Thursday, July 1, 2010

We are not the same, playing your role in Korea.

Although listening in on people's conversations is pretty obnoxious, as my ability to understand spoken Korean improves I often can't help myself, particularly when I am the topic of conversation. Yesterday I listened to a discussion between between a teacher and a few students. The teacher was explaining to the students how Korea's communal culture made it impossible for Koreans to act like Westerners. From the teacher's perspective this was a good thing. Westerners are too individualistic and selfish. They want to enjoy life without the responsibility of family or societal obligations.
The conversation began because the students made the very normal but insightful observation that I am an anomaly on the island. I don't teach like other teachers, in many subtle and not so subtle ways I don't act like Koreans, and I am treated differently as well.
For students this made them ask a lot of "why" questions. And it forced the teacher to give his own personal answers, putting on the role of an amateur sociologist.
The dominant theme of his explanation was that I act and am treated differently because in fact my identity is profoundly different from theirs. As a Westerner, I have certain characteristics. With this understood, the teacher answered the student's "why" questions simply by filling in what he believed those characteristics to be.
Certainly this is one way of understanding why people do and think what they do. Korean's are fans of Max Weber's explanation of modern Western society as largely the product of a "Protestant work ethic." More interestingly this approach resonates strongly with Korean's understanding of how people in their own society function. Most Koreans believe themselves to have certain defining characteristics. These characteristics can be mundane or profound. So for instance it is understood that Koreans eat kimchi, or that Koreans work hard, or that Koreans respect the elderly.
So from a Korean perspective everyone has a role in society that they ought to fulfill, whether as a Korean, a Westerner (or any other group category) and through which their actions and beliefs can be understood.
One of the more interesting outcomes of this line of thinking is that when a Westerner (me) enjoys kimchi, or acts in a deferential way to the elderly, or enjoys spicy food, I am often told, in what is meant as a compliment, that "You are a Korean now."
Certainly this is hyperbolic flattery. But that is beside the point. What is interesting is that those who say this are seeking to understand my actions by referencing an understood identity, or role. So I am a Westerner because I have blonde hair (etc.), but I am a Korean in so far as I like Kimchi. I am not a Westerner who likes Kimchi or even more radically an individual who likes Kimchi.
In practice this allows the characteristics of the two roles to remain fairly constant while acknowledging that people do deviate from them.

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