Colin Marshall’s five part series on Korea in The Guardian

Meet Colin Marshall, a Seattle native who somehow ended up living in Koreatown, Los Angeles shortly after college and currently writes for the British daily The Guardian.  Recently, he just wrapped-up a five part series on Korea for The Guardian.  An index of the articles is available on this link.

Unlike many commenters and writers on this blog, Colin has not lived in Korea for years.  His Guardian series was based on about a week’s travel in the country.  He has live in Los Angeles’ Koreatown for awhile and claims he can speak a functional amount of the language.  Apparently, he even has a Korean girlfriend (in Los Angeles).  This might be a plus or negative for some people.  However, when it comes to urban vibe and city planning, Colin might have some experience to speak as he’s traveled to Mexico City, London, Copenhagen, Osaka, in addition to his native Seattle and current home of Los Angeles.

The Korean American magazine KoreAm interviewed Colin about his Guardian articles.  It’s an interesting read and he says some rather insightful observations that I think may have a kernel of truth.

In a way, some Koreans here [in the U.S.] are actually more conservative than the ones in Korea.


Talking to the twentysomethings there [in Korea], sometimes they’re way more mature than me, but sometimes it feels like they’re still in middle school.


[English learning in Korea is]… not even about learning English. It’s about getting above the others.


[Koreans burn too]… much energy on competition with each other.


Korea has brashness, which isn’t the same thing as confidence.

  • Sumo294

    He writes well–and I don’t think he overreaches himself–seems to be honest pieces.

  • wangkon936

    Bet you $20 someone here is gonna find something to shit on.

  • Aaron

    LOL at the KCET article – it’s a whiter, but just as naive version of myself 10 years ago, before the hipsters raised the rents, the only honky at the booking club, strolling around 8th street in k-town in L.A., an area still known for its drug trafficking (immortalized in Jane’s Addiction’s “Jane Says”).

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Hmmm… His writing is safe (and a little boring), but despite his K-town and girlfriend credentials, he doesn’t pretend to be any kind of an expert. I respect that. He approaches Korea as a newcomer and he picks out the peculiarities that residents stopped noticing years ago.

    Note to the Korean Tourism Organization: This is they type of coverage that gets people interested in Korea! Not bulgogi ads featuring B-list athletes or billboards about why Japan is such a bad bad country and they say my island is theirs but it’s not because look at this Joseon map.

  • cham

    I appreciate his writing. It’s insightful (in a sort of ordinary, everyday way) but also perceptive of the holes in the system. He’s able to critique without coming off as needlessly condescending or derisive (which many people either fail at or simply refuse to do). In other words, he shows tact.

  • Alex

    His articles are refreshing to read and without a jaded lens to color his observations. But maybe he has not been to NYC. Standing in middle of crosswalks in NYC, is not advised! Don’t get me wrong. People do this, but it is at the person’s own risk. Do not expect the driver to politely and “lawfully” stop for you. Just sayin.

  • Dan Strickland

    I think he misses a major point, that people who immigrate are different from people who stay, and with Koreans that also varies by era. Then when you consider how long some of the Koreans in LA have been away from Korea, you can see how they might be very different Koreans.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Reading the last part (Busan), he makes an interesting point:

    “Talk often enough to groups of East Asia-based expats, especially while drinking, and you eventually get the sense that some have come to believe they know their host country better than do its own people. Unsavory though that line of thinking may sound, I find some truth in it; if I want to hear America accurately described, I seek out the perspective of anyone but my countrymen.”

    That’s something for Koreans (native or gyopo) to first consider when facing observations or criticisms from foreign residents. Yes, we can experience Korea without loyalties, apologies, or years of nationalist public school civics classes. I’m often taken aback (or defensive) when my girlfriend comments on the US of A. But she’s usually quite correct in her perceptions.

  • Phil Phakename

    I met him while he was in Korea, a few weeks ago. Very nice, insightful guy. He’s been profiling cities and cultures for a while, so he’s gotten quite good at figuring out how to meet the right people and ask the right questions.

  • A Korean

    Whatever “original” observation you think you may have had about Korea, Mr. English teacher, you might wanna consider that it may have had occurred to about million natives (and emigrants) about million times (and recorded about million times on Navers comment logs).

    It would help to learn Korean enough to read newspapers, etc. before spouting off how Koreans do this, think that, yakkity-yak.

  • A Korean

    BTW, what did your gf say about the US that was so revealing (to you)? What/how does she know about the US?

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Knee-jerk, much?

    I never claimed to have observations that nobody has come up with before. And of course native Koreans make many of the same observations. But foreign observations are often defensively written off as insults rather than taken for what they actually are.

    My Korean is high-beginner and slowly getting better. Reading the newspaper in Korean requires a high level (around TOPIK 5, am I right?). I don’t think you need to have a TOPIK 5 Korean level before you earn the right to comment on Korea. Non-English speakers around the world rightfully criticize the US every minute of every day.

    That said, when I was a younger and more ignorant (or just plain stupider) expat, I certainly thought I was on to things that Koreans overlooked. It was Korean cinema that first opened my eyes to the diverse social criticisms in this country.

  • wangkon936

    “The original point was that non-natives can offer valuable insights…”

  • wangkon936

    Given that he’s got a serious Korean gf, perhaps he was a little more successful than you?

  • wangkon936

    I would also add Michael Breen. I thought his book on Koreans was (and still is) excellent.

  • A Korean

    Your comment implies, and is premised on, thoughtless, reflexive, defensive reaction on Koreans’ part.

    Fair enough, as far as stereotypes go.

    By the same token, observations by “expats”, of whom 20-something English tutors seem most numerous and vocal, are mostly loads of ignorant generalizing bullcrap by those who can neither speak the language nor read the papers.

    You mention your gf’s quips on America. Give me some examples of your gf’s often correct observation about America that made you defensive. Were they particularly perceptive, or was it just you being defensive, “knee jerk” style as you say?

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Certainly it’s not just Koreans who often have reflexive, defensive reactions to criticism of their country / culture. Perhaps it’s just that Korea has rapidly risen to become a significant country, so some Koreans are not yet accustomed to the unsolicited criticism that comes with the role.

    You are correct about observations by most expats. I largely ignore comments by any expat who is chronically unhappy in SK, yet still chooses to live here. They seem to be lacking in judgment. But there are plenty of long-term, integrated, successful, happy expats who have valid observations about the country.

    It’s also important that criticisms of Korea (or any country) are (1) not generalizations, (2) relevant, and (3) constructive. Some great examples are often found on Roboseyo’s blog.

    Recently marriage has been a big topic with the gf. She told me it’s customary for the groom to buy a gift for the mother-in-law (i.e. a nice handbag). I naturally went on about materialism and young people wasting money on designer crap that they can’t afford because of societal pressure. She retorted that American guys spend upwards of $10,000 (that they don’t have) on engagement rings, which are far more expensive than handbags. She also noted that handbags, albeit expensive, are useful whereas diamond rings aren’t.

    I also criticized the materialism and garishness of wedding halls in Korea. She responded that at least they aren’t hypocritical, unlike American church weddings for barely religious couples who have premarital sex and never attend Sunday services.

    ^^ These aren’t genius or original observations about American weddings. But they are things that are far more obvious and perplexing to her coming from an outside perspective.

  • bumfromkorea

    I’ve said this many times, but there is a world of difference between criticizing Korea and what too many expats are doing when it comes to the faults and problems of the Korean society. Most often, the breakdown occurs when the criticism stops being criticisms and becomes an attempt to force-fit the nebulous glob of entity called “Koreans” onto the actual Koreans. When the criticism stops being about dangerous drivers and becomes “These Koreans don’t care about safety”, it becomes a problem. When the criticism stops being about the corruption in the government and becomes “Koreans only care about [insert a materialistic value]”, it becomes a problem. When the criticism stops being about the ineptitude of the law enforcement/military and becomes “Korean guys are bunch of pussies”, it becomes a problem.

    Criticisms are commonplace in Korea. Hell, take any comment section of any major news article, and it’s full of “What the fuck is wrong with this society?”, “Fire that incompetent asshole!”, and other very critical comments (incidentally, claiming that Koreans are a bunch of sheeples who think their society is the best in the world is a good way of displaying one’s utter ignorance. It’s one of the best barometers, actually). But the vast, vast, VAST majority of the “criticisms” are about venting the frustration that comes from, among other things, inability to adapt to their surroundings.

    And what is one of the first step of adapting to one’s surroundings? Learning the language. No matter how much the locals “discourage” you by… wanting to speak English with you (I still can’t get over that weak-ass excuse…). That gives you access to at least the surface of the Korean society. That lets you read/hear and understand what Koreans are thinking about – what they’re arguing about amongst themselves, what they’re angry about, what they’re proud about, what they’re scared about, what they’re happy about, etc. That lets you actually communicate with the Koreans, and making them individual human beings in your mind as opposed to a monstrous blob of unknowns called “these Koreans”.

    I’ve seen it in America too – immigrants unwilling to learn English, and becoming ostracized from the society. They’re almost always the near-psychotically angry ones, and the ones who claim the stupidest shit about Americans (well, at least one particular shades of Americans). The parallel is a lot stronger than most people think.

    At the end of the day, people are people, and they’re all the same around the world if you look close enough. Once you forget that and rant on about what “typical Koreans”, “Most Koreans”, “a lot of Koreans”, etc. are like, you lose all credibility.

  • wangkon936

    Dude… just buy your mother-in-law the handbag. In marriage there will be many battles ahead. Pick your battles. Start strong with the mother-in-law. It won’t get any better with her than in the beginning.

  • wangkon936

    Some good points bum, but I don’t think Mike is one of those that you describe above.

  • bumfromkorea

    The dangers of the ambiguous “you”. 😀

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Very good points indeed. I don’t think it was directed toward me.

    As far as language goes, I believe there should be more visa benefits tied to language acquisition. For example, a TOPIK 1 or 2 score could let an English teacher own his teaching visa (instead of being a slave to a single employer). It would be a huge motivator for teachers that stay more than a year.

    Right now TOPIK scores give points toward the F-2 visa, but for many people that means TOPIK 4 or 5, even with an MA and some work experience. It’s just not attainable enough to motivate the masses.

  • wangkon936

    “I believe there should be more visa benefits tied to language acquisition.”

    Excellent point.

  • redwhitedude

    They should also include penalties for things for breaking certain laws. Not necessarily stuff that merits outright deportation or requires going to jail in light of instances of Quincy Black.

  • A Korean

    Mike, when you find yourself piling in lengthy qualifications and elaborations, it’s a sign that you outta revisit your original statement and consider if it went off in a wrong direction in the first place.

    I’ll distill it down. Most observations by the foreigners are crap, as you yourself have conceded, for various reasons (can’t speak, can’t read, etc.). Then why are you preaching to the Koreans that they outta listen to them? Because there is a shortage of crappy nonsense in Korea?

  • A Korean

    And, Mikey, I appreciate you going to the trouble of recollecting your exchanges with your gf.

    I won’t go into the nitty-gritty splitting hairs. I simply note that they are hardly good examples of foreigners’ insightful observations overlooked by the locals. As they would be, since such things are rare indeed.

  • A Korean

    I jumped on Mike’s comment, not because he’s one of the 20-something, can’t-speak, can’t-read douchebags, but precisely because he’s not one of them and I expect him to know better than to preach to the Koreans about the wisdom of expats’ yammering.

  • A Korean

    One last thing. Congrats.

    And a tip: get that conservation going again regarding expensive useless piece of rock. Get her to admit that they are senseless waste of hard-earned money (or something like that). Record it and keep it in a safe place. It may come in handy someday.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    I didn’t mean to come off as so preachy at first. You are right that most expat criticism is either misinformed or unoriginal.

    But expat observations could help out in certain areas, such as with KTO campaigns. We are foreigners who live in Korea. We know what aspects of Korea will appeal to our countrymen (and it isn’t the healthy food).

    The education system should also take input regarding English education from qualified, experienced, professional NETs in Korea, particularly from those who have taught EFL in other parts of the world. We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t in a variety of countries with a wide variety of students and learning styles. But the MOE and public school system are more concerned with maintaining the status quo and protecting jobs than improving the system.

  • jfpower

    In fact, you are actually understating your point. I have TOPIK 4, a decent income *and* an MA and don’t qualify for an F-2. It is not easy to get a flexible visa without going the marriage route.

  • jfpower

    They dock points for visa violations.

  • brier

    Well said.

    Marriage immigrants think they have an angle on Korea, and some do, but many are just married.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    I think the age requirement is hard on a lot of people. I understand that they want people of “marriageable age” or whatever. But losing points for being over 35? It’s silly.

  • wangkon936

    What do you expect? It’s still the 50’s there. Okay, maybe the early 60’s.

  • jfpower

    Very little criticism, by anyone anywhere, is original. Such insight is usually the preserve of genius.