Korean, American and Other Strange Habits -
You Do It Your Way

two books reviewed

Thor May 2003




 American/Korean Contrasts - Patterns & expectations in the US & Korea”. Susan Oak & Virginia Martin published 2000 in New York & Seoul by Hollym International Corp. ISBN 1-56591-152-0 ; 294pp; won 12,000 http://www.hollym.com


Korea Unmasked -  in search of the country, the society and the people” Won-bok Rhie; translated by Jung Un and Louis Choi published 2000 in Seoul by Gimm-Young Publishers Inc. ISBN 89-349-1178-6; 236pp illustrated; won 9,900; http://www.gimmyoung.com


There was a dreamtime in distant childhood when it was obvious and proper that the world was how your mum and dad said it was. It was true that the kids down the road ran by different clockwork, but you knew they were *wrong*, and their families were warped. Later, you still thought the neighbours were warped, but as ambition ate away at your indignation, you made little compromises, and even began to wonder if your old man was right about everything after all.

Then one day you set foot in someone else's country and your world turned upside down. These people were *weird*, really off the wall. The neighbours back home might be slack, but at least you could talk to them. In this new place, it was, well, eerie. A bit dangerous too. You were 100% outnumbered, and they called you a foreigner. You kept a low profile, and sort of adapted. Maybe you changed a bit too. After living on Mars for a few years, when you went home for a holiday the old family reckoned you'd gone native. Well, come to think of it, *they* looked sort of silly now. TV or no TV, they didn't have a clue what the rest of the planet was like... Jeez, some of them even took holidays in Bali and managed to treat it as a painted backdrop for boozy parties, without taking in a scintilla of contradiction. Their heads, you decided, had been baked like clay pots by the age of ten, and nothing was going to change the categories in their mental database. Sadly, you'd noticed the same baked clay brains at every global address. Only the glazing on the pots was different..




"Here's a small gift for you". I looked at the packet of green tea perplexed. The wizened lady holding out her hand was almost a total stranger. True, I had stayed at the minshuku she ran in Ikekuburo for a couple of days, but we hadn't exchanged a dozen words. The idea of an Australian hotel manager offering a departing guest a gift was preposterous. More likely to frisk you  for the stolen silverware. The tea was all the more puzzling since I had been repelled by the stony indifference to others evident in Japanese street life.

That was my first visit to Japan, in 1982, and a first introduction to the East Asian contradiction between public brutishness and private obligation. Now in 2003, much too much older and beaten down by the world's perversities, I could afford to be gracious when my new Japanese apartment neighbour in Busan offered me a 300 won packet of noodle flavouring by way of introducing himself .... He was giving me a toe-hold in his omiyagi (gift-giving) network, by which human relationships could be defined, and intimacy or obligation carefully calibrated by the value of the gift. But I sighed inwardly, and recalled my awful, yearly search for family birthday presents which took hours, days, and never seemed to quite please anyone...




Throw the switch to vaudeville ... It's not every day you see a late middle-aged American type with a backpack butting into the campus building where I live in South Korea. After he had shoved at a couple of locked glass doors, I opened the only accessible one to let him in. He barged past me, then stood there looking around in confusion. After a minute or two I asked if he was after someone in particular. For the first time he glanced at me, but in a kind of unfocused way. "Where are the dormitories?" he asked, "on the  5th floor?". "Well yes, but you'll need to see Joo Ki -sung in the office. Anyway, my name's Thor." There was a hint of dull surprise. "Oh", he said, "I thought you were Korean". And that, one could only guess, meant a non-person. 

Hmm. A message from the sponsor at this point. Firstly, as a rare foreigner in a city of four million Koreans, I was invisible to the gentleman. Even given his own evident self-involvement, this was hard to swallow. I struggle to wrestle down my giant ego. This affliction of invisibility has taken me years to recognize, but has undoubtedly been manifest from about the age of five. Being a slow learner, I've never really accepted that being invisible is a huge advantage, and  tried  for eloquent verbiage like a bunch of coloured balloons over a run-down department store. But you can't win. When they are tricked into the shop, the mug customers hardly ever like what they find.... Now there's a new variation, When they get to the door of the shop, some of them decide that the merchandise is faux Korean. Not just this confused and ageing Anglo either. A lady journalist from Kookje Shimun recently protested when I sent her a requested snapshot. There was some mistake, she whined -- surely this was a Korean's photo. Heck, I have grey  eyes and brown hair and a big nose, with ears like an elephant. All of which goes to prove that what you see is not what you get -- some of us really do slither around in cloaks of illusion to trick the world. Mine comes free and is 24/7.  Presidents and suchlike have to buy theirs.




Now what do the minshuku lady, the blundering American and Yours Invisibly have in common ? Legs, clothing, various attachments of the homo sapien type ... We invade each other's space in a way that cockroaches and polar bears would not be terribly welcome to do. The closer we get though, the less impressed we are by these commonalities,  and the more obsessed with searching out tattoos, garlic breath or the habits of signalling friendship to separate ourselves from all but a small circle of like-smelling bipeds. In particular we want other human pretenders to hang a tribal sign around their necks saying 'Country-Culture-Religion-Football-team' .  

What follows is a kind of review of two books which take a look at 'Country-Culture' tribal labels. Their styles are very different, and their answers not always coherent, but like sex and money, their topic is something that lot's of people have an opinion about, and will probably pay to read about..




Susan Oak & Virginia Martin's American/Korean Contrasts - Patterns & Expectations in the US & Korea has the flavour of an academic study which has been adapted for popular reading. This gives it the strength which comes from systematic scholarly research, but also the slight woodenness of abstracted information. It is nevertheless quite readable. The authors admit that they are dealing with 'cultural ideals', but reasonably argue that before you can understand variations you have to know what the norms are. You could study the material from cover to cover as I did, or your could dip into the book for areas of specific information. At the end of each chapter there is a summary, a glossary of Korean and English terms, and a list of footnotes.  

Here are the seven chapter headings : 1. Understanding Influences on American and Korean Society; 2. Common Courtesy; 3. Greetings and Farewells; 4. Family Life and Expectations; 5. Celebrating Family Rituals; 6. Food and Drink; 7. Money, Employment and Business. Each of these topics is analysed by way of an introduction, then a series of blindingly obvious questions such as "what is common courtesy?" Occasionally the questions have surprising answers.  

Australians like me tend to be a bit blase about America, figuring that it is just another collection of supermarkets on the far side of the Pacific. We assume ( in the baked clay brain tradition) that no American is capable of seeing any joke more subtle than a custard tart in the face, and their ignorance of other places is legendary. Generally we don't think the USA is worth the price of a holiday airfare just to see more of the same dreary suburbs we know back home... On the other hand, this particular Australian happens to work in South Korea, where he is usually not only assumed to be American (the poor critters can't tell one accent from another), but often has to wear the cloak of a crypto-American. That is, only Americans are widely known to speak English and he is, well, an 'English' teacher. With that comes the obligation to teach American culture, whatever that is. Now Oak & Martin's book set out to state what is boringly plain to Americans but mysterious to Koreans, and vice versa. I might be hiding in the American boot camp, but some of this Yankee stuff turns out to be as foreign to me as any Mudang spirit song.  

The visibility of religion is a major difference between broad American and Australian culture; (for that matter it marks off the United States from much of Western Europe, and from a large part of the South Korean population). Especially the 100 million or so Americans who go in for charismatic Christianity leave a mark on public life which makes many of the unwashed a little uneasy. It's not that Europeans and Australians as a group are less spiritual privately (not necessarily via the supermarket of established religions). Maybe history has made them more wary strident claims to certain knowledge. It is so divisive. Maybe they are just at a different waystop on the great wheel of Time. Anyway, religion is a clear style marker in the American psyche which Oak & Martin regard seriously, even too seriously. Taking God's name in vain is a no-no: "One of the worst curse words in English is 'Goddamn' . Although you may hear this word ..[it].. should not be used", they tell Koreans. Heck, even my Australian grandma said worse than that, not to mention all those varmits in Hollywood Westerns.  Is Hollywood only for export after all? 

Just as Oak & Martin see American culture as founded on Judeo-Christian principles, they take pains to explain the main Confucian tenets as a foundation for Korean values and behaviour. Certainly, in both cases, the evidence is easy to find. Without some basic knowledge of Confucian values, Americans will certainly be confused by the reactions of many Koreans to everyday situations, and likewise of course, Koreans by American attitudes. In a book such as this it is right to point out the highway markers, for it is often dismaying how few travellers in either direction know even major traffic signs. However, it is a bit naive to take that as the whole story. 

The big creeds and ideologies are official icons. You need to know about them, but they are often poor predictors of real outcomes. There are always other values pulling against them. A casual visitor to China in, say, the 1950s could easily have come away certain that Maoist Communist ideology was an infallible predictor of both public and private attitudes in the PRC. They would have been utterly wrong. A traveler in 13th Century Europe, or Iran of the 1970s might have been equally impressed by the power of official Christianity or Islam. Yet in every case a closer view, or a longer historical view, would reveal that there were other submerged values competing with the public template. In the case of Korea these competing tensions are especially interesting. Firstly, the iconic state religion, Buddhism was displaced at the beginning of the Yi Chosun dynasty (1392-1910), but continued to retain a powerful influence in many sectors of society. Secondly, although their presence has endured over many centuries, both Buddhism and neo Confucianism (now Christianity also) are imported value systems in Korea. The indigenous Korean shamanism, together with a swirling slurry of ancient half remembered clan values & beliefs, has never been entirely submerged. Rigid social divisions until very recently have helped to separate the upper crust of official values from the old stew bubbling underneath. Oak & Martin really give us no hint of this.




Perhaps the most useful summary in Oak & Martin's book for non-Koreans is the explanation of six controlling concepts : “chemyeon”, “neunchi”, “kibun”, “bunuiki”, “jeong” and “han”. The matrix of these elements determines the relationship of the group to an individual; (note that in this traditional Korean equation individual importance is inferior to that of the group). Successfully managing the six elements is the key to satisfactory living, the authors say. ... Well again, we are talking about broad tendencies. When you apply almost any metric in nature to a population, you get a bell curve. If you measure the height of trees in a forest, most trees will cluster around a median height, with smaller numbers tapering off for the taller and shorter trees. Does this mean that the large number of trees around the median are the most successful (whatever 'successful' is taken to mean)? Not necessarily. Similarly, some people are very bad (whatever 'very bad' means) and some very good (whatever 'very good' means), but the majority (the top of the bell curve) are neither very good nor very bad, being easily swayed in either direction. It is a fair bet that the Korean who impeccably manages his chemyeon will get high marks from those of his peers who attach great importance to chemyeon, but he might still not successfully manage his 7/11 store, write a ground-breaking PhD, or raise a contented family. It all depends...  

Still, we need to know what these magic names mean. Chemyeon is closely related to the Western concept of face (myeon translates as face). However, chemyeon is vastly more important than the mere problem of saving personal embarrassment. Any personal failure is a loss of chemyeon both to the individual and to those groups in which he is embedded. Your sensitivity to preserving other people's chemyeon according to their position and values is a critical test of your civilized behaviour. Thus, to refuse a drink, for example, might be seen as an attack on the hospitality of a host. The name of the game is balance, or harmony : all participants should contribute to maintaining a kind of emotional comfort zone. Of course, if you have no relationship with another party (Oak and Martin curiously do not discuss this), you have little risk of either losing chemyeon or causing them to lose it. The countless Korean drivers who park anywhere, blocking roads, walkways and locking in other cars seem outrageously selfish to an insensitive foreigner like me, but they clearly conceive of no civic obligation to an anonymous community which does not engage their chemyeon. 

Neunchi is a formalized ideal of the sensitivity we probably all hope for but often fail to achieve. Neunchi is the ability to read the sub-text, the implicit messages in a social situation, and then (this is the Korean part) react in a way which preserves the chemyeon of the other person. Oak & Martin cite the example of a teacher who asks a question, then perceiving that the student can't answer it, deflects the question to another student. This not only saves the first student's chemyeon, but boosts the (Confucian) authority of the wise teacher and win's student loyalty to their superior. Hmm. I have to admit that I've become a dogged chemyeon cruncher for a whole stratum of students who squeak "sorry" whenever they are pushed to perform in any way. Could it be that real Koreans too play the barbarian or the courtier according to the moment..? 

Kibun is variously translated as the mood or vitality or life-force of a person. When the kibun is sour, body and mind are felt to be adversely affected. You have an obligation to be sensitive to the kibun of other members in your group, even if your own kibun is frail. Thus you do not refuse that shot of soju which is going to put you under the table. You keep the jolly spirit of the party and preserve your host's chemyeon by accepting it graciously. But then, being desperate, you don't drink. The host, using his neunchi to understand your situation, is deeply grateful for your help in saving everyone's kibun.  

A close  relative of kibun is bunuiki, which is the business of preserving atmosphere or mood in a social relationship. Nothing uniquely Korean about that, but again it is the consequence of being a party-pooper which gives these two ideas a pivotal place in the Korean worldview. In a perfect Korean relationship, nothing should threaten the integrity of the group, for the group (not the individual) is ideally the measure of all that is humanly valuable. The goal of bunuiki is generally to be convivial, but perhaps because it is a conscious obligation, the outcomes are planned. You don't hunker down in little circles of friends at a party. Everyone sticks together in one big group and plays the programmed games. Spontaneity is not expected. 

OK, OK, back to the real world (I'm a pathological party-pooper) : at least for an outsider, there often seems to be an extreme duality in Korean relationships. As the new friendship/association/party/job starts off we are all out there in the wide, sunny blue yonder. The bunuiki positively bubbles with generosity/optimism/boundless ambitions. But the strain of smiling so widely seemingly can't last. Someone stubs their toe on a small problem, and suddenly the whole mood turns upside down. Bitterness, recrimination and paranoia are in the stars. Korean politics, for those who can bear to look, is a perfect pantomime stage for these sagas of love and hate. 

Koreans are not alone in living out a duality between the real and the ideal. Creeds, philosophies and customs often have trouble in admitting the flip side of their golden rules. Sometimes it is expressed as a conflict between good and evil, but that kind of labeling is not always helpful. For example, some cultural traditions seem to run in reverse to the Korean pattern just outlined. There's an old Irish belief that the best way to make a firm friend is to have a knock down fight with him. Then you both truly know each other's limits.  Indonesians have an almost desperate attachment to politeness (the Korean game taken to the nth degree), but also have a deep and fearful cultural recognition that politeness too has an underside. The underside is called amok, when a man cracks and starts cutting people up with a machete. On another plane, the strong Catholic sense of sin is said to give it a special allure, even a sexual allure, and the inevitable failure of virtue is accommodated by the institution of confession to a priest. 

While chemyeon, neunchi and bunuiki are played on the wing in social games, what a Korean takes home is his abiding knowledge of attachment to other people, and his seething resentment for all the injustices the world has inflicted on him. The first idea, that of attachment, is called cheong, and the second, the bad vibes, is called han. 

The balance of cheong attachments may be best reserved for those which involve affection, but it can also include work colleagues and others who may even be disliked, but to whom there are nevertheless extended obligations. While cheong has some cost, it is also a source of security and satisfaction. Your cheong partners, notably your family and close friends, are those whose company you will seek, and who will extend you help in times of  difficulty. Although cheong is a Korean label, it's substance is of course found in every world culture to varying degrees.  

Chinese and other East Asians easily recognize the Korean idea of cheong, but are apt to complain (like most other "foreigners") that in business or pleasure it is frequently impossible to enter a Korean cheong relationship -- Korean ethnicity is too often an absolute qualification. In the West we talk about acquaintances, and friends of varying intimacy. In modern urban societies, the actual rules for forming these friendships are anything but clear, and they can be quite unstable over time. Some people never master the trick at all, so anomie is a recognized social ailment. Also, some individuals are so adapted to non-attachment that they are fairly contented 'loners' (I probably qualify). Non-attachment is pretty close to a Confucian idea of evil, or at least extreme selfishness. Yet one suspects that the reality of life for the new Korea's intensely urbanized population may not be so different from New York or Dusseldorf. Korean ideology may not have the words to talk about anomie and the single life yet, but daily existence for many is surely already ahead of the language.  

Then there is the bad news, the devil in the cellar of your soul, the han. Perhaps han is an ego trying to get out of its box. For a stereotyped Korean at least, when chemyeon goes into deficit, there's a lot of han about. Inevitably in a collectivist society, the individual gets trodden on, and has to suppress personal hopes and priorities. This generates resentment, but the social architecture does not sanction a constructive way for the resentment to be dissipated. The black bile of han brews in it's witch's pot, and has been blamed for everything from explosive driving habits to the chronic alcoholism endemic in the culture. Korea's history itself, a small nation caught as a buffer state between ravaging giants, gives Korean nationalism han on a grand scale (which makes the objective telling of history extremely difficult even for supposedly independent Korean historians). Much Korean literature is built around the dramas generated by han




While chemyeon and it's drinking pals are just the doorkeepers to Oak & Martin's extended discussion of Korean and American habits, this little review is not the place to write a comprehensive summary. If you want to know what to do at a wedding, how to congratulate someone who has a job promotion or what to expect for an American breakfast, buy their book and check it out. 

Well, the American diet ... we can't leave that entirely unscathed. This is heart attack territory. Although kimchi for breakfast, lunch and dinner may seem a trifle short on variety, I for one departed long ago from the American dream of sugar and grease for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Maybe you are better qualified to evaluate  Oak & Martin's statement of the ideal : 


1) scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage or ham; toast with butter and jam, and a glass of orange juice; coffee

2) pancakes with butter and syrup; bacon; a glass of orange juice; coffee

3) a donut and coffee OR a bowl of cereal with milk


1) soup and sandwich; fruit and cookies; milk or soda pop

2) hamburger; french fries; milk shake



1) meatloaf /a meat dish; mashed potatoes & gravy, sweet peas; rolls; green salad; ice cream; milk or soda pop

2) spaghetti with meat sauce; green salad; garlic bread; cake or ice cream; milk or soda pop

3) pizza; soda pop




Korea Unmasked by Won-bok Rhie is an entirely different kind of book from the sedate analysis of Oak & Martin. While they pick up generalizations with the fussy clinical care of doctors in surgical gloves, Won-bok Rhie goes into the guts of his patient, up to the elbows in blood and gore, and invites you to look over his shoulder. At first it is a little off-putting. The initial encounter with Won-bok Rhie left me wondering if he wasn't one of those sowers of mass prejudice who infest every community -- the talk-back radio jocks, the pork-barrel politicians, and the tabloid journalists. Their common weapons are a bag of carefully chosen factoids, a crystal clear moral solution to every problem, and above all a keen sense of tribal superiority to the barbarians at the gate. Won-bok Rhie tends to lean in this direction, especially for the casual reader. He is quick to claim that Koreans are entirely unique at this or that, the greatest, the best, the most extreme or whatever. Just to make sure that the plebs get the point, each snippet is dished up cartoon style in panels (three across, four down per page) with dinky little drawings. My own cultural suspicions of the cartoon style, I realized later, came directly from a childhood world where "classic comics" reduced the world's great literature to a set of cartoons for the illiterate, and excited the scathing contempt of my parents and teachers. Maybe readers from the video age won't have this problem.  

Anyway, as I held on and hop-scotched from panel to panel, the style began to grow on me. Won-bok Rhie has the grace to admit at the outset that he deals in wild generalizations; (maybe he has learned to deflect flack from the sidelines with such candour). Gradually, if you persist, you will realize that the author is actually trading in a discourse style that is particularly Asian, interwoven with colour patches of the more linear, logical method of argument we are familiar with in the West. (One good  analogy for this intellectual style is a description I once read of the Chinese (PRC) spy network : it is a "junk mail" system, gathering huge amounts of often trivial and unrelated information, which en masse slowly conveys an "impression" of an individual, organization or country). Thus, by the time you get to the end of Korea Unmasked,  some of its more extreme hyperbole has self-cancelled on internal contradictions, and you begin to have a strong sense of at least one Korean's world-view. The accumulation of impressions is a sort of organic growth which eventually overwhelms and absorbs your doubts. 

Korea Unmasked is broken into four sections : Neighbours but Strangers : Korea, China and Japan; The Korean People; The Success and Tribulations of the  Koreans; and The Long & Treacherous Road to Reunification.  There is also a translator's note, where the translators indicate the particular difficulty of rendering into English a work in which both pictures and words (often with colloquial references) combine to give a texture of meanings. The book in other words has been written with a Korean readership in mind. Koreans are looking in the mirror, giggling at their own image but fully aware of a real people's life and memories beyond the glass. We, foreigners and strangers, must be content to have faith in those reflections which Won-bok Rhie offers us. 

The section, “Neighbours but Strangers : Korea, China and Japan”, lays a groundwork of basic statistics and contrasts in cultural disposition. The author claims expertise in this, having written eight other books which "unmask" the core of various countries. England, France and Germany, we are told, are extremely similar since all three nationalities use knives and forks, and "believe in the same God"; (I thought droves of them had stopped believing in any god..). China, Korea and Japan on the other hand couldn't be more different since they have chopsticks of different lengths. Moreover, the Chinese communists buried Confucius, the Koreans deified him but nowadays have become 35% Christian, whereas the Japanese couldn't give a stuff about religion at all. Now even allowing that I'm a mutated European Orc looking in on these Middle Lands, it seems to me that here Won-bok Rhie is encouraging his Korean readers to play that old  human game of spot-the-difference. Fellow Orcs will have no trouble remembering that English, French and Germans also easily tell each other's body smells apart.  

One thing the Asians do have in common, the author says, is a strong sense of homogeneity and camaraderie within each culture, compared to most western countries. Oh dear, here we go again ... For those of us who've watched Koreans fighting like cats & dogs, or seen a bunch of Chinese careerists scrambling for advantage, it's all a bit hard to swallow. That's the trouble with stereotypes. They are so easy to satirize, but somewhere deep down also contain a grain of truth. What Won-bok Rhie is probably getting at is that East Asian peoples (at this moment in their history) like to keep their family squabbles out of sight and present a solid face to the outside world. I have great trouble in getting most Chinese or Korean acquaintances to make wry, dispassionate observations about their own countries in the presence of a foreigner. They also have personal networking and nepotism down to a fine art, and that perhaps is a kind of solidarity. Having taught in Chinese and Korean universities, I do have to agree about the "strangers" epithet. Pop idols excepted, the general ignorance and disinterest in neighbouring countries amongst my tertiary students has been distressing.   

Won-bok Rhie decides that the most important value for Chinese is "one"  -- one country, one value, one people. But also, paradoxically, "one" in the sense of "solo" : "the Chinese tend to look out only for themselves ... [they] only trust themselves and their families .....They couldn't care less about what happens to others ... the 'me only' mentality pervades the lives of the Chinese..." (Rhie p.30) . Well yeah, but that's an impression I have about many a Korean on the loose too. The critical issue here is that Won-bok Rhie (like me) meets Chinese as an outsider to whom they owe no obligation. He meets Koreans within his own cultural network, but I do not. There is also a socio-political mood at present where an ambitious young Chinese will often aim to establish his own business, whereas his Korean counterpart thinks small business is for losers, and will do anything to get a secure job in one of the big chaebols like Samsung, or a government position. As for public selfishness, that too has a flip side. For the record, most of us who have lived in Korea or China will recall instances where complete strangers have shown great kindness and sometimes made considerable personal sacrifice to help out a foreigner, with no hope of any recompense. The designs of cultures can favour particular behaviours, good or bad, but those are just tendencies. On the ground you always encounter the full range of human character. 

And what of the Japanese? Wa, he says, is the key to them. Wa, translating as "peace and harmony" is a component of many Japanese words. Why? "Nearly all island countries consider peace and harmony to be very important.." (Rhie p.32). England and Japan, he says, have a near divine, but powerless ruler at the top to play referee and break up fights. This is nonsense as an explanation of course. Nearly everyone over thirty, everywhere, considers peace and harmony to be very important, but that hasn't stopped interest groups incited by ideologues from fighting themselves to a standstill in countries big and small -- including the islands of Japan, England, Ireland (!!), Papua New Guinea (where my students used to take time off for annual tribal wars), and Fiji (where the locals not only fought, but ate each other until the English turned up and stuck a flag in the mud). If Rhie's explanation of wa is eccentric, there is no doubt about the value placed on displays of courtesy in that culture, which he contrasts with a Korean relish for curse words.  

The crux of the cultural loathing between Koreans and Japanese (invasions and colonialism apart) seems to have something to do with this difference in style. "Japanese", numerous Koreans have told me darkly, "are snakes in the grass. They never mean what they say." Exasperated Australians say the same thing in Indonesia. But if we recall Oak & Martin's solemn enumeration of the Korean virtues of chemyeon, neunchi, kibun and bunuiki, it all sounds a bit rich. Ideals are one thing; calibrating your language and decoding the enemy is something else again. While foreigners are impressed by the similarities between Japanese and Koreans, they themselves are apt to see a yawning chasm. They are more comfortable taking a plane to New York than a three hour hydrofoil trip between Busan and Fukuoka. As Won-bok Rhie sees it, Koreans are hearty back-slapping extroverts, and world leaders in multiplayer online games, while the Japanese are neurotic loners, obsessive about not invading other people's space, and world leaders in one-person video games. Hmm, well for loners the Japanese too can show remarkable group solidarity when faced with the outer barbarians ... Maybe we all need enemies. 

Now that the Chinese and Japanese have been neatly labeled, the big question for Rhie and his Korean readers is what coloured badge they should pin on their own T-shirts. Again the writer finds his magic key in geography. This penchant for folk-science is widespread, but a bit worrying in a popularized work by an academic (Won-bok Rhie is a professor). Early efforts in my own field, linguistics, is full of this kind of stuff -- good for a laugh but alarming when a well-intentioned public quotes it as gospel; (yes, Australian English has a flat intonation profile "because" 19th Century European settlers in Australia were afraid of all the cattle flies buzzing into their mouths ... didn't you know, really?). Well, by this thesis, Koreans have been moulded, stamped and cast forever by living on a peninsula. No doubt peninsula living was more than a pinch of salt in the kimchi mixture of Korean character, but it may be drawing a long bow to equate them on this criteria alone with Italians (1500 years of invasions after the fall of the Roman Empire) and the Balkan States (fiercely preserving racial identity, Rhie says, by refusing intermarriage). The 'culture under siege from foreigners' theme is widely quoted by Korean academics and the popular media alike as a constant in Korean history. The evidence of Chinese and later, Japanese incursions is well-recorded. However, the discussion is inclined to overlook that Korean clans too were not adverse to local and international aggression themselves. Paekche, Silla and Koryeo for example spent 700 years in mutual suspicion, betrayal and conflict;(and on bad days, we sometimes think they are still at it...).  

Anyway, from wherever it came, a history of constant conflict has induced Koreans to put the preservation of life and property above all else. Rhie says that their formula to achieve this goal has revolved around cheong. Won-bok Rhie probes cheong in more depth than Oak & Martin. The word is a combination of Chinese characters for 'middle' and 'heart', yielding "... a mindset that stresses justice, fairness and sharing" (Rhie, p.46). The communal ingredient is especially strong, so that "Koreans do not accept methods that deviate from the societal norm.." and "... cheong dictates that there should be an egalitarian distribution of the fruits of prosperity",  (Rhie, p. 47).  No wonder the heartburn of han lies so heavily across the land. Whether it has been the rigid and exploitative bone rank caste system of the Yi Chosun and earlier dynasties,  the brutal Animal Farm of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's North Korea, or the brazen ranking by wealth in modern South Korea, this has never been a place of notable justice, fairness and sharing. What this interpretation of cheong does give us is one handle on the turbulent social currents which sweep public and private life in Korea. It helps to remember though that Rhie's nuanced reading of cheong does not resonate with all Koreans. A few weeks ago I pressed a group of advanced English conversation students to discuss it. The disinterest was palpable, and after ten fruitless minutes I retreated to a topic of real passion -- fashion...




By now the value as well as the limits of Korea Unmasked should be evident. A skeptical mind encountering Won-bok Rhie's grand arguments will be constantly driven to counter-attack. Yet that is a kind of compliment, a sign that he has engaged our opinions and prejudices for better or for worse. I have offered only an aperitif here. There is much more, more to consider and more to dispute. You will be driven to examine the wellsprings of your own cherished beliefs. And at the end of it all, even if you have fought the author for every centimeter (or perhaps especially if you have fought him),  you will emerge with a new scaffold of ideas to build around that exasperating and often likeable character, the Korean. 




Other articles by Thor May dealing with cross-cultures: "Cultural Operating Systems - Thoughts on Designing Cultures", 2010; Ethnicity and Racism - Stirring the Pot, 2005;"Senate Inquiry into the Status of Australian Expatriates", 2004; Individualism or the Group", 2001; "When Is It Rude To Be Rude? - Politeness Across Cultures and Subcultures", 2001; "The Price of Freedom - an Escape from Vietnam", 1984

Bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. Many of his papers, essays and stories may be seen on his website at http://thormay.net; e-mail: thormay@yahoo.com

"Korean, American and Other Strange Habits - You Do It Your Way"... copyrighted to Thor May 2003; all rights reserved
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