This post started life months ago as the third in a series about clashing cultural norms. After more time in Korea and (hopefully) more understanding on my part, it turned into something a bit different…you can read where it all started here.
Here are some criticisms of the UK according to other Europeans:
1. Opaque communications: Our morbid fear of conflict makes our language indirect and gives us a reputation, amongst our continental counterparts, for being dishonest and sneaky. The rest of the English-speaking world, too, complains of the bafflingly high incidence of coded language in British English. For those new to this phenomenon, this handy chart should help:
2. Drinking culture Whereas in most European countries public drunkenness is seen as embarrassing, in the UK it is a bona fide bonding ritual. This tends to be linked to the point above: as noted by our cousins across the Channel we frequently need to be off our faces to lose the fear associated with saying what we actually think – a prerequisite for getting closer to anybody. This means that many British people would be aghast at the prospect of a non-alcoholic social event and, perhaps more interestingly, that bad behaviour when drunk is indulged to a much greater degree than elsewhere. British people tend to excuse almost anything (with a heavy dose of piss-taking) on the grounds that the person was drunk at the time.
3. The class system. This is one of those things that only really hits you when you are outside it, and surrounded by people who find it utterly bonkers and unfathomable. Class permeates every aspect of our communication and lifestyle, from our accent to our choice of groceries to the pubs we drink in.
These issues are uncannily similar to those Brits tend to cite as problematic in Korea. The internet groans with blogs and articles aimed at those making the move here, citing indirect communication styles, an extreme drinking culture and a rigid, unfathomable and outdated social hierarchy. You’d think we’d be at an advantage. So what makes the move so hard? The answer, for many, is Korea’s perceived monoculture which is often seen as the direct opposite of British multiculturalism (‘culture’ here refers both to race and ethnicity, and to culture in the sense of rules governing social interaction).
One of the biggest turnarounds in my own thinking has come from questioning this direct opposition, which is often taken as read by Koreans and Brits both. Whilst there are broad and generalised truths behind it, I’ve felt increasingly that it often comes from a place of privilege which has at times obscured my empathy with and understanding of Korean culture and people. I want to talk a little more about this over the next couple of posts.
Korean Identity: Popular Wisdom
Korean identity can seem to be shaped largely by ethnicity. The population is around 96% ethnically Korean and children are taught from an early age (with a pride that many Westerners find disconcerting) that Korea is ‘ethnically homogenous’ with a ‘pure bloodline.’ This marginally Malfoy-esque discourse contains both holes and justifications, which I’ll explore in the next post. Nationalism – particularly defined in opposition to Japan – is strongly and frequently expressed while racism, particularly towards Black and South Asian people, is a real issue (see here and here). The attitude to Caucasians is more nuanced, resulting from concurrent feelings of inferiority and resentment – again, I’ll look at these in more detail in the next post.
If the criteria for Korean identity seem stringent, the same can be said of those for social acceptance. Here, there is one way to be beautiful (white skin, thin, small face, big eyes, V-shaped jaw) and one way to be successful (top university, big company, car, house, marriage). Even clothes shops are often ‘one size fits all’, underscoring the idea that if you do not fit that size it is your responsibility to make it happen – why should extra clothes be made for the minority? At school, I notice that ‘tribes’ – the Trendies, Goths, Skaters, Geeks and Townies of my youth – do not exist: all my students dress in much the same way and seem to decide by mutual, unspoken consensus that one jacket , T-shirt or pair of trousers is this week’s must-wear item. Tellingly, they informed me that if they do not conform to such trends it is seen as ‘dangerous’: they are choosing to set themselves apart from the group, upsetting its harmony. My partner and one of my students – raised in New Zealand and the USA respectively – arouse suspicion and resentment because, though they fulfil the ‘ethnically Korean’ criterion, they do not follow the expected rules of dress and beauty, and speak ‘unusual’ Korean. These behaviours are seen to disturb a group harmony which often seems more like group homogeneity and which runs through all aspects of Korean life. It results in things like my student being referred to as ‘America’ by her teachers, and refused help with Korean language and history on the grounds that she ‘should know’, or my partner being told he doesn’t walk ‘in a Korean enough way.’ Foreigners, meanwhile, have a much easier ride but nevertheless occupy a strange place in this setup. At once expected to be a contributing part of the group, we are simultaneously seen as removed from it; reminded of our otherness in ways that can create tension, as when I was told it was fine for me to go to the funeral in a sundress, because ‘you’re not Korean’
British Identity: Popular Wisdom
Back in 2012 as a shell-shocked new arrival in China, I wrote a post in which I described London with pride as a ‘melting-pot of races, languages and cultures.’ This points to my British education which, far from the ‘pure bloodline’ rhetoric Korean children hear, instilled in us the idea of our nation as a happy soup of different racial and ethnic ingredients blended together by a shared British identity. British people will often cite this ‘melting pot’ as the reason why 'Britishness’ cannot be defined by race or ethnicity. There are other aspects of British life, however, which make defining our identity in concrete terms a tricky prospect. Not least of these is social class: the call made last year by ex-Education Secretary and all-round twerp Michael Gove to include ‘British Values’ in the school curriculum prompted outrage precisely because we remain unsure as to what the term ‘British Values’ actually means. In one of my favourite articles of 2014, Owen Jones said here that this was because there are two histories of Britain: the history told by the ruling classes and that told by those who struggle against them. You could say, though, that there are many more than Jones’ two histories; that we are really a country of tribes, any number of which we may subscribe to at any one point. We may come under pressure to conform, but to what exactly, and to what extent, depends on a number of factors including race, ethnicity, social class, political beliefs, career, and membership of various subcultures. All these provide different influences to which we refer when constructing our identities. The fact that we ‘construct our identities’ at all shows how much we are at odds with the Korean model, in which your expected identity is already prescribed and your role is to fulfill it regardless of personal inclinations. Contrary to ideas of group harmony, our rule of thumb for smooth social interactions tends to be that as long as a person’s actions do not have a negative impact on us personally it is none of our business how they carry on.
Questions and confrontations
Far from home, confused and struggling to navigate the murky waters of Korean life, we are prone to setting up simplistic oppositions between the two sets of identities outlined above in order to make sense of ourselves and our surroundings. Add to this the frustration or bewilderment with Korea that makes us biased in favour of home, and it’s easy to end up with the idea that Korean culture and identity are fixed, unchanging and exclusionary whereas ours are diverse, fluid and inclusive. Although I could see exceptions to both sides, when I started to pick apart the received wisdom and my own uninterrogated views I realised that this was probably the party line to which I defaulted. As someone who liked to think of herself as open-minded with a good grasp of her own privilege this was a slightly painful realisation, but I’m happy to have made it. The results were these:
On the UK
The very term ‘melting pot’ that I was so quick to chuck around in my China post is itself the preserve of white privilege: if you are not white British, is the ‘British identity’ that melts us all together really any more than a colonising force of assimilation? This assimilation extends to our conceptions of beauty, which may seem initially to be more varied and permissive than Korea’s, but which each subscribe to a Euro-centric and largely unattainable ideal. When it comes to notions of success, in our academic and professional lives we and our children are being pushed more and more towards an aggressively capitalist, individualistic ideal, the top ranks of which are almost exclusively white (and male, and upper-class – but more of that another time). The ‘diversity’ of which we are so proud is often used euphemistically in our own culture(‘Peckham is so…diverse!’) or to describe an ideal we are far from having achieved: as most recently evidenced by new draconian immigration laws and the rise of the Right in the UK, our society is far from the enlightened, equal and meritocratic ideal that our eyes sometimes see, especially if those eyes are homesick and Caucasian.
Outside of a couple of novels and history books, the vast majority of reading about Korean culture and identity that I had been exposed to was written by or for foreigners sharing stories and advice about living in Korea. Most of the writers were white. My own blog fits this description, and whilst I hope it’s enjoyable what it won’t tell you is anything about Korean culture or identity from a Korean perspective. To mitigate this, in the next post I want to share some Korean perspectives on national identity, and to explore a little more about how challenging white privilege can change our perceptions of cultural difference.
Wanderings and Ramblings of an ESL teacher currently based in a tiny mountain town near the North Korean border.