TIME South Korea

Culture Blaming and Stereotyping in the South Korean Ferry Tragedy

A boy holding a white chrysanthemum pays tribute at a temporary group memorial altar for victims of capsized passenger ship Sewol in Ansan
A boy holding a white chrysanthemum pays tribute at a temporary group memorial altar for victims of capsized passenger ship Sewol in Ansan, April 24, 2014. Kim Hong-Ji—Reuters

A nation grieves, a nation is blamed.

It’s a story that gets more tragic by the hour. The Sewol ferry, carrying 476 passengers, mostly youth from one high school in Ansan, South Korea, capsized last Wednesday while en route to Jeju Island. Shortly after the sinking, 174 passengers were rescued. More than a week later, at the time of this writing, 175 are confirmed dead; 127 are missing.

It’s also a story that’s downright mystifying. A captain that jumped ship. Untouched lifeboats. Orders to stay put as the vessel rolled. As bodies continue to be pulled from the sea, and as families desperately seek answers, the Sewol disaster has created a cultural flashpoint, forcing many to ask, “Who is to blame?”

It’s a question that is haunting a nation, baffling pundits, and challenging a highly militarized government hailed for its organization and efficiency. And while Sewol’s captain remains Public Enemy No. 1, media outlets are factoring in a more amorphous villain: South Korean culture. “Media coverage has portrayed the ferry disaster either as a terrible tragedy that any person can sympathize with,” says Ju Hui Judy Han, a professor of cultural geography of travel at the University of Toronto, “or as a bizarre accident that could have only happened somewhere else.”

According to several English-language media reports, the Asian country’s “culture of obedience” and youth deference to authority is the culprit. The Los Angeles Times reports that the disaster has “cast a harsh light on a Confucian culture in which young people are taught to respect the older generation,” while Reuters cites, “Many of the children did not question their elders, as is customary in hierarchical Korean society. They paid for their obedience with their lives.”

Others echo the sentiment:

If that was a boatload of American students, you know they would have been finding any and every way to get off that ferry. But in Asian cultures…compliance is de rigueur. — Dallas Morning News

While children from any culture might well obey orders in such an unfamiliar and terrifying situation, one expert says Korean teenagers are particularly conditioned to do so: “Korean teenagers are very accustomed to being told what to do and what to think.” — South China Morning Post

“What this culture prizes in its children, in its students, is obedience. And so when they were told to stay put by an adult, of course they would stay put.” — CNN

It’s called “culture blaming,” and the media embraces it – especially the mainstream. “There’s two issues at play,” says Elizabeth Spayd, editor and publisher of Columbia Journalism Review. “First, there are many correspondents who parachute in to write about disasters who aren’t that familiar with the culture they drop into. (And it’s also true, in most American newsrooms, that the staff is not as diversified as the world.) But another reality is that, after a big disaster, when everyone’s looking for answers, people grab for whatever they can find.”

We saw culture blaming, too, when South Korean norms were incriminated for the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco last year, while Korean male anger and aggression served as an “explanation” for Seung-Hui Cho’s shooting spree on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007. Call it a journalistic hit: Sewol coverage transforms into a spectacle of groundless theories on how a culture is partially guilty for the wiping out of an entire sophomore class. On the surface, it appears like an innocuous and thoughtful attempt to offer insight, but at the root is the suggestion that these cultures are inferior, broken, or backwards. It paints a portrait of Asian youth without humanity and individual agency.

Should aspects of Korean society be scrutinized? Of course. Poor communication, disorganization, and complacency – compounded with fumbling bureaucracies and the lack of protocol and proper training – resulted in a botched rescue mission that has South Korea reeling. But to theorize that the high death toll is linked to a perceived cultural flaw or deficiency is a lazy journalistic shortcut. It fits a stereotype.

Meanwhile, what’s missed in all this culture blaming is the real cause. “Culture is not to blame for the Sewol disaster,” says Jaehwan Cho, a South Korean reporter covering the story in Seoul and Ansan. “It represents the problem of government structure.” The worst offense: It places blame on the victims and their families as a nation grieves.

If this happened to American teens, would we point to American culture as the source of the accident, or criticize our youth for not knowing what to do? Would we have blamed them for not surviving?

We wouldn’t.

TIME Race

Dear, ‘How I Met Your Mother': ‘Asian’ Is Not a Costume

Slapsgiving #3: Slappointment in Slapmarra
Jason Segel as Marshall in the "Slappointment in Slapmarra" episode of How I Met Your Mother. Ron P. Jaffe / Fox

CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother got a beating this week for a tasteless yellowface kung fu tribute that aired on Monday. The episode, titled “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment In Slapmarra,” featured Jason Segel’s character learning “the slap of a million exploding suns” from martial arts masters. The masters were portrayed by the show’s all-white cast, Alyson Hannigan, Josh Radnor, and Colbie Smulders; all donned silk robes and spoke with stereotypical Asian accents framed between flute music and wind chimes. The show also utilized the Fu Manchu mustache and “chinky fonts” to boot.

HIMYM execs have since apologized on Twitter, but the slap-laced episode, at the time of this writing, is still available online. What’s problematic here — other than the lazy writing — is that HIMYM doesn’t feature Asians or people of color in its regular rotation. So a white person in a Fu Manchu mustache is one of the few “Asian” representations ever featured on the show. There are no other Asians on the show that are authentic (read: can speak English and lead normal lives as human beings). It’s one-dimensional and harmful. It feels a little like a slap of a million exploding suns.

The episode also reveals a broad anxiety about entertainment: The only reason an episode like this could even air is because Asians in Hollywood — as actors, writers, producers, network heads — are so underrepresented.

Which is why after the episode aired, Asian-American Twitter got pissed. The #HowIMetYourRacism tag, unfurled by activist Suey Park (of #NotYourAsianSidekick fame), peppered our feeds in tweets like this:

And it’s not surprising. The last couple years there’s been a noticeable shift in the demand for diversity in television: HBO’s Girls was under fire for the girls’ all-white NYC and the legitimate, widespread criticism around SNL’s cast lacking diversity led to the recent hiring of two black female writers and one black female performer.

Still, yellowface — along with blackface and redface — is a shockingly stubborn remnant of a much less racially sensitive time. (It’s occurred as recently as Katy Perry’s American Music Awards geisha misstep last year.)

What has always been so disturbing about yellowface, blackface, brownface, and redface, is how far the industry is willing to go to not employ people of color. Instead of hiring an Asian-American actor to portray an experience written by an Asian American writer — an experience that can certainly include a penchant for kung fu — television has historically, aggressively, employed white artists to write about and portray non-white people.

But this practice continues in entertainment for reasons far more complicated than the refusal for white Hollywood to employ entertainers and performers of color. Whites donning theatrical make-up and costumes to display blackness, brownness, or Asianness is utilized for white viewers to explore and have fun with their collective fears and anxieties surrounding the other.

According to the show’s apology, posted by its co-creator via Twitter on Wednesday, HIMYM simply wanted to create a “silly and unabashedly immature homage to Kung Fu movies, a genre we’ve always loved.” But despite their well-meaning intentions, this is by-the-book yellowface. It’s white people acting “silly” or “funny” when acting Asian, in a performance written for the enjoyment and consumption of non-Asian viewers. And it cements nasty racist stereotypes. Silk-robed women in accented English pouring tea? The lotus blossom. Fu Manchu? A perennial foreigner and criminal archetype that has been featured in pop culture for almost 100 years. These are caricatures that have been plaguing Asian Americans for generations.

Even journalistic coverage of then-Knick Jeremy Lin was especially revealing: ESPN’s “chink in the amour” snafu and MSJ Network’s fortune cookie advert made it abundantly clear: Americans, well-intentioned or not, simply don’t know how to write about Asian people.

(MORE: Jeremy Lin Fan’s ‘Fortune Cookie’ Poster Causes Controversy)

Which is probably what happened here. It’s not wrong to acknowledge and celebrate aspects of Asian culture. It’s not just white people that like this stuff — Asians have a thing for martial arts and noodles, too. (What we don’t do, however, is put chopsticks in our hair. We actually eat with them.)

But let’s be compassionate for a moment: The creators have a self-described love for kung fu. They tried to write about Asians and Asian culture. They were having fun. But they wrote it wrong. They don’t know how.

The fact that people aren’t human beings is the definition of racism. In this episode, Asian people aren’t humans. They are things. They’re a joke. And they’re not even portrayed by Asian people. And for the record, hiring writers and actors of color isn’t just to educate the whites in the room about what’s racist. Perhaps having them in the room will help ideas like Monday’s episode from getting kicked around in the first place.

Kai Ma is a writer, journalist and editor. She is the former editor-in-chief of KoreAm, an indie monthly for which she earned the national New America Media Award for Best In-Depth and Investigative Reporting for her feature story on gay marriage and the Asian-American vote. The views expressed are solely her own. You can follow her on @kai_ma.

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