Madrone sunrise, Point Lobos

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bim Bim Bap

It is hard to talk about ethnic differences without sounding like a freaking bigot but here goes. I think the first time it happened I was at the local Indian casino waiting for the cashier.

The slightly older Korean woman walked right in front of me in line like I didn't even exist. Not sure if I detected a scowl but it was a quite unpleasant interaction.

On the way back from Texas I was standing in the crappy little breakfast area queu at the Holiday Inn and the same thing happens. The diminutive Korean woman steps right in front of me, or tries to anyway, until she catches my stink eye death stare, at which time she ushers me to move along quickly with her hand. Well, fuck you.

While Japanese people have always seemed unfailingly polite, Koreans are often in my experience quite the opposite, hard, dismissive and rude. At least with my limited exposure to them. Always terrible to generalize but sometimes I think they don't respect or like white people very much.

I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers recently and Gladwell has a chapter titled "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes." Gladwell has noticed that the Korean aviation industry is frankly a mess, with a very high accident and casualty rate and offers some theories about why that may be.

He introduces the reader to the Power Distance Index, an analysis of the way different cultures treat superiors and subordinates around the world. A dutch social psychologist named Geert Hofstede came up with the concept.
This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people. People in societies exhibiting a large degree of power distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low power distance, people strive to equalise the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.
The higher the PDI, the less likely an underling will challenge a superior. Korea happens to rank second in the world in PDI, after Brazil. They are followed by Morocco, Mexico and the Phillipines.

The lowest ranking countries in the deference index, 15 through 20, are the U.S., Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Subordinates aren't afraid to open their mouth amongst the latter group when their betters are off track. According to Gladwell, these ranking correspond pretty well with the accident rate for planes.

Rank is evidently important in Korean society. Gladwell notes that there are no fewer than six forms of conversational address, formal deference, informal deference, blunt, familiar, intimate and plain. From Page 66:
This is a culture in which enormous attention is paid to the relative standing of any two people in a conversation.
The Korean linguist Ho-min Sohn writes:
At a dinner table, a lower-ranking person must wait until a higher-ranking person sits down and starts eating, while the reverse does not hold true; one does not smoke in the presence of a social superior; when drinking with a social superior, the subordinate hides his glass and turns away from the superior;… in greeting a social superior (though not an inferior) a Korean must bow; a Korean must rise when an obvious social superior appears on the scene, and he cannot pass in front of an obvious social superior. All social behavior and actions are conducted in the order of seniority or ranking; as the saying goes, chanmul to wi alay ka issta, there is order even to drinking cold water.
I had dinner recently with a very nice korean american girl in Santa Barbara and I brought the topic up with her, including my anecdotes of rude treatment. Her mother still lives in Korea. 

I was surprised by her reaction when I recounted my story.

"You idiot, it wasn't because you are white that she treated you that way. It is because you were younger than her. In my culture, seniority is everything."

So while I thought that these were women merely being rude, mean and insensitive perhaps it was simply a matter that I was clearly outranked from their cultural perspective. Evidently reverence for the elderly runs very deep in their society.

My friend J gave me a nice lecture about cultural hierarchal relationships in Korea. And I have done a little more research this week to fill in. And I found that the Asian population is not real happy with Gladwell and what might be an instance of sloppy journalism. Gladwell, has a tendency to occasionally play fast and loose with the facts, or show a limited data set, as he did with his hockey chapter in Outliers that doesn't necessarily stand upon inspection.

Here is an excellent blog post that challenges Gladwell, Ask a Korean. The comments have some interesting points for and against the author's theorizing. And other good points here in Asiance Magazine.

In any case I have learned something about Korea. Korea is a Confucian culture. Confucian cultures revolve around five principal relationships. The following list is from the Korea Society;
Confucianism entered Korea from China and was accepted so eagerly and in such strict form that even the Chinese called the Koreans the "ceremonious people of the East." Confucianism dictated that there must be a proper order to all things in the universe, including human society. All persons within a society must know their place and uphold their responsibilities. Confucianism taught that there were five basic relationships to order and guide family and society. They are:
1. Justice and righteousness between sovereign and subject
2. Affection between father and son
3. Etiquette and justice between husband and wife
4. Younger should defer to elder
5. Faith and trust between friends

These hierarchal relationships are termed "relational" in modern Korea. Women are inferior and subordinate to men in the Confucian culture. There is a natural suspicion of strangers. People are seldom called by their first names, except in very intimate and highly proscribed situations. As I said earlier, title and rank are very important in their society, while the United States, Australia and New Zealand have a more egalitarian, populist streak.

I have two friends that both did two years Korean tours in the army, one as a photographer and one in Military Intelligence. One loved the people and the experience the other absolutely hated it and them. Even Koreans will admit that the country has an apparent racist streak. But of course there are rude and racist people in every culture.

I feel better knowing that I was not treated like crap because I am white but merely because I am young and handsome. Another cultural barrier vanishes!

Kang Sehwang (self-portrait), 18th c.
Old age, believe me, is a good and pleasant thing. It is true you are gently shouldered off the stage, but then you are given such a comfortable front stall as spectator. Confucius

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