Lessons in Xenophobia (from an expert)

I can’t be surprised that I get some very concerned reactions when I tell people that next on my travel agenda is South Korea. The American news media has over-hyped the danger excessively. The simple fact is this: if war breaks out I won’t go, but I have a feeling things will have died down in a few weeks. If the events in Boston last week have shown us anything, it’s that there are no ~safe~ places where we can hide ourselves away from conflict and danger.

By crime statistics alone, I’m more likely to be stabbed or shot in New York City, Washington D.C. or Chicago than I am in Seoul. Besides, I like to tell people, women are more likely to be murdered in their own homes, I so I should really get out more.

It seems to be an issue of xenophobia in most cases. The flack I’m getting is mainly from people who have never left the United States before. I had an infuriating discussion with my friend’s mother-in-law over the weekend. She’s a woman very set in how she thinks things should be done, on what is “proper,” especially regarding how women should behave. She lives ten miles from the spot she was born and has rarely ventured farther.

I told her that basically, South Koreans aren’t that worried about the North Korea threat, as evidenced in this video from Seoulistic:

She told me, “I wouldn’t trust anything a Korean has to say at this moment.”

I stared at her. “You realize North Korea and South Korea are two different countries who don’t get along? South Korea is allied with the United States?”

“Well they hate Americans everywhere,” she insisted, “We’re the ugly Americans, everyone hates us.”

I couldn’t help but (unkindly) think that in her case, the ‘ugly American’ image of ignorance and intolerance might not be too far off the mark.

She went on to tell me how her friend who went to England was ‘only alright’ because she had a local take her to places where she wouldn’t be harassed.

“I went to England and Italy and I didn’t have issues,” I told her.

“Well you didn’t, but you will– we are hated all over the world,” she kept insisting.

It must be a very scary world to her. She must imagine that people wait with sticks to beat Americans in the streets. Indeed it stands to reason that there are jerks everywhere, that there may be a few locals who won’t like you or more likely, will over-charge you. But when we meet someone from another country, for the most part, we are curious for them to share their experiences with us. We want to know about them, we want to share our culture and learn about their’s. I think that’s largely the same in most places. I mean, there are places where it is more dangerous. There are certain  countries I wouldn’t be comfortable going to at this time, South Korea isn’t one of them.

It just seems to me that most Americans have this warped idea that everywhere outside the fifty states is wild and uncivilized and scary. Let’s be honest, there are plenty of places in the states that are just those things. When I used my brother as evidence of a tranquil living abroad experience, the inevitable, “But he’s a man, you’re just a little girl, it’s different,” argument came up. I resented being told I was a child, and that my gender was somehow a handicap. I suppose it must seems strange though. When she was my age she was married to the boy next door and having babies. She doesn’t understand wanting something different.

I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked. Our media is flooded by things like “Locked up Abroad” (which this woman assures me will be my fate), and Taken. We aren’t well educated about the world around us. Even England, a country that has (basically) the same language and similar culture isn’t understood. I compiled this post last summer before I left for Oxford citing a few of the weirdest misconceptions I heard people spout when I told them about my trip.

The funny thing is, the only people who seem all that fussed are people who have never traveled out of the country, or at least not beyond a resort in the Bahamas or something. The people who have traveled, who actually know about the world are more excited for me than scared. And to be fair, not all my friends who haven’t traveled are giving me a hard time, just a noisy few who see fit to act like they are experts on cultural relations. The only thing they are experts on is xenophobia.


  1. Beautifully written, per usual Rachel. As one of our forefathers said, “The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.” Can’t learn much about the world if you’re trapped inside.

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