Sunday, September 8, 2013

Hana, dul, seht, neht, five

Last weekend marked five years in Korea for me. The fact that I didn't bring myself to blog about that, and haven't blogged even about such vital (to me) events as my first trip back to my hometown in 18 years, makes me wonder why I hardly ever post anymore. (It's been nearly three months, after all.)

I think the big thing is that the original purpose of this blog was to uncover the wonders and oddities of Korea for my friends back in the States, and now things aren't wonderful or odd to me; this is just where I live and the way things are. As the blog has gone on, it's been more and more about SJC and less and less about the ROK, sort of a free therapy session in which you, Constant Reader, have been my unpaid shrink. Thanks.

It's always been a fine line to walk, trying to reach a tone between "What a fascinating country" and "Look at rhe funny little Asians." My friend and colleague Dave went to the hash with me yesterday, and he made a troubling observation.

At the YK hash, the hares set off to lay the trail and somebody (sometimes me) leads the pack in a long, scripted, farcical ceremony, partially to reinforce pack unity and largely to give the hares a fair head start.

It looks a little something... like this.

One of the many, many parts of the ceremony:

Leader: "Once there was a hasher; was he smart?"

Pack: "NO!"

Leader: "What was he?"

Pack: "Stupid!"

Leader: "He was really (expletive deleted) dumb. He tried to cross an eight-road lane."

Pack: "An eight-road lane?!"

Leader: "That's right; they have those in Korea, because things in Korea..."


Dave pointed out that it's condescending to our hosts, at best, and could offend the occasional Korean person who comes out to hash. I responded that we make fun of everything, especially ourselves, which is true... but I had to admit that there's a difference. It smacks of Orientalism, the antiquated concept that people in the "Far East" are alien and exotic. (Heck even "Far East" smacks of colonialism; there isn't any "East" on the globe, and what's east of here? California.)

I remember an episode of The Amazing Race in Africa, in which one Racer made a comment about the "natives". His partner said, "They're not natives; they're called people." I've gotten well past the point where I see natives here; they're people.

There are practices here that appall me beyond words; some people eat live, squirming baby octopus, and some (fewer) people eat dogs, which were kept in horrifying conditions and killed as painfully as possible, in the belief that the adrenaline makes the meat more tender. I have to put that aside, in a double-locked room in my head. And some Korean beliefs are just silly, such as that sleeping in a closed room with electric fan on is likely to kill you, or that your blood type determines your personality.

But, all in all, as the song says, people are people. I think, in a gross generalization, Korean people tend to be closed toward strangers; emotional; extraordinarily warm toward friends, family, and coworkers; and, among the young, obsessed with attractiveness. But I have equally strong feelings about Americans en masse and about our customs.

So... five years. Am I shutting down the site? No. But I may not post much. I like expressing myself and I try to be entertaining. But this place, interesting as it can be as an ultra-modern, super-capitalist society overlaid over a backdrop of ancient culture and superstition, is just... well, where I am.

You can't be a newbie for five years.