Subterranean Doctrine? Part 1

Jodi over at The Asia Pages recently (a few months ago) wrote about the complexities of dating someone from another culture while living in that other person’s culture. Actually, she writes about it fairly often, and I can see why, because it’s a really big thing in your life, in a relationship.

Occasionally my criticisms of things Korean — cultural, governmental, traditional, or what have you — have led to some pretty hard arguments with my (Korean) girlfriend. It wasn’t because I wasn’t sensitive enough, it wasn’t because I wasn’t funny enough or even because of any basic disagreement; some of the criticisms that have led to arguments have been criticisms of things she herself criticises.

We finally talked about it one night in November (when I first drafted this post), and the discussion was fascinating. The thing that I think seemed just beyond imagining for her, until I expressed it to her directly, was my sense of “my own country”. I put that in quotation marks because, while this would be expressed in Korean as “uri nara” (“our country”, meaning the collective “our” of Canadians), I don’t really have anything in my personal vocabulary with which to render “uri nara” in English.

You have to consider the very limp form of institutional patriotism we have in Canada, where I grew up. When I was a kid out in the Maritimes, the photo we had up on our classroom wall was not of Jesus, or a President, but of the Queen of England — the queen of a foreign land who, for all we knew, had nothing to do with us personally. We didn’t have traditional clothing, not in the prairies anyway. We don’t HAVE culture in Saskatchewan, we have wheat. And flax. And oats. That’s us.

We eat the traditional food of other countries — perogies and pemmican and cabbage rolls and chicken soup — and one of our biggest national sports is criticising the government, and criticising the government of our southern neighbour follows close behind. And when you’re looking at society that way, it’s not hard to understand why one doesn’t necessarily get attached to their particular country, their particular culture, their particular society. I’m certain if I’d grown up in Toronto, or in Quebec City, I might have a totally different sense of things, but as it stands, personally, I don’t.

So when I expressed my opinion that nationstates are basically useful fictions that organize things like laws, road upkeep, and health care in exchange for taxes — but which need always to be subject to criticism because governments that aren’t criticised adequately never improve — and that beyond that there is nothing that is actually “inherent”in Canada outside of the imaginations of Canadians, my girlfriend’s eyes were wide and she said, “Wow, you’re really an anarchist.” Which I’m not, and we talked about that some more; but finally, I think, talking about it, she got a sense of just why I have no issues criticising any government, society, culture, or whatever.

And from her reaction, and explanation, I got a better sense of why this is so particularly alien to her. It’s not as if I fully understood it before our talk, but I had some sense of it, of course. One cannot help but develop a sense of it after living here for years. Koreans are bombarded by messages for the first quarter-century of their lives that Korea is a real, tangible thing — one that is crucial to their lives, central to their identity, and in some way sacred. This doesn’t necessarily preclude criticism, but it does make it necessary that all criticism be couched in terms of adoration and respect.

Of course, what is the nation? Is it the landmass? The government? The laws? The culture? The society in its current state? The people? Do we count the good along with the bad? This is an important question, and one that interestingly foreigners in Korea very often encounter.

You will hear Korean students tell you all the wonderful things Korea is. Korea has 4 seasons. Korea has 5000 years of history. Korea fought off Japan under the leadership of Yi Sun-Shin. Korea was the victim of Japan during the first half of the twentieth century. Korea used to be spelled with a C, until the Japanese changed the spelling to knock the nation into coming after Japan in the Roman alphabet (a myth). Korea is going to be the hub of Asia. Korea is a balancer of powers. Korea will someday reunify.

If you ask a question like, “Why is the sex trade so big in Korea as to constitute roughly one-twentieth of the national economy?” or “Why is it so hard for a foreigner to do business here?” or “Why are Korean websites set up to exlude non-Koreans?” or just about anything else that Koreans aren’t proud of, what’s not most interesting is that you usually don’t get a straight answer — because sometimes you do get a straight answer. What’s interesting is the sense of embarrassment that is almost immediately apparent on the faces of the people you’re asking.

This is alien to me. Completely alien. If someone asks me about my hometown, “Why is Saskatoon a capital of child prostitution in Canada?, I might be surprised. I might be disgusted. But I will not feel shame. I will feel, on the other hand, shared anger with the person asking the question. I will be pissed off that there are so many people using children prostitutes in my hometown, and that so many children are in such dire circumstances that they would turn to prostitution; and I might even be likely to do something to change the situation. But under no circumstances will I be embarrassed.

I am not Canada. Canada is not me. When Canada screws up, I know it’s not my fault. When Canada does something wrong, I feel compelled to criticize it. Loudly. Publicly. When Canadians do something wrong, I don’t wish to hide their wrong; rather, I would prefer very loudly to castigate them ad to urge my countrymen and countrywomen to eschew their example, and do better. (Though it happens only rarely, as I don’t follow Canadian news much anymore.)

But I think one of the complex byproducts of the “Uri Nara consciousness” (the nationalism-as-identity issue so widely discussed here) in Korean society is this deep-seated sense of an inextricable binding force between the individual and the state, the government, the Korean people. Lime explained to me the baffling and complex notion she says she was brought up to believe: that Korea is a developing country. Not in the economic sense, but in the “cultural” sense, as a society which has not yet “matured”.

I didn’t know quite what to do with an idea like that. To speak of maturity in societies is to postulate a kind of universal set of stages through which societies pass, from infancy to adulthood (and perhaps old age and collapse). If Korean society is still immature, it can only be said to be this in comparison to some other society, basically a specific other society or societies. Even if one speaks in terms of “incomplete modernization”, one runs into the question of what in the world specifically constitutes “modernity”, and by what standard modernity is deemed to be more deeply embraced in one society than another.

Of course, there are a few possible contenders for this. Japan and China come up first as comparisons, China because of its size and relative power — though plenty of Koreans often regard modern Chinese are dirty and somewhat uncivilized — and Japan because of its wealth, power, and admittance into the political elite of the world. But I suspect the real comparative standard is with the United States.

Funny as it seems with America looking so much like a banana republic so much more now even than usual, its countryside teeming with Fundamentalists fighting (in courts) against the machinations of scientists and humanists, and its soldiers fighting what seems in the minds of many to be a kind of modern-day religious Crusade, I suspect this is the standard by which Korean society is, in the classroom, implicitly judged and found “not yet mature”. Perhaps — probably — the imperial experience played some part in Korean receptivity to a kind of unfortunate subterranean doctrine — never openly acknowledged, but everpresent and universally implied — of Korean “backwardness”. I don’t mean the country itself being backwards, as it is in some ways and isn’t in others, but I mean “backwardness” in some deeper, essentialist sense, a sense that could cause embarrassment to a Korean by its mention because it’s implied to be a part of every citizen as well.

The result, it seems to me, is what I have observed before: a kind of inferiority complex that permeates the national consciousness, not unlike the Canadian one developed under the shadow of the USA and Europe, but somewhat more severe. The large-scale one that causes so many individual Koreans to feel shame (sometimes hidden behind bluster or anger) when flaws in Korea are pointed out, is also deeply tied to the personal sense of shame, unworthiness, and obeisance that it seems are hammered into most schoolchildren throughout their educations, not only in Korea but also in the West.

Next time, I’ll start asking questions about what can be done about all of this.

One thought on “Subterranean Doctrine? Part 1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *