As a foreigner to Chinese, Korean, and Japanese friends, I seem to incite conversations on international topics more often than would seem the norm in strictly native circles. And, perhaps as some perverse gesture of solidarity with the Westerner in the room, these conversations quite often turn into xenophobic venting sessions directed at East Asian neighbors. The catharses usually begin as polite self-deprecating observations on one’s own society and then morph, with varying degrees of speed and completion depending on the drinks being served that night, into stronger and more earnest insults to the reputations of nearby countries.
What strikes me most about the content of such conversations is not just that the participants have generally realized that I lived for almost three years in China and developed several friendships along the way, have a Korean boyfriend and a close relationship with his family, and have made a few Japanese friends in both Chinese and Korean language classes and am thus very likely judging their xenophobia with some critical scrutiny, but that the comments, whether they be made by Chinese people about Koreans, Japanese people about Chinese, Korean people about Japanese, or any permutation thereof, are all pretty much the same.
A few close Chinese friends in Beijing once told me over lamb kebabs and beer that they considered Koreans “很吵，没有礼貌，不太聪明 (loud, rude, and unintelligent).” A few months later, I had a similarly sized group of Korean friends confiding to me over banchan and fish that Chinese tourists struck them as “시끄럽고 예의 없어 (loud and rude).”
Similarly, a Chinese friend complained to me several times that I should watch myself around Koreans, who are cold-hearted business-minded folks who will befriend you for personal gain and, once you cease to be of use to them, “只把你扔掉了 (just toss you away).” Perhaps, though, I shouldn’t heed that advice, as, according to a Korean acquaintance, Chinese people are “물질만능주의자 (exclusively materialistic).”
The hate doesn’t stop at bashing each other’s aptitudes and principles. A close Korean friend once told me that she thought that compared with Chinese and Japanese, 우리 나라 여자들은 가장 예뻐 (our country’s girls are the prettiest).” This declaration ironically called to mind an offhand comment once made by a female Chinese friend that Chinese girls had bigger eyes and were naturally prettier than Korean and Japanese individuals.
Multiple Chinese and Korean people have also complained to me that people from the other country “always” try to seize everything important in East Asian history as their own invention. The Chinese end of this argument is humorously depicted in one of my favorite Youku videos, which alleges that a Korean professor claimed that Sun Yat-sen and Yao Ming had Korean ancestry and that Korean academics have before concluded that Confucius, Xi Shi (legendary beauty said to have lived in the 春秋 period), and Li Shizhen (Ming Dynasty doctor and polymath) had Korean blood and will soon declare that the universe itself was created by Korea.
Such xenophobic sentiments have not been limited to close friends in intimate quarters. The head of my office in Beijing once told me after some slight inebriation at a company banquet that he considered the smartest and most accomplished people in the history of the world to be Chinese, German, English, and Japanese, but “对不起，不是韩国人 (sorry, not Koreans).”
This comment was countered and perhaps topped by the Yonsei KLI Korean teacher (and my absolute favorite teacher at the program, so I take her comments in a benign context) who asked our class if we didn’t think that Korean students were “다른 나라 학생보다 더 똑똑하지않아 (just smarter than students from other countries)?”
It might be easy to think so when surrounded by fellow Koreans, but I have a feeling that some people from the other 195-odd countries around the tip of this tiny peninsula might disagree.
This post is adapted from an article originally appearing in Strolling Toward a Mountain of Tigers, the author’s personal blog on life, science, and how those two words together are redundant.
桑凯丽 is a graduate student in Seoul researching the relationship between traumatic brain injury and addiction and exploring possible evidence-based applications of traditional Korean medicine to the treatment of affective disorders. She believes that a thorough understanding of the brain requires as much knowledge of culture as a thorough understanding of culture requires of the brain.
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