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Villages Don’t Have Bad Neighborhoods, Do They?

An interesting link on Arts and Letters Daily recently was this one, discussing the following point:

… those who travel and live abroad must be continually alert and never fall for the myth that we live in a “global village”. Ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to religious observances, traditions, manners and gestures in other parts of the world. It is all too easy to be caught in cultural crossfire.

The impetus for this discussion came from the incident involving Gillian Gibbons, a middle-aged British schoolteacher who did something very silly in Sudan. (She let her class name a teddy bear after a classmate named Muhammad. Some secretary with a grudge took the opportunity to accuse her of insulting the Islamic Prophet of the same name, and had the woman jailed.

She could have been given 40 lashes or much more time in prison. And like the rest of the blogosphere, I agree: that’s so ridiculous it’s beyond comprehension. It really is. Religious tyranny ain’t cool, ain’t acceptable. If a cleric stays out of my way, I’ll stay out a his, but when religious nuts take over public life, it’s time to get out the guillotine.

But I still think that Ms. Gibbons was foolish in her actions, too. I mean, this is not London. This is Sudan. You’re living under an Islamic regime. You’re living in a place where, yes, everyone isn’t a religious fanatic, but where such fanaticism is socially acceptable and even upheld by the state. This is where you are living, lady. And you name a teddy bear — a toy animal — the same name as the most important figure in the local religion? I mean, wouldn’t you think twice naming a toy animal “Jesus Christ” or “Yahweh” if you were teaching in a school in, say, Mississippi or Alabama? (Or, for that matter, with the latter name, in Israel?)

The stakes are much lower in Alabama, in Mississippi, in Israel. So too, in Korea, especially because, right now, Korean society itself is in transition and is adopting a lot of Western sensibilities. Couples can hold hands in the street, and a kiss will not get you death threats or the possibility of jail — though individuals may try to tell off couples of the wrong racial composition, when their paths cross.

But I’ve seen the same attitude among a fair number of short-term expats living here, especially those planning on being here only one or two years. It’s like they’re actually just living in a Korean annex of Canada — that’s how they behave. Yes, Canada — lots of the white people here these days are Canadian, not American (like me). They walk about as if they’re in Canada, or, worse, as if they’re in some kind of inferior country where the rules don’t apply to them. Dumb-assed white boys carrying beer bottles into an unlicensed coffee shop where beer cannot be sold or consumed, and then settling in to a long poker game: this is where, in Toronto, or in Oshawa, or Vancouver, the shop owner would kick you out and if you didn’t comply, they’d call the cops. So why do it in Korea? These guys do not realize they’re not God’s gift to Korea. They do not seem to understand that there are rules here, too, and that they apply to them the same as everyone. It’s worse than not realizing this isn’t their home country: it’s not even realizing that every place in the world has norms and rules, and one doesn’t rise above all that because of his or her skin colour.

Even among my well-adjusted friends, early on, there have been gaffes. One smart, cool buddy of mine went shopping for fishing gear. He was struggling to ask a surly old shop owner a question, and the shop owner — no sweetheart himself — basically indicated he wasn’t interested in trying to understand a question in badly-spoken Korean. He basically gestured for my friend to leave, and when my friend, annoyed by this, muttered, “Fine. Fuck you, too,” the old fellow caught it, understood it, and starting hitting him in the head with a fishing rod while yelling, “Puck you? Puck YOU!” (At least, that’s how I remember the story he told.) My friend here was following North American rules — replying to rudeness with rudeness, which seems much less common in Korea — but he was also assuming (wrongly) that non-Anglophones don’t know what, “Fuck you” means. Luckily, all that happened was he failed to buy a fishing rod. I don’t know whether Koreans would consider the man within his rights to tell off a Westerner who cussed at him under his breath, but I do know that most Koreans wouldn’t do it themselves. Frustrating as that is, that seems to be how it’s done here: rudeness on the others’ part doesn’t always justify a rude response on the part of the offended party.

The article linked included a long list of etiquette points for the world traveler, but failed to make the most important point obvious:

Realize that you don’t know everything about how to behave in this culture, and pay attention to the locals for cues on how to do so. Not knowing is not an excuse. Think about it, or better yet, ask a local.

Once you know the rules, and the consequences for breaking them, you can make personal decisions about when to follow the rules, and when to break them. That option is, at least, available to everyone living in a certain culture, and you’ll always find locals who ignore certain cultural norms routinely.

For example, Koreans will tell you it’s rude to eat noodles as the Japanese do, slurping and making noise as you consume them. But go to any restaurant, and you’ll hear a few Koreans slurping their noodles. Koreans will tell you that eating with your mouth open is rude, but of course, a few people do it regularly, and don’t get asked to close their mouths. (A lady eating with her mom the other night put me off my dinner by the sheer torrent of noise she made chewing with her mouth open.) Koreans will tell you that kissing in public is not normative in public, but you see a couple doing it every once in a while. How do these normative violations differ? Well, living here long enough, you’ll know that the hangups about sexuality and especially sexuality between Koreans and non-Koreans run so deep that one is much better off slurping his noodles and not kissing his girlfriend on the subway than he would be doing the reverse.

The thing to realize is that the “Global Village” metaphor is simply a poor one. We are, on this planet, much more like a global metropolis, at least at thing point. Different cultures, ideologies, and belief systems aren’t the reason for this — people in a village can differ. It’s the fact that fundamentally different cultures, ideologies, and belief systems guide the behavious of people in different areas, and that some of those areas tend to be dominated not by a pluralistic, accepting attitude toward difference. Sudan is not an example of a single house in a Global Village — it’s much more like a poor, messed-up neighborhood in a big city, and one that should be visited with great caution. One does not just pop into the worst district of one’s home city for an “adventure,” nor should one go abroad thoughtlessly seeking for that reason.

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