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Korean Restaurants And The Analects Versus Plato’s Republic

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When I first arrived in the Daehan Mingook I didn’t know what to eat here because Koreans rarely do anything alone—and how could you, even if you wanted to? This country is the same size of Ohio, except with roughly five times as many people as Ohio, a capital that contains about twenty million of those people, and nine other cities with at least a million inhabitants each, and usually more. Population density is ten times the global average at 487 people per square kilometer, which means that it is almost impossible to be alone if you leave your bathroom. There will always be someone somewhere—relatives shouting over the soccer match with Japan in the living room, while you can hear the rest of the city outside roaring with them out through the windows—high schoolers rubbing their uniformed crotches together in the hidden corners of the polished granite subway stations, under the silver escalators—dark movie theaters packed with glowing cell phones—sidewalks lined with heaving masses of flesh. You will be concerned about population growth if you live here, or perhaps more concerned than you already are, because people cannot live like this; it really does drive them insane.

The suicide rate in Korea is the worst in the developed world. Roughly thirty people here off themselves every day, as a result of overpopulation and also as a consequence of the country’s overnight transformation from destitute wasteland into economic powerhouse. All such transformations, whether fast or slow, Asian or European, statistically correlate to an increase in suicide, according to Emile Durkheim. President No Moo-hyun killed himself just before I got here because, as he put it in his suicide note, he was a burden to others; it is almost a weekly occurrence for some government official to throw himself out of a building because the police are at the other side of his office, handcuffs jingling, getting ready to serve a warrant for his arrest. Celebrities who are household names do the same thing when hordes of anonymous netizens gang up on them, as do high school students who break after years of enduring unbearable social pressure. I’m serious. Every week it’s either a high school student, or a celebrity, or a politician, swaying alone in an empty room on a leather belt, or plummeting off the edge of a high-rise, necktie flickering in the sudden gale, black leather shoes kicking at heaven.

Imagine if this was normal in America. Newt Gingrich this week, Joe Biden the next, along with Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, and a few dozen high schoolers thrown in for good measure, all at once, as part of a suicide pact. Week after week for ten straight years. Could this become normal in America? Would the bumbling anchors on declining cable news networks declare a vague need for some sort of national conversation, and then leave it at that, if America suddenly became as suicidal as Korea? Or would we take real steps to solve the problem? Why hasn’t Korea made any serious effort to prevent those thirty people from killing themselves every day? Every industrialized nation experienced a serious uptick in suicide during industrialization, but I don’t think this is enough of an explanation for why so many people are killing themselves here, and why nothing is being done about it.

Aside from population density, society here is still very medieval (straw rooftops hide beneath all that twinkling xenon) and so highly collectivized that you don’t go to a restaurant or a café or a class or a gym or even outside unless you’re with someone else. A company’s workers must all go out together after work, usually at least once a month, but sometimes every night, for several extra unpaid hours of ritual bonding time, where their workplace hierarchies are further enforced: younger employees pour drinks for their elders, and must also sit and pretend to enjoy lengthy (and increasingly drunken) rants made by their superiors, sometimes for several hours at a time. Whenever these workers get a break from their unforgiving schedules—most work at least six days a week—they may be seen visiting only the most popular tourist destinations with their families, friends, or girlfriends or boyfriends—never alone—where they will always stand together in front of only the most famous sites, and ask someone to take a picture of them, and smile while the photographer counts from one to three in Korean. Hana…dool…set! What’s the deal with this behavior? Koreans will quite naturally complain about it whenever you discuss it with them, but why does everyone still do it?

The answer is Confucianism. Confucians must do the right thing, always—according to Karl Jaspers, they must embrace “the right way of walking, greeting, behaving in company, always in accordance with the particular situation”—and it’s obvious that the right thing is what everyone else is doing, which perhaps helps to explain why millions of Koreans take the same pictures in the same places with the same expressions (the peace or victory sign) over and over again, and why nobody cares about the suicide statistics even though everyone knows someone who has thrown himself off a building, and why in all the crazy cellphone videos of public bus or subway violence everyone pretends that nothing is happening.

Both teachers and students despise questions or discussions of any kind because according to Confucian philosophy, which is the ancient moral framework through which most social interactions in Korea are governed, questions disrespect teachers and slow down lectures and prevent everyone from getting the onerous duty of learning over with. Contrast that with The Republic, a text that’s roughly as important to Western Civilization as Confucius’s Analects is to Korea; Plato’s book is based entirely on asking and exploring the most difficult questions—such as what is justice?, what constitutes an ideal city?, and how can a person find what is truly good and beautiful in the world? This text encourages debate and questioning: does Plato, for example, really believe that a nation’s media should be heavily censored, or is he just trying to get his readers to ask if censorship is necessary? Socrates, after all, was executed at least ostensibly because it was generally believed that he was propagating atheism. In contrast, only rhetorical questions interest Confucius: one learns by copying and obeying one’s teachers. The Analects begin with the Philosopher Yu saying, “They are few who, being filial and fraternal, are fond of offending against their superiors. There have been none, who, not liking to offend against their superiors, have been fond of stirring up confusion”—presumably in the form of questions, which Confucianized Korean students will only maybe ask if you threaten to pull out their fingernails.

There is ambivalence in Confucius, and not everything he has written is as vague or arbitrary as the lines I have just quoted. He writes that “If a man can recite all three hundred pieces in the Book of Odes by heart and, entrusted with the government, is unable to perform (his duties) or if, sent abroad as an ambassador, he is incapable of replying on his own, where is the good of all his learning?” A man needs to learn but also think for himself—without offending his superiors with questions. According to Karl Jaspers, he decried hereditary power, while also writing (again with ambivalence) that children may disagree respectfully with their parents, though in the end they must obey their elders. Where there is a contradiction in the philosophy it would seem that most modern readers of that philosophy have taken the easier way: in Korea, it is far simpler to recite the Book of Odes than to say what any of them actually mean, just as in the monolithic West very few people have ever been as concerned about seeking the truth of existence as Socrates was.

I doubt one in a hundred Koreans has read a single line of Confucius, but the ideas of this man permeate the air here twenty five centuries after his death: one breathes Confucius—not the man, about whom almost nothing is known, so much as the centuries and cultures and dynasties and scholars and generations that created the modern phenomenon known as Confucianism—the moment one is bowed to by a flight attendant upon stepping inside a Korean airplane en route to the homeland. You have to know your place, which is beneath your superiors, who know exactly what to do with you, and above your inferiors, who require your guidance; age being the means by which you determine whether someone is superior or inferior. Confucianism in Korea depends upon relationships: it cannot function with only one person—you cannot do the right thing unless you see what everyone else is doing—which may be one reason why Koreans are so rarely seen alone, and why restaurants refuse to serve single customers, and why everyone ignores the violence in public places, and why everyone is pretending that the suicide rate here is not incredibly high, and why I couldn’t find anywhere to eat when I first got here.

Such condescension is anathema to any democratically-minded Westerner—Socrates and other inheritors of Athenian democracy would not have approved of this arbitrariness—and while most young Koreans will say that Confucius is old-fashioned, you’ll never catch them contradicting an elder. When Koreans meet each other for the first time they typically ask one another their ages, so as to determine who will be wearing the pants in all future interactions, as superiority is determined by age: elders are automatically better, and always correct, in every circumstance. Even the language has been Confucianized. When you speak Korean, you must conjugate your verbs based not just on whether you are superior or inferior to whomever you are addressing, but also on exactly how superior or how inferior you are. A man addresses a customer at his store, an older gentleman, a young college student, a child, and a dog, all with different conjugations.

I can’t help but wonder if this man known today as Confucius had any idea that his words and writings would still be guiding even the most mundane thoughts, words, and actions of millions of people so far into the future. As Thomas Carlyle puts it in Sartor Resartus—

“Cast forth thy Act, thy Word, into the ever-living, ever-working Universe: it is a seed-grain that cannot die; unnoticed to-day (says one), it will be found flourishing as a Banyan-grove (perhaps, alas, as a Hemlock-forest!) after a thousand years.”

Write a cheesy scifi novel, and who knows, two thousand years in the future it could be the foundational text for an entire culture.

As a Confucian, your family will force you into a professional career no matter how much you want to write such cheesy books, but they’ll also provide incredible amounts of financial assistance throughout your life. Freedom in exchange for food. But they expect you to support them completely the very same moment they retire, which is why they didn’t let you write any books in the first place: you need to provide for your superiors after they are no longer able to provide for you, and writing books is about as reliable a method of making money as playing the skin flute. Another consequence of this Confucian collectivization, this social pressure, this refusal to ask questions, this hierarchy that has a place for everyone (except foreigners), is the way Koreans stick together and become one single superorganism in the face of any outside threat, conquering poverty that was at Malian levels in a single generation and, today, remaining vigilant before the dire threat of Japan—nobody cares about China or North Korea—because of an insignificant territorial dispute in a body of water the Koreans refer to as The East Sea Of Korea And Not Japan.

So when I first arrived I didn’t have any friends, and I couldn’t go to any restaurants, and after three years of living here I believe this is why. Population density. Rapid industrialization. Suicide. Confucianism. Since everyone is almost always together, almost all restaurants are designed for groups of people. You will be refused service if you are alone—even if you tell them that you have a large enough appetite for two or three Koreans. I said this once and was still turned away from an empty restaurant, and not, presumably, because they thought I was a cannibal with a peculiar taste for the Korean race. As I soon discovered, that left me, the Western Loner, several options if I didn’t want to cook at my apartment: fast food, gimbap heaven, a supermarket, or pizza.

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