged the camera with the phone (as well as a mini-computer). So it is no longer necessary for consumers to buy a camera and a phone separately should they wish to just take fun snaps. This gives everyone the ability to live their life through a lens or, in Korea’s case, see their life through one.

Alongside this surge in people taking photographs the stereotype of the snap-happy East Asian as depicted in the majority of 1980s films has grown less. Here in Korea the focus is now more often on the photographer. What you will often hear in public places is the sound of a camera shutter emanating from a mobile phone signalling a captured image. And this could well be a vain young woman with phone held at arm’s length photographing herself. Very rarely does this narcissism stop with a single self-portrait. Shot after shot is taken – all consisting of the same pose. The lone photographer’s self-love is apparently insatiable.

Stepping in front of the lens and being photographed is one way for Koreans to express themselves. Disappointingly, expression rarely summons up individuality. As westerners we are told to ‘smile’ before the shutter clicks. Here, as the countdown begins ‘Hana, dul, set’ (One, two, three), the subject is alerted to take the ‘Kimchi Pose’. This consists of two fingers stuck up at the camera imitating the ‘V for Victory’ sign.

It is a well-established gesture which communicates to the viewer that the person being photographed is happy.

What’s more, the Kimchi pose is actually from a long list of many instilled into Koreans from an early age as proper behaviour or etiquette for the person whose picture is being taken. Other signs include; Bang! Heart Shape, Nyan Nyan (a ‘cat’ pose) and many more. You can find examples and pictures at Asian Poses.

As yet it is unlikely for a foreigner to be the brunt of a cascade of clicking cameras, as this is still deemed as intrusive. Instead it seems the staring and the memory photographs will long remain paramount.

© John Brownlie 2011

Living in a foreign country as an expat there are certain customs that one is expected to adhere to. However the same society that invites them to help better their country and community must offer a certain level of hospitality.

Korea is no different, being an English teacher means you being involved in a trillion Won industry (billion US dollars). Private English hagwons (institutions) are constantly popping up inviting freshly graduated people to teach the next generation of Koreans.

Korea is a reserved and respectable culture with status and age playing a big part in the social hierarchy. Depending on your role in society also plays a pivotal role in social interactions, having a business card showing your job title can influence how one is expected to act with another.

Working as an English teacher was seen as a high status job. Today the teaching role has been somewhat darkened by private academies competing with each other at the cost of the teacher and also the students. Many hagwons base the hiring on looks rather than ability, an attribute that does not bode well with the western counterparts. They require for all teachers to have a degree, although the field does not always matter. An oddity with some advertisements is that they ask for ‘no experience is necessary’, which is strange as employers are potentially entrusting the shaping of future generations to a 21 year old Physical Education graduate. What this creates is a large influx in recently graduated expats being paid a fair amount of money with little responsibility.

Different motivations bring people to Korea; money, experience, travel, whatever the reason being an expat, comes with the capacity of being an ambassador for your country and showing some respect for your host country.

Of course there are always people who do not follow these unwritten rules.

Time and money can breed a destructive force and when mixed with alcohol can cause problems if you are unable to control or fully understand the surroundings. Witnessing a drunk abusive expat is embarrassing for them and for others. While some people strive for individuality through the judgemental eyes of some Koreans, expats are one and the same.

Hate groups have been made and the LA times recently wrote an article of a group wanting to purify Korea by removing expats.

As with every nation there is a small group of nationalists, some more dominant than others. It is when the general public have reason to agree with their ideals, through curiosity or fear that problems begin to happen. The majority of expats come from a more richly diverse and cosmopolitan culture and now they are thrown into an ethnic minority.

Some Koreans are unaware of some ‘social bloopers’ which an expat would find offensive. Queuing in a western country, is seen as a way to promote organisation, order and a form of democracy. However you will find that some Koreans are not aware that people around them are waiting and eager to get what they want will immediately go to the front of the queue and order. Being the first to wait for the next bus does not automatically mean you will be the first in the queue, you have to fight for the right to get onto the bus and this means being competitive. Holding the door open for people with a smile brings very little acknowledgement and at times nothing more than a murmur. Being talked about in front of you and being stared at are also common occurrences for the expat.

As the minority we are constantly under the microscope and will always be stereotyped. For some, living in Korea you have to be thick skinned to get through the day.

There is a change taking place though, with this generation of Koreans, native English speakers are educating them on both a conscious and sub-conscious level on the understanding of a western culture. While we are not talking about taking away Korea’s individuality as a nation, a greater understanding of life outside of it’s borders is needed.


© John Brownlie 2010