Friday, July 16, 2010

The Ups and Downs of Homogeneity

When you were little, what cautions did your parents always leave you with? I'm sure it varies for everyone, but most of you probably had some form of the classics: Look both ways before you cross the street, respect your elders, don't talk to strangers.

Well, that last one seems to not be so important in Korea. In fact, if I didn't know any better, I would say that Korean kids are encouraged to go up to strangers and pester them for candy. Its a strange existence when xenophobia is not instilled on that level in the young. Everyone is so friendly and in each other's business. Its how I imagined small town America would have been in the 1950s. Maybe today, I don't know. The only reason I've ever gone to small town America was to either do a gig there or to drive through (I guess with the exception of my summer in Arizona).

On a field trip the other day, one of the little girls I was supposed to be looking after strayed over to talk to a middle aged man in a shady corner. It was making me nervous because in America, the situation would be viewed with a certain amount of wariness and the man would know it. He would then work to end the conversation because he would feel uncomfortable or he would know he was making someone else uncomfortable. Not in Korea. In Korea, this situation is viewed with an air of 'isn't that cute? He's taking time to talk to that little girl'. In this situation, I was the one who had to calm the heck down.

This has a lot to do, I think, with the sameness of Korea. I don't think those kids would be so willing to talk to foreigners that way, but since it was a Korean man then they knew to expect certain things from him.

Despite the fact that I strongly believe America's diversity is one of its greatest strengths, there is something to be said for living in a society with no surprises. People here feel a very strong bond with each other to the point where the honor system actually works (this may have more to do with the group-oriented nature of East Asian cultures than Korea's homogeneity but it could be some of both). People in Korea never have to make allowances for different religions, or different cultures or even for different dietary needs. Here everyone has had the same upbringing, everyone likes the same things (mostly), everyone eats the same food.

Not to say that Korea is a boring place, or that it doesn't have things from other cultures, which it does, but that - for the majority - Korean people like to be Korean.

This also leads to unexpected problems for the foreigner. For example, there is no way I'm going to find make-up here to match my skin tone (not really that big a problem, but still).

I have to find a specific pizza place that sells normal pepperoni pizza without putting things on it I would consider to be not compatible with pizza - mustard, potatoes, squid, hard-boiled eggs, and mayonnaise to name just a few.

I can find shoes just fine, but my co-worker, Jonathan, has trouble finding a men's 13 size shoe for obvious reasons. He and William also have a hard time getting their hair cut because they are both black and have hair textured in such a way that it baffles Korean hairstylists.

I, too, have been having trouble getting my hair cut but only because I want to get my side-swoopey bangs again and here everyone has bangs that go straight across their forehead. It looks great on Korean girls but I'm pretty sure I'd look stupid. Korean hairstylists just assume that you want it the way everyone else has it. Not being able to communicate what I want will be a problem.

Finally, the biggest problem I found with the homogeneity of Korean society is that they don't often appreciate thinking outside the box. Things that are different or not to their tastes are dismissed out of hand. A good example would be when I came to work with henna on my hands. The kids went crazy. They thought it was the weirdest thing they'd ever seen which is understandable if you've never seen it before. But the way they carried on you would think I had a disease on my hand.

Though the younger, urban, generations embrace all things new and different, just outside the city people are not so accepting.

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