|Picture by Charles LeBlanc (flickr.com)|
This was something I was musing on the other day while one of my uncle in-laws was talking to me over some spicy grilled eel (one of my favourites) outside his house. I was in a good mood, eating happily away when he started a conversation about England in comparison to Korea. He started with history and said, "America and the UK have only short histories, not like Korea. You know Korea has a great history that goes back 5000 years?"
Firstly, why he lumped the US in the conversation is anyone's guess (Roboseyo might have the answer), but I suspect that, try as he might, even knowing that I am not American, he still can't quite bring himself to separate me from them. In fact, many of my relatives regularly ask me questions about the US, to which 95% of the time, I simply say, "I have no idea." Despite this, the questions still get asked and the message has not quite sunk in that I almost certainly know more about Korea than I do the US.
I can't help but feel I would have better received his comment if he had just forgotten about the comparison between countries and just said, "You know Korean history goes back 5000 years?" and left it at that, and then we could have had an interesting discussion about Korean history (something he might also know something about), albeit in my rather shoddy level of Korean. I guess what he said was true about the US, it does have a young history, but the UK, not so much. And as well as the fact he clearly knew nothing about the history of the British Isles, he had a goading, belittling, and magnanimous tone that encouraged a defensive response. If I had been American I would have been tempted to say (as I got semi-offended on their behalf), "Well, I know your country has been around a long time, but....." you can add any number of responses here considering the great influence the US has had and still has on the world and has had on Korea itself.
The same goes for the UK of course, I had an overwhelming urge to list everything great about my country compared to his. Also, unless we are talking about a continuous culture, the same race, or the same borders, the history of almost any country goes back over 5000 years, doesn't it? But why did I have this longing to bite back? I am not normally like this, I am not always so overly proud to be British, in fact I hate patriotism in many ways. Why should I really be proud of a history I had no part in, based on the mere accident of my birth in that particular country? Logically speaking, it has never made that much sense to me.
Perhaps I am simply not immune to an innate form of tribalism that we all have, or perhaps it was also a combination of factors, like the inaccuracy, the ignorance, and the magnanimity of the way he was speaking, with all the authority given to him by his age and status as an older man in Korea. There is just something about a Korean older man who speaks with confidence and authority on something that he knows absolutely nothing about and in a way that is clearly self-promoting that raises my heckles. This biting reflex may be a natural Western instinct to rebel against authority. This freedom to question and even grill the views of the supposedly superior is a great thing, which of course has some disadvantages in our societies when it comes to law and order, but is necessary for progress and freedom of expression.
Now, the very act of disagreeing with my uncle in-law tends to cause a bite-back response from him as well because - even when he is dead wrong about something that he obviously knows nothing about - he simply is not used to being told so. So what could have started out as a friendly and interesting conversation about history, has turned into subtle slights on each other's culture when he probably had no previous quips about the UK with me, and I none about Korea with him. I was starting to pick up that this was indeed what was happening, so started to check my tongue. He however, wasn't quite done.
|Picture by Leonard Bentley (flickr.com)|
Next came the inevitable comment about smog (I don't know how many times Korean people have brought this up to me). He also added how much cleaner the air must be for me now I am in Korea. I had to correct him on this by saying that we no longer have smog because we don't really use coal as an energy source anymore (I think we stopped having smog when my mother was a child). Since we stopped using it, we now don't have smog and that sometimes we have fog because we are quite a damp country, but the two are quite different and should not be confused. I held back from saying that the air quality in the UK is undoubtedly better than Korea because the weather comes from thousands of miles across the Atlantic ocean and not from energy-hungry China and other highly populated and therefore fossil fuel burning parts of Asia. There is evidence also to back this up.
Bizarrely, on a trip to Suncheon Bay with my parents (who were in Korea for my wedding) we were interviewed by a woman working for Gwangju kbc television and she reiterated much of the same sort of stuff. After a few questions about how we felt about being there and how beautiful it was, it came up again, the comparison question: "How do you feel about being in Korea in this beautiful nature compared to England?" It was an odd and uncomfortable question and the tone suggested she wanted an answer something along the lines of, "Yes, the air is so much fresher and the scenery so much more beautiful than my own country." My mother and I sensed the gist of the question and gave a measured response saying how beautiful Korea was but also how England was just as pretty and picturesque, but perhaps in a less rugged and mountainous way. She didn't seem overly satisfied with those answers, but it was better than my father's; he simply said - in his rather strong London accent - "Well, I'm not really a nature person." The look on the reporter's face was golden.
|Suncheon Bay in the background, two idiots in the foreground.|
As I have mentioned before in a previous post, my uncle in-law had two Jindo dogs a couple of years ago, which he tied up in the driveway and that he never walked - they simply stayed there for their whole life - with no bed or significant shelter in the heat of summer, the cold of winter and in the wind, rain, and snow. This would have been enough for me to disrespect his views on animal welfare already, but when I asked my wife one day why they had disappeared from his driveway, she said that he had sold them for dog meat because they were getting old and he didn't want them anymore. Only yesterday did I learn that one of those dogs was actually my own dog's grandfather.
Coincidentally, this all happened just a few days before South Korean professor Kim Seong-kon at the Korea Herald released an article about Korean mothers, which was perhaps the very definition of diabolically awful, ill-formed, nationalistic nonsense, and quite rightly received a number of rebukes, first at Asiapundits, then by the boss at wangjangnim.com, and then my favourite of all by Roboseyo. Actually, I was a little peeved with Roboseyo's post at the same time as it said precisely what I wanted to say about how Korea can wind us all up the wrong way sometimes and their reasons for it, plus it was done probably a lot better than I could have done it. So check it out and I won't repeat anything here, he at least saved me some time in writing.
So in summary then, I understand the difference in culture and I know that some things will just get my goat because they are different and it is simply not what I am used to. I think I have the means to fight these kinds of feelings, but perhaps the biggest reason for me to bite is this nasty little habit that so many older Koreans have of dishing out advice that is not only not asked for, but is for their own benefit, self-promoting, ignorant, vindictive, wrong, and magnanimous all at the same time. Then, running a close second is the other tendency some Koreans have to shamelessly promote their own country as the best, whilst at the same time belittling others often right in the face of that particular country person, without having even the tiniest snippet of knowledge about their country. Yes, I think I have figured out why I get a little snappy sometimes.
I sort of get why many often feel compelled to do preach advice and to compare the rest of our countries unfavourably to theirs, and I do feel genuine sympathy for what has happened to Korea in the past. I also know that I should just be the bigger man and take it all with a smile on my face, yet at the same time, sometimes it is perfectly natural and right to become a little annoyed with it all. More importantly, perhaps it is even our responsibility to respond and be upset, to ourselves, to others, and to the perpetrators of this stuff themselves.