Skip to content

Leaving Your Culture, Sometimes Your Culture Leaves You, or, EXPATS GONE WILD!

March 21, 2009

I’ve been turning over in my head why it is I encounter behavior from foreigners that I suspect those foreigners would not display in their home countries, and I also have encountered behavior from Koreans that I know those Koreans would not display towards other Koreans. I’ve arrived at some tentative conclusions.

First, societies are normative. They establish a complex set of rules, and breaking those rules incurs a complex set of normative reactions. Some are straightforward: you murder someone, you suffer a myriad of consequences (or to be less extreme, you talk about your ex-girlfriend a lot on a first date, you don’t get a second one, usually). Some are very slight: in American culture you’re socialized to face the door when you get in an elevator, and if you choose to face the wall, you’ll get wierd looks from strangers, thus socializing you back toward the norm: facing the door.

I’ve noticed a lot of Westerners in Korea that will engage in behaviors that would carry direct and often swift consequences in the United States. For example, I know a foreigner who spit on a coworker.recorded on a hallway video camera. He wasn’t fired, or disciplined in any way. In the USA he would have been gone the same day. This could be a fluke, however, so I’ll bring up a couple other cases. I overheard two Mormons talking about mission work once. They were complaining that because there is less oversight from the Mormon community (you don’t have your Mormon parents around seeing what time you go home, don’t always have your Mormon friends around to help you be a good Mormon, etc), it is easier to do whatever you want and not follow the teachings of the church. Yet another example is prostitution. In the United States, engaging in prostitution is considered shameful. People look down on those that see prostitutes. People who do it don’t advertise the fact that they do. Most wouldn’t admit to it if asked, sometimes even to close friends. However, in Korea, foreigners who engage in their services often aren’t so bashful about it. I’ve had foreigners I’d just met ask me if I’d like to go to the red light areas with them. I always find this startling, as if I frequented red light areas (which I don’t), I’d go alone and not tell anyone: those cultural norms are ingrained pretty deeply for me.

Let’s look at this from another angle. I was once talking to a 40 year old female Korean who wanted to date me. She didn’t speak much English and this was through a translator. She said she liked foreigners, and I asked her why. She said she liked the way foreigners treated women. I asked “What’s the difference?” She had to be careful how she answered, as my translator was a male Korean friend. She said “Korean men often have expectations of women that foreign men don’t have.” Then she wanted my friend to leave. He did. After he was gone she proceded to proposition me in Konglish. “Tony, kiss?” I tried to tell her I needed to go home, but she thought it was an invitation. As she followed me out of the bar, I explained to her that she couldn’t go home with me, even if I wanted her to: I lived on a Korean Air Force Base, and they’d never let her past the gate. Her response was “Ah. Tony, there, my car. Carsex? Tony, carsex?”

When I mentioned this to a couple Koreans I knew (men and women both) the reaction was universal: shock. They couldn’t believe a Korean woman would act like that and said she was obviously a person of low morals. What’s interesting is that I’ve either experienced or heard first-hand about lots of people doing things that would be considered outside the norm in their culture, when they are not in the company of others of their culture. Another example is a good Chinese friend of mine who had a one night stand with an American I knew. We talked about it after he stopped returning her calls, and she said “This is not something a good girl does.” She hadn’t told (and wasn’t planning on telling) any of her Chinese friends about it, because of what she anticipated they would think. And this isn’t limited to just a couple cultures, or Asia. A year or two ago, a scandal broke when a Belgian journalist in Morocco was found to have taken pornographic photos with multiple Muslim women he’d promised he’d take to Belgium. He published many of the photos on his return to Belgium and some of the women were arrested. Two committed suicide in prison. It is pretty clear that such acts are a violation of the culture the women live in, but when nothing was present in the room to make sure they were following cultural norms, they weren’t following them.

The saying goes “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I think this phenomenon is a form of that. Knowing you can “get away with something” or act without perceived direct consequence means that what keeps you from performing that act is intrinsic, not extrinsic (i.e. your own internal code of conduct, not fear of external consequences). Being absent from the normative agents of your culture (friends, relatives, coworkers, strangers that might overhear something and grimace or frown), allows for deviance from the norms of your culture. To use an earlier example, I think if the guy that spit on his coworker knew he’d lose his job that same day, he wouldn’t have done it. I don’t think he would have done it stateside.

Game-theory has something to say about this phenomenon as well: a social norm gives one a guideline as to how one should behave. However, a rational person only follows a guideline insofar as it is optimal to do so. Removing perceived consequences for breaking a social norm drastically changes whether it is optimal or not to follow said norm. I think this is why aforementioned girl wanted my Korean friend to leave…so she wasn’t seen hitting on or leaving with a foreigner she just met.

But let’s bring this back to Korea. Many of us have seen fellow expatriates engage in behavior that surprises us. There is a normative function for Koreans in Korean society (one’s “reputation”) that most expatriates are blissfully unaware of or apathetic about, and since that normative function fails to work, some expats go wild here. At least that’s what I think.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 14, 2009 3:43 pm

    I’d have to agree with your viewpoint. Maybe it’s similar to the college phenomenon where student goes off to college, away from over-bearing parents for the first time and get the first taste of hard-liquor! and go, well…WILD!

    A point that’s related in a way:

    A person in any setting will adhere to the rules to the extent in which he/she believes is necessary and fair.
    Let’s look at this very general and made up person: When “Charlie” starts a new job, she is usually on her best behavior; but once she becomes comfortable enough and consciously (or unconsciously) becomes aware of what she can get away with in that workplace, she will start to do so.
    For example: at first, Charlie would always arrive to work right on time, if not five or ten minutes early. Then one day, she was a minute late. Her boss took no notice. She starting coming in later and later, until she started casually walking in the door five minutes late, and so on.

    Of course this particular issue of being early vs. late vs. on-time is different for everyone, but..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: