With so many expats in Korea writing in their own blogs, it was often difficult trying to make your own site stand out from the others. Gimmicky blog names with wordplay interchanging soul with Seoul had grown old before 2010. Just when you thought you had cornered a slice of Korean experience, you would find dozens of other people had written about the same thing, and often in better writing. Eventually the tedium of updating your non-too-original blog became too much, and more likely than not, you just stopped writing in it.
Others who stuck with their sites, and entered doldrums of their own, knew how to gain traffic. One of the quickest ways to get your blog noticed on the K-blogosphere was to feed the always-hungry expat outrage machine. This machine ground its gears over hot-button issues, and needed a steady source of fuel every few weeks. Once site administrators realised they could get a constant stream of hits (and ad revenue) from stories that got the expat hordes frothing, these kinds of stories continued to be typed out with increasing frequency.
A surefire viral sensation could be counted upon if expats felt racially stigmatised in Korea. If you were the first to sensationalise it, you could really milk it. If you kept your comments open, you could count on outrageous discussions continuing for a very long time, resulting in more visits to sites, as people argued with trolls. It’s a near perfect equation, and one you can see in practise all the time on active sites catering to expats in Korea.
My own site wasn’t immune to the effects of the expat outrage machine. My first real brush with it was back in 2010, when I wrote a series of pieces about a lecture hagwon owners were being compelled to hold for their expat employees. Expats (myself included) felt they were being singled out so they could be told about increasing crime rates, and how they were a source of HIV. I had had inside access to the inaugural lecture in my city, and had tried to have the tone softened. I was somewhat successful in that endeavour, but in the process my blog posts were being circulated as a warning to other hagwon teachers. Outraged expats voiced their concern over being singled out as a potential future crime statistic, and for a while it seemed that was the main topic in the Korean blogosphere.
Throughout this, I was concerned what would happen to myself. It was my blog which was being passed around, and I was never shy about having my name attached to it. Within a short time I was later asked if I could delete my posts, and a particular YouTube video I had shot during the lecture. I was told that by my refusal, I could put my future career prospects in Korea in jeopardy. I refused to delete the content, but going forward I was wary about stirring the pot unless the situation called for it.
Several years later, such a situation arose. A now infamous video was aired on MBC, once again singling out foreigners in Korea, and labeling them as potential crime stats. There was a transcript of the video, and after making a few tweaks to it, I added subtitles to the video and uploaded it on my Facebook page. I knew the video would cause discussion, and outrage, but I also thought more people needed to see what a state-sponsored broadcaster had aired. I put it on my blog, and it exploded online. I thought other sites would pick it up and report on it, with a small possibility of all the attention being focused back on my site. Perhaps it was because I was so well connected to other bloggers in Korea, and they were being polite, but they invariably linked back to me as the primary source.
My blog’s comment section had an avalanche of discussions happening simultaneously. At that point in the game, I thought everyone should have their chance to chime in. While the majority of the expat outrage machine was supporting my disgust with the video, it also ran into the nationalist outrage machine. And with that came a lot of nastiness, insults, and threats. My friends gave me kudos for handling it so well, but I wondered if it had been worth it. I wasn’t looking to get hits for the sake of getting hits; I just wanted to get the video out there. But once you feed the expat outrage machine, it’s easy for it to careen out of control. For more than a month, that video was a primary topic of discussion. Parody videos were uploaded, radio programmes discussed it, Facebook groups against MBC popped up, and it even made waves internationally.
In the end, all the outrage had increased awareness, but it didn’t result in sweeping changes to the Korean media landscape. When it was brought to MBC’s awareness, it barely resulted in an apology. The fires were never really cooled in the furnaces of the expat outrage machine, and the original video still pops up on different sites. It seems that the machine has a very long memory.
Do I have a theory as to what makes the outrage such a potent force amongst expats in Korea? I do. It may not be scientifically sound, but bear with me. A lot of the K-blogosphere is directed towards expats working the EFL market in Korea. For years (I guess you could say decades at this point), there has been a hierarchy for hiring expats to the EFL market in Korea. I’ve said this before, but since a long time back, whites were the race of choice by Korean employers. There’s no getting around it. It’s why the photo you attached to your application was so important to recruiters and hagwon owners.
Now this large expat workforce of primarily white EFL teachers comes from countries where whites hold the keys of power (or had held). While they were in their home countries they had all the benefits of white privilege to give them a comfortable life. Or at least a life where they weren’t media targets as criminals. If they did encounter racism directed towards them, they knew it wouldn’t be echoed in the government (or establishment), because the deck was stacked in their favour. Personal racist attacks on an individual scale wouldn’t become a constant stream of bombardment they would need to learn to cope with.
When they arrived in Korea, they eventually realized their white privilege didn’t cast a wide enough defense to always protect them. For the first time in many of their lives, they suddenly encountered what it felt to be a visible minority, and to have elements of the media be perpetually against them. Now they looked different from the establishment, and had no firm voice in how the establishment treated them. While they thought they had lived their lives treating everyone equally, they got into a tizzy when they realised they were no longer being treated as equals. What they perceived to be a non-stop barrage of microaggressions was funneled into the online expat outrage machine.
You can tell that many of the expat outrage machine still cling to their white privilege. Although they are quick to rail against the racism against foreigners in Korea (which directly affects them), they rarely cast a moment’s thought to the reverse happening in their own countries. It’s been an interesting experiment of mine over the years as I matured in Korea. I would pay attention to which people would be sharing stories of foreigners being victims of racism in Korea, and how many would in return post similar stories of institutionalised racism against visible minorities in Canada (or America, or Australia, etc). I also kept an eye on people who left Korea, and hadn’t been shy in slamming the country over its racism. It proved to be a depressing experiment, but the outcome was what I had expected.
The vast majority would fail to comment upon race relations in their home countries, as it simply didn’t affect them. They would often say how glad they were to be away from the racism they experienced in Korea, and yet failed to see the racism in their own society. The recent highly-publicised spate of white North American cops gunning down blacks has barely gotten a peep on my social media feeds. If Korean cops suddenly decided to target EFL teachers with violence, my social media feeds wouldn’t be able to contain the expat outrage. The death of a lion named after a white supremacist was more widely discussed than white supremacists murdering citizens with impunity.
I went to Korea to teach. That was my primary focus while in the country, and you can see it in the blog. A lot of people are in Korea to teach, but that’s not their primary reason, or focus. A lot are there to travel first, and teaching is a distant second priority. Many of these EFL’ers will share pithy motivational quotes on their social media, on how everyone should travel because it will expand their minds. And yet despite how widely they travel, or how many stamps are in their passport, not too many return and begin to critically question their place in society. If they are capable of identifying inequality in one instance, I wonder why their expanded minds are incapable of mustering up the same outrage in another instance.
This isn’t to cast aspersions against the expat outrage machine. It can be used as a tool to increase awareness on pressing social issues. More often than not, however, it’s a bandwagon to be jumped on by drones wishing to express heated opinions. Opinions given voice by people only interested in inequality as far as their lives are concerned, and not an iota more in most cases. If these people were to cast an equally critical eye on their own countries of origin, then they might be a force of actual positive change. Until then, their participation ensures nothing more than website revenue.