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.