Having spent a wonderful year or so in Korea I have had occasion to speak of my experiences to people I meet here in Taiwan. I have been surprised to see some anti-Korean sentiment amongst people I have met here.
I first got a hint of this soon after I arrived in Taiwan. At a Sichuan style restaurant here with a group of friends I was asked what I ate in Korea and I said that I was a huge fan of Korean food, and that is probably what I miss most about it now having left Seoul. My words were met with what seemed to me utter shock and disbelief around the table. It was almost like I had insulted their mothers.
One of my friends responded, “But in Korea all they eat is meat and kimchi! What is there about Korean food to like? They have no vegetables!” I tried to explain that there are many dishes in Korea that have a wonderful assortment of vegetables but my further defense of Korean cuisine only seemed to make things worse. We moved on to other topics.
Since then I have kept my ears open when it comes to the way people I have met respond to things related to Korea and sometimes I have come right out and asked, “What do you think about Korea?” or “What is your impression about Korea.” The results have been interesting. Three recent responses:
1. Taipei, pro-Blue female. “Koreans are so arrogant! You know they tried to register the Dragon Boat race with [some UN organization] as a Korean tradition that they invented?”
2. Kaohsiung, female. “I hate (討厭）Korea! I have interacted with many Korean women at international conferences and they are always talking. They are so loud and very rude.”
3. Kaohsiung, male pro-Green graduate student. Has studied Korean at university level. “I hate (討厭) Koreans! I knew many Koreans at university and they were so rude, arrogant, and obsessed with their pride. Koreans hate the Japanese. They are always trying to show how they are as good as the Chinese, and when it comes to the Taiwanese, they look down (看不起) on us.
Though they fortunately lack any rocky islets to fight over and no effigies are being burnt in street protests, I was really surprised at the really strong emotions evoked here in Taiwan. I never got “我不太喜歡” or other more moderate phrases. The sentiment was unusually direct. Of course, it is nowhere near the kinds of reactions I have seen among many young Chinese towards the Japanese (first encountering these powerful emotions in Beijing in 1997 was my first motivation to study Sino-Japanese relations and the contentious historical issues in the region). Korean sentiments against the Japanese seems, by contrast, a little more tame these days, though I may get this impression because I have been hanging out with a lot of more younger “pro-Japanese” treasonous types when I lived in Seoul.
One explanation might be a general clash of personality types. As some of the comments above hint at, the generally more relaxed and polite personality style I have found to be common on this island may simply clash a bit more with the sometimes more intense and aggressive style often found on the peninsula to the north. Obviously, I have seen plenty of exceptions to this on both sides.
Something I heard indirectly which may play is role was from a Taiwanese woman who I’m told said that though Korea and Taiwan were long lauded as two of Asia’s leading economic “tigers” some Taiwanese feel like they “lost” to the larger and more powerful Korea, thus leading to the development of a kind of insecurity complex when they find themselves compared to their more populous and culturally distinct rival.
There is no doubt that Korea has a certain degree of international visibility that Taiwan lacks. Asus does not quite have the brand power of Samsung or LG and Taiwan’s cross-straits crisis doesn’t have the benefit of an official axis of evil member next door. If my Korean friends complain that most Americans can’t find their country on a map (to be fair, we apparently can’t seem to find most places on a map, even after we invade them) then imagine the chances of them locating this little Formosan paradise. My Taiwanese friends who have a lot of international experience often refer to the frustration they feel at having to explain to everyone that they are from TaiWAN, not from ThaiLAND. Yes, they survived the tidal wave nicely, thank you (when I hear such complaints I’m reminded of my Korean friends who express their annoyance at being mistaken for Japanese when they travel, and sometimes revealing a more condescending discrimination when recounting their much greater horror at being mistaken as Chinese. As for myself, I have long since stopped caring if people introduce me as coming from Sweden or Finland, I just feel a bit sorry for Denmark, since it rarely gets offered as my homeland and, really, to be fair, the Danish kingdom did rule over Norway the longest).
Korea’s visibility extends to Taiwan as well. I see buses around Taipei plastered with huge advertisements for the latest Korean historical drama, and a Korean drama always seems to be playing on some channel or other here. Somebody must be watching them. This afternoon I ate Korean food in a food court in a Kaohsiung shopping mall, and Korean 泡菜 (kimchi) or the word 韓式 （Korean-style) is added as a prefix to many food items in many regular Chinese-style restaurants.
Of course, I don’t get the impression the “Korea” brand is anywhere close to the “Japan” brand here in Taiwan in terms of its power. Thousands of Japanese products are sold in stores around Taiwan with their Japanese packaging and labels fully intact. The word “Japan” or “Japanese Style” is printed in big fat or highlighted characters on signs for all manner of products (especially anything related to cosmetics, electronics, and very often for food related items) in a way reminiscent of products sold in the US with “NEW! IMPROVED!” attached. Maybe my memory is off, but I don’t seem to remember anywhere near this extent of explicit use of the Japan brand in Korea.
Of course, everyone knows that Taiwan is infamously pro-Japanese. Japanese men seem to believe they stand a better chance of finding love here in Taiwan than anywhere in Asia. The postwar experience of dictatorship, the 2/28 massacre, and the importance of the long Japanese colonial period to the claims of a distinct Taiwanese national identity all contribute to this. This weekend I was introduced to a somewhat inebriated Taiwanese doctor who was told that I was doing my dissertation on Chinese traitors (漢奸). He turned to me, somewhat perturbed, and proudly announced, almost toppling over as he straightened up, “我就是漢奸！” (I am myself a 漢奸！)
When it comes to Taiwanese sentiments towards Korea, if my very limited exchanges are at all suggestive of anything, the Korean brand power, food culture, and drama fandom seen here are not incompatible with a degree of emotional disdain. Even one of the women included in the comments above who expressed a hatred of Korea and especially Korean women also says that while she loves Japanese kimonos and culture of all kinds she doesn’t like the Japanese people themselves because they, “Are so polite to you all the time but who knows what they are thinking on the inside.” This deep dislike of a purported Japanese “two-facedness” is a familiar image. I remember an elderly neighbor of my parents in Oklahoma who, after decades of negotiations with Japanese chemical companies told me something along the lines of, “Them Japs’d always lie to your face. ‘Yes’ never meant ‘yes,’ and ‘maybe’ always meant ‘no.’ And you’d never know when they might pull a Pearl Harbor on ya.” (His distrust wasn’t limited to the Japanese, however. He spent a lunch once trying to convince me that every evil of the 20th century could be blamed on the inherently demonic nature of the Englishman. I think he bore a very serious grudge against the English ever since he was arrested by an English MP in World War II when he was on shore leave in Gibraltar).
All being said, however, I was a bit surprised to find anything more than, at worst, indifference towards Korea. Instead, I might have expected a feeling of camaraderie for an economically successful and culturally rich counterpart that is similarly struggling to define itself in a challenging geopolitical environment dominated by its larger neighbors.
UPDATE: There was a surprising amount of interest in this posting but I feel my posting didn’t come across quite the way I wanted it to. I am not justifying any of the claims that I quote hear, nor do I think the feelings expressed by my informers were much more than the kinds of stereotypes we all engage in or somehow reflect some kind of genuine bubbling discontent here in Taiwan. On the contrary, of all places I have lived in East Asia, the people I have met here in Taiwan are the most cosmopolitan and open. That was precisely why the rare expressions of dislike for a particular group of people stood out such that it made me notice it and become curious since I expected the contrary to hold true among two places with much in common in their recent history and development.
2010.11 UPDATE: This posting continues to attract attention and I’m sad to see that apparently some Korean sites are linking to it. I just received an email which takes issue with my use of the word hate to translate 討厭:
One point about your interpretation of 討厭 as hate. There is a (quiet big) difference here. Hate is more like 憎恨, 痛恨 which is much much stronger than 討厭 which can be interpreted as “I don’t like.” For example, if you are trying to do your home work and your brother keeps poking/bothering you, you will say 討厭. Or in your word, it’s a more stronger “我不喜歡” (notice the missing 太 here since “我不太喜歡” is a little bit less strong then “我不喜歡”. The former is kind of detour a little while the later more straight-forward.) Probably you don’t really care. But by interpreting 討厭 as “hate” makes all non-Chinese speaking people thinking that man Taiwanese “hate” Koreans which if far from true. My wife and I have checked out many Korean dramas from our local library. We use Korean products all the time (TV, cell phones, camera, monitor, etc.) In fact, I just bought a Samsung camera about 3 weeks ago and this is the second Samsung camera we own. So I’d appreciate that you can spend couple minutes correcting it. Of course, you can ask around and make sure my interpretation is correct.
The writer is correct that 討厭 is not as strong a word as the visceral hatred implied by 憎恨, etc. but I think it ignores that the English word “hate” also has a much wider range – as in “I hate Ice Cream” or “I hate it when he does that.” At any rate, I stand by my basic point, that I have often been surprised to see a pretty emotionally strong (and quick) response from a number of my Taiwanese friends when it comes to Korea and I think it is common enough for us to ponder the reasons for it in the absence of any major historical grievances. Some Koreans are taking this posting as evidence of Taiwanese perfidy to feed their own anger, while some Taiwanese are seeing this is as a blanket condemnation of them. If I did not feel strongly that I should leave my writings, both strong and weak, online, I would take the posting down since it has only led to a negative effect as far as I can see. As the writer indicates, many Taiwanese have a great love for Korean products and culture. I met a number of Taiwanese students studying Korean in various Korean language programs I have attended. It is perhaps partly because of this that there is a strong reaction (though the similar feelings of some of a much older generation need other explanations) against the sudden popularity, as Kerim suggests in his comment. We see similar things in Japan with the rise of the despicable 嫌韓流 related publications that give rise to old racisms. As Sayaka said in the comments: let us all chill out – I raised a flag here, of curiosity as much as of concern, and merely wish for all the peoples of the region to get along well.