Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sexism, Korean Culture, and White Whine

This is old news, first of all (the blog post that inspired me to write this is from early November). But sexism is an issue that comes up a lot when foreigners complain about Korea and so blogging about it is always relevant, I think.

Second of all, this is going to be kind of scatter shot, so bear with me. To help navigate, I've organized my thoughts into sections.

How to Properly Complain About Sexism

Let me be clear: I think a lot of aspects of Korean culture are sexist. What gets left out of the discussion (usually populated by white American males) is that America is sexist, too. I have no hard data (or even anecdata) about this, but rather I will simply say this: if you are "outraged" at how Korean society treats women but have never given a second thought to women's status in American society, you are (as we say on the Intarbutts) "doin it rong."

I've seen this point come up vis-à-vis religion a lot, too—more specifically, about Islam. And again, there are parts of Islamic culture that are sexist. There is no doubt. But to say, "I don't like Islam because of how they treat their women," and then brush off instances of sexism within your own non-Islamic culture is not how you do feminism, y'all. That's how you use feminism to justify racism. That is how you use feminism to justify your own personal beef with religion. In short, that's how you fail at feminism and it happens in our awesome enlightened white culture all the fucking time, most recently with the "Elevatorgate" kerfuffle between basically "Team Richard Dawkins" and "Team Rebecca Watson."

So, if you are a Western guy blogging about how Korea is soooo sexist and how they could really learn a lesson from Western culture, kindly shut the fuck up.

In short, I am prefacing this essay with the huge and bold and super important admission that Korea is not the only sexist country in the world. Not by a large margin. Not even the only sexist "developed"/"First World"/whatever country. My own home country fails at feminism pretty hard, too, and I think overall the gap between the two countries is negligible at best, because it's give and take. Horrible abortion laws in Korea? Well, they also have cheap and readily available over-the-counter birth control.

You see my point.

Basically, I call sexist bullshit where I see it: US, Korea, the moon, whatever. I just usually keep my hairy-legged man-hating soapboxing off of here because it's not often relevant to Korea and I'd like this blog to be, for the most part, Korea-relevant.

Being the Fattest Girl in the Jjimjilbang

This time, the hairy-legged man-hating is Korea-relevant. Here is what is prompting me to write:  My Manifesto: Fat, Health, Why Don't You Have a Boyfriend? and Korean Culture, from ThingsEveWouldDo.

The teal deer version is that after fourteen successful (minus body-shaming comments and unwanted inquiries about marital status) months at a hagwon, Eve was told she "must" lose weight. She refused, and ultimately resigned because her principal went apeshit about it and presumably because fourteen months of your boss commenting negatively about your body is going to grind you down.

I had actually talked about exactly this kind of scenario in the form of a hypothetical with Jong-min before I returned to Korea and started at Cassandra. I was concerned that the economic upgrade from Uijeongbu (which, while looking very upwardly mobile these days, is still not as posh as Bundang) would mean greater scrutiny placed upon my personal appearance.

Let me also backtrack and remind y'all that I'm a bit of a chubster. Also, for any new readers: here, it's me! For my family and friends: look, I'm at a famous temple!

This is not an attempt at compliment-fishing or female neurotic body-hatred: it's just fact. My body does all kinds of awesome things for me and I love it for that. I'm pretty healthy overall and I rarely get sick because my immune system is baller. As far as bodies go, I've done all right for myself, and my boyfriend really likes it too (not that a body's worth should be based on whether or not a man finds it attractive!). I can go running on a regular basis (three days a week) without any pain or discomfort, I can take long walks on the mountains on the quickly-warming weekends and enjoy the beautiful nature out here in Uijeongbu.

So no "but you're not fat!" or "you're not THAT fat" or "it's just a bad picture" comments, or assumptions that I hate my body. That's not true, and that's not the point. As for the "lose some weight, porker" comments: whatever. Haters to the left.

Naturally, I was worried about the kind of situation that Eve outlined above coming to a head at Cassandra, despite not experiencing a single weight-related workplace issue at Sherlock. My kneejerk, loudmouthed American feminist reaction would be to flip some tables and give them the finger, but I knew that wouldn't get me anywhere. I asked Jong-min what he thought a reasonable reaction would be to such a request.

"If that happens, just look a little sad and say, 'I'm trying,' and they'll feel bad and probably leave you alone." 

As it turned out, I had no reason to worry. Cassandra would turn out to be a miserable place to work for numerous other reasons, but body-shaming was not one of them. As I mentioned in my comment on Eve's blog, I have worked at three different hagwons now and not a one has made my body or appearance in any way a professional issue. Sometimes students say something, but it's not all that often and they're kids. Kids have a notoriously poor filter between brain and mouth. This was the most "dramatic" incident, which happened with one of my kindergarten classes at Cassandra.

Jaymon: "Teacher, you are very big!"
Me: "No, I'm not! I'm very short!"
Jaymon: "No, I mean you are fat!"
Me: "Is that a problem? Am I a bad person?"
Jaymon: *thinking about it* "No..."
Me: "Okay then!"

And he never brought it up again. Though, I did also leave like six weeks later so maybe it would have continued to be an issue—but I doubt that.

That was it. That was the sum total of my experience of professional fat-shaming in Korea.

The Manifesto Itself, and "Korean Culture"
So when Eve posted her story and got responses from SMOE, other bloggers, and other Koreans that getting hounded about her weight and marital status was just "Korean culture" and that she should just shut up and take it, I went into Feminist Hulk Rage mode. When people linked to her as an example of how this was an example of how Korea is "omg so sexist," I went into Cork Up the White Whine mode.

First, such reactions are bullshit because Eve's experience totally fucking isn't Korean culture. Not for Western women, anyway. Like I said, if professional body-shaming were part of "Korean culture" for Western women here, I would almost certainly have experienced it by now. I would have heard of it more often by now. And while my friends and I trade stories of "awful shit our students say" and it sometimes comes up, it has never been a professional issue.  I will admit, though, that maybe I've been lucky. Maybe my friends have been lucky. 

Don't get me wrong. There are loads of other things you can use to support the "Korean working culture can be really sexist" thesis, definitely: sexist remarks and awkward personal questions at job interviews, ageism in hiring, disproportionate numbers of layoffs falling on female employees, a rather low and shatter-proof glass ceiling. These are all widespread, institutionalized things that are awful and should change. These are most certainly sexist aspects of Korean culture. 

Eve's experience was not a result of Korean culture, but the result of one jackass. That jackass may have been informed and influenced by Korean culture, sure, but the fact that neither I nor my heavier female teacher friends here have experienced major professional issues because of our size is a pretty strong indicator that his behavior is far from institutionalized and condoned. Lest you forget, the US has its fair share of douchebag body-shaming bosses. Japan was looking at a program to make waist measurements mandatory for employees and to punish employees above a certain threshold just a few months ago. A culture isn't sexist because you hear about one $cultural_member_douchebag, it's sexist when wide-scale sexist practices are the norm within that culture. Taking it that way treads dangerously close to the "White Whine" category.

The second reason they're bullshit is that even if it were "Korean culture," neither Eve nor a Korean woman should ever be subject to body-shaming and body-policing from an employer. Ever. It's that fucking simple.

Closing Words

Maybe Eve could have handled it in a more "Korean" way (see Jong-min's suggestion). Maybe they weren't happy with her as a teacher and were looking for a way to pressure her out without firing her outright. Maybe Eve's version of the story is unfair and there was more going on than she told. Even if these things were true, it doesn't matter. How people react to a story and what they say about it can often be more important than the story (and its truth value) itself. While I think I may have reacted to that situation differently than Eve, I can't know for sure. I'm just glad she successfully got herself out of what sounded like a very poisonous place, and I can only hope her former principal will either be removed from his position or be less of a jackass in the future.


  1. This was an awesome post, and deserves at least one comment saying so.

  2. I know this is a bit old, but I really like your post because it's a balanced view of the situation. There are jackasses everywhere, and I've already experienced my fair share of sexism in the US as well. I'm considering going to teach in Korea- is there any way I can e-mail you for some general insight? :]

    1. Sure! My gmail/GoogleTalk handle is katherine.koba and I'd be glad to answer any questions to the best of my ability. :)