Saturday, August 1, 2009

Culture Crossing Complications

Stereotypes only get you so far.

I find understanding Korean culture is helped very little by any kind of stereotype, or even by some of the more nuanced things I picked up in my Korean studies before coming here.

I usually try to understand the world by finding a few guiding principles and explaining everything I see in terms of them. I don't think this has much to do with why I majored in physics, but that is exactly what physicists try to do. Newton used three concise laws to explain all motion.

However, if there are a few such principles at the core of Korean culture, they elude me. American stereotypes of Koreans, such as aptitude in math and science and obsession with video games, are several dimensions short of what I find here. I have found approximately nothing in Korea which would lead me to deduce those stereotypes.

It's not that I haven't tried to understand the people here in such a way. At times, I form a hypothesis based on an experience, but it seldom explains other experiences. (Am I living and breathing the Scientific Method or what? Makes one sick...)

For example, before leaving the airplane in Korea I had to fill out a card certifying that I did not have Swine Flue or any of the associated symptoms. The next day customs even called me to make sure that I hadn't come down with the bug. This experience led me to think, "Koreans are very serious about hygeine and preventing the spread of disease."

I am baffled, then, every time I use a public bathroom and find there is absolutely no soap. Not just no antibacterial soap - no soap.

Asian cultures are also known for being family oriented. This is true of Korea, yet people get married late even by American standards and the population is almost the fastest-declining in the world, with a birth rate of around 1.15.

Another example: when we went to the beach one afternoon three weeks ago, only one other person actually took off the clothes he was wearing over his bathing suit - and he was Chinese. The rest went in and got soaked in their clothes.

This might lead you to think that Koreans are very shy and private when it comes to their bodies. But then you would have no way of explaining the group shower I took in the same room with 5 other guys later that night, or the culture of public bathhouses here in which you can have your skin scraped by a stranger while you swelter in the nude.

A reductionist who has failed to this point might throw up his arms and label the country something like, "Korea: Land of Contradictions." But that label would excel in both ignorance and in arrogance. The fact the people can't be understood via a few simple rules (i.e. "They're just like us except a, b, and c...") does not indicate that their culture is strange or illogical; it indicates that there is something wrong with the reductionist approach.

This failure is one reason humility is such and important virtue in crossing cultures. As an outsider, the only way to begin to understand a people is by living as one of them. The presumption that you could understand them through a textbook, or that trying to understand and accept their culture isn't necessary in loving them, is fatal.

Omniscient God chose to live as one of his creations in demonstrating his love for them. We celebrate this miracle as Christmas. We would do well to fully consider the implications of his Incarnation.


Jonathan said...

"usually try to understand the world by finding a few guiding principles and explaining everything I see in terms of them."

Are you sure you're an S?

Kidding aside, I think you make a good point about the shortcomings of a reductionist approach in cross-cultural experiences, and the importance of first-hand "incarnational" experience. I wonder how that guiding principle generalizes to other areas where we're inclined to take a strictly reductionist approach....

M. Weed said...

Do you know about the Hedgehog and Fox theory? It sounds like you're a Hedgehog reluctantly becoming a Fox.

(Of course the irony of the Hedgehog/Fox distinction is that it's a very Hedgehog distinction to make.)

I'm also inclined to agree with Jonathan that you're probably not a "real" S any more than I was ever a "real" P... You just might think you're an S because you're surrounded by ultra-N types.

Anonymous said...

So you found the totality of Korean life not only different but difficult to predict. I think it is really useful in today's world to learn how many different ways there are to cope with life's demands. I would like to learn more about your experience in Korea.

Sarah S said...

This made me think of my own experience in Korea. I agree with you on the difficulty in finding these 'guiding principles' (the only possible exception...drinking lol). I think that's part of the reason why it is so difficult for many Americans to travel abroad for prolonged periods of time because they have no anchoring stereotypes that are frequently and often unconsciously applied to different groups within the United States.