Are Asians Bad Drivers? My Thoughts on 10 Asian Stereotypes

After living and travelling around Asia for two years, I have a few things to say about East Asian stereotypes. But before I begin, I need to say that this is meant to be a funny portrait of the wonderful Asian people I've met and the diverse Asian culture I've experienced. I'm fully aware of the sweeping generalizations I'm about to make, and for every one of those generalizations I can think of exceptions. Generalizations, which I believe are a necessary part of the human experience, become stereotypes if they're hold too intentlyand can get one in a lot of trouble. Why am I writing about it when I know it's a dangerous topic that could get me into trouble? Because it's a learning experience. I came to Korea knowing nothing Asian culture and am leaving with a greater knowledge and admiration of the people I've met and places I've seen.

  1. All Asians are skinny. This is a personal stereotype I held before I came. I don't think I had ever seen a fat Asian before I moved here, which probably says more about my hometown (two Asian-looking kids went to my high school, brothers of Korean heritage who were so not Korean that they didn't know how to say hello in Korean) and lack of exposure to Asian culture than Asians themselves. I wish I could say it's true, but it's not. Asians, like everyone else, have the ability to get fatI just don't know where the bigger girls shop, since most clothes here are free size (one size fits all).
  2. Asians are super stylish. Another personal stereotype, one that held for about the first week I was here. I remember watching Sook-Yin Lee on MuchMusic when I was younger and being impressed with her fashion sense; she was able to mix and match things I never would have dreamed about putting together in one outfit. But something's changed: either Korean women aren't as stylish as I imagined Asian women to be, or I don't have the same fashion sense I did when I was growing up in the 90's. The final straw came when my co-teacher (whom I adore) came to school wearing an oversized yellow-and-black plaid shirt, brown vest, and navy blue sparkly leggings. Sigh.
  3. Asians are bad drivers. Nonot unless you consider consistently running red lights, passing buses in intersections, ignoring emergency vehicles, and switching lanes and turning without signalling to be "bad driving." To be fair, I wouldn't say the same thing about all Asians (the Japanese, I noticed, actually do know how to follow the rules of the road), it's just certainly true about Koreans.
  4. Asian men are effeminate and have small, well, "little guys," and Asian women are submissive. Effeminate men? Yes. Evidence: thinner body shapes, lack of body hair, and "pretty" fashion choices (think hot pink cardigans, tight-fitting shirts and pants, and "man purses"). Add to that some cutesy behaviour when in a relationship, like wearing matching "couple wear" and carrying his woman's purse as if it were his own, and yes, I'd say men here are pretty feminine. This is not a judgment call; obviously some women out there love it. Would this country be so overrun with couples if it wasn't a good thing? As for the...other thing about Asian males, I'll just say my research sample size isn't large enough for any conclusive results. I haven't dated any Asian women to get any first-hand stories about their submissiveness, but from what I've heard from my guy friends, it might even be the other way around. After all, purses don't carry themselves, and it's rarely the woman who carries it herself either. And if a guy wants to go on a date with a Korean woman, he should make sure his bank account is ready to take a hit. In all seriousness, though, submissiveness is a trait of Korean culture, where elders are to be respected at all times, no matter what.
  5. Asians are hard workers. I've written about this a lot, but here's my belief: Koreans are inefficient workers, appearing to be harder-working than they are. Or maybe, Koreans are hard workers in an inefficient system. Either way, something's not working.
  6. All Asians look alike. Yes, there's the whole everyone-has-black-hair-and-black-eyes thing. But no, it doesn't mean that everyone looks the same. Sure, I joke that everyone in Super Juniorthat 13-member Korean boy bandlooks the same, but that's because I actually haven't taken a look at their faces. When I see them, it's more of a blob of singing and dancing black-haired boys than individuals. When it comes to real people in real life, there are luckily infinite differences, even without a variety of hair and eye colours.
  7. Asians are good at math, playing musical instruments, and playing computer games. I don't teach math (that's for the benefit of all students everywhere) and I joke that math is not allowed in my classroom whenever I catch students finishing their math homework in my class. What I will say is that Koreans are good at memorizing and terrible at creative thinking, thanks to their education system, and math is one of those subjects that plays to their strengths. I don't know what to say about music and video games, though I would agree both, like in North America, are popular after-school activities.
  8. All Asians can do martial arts. Taekwondo is to Korea as what gymnastics is to North America: it's a popular sport for children. That's it.
  9. Asians can't pose for photos without the peace sign. No. Koreans have an array of poses to choose from, of which the V-sign is just the most popular. There's also hearts, horns, tears, fists, and other options. Or, if it's a professional photo, say for school or work, there's also the popular angry stare. Take your pick!
  10. Asians eat cats. Wrong. I don't know where this comes from, but I'm pretty sure it's a Chinese stereotype. My old university roomies like to ask me, "So have you eaten cat yet?" to which I always reply, "No, come on, they don't eat cat here...Koreans eat dogs." Okay, that's not true either. Dogs are available to be eaten, though many, many Koreans won't eat them, either. And if restaurants do have dog on the menu, it's hidden from foreigners since everyone is well aware about how foreigners view that practice. I, however, think it's fine. It's meat: cat, dog, chicken, beef, fish, duck, pork, pigeonit's all good. Except for that last one. Too boney.

Dog Days of Summer

Today, 14 July, is the hottest day of the year. Or rather, it should be, according to the lunar calendar. Current weather conditions: rainy, windy, 25 degrees.

Today is called Chobok, first hottest day. It's the first of three "hottest days of the year" during a period known as Sambok. The three collective "hottest days" (Chobok, Jungbok, middle hottest day, and Malbok, final hottest day) are called boknal, which translates to "dog days." The non-Korean world also has the expression "Dog Days of Summer" to describe the hottest days of the year; a reference to the dog star, Sirius, or maybe just the fact that both dogs and people get lazy when it's ridiculously hot outside.

But Koreans take the expression to a whole new level: traditionally, people eat dog soup, called boshintang. Today, though, most people eat a special soup, samgyetang, which is a full chicken stuffed with rice and ginger, boiled in a mild broth. It's a hot soup---a seemingly odd choice for such a hot day. But Koreans like to eat hot food on hot days because sweat cools the skin, while the heat warms the inside. Today may not have been a hot day, but the rain and wind didn't stop people from waiting outside samgyetang restaurants under their umbrellas, just so they could get a taste. Rain or shine, tradition is tradition. 

Konglish Poetry

A Konglish notebook (photo credit: https://ujess.wordpress.com/category/korean-history-and-culture/)

A Konglish notebook (photo credit: https://ujess.wordpress.com/category/korean-history-and-culture/)

Most schedulers, diaries, and notebooks in Korea covered with English quotations, usually about love, or inspirational messages. The imperfections of the writing tend to give these quotations a beautiful lyrical quality. I spent some time at my local Artbox store, writing down some of this "Konglish poetry," which I've included here.

What is life if we have no time to stand and stare No time to see and feel, in broad daylight, Streams full of stars, like skies at night

Love is here and there.

The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach our eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.

inventions and recipes, anger and sorrow, letters sent to not knowing... this is the real part, is yours. Write fast. ...write over them, paint over them. and let go.

Promise yourself to be strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind. Look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.

The stars in the sky, the fish in the sea, the animals on earth everything has many secrets.

A good day is expected to begin! Wishing you a garden full of happiness, today and Everyday!

Are you doing good lately? Open now, don't delay! This could be your lucky day, you know what I mean?

Look under your feet. The great opportunity is where you are. Every place is under the stars. Every place is the center of the universe.

Imagination is more important than knowledge Memories with you is not lost. I do not want to forget. However days and months may flow, the time spent with you does not fade. You are still alive there. A photograph can also shut up small temperature there. It is memory accumulation equipment which the human begins to forget various things produced.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

Please always know that I love you more than anything else in the world. Being with you makes me feel so happy. Ever since I met you, things are looking pretty good.

The best and most beautiful thing in the world cannot be see nor touched but are feet with the heart. Happy the man, whose wish and care a few paternal acres bound, content to breathe his native air in his own ground. Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread, whose flocks supply him with attire; whose trees in summer yield him shade in winter, fire blest, who can unconcernedly find hours, day and years slide soft away in health of body, peace of mind; quiet by day.

Happiness There is only one happiness in life, to love and to be loved. Time The busier you are, the more time you need to take time to do things right. Record We need to record words for our learning. Future Have you given any thought to your future? Let's do one thing at a time. Hero Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.

Life is a beautiful journey. It is with great pleasure that I impart my inspirational stuffs. I desire nothing else but you'll be richly blessed and powerfully inspired by the thoughts and perspectives as journeyer in life.

The quiet water of a lake Love is like the ripples on a lake ever widening

How to Use a Toilet

We've all seen them: the signs on the doors with either an Asian-style squat toilet or a Western-style seat toilet. To a foreigner here, a squat toilet can be scary. It's suddenly like you're a toddler again and learning how to go potty without your mommy or daddy's help. But for the Korean who is now getting used to the new, Western-style toilets that are creeping their way into Korean public restrooms, they can seem just as foreign and scary.

The proper technique for using an Asian squat toilet

The proper technique for using an Asian squat toilet

The Asian-style Squat Toilet

Since moving to Korea, I have not only learned how to use these squat toilets, but also learned to love them. They're comfortable and easy to use, but most of all, they're clean. There's no need to touch anything---no cheeks on the seats, no fingers on the flushers (they have foot pedals instead).

They're certainly an upgrade from the squat toilets I experienced in Africa, which were usually no more than a hole in the ground. Sandals plus a difficult target...you get the picture. Some so-called "toilets" didn't even have a hole, but were just a slab of concrete behind a door. At least then when you peed all over your feet you did it in private, right?

So, yes, I was pleasantly surprised that I could learn to love these little loos. To spread the joy, I thought I'd post this how-to picture I spotted in a stall during my travels in Japan. It's the first time I'd seen a picture for the squatter; usually it's the other way around, which brings me to...

How to use (and not use) a Western seat toilet

How to use (and not use) a Western seat toilet

The Western-style Seat Toilet

As the less-common toilet style here, these pictures are a lot more frequent. (The bottom-right picture always makes me laugh.) The plus-side for these Johns is their laziness factor---it's certainly easier to take a seat than to balance yourself over the squatter-style ones. But, on the other hand, I know a lot of ladies out there don't even sit on the seats for fear of getting booty germs or finding a wayward drop from the last user (you know they're out there).

Now when you're in Asia and nature calls, as it does, you can relieve yourself with confidence---no matter which stall you choose.

Sounds of the City

  • the slurping of noodles at lunch
  • the chewing of deok, Korean rice cakes
  • the clicking of high heels on the floor and sidewalks
  • the burping that interrupts conversation (not followed by any sort of "excuse me")
  • the rumbling of an approaching subway train
  • the honking of impatient cars on the busy streets
  • the whirring of a motobike as it passes you on the subway
  • the smacking of a wooden stick against a student's skin
  • the monotone, muffled sales pitches heard on the loudspeakers of pickup trucks with bundles of fruit driving slowly by
  • the quick-talking, microphone-happy salespeople on the sidewalks outside of their stores
  • the quiet radios of blind people as they walk slowly down the length of the subway trains
  • the horking and spitting anywhere and everywhere, by Koreans young and old
  • the conversations in Korean that you don't understand
  • the classical music/chirping birds that signals the next transfer station on the subway is approaching
  • the greetings each and every time you enter a store or restaurant
  • the funny K-pop or English pop song ringtones on cellphones (like Wonder Girls' "Tell Me" ringing on a businessman's cellphone)
  • the loud K-pop or English pop songs blasting from stores onto the sidewalk
  • the robotic instructions from navigation systems in taxis
  • the "Hello! How are you?"s from young school children that follow me down the street

Stumbled Upon

Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.
— Lawrence Block


There have been numerous occasions in this great city where this has happened to me, with much delight. I take a wrong turn while searching for a new route home from work and end up discovering a great new restaurant. Instead of taking the subway to a friend's house, I walk and find a great new clothing store on the way. Or I get lost navigating and spend hours exploring a new neighbourhood.

After ten months, I recently discovered a huge food market just around the corner from my apartment, simply because I turned off the main street one block sooner than usual. Everytime something like that happens, I wonder what other treasures are hiding just around the corner, waiting to be discovered...

Rain & Stephen Colbert

The feud between comedian Stephen Colbert and K-pop legend Rain (or as he's known here in Korea, Bi, pronounced 'bee') continued on The Colbert Report this week. The year-long battle between the boys has been fierce. 

screenshot of Colbert: "Raaaaaaaaiiiiin!"

screenshot of Colbert: "Raaaaaaaaiiiiin!"

Last spring, just as I was applying to teach in Korea, I saw an episode of The Colbert Report in which Colbert talks about his position on Time magazine's online "100 Most Influential People Who Shape Our World" list for 2006. Since any mention of Korea on a North American TV program is quite rare (and so far, for me, had been limited to a documentary on the disastrous 1995 Sampoong Department Store collapse), I took particular notice. I was completely ignorant of all things Korean and excited to learn anything about the country I was preparing to move to.

This episode provided a lot of important Korean "firsts" for me: the first time I heard of Rain (or rather, any Korean artist); the first company, Hyundai, that I learned was actually Korean and not Japanese like I assumed (a list that, after moving here, has extended to include Daewoo, LG, and Samsung); the first time I heard of kimchi (Korea's contribution to Health magazine's World's Top 5 Healthiest Foods list---a list I didn't know existed but Koreans treat as common knowledge); finally, the first time I heard of bibimbap (a mixed rice dish---topped with an egg, as Colbert mentions---that has become my favourite lunchtime meal).

A month later, Colbert updated us on how his music video had been received in South Korea---or at least, how South Koreans possibly, with wacky translations, may have reviewed the clip*. And he even threw in some more Korean vocabulary (bulgogi = beef).

  • 5 June 2007 The Colbert Report video: Rain

Earlier this year, as the competition to top the magazine's latest 100 "Influencial People" list heated up, the fued between Colbert and Rain could only get uglier. As Colbert was attempting to recruit more votes in his favour, Rain fought back with some trash-talking of his own. To settle the score, Colbert finally challenged him to the ultimate show-down: a dance-off (or a cuddle-off or a spoon-off---Rain's choice).

This week, Colbert updated us on the final results of 2007's Top 100 list, Rain finally took Colbert up on his challenge. He wisely chose the dance-off option and showed Colbert why he's one of the most internationally successful Korean entertainers out there today.

For a country that's often overshadowed by China and Japan, I think all this attention is great. Korea's an amazing country that deserves some time in the international spotlight. And if that attention happens to come from an almost-Presidential candidate, all the better.

* * *

* Addendum, 10 May 2008: I asked a couple Korean friends to translate the excerpt Colbert highlighted from the article and they told me it wasn't a word, it didn't make sense. But the headline of the article was something like, "American comedian laughs at Rain." They told me that the Korean music video Colbert made wasn't well received in South Korea because Koreans didn't understand why Colbert was making fun of him.

My friends kept asking me, "Why? Why did he make the video?" They compared the situation to Eminem's video ("Just Lose It") where the rapper dresses up as Michael Jackson and pretends his nose is falling off---a video that offended MJ and MJ's fans. So, I showed them the "Singin' in Korean" clip again, explained the Time magazine list, and also showed them the dance-off. After the explanation of the whole story, they thought it was pretty funny.

A Calendar of Love Days in Korea

Koreans love love. It's everywhere you look in this country. Before I moved here, I read that it's uncommon to see couples kissing on the street and that visitors should refrain from doing so themselves. I thought I would find a very conservative, private bunch of people who shied away from public displays of affection.

But I was wrong. Sure, I don't see couples kissing on the street very often, but believe me, they aren't shy about their displays of affection.

On the subways and on the streets, couples don't just hold hands, they embrace with their entire bodies. They may not lock lips, but they're attached everywhere else. And for in between those public displays of affection, couples indulge in "couple wear"---matching outfits---so that no passer-by misjudges them as "just friends."

With the desire to celebrate their love at every opportunity, couples have a selection of love-days throughout the year. The 14th of every month is some kind of celebration of love. As mentioned earlier, 14 January is Diary Day, when couples give diaries to each other so they can mark all their anniversaries and important "couple days" in preparation for the year ahead. Then, 14 February and 14 March are the two most popular love-days: Valentine's Day and White Day, respectively.

For those lacking a significant other, today's your day. It's called Black Day---the anti-couple and anti-love holiday. Today, singles all over the country will get together and eat Jjajangmyeon (noodles with black bean sauce) because, as my Korean friend put it, "they are sad." While Valentine's Day is celebrated all over the world and White Day actually originated in Japan, Black Day is proudly all Korean.

Here's the full list of monthly love-days (so get out those calendars!):

14 January: Diary Day
14 February: Valentine's Day
14 March: White Day
14 April: Black Day

14 May: Rose Day, on which lovers exchange roses, and lonely singles give yellow roses to their friends.
14 June: Kiss Day, a day for lovers to, well, kiss each other passionately.
14 July: Silver Day, when couples give silvery things to each other, ideally some silver rings "to make promises for their future" and, to top it off, couples also ask friends and family for money to pay for their date!
14 August: Green Day, for couples to picnic in parks, and singles to get drunk off soju, Korea's favourite green-bottled alcohol.
14 September: Photo Day, so couples can take pictures of their togetherness.
14 October: Wine Day, when lovers share a glass of wine and share their love.
14 November: Movie Day, a special holiday for couples to go out and watch a movie together (probably while wearing coordinating couple wear and holding each other close).
14 December: Hug Day, for couples to warm up for the cold winter months ahead (but those lonely singles are left shivering alone, I guess).

Couples also celebrate each other's birthdays, anniversaries, and hundred-day anniversaries, and there's also the popular Pepero Day (11 November) and, of course, Christmas... Maybe it's less about love and more about consumerism.

But I don't want to be negative. Koreans are caring, affectionate people, so a little celebration of love, whether it be friendship-love or romantic-love, is okay with me.

Happy White Day

In Which I Learn What it Means to Have a Small Face in Korea

"Use the soft stretch roller to modify your face contour line" and make your face smaller!

"Use the soft stretch roller to modify your face contour line" and make your face smaller!

Ever since I arrived in Korea six months ago, I have heard the same thing over and over and over again: "You have a small face." It was funny at first, then I grew concerned that everyone was pointing it out to me. During my first week of school in the fall, I allowed students to ask me questions so they could learn more about me and hopefully get more comfortable in my class. By far, the strangest question I was asked was: "So, what do you think of your face?"

"Well, I mean, it's my face," I stammered. "But I know what you think of my face. You think my face is small."

The whole class erupted in laughter. "Yes! You have a small face! Small face!" they yelled.

After class, my co-teacher reassured me that it was a compliment, that small faces are beautiful here in Korea. Certainly, it's nice to hear cries of "Teacher, your face is sooo small! Beautiful!" in the hallways, but it's also awkward when I hear it from complete strangers.

I remember one taxi driver who just kept circling his face with one hand as he drove, and repeated some Korean word I didn't understand. "Small?" I asked with accompanying hand gestures around my own face. "My face is small?" He nodded yes and laughed.

I was standing in the middle of a train on the subway one night, watching a small child admire his own reflection in the window. Suddenly, he turned and pointed a finger at me. He must have seen me in the reflection, I thought, and wants to check out a foreigner. He gestured with his hands, like someone showing off the size of a fish they caught. Then he slowly moved his palms closer together, from about a foot apart to just a few inches. That's when I realized the gestures were about my face. Even this toddler could see my face is small.

Investigating a neighbourhood map of Apgujeong in the subway station one day, I noticed there were several cosmetic surgery offices in the area. That's not so surprising, knowing that the area is one of the wealthiest in Seoul, famous for celebrity-sightings and high fashion. But one office in particular leapt off the map at me: Small Face Cosmetic Surgery. I could be their spokesperson! I thought, until I was horrified at myself for accepting this notion that small faces are more beautiful than a round Asian face.

I finally had enough of all this attention on my small face and decided to do something about it. I noticed a lot of Korean girls around the city had bangs; so many girls, in fact, it that I actually started referring to it as "The Korean Haircut". I thought maybe it would make my face look a little bit wider, and after the toddler-on-the-subway incident, I went to one of my neighbourhood hair salons for the dramatic cut.

It didn't work.

I discovered the reason that many girls have this particular hairstyle is because bangs actually make the face look smaller. So instead of making my face look wider, I turned my small face into an even smaller face. Whoops.

Now that the school year's begun again, students I've taught for months are again shouting down the halls, "Teacher, you're face is very small!" as if they hadn't told me a hundred times already.

Over the past few months, I've learned to accept my face the way it is. I've learned no hairstyle can disguise the fact that I have a small face. But now I'm comfortable enough that I've decided to keep my Korean Haircut for a while. These days, when a Korean girlfriend, taxi driver, student, co-worker, small child, or complete stranger tells me I have a small face, I just smile and say thank you.