Late Night Revelations on Korea Made Over GS25 Sandwiches

Ignorance breeds contempt. It seems obvious (and sounds like something I’ve heard before), yet when you’re away from your “normal” lifestyle, it can be easy to keep thinking in the way you’ve been thinking before entering your new normal. And that alone can help to shift how one thinks, both in this normal and the normal you’ll eventually return to.

Huh? Let me try to explain.

I come from a family of complainers. Whether it was something in society or in an annoying commercial, our gut reactions have always been to complain about it. Because that feels like we’re doing something about it. “I obviously am against this, and will show my disapproval of it to someone else who is against it by bitching about it.” But, that’s where action usually ended.

One can argue this method stems from low self-esteem, enacted by those who feel they don’t have the power to do anything about whatever is grinding their gears. But, voicing displeasure is something, right? The person with low self-esteem sure as hell hopes so, and will hold onto long before taking on the daunting task of actually trying to do anything about it.

Here in South Korea, one can argue there is a collectively low self-esteem, brought about by generations of constant collisions with bigger nations like China and Japan, by the 60+ year turmoil with its neighbors to the north and through what should be considered an archaic handicapping hierarchy of respect and power based on Confucianism.

But, my revelation was not brought up as a way to complain about South Korea’s mental state. Frankly, because I don’t have actual proof, only anecdotal “evidence.” It’s the same anecdotal evidence that deems the Irish are drunks, people from the South (U.S. to my non-U.S. readers. Or, non-US. Man, that’s meta) are racists, and Parisians are rude. I know none of this from personal experience, although I do know an Irishman who likes to get drunk a lot, but he lives in South Korea.

I think it might take a few of these to get a decent buzz on.
I think it might take a few of these to get a decent buzz on.

What low self-esteem–mine, yours, Korea’s–can do is help maintain ignorance. When I don’t know something, I fear it. If I fear it, my self-esteem can inevitably wane. If it wanes, I flail for something to hold onto. As a foreigner with the feeling of probing Korean eyes on me everyday–hidden behind a thick wall of a language I cannot understand–I can hold onto many stereotypes about Koreans. Many, such as any that may creep in while watching folks come and go from the dog restaurant across from my apartment, aren’t particularly nice.

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The rational side of me acknowledges, even as those not particularly nice thoughts begin to develop, that these stereotypes have little if any place in reality. They are just the knee-jerk reaction of someone who has been conditioned for a long type to lash out at things he cannot understand and/or do anything to change. If I walked into that restaurant and screamed, “eating dogs is wrong!” 1) they probably wouldn’t understand me anyway, 2) I’d look (legitimately) like a nut and 3) I would be a hypocrite since the sandwich I just bought and consumed from GS25 had ham on it.

But ignorance breeds contempt. And it is easier for me to say “eating dogs is wrong,” “spitting on the stairs in the subway is wrong” or “staring at me for an uncomfortably long time is wrong,” than to look at the bigger cultural context. This is not to give someone a free pass (frankly, sometimes I would like to grab someone by the back of their head and make them lick that spit off the stairs). This is not for them; it’s for us, American, Canadian, Korean, anyone who has felt the familiar, fear-fueled pull of writing someone or something off as simply this or that, when a larger examination could probably benefit everyone involved.

By looking at the bigger cultural context, some of the mystery of “the strange foreign thing” is removed. While this can also take away some of that “ooh, this is cool because it’s so, so Korean” mystique that’s pretty rad when you first get here, it can also help smooth out some of those “I hate this because it’s so, so Korean” wrinkles that can develop once you’ve been here a while.

So, what’s the best way to start smoothing out wrinkles? Reading up on your history is a start. But, if you (read: me) are not in the mood for a history lesson, there’s another way: learning the language. Really, what isn’t more connected to history than a society’s way of communicating?

And this is where the revelation really took shape, after having woken at 1:30 a.m. from a four-hour nap, sitting on a bench along a dark and quiet Gimhae sidewalk in the middle of the night, munching on a sandwich with ham on one half, mashed potato on the other (cultural context!). I have been here for about one-and-a-half years. I have had my ups and downs with this country and its many, many quirks.

Like Chuseok gift boxes of toothpaste.
Like Chuseok gift boxes of toothpaste.

The equalizer for most times I was up, however, has been language. Whether it has been working with a co-teacher fluent in English, hanging out with good friends who speak it, or the most important for thriving in a foreign country: learning that country’s language and applying it to everyday situations.

And, it hit me, like my fear a scooter racing down the sidewalk will take me out one day, as to why I have recently felt more inclined to write off that leering adjosshi on the road, that fawning teenager at the bus stop, that ancient belief that eating boiled chicken or dog meat on July 18 is somehow more beneficial for health (that one I’m still struggling to wrap my head around): since moving from my first apartment in another part of Gimhae to what’s now my permanent residence in this city two months ago, I have not once actively tried to further my Korean studies. And my opinion of, and tolerance for, this country and its many, many quirks has suffered as a result.

Quirky advertisements in subway stations.
Quirky advertisements in subway stations.

Ignorance breeds contempt and knowledge is power, two of those cliches that become cliche for a reason. None of this is meant to give assholes a pass. An asshole is an asshole is an asshole, in any country, in any language. It’s to give a little perspective and sanity, two other benefits to knowledge.

In the end, like pretty much everything in life (I won’t say for certain, but I have yet to find something that debunks the belief), it’s all about balance. I refuse to be an apologist for some of the infuriating things maintained or dismissed by this country (public garbage cans!), but I also refuse to simply say this sucks, that sucks or you suck. Because that just blows.

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