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Korea is like a dolphin, not a shrimp

says Daniel Tudor, who’s tired of hearing the description from Koreans who like to use it as a sort of self-effacing excuse for themselves. The Korean expression from which “shrimp” originates is : 고래 싸움에 새우 등 터진다 – “Kore-ssaumeh-saeu-deung-tojinda” literally translated as “During a fight amongst the whales, shrimps (back) explode”. I always wanted to know if this is based on a scientific fact, i.e. how feasible this is and whether this is a common occurrence. I don’t know if the sizes of the relative species concerned (shrimps and whales) and their common habitat could actually result in such a phenomenon. Maybe somebody could ask the Mythbusters program. At any rate here is a footage of a whale fight. In my opinion, it’s more likely to happen during whales mating than fighting, if at all.

Anyway, I can only find the link to the Korean version of the JoongAng article by Tudor씨. I don’t know if there is an English version. Tudor씨 is an ex-correspondent of the Economist, and is also the author of the book, “Korea: The Impossible Country”.
His main point is that maybe Koreans (especially the elite or the leaders in the society) like to say that they are a small country or a developing country to prevent change – because that prevents further discussion of things like equal opportunities or work-life balance, and everybody would continue to sacrifice themselves for development.

확실한 증거는 없지만, 자기 회의적인 그런 얘기들은 변화에 저항하는 수단으로 쓰이고 있는 것이 아닐까 싶다. 평등주의나 일과 삶의 균형에 대한 논의를 막기 위해서는 한국이 아직도 개발도상국이라는 인식만큼 좋은 게 없기 때문이다. 그래야 성장과 진보를 위해 모두가 희생을 감수하지 않겠는가.

He also goes on to say where he is now (in Malaysia) people envy Korea as successful developed nation and he often gets asked to give interviews about Korea. Now while I understand what he is trying to say and agree with some of it, I think there are also other reasons such as:

1. Koreans often like to say, “Koreans are like this – that’s why they’re no good” not including themselves in it. It’s rarely “We are like this that’s why it will never work”. The elite and the leaders are separating themselves from the people they are referring to. I am sure I am guilty of this myself, but to my defence I always fight with my parents whenever I go back.
2. Living standard alone does not make a truly developed nation. While I enjoy watching some Korean TV/dramas which his Malaysian friends might watch, I still cringe at the Cinderella mentality and the 식상한 story-line.
Let me just add, I don’t like dramas from the US or Britain/Australia etc. when they try to be realistic or tackle issues, sometimes they are just plain old bland beyond hope..it’s a delicate balance between escape from reality, and reality packaged as an episode.
3. It’s also like a sports announcers mentality when they say : “네, 정말로 뛰어난 패스, 김 아무개 선수 – 슛 – 네 그럴 줄 알았습니다.” They build themselves up with hope when things are going well, only to say “I knew it” when the ball bounces off the goal post. Deep down, we know we are shite. A bit like the Brits and their Wimbledon dreams.
4. Finally, yes, unfortunately, his Malaysian friends are right in that some Koreans look down on them. I am sure the Korean entertainment business is very careful in controlling their fan-base in places like Malaysia, but most Koreans would already probably feel superior to the South-East Asians, especially with respect to colour of the skin and money. They mainly want to feel superior within the club they feel they belong to geographically and culturally: the China-Japan-Korea club.

Anyway, I also thought it was funny that he chose dolphin, especially with the dolphin-related news going around nowadays.

  • 8675309

    “His main point is that maybe Koreans (especially the elite or the leaders in the society) like to say that they are a small country or a developing country to prevent change – because that prevents further discussion of things like equal opportunities or work-life balance, and everybody would continue to sacrifice themselves for development.”

    There is some truth to this as it’s frequently used as the all-purpose, uber-convenient excuse for Korea’s shortcomings and idiosyncracies in many departments. However, when Korea wants to remind itself of its superiority especially in the face of an unexpected win or surge in popularity, the old shrimp similes are quickly replaced with Korea as the “tiger” or “tiger-shaped nation.”

  • DC Musicfreak

    Translation, please: “However, I also cannot stand the US, Britain either when they try to do realistic.”

  • yuna_at_marmotshole

    Translation: I went to check on the ramen and came back and forgot to re-write. Will correct it.

  • yuna_at_marmotshole

    Yes, unfortunately I was already a reasoning being by the time I saw that picture of tiger in the most unnatural pose ever warped onto what is so obviously and blatantly a rabbit, that even when I see the tiger, I can see the rabbit, if it makes any sense.

  • somms

    When I attended Korean school as a young kid, I remember one teacher trying to convince us that the Korean peninsula looked like a tiger. She got very upset when I insisted that it was a rabbit. It’d be like some Italian trying to convince the world that their peninsula is shaped like a lion, not a boot.

  • yuna_at_marmotshole

    I see not just any boot, but a Ferragamo boot.

  • somms

    An Italian boot, to boot. So to speak.

    I’ll see myself out.

  • wangkon936

    Ah, that is the Korean double x chromosome speaking there.

    Special ability to see brand name Italian shit anywhere and everywhere.

  • redwhitedude

    Korea is a dolphin? That must be why Korea feels like Japan is going after them.

  • wangkon936
  • redwhitedude

    LOL. As far as PETA and Greenpeace is concerned Japan just became public enemy #1.

  • bumfromkorea

    I myself always thought the peninsular looked like a lightening bolt.

  • bumfromkorea

    Time to ruin dolphins for everyone. I refuse to be the only one crying over yet another loss of my childhood innocence.


  • Dan Strickland

    As an old Peace Corps Korea volunteer (actually that’s the only kind of Peace Corps Korea volunteer – old) I enjoyed Tudor’s book. He gets some things wrong and some right, as would any author, or Peace Corps vol, come to that. I have heard your point, Yuna, and I don’t think that’s Tudor’s main point – simply one he makes – but I’ve heard it a lot in the past, still do on occasion. I think his main point is “how the heck did they do this?!”
    So I’ll do the old fart thing of “we walked to school 5 miles in the snow, uphill – both ways” and tell you, through our eyes, the change has been amazing. We miss a lot of things from when we were here as a bunch of college kids – the country villages where we lived, the 초가 집 where our friends and sometimes we lived, the 뒤간 with no lights and maybe a pig, and the 왕대포 joint where we sloshed down many a 말 of mokolee.
    But by golly, we’ve been coming in on these revisits since 2008 sponsored by the government – and no other Peace Corps country has done this for their vols – and to see how much better lives are is wonderful to see. The thing that the government showed us that really made us weep, though, was KOICA. We visited training centers for Korea’s version of the Peace Corps, and there we are, looking at ourselves from forty years ago. Whatever the flaws of Peace Corps, of KOICA, of Korea, that is so wonderful to see.

  • wangkon936

    Personally, I liked Breen’s book better. Tutor was listing too much and not really connecting the dots. I hope Breen does a third revision.

  • dlbarch

    Can we at least make that an ill-tempered dolphin, or maybe one with frickin’ lasers on it?


  • yuna_at_marmotshole

    I haven’t read the book so I will take your word for it, but the linked article is mainly about a half-peeved off but genuine attempt to understand why Koreans still like seeing/referring themselves as the victim/small fish.

    I think there’s little doubt about the legitimacy of the label when you look at the historical facts, as one of the Korean commenters on the JoongAng website points out,

    왜그러냐구요? 우리 민족의 역사는 외세에 무려 1000여회나 주구장창 얻어터지면서 살아온 민족이라오. 불과 60년 전에는 아예 코리아가 지구상에서 없어질뻔 했잖소? 일 왕에 목숨바쳐 충성을 맹세한 사람도 있는 마당에 만약 미국이 일본에 패전했다면 말이오 이런 우리의 역사를 뒤돌아보면 살 떨리지않을 사람 있겠오? 해서 이런 열등의식은 통일되고 100년은 지나야 아하 우리도 이제 돌고래다~할거요.여튼 좋게 봐줘서 고맙소

    Wanna know why? It’s because our minjok has been beaten up left and right over 1000 times by the external forces….

    blah blah – typical ajossi 멘트- cut –

    Around 100 years after the unification, maybe we will finally get over our self-complex issue and say ‘Aha, we are dolphins after all’. Anyway thanks for regarding (Korea) in a positive light.

    Also, to be fair w.r.t. the dolphin analogy, it was Tudor’s ‘colleague’ who suggested it. There, I always wanted to put things in an inverted comma, like the BBC world news website. hehehe.

  • George_Smiley

    Ugh.. Thanks for that.
    Disturbing…and yet…
    …strangely arousing.

    That dolphin totally stole my move, though.

  • yuna_at_marmotshole

    Are you sure that that one is the one you wanted to link to? Another link from that link is funnier (NatGeo):

    (Later edit) – Oh, I see, clicking on the link doesn’t change the address.

  • Koreandumbdumb

    A shrimp is correct. Wait till bombers (Chinese, Japanese,Russian or NK) come and drop bombs that will kill your parents, you and your kids. Koreans will die. Korea as a nation may disappear. All this can happen within a decade.

  • yuna_at_marmotshole

    바둑, you’re like a character from an NBC sitcom. Always on cue.

  • ChuckRamone

    Korea is a flipped image of New Jersey. And it’s the New Jersey of East Asia.

  • chooNryusk

    “…feel superior within the club they feel they belong to geographically and culturally: the China-Japan-Korea club.”

    What a horrible club, why the feeling of superiority? Like Korean culture is better than those in SE Asia aye? Must thank God geographically or the blowing winds.

  • George_Smiley

    About the whole “shrimp” thing…or the whole youngest of 3 Asian brothers-thing…

    I would never defend the trenchant elitism and weapons-grade 갑을 mentality here, or an education system whose very objective seems to stifle creativity.

    I could be wrong, but I’ve come around to putting those declarations into the same category as I put (홍익인간, “Corea” as preferable to “Korea”, the superiority of Hangul, etc.). It’s just part of the lexicon of BS that a country tells itself.

    These idioms of self-regard–negative and positive–aren’t any less fossilized than, “frankly speaking” or “nothing special”. –Sloughed off, if you’re lucky, with determination, perspective and grit.

    Of course, we’re all free-thinking and independent in my country, so we don’t have any of these impediments. In an exceptional country like the United States, we’re not susceptible–at all–to suggestion and/or propaganda.

    That’s what you get in a true democracy where everyone has an equal voice, where every prince and pauper has an equal chance to succeed and I just saw Horatio Alger drive by in a Bugatti doing blow off the cleavage of an escort in a Lady Liberty outfit.

  • George_Smiley

    Yet another mammal that gets more play than I do.

  • wangkon936

    I don’t know. It’s just like how a lot of Americans and Canadians think they are inherently better than the Latin people south of the Gulf of Mexico.

  • chooNryusk

    Many and most are a different thing. Anyway, it seems you took culture and geography out of context by baiting and switching it to people and race, come back to earth wangkon96.

  • wangkon936

    But… is it not true. Even a little?

  • wangkon936

    Hummm… pretty quiet. Yeah I thought so.

  • chooNryusk

    NAFTA since 1974 and an American celebration of Cinco de Mayo. What SE Asian culture does S. Korea recognize annually? Americans aren’t taught by their parents that they’re better nor do teachers teach students that dark or brown skin is bad. Americans, for the most part don’t feel superior to Mexicans because they think American culture is better than America’s, you can buy Mexican food almost as easily as S. Koreans can buy a prostitute in S. Korea. And besides, since 2012 as many Mexicans are leaving the U.S. as they are arriving. Yeah, shame on those Mexicans for leaving the U.S.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    26 years in America and I never heard a single person say they are superior to Latinos. Complain about immigration and losing jobs to non-citizens? Sure. But actually claim to be or even hint at being inherently better than Latinos? Never.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Whenever I hear the small country / shrimp excuse, I quickly remind that person that Korea is a G20 country and it’s time to come up with a new excuse.

  • eujin

    Deep down, we know we are shite. A bit like the Brits and their Wimbledon dreams.

    I bet Andy Murray dreams of winning Wimbledon.

  • yuna_at_marmotshole

    Shush. ‘Twas so for a long period with Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.
    I bet deep down every Brit feels Andy Murray winning is more of a temper tantrum fluke rather than a true champion material. It was like the whole country had gone into a Full Monty filming mode, cheering for losers in their moment.

  • DC Musicfreak

    There’s also historically been Korea’s desire for easier “developing country” terms on WTO market-opening or climate change commitments. Having it’s ddok and eating it, too.

  • wangkon936

    Latino populations in America are around 11%, so given the larger population one would expect their holidays to have greater visibility. However, Americans don’t “celebrate” Cinco de Mayo per se. It is not an official government recognized holiday. It’s recognition is a bit ad hoc, like St. Patrick’s day. It’s recognition varies regionally depending on the size of the Mexican American community.

    Mexican food in America is not popular because Americans are in love with Mexican culture or the Mexican people. It’s popular because Mexican food has been in the U.S. for hundreds of years. California, Texas and the entire American southwest was once Mexican territory and Mexicans have lived in those states since at least as long as there have been Americans in North America.

    There is at least one Southeast Asian dish that is popular and commonplace in Korea and that’s the Vietnamese dish Pho. I am surprised you didn’t know that.

    A couple of other things:

    “NAFTA since 1974″

    NAFTA was signed in 1992. What happened in 1974?

    “Americans, for the most part don’t feel superior to Mexicans because they think American culture is better than America”

    That’s not how Mexicans feel. Have you spoken to any of them?

    “since 2012 as many Mexicans are leaving the U.S. as they are arriving”

    Since 2009. Mexican net immigration waxes and wanes relative to the strength of America’s economy. Mexican net immigration to America declined after we went into a recession.

  • wangkon936

    You kidding me? I hear it all the time. Let me help you identify it. It’s usually under the guise of the anti-immigration crowds.

    Just go to any online discussion about immigration. Now, it’s not overt like “those Latinos are inferior,” it’s more like “I don’t want them in my country, in my neighborhood.”

    American racism has evolved over the decades. A lot less overt. It’s more subtle now.

  • chooNryusk

    For your complete bait/switch satisfaction I never said that Cinco de
    Mayo is a national holiday. Food is culture, nice attempt at
    disconnecting them! Get back with me when S. Korea has Thai restaurants
    around almost any corner. You said Americans “don’t celebrate Cinco de
    Mayo” yet do recognize it. WHAT, WHAT, WHAT??? How do people
    recognize a cultural and historical event throughout America without a

    Colleges etc…all around America celebrate Cinco de
    Mayo and have been for years. Sorry for my 1974 typo, I Wikied it and
    really meant to type 94.

    Finally, you didn’t answer my question. How, when, or what SE Asian country’s holiday does S. Korea recognize and celebrate? You’ve completely baited/switched as I said before. Now why don’t you get back on topic by answering my question? I want to know what is so great about CLUB Japan, Korea, and China’s culture and geography compared to that of those in SE Asia?

  • chooNryusk

    What you speak of Pho or real Vietnamese food is hated by Koreans when served with cilantro because Korea has never grown cilantro. Seoul hates food worldwide including that of CLUB members Chinese and Japanese food. Again, what’s with this superior feeling that CLUB Japan, S. Korea, and China has with its culture and geography compared to SE Asian countries? Are you sure Pho isn’t S. Korean food?

  • chooNryusk

    Give a Korean a list of favorite international foods to choose from listed in a box, then ask him/her to choose which one he/she likes best and guess what their answer will be…? You guessed it, Korean food even though Korean food ain’t listed in the box. HelluvaCLUB.

  • redwhitedude

    It does feel like a shrimp when it is surrounded by larger nations though and all of these nations with the exception of NK are G20 nations as well.

  • redwhitedude

    People generally don’t vocalize it bu they do have certain image of Latinos. I mean how frequently have to seen news about illegal immigration and latinos over the years. The result is that people tend to associate latinos with that and get certain image of latinos.

  • redwhitedude

    I think the cinco the mayo thing while it isn’t official it tends to feel official if you are in an area filled with Mexicans. Also marketers have latched on it as marketing thing knowing the presence of mexicans in certain areas.

    South Korea is still a very homogenous country so since there aren’t that many say chinese, vietnamese or filipinos you are not going to see any sort of recognition if part of the recognition is strength in numbers which is what has happened in the US.

  • redwhitedude

    Again if there were a lot more vietnamese then things would be different.

  • bumfromkorea

    “Sure. But actually claim to be or even hint at being inherently better than Latinos? Never.”


    -Sincerely, guy who lives in Arizona-

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Disliking illegal immigrants and believing oneself to be inherently better than Latinos based on race are two different things.

    In the U.S., are English-speaking, hard-working, legal immigrants from Latin America really looked down upon for being inferior based on ethnicity?

    In Korea, are Korean-speaking, hard-working, legal immigrants from SE Asia looked down upon for being inferior simply based in ethnicity?

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Really, I think it ACTS like a shrimp. Putting uninhabitable island disputes at the forefront of foreign policy?

  • pawikirogii

    americans don’t celebrate cinco de mayo though big business does.

  • j95lee

    “Mexican food has been in the U.S. for hundreds of years.”

    Maybe, but I don’t think tacos, burritos, nachos and other Americanized Mexican food have been around for hundreds of years. Menudos, horchatas, and other more authentic Mexican food are not as common.

    It’s certainly true that Americans may have a low opinion on Latinos, but Latinos are notorious xenophobes and racist themselves. They don’t mix well with their Korean employers for obvious reasons.

  • redwhitedude

    What about the Japanese who keep pressing their Dokdo claims and the Chinese with their claim as well? Both nations seem to put those at the forefront of theirs.

  • George Deftereos

    That shrimp saying reminds me of a Greek version: when the mules fight it is the donkeys that suffer. The mules would be China and Japan in this case (mules are usually bigger than donkeys since they’re bred from horses).

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Neither China nor Japan are good examples to follow. Korea has REAL problems, such as its aging population and chaebol corruption. Crap like Dokdo just draws attention away from homegrown problems that can’t be blamed on others.

  • redwhitedude

    Same with China and Japan. Both have REAL problems and these disputes can be a nice way to draw attention away from it.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    You’re quite right. Perhaps we can agree that everyone needs to get their priorities in order. But the shrimp analogy still annoys me because it’s self-effacing as an excuse, as opposed to offering a constructive explanation.

  • redwhitedude

    It doesn’t bother me. Korea can only do so much when it is divided as it is now unlike China and Japan.

  • Freya

    Off topic: Curious you would use the example of Britain’s dreams of winning Wimbledon, considering 2013′s Wimbledon was won by Andy Murray.

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