Monday, February 23, 2009

Stranger than a strange land

It occurs to me that it would be easy to read my blog as some White Man's Burden exercise, as if I think I'm a visitor from a "superior" culture who's over here to see how the funny little Asian people live. If it seems that way, I'm sorry. That's not how I feel. I am intentionally passing everything through a filter of Americanism (and flippancy) and writing for an American audience, so I focus on the differences between the Lands of the Morning Calm (them) and the Free (us). But I'm seeing Korea as a detached, somewhat bemused but sympathetic visitor. Aside from the dog and cat thing, which is so far out of bounds I try not to think about it, the local culture, I think, has both good points and bad compared to America's.

It also occurs to me that a lot of Korean culture that I find odd isn't so much odd as it is the polar opposite of my own quirks and oddments. The social system is founded on Confucianism, which involves a very strict class structure and prescribed ways to speak to people of higher, equal, or lower status; I'm pretty nearly totally classless. (Wait, let me rephrase that.) That is, I make a real effort to give a clerk at the 7-11 as much respect as I would a president (and quite a bit more than I would a certain recent president). Also, I inherited a lot of flower child/Ithaca casualness. Plus they work their butts off and I... don't.

Koreans bump into each other all the time and affect not to even notice it, and they have a very small definition of personal space, both physically and socially; I hate having strangers touch me and I feel my private life is closed but for a very few. (If you're reading this, I guess that's you.)

The press is very conservative and limited in what it can say; I passionately believe in free speech and free thought. I was told by a new Korean friend that vegetarianism is so rare here that nobody will know what I mean when I say "I'm a vegetarian" in Korean, unless I add "I have a diet like a Buddhist monk's"; I, well, you know.

Whenever someone interacts with anything, what the person sees is as dependent on his idea of the world as on what is in front of him. My reactions, positive and negative, are as much about me and my quirks as they are about the Koreans and theirs. Every entry on this blog is as much about SJC as it is the ROK. The see-er and the see-ee are separate but equal.

But I'm taller.

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