Wednesday, September 4, 2013

An Expat's Moral Uncertainty

As I read the August publication of Groove Korea Magazine, I came across a column that was titled “The Fear of Becoming a Housewife,” which was written by a Ms. Megan Harper, an American woman who had recently married a Korean man.

In the column, Ms. Harper says that despite her husband’s claims that he understands her refusal to take on a traditional housewife role, her husband “simply could not imagine a home in which the husband and wife share household duties.”

She then goes on to say that in order to understand where her husband was coming from, she attempted to analyze her mother-in-law, an older Korean woman who, unlike Ms. Harper, has embraced the role of a traditional housewife. In fact, Ms. Harper says that it was hard for her to hide her discomfort when she sees “her mother-in-law prepare a beautiful dinner that her husband has half-eaten before she even has a chance to sit down.”

However, Ms. Harper herself claims that her column was not intended to be a social criticism. It was merely her attempt to share her experiences, especially her “unexpected limit in understanding that arises from her own gender role expectations.” She then goes on to say that as it was futile for her to judge her mother-in-law, she would strive to respect her for the sacrifices she has made while using her own life to demonstrate equalized gender roles.

Ms. Harper’s column was full of humility, understanding, acceptance, and political correctness. In other words, it was absolutely insipid.


Throughout the entire yawn of a yarn, it was obvious that Ms. Harper took great pains to tiptoe around cultural sensitivities. My question is this: Why? Was she afraid that she was going to offend someone because her topic came close to what could have been an insightful criticism of traditional Korean mores? What makes tradition so sacrosanct that so many people, even those who get trampled by it, deem it beyond reproach?

Tradition is almost always defended on the principle of upholding the status quo, regardless of whether it is right or wrong. Traditionalists almost always defend tradition not because it is right, but because it was chosen by our ancestors; not because it is good, but because it is ancient. In other words, traditionalists’ sense of values are not dictated by reason, but rather practices that they have inherited from an age that has long since been dead. Their view of the world is one that is based on anti-reason and as such, they have no right to even hold a pretense of intellect.

If not that, was Ms. Harper pulling back her punches because she was being sensitive to racial norms? After all, she is American, not Korean (Ms. Harper never stated her ethnic background. As a result, when I say “Korean,” I am referring to Korean as an ethnic group as well as a unique political group, which is different from, say, Korean Americans). Was she afraid of coming off as an Ugly American, telling off an entire people how their millennia-old traditions are backward and nonsensical?


If that was the reason, then though Ms. Harper herself may not be a racist, she has certainly embraced, at least in part, some of the beliefs that racists hold dear. Specifically, the notion that only a member of the tribe is allowed to criticize tribal practices; that an outsider ought to learn to hold his/her tongue, at least in the presence of the Native Borns. This is an idea that claims that a person’s rights are not inherent but based on privileges that are made available only to certain people based on factors that are beyond anyone’s control – the pure accident of birth. It is an idea that attempts to invalidate the one attribute that distinguishes human beings from all other living species – his rational faculty, while championing the one attribute that threatens to send Mankind back to the caves that our ancestors once dwelled in – tribalism.

Or was Ms. Harper being demure with her criticisms because she didn’t wish to come off as being too brash? If so, then I cannot help but question a culture that emphasizes the importance of humility considering the fact that, once stripped off its false virtue, humility is nothing more than an excuse that is given for cowardice. What is humility if not a self-cheating lie to desert the battle for one’s joys and principles, to refuse to fight for one’s own happiness? What is humility if it is not the antithesis to pride, the real virtue that allows people to live like actual human beings?

Ms. Harper’s inability or unwillingness to pronounce moral judgments on others while all too willingly blaming herself for her “unexpected limit in understanding that arises from her own gender role expectations” is the consequence of moral grayness – the notion that the world cannot be neatly categorized into black and white, as the whole world is but a mushy gray. Once again, however, this idea is nothing more than an excuse for cowardice that is masquerading as humility.

Gray in itself is a combination of black and white. If there were no black and white, then there can be no gray. In the field of morality, this means that one must first identify what is good and what is evil. When an individual has ascertained that one alternative is good and the other is evil, there can be no justification for choosing a mixture of the two; only excuses.

In effect, when an individual fails to pronounce moral judgments, what the individual is actually doing, consciously or subconsciously, is declaring: “I will not cast the first stone. Please keep that in mind when it comes time for my judgment.”

Whether Ms. Harper knows it or not, she entered an intellectual battle. When one enters any intellectual battle, big or small, public or private, one’s sole criterion of judgment ought to be nothing more than the truth, a truth that is based on the recognition of the facts of reality – not anyone’s approval or disapproval. In other words, one needs moral certainty.

Without it, no battle can be won; least of all a battle for an entire culture’s future.



  1. Replies
    1. Thank you for your comment. For this post, Ms. Harper provided me with a person whom I could use as an example of the moral relativism that I have witnessed. However, Ms. Harper is not alone. I have met many such expats who have behaved the same way. And I am convinced that the reason for such behavior is not simply because they are expats, but rather a result of indoctrinated self-doubt, humility, and guilt.

      But, please, keep coming back. I'll keep blogging if people keep reading and commenting.

  2. I like this post and the concept of your analysis here on the 'foreign' in Korea. It is important to emphasize human rights and the position we can all play critiquing society. It has been a goal of mine for some time to try to push more dialog between the groups that we call Korean and foreign here in Korea. Fighting~!!!