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Meditations on Junk, #1: Ugly Koreans/Ugly Americans


I’m flipping through Min Byoung-Chul’s Ugly Koreans/Ugly Americans. (Which is, by the way, insanely overpriced on It’s a sort of typical book in Korea, basically intellectual junk crammed full of East vs. West generalizations and “explanations” by a Korean who doesn’t himself quite grasp what he’s taken upon himself to explain.

(Also, to be frank, the first half of the book seems to be made up mainly of genuinely rude, disgusting, or dangerous behaviours common among Koreans, while the second half, supposedly balancing this, is full of very tame gestures and comments about how Americans are “impatient” with people who butt into line or show up ridiculously late for appointments, set what are actually pretty healthy boundaries, some bizarre stereotypes that baffle me, and even a couple of ridiculous things–like “Speaking English too quickly, as if Koreans don’t speak Korean too quickly for most newbie foreigners to even try to follow. The best is when the author uses a point that should be in the first half of the book–how Westerners get annoyed at how so many Koreans simply can’t be bothered to queue for buses or ticket counters–as an “ugly American behavior.” Uh, yeah, no.)

Still, though the book is really rather crappy, it’s interesting because of the ways in which the author reveals his failure to grasp things: those weird little disconnects where he almost understands, or does understand on a superficial level, but doesn’t seem to realize there’s a bigger picture there to be explored.

I’m actually thinking I’d like to do a series of posts on the misperceptions in the book, as they seem to reflect a lot of misperceptions I’ve encountered over the years in Korea, and because they’re interesting. Consider it an exercise in meditating on junk. In particular, I find page 64 interesting:

What’s actually interesting about it is Min’s explanation:

In general, gender-mixed groups are the norm in the U.S. In Korea, there is much more gender-grouping, with certain activities reserved for either only men or only women. This seems rather strange to Americans.

Min’s grasp explanation appears rather facile, because it is rather facile. Ask an American why this seems rather strange, and you’ll probably get something like, “Well, they seem like a bunch of third-graders split up like that.” It doesn’t just seem strange to us: it often seems infantile.

In my classes, I made a point of teasing the young men who were always scrupulous to avoid pairing up with female classmates when given the choice to pick their own partners. I’d always comment, “You know, when I was a student, if I was told to pick a partner, I wouldn’t be looking at the other guys in the class. I’d be looking at all the attractive women and figuring out which one I wanted to be partners with.” The class would laugh, and the women would sometimes pick male partners, but the reverse was rarely the case except with a minority of guys.

And it never failed that, eventually, the guys who always avoided contact with women would complain that they had no girlfriend, couldn’t meet women, and so on. I’d always say, “Next time I say, ‘Find a partner,’ remember you complained about this!”

Of course, it’s a product of cultural training.We North Americans see it as childish in part because we were children when we had this socialized out of us. We were encouraged or even pushed, in our youth, to go into mixed groups. We were trained to do so, through multiple exposures, and were pushed to be more comfortable with it. Indeed, we were pushed to the point where sitting in a corner with a bunch of guys acquired a kind of negative connotation. That didn’t happen in third grade, of course: it happened in middle school, at approximately the average onset of puberty… so that our entry into adult life, into self-awareness (however awkward or convoluted) of our sexuality was accompanied by a pressure to be heterosocial: to spend time with friends of the same sex and friends of the opposite sex. At the same time. In the same place.

I can’t say Koreans don’t learn to spend time with the opposite sex: they do, of course, and in some circles quite comfortably. (The SF fans I know are pretty integrated as a group, for example.) But if you spend some time listening to the interactions between strangers around you, you’ll notice some extreme awkwardness. Like, for example, that time in the elevator I’ve mentioned here before. (Edit: The link was missing, but I’m talking about an episode I described here.)

In fact, Mrs. Jiwaku has one group of friends who are very close to her, but whom I almost never see… because they get very awkward around me. I thought it was a foreigner thing (lots of Koreans do get weird around non-Koreans) but when I commented about it, Mrs. Jiwaku corrected me: no, it’s just around men in general: the group turns awkward whenever any of the group’s boyfriends are around, even though most of them are dating Korean guys.

But when I say Min is missing the point, it’s because I see a deeper level to this. His words are just as suggestive as they are obfuscatory:

In Korea, there is much more gender-grouping, with certain activities reserved for either only men or only women.

Nudge nudge, wink wink.

An exercise for the reader… sort the following list into activities reserved only for women, versus only for men:

The astute reader will grasp that I am trying to make a point, but before I make it explicit, I’ll critique one aspect of the Western understanding of this “gender-grouping.” While Min’s perspective is largely ahistorical throughout the book, North Americans can also be pretty ahistorical when they like.

Remember above how I wrote:

We North Americans see it as childish in part because we were children when we had this socialized out of us.

Here, I’m speaking in the personal sense: we, as individuals, has this gender-exclusionary trait socialized out of us as teens… or, at least, it wasn’t socially prolonged or entrenched by our environments.

But in the historical sense, there’s a cultural change that lurks in the background. If you read a little bit about what the Victorians were like, you’ll find a similarly awkward, gender-exclusive-tending social life. The hot word in academia is “homosociality.” That’s not the same as homosexuality, mind: it’s the social tendency to spend most of one’s time with the same sex. For people of a certain (elevated) social class, the home was the woman’s place, and the outside of home the man’s. Women spent time at home with other women, while men were so eager to spend time with male friends that they even hung out at men’s clubs where they could stay the night. Men still had sex with women–perhaps not their wives, for they didn’t wish to burden them thus–but their social world was structured to be extremely male in focus and in terms of time spent.

(Which brings to mind, at the moment, Sons of Anarchy as a very Victorian sort of social world, in some ways, versus Community as, well, the opposite of that in other ways.)

To be clear, yes, I’m comparing the clubhouse in Sons of Anarchy to a Mens’ Club in Victorian London. This bike gang is seriously homosocial a lot of the time.
(And yeah, that means this is modernity. Which ain’t so bad.)

This is not the first time I’ve seen connections between Victorian culture and Korea today. Though the world of Tolstoy’s Russia is not Victorian England, Mrs. Jiwaku once made the very astute observation that in terms of attitudes toward marriage, love, and society, the worlds of Austen, Tolstoy, and Seoul today share much more in common with one another than any of them do with the contemporary Western world.

A lot of questions bubble up from this, which I’m not sure I (or anyone) can answer at the moment, though I can’t help but see the strands of connections stretching out between the points:

There is one question I do feel we can answer, though:

I would argue that the answer to that question is yes, unarguably so.

This is not to act as an apologist for things that Korean society collectively should address: its gender inequality is a serious problem, which affects millions of women. It costs Korea in wasted talent, in heartache, in general unhappiness and misery. Women are held down here, as they were long held down everywhere, and that is a problem. To understand how that compares to the West a century ago or more is not to ignore the problem, or defend against calling it one.

Nor is it some kind of defense based on the West’s historical imperfections… I hate that kind of argument more than almost any other. A student of mine once complained that Westerners are too critical of economic imperialism today, when, less than a century ago, they themselves were involved in outright colonialism. The implication, sometimes directly stated, is that “You had your chance to exploit poor brown people till you got rich; now it’s our turn.” It’s understandable on one level, until you point out that maybe Korean society ought to learn from our historical mistake, rather than repeating it.

To recognize historical parallels is not to justify or excuse. It is simply to observe, because if you want to understand what you’re looking at, the place to start is not in justification (as Mr. Min seems to be doing) or in condemnation (the tack that most expats seem to prefer): rather, it is in holding up the phenmenon you’re looking at, trying to shine the light through it and see to the other side. It’s a bit like trying to understand how little respect there is for public order: once you rethink things, and realize that urban spaces in Korea have only been relatively modern for about a century… but most Koreans haven’t really been living in those modern urban spaces until very much more recently.

There are other interesting questions that bubble up from this kind of analysis, as well, of the kind that interest people like me–those who wonder about the future. Of course, one wishes to avoid any kind of telelogical sense of cultural development: cultures can and have developed, and will continue to develop, in all kinds of divergent ways. (In other words, Asimov’s Hari Seldon–the psychohistorian who predicted the future history played out in the Foundation series of novels at great length–is a fanciful and impossible figure: history doesn’t work that way, nor does cultural development and change.)

But just as environment and the nature of DNA limits just how far natural selection can push evolutionary adaptation, one wonders whether, within the infrastructure of  modernity–the range of relationships and interactions that are built into it, and the limits on what precisely can be ported successfully into it–there are sorts of implicit algorithms for further development forward or backward along the track of modernity.

One could always argue that speaking of modernity in the singular is wrong, because there exist multiple modernities; one could argue that modernization needn’t be the same as modernization. And those things may well be true in the abstract, but from my travels, from my studies, that’s not how it seems to look on the ground. It doesn’t look that way when I look at the world the West was before it became modern, nor do the other societies worldwide that are embracing modernity seem to be expending much effort in building their own, unique, non-Western-influenced forms of modernity.

Now, I’m about to suggest something interesting. That means I need to be careful: interesting points are often easy to misinterpret.

If you haven’t studied computer science, then you will understandably think that the word “destructive” has only the fundamentally negative connotation we find in standard English… and you will not understand the term “destructive operation.”

So allow me to explain what a destructive operation is. In computer science, this refers to how one does a procedure involving computation: how one juggles data from one variable to another, how one combines data, and so on. But I’ll explain it with a metaphor. Let’s say you’re trying to figure out how much sugar is in your coffee. You get a scientific instrument that can measure how much sugar is in a liquid, and you measure it, and… bingo. You get a reading. Your scientific instrument is digital, and it displays the reading.

Now, let’s say you decide to add some more sugar. You can do one of two things. You can add it to a second, identical sample of coffee, thereby maintaining your sample. Or you can simply add it to your first and only sample of coffee. But if you add the sugar, then you’ve permanently changed the coffee. You can’t go back to the earlier level of sugar, at least not without going back to the start.

That’s a “destructive operation”: you haven’t destroyed your coffee–well, not necessarily, unless you added a TON of sugar to it–but you have destroyed its former state, in the process of creating the new state. That’s inevitable with coffee, but with data, you can always copy your data to a new variable, mess about with it, and still have the original data tucked away in the original variable. (A non-destructive operation.)

Well, the thing I want to say about cultural change is that it seems to be a “destructive operation.” This is true when it’s a positive change (women enjoying greater equality) and it’s true when it’s a negative one (like increasing rates of depression among lonely, isolated city dwellers).

My point is this: the external trappings of modernity are Western, yes: there is a degree to which modernization was, that first time through, a non-destructive operation. (And in other places, superficialities are surviving other modernizations.) But that non-destructivity was only skin-deep: beneath the surface, premodern Western culture is in some ways about as alien to us as Korean culture is… or, indeed, since Korea is in the throes of its own modernization, I’d say pre-modern Western culture is even more alien than Korea could ever manage to be today. In a sense, Western civilization is gone, and in its place is a Modern civilization; one among several, with more on the way.

Not only that, but one of the reasons I have such a strong suspicion about the pseudo-algorithmic nature of modernization is the pseudo-algorithmic nature of premodernity. Go and read your Jared Diamond and you’ll be reminded that, yes, not all cultures followed the same path… but that basically everyone who could, everyone who had access to the bronze age, the iron age, and so on, did follow. We talk a lot about the differences between medieval Europe and medieval Asia, but those differences are, in some ways, not so penetratingly deep.

When you’re searching the sky for a glimpse of Andromeda, astronomers will tell you to look at it with your peripheral vision, since that part of your retina is more sensitive–the middle is kind of burnt out a little more from constant use. Well, I’d say that if we want to understand humans well, we need to look at them with a little more of that peripheral vision: things that seem important and deeply distinct get blurrier, but a certain clarity suddenly pops: Confucian justifications for monarchy and patriarchy aren’t really so different from the European “Great Chain of Being”: they’re both justifications for a more instinctual approach of human social organization, privileging powerful males (or the descendants of powerful males). Same goes for religious institutions, caste systems, systems for establishing territorial rule, and so on.

I’m not wholly convinced that there is a single algorithm within modernity-in-itself, or the systems that preceded modernity, but once you throw in human beings, the likelihood increases. Probably other intelligent species in a different environment, with different evolutionary and psychological histories, would do things differently, even radically differently. But we’re human, and that means a lot more than we usually like to admit. We have specific behavioural tendencies, and ranges of tolerance for systems that don’t fit with our wiring. Just as most religions involve invisible, “spiritual” beings of some kind, and a means of power over one’s own fate contingent on some kind of religious duty or observance, I would tend to think there are fundamentally unchanging systems in the human mind that relate to our political lives, our social lives: that culture itself is delimited in the forms it can take by our neurological wiring.

Which makes modernity a kind of story: a story that explains its own existence within the context of that wiring. Modernity, in a context like that, becomes both the problem and the solution–but that suggests that the algorithm itself arises from the interaction between the externals of modernity (the infrastructure, social systems, etc) and the environment (human brains). And if that’s the case, and we’re the environment, then a quick peek at gardens in Korea shows they grow a lot of the same things that grow in European gardens. A certain homogeneity of development patterns in the past suggests there may well be a continued homogeneity in the future as well… and if so, I’m curious to see what they would be.

Here, things become political, because (among other things) politics is the modern world’s repackaging of witchcraft and magic–that is, the way we assert power over the world and over the future through figureheads talking mumbo-jumbo. The conservative-capitalists talk about continued growth of economies; the socialist-liberals talk about better lives on the ground; the technolibertarians talk about the Singularity (as a good thing); and others paint even more bizarre pictures.

But if we step away from our political convictions, and ask ourselves how modernity will move forward, while humans (on a deep level) continue to stand where they have since before our memories began… now that’s an interesting question.

And that ends my first meditation on junk. We’ll see if I ever get around to another!

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