In my last post here I talked about the particularly farcical clash of some fundamental cultural norms. I feel like this episode was a real knock, one which snapped me brutally out of my honeymoon period and sent me spiralling into what is commonly referred to as Phase Two Culture Shock and commonly experienced as Disproportionate And Inexplicable Rage Against Everything. This is rarely a pleasant state, but in a culture where openly showing emotion is social suicide I needed to cure it, quick-sharp. Annoyingly, the best cure is also the thing you want to do least, namely engaging relentlessly with the culture causing all the rage, trying to understand why it is doing so and hopefully soothing the rage in the process. After a while of gritting my teeth through said process, I feel like I have a slightly better handle on why Memorial-Gate occurred which breaks down into three strands. For the next three posts, I’ll talk about each of these strands, the first being the notion of intrusion.
One day last year, when I was still new to China, my boss turned up at my desk around 9pm to inform me that the Director of our language school had invited us all out to Karaoke. Right now. Given that this was, to my European mind, a supremely last-minute invitation, the karaoke place was an hour away in the opposite direction to my already hour-long commute and I had to be back at work early the next morning, I politely declined and went home. This turned out to be one of the most severe faux pas of my entire Chinese experience. The next day, my apparently breathtaking display of disrespect was the talk of the office, and for a full month said Director refused to acknowledge my presence, literally turning his face away when he saw me in the hallway.
Turns out, this was not exclusive to China. The last-minute invitation to everything from long, boozy dinners to weekend hiking trips, with the assumption that any plans be instantly dropped in favour of attendance, is a woe universally acknowledged by foreigners in Korea. But what is this woe, exactly? It’s not just that the event might not be something you enjoy, or that it’s annoying to have to drop everything last-minute, or even that you often feel ignored when you actually get there: these are things that, individually, you can recognize as cultural differences and get over given time. The simmering, disquieting malaise Westerners often feel in these situations arises I think from something embedded much deeper in our cultural identity, something that has in part to do with boundaries and intrusion over them.
We talk a lot about boundaries in the West, holding our physical personal space sacred but also packaging our lives and relationships into clearly-delineated psychological spaces: professional, social and personal. The blurring of the lines between these spaces; their intrusion one into the other, makes us deeply uncomfortable in a way that my Chinese and Korean friends find perplexing. For example, in British culture it is considered respectful to provide detailed information well in advance of any event because it recognizes peoples’ right to busy, multifaceted lives with commitments about which we know nothing. Or their right to sit in front of the telly in their pants eating chicken if that is what they have planned to do, it is none of our business. You can theorise until the cows come home about why this idea does not work in East Asia, from Confucianism to Communism to the Buddhist conception of all life as dependent-arising, but there is no escaping the fact that here, your business is the business of every member of whichever group you are in at the time. And you are always in a group: being alone is seen as cause for concern at best and suspicion at worst, and the concept of actively enjoying ‘alone time’ is generally inconceivable. As an introvert even by Western standards, this can make for some interesting times.
Running through all of my Western relationships, down to the most intimate familial and romantic of them, there is an assumption that the other person has and needs their own physical and psychological space outside the boundaries of that relationship. Indeed, this need for space is considered healthy and something to be encouraged: editorials, agony aunt columns and self-help books decry co-dependency and preach the need for ‘own space’, ‘me time’ and ‘privacy’ to couples and families alike. To the general bafflement of people this side of Russia, for whom the notion of ‘privacy’ within a family is simply an oxymoron, we worry about intruding into our childrens’ lives too much, and lament the fate of the ‘boomerang generation’. Meanwhile, Korean couples stroll the streets in matching outfits, download apps to remind them of their 10, 50 and 100-day anniversaries, and are in constant phone contact. Children live at home until they marry and often (if they’re male) continue to do so afterwards: it is by no means abnormal for mothers still to be doing the washing of sons in their late 20s, or for daughters of the same age to be given curfews.
All of this means that, ultimately, the idea of intrusion just does not exist in the same way here. Society is based on being always part of a group – a family, a work unit, a group of friends – and it is accepted that closeness within these groups can only occur as a result of intimate knowledge of the other members and the unshakeable devotion of each individual to the whole. So, whereas friends and families in the West show love by giving space and freedom to each other, here it is done by seeking to close the physical and psychological space between self and other as much as possible. Equally, whereas short notice in the West is taken as a sign of disorganisation or even disrespect, here it’s just unthinkable that you would have anything more important to do than demonstrate your devotion to the team.
Ah, devotion: another tricksy little term rarely used in a professional context in my country of origin, and yet central to life here. In my next post I’ll talk about this a little more, but for now let me know if and how you’ve experienced and dealt with intrusion – or if you think I’m talking bollocks let me know that too! Comments all welcome as always.
Wanderings and Ramblings of an ESL teacher currently based in a tiny mountain town near the North Korean border.