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Snobberies In The North American Diaspora

This week Adam provided a question at the last minute. It goes a little like this:

I was recently involved in an online discussion of Role Playing Games, and one participant began rhapsodizing about the latest Final Fantasy game for the Playstation 2. The rest of the participants in this discussion were old-school, pencil-and-paper gamers, and the sneer in response to that one guy’s description of a video game as an RPG was similar to the reaction you’d get for bringing a bottle of “Night Train” to a wine tasting.

So here’s what I want to know, my Sinful Little Monkeys: What are the Top 5 things you’re snobbish about? What things make you curl your lip, look down your nose and say, “Really! We don’t do that here!”

That’s a good, good question, and it’s one that, of course, gives me leave to talk about life here in Korea in a new way I’ve not considered before, not too clearly, anyway.

I find that living in Korea has lessened the number of things I could be snobbish about. How’s that? Well, you see, there used to be a potentially huge number of things I could be a snob about. I was living in an isolated world, in some ways. First in music school, then in grad school hanging around with a small elite elite of the more literate and intelligent students in my department (which is what Jack and Jessie and a few others constituted); and all the way along, on a science-fiction mailing list where I was a major voice and accorded some respect as the most voluminous contributor for several years.

In all of these settings, despite tensions, there were a number of shared assumptions between myself and the people I tended to like in those settings, to allow me to develop some pretty powerful prejudices. Anyone too conservative for my liking, or too showy in his or her liberalism; anyone too partisan, got my wrath. I judged people’s musical taste in comparison to my own—which, mind you, I think it’s fair to say was immensely wider than most peoples’ taste, but also generally more obscure—and while I didn’t immediately revile people who preferred what I considered crap, I certainly did consider them as lacking something crucial to being cultured as a human being. People who refused to read books, or worse yet who read but refused to think critically about what they were thinking, won my mockery almost without exception.

And now, here in Korea, I count among my friends people who enjoy Britney Spears and people who ask me to summarize newspaper articles because they’re personally so averse to reading that they’d rather not read them for themselves. I can hang out with people who have drinking problems, I’m dating someone who self-identifies as a Catholic (something I swore I’d never do years ago), and I can chat about theology and atheism over lunch without getting violent.

By the way, I’m not extolling my own virtues here. I’m noting the amount of change that’s happened in my personality since I came to live in Korea. Read that last bit of the sentence as, since I came to live in a disapora of sorts, a place where there are only limited numbers of people with whom I can converse, hang out, and form fulfilling relationships. While Lime encourages me to study Korean, and I have long thought that doing so would open the door to a whole array of fascinating and wonderful friendships with people who cannot speak English, I also know that realistically, right now, I mostly need a certain amount of English ability in anyone who I wish to be close to.

Unlike some people in my shoes, I absolutely do not think this means I need to spend time exclusively with foreigners… absolutely not. In fact, I’m more leery of foreigners than at any time in the past. But I do find that even including both Koreans and foreigners, my potential social circle is still fairly limited. In terms of my old mindset, this has translated into a lowering of my standards, a newfound toleration for various mediocrities and lacks in other people. But from my current point of view, it is simply a growth in myself, adapting to living in a smaller social world, a growth that allows me to see the deeper dignity in a larger number of people despite their being rather radically different from me, and often despite their own ability to see past the differences I am now better at looking past.

I can hang out with a lot more people, a lot of people who are a lot more different from me, without insisting in some way that they are lacking or missing something. This doesn’t mean I don’t think they’d be better off if they did learn to, say, appreciate art or read more often. But I don’t push for that, not even a little, and I also know that they have their own paths to find, and their own ways of going about living.

That said, it’s interesting which of my prejudices remain, and which ones have newly developed since I have arrived in Korea. I’ll try, in each point, to note whether its a new bias or one that survived this transformation toward tolerance I’ve talked about.

  1. Food bias. I know this may sound strange, but I judge people on the basis of the food they will not eat, or insist on eating. I hate to admit this because it sounds not only petty but a little crazy. Still, there are some major patterns I have to note, and I’ll go through them right now. Firstly, there are foreigners who, for whatever reason, categorically refuse the following kinds of food:
    • seafood
    • anything too non-western
    • Korean food in general

    These people strike me, in increasing order, as sadly limited. Perhaps it’s very pseudo-Korean of me, but it seems that to the degree people refuse to eat Korean food, they also seem to refuse to really live in the place they’re in. Soldiers are notorious for this, but a number of English teachers are like this too.

    Lest you imagine this bias is limited only to foreigners, think again. Koreans who cannot enjoy other cuisines, who refuse even to give something like French cheese or wine a chance, lose a lot of points in my book. The number of times a foreign meal I’ve prepared for a friend has gone to waste is too depressing to even consider. Koreans who cannot even give foreign food a try, let alone savour it, tend to lose points in my book for being provincial and closed-minded.

    In addition, Koreans who like to eat garbage food, and claim that it is good, also go into my questionable category. I can’t tell you the number of times Korean students have taken me to a restaurant that serves trash, and sung its praises simply because the decor was nice. It seems like people will love your restaurant as long as you put in big plush chairs, huge wooden tables, call buttons for the servers, and slim handsome/beautiful servers with ankle-length aprons. Someone who cannot enjoy a little ajumma shikdang (a little family restaurant, I guess we’d call it in English) just isn’t in touch with Korean food, I think. And seeing it in Koreans, apparently thinking they’re embracing the modern when what they’re embracing is badly cooked noodles and high prices for apparent status, really saddens me.

    Similarly, I tend to look down on people who cannot cook for themselves, or refuse to do so. When we discuss cooking in my language classes, and students claim the only thing they know how to cook is 3-minute-noodles, I usually mock and berate them, telling them how many Korean dishes I myself can prepare.

    Meanwhile, if someone appreciates good Korean food, I can usually overlook two or three of my other extant biases with that person. Being able to enjoy proper food—and never ever forcing me to eat shitty food just to accomodate their limited tastes—wins people a lot in my books.

    As you may imagine, this bias is a new one for me, which developed after I came to Korea.

  2. Musical bias. I mentioned that I can be friends with someone who likes Britney Spears. But in all honesty, that is only one friend and she’s an amazing person in general, otherwise, so the music thing is peripheral. We dont share music with one another, and it never comes up.

    To be honest, I’ve stopped judging people on what kind of music they like, and instead begun judging them on other criteria, probably more complex than I can actually formulate on the spot. A couple of those criteria, though, would be:

    • openness to heretofore unknown music
    • diversity of current musical tastes
    • passion for music in general

    If people go on and on about the wonders of some music I think is actually somewhat bad, I can still respect them for their passion. If people don’t give a damn what they are listening to, I can sometimes get over it and have a good conversation with them. But the latter is harder, and I tend to gravitate towards people who either have a wide-ranging taste in music, or who are very passionate about it.

    I’d say this is a modification of an older bias against “stupid people who only like rock music.” And now that I play in a rock band and I’m trying to figure out how the genre works, I like rock music too, though I’m quite far from liking only that genre.

  3. Bigots. Korean racists, foreign racists. Sexists from home and sexists from here. I despise them all, I take every chance I get to contradict or (better still!) humiliate them, and I don’t care if it’s just ignorance on their part. It’s the twenty-first century, there’s no excuse for it anywhere anymore. I’ve always felt that way as far back as I can remember.

    That said, I don’t up and decide that every person who is wary of foreigners is a racist, or that every foreign man who makes a dirty joke about Korean women is a racist/sexist. I do give people a chance and don’t take everything at face value. In class this evening, I had students split up into pairs of two women or two men, and denote lists of what they thought spouses of the opposite sex “should” or “ought to” do; they were learning to differentiate grammatically between mere advice (ought to), and obligation (must). I know certain teachers who would have treated everything that the older, more conservative Korean professor in the class said as some kind of awful neolithic sexist attitude. I asked him to explain his points and, beyond the linguistic barriers found that he was much more reasonable than some people might have imagined. I also took the chance to rib some of the women in the class because, as it turned out, they were just as demanding as the men.

  4. People who waste their time. When I look at people around me, I sometimes wonder if they have any sense of how short life is. They piss away the time getting drunk, or playing computer games—not only that but discussing the strategy in a given PC game to death, until even I feel I could master the game. I’ve seen both foreigners and Koreans who live this way. It’s saddening. I feel sorry for them. But I also feel like I’m seeing cases of arrested development. It’s quite saddening, and not only that, it seems terribly selfish and irresponsible to me; we live in a time when we have so much power to do good, and they spend that time allotted to them playing video games. Sure, I’m not doing so much now, but at least I am thinking about it. That’s a start that I don’t see so many people even considering possible or “interesting enough” to bother with. People like this seem barbaric to me.

    That said, I too enjoy playing games, but I believe that RPG games develop the imagination, allow us a chance to tell stories with our friends in a way people have been doing for millions of years, and yet that they’re genuinely innovative games, kind of the old myth-telling culture revamped for the democratic, cosmopolitan contemporary world.

    I think this is a clarification of an older bias against lazy and amoral people, people with no sense of duty or responsibility to anyone but themselves.

  5. People who don’t give a shit. It’s okay to be out of touch with the news sometimes. To not follow politics perfectly all the time. To not throw oneself into a hobby or to try very hard to learn Korean. Not everyone needs to do these things. But a person must, absolutely must, care about something, and do something. People who spend every night praying seem, to me, to be wasting time when they could be out there doing tangibly good acts, but it’s still better than not giving a shit. The people I revile? Those who piously quote Noam Chomsky but never desconstruct their own basic assumptions about the world; people who use political discourse to make themselves feel worldly or try to make others around them feel ignorant; those who find no greater meaning for their lives than—as is common among foreigners—drinking like a fish, or—as is common among my Korean students—pleasing mommy and daddy by finding a good job and making lots of money. Oh, and the way so many people drive here. It’s selfish and destructive and an extension of this not giving a shit about other people thing. Tinted windows, and hit-and-runs. Including my own recent experience.

    There was an idiot at the Deep-In (the local foreigners’ watering-hole) the other night who was proudly explaining that he doesn’t vote in America because the black voting population is underrepresented and hid not voting evens out the playing field a little bit. Let alone that his sympathies almost ensure he’d be voting in their favor, it was just a senseless, bullshit argument for a man abandoning what is, in a democratic society, not only his most sacred right but, right now, his most pressing duty. I wanted to tell him off but I was seeing Lime for the first time in a long while, and didn’t want to abandon her while explaining to this guy why he was a moron.

    Yes, people who don’t give a shit. Who claim to be studying Korean and can’t speak as well as me. Students who sit in class like bumps on a log and refuse to even try to learn something while they are forced to be there. Foreigners who decide the rest of the world can go to hell, and people in general who refuse to get their shit together, or even try. I have no time for these people.

    I think I felt a little like this in Canada, but it’s gotten a lot stronger since I came to Korea. To me, this seems like the most reasonable reason to revile a person.

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