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Thursday, November 07, 2013

Funerals, Foreignness

Senior-level hospitality workers remind me a lot of undertakers. They dress in somber, unobtrusive suits, move silently and inconspicuously around the periphery of the action, making sure events happen naturally, calmly, without undue interruption. Ideally, their machinations are visible only by a single, perfect result, while the unsightly process which produced it remains undisclosed.

For example, I set up last night at a well-known local hotel, famous for clandestine meetings of the Carl Bernstein sort, where Anita and I were invited to show our jewelry. There's an international meeting there over the next four days, and those being our people, the grapevine brought our name to the attention of the organizers.  I arrived yesterday afternoon to find our designated table positioned halfway down the long corridor alongside the ballroom, a central spot but unfortunately right next to the men's room.  I plunked down my bagfuls of jewelry and necks and began to arrange my display area to the tune of toilets flushing, when I spotted an alarming creature exiting the men's: the biggest roach I've encountered outside of South Carolina. It dashed for cover under my baggage, which I snatched out of the way with astonishing agility, and stomped the beast firmly, grinding it into the carpet with a decisive twist of my shoe.  Ick, ick, ick!  I hate roaches.

After cleaning up the insect remains and putting the finishing touches on the display, I strolled down the hall to look at the other exhibitors' tables.  And immediately was seduced by a book with a South Korean flag on the front, entitled Learning to Think Korean: A Guide to Living and Working in Korea, by L. Robert Kohls. So, before having made a penny, I'd parted with 2450 of them and was several dozen pages into a careful examination of South Korean twentieth-century culture.  And the picture was not particularly encouraging: Kohls (who held great affection for the country--"He's dead now," one of the conference attendees--attended the same Quaker meeting as the author and his family when he was a child-- told me) describes a place where "face" predominates over honesty, and birthright determines status.  In other words, a place sharing many of the more irritating (and yet simultaneously reassuring, for those of us born into the system) cultural characteristics of the traditional American South.  The "who's your Daddy/where ya from" attitude that I acknowledge as an ever-more deterministic force as I grow older (and return to my hometown, where I certainly hope these relationships will stand me in good stead in the quest for employment and community) is-- or was at the end of the 1990s--an indelible aspect of Korean culture.  But as the book was issued in 2001, before the Internet revolution had suffused from Seoul to the countryside, I wonder how much of this is still true?  Is there still the severe "in-group/out-group" demarcation that leaves so many foreigners feeling brutally excluded? Does South Korea still have the unenviable record of severe domestic violence that it once bore?

Kohls repeatedly describes the Koreans as being publicly calm, subconsciously following the Confucian and Taoist ideals of arranging oneself in concert with nature, unruffled by circumstance, only displaying emotion when dealing with extreme subordinates.  Whereas I can see this behavior might be demonstrated by the older generations, I wonder very much whether people under age 45 exhibit such self-restraint.  Likewise, Kohls talks about the hierarchy of society and language, the historic discrimination against under-60 women--all of which has some parallel with the Southern example, and I wonder how these lines may have become blurred.  Altogether, I despair of ever "thinking Korean"--for me, it is so much easier to think (and look) Russian.

What it ultimately comes to is: am I willing to be a minority in an unfamiliar society? It can be a freeing, and a limiting experience. Freeing because minorities may not be expected to conform to social norms, yet limiting because if a minority does not operate within the norms, his or her ability to be accepted, to live peacefully, will be affected.  Learning new habits is hard enough when you physically resemble the dominant ethnicity, when you don't, you feel like you are under a permanent spotlight.

I wonder, too, how radically the Christianization of the Korean peninsula has changed what was traditional culture?  What values have been retained, and even deepened, and what behaviors have disappeared?  From a purely superficial viewpoint, and returning to the subject of funerals, Kohls says that mourning clothes are white in Korea, which I know was in fact the case, traditionally.  However, insofar as Korean television drama depictions can be expected to reflect reality (about as far as American sitcoms, I'd guess), funerary clothes in urban areas are now all Western black.

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