BigWOWO recently put up this excellent TED lecture from Martin Jacques about understanding the rise of China. The lecture is very valuable, albeit a little bit too broad-brush given the limited amount of time Jacques must have had. And in the process, he also makes a couple of very important points that are applicable to understanding Korea as well. Jacques said:
This is a very important point. Koreans talk about "the way Koreans do things." But Americans talk about "the way things are," and never "the way Americans do things." Often, it does not even occur to Americans that our way is not the only way, but in fact a chance result of our particular historical circumstances. Put differently, Americans universalize their own values, although America is certainly not the universe.I think attitude toward China, that of us is one of "little Westerner" kind of mentality. It's kind of arrogant, arrogant in a sense that we are the best and therefore we have the universal measure.
To be sure, Americans (and really, all Westerners) try to make allowances around the margins. Multiculturalism and promotion of tolerance prevalent in America are positive efforts. But when it comes to the most important questions like "How significant is an individual relative to a community?", "What does a modern democracy look like?", "What is the source of ultimate happiness?", Americans are utterly, totally blind to the possibility that there can be an answer other than their own. Truly, this is the point at which Americans earn the reputation that they are arrogant. The Korean does not think Americans are arrogant; but we are very self-unaware.
Often, this is the point with which Americans visiting/living in Korea struggle the most. Korea seems like a modern democracy. But the way Koreans approach modernity and democracy is not the same as Americans approach modernity and democracy. Koreans have their own historical experience. That experience sometimes overlaps with America's, and sometimes it does not. And too many expats get exasperated in Korea because Korea, apparently, is "doing things wrong." They make ajeossi and ajumma the symbols of everything "wrong" with Korea, while pinning their hopes on younger Koreans who are more sympathetic to the Western worldview.
Understanding a different culture is more than eating at a different ethnic restaurant once in a while, or even more than speaking a different language fluently. If you want to really, genuinely understand a different culture, abandoning your own perspective and seeing the other culture from an internal, inside-out perspective is the most critical step. And often, the best way to acquire that perspective is to carefully assess where your own knowledge of the world came from, and recognize there may be a different way of doing things, no matter how jarring that difference is.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.