Friday, April 11, 2014

Ave, Roboseyo!

Thanks to a post at the Marmot's Hole, I was alerted to "5 Signs the Author of the Article [Y]ou're Reading Doesn't Actually Know Much about Korea" by Rob "Roboseyo" Ouwehand. It's a good read; I recommend it. Rob's five points in a nutshell—

Take the writer-on-Korea with a grain of salt if

1. [his/her] main source of authority is marrying a Korean or teaching English in Korea for a while.

2. all [his/her] quotes are from English teachers or bloggers.

3. [s/he uses] han, jeong, Confucianism, nunchi, chaemyeon, and other “Magic words” to explain Korean culture.

4. [s/he refers] to Koreans as if all Koreans share the same opinion on issues, or [if s/he talks] about “Korea” as if it were a character in a drama.

5. [s/he doesn’t] know any Korean.

Koehler added a corollary to (5) above: "[J]ust because you speak or understand Korean doesn’t mean you’re an expert on Korea."

True enough, although I'd say that learning a language inevitably means learning at least something about a culture. Give both Robs a read.

ADDENDUM: One defensive-sounding commenter at The Marmot's Hole wrote, "If [your] job doesn't require Korean, then anything beyond basic proficiency is superfluous. I believe increased proficiency makes living here much easier (and more pleasant), but it's not necessary. And one certainly doesn't need to be fluent in Korean to have a valid opinion on Korea. There are plenty of immigrants in America who are not fluent in English, but they certainly understand things about America that some native speakers may not."

Some of this is true: especially since the 1988 Olympics, South Korea's foreigner-friendliness has improved by leaps and bounds, so it is indeed possible to live a life sheltered from the Korean-speaking community. But such a life implies a bizarre lack of curiosity about one's surroundings, not to mention a lack of motivation to expand one's horizons.

It's also true that one doesn't need to be Korean-fluent to hold a valid opinion about Korea and Korean culture. But knowing at least some of the language helps. That can't be ignored, denied, or blithely glossed over. I'm much more likely to trust Korea-related insights from someone whose mastery of Korean is advanced than from someone with a rudimentary knowledge of the language. The latter type of person acquires knowledge about Korea in a second-hand and third-hand manner—through his girlfriend, through his more Korean-knowledgeable friends and coworkers, etc. There's a moral component, here: such knowledge isn't really earned: it just floats over the transom. Learning the language means doing the legwork, making an effort to understand the culture from the inside.

As for those English-ignorant immigrants in America: I wouldn't trust many of them to understand the more important aspects of American culture, either. If they refuse to integrate and assimilate, if they prefer to balkanize themselves and remain isolated from the mainstream society and culture, how can they acquire penetrating insights into who Americans are? How can they ever have more than a superficial, distorted grasp of what America is?*

ADDENDUM 2: This might be a good time to bring up our old friend, often referenced on this blog, the genetic fallacy. It's possible to read Roboseyo's post too literally and to commit this logical gaffe. For those not in the know: the genetic fallacy occurs when a claim or argument is dismissed because of its genesis, i.e., where it comes from. My go-to example: a crazy homeless person shouts that the sun is shining. You're inclined to disbelieve him because, well, he's crazy. But you step outside, and sure enough: the sun is indeed shining. There is no logical reason to disbelieve a claim or argument because of where it comes from; instead, the claim or argument must be tested against reality itself. As a matter of phronesis (i.e., practical wisdom), we all have a tendency to commit the genetic fallacy as a "shortcut" to figuring out what to believe. This is why we normally mistrust the word of thieves, betrayers, and other lowlifes, and it's why lawyers try to negate a witness's testimony by undermining his or her credibility. But as the Joker knows well, it's possible to mix lies in with the truth, which means the best approach to a suspicious character's utterance is a scientific one—one that tests and verifies empirically and logically, matching the utterance with what's real.

So it's not quite right to say that because a man's insights about Korea come primarily from his wife, those insights are automatically false. They may be perfectly legitimate. The same goes for dismissing a person's claims because he can't speak Korean, because he quotes only teachers and bloggers, because he invokes "magic(al)" cultural terms, or because he seems to engage in crass Orientalism.** Don't take Roboseyo's post too literally; instead, when you're reading something about Korea, adopt what we in religious studies call a hermeneutic of suspicion—what normal folks call taking that with a grain of salt. That hermeneutic of suspicion is, I think, what Rob is driving at.

*So, Kevin: what IS America, hm? Let's not get into a discussion about "essentializing" America. Not in this post. You really don't want to go that route with me, especially if you're a misguided acolyte of postmodernism.

**Again, don't get me started. If you say "Edward Said," I'm going to beat you over the head with Bernard Lewis.


1 comment:

Roboseyo said...

This was a great response to my article. Thanks for the thoughtful engagement, and the link.