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What happens when you put ‘Korean’ and ‘culture’ together

What happens when you put ‘Korean’ and ‘culture’ together July 10, 2013

It is unfortunate that I have to respond to the NBC article about ‘Korean culture’ and the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport before I put my thoughts on the marriage cases up. To be sure, in some ways, both of these topics (the crash and the marriage cases) are both about San Francisco. I take some comfort in that geographical rubric.

For this particular piece, though, I would first like to blame Angry Asian Man for provoking me into sharing. Of course, I have my own individual agency and am certainly passing the buck here, but Angry Asian Man’s status made the temptation to share this article virtually impossible to resist:

Is this article really suggesting that Flight 214 crashed because of the specifics of Korean culture? Because the Korean co-pilot was too polite to say, “YO, you’re about to crash this muthaeffin’ plane!” ?

And thus, I shared it on my personal wall with the following comment, hoping to clarify the conflations between what the article was terming ‘Korean culture’ and what it was actually talking about in terms of ‘Korean nationalist ideology,’ the first of which is more diffuse, malleable, and prone to resistance and the second which comes directly through state ideology and propaganda and is thus better traceable:

OK, NBC, I have news for you. The word you are looking for is not ‘culture.’ That implies that all Koreans have this way of doing things, and then you get into fairly racist waters very quickly. The word you are looking for is ‘ideology.’ It’s then that you can talk about nation-states, the military, and social structuring, and why it is inappropriate that nationalist ideologies of any sort get in the way of doing one’s job properly.

After receiving a few congratulatory comments (incidentally, one from a very radically progressive position, the other from a very thoughtful evangelical), the thread turned into a debate among six of my friends drawn from six different parts of my life with six different understandings of the article. One even took a jab at me for invoking the big bad word ‘racism.’

That some of these six friends are not frequent commentators on my wall suggests that this post hit a raw nerve, provoking them to comment even almost as Angry Asian Man provoked me to share the post against my will. As they commented, they also revealed that my wall is read by more people than those that I have thought are the ‘usual suspects.’ That these six commentators were in turn passionate in their comments and vehement with their disagreement (including with me) demonstrates that what they are trying to do is to goad me into a response.

They have succeeded, and I have been (voluntarily) sucked in. Even at the expense of not commenting on the marriage cases first.

Here is how I will respond. I will first summarize the article and then the comments. I will then post my reply below these summaries. In turn, the central argument that I will advance in my response is this: these six friends disagree because they were talking about six different aspects of the post. Otherwise, in a very profound way, they are actually all saying the same thing, and we are better served without saying who’s wrong and who’s right based on our own ideological bent. Instead, we might consider the more overarching view that when we put ‘Korean’ and ‘culture’ together, we have a very complicated and combustible combination, which happens to be what I was trying to say back to NBC. (For those who might read this and reply that I am wasting my time in responding, please keep reading. What you will quickly see is that this is a fantastic teaching moment for how to have a public conversation about race.)

The NBC Article: ‘Korean culture may offer clues in Asiana crash’
This piece, incidentally written by Korean American journalist/editor Heesun Wee (CNBC), offers a ‘cultural’ analysis of how ‘Korean culture’ may be culpable in the Asiana Airlines 214 crash at San Francisco International Airport, a disastrous event that ended the lives of two young Chinese students and injured some 180 other passengers. Basing her argument on five sources–one Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) business professor (Thomas Kochan), one MIT Korean security expert (John Park), one retired University of Hawai’i history specialist (Choe Yong Ho), National Transportation Security Board’s (NTSB) chairwoman Deborah Hersman, and intellectual doyen of simplistic business-type explanations Malcolm Gladwell and his (deeply problematic) book Outliers–Wee contends that as details emerge from the cockpit tapes, the (American) public should ‘expect Korea’s cockpit culture and training to be scrutinized further.’ This expectation from the cockpit tapes is based on a tantalizing Los Angeles Times piece on how the pilots on the Asiana Airlines flight failed to ‘communicate about their predicament.’ Indeed, Wee is developing this point in a paragraph toward the end of the LA Times piece:

If communications in the cockpit broke down, investigators and researchers will be looking for company policies or even cultural issues that may have caused the problem. Aviation safety studies have documented that in certain cultures, junior pilots are reluctant to question authority, which violates the entire concept of cockpit management, said Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering safety expert at USC.

What is the ‘Korean culture’ that Wee discusses, then?

Wee cites the MIT business professor, Thomas Kochan, as saying that ‘the Korean culture’ should be defined as ‘respect for seniority and age, and quite an authoritarian style.’ Wee then holds this definition of ‘the Korean culture’ constant and in the singular without any reference to, say, Korean grassroots labour movements, feminist and LGBTQ+ activism, democratic protests against the authoritarian regime, moderate and progressive opposition parties to the current regime, or (for that matter) the fact that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea north of the Republic of Korea operates on a completely different political economic framework than the capitalist regime toward the south of the Korean peninsula. Using this definition, Wee proceeds to analyze the potential findings in the cockpit recordings as prime examples of the singular Korean culture marked by ageist seniority and authoritarianism. In the Korean culture, Wee insinuates, one must speak to one’s elders in a respectful, deferential way; reading this paragraph, of course, one wonders if suicide as a political protest rooted in what’s called han (deeply bottled-up political wounds that fester into internalized hate) can be considered a form of deferential speaking. Following this analysis of the singular Korean culture, Wee argues that what (probably) went wrong was that a more inexperienced pilot failed to communicate his misgivings to an older, seasoned one because of an authoritarian top-down relationship. This, Wee suggests via an interview with the MIT security expert John Park, is due to the Korean aviation culture stemming from a culture of military service, where pilots are trained in a nationalist military culture whose unequal power dynamics become uncritically applied to the private sector, especially in aviation. Indeed, as Wee notes well, reports about Korean aviation problems in the 1980s and early 1990s were attributed to this application of military culture to private, non-military business, which led to a series of aviation reforms led by American consultants in the 1990s. As Park (the security expert notes), these reforms seem to have led in this case to two Korean cultures on the plane: the reformed one (in the efficiency of the flight attendants) and the authoritarian one (in the miscommunication of the pilots). Accordingly, Wee finally cites NTSB’s Deborah Hersman as she says that the real question is who was in charge?

Wee’s argument here is not without its merits, especially if one is approaching this from the vantage point of economic geography. As it happens, Wee is doing precisely that, for she happens to be a financial journalist for CNBC interested in innovators, entrepreneurs, the potential of ‘millennials,’ and small business. One sees this especially when she discusses the reforms to the Korean Olympic team by Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, who ‘squashed cronyism and rewarded players on talent.’ Cronyism is a key word in economic geography. Prior to the burst of the Japanese ‘bubble economy’ in 1991 and the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, so-called ‘Asian’ styles of corporate management that were allegedly more relational (especially in postwar Japan) and authoritarian (in postwar Korea) were touted as models of ‘Asian tiger’ capitalism that provided an alternative model from American corporatism. After these financial crises in the 1990s, they were labeled as examples of crony capitalism, founded on nepotism, uncritical authoritarianism, and overly reliant on trust networks and not contractual business relations. For a financial journalist like Wee, this is probably what comes first to mind: the unfinished work of economic reform in post-1997 Asia-Pacific nation-state economies.

This is where my not-so-gentle suggestion to Wee was coming from: if this is what she really wants to talk about, the word she wants is ‘ideology,’ not ‘culture.’ This is because the word ‘culture’ simply implies a ‘set of practices.’ To say that this is ‘Korean culture’ suggests that if one is ‘Korean’–and what does that mean? that one has family origins in the Korean peninsula? has migrated from one of the Koreas? has citizenship in either South or North Korea? (and I realize that I’m being facetious here by always including the DPRK, but look, it’s ‘Korean’ too)–then one naturally has a ‘respect for seniority and age, and quite an authoritarian style.’  This is certainly not the argument that Wee makes; indeed, she does not even appeal to that dreaded word ‘Confucianism,’ but instead makes her case through contemporary political and economic examples. If that’s the case, then the word that she wants is ideology, that is, threads of nationalistic propaganda spread by the political regime of the Republic of Korea and practiced in its military in attempts to subjectify Korean citizens as a particular kind of ‘Korean.’ Wee is making the case that the pilots on this plane may have been politically subjectified in a certain way by a certain state with a certain political economy that is intolerant of dissent. The word for that is ideology.

It’s within that framework–one marked by ‘ideology,’ not this amorphous word ‘culture’–that my six friends can begin to locate themselves. Let’s take each in turn.

One friend, a senior English scholar of early modern science, objects that by calling culturalist arguments ‘racist,’ the result will be that ‘another possibly important conversation…gets shut down unnecessarily,’ one in which, as he puts it so eloquently, ‘we do sometimes need to talk about culture — pilot culture, academic culture, American culture, Korean culture — in a way that is potentially probing, even painful.’ Accusing me of ‘immediately flipping the race card,’ he is sincerely concerned that I am overreacting with emotion as I see that the word ‘culture’ is associated with ‘race.’

This comment has garnered a reply from a theology doctoral student who specializes in critical race studies, who reminds his fellow academic that ‘the race card is being played for a damned good reason.’ After all, he finds it baffling that when American pilots fail, the reason is attributed to technical failure, whereas the whole notion of ‘culture’ is formed out of Eurocentric geographies where different regions of the world with different races were said to have static cultures.

Let me explore the disagreement within this exchange before moving to the other four: the critical word here is ‘culture.’ It becomes clear very quickly while reading the senior English scholar’s comment that for him, ‘culture’ is not necessarily associated with race, for it can refer to a set of practices within various sectors of employment as well. As a result, he is not allergic to my use of the word ‘culture,’ but allergic to my automatic association of ‘culture’ with ‘race.’ On the other hand, my critical race theologian buddy’s allergic reaction is just the opposite: he reads the word ‘culture’ as being derived from a set of geographical assumptions derived from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century maps, so he is allergic to any attempt to pull the two apart.

From here, we can move on to a second, earlier exchange: between a Filipino American high school friend currently working in engineering and incredibly annoyed by culturalist impositions on his everyday Asian American life and a Korean American tenured faculty member at an evangelical university who specializes in sociologies of race and religion. For my high school friend, the article is offensive because Wee’s attribution of the ‘communication barrier’ to ‘Korean culture’ is simply because ‘the pilots were Korean’: the assertion that someone’s personal agency to act in a given situation is simply be determined by where they are from defies ‘logic’ for him.  However, my sociologist friend is not interested in agency, but in structure: he wonders whether the structure of aviation is in fact ordered according to ‘Western’ (that is, liberal, American, Eurocentric, etc.) ideological values of open communication as opposed to, say, ‘Korean’ ideologies of authoritarian deference. These two also disagreed, and had quite the interesting exchange, although they probably talked past each other most of the time because one was talking about agency and the other was talking about structure.

Still another Chinese graduate student of political economy found it funny that ‘Japanese culture’ has also been described as authoritarian, and ‘American culture’ has been defined as ‘liberal’ and ‘open-minded.’  While he facetiously says that none of these two were blamed for aviation accidents, I’d like to say that while I do get his joke, I’d like to remind him that if this were in a political economic framework, the burst of the bubble and the post-bubble savings crisis in Japan were in fact blamed on what he’s calling ‘Japanese culture’ here, while the 2008 financial meltdown has been blamed on an over-extension of ‘liberal’ American culture in the sense of it being overly laissez-faire.

Finally, one friend points out that Malcolm Gladwell discussed this all in his book Outliers, to which I quickly responded that I don’t like anything that Gladwell says on ‘Asians.’

My disagreement with Gladwell, who is absolutely cited in Wee’s account, lies close to the key to all of the above ramblings.

If you remember Gladwell’s account in Outliers, Gladwell is trying to probe why it is that some people (presumably like himself) are outlying geniuses. In this book, Gladwell has an awful lot to say about ‘Asian culture.’ In the chapter titled ‘An Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes’ (which is the one that Wee cites), Gladwell argues that the deferential treatment toward authority in ‘Asian’ aviation culture led to a split-second miss in a decision that resulted in a crash whereas more direct communication would have led to an avoidance of collision because the decision-making would have been faster. This is, of course, not all that Gladwell has to say about ‘Asians’ in Outliers. He also says that ‘Asians’ are good at math and science because Chinese people grew rice on paddies and thus had to work three times as hard as those who grow wheat and barley, providing a sort of tenaciousness needed to learn math and science. (One wonders if Gladwell is aware that this sort of argument would also differentiate the southern and northern parts of China, which would play into the ongoing geopolitical tension between Hongkongers and the People’s Republic of China where Hongkongers see themselves as culturally superior to the ‘peasant bumpkins’ from the ‘strong country.’)


One could evaluate Gladwell on his merits and skewer him by providing all sorts of counter-examples as to why the word ‘Asian’ is a geographically inconsistent term. But this would be a disservice to Gladwell because it would fail to ask the more probing question: why is Gladwell asking these questions?

It turns out that Gladwell is on the same team as Wee: they are interested in the business implications of ‘culture.’ They are not interested in ‘culture’ for the sake of having a real conversation about it. They are not interested in ‘culture’ because they are seeking some sort of global racial reconciliation. They’re interested in it for instrumental reasons.

That’s why the entire debate has centered on: how does state-sponsored ideology work its way into the private sector? Put another way, this sort of question encourages a very narrow conversation that revolves around: so is this a real alternative way of doing business, or is it cronyism? Is it either this or is it that? Sure, in this sense, the English senior scholar is right: this is a ‘culture’ in the technical sense of the word because, far from being tied to race, these are a set of practices being shaped by a certain ideology sponsored by a certain regime that is currently labeled ‘Korean.’

However, my English senior scholar friend is wrong when he says that questioning this framework is a conversation-stopper. It is not. It is a conversation-starter because limiting ourselves to this narrow business-centered question fails to ask the broader, more critical question: how does all of this talk affect people who look like ‘Asians’? In other words, taken out of the narrow business context, what does this kind of talk actually do on the ground?

Why does all of that matter? Because, like it or not, if Korean Americans remain subjected to racism, these sorts of imprecisions in our public discourse will have devastating consequences for anti-Asian racism altogether.  Let me explain.

Anti-Korean racism is not a thing of the past. In many ways, the memory of the events of April 1992 in Los Angeles’s Koreatown in the wake of the Rodney King police acquittals remains raw. With tensions built up between Korean American and African American communities at the time, the result was that a predominantly African American crowd pummeled Koreatown in a riot, which was answered by Korean American men jealously guarding their territory with machine guns.  This was not an isolated incident; there was a similar event that happened in the early 1990s in New York. If indeed the findings are that ‘Korean culture’ is responsible for the Asiana Airlines disaster here, each Korean American will also be stymied with the label ‘Korean culture’ as essentially authoritarian, which will set back the conversation on Korean American contributions to North American civil society by decades.

Moreover, if we have anti-Korean racism, anyone who looks remotely Korean will be lumped into those stereotypes.  We call this ‘anti-Asian’ racism. Suddenly, not only will ‘Koreans’ be labeled uniformly authoritarian and thus cronyistic in their dealings, but so will every Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Singaporean, Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, Hmong, Burmese, Nepalese, Tibetan, Native Hawai’ian, and Pacific Islander with whom ‘non-Asians’ come into contact. In fact, this has happened all too often as well, and not just in the exclusion era or in the Japanese American internment. In the 1960s all the way up to the present, there has been the pervasive myth of the ‘model minority’ in which Asian Americans are stereotyped as having strong family values that lead to high academic performance, which means that the poor in Asian American communities don’t exist, especially in terms of affirmative action and welfare policy. In 1982, Vincent Chin was mistaken for a ‘Jap’ even though he was Vietnamese Chinese and beaten to death by unemployed auto workers in Detroit just because he looked the same as someone who could make a Toyota car. In the late 1990s, Wen Ho Lee was accused of being a Chinese spy just because he was Chinese and a nuclear scientist. When the film Olympus Has Fallen came out portraying North Koreans kidnapping the president and killing his staff, angry moviegoers vowed to leave the cinema and shoot up all the ‘Asians.’ And in the most recent Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion was premised on how ‘whites and Asians’ performed better than everybody else and that ‘blacks and Latinos,’ even though they were admittedly sometimes disadvantaged, had made huge strides, thus making affirmative action an anachronism.

It turns out, then, that putting ‘Korean’ and ‘culture’ together for a plane crash isn’t so good for Asian Americans in general. It’s not just a trigger for Asian Americans pulling a race card. It’s a trigger for an American civil society that still has in-bred discursive structures that frame ‘Asians’ as the other against whom violence can be committed and for whom a social safety net need not apply.

And thus we have to re-orient the conversation to answer the following question: why does being ‘Korean’ matter?

If indeed the findings are that the pilots were operating under a sort of Korean authoritarian ideology, this would reveal precisely the dangers of another racist practice: self-orientalization. This is in fact a point made by none other than Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Herself Jewish (and though she came to have a very ambivalent relationship with the Israeli nation-state after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem), Arendt argued in her earlier work that part of the differentiation of Jewish Europeans from Europe was effected by Jewish intellectuals themselves, which in turn paved the way for them to be othered by totalitarian state regimes. As Arendt suggests, these self-othering moves are simply a variation on a theme of racism: instead of having race imposed on oneself by another, one imposes and internalizes racializing ideologies on oneself for a political purpose, othering oneself for seeming political convenience for a time only to have this evolve into devastating political consequences in times to come.

And so it is that most scholars of the Asia-Pacific–from Terry McGee to Aihwa Ong, from Anthony King to Abidin Kusno and Brenda Yeoh, from David Edgington to Ananya Roy–would argue that nation-state regimes premised on ‘Asian values’ need to be challenged for their elitist use of self-orientalizing ideological propaganda. As anthropologist Aihwa Ong poignant argues especially in Flexible Citizenship, ‘Asian values’ are really nothing more than self-orientalizing ideological moves meant to justify and explain away self-interested forms of flexible capitalist accumulation within globe-trotting kinship structures. They are also encouraged by post-colonial Asia-Pacific nation-state regimes because they can also appeal to the nation as ‘family,’ resulting ideologically (and thus geographically) in wealth accumulation for certain nation-states themselves. Invocations of ‘Asian values’ and ‘Asian culture’ often have materialist underpinnings. In turn, they are often based on short-term self-interest, not the longue durée of what such self-racializing, self-othering discourses actually do to continue to prop up racist structures at a global scale.

Talked about in this way, we can finally talk about new ways to talk about Asia-Pacific political and economic geographies that guide us away from the stuck and fraught ‘culturalist’ intellectual habits that we have acquired by simply believing the ideologies.  Indeed, that the flight attendants were well-trained suggests that this article is a prime opportunity to talk about the pluralism within the word ‘Korean,’ that is, this episode may finally open up avenues for dissent from the nationalistic ideology. Controlling as state ideologies might be, what this means is that this self-orientalizing stuff never has and never will have the last word. People have agency, even to co-opt state and market ideologies and to be open to new ways of thinking, resisting these ideologies in their everyday practices.

It’s that resistance to which our conversation about this affair finally must come. This is an important conversation about race and culture, geopolitics and global economy, because all of these discursive issues are wrapped up in this Asiana Airlines disaster in San Francisco. To speak of ‘Korean culture’ will only return us to the old tired ways of talking about this, discourses that are stuck in neoliberal business ideology that don’t speak to the larger issues here and that may in fact reinforce structures of race that we know to have devastatingly violent consequences in the long term. What we must do is to shift the conversation to ‘ideology,’ revealing the pluralities of practice and the resistances that are happening against self-orientalizing, nationalistic propaganda. It’s only then that a real conversation about what this is all about might actually be able to effect some real reforms.


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