Monday, August 08, 2011

Another Person's Room

Lately, the Korean has been self-studying some Korean law as a hobby. He started with civil law (as opposed to criminal or constitutional law) because he figured it will be the most relevant to his practice. The progress is quite slow, and not just because the Korean is lazy and/or lacking for time. As the Korean explained previously, Korean law is under the Civil Law system, while American law is a typical Common Law system. As an American lawyer, the Korean is finding Korean law to be really, really different. The concepts that the Korean expects to exist just are not there. (For the lawyers and law student -- for example, agency is not a separate body of law, but is interspersed throughout the civil law.)

 Introduction to Civil Law by Yang Chang-Su
It's a bitch of a book.

But recently, the Korean had a breakthrough that made the study a lot more intuitive. He realized that both Korean law and American law are trying to deal with the same circumstances. In a commercial transaction, people often do not pay back what they borrowed. That is the same no matter where the transaction happens. Similarly, in criminal context, people often hit each other and steal other people's things. That is also the same no matter where it is. The big realization was that both Korea and America are basically facing the same kinds of problems, and Korean law and American law do not look all that different as long as one goes back to thinking about what problem they are trying to solve.

Learning Korean law as an American lawyer is like walking into another person's room. In his own room, the Korean keeps his underwear and socks in the same drawer. That might seem weird to some people, but it is not totally crazy. In fact, there is some semblance of logic to such storage. Both underwear and socks are two of the first things that the Korean would wear before getting out of the house. Both underwear and socks are small items that can get lost easily. Do they have to be kept together? No. But is keeping them together a possible solution to an everyday circumstance? Of course it is.

To the Korean, American law is his own room. Ultimately, the law is a system, and it is organized by a certain logic. Just as much as the Korean expects to find his socks in the same drawer as his underwear, he expects agency law to be a separate body of law and torts law to run parallel to criminal law.

For the Korean, studying Korean law is like entering into another person's room. The Korean expects a certain legal concept to accompany another, but often that does not happen -- as if entering the room to find a drawer holding underwear, but not socks. At first, the Korean's reaction was total dismay: "What? There is a whole body of obligations law, but not agency law? How does this make sense?" The Korean was basically asking: "Where are the socks? Why are they not next to the underwear? How does this make sense? How does this person live without socks?"

But of course, no one lives without socks. If the Korean looked hard enough, in some corner of that room, there will be socks. And when the Korean does find where the socks are, the placement of the socks in that particular location will eventually make sense. And the Korean will feel like a fool that he ever thought the person lived without socks. By the same token, Civil Law does not have to have a separate body of agency law. It is, after all, the legal system used by the vast majority of countries in the world, including advanced countries that have no problem maintaining law and order by being able to solve the same problem faced by Common Law countries. If it does not require a separate body of agency law to do that, that's fine.

This point is not limited to legal studies. It applies more broadly, to appreciating different cultures. In fact, the Korean is convinced that most people understand this idea on a certain level. In more than four years of writing this blog, the Korean has found, time and time again, that most non-Korean readers can comprehend even the most different and off-putting aspect of Korean culture as long as the Korean presents all the facts and circumstances. The closer to the ground level a post is, the more positive the readers' responses. Most people get it -- when given a certain circumstance, most people react in similar manner. As long as the circumstance is understood, the reaction to the circumstance can be understood also.

This insight also leads to a helpful lesson of just what "having an open mind to a different culture" really means. At bottom, it means having faith in the people who subscribe to the culture -- faith that these people are motivated by the same forces as we, that they are not stupid, irrational or innately predisposed to a certain temperament, that whatever they are doing will make sense once we understood the entire circumstance. It is the faith that somewhere in the room, there are socks, even though they might not be where you expect them to be.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. If there is one thing I have found after living in Korea for 3 years, and living with someone who can explain cultural things for me for 2 of them, is that everything has a reason. These things that westerners complain about all the time as not making sense, actually make perfect sense if you actually think about it for a minute.
    "Uh! Why do they drive on the sidewalks??!" Because that is where the parking lot is. "Why to the motorcycles drive on the sidewalks!?" Because they can't make left hand turns when there is busy traffic. "Who on earth needs an umbrella that large?!" I duno, looks like a golf umbrella to me...

    And after recently visiting Spain which is another culture so different from our own in many aspects, I'm able to find reasons for the strange things Spanards seem to do. And when I can't understand, I just learned to accept it because I know that there must be a reason. It was hard doing that trip with someone who hadn't left the US for a number of years and complained every step of the way about all the things that seemed so strange to her.

  2. Joanna--that's the funny thing about traveling after you've been immersed in another culture for so long. You're much more willing to go with the flow and accept other cultures--it's a pleasant change, but you often don't realize it until you travel with someone who hasn't been in the same situation. I just took a trip with a friend who's never left the states and was horrified at how often he wandered up to random people and bellowed "DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH??" He almost got accidentally on purpose left behind in the subway.

  3. Great post TK! My bf recently went to Russia for business and was speaking w/ a former admiral of the Russian Navy. This admiral acted like a tour guide in the sense that he knew so much about Russia's history and what all the different statues and landmarks meant.... he says "you know. People all over the world are good. Its the governments that screw everything up."

    It seems that a lot of Westerners - when they see a news clip of something going on in another part of the world, they simply cannot imagine why people act like that or think like that or eat like that. Little do they realize that if they were born in these other countries, they would have wound up doing the exact same thing.

  4. Good post. As you suggested, the point is about having an open mind and as Joanna pointed out, there is a logical reason for everything (including seemingly unexplainable things that people call 'acts of God'). Inability to understand the logic doesnt make it illogical.

    So instead of judging things or people as logical or illogical, people should try to understand the logic behind someone's action or event, etc. Only then, you will have the basis to call someone a moron.

  5. Extraordinary post that explains more than the difference between the two systems of justice. Well done.

  6. Brilliant. "There are always socks" should be printed on everyone's passport as a talisman warding off ignorance and snap judgments.

    It's just a shame that people need to be reminded occasionally that yes, people DO wear socks, even if they stash them somewhere else. One would think that coming from a sock-wearing society, we would assume that most people wear socks on a daily basis.

  7. Another good post where TK's insights are explained in an easily understandable form. There shouldn't be any disagreement that one needs to look at another culture with an open mind. It is something everyone agrees with in theory, but not something everyone actually follows - so a good reminder.

    Having said that, for those who are less prone to make that mistake, I think a further step can and should be taken. Using TK's analogy, once one confirms that another person's room in fact contians socks, then one can rationally consider whether that placement is optimal/efficient for that room. Fully considering the size and shape of the room and furniture, can the time required to walk over the socks storage, to put on socks and to leave the room be shortened by applying a principle used in the other room? I would think any social system (e.g., law) that has been developed in one culture always has room for improvement/refinement, and such improvement/refinement may sometimes be made by looking at other systems. Such a comparison of course should not be equated with an uninformed preconception that a society simply does not have "socks" or has an inferior system of storing socks.

    In addition, the sad but undeniable truth is that some countries in this world (e.g., North Korea, some former Soviet republics and many African nations) have no system of storing "socks" or they do not follow the system at all. In such a case, it is hard to say the owner of such room in fact employs an equally thoughtful system of storing socks - it would simply be a misconception.

    I think the example TK portrays is most relevant for emerging/fast developing countries that do not share the Western culture - Korea, obviously, and China and other developing Asian nations. From European perspective, I imagine Turkey must suffer the same preconception. Japan used to be a victim of such a preconception in 80s, but now less people would have preconceived notion about Japanese system given its well-established status of a developed nation. There certain can be many ways to store socks in different rooms, but not all of them are equally efficient, and many of them would benefit from looking at other systems and rationally consider incorporating some of the best features into their own.

  8. Is it hard to read the Korean law book? Judging from the book's cover and from Wikipedia, Korean law is one of the few subjects that still lay on the hanja real thick.

    Since you left Korea as a teenager, do you still remember the hanja well enough to read a legal book?

  9. cqn,

    The Korean retained enough hanja to read the book, but it is not a smooth process for sure.


    Very valid point. But one caveat that the Korean would add is -- the "room" is often vast and its horizons are visible only after significant effort. There may be more optimal placements for socks, but often the recommendations for a new placement of socks come without the full understanding of the room itself.

  10. I keep my underwear and socks in the same drawer.

  11. Unlike many people, I rearrange my furniture frequently. Sometimes, the socks are in the same drawer with the underwear; sometimes, not. Once the socks and underwear were on different floors of the house, which makes sense if you sleep upstairs and wake up with cold feet but shower downstairs. In Seattle, all my socks were heavy, warm socks. In California, I have summer and winter socks. And in the two years I lived in India, I'm not sure I ever wore socks.

    I hope some day I will visit Korea. While I am there, I will buy socks. Maybe I'll display them on the wall as travel mementos when I get home. They will remind me of TK. ;)

  12. Another wonderful post! I really admire your blog. I'm thinking about applying your analogy of the sock/underwear drawer in people's rooms to the pursuit of learning different languages.

    My native languages are English and Malayalam. I have learned French to a good level of fluency, but I remember my initial frustrations with the language. I kept wondering where certain grammar elements were located...which led me to unfairly rationalize French as being illogical when compared to English, and therefore inferior. However, with time and an open-mind, I saw that the socks were indeed in the room; I just had to look around more to find them.

    Right now, I am learning Korean. I'm married to a Korean man and we live in the US. I would like to speak Korean well by the time I meet his parents in Seoul. I've had my struggles with understanding the logic behind this language and it leads me to frustration many times. However, your article made me realize that the room is not organized like mine, and that the socks are located somewhere. I just have to keep looking.


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