Gender within the ROK military culture and Liz is really, really confused.

So, over on Tumblr, Hot Yellow Fellows posted this photo of ROK army training, which led me to divulge this conversation I had about mandatory military service. Which got me thinking. (Yes, I can sit and ogle 90% naked muscular men working out on the beach and still end up thinking....)

There's one chapter in our third grade book which is based on opinion vocabulary, and during this chapter, I always lead the boys on to the subject of mandatory military service, because I like to hear what they have to say about it, and it gives me a chance to share a bit about American military culture as well. I was shocked to hear several of the boys express the opinion that women should serve in the ROK army, and they are always equally shocked to hear that in my home country, women have fought long and hard to have the right to serve.

Now. Granted, at this point, their opinion that women should serve is more based on a fifteen year old boy's sense of fairness, because their military service is not optional and ever-looming. And it's fair enough to say that some of them would change their tune about the idea of serving alongside women, if they were to choose the military as their career path. But something else that always shocks me during that chapter is how many of them raise their hands to "agree" that women can be fire fighters -- a profession which is not, at any point, mandatory, and which is just as dangerous and "manly". Shocked because I have my suspicions that a survey taken among teenage boys in a classroom in my hometown would come up somewhat shorter of a sense of equality in this regard.

One thing that has been consistently surprising and fascinating to me since my time in the ROK began has been realizing how utterly non-bilateral thinking about gender can be, when you're contemplating different cultures. Too, too many people observe the surface of things here in Korea, and come out on the "Korea culture is more ____ toward women."/"Korean culture is more ______ toward men." side of things. When it's just simply not that simple.

I get into this a lot when I'm trying to explain "masculinity" in the ROK, which is a favorite subject among foreigners. In my extremely humble (because I'm only beginning to get an inkling of what I sense is going on, and am not even really able to articulate it yet, despite a gigantic hunch that I don't quite understand) opinion, there are huge problems when Westerners try to apply a Western sense of masculinity to Korean men. I know enough to get all red in the face and frustrated when the conversation starts, and to flutter my hands trying to stop it and say something useful, but not enough to actually make what I'm trying to say understood.

Remember -- I work at an all boys' middle school. My daily life is a veritable meditation in Korean masculinity, in its blossoming (and possibly most potent) stages. Yeah, they fuss about their hair and clothes endlessly. Yes, tighter is always better. Yes, those things are "feminine" in Western culture. But they're not feminine in Korean culture.

Now. Here's where I get stuck. Here's where people end up staring at my crunched up face, wondering why I even felt the need to put that brilliant statement out into the air. But what I'm trying to say is, there are masculine and feminine Korean men. It's just not based on the same criteria. They're playing by a whole other set of rules. And, as obvious as that may sound, I can't help but get the feeling that most people I've talked to don't seem to understand how important that is.

But even more complicated is the fact that we also can't judge sexism in the same way. Because women aren't allowed to smoke in Korean culture, because Korean culture generally expects them to dress in a way that Western culture defines as "feminine", because they are generally considered more fragile, and can often be placed in positions of submission and subordination in the workplace -- because all of those things align with and signal an older style of Western sexism, it's easy to apply our same Western standards of sexism across the board, and to also expect that the same "old fashioned" Western standards exist everywhere in gender expectations within Korean culture. Which is why I was so shocked to see so many (almost every single one) of my students raise their hands in support of women working "masculine" jobs.

But the truth is, Korea's long and complicated history has lent itself to a different definition of women's roles, especially as related to things such as military combat. Because so much of Korea's history involves guerilla fighting (and where there is guerilla warfare, there are women engaged in warfare, generally speaking), an equal amount also consists of women engaging in combat. The history of student uprisings throughout the military dictatorships has reams of stories to tell about women's part in these activities, and the ROK Women's Army Corps was developed only a short 20 years after the U.S.'s -- only 18 years after the end of the Korean War, which you might consider remarkable considering how much longer the U.S. had been on stable political ground.

Now. I'm well-educated enough in neither U.S. military history nor Korean military history to make fair arguments, really, about how the two honestly compare in their treatment and promotion of women in the armed forces. I do know that you can't really compare the current number of women serving in the ROK armed forces with those serving in the U.S. armed forces with any amount of seriousness. But how much of that is due to military service being mandatory only for men, I can't say. Or you could say that military service being mandatory for only men is fair indication in and of itself. I don't know. I do know that there is a program that allows citizens to "volunteer" to experience hard military training every year, and that every year, around 400 women sign up, either for the experience itself or as a show of support.

I always feel, when I sit down to write something like this, as though I should be working toward some big final conclusion. But, as has so often been the case since coming to the ROK, I feel like more than anything at the moment, I have no right to come to any conclusions yet. I'm very, very much still learning. And my eyes are only beginning to be able to focus in on things, rather than seeing them all as one gigantic, confusing blur. I feel like what I'm still engaged in, at this point, is more deconstruction than construction -- deconstructing my own cultural understandings of things, so that I can start again rebuilding them, using what I've learned about the new culture that surrounds me. And gender has been one of the most complicated issues I've encountered within this task so far. Because our standards aren't the same. Our chronologies aren't the same. Our histories have not encountered the same issues in the same order, or in the same manner, and the demands of our societies at any given time have not been the same.

So, what's my point? Well. I don't have one yet. I'll get back to you on that. So just stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

That was a really good read, both as the perspective of an observer and as a part of the observed.

It would be a hoot to post this on Dave's....

"Yeah, but, they have purses!"

O well. Perhaps it isn't worth the trouble to feed the dogs all at a same time to see them fight.

Anyway, at least I have something interesting to look forward to if the winds change my way.

-- .38

I'm no Picasso said...

Spesh -- I'm the first to admit I don't know shit about the military. But my interest has always been caught by how often women are mentioned at war memorials here in the ROK. You just don't see that shit often back home. In fact, I can't think of a single war memorial I've ever seen that specifically mentions a group of women as major participants.

Dave's is stupid. Obviously. I don't know what's wrong with those people. I really don't. And it's fine to not be down with men who offend your Western sense of masculinity, I guess, if you really feel the need to make it your business. But if you expect me to listen to you drone on about it for any amount of time, you'd better at least try to put some extended thought in to it. Because no one who's been here for longer than a year is really amused by it anymore, I don't think. It's kind of one of those really obvious things, like kimchi having a smell and ajummas shoving on the train.