Korea: Land of Extremes

Have you ever been to Korea before?  If not, “I’ll take you there,” as the Staple Sisters would sing.  Popular Korean cartoonist and author of illustrated histories of various countries Rhie Won Bok has written a provocative introduction to Korean society entitled Korea Unmasked.  Mr. Rhie claims that one way of “summing up” the Korean character, if one can confidently speak of such a thing without being an overgeneralizing, racist buffoon, is in one word:  extreme.  (Incidentally, none of the Korean students I’ve mentioned the book to approve of it, as it is rather critical.  Constructive criticism, however, has its place, and since Rhie himself is Korean, that gives him considerable credibility and the moral leeway to criticize his own culture, at least in my opinion.  Since I am a foreigner and by no means an expert, please take the following observations with a couple of grains of salt, and seek out other opinions or facts from those more familiar with Koreanity before drawing your own conclusions.)

Before laying into Korea, allow me as a Yankee to say that my own homeland, the United States, is certainly not without its share of extreme attitudes and behaviors.  In fact, if I hadn’t grown up there myself (or at least attempted to), and had only exported offerings of U. S. mass media to go on, especially TV shows and movies, I’d think the whole country was just one big madhouse–which, in a sense, it is.  And I’m proud to have been a part of it.  Now, could you loosen my straitjacket for me please, Nurse?  Thank you.  

America’s love affair with cuckoo-dom is common knowledge, so I won’t bore you by belaboring the obvious, since I imagine anyone with access to a computer is familiar with most of the negatives:  the highest rate of incarceration per capita of any of the OECD countries, the highest infant mortality rate, the lowest literacy rate, the widest income gap between rich and poor, the most expensive university tuitions, the least money spent on the arts and infrastructure, the least affordable health care, the most spent on military outlay in the history of the world, along with the largest number of military bases anywhere ever (something like eight hundred last time I checked)–

And as Bill Maher pointed out in a recent “New Rules” segment of his show, Real Time, there are now in the United States more guns than people.  I imagine if I go back there to live, as I intend to at some point, I’ll probably take a bullet or two myself.  As Moe the bartender on The Simpsons would say (in the episode in which Homer accidentally shoots him), “Don’t worry, Homer.  Eventually, everyone gets shot.”  Words of wisdom from a simian, misanthropic, perpetually miserable cartoon character.

But that’s enough about my homeland.  Let’s turn our attention to Korea.  As Michael Breen, author of the book The Koreans and long-time resident of Seoul points out in his study, Koreans have a way of getting into your heart.  They are among the kindest, most decent, spontaneous, energetic, passionate people I’ve ever met or known.  I truly love them, and some of them–unless I’m flattering myself–even have the nerve to love me.  Although I’m conflicted about the topsy-turvy nature of my marriage, I know my wife does (except when she hates me, though she insists the hatred springs from love–nice Orwellian twist), and I’m lucky enough to have a few good Korean friends who are always there for me to cheer me up when I’m feeling blue, which is more often than I have the right to be.

I think this is because Korean people suffer a lot, which makes them empathetic and compassionate.  Mind, it can also make them combative and cantankerous, but it generally depends on the context of the relationship.  Joy and pain can share close proximity in Korean relationships; when I first came here back in 1989 for a brief visit, I overheard a couple fighting in a motel, breaking furniture and screaming at each other, punctuated by the sounds of their laughter and what I took to be kind words.  Weird.  Also no doubt the effect of too much alcohol drunk in self-destructive unison.

From what little time I’ve taken to learn about indigenous Korean customs, this society is more heavily influenced by Confucianism than any other.  That means the social hierarchy is sacrosanct, as is the family–at least traditionally.  Respect for the elderly is built into Confucianism, along with patriarchy, which doesn’t explain why nowadays so many Koreans worship youth culture and publicly ignore old people as if they didn’t exist (or the now legendary clout of middle-aged, married Korean women with children, the notorious ajumma).  Of course, that might just be because they’re strangers and if you live in a big city, who’s got time for them?  To hell with them!  I’m trying to watch TV, goddamn it.

The whole ageism thing is so rigid that it’s considered radical for Korean people to befriend anyone who’s even a few years younger or older than they are.  But I’ve noticed recent exceptions to this rule, a refreshing change.  

While there are a lot of well-known similarities between Japanese and Korean cultures, when I lived in Japan twenty years ago, I got the sense that all in all that people there were more cooperative with one another than Korean people are.  (Having said that, I had a Japanese student later in the U. S. who begged to differ, telling an American colleague that this positive stereotype of Japanese people was false, and that in Japan people are always “pointing secret mental guns at each other,” a beautifully-worded phrase for a non-native English speaker to use.  He must have read his Nabokov.)  

Then again, the situation here is complex:  a major part of the Korean experience involves keeping up appearances.  Japan has the concept of wa, meaning “social harmony,” and though I’m not sure what the Korean equivalent is, people are generally courteous to one another here in public.  Folks can get pushy, cutting in line at the convenience store or bumping into you on the bus without apologizing, but for the most part they’re discreet, respectful, and civilized.

The advent of the cell phone has led to more broadcasting in public of people’s personal shit, especially by middle-aged men who think the sun shines out of their asses, but the main posture of the cell phone- or smartphone-addict is hunched over and scrutinizing a screen, painstakingly typing text messages, or listening to some vital report from a Korean variety show host or self-congratulatory bunch of boisterous celebrities enamored with their own wonderfulness and abject hilarity.

Later I’ll share with you a few more elements of Korean extremity, as this entry as already gone on for too long.  If you don’t have anything better to do with your time, you need professional help.

Take care, and thanks for having the patience to read this nonsense.

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