Saturday, May 5, 2012

The "Microaggressions" Article Everyone Has Been Talking About

Looks like this blog is going to be current for once!

So I have seen people everywhere linking to this article about microaggression and relationships between Japanese and foreigners and saying, "This is my life!" My reactions, in chronological order:
    Japan and foreigner microaggression
  1. "This hasn't been my experience at all. Maybe I just haven't been here long enough."
  2. "I wonder if shit like this would piss me off."
  3. "This guy seems kind of bitter."

"This hasn't been my experience at all."

It just hasn't. It took me fourteen months to get a, "Wow, you use chopsticks really well," from somebody. The first time Jong-min and I had dinner together, he even made fun of my poor use of chopsticks: "It's like watching a deer learn to walk."  Sometimes my students refuse to believe I can eat spicy food until I demonstrate it by chowing down on some Shin Ramen without any water. The only microaggressive comment I ever get consistently is about my Korean, and my Korean accent. I could see years of that getting frustrating. As it is, it already makes me feel super guilty and self-conscious because my Korean is really quite awful (and should be better). For the moment, I just demur and insist that it isn't really. Maybe if I stayed another four years I'd start raging out and flipping tables.

The other difference is maybe it's a "Seoul versus everywhere else" thing. When I lived in Bundang, I got more comments about my Korean (and how great it was) in four months than I did for an entire year in Uijeongbu. People seemed to default to English far more often. My foreign friends who speak decent Korean talk about Koreans who insist on using English even after they've demonstrated their relative fluency in Korean, and those stories almost always seem to happen in Seoul. No one's ever amazed when I pick up chopsticks, dowse my bibimbap in gochujang, or order a drink at a bar.

The last reason I can identify for this is perhaps also related to the Korean company I keep: former Korean co-workers who earn their living working alongside foreigners and thus aren't really surprised by any of the things we can do; and Koreans who speak English with some level of fluency.

In conclusion: I haven't noticed microaggressive behavior in excess of what I consider "normal" or "tolerable." Certainly nothing like the kind of ridiculous nonsense minority groups in the US typically face. (For example, the "Where are you really from?" question.) This may be because of my location, because I haven't been here long enough, or because of the company I keep. I can see why in greater quantities it would be frustrating  and I don't fault anyone for being annoyed with this kind of behavior.

"I wonder if shit like this would piss me off."

Most of the time I would say I'm a mellow person. Yes, I have my blustery table-flipping rage-fueled moments (actually I have a lot) (especially after a bottle of soju), but they're gone as soon as they arrive. It's a rare thing for anger to sit and fester within me. Annakin Skywalker I am not. Something annoys me? I write an entry here, complain to a couple of friends, and then it's like it never happened. 

Honestly, and even though I understand on an intellectual level why they're annoying, these microaggressions that the author mentions seem really petty to me. I'd like to think that they wouldn't piss me off; not in the same way as my cell phone taking a massive dump and ruining my weekend sent me over the edge last Saturday, certainly. Do I have any evidence to believe that I would be able to brush my shoulders off indefinitely? I guess not, but I would honestly be surprised if such things got to me. I mean if I can spend 20-odd years being a fatty without it getting me down, I'm sure I could handle Koreans. But again—different people have different boundaries and different thresholds so I can certainly understand why it would bother someone. Or why it would even bother me eventually. Certainly I am as capable of self-delusion as the next person, if not more so.

"This guy seems kind of bitter."

I didn't drift to this thought until I saw a comment posted on Breda's Facebook after she linked to the article in question:
The guy who wrote that, "Debito Arudou" is a total asshole. He's racist, cynical, and somewhat of a hypocrite. He lives in Japan now, but all he seems to do is talk shit about the culture and wants the culture to be more like the US.
I recognize that this is a textbook ad hominem attack, but it does highlight the need for greater context. First of all, do other foreigners in Japan relate to this experience? Is he describing a typical situation, or is he exaggerating for the sake of making a point? The way foreigners in Korea seem to be reacting is: yes, I've had this experience too; no, it's not exaggerated.

I am not trying to condescend here, or deny that microaggressive behavior exists, or to imply that I am so lofty as to believe myself better than people who are frustrated by this. Microaggression is something that happens every time a mainstream culture encounters a minority culture, and every time it happens it's problematic and needs unpacking. It's good that this idea is entering the conversation. I think this might be a case where if enough A-list K-bloggers pick this up, the Korean netizens who also follow these blogs will take the time to read the article and think about the implications of their most well-meaning questions.

That all being said, I'm moving away from examining microaggression in and of itself and more towards people's reactions towards it and towards their expat lives in general. In the case of Arudou, what is the larger context of his attitude? If, indeed, all of his published writing is talking shit about Japanese culture and bemoaning the fact that it isn't more like the US (or Canada, or England, or wherever), that's kind of important.

I guess here comes the important part, folks. This is the point I want to drive home.

Living in a foreign country for a long time doesn't necessarily make you any more enlightened or sensitive to the culture, though it helps. An expression from one of my CELTA instructors, originally about teaching but really applicable to life in general:

"Some teachers have three years' experience. Other teachers have one year's experience three times over."

Never grow complacent. Never stop growing, asking, learning.

Because if you're expecting Korea to be just like home only with Asian window-dressing, you are going to be disappointed. You can have that expectation fresh off the boat, or you can have that expectation after you acquire linguistic fluency or start dating a Korean or start a family or after whatever milestone you set. It's sneaky like that.

When you start expecting that—when you start thinking Korea should be just like home, that people should magically know to act as if you're Korean, now that you've done X, Y, or Z—you're going to be frustrated. Is it fair? No, not really. But welcome to life. Ask immigrants, refugees, foreign adoptees, or anyone else who looks different from the mainstream back in your country of origin, because they can tell you all about it.

 Is it presumptuous and frustrating when a Korean assumes that because you're a foreigner, you're American? Or that you can't read Hangul? Or that you can't eat spicy food? Yes, of course. But step back and think about Korea's recent history for a minute: a violent civil war and a continued American/mostly white/"Western" military presence that has not always had an easy relationship with the populace (nor the most mature, educated, or responsible of members). You can't take every conversation with Mr. Kim on the street or Mr. Park the cab driver and put it in a vacuum without that context.

(Cab drivers who say they don't pick up people of color because "everyone knows they don't pay their fare" or children who squeal deliriously and shout, "Ugly! Ugly!" at images of African-American entertainers, I should note, are a separate issue entirely and not what I'm talking about here.)

Korea is changing. The more foreigners come to Korea and live and work and establish roots forge a presence, the more the annoying stereotypes about our chopstick prowess, culinary preferences, and countries of origin will change until they're no longer necessary. Every time you have a positive, friendly, and educational exchange with a Korean, that stereotype dies a little bit more; becomes, both for that individual and for the culture, a little less true. This doesn't give Koreans a pass, though. Understanding is a two-way street. Sometimes there'll be assholes who just don't get it, but they are hardly unique to Korea, nor are they in any way the norm or the majority. Remember that, and be a pimp. Brush your shoulders off.

Oh, and happy Children's Day. And Cinco de Mayo. I plan to celebrate both of them by drinking miniature tequila shots after I go to Camarata Music Company's performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah. It's at the Methodist church near City Hall in Seoul at 7:30. You should go, if you can. They're excellent.


  1. Commenting from Japan. Mostly about the third of your thoughts. Debito is, in fact, bitter in a lot of his writing. And if you dig through his personal blog, you can see why. He's had a lot of crappy stuff in his life, apparently. But in his professional writing, it often comes out as vitriol towards Japan. I've been here in Japan for almost a decade now, and I have to say, I don't get the "microaggressions" all that often. Perhaps it's the people I associate with, or perhaps it's because they aren't as common as Debito is making them out to be. And even when it does happen, I don't think that it means what Debito is asserting. Often the "You can use chopsticks!?" comments are made out of genuine surprise be people who just don't have a lot of experience with foreigners.

    So, I guess my thoughts about the whole thing are rather similar to yours. Thanks for the blogging! I'll keep reading.

    1. And even when it does happen, I don't think that it means what Debito is asserting. Often the "You can use chopsticks!?" comments are made out of genuine surprise be people who just don't have a lot of experience with foreigners.

      Yeah, exactly. Genuine surprise due to lack of experience isn't something I can see as worth being angry about.

      When it's from people who should know better, yeah, I think there's some justification to being annoyed. But Arudou isn't making that distinction, and the more I think about it, the more important I think that distinction is.

  2. I just found this blog searching for microagressions, and I can answer your question about Mr Arudou. As iotaguy says, he is really bitter in his writing, and is such a polarising force in Japan gaijin-land that nearly everyone has an extreme opinion about him.

    I think his writing sucks, and run a blog to such effect:

    Mr Arudou is using microagressions as a codeword for racism.

    1. Hah, tip of the hat for such a punny name. Thanks for the link. :)

  3. If these "microaggressions" bother you you're living a good life indeed. There are always going to be nuisances living abroad, but there's a lot of up-side to being a foreigner as well. We get a pass on so many things that native Koreans/Japanese never would.

    So, meh.

    1. If you're having microaggressive problems I feel bad for you, son. I got 99 problems but white privilege ain't one.

    2. ㅋㅋㅋ

      I guess it isn't cool to dismiss somebody's complaints. Korea could definitely do a better job when it comes to treating foreigners as equals and not scary others.

      But this stuff is so mild compared to the actual discrimination that Philipinos and Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese face:|home|newslist1