Wonder Indeed…

Miss Jiwaku was once offered a job to travel to Indonesia, accompanying K-pop groups like Wonder Girls and translating for them. She was not, I must note, impressed with the fact she would be traveling with a pop group she considers a blight on Korea’s international reputation; for her, it was about getting paid a decent wage for honest work.

Unfortunately, the organization offering the job — a Korean TV network tasked with making Korea look nice and plain and innocuous abroad, in English — did not offer her a decent wage. The wage was, well, laughable.

One imagines maybe she was expected to be excited to work with K-pop stars. She was not.

When she asked whether the wage offered was negotiable, she was told it wasn’t. (Great negotiators, those Korean businesspeople: I’ve never heard anyone start with any answer than NO. Usually said with disgust.)

When she said it was unreasonably low, the woman offering her the job said, “But this is your chance to serve your nation!” This woman, who undoubtedly was a Korean-American, who undoubtedly was making a very handsom wage, who undoubtedly gives about as much of a damn about “the nation” as a waitress gives about the health of her restaurant’s diners.

I don’t remember what Miss Jiwaku said at this point; I do remember her saying sense of the situation being that there was no point in talking to someone who would come out with a line as ridiculous as that.

One wishes she had paraphrased Allen Ginsberg, who wrote, “It occurs to me that I am America…” For what else would serving Korea mean, if not working for the betterment of Koreans. I’m sorry, but accompanying some second-rate pop stars on an international journey of jingoistic fetishism is not “serving your nation,” no matter how anyone slices it… and if it is, then the definition of “serving one’s nation” is so broad that basically anything fits into that definition.

This is the thing I wish for the students I work with: they would realize the truth in Ginsberg’s poem

I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie
producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.

— can be said of the Chosun Ilbo, and of Korea:

I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by the Chosun Ilbo?
I’m obsessed by the Chosun Ilbo.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner bunshik restaurant.
I read it in the corner of Seoul National University Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. TV
producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am Korea.
I am talking to myself again.

A nation that is defined as anything other than the aggregate of its people — the mass, not the minority who dress best, who eat the best food, who have the most connections — is not a nation: it is a lie, and a tool of manipulation.

Sadly, I can’t say that I imagine most Canadians (or Americans, for that matter) grasp this any better than most Koreans I deal with. That’s really not where I’m going with this. Where I’m going with this is… the way many Canadians or American fail to get this seems less insurmountable to me than the way many Koreans fail to get this.

Maybe that’s unfair of me, but sometimes it feels to me as if Korea is a car with the handbrake left on, and the lever for the handbrake broken off and thrown out the window. I feel like maybe some of the changes fended off by this hard-braking situation are ones that would be genuinely bad for people, but that this braking is also holding back a tidal wave of change that would improve the lives of most people.

And the worst thing is how insidious the opposition is… because the opposition is exactly the people who would most benefit from what changes could happen: female students spouting the ideology of the most virulently anti-feminist groups in the country; students who, with no embarrassment, say in front of me that “foreigners” are loud and rude and frightening, and then say they wish they could live abroad.

Sure, every change has winners and losers. Like the older Korean man I know who is so hung up on race that, as soon as he is in a room with a person of mixed-race, his Freudian slips embarrass me. (Like how, recounting the shock of the original TV series V, he mentioned being shocked to find out the alien was “half bla… er, half alien.”  I mean, seriously? This individual would have great difficulty being taken seriously in the same field he works in, in Canada. People would call him on it. He would be embarrassed often. (And he’s been abroad long enough to know better… or, ought to have known better, I mean.)

But it’s not just that. It’s the kneejerk reaction. Kneejerk reactions are not just common here — I feel like sometimes, they’re kinda what replaces discourse. While Gerry Bevers is about the most annoying person ever to write about Korea online, the fact he was censored and then fired is a kneejerk reaction. (Far better to discredit him, if possible, officially; and if he can’t be discredited, why should he be silenced? If he cannot be discredited, then why is he in trouble?)

I was trying to figure out a way of talking about how it feels to teach logic and argumentation in Korea, and I think this is it: it sometimes feels like teaching people who have been educated to behave as if kneejerk reactions are pretty much interchangeable with critical thinking.

“I don’t like gays, I’m Christian!” or “Of course I like the Wonder Girls, I’m Korean!” or “You disagree with me? Are you sure you’re Korean?” or “You’re a Communist!”

No, where you might hear Americans or Canadians say that kind of stupid crap to one another — and of course you do, because bigotry and stupidity are worldwide phenomena — you don’t tend to hear academics saying them, or at least not academics in the humanities. Academic bigots, or jingoists, or red-baiters, at least tend to have a little more finesse in the English-speaking world. They find handy ways to veil their kneejerk reactions. And the more educated someone is, in my experience, the more likely that person is to have a more complex and nuanced view of such things.

In Korea, my experience is that the more highly educated someone is, the more likely it is he or she will be more jingoistic than the average market salesperson. The more privileged the individual is, the more automatic the kneejerk reaction becomes. (And I’m far from the first person to observe this.)

But if we return to my understanding of culture as a set of multi-band equalizers, the thing is, critical reasoning is just set to a lower-value band in Korea. A counselor I know once told me that both according to his studies, and to his experience counseling mixed-culture couples, Korean culture teaches people to devalue logic and rational argumentation, and to favor emotional arguments, emotional justifications, emotional appeals. “Logic alone,” he said, “is distrusted in a way that makes no sense to us [Westerners].”

He wasn’t saying something as blatant as “Koreans are illogical,” and neither am I. Rather, there’s a certain value placed on logic in a given society. A lot of narratives in Anglophone world concern people coming to grips with the fact that their emphasis on logic and critical reason begins to break down when confronted with certain emotional realities. This is a valid and true criticism of a logic-centric, wholly pragmatic worldview.

But if you look at Korean TV, you see the incarnation of the opposite. Jobs are backdrops, like nice furniture. The center of attention is the emotional dimension — the emotional rhythms of the narrative, the reactions of feelings against feelings, the passions and rages. Middle aged women throwing fits and screaming, husbands weeping and begging for forgiveness. Not, like say in Modern Family, people pointing out one anothers’ illogical foibles, making fun of one another, but also somehow negotiating difference in a mutually satisfactory way.

What I think I’m saying is this: if someone made an illogical argument in my culture, I would expect the person to be called on it, mocked for it, or at least seen as an idiot. If the illogic was offered as a justification for an unacceptable behaviour, I’d expect the person to have a pretty good chance of being verbally smacked down sooner or later. But in my experience, in Korea, the verbal smackdown just does not happen, and somehow, according to the public discourse, the emotional argument seems to enjoy as much privilege as any other argument, including a logical one. Kneejerk reactions, emotional outbursts, and inane justifications seem to have somehow attained a place of privilege that is, functionally, comparably as inassailable as a rational, supported argument. Maybe this isn’t what all Koreans experience, but those closest to me describe such a reality, and I certainly see it on a regular basis in my own interactions… not universally, but so often I often find myself silenced by not quite knowing what to say.

Someone once wrote a brilliant essay describing what it’s like to be atheist, as if it were like living in a world where everyone around you believes in Santa Claus. Well, sometimes I feel like that in terms of aspects of Korean culture. Like, how age matters so much. Everyone has met people who are older and are bumbling morons. Yet people seem willing to play along with the justification that older people have more experience, and thus deserve respect. You can point out how lots of older people deserve no respect, for their experience taught them nothing. People will nod, and say, “Yes, that’s true…” but that doesn’t unseat the system of interaction — and obviously, it could never do so. It’s a logical argument posited against a nonlogical proposition.

I feel like I’m confronted with a lot more of these in Korea than I was in Canada. That’s subjective, so whatever. But I feel, in other words, like I’m in an environment in which irrational argument seems to be about as acceptable as rational argument.

I keep saying I feel, but it’s kind of a cop-out. I know younger Koreans who feel this way too. I know bicultural people who feel this way. I know Koreans who rage against in quietly, and then go along with it because, well, what can one do? And so, as many expats I know have observed, the prevailing feeling one gets in Korea, from Koreans, is of frustration, of constrained anger and weariness and a held-back desire to just say no to the constant pressures of being told what to do by anyone with one more year on his birth certificate than oneself.

After all, the favored comeback one encounters in any argument between people of different ages, once the confrontation gets too heady or the younger person begins to attain the upper hand, is “How old are you?”

Yes, argumentum ad hominem. Explain the term to students, and they get it immediately. Ask them to call people on it in a real life situation, and suddenly it slips out of their grasp. It is too patently common to reject… one couldn’t live here and do so.

This is hardly surprising: everyone I’ve talked to knows the problem. Schools don’t teach critical thinking here. They teach multiple choice exams. They teach to the test. They focus on getting students into a “good university” without ever addressing the question of whether the rankings that seem universally accepted here actually reflect real quality, or ought to do so.

Who does it benefit? I mean, it has to benefit someone, right? Well, in a low, mean, grubby sort of way, it’s good for the few richest percent of society. But the gap between rich and poor is growing… with consequences that I’m sorry to say are dire for everyone involved:

Dire for everyone — it’s not as if this problem is huge in many places across the face of the developed world — but I think of something a student long ago wrote in an essay on the zombie trope in American popular culture. She claimed that, in her opinion, Koreans would fare much worse than Americans in a zombie apocalypse. “They are willing to fight back, at least when things get bad. We wouldn’t fight back. I don’t think we’d last very long at all.”

Sobering thought. Now, twist your head a little to the right, squint, and imagine zombies driving around in shiny business suits, living in giant apartments with marble floors… ah, there, you see it now?

One wonders just how long this will have to go on before people decide they’ve had enough of the zombie apocalypse.

6 thoughts on “Wonder Indeed…

  1. I always love your non-brewing and non-scifi posts because of the level of analysis and thought that goes into them. It’s hard to find that in the Korean blogosphere.

    At the beginning of this one, it was feeling a bit weak and I was getting ready for a letdown. But by the end, I had decided it was as good as the rest. Maybe just getting off to a bit of a rocky start…

    Keep up the good work! ^^

  2. Taemin,

    Sorry those kinds of posts are rarer. I’m trying to be less focused on the aspects of living in Korea that bother and aggravate me, and sometimes end up thinking it’s better not to post, as it makes me think about them more. But I’m glad someone gets something out of these posts. Maybe I’ll finish a few more unfinished drafts or something…

  3. Great post. I’m trying to think of something more to say than simply yeah and nodding my head. Never before have I felt so much in a place where everyone not only believes what gets shown on TV but actively thinks they can make their lives resemble it. That’s a generalization but I’m often surprised by how often I use “No. That’s just a TV show.”

  4. Surely, I can’t be “the most annoying person ever to write about Korea online”? Can you really not think of anyone more annoying?

    Most annoying in regard to tone, topic, or both?

  5. Ha, Gerry, you’re right that the competition was/is stiff, and I should note that I mostly ignore the expat blog scene in Korea these days — it’s saturated with annoying jackasses. Also, I guess I unfairly excluded all Korean jackasses who write annoying things online about Korea.

    But I must admit that you do come to mind when I try to think of who I find most annoying. The constant ranting about Dokdo at the slightest opportunity, even recently, is part of it — it became something of a one-note samba, and was so earnest… unrelentingly, pushily earnest. Sometimes I used to think that some group of expats out there was running a betting pool on how long it’d take for you to turn up and try turn it into a discussion about Dokdo yet again.

    The tone, too, though: whinging about how irrational the Korean language is — which was what you did in several posts in a row the last time I visited your Language Notes blog — came off as both annoying and irrational, given how all languages have those puzzling, illogical rules. I didn’t bother to return.

    Maybe this doesn’t describe you well anymore — though I’d swear you wrote about Dokdo sometime in the past year? Maybe you’ve moved on. Perhaps I was unfair. Would you settle for “among the most annoying people to write about Korea online in English”? ;)

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