3.31.2011

Culture vs. class.

There's the language barrier, and then there's the cultural divide.

It's not uncommon for me to hear about how "Korean" I am. And I don't mean in the sense that I've adjusted and adapted well to the culture, or that I can use chopsticks and eat spicy food. My co-teachers, who are the Koreans I've spent the most consecutive time with and who have had the largest exposure to my way of handling situations, thinking about responsibilities and various subjects such as how children should be guided and expected to behave, are the main source of these comments. Whenever I hear them, I'm sure to correct them -- I'm not Korean at all. I'm American. Specifically, I'm working class Southern Baptist American. It just so happens that our cultures, despite their many differences, actually have a hell of a lot in common.

I was shocked to log in to Blogger one day recently and find that one reader had written in to address The Korean about how his ideas about "Tiger Parenting" and his Christian faith should somehow be discordant. My family was just about as Christian as you could get when I was growing up. My grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher, and my parents met at church. And this was not some light and airy only-on-Sundays shit we're talking about, here. It was the basis of my entire childhood. And it was very much what dominated my parents views about how they raised me. Specifically, I was very, very familiar with the "spare the rod and spoil the child" school of thought when I was coming of age.

One afternoon, early on in my time in Korea (maybe still in the first year, or the beginning of the second), one of the PE teachers came into our smaller office to discipline a student. By "discipline", I do not mean "make him write an apology and call his mother". Obviously. But the PE teacher gave me a good once-over, hesitated and squirmed for a moment, before calling my co-teacher out into the hall. He knows a bit about "American culture", as it turned out, and was feeling uncomfortable about what I might feel about what he was about to do to the student. He wanted the co-teacher to warn me, and try to explain it to me and put me at ease as best she could. Which was remarkably considerate of him, and that's the kind of man that he is. But entirely unnecessary. I looked up at my co-teacher from in front of my computer monitor and told her that there was no need to explain it -- I was raised (and raised well) with corporal punishment. To me, it's nothing to bat an eyelash at.

But it's not just corporal punishment that showed up in the way that my parents that raised me with Christian values. I was also taught things like putting others before your own interests, not taking more than you need, turning the other cheek, and valuing and serving the community over the individual. I was taught to take responsibility for my own actions, and accept punishment and/or suffering with grace and humility. I was taught to unquestionably respect and obey my elders, specifically to speak with respect and not to talk back, no matter how wrong I felt the person in authority was. I was taught that, although a person in authority may be wrong and you don't have to respect them, you do have to respect the position that they hold, as someone who is presumably at least in some ways wiser and more experienced than you are -- that you don't always see things clearly when you are younger, and there are things that your elders understand which you don't have the capability to grasp yet. These are all values that I, personally, have found to be highly valued and promoted within Korean culture. And to be, frankly, a bit lacking in more "modern", mainstream versions of American culture.

I was also raised in an environment which valued traditional gender roles. To be frank, my upbringing was rather sexist. This is not a value that I still (or ever did) embrace. And I hesitate to point it out or lay it across as a banner on Korean culture, simply because, coming from the background I do, I understand all too well how easy it is for outsiders to be condescending about it, and to condemn it too blithely without really understanding where it comes from, or how it functions. But I will say, simply, that it was not something that I found to be shocking or unmanageable in the ways that it does present within Korean culture. I've been navigating that issue within my own, very American culture for my entire life. I didn't find it to be "Korean" at all.

The other part of my culture, which is very strongly tied to the Southern Baptist portion, is the working class portion. Growing up working class taught me a lot of things, some of which are pretty repetitive of the values listed above, but also including the notion that you do what work needs to be done and you don't complain about it. There's not a lot of "fair" when you come up poor, and you start hearing very early on that, "No it's not fair, but life's not fair." You also hear that if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing right, and that if there's something to be done, it might as well be you who does it. You learn to respect hard work not as exploitation, but as a badge of honor for people who are willing to tuck their chins and do whatever it takes to put bread on the table for their families. You also learn that the boss man is the boss man, and even if he's an ass, he still holds the purse strings. And that's something that you just have to get over.

Do I need to get into how any of that might be applicable?

So, whatever. There are parts of me that run very, very deep that just fucking jive with Korea, is what I'm trying to say -- some parts that I may have even fought very hard to deny before I came, and grew a bit older, and started to see their value. A lot of it is shit that made me seem or feel somehow unsophisticated when I was at university at an art school in New York City with a load of 'liberal' rich kids. Nobody else got "spanked" when they were growing up. No one else spent their childhood actually believing in a god. Nobody else started mowing lawns for pocket money at ten years old.

But now I'm in Korea. And I'm not the one who is out of sorts. I see the kids from the liberal art schools and how they struggle to understand why the boss tells them to do things that they "shouldn't have to" do. I see how they are outraged! appalled! at a sexism that is, in my opinion, simply more direct and honest than the sexism that is just more conniving and subtle back in the States (same goes for racism). I see them flip their shit because a teacher gave a kid a very controlled smack on the ass with a stick for misbehaving.

I also see them struggle to wrap their heads around the fact that Koreans are not an entirely separate breed of human being. The same way they struggled not to slip out with comments about Southerners or red states or born-agains in front of me back at school. Or how they would openly make these comments about my culture right in front of my face, and then casually dismiss it with a wave of the hand and a comment about how I knew they didn't mean me, that I was different. I watch them try to work out how they're having such a hard time understanding a culture that is so clearly less sophisticated than their own, when, as the more sophisticated party, you would think it wouldn't be that difficult for them to adjust. And then turn around and blame that on the fact that Korea is just too racist/sexist/exploitative/etc., that they can't possibly be expected to adjust to this kind of society.

It couldn't possibly be that there are elements of Korean culture that are absent from their own value system. It couldn't possibly be that there is something far more sophisticated -- or, at the very least, complicated -- going on behind some of what they are only grasping on the surface level.

What I'm trying to get at is this: the S.O. is also profoundly working class. And while he's Korean, and I'm a foreigner, it's stupidly weird how much our backgrounds and values have in common due to this. There are not a lot of things that we just don't see eye-to-eye on, that we've discovered so far. A lot of it doesn't even need to be discussed, because it's just that straight-forward to both of us. A friend recently chided me for stating that, although the S.O. is in a bit of a financially delicate situation at the moment (as a young magnae at his company who also lives on his own and supports himself), it's important for me not to put pressure on him to let me pay when we go out. Because that is an infringement upon his pride and his honor.

I'm supposed to be a feminist -- how could I possibly make a statement like that? I am a feminist. And I don't expect a man to pay for me. But I understand something about that situation for him that a lot of outsiders can't or won't see. And I don't mean just that he's somehow threatened by a woman who makes more money -- he's not. And I don't mean just that I'm a woman who expects her man to provide for her -- I'm not. It's something else. And I can't really be bothered to explain it, to be honest. Because it comes from a part of our shared culture that runs too deep to explain.

So he's Korean and I'm American. My co-workers are Korean, and I'm American. My students are Korean, and I'm American. What does that mean? Not a lot, when I've already experienced a much larger "cultural divide" with people who allegedly come from own culture, to be honest.

15 comments:

Z Joya said...

right on.

superA1 said...

So, so, so true.

Jason said...

Well said. As a working-class Northern Baptist, I sympathize completely.

Although it wouldn't kill you to capitalize God... Just sayin'.

Thanks for writing this down. It definitely needs to be said.

I'm no Picasso said...

Jason -- That would be grammatically incorrect. I did not use it as a proper noun. Kind of like how you don't capitalize "mother" when you are referring to a mother, and not using it as a name. My friends did not believe in any god, including God of the Bible, or Allah or Buddha.

And besides that, it doesn't kill you that I didn't. And it doesn't bother me that you did. Just aayin'. ;-)

Mr. Spock said...

I grew up very privileged and middle class and surrounded by the "liberal" types you mentioned, especially when I got to high school. I never quite understood why I was different from them, but I was raised by parents who grew up working class themselves and they instilled in me a lot of the values you mentioned--which often made me feel different from the people I was around. In college, where everybody goes on a super liberal kick, parroting their professors in absence of a fully formed worldview I realized that I would have to craft my own. Still working on that. But when I told a friend of mine that "Korea suits my personality", he said "Ah, some latent conservatism in there?" He is from the south too and I think he understood something I didn't yet. Your blog entry crystallized what I have been trying to make sense of in my gut. Especially why so many people I know DON'T jive with Korea in spite of being generally positive, outgoing people. Everybody's culture shock is different and your look at culture vs. class was some very useful insight.

Jason said...

God when used in an under-case, grammatically, is only used as a proper noun in order to insult theists, in much the same way that a name is only used intentionally in under-case, again grammatically, in order to insult someone.

Grammatically, God is used in the under-case (not a proper noun) when referring to a pantheon or to imply total mastery. Examples, "Zeus is God among many gods," and "Michelangelo was a god of painting."

God is not grammatically at all similar to mother (which is not a proper noun). God is defined as a supreme being and it is used as a name in a grammatically similar fashion to either the proper name or nick-name of an individual.

God is used in the under-case erroneously rather frequently. The ethnocentric use of Buddha as a "god" is an example of Western arrogance in literature. The same is true of the various African "gods" -- deities, yes, but nothing resembling God. If a supernatural being has control over reality then it is God in that cultural context even if it is not exclusive in its power.

God is also spelt in the under-case by bigots who wish to use language to insult religious people. Choosing not to upper-case a proper noun is a popular but grammatically incorrect slight.

Allah and Ywh are translations of the proper noun God, not different names. To trinitarians Jesus is God; in any religion or language Jesus is not a "god," as an example

I'm just busting your balls, INP. I don't really have that thin of skin. That, and I honestly don't believe that you were aware of that particular case of institutionalized religious intolerance.

Bashing people for what they believe is, after all, fashionable and acceptable, as long as you use a blanket-concept and don't single anyone out. As a broad category of human identity, theism is rather similar to gender in that way. But I reckon you're the last person I need to tell that.

Again, just giving you a hard time in response to an entry about people getting/having a hard time as a result of cultural misunderstanding.

I did it all for the nerd lawls. ;)

Jason said...

Amendment: By African "gods" I was referring generally to spirit and ancestor worship (hence, do not possess God-like attributes) within/instead of pantheistic or in supplement to monotheistic faith systems (Example: Voodoo).

I'm no Picasso said...

Jason -- What word would you have preferred for me to use, since I was not, in fact, referring to the Christian God, who most English speaking people associate with the term "God"? Also, maybe you should fill me in on goddesses as well.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/god

I mean, I know it's just a dictionary, but it doesn't usually steer me wrong.

By the way, stating outright that you know you're doing something obnoxious doesn't really change the fact that you're doing something obnoxious.

I'm no Picasso said...

Mr. Spock -- Because of everything the word "conservative" has come to mean in American culture, I cringe to even think it. But I guess it's true. "Traditional", maybe? I don't know. Whatever it is, it's there. And I don't think in a bad way. And that's alright. Korea's helped me to come around to that.

Korean Punk Professor said...

Nice post.

Not letting a Korean guy pay is akin to chopping his nuts off. It's a cultural faux pas. I see why Americans might be suspicious of it - suspecting that there is some ulterior motive (e.g. trying to get in their pants). THERE IS NO ULTERIOR MOTIVE (or, not necessarily anyway).

So, just to state some Korean payment etiquette:

1) If you are with a Korean man, and you are a woman, you should assume that he will pay, and you should let him do so (when I was dating in Seoul, the women wouldn't even bother to bring their purses). You might make a half-hearted offer to pay, but if he takes you up on it, he is: A) a cheap, no-good SOB; B) taking advantage of a cultural disconnect; c) definitely, definitely not worth a second date.

2) If you are with a group of Koreans, the oldest or the most senior person should pay. Again, you might make a half-hearted offer to pay, but DO NOT INSIST. Most of all, do not offer to pay your share - which looks selfish and stupid. Again, if a senior person does not pay, that says something about him or her.

3) If you are with a Korean or a group of Koreans who is/are younger than you - then YOU are the motherfucking SENIOR person. So YOU PAY! How many Americans have I seen make asses of themselves by weasling out and offering cultural ignorance as justification. Don't be a dick.

If you think this is too complicated, a Korean person would tell you that it's more respectful and it all evens out at the end anyway.

To sum up: It's a mark of cultural bigotry not to let the Korean guy pay on a date. And he's not looking for anything in return.

Jason said...

INP -- According to the link you gave me, God should be capitalized when referring to "The Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe"

Which is pretty much what I wrote and what you were referring to when you wrote of people who did not believe in a supreme Being.

It does not require that God to be Christian or any other particular religious origin. It's a grammar rule regarding proper nouns.

And the reason why goddess is not capitalized is because it is not a proper noun in common usage. It can be a proper noun when it is a name -- such as for adherents of Wicca.

God is not gender based, thus goddess is misleading and redundant. Some people insist that their particular God is male, some others insist their God is female. That depends on the belief. But God itself is not gendered.

I'm sorry if you think my post is "obnoxious" because I disagreed with something you said and stated my differing opinion.

Anabella said...

jason you are being obnoxious. Your arguing about spelling and completely missing the conversation we are having around class and different cultures! Get a life! You take yourself and your opinions way to seriously!

I'm no Picasso said...

KPP -- I have to ask.... how long has it been since you've been in Korea? Because I haven't found any of what you've said to be even close to an across-the-board way of doing things. At all. Also, when you're in a bi-cultural relationship, it's a little odd to jump to the conclusion that not doing something in only one of the participant's manner of doing things is cultural bigotry. That would mean that there would be a hell of a lot of times when someone in the relationship is being a cultural bigot.

Jason -- You might have had me with with your airy-fairy semantics with regards to the fact that a culture always considers its own supreme being to be the supreme being and therefore "God". But a. I think if you're so worried about not hurting anyone's feelings, you've got a problem on your hands with that argument in regards to the cultures and people who are atheistic and b. to turn around and say what you just said about goddesses in light of what you're trying to argue and why is just fucking weak. Since we are dealing with the oppression of semantics. It was a nice try though.

Also, I really hope you are not who I think you are. If you are, and you've chosen this of all things to be "PC" about, in relation to the actual lives of human beings, then I think you have a lot more "thinking" to do.

Mr. Spock said...

@ INP Yeah I'm Canadian and conservative (note the small c -- don't kill me Jason!) has a pretty negative connotation with people of my generation. Maybe traditional is better, but I have no problem mixing conservative thought in with my liberalism (small l again).

Gomushin Girl said...

Maybe its a bell hooks kind of god?:)

Ah, the smell of postmodern feminist jokes in the morning . . . wakes you right up!