Being The Other

I’ve just finished work and I’m walking to the bus stop. A five year old Korean girl glides towards me on a scooter. She wears a Taekwondo uniform. White belt. Her eyes are wide and fixed on me. Her mouth loosely held open. It’s probably the closest she’s ever been to a person that doesn’t look Korean, especially without her parents around. She has so many questions she can’t even form in Korean, much less in whatever language I might speak. Eyes still fixed on me, she scoots right off the sidewalk and stumbles onto the grass.

Korea is one of the top twenty economies in the world, but its globalization has only just started. Their technology is used in cell phones that connect people around the world, yet many people in this country live their whole life without ever talking to someone who is not Korean.

I can’t deny this is a fun part of being out here. Little kids from across the street will wave and yell “Hello” before their mothers can shush them.

Every time I go shopping or order food, it’s an event as the server and I struggle to make communication and feel the pride of hard won victory when we both come to an understanding.

There’s a convenience store down the road from me managed by a man in his 50s. He gets excited anytime a foreigner comes to the shop because he gets to practice English, which he speaks surprisingly well. When he speaks English, it feels like he’s only half-way in the present and I see the unmistakable glimmer of nostalgia in his eyes. I’m certain his mind is going back to a time when he was making use of the English he now speaks so well. I wonder when it was and who he was with.

There’s a few bars around my apartment. When I go out at night, there’s groups of drunk middle-aged couples roaming the streets, hopping from bar to bar.  Inevitably, one of these groups will have a mischievous guy who says “Hi” just loud enough so his friends know he’s only being silly. He says it with the same innocent excitement as those kids yelling from across the street. Drunk men are children.

It may sound obnoxious, but it really is fun because there’s such an innocent feel in Korean culture. They’re not warm like Americans. They don’t open easily to strangers. But they are extremely kind and cheerful. I never feel threatened for my foreignness. I feel like a curiosity. And damn it, it’s fun.

If I’m a curiosity, I can’t imagine how it is for black people here. I had a few black friends when I lived in Busan. One of them caused a car accident as he was walking down the street because the driver was looking at him and not the road.

That same friend also noticed that it’s common for new foreign teachers to hit a phase of culture shock where they start complaining about everything. It usually takes a month or two, once the wonder of being in a new place wears off. They start complaining about having to stay at school when class is finished and old ladies not wanting to sit next to them on the bus and kids staring at them on scooters and so on. My friend pointed out that it’s mostly white foreign teachers who complained. He said that as a black man in the U.S., he was already used to these experiences.

Being different out here is fun for me because it’s temporary. But if this was permanent? Hm.

So if you’re reading this, Marcus, thanks for that perspective.

Looking In From The Outside.

Damn, I miss American culture this time. I missed it last time too, but I didn’t know it. I had no clue what American culture was because I had nothing to compare it to. Then I spent two years living in Korea and, more importantly, three years watching cultures from almost every part of the world pack into my English language class in Los Angeles.

You can’t know your culture without knowing other cultures. It’s like someone asking you if a wine is more oaky or cedary when it’s the first glass you’ve ever had. Here’s where the USA sits among world cultures.

We’re warmer than Europe and Asia, but colder than Latin America and Arabic speaker. I don’t know much about inland and western African cultures because we didn’t have many students from there, but I imagine we’re colder than them too.

Europeans come here and are schocked by how openly people talk with strangers. One student told me she was waiting at a crosswalk when someone asked where she was from. She said she was from Austria, and the stranger kept talking and had so many questions. She felt like it was fake because this person didn’t truly want to be a real friend, so the interest must not be sincere.

At first, this accusation shocked me because I never thought it could even be considered fake. I sincerely am interested in strangers. But shock turned into numbed annoyance over the years as I heard it again and again and learned the European personality is to call anything not-European fake or silly or second-rate.

Latin Americans, on the other hand, are frustrated because Americans feel so closed off. However, Latin Americans convey this feeling with a smile instead of a sneer.

American culture is almost certainly the most individualistic, for better or worse. That is one of the biggest differences we have with Korea, which is communal in the extreme. So much so that most Koreans live with their parents until they get married, and some continue after that. In Korea, they connect more to their identity as a community than their identity as an individual. In the US, we do the opposite.

I think there’s a connection between the individualism and the creativity that comes out of the US. Creativity flourishes when play is allowed. Play can’t happen when making a mistake is stigmatized. Instead of stigmatizing those who step out of line and try different things, we celebrate it. We have to. It’s a survival strategy in a culture as diverse as ours.

There’s a professional computer gamer (yeah, that’s a thing now) named Idra who thought he was making a point about gaming, but actually made a great point about culture. He’s American, but lived and competed in Korea for many years. He noticed that when a new strategy in the game he played becomes dominant, Koreans and Americans react to it different. Koreans will practice that one strategy into mechanical perfection. Americans will test for alternative strategies to counter it.

Our individualism can be harmful too. It’s easier for the community to forget about individuals who slip through the cracks. It can lead to selfishness and ego. I think it even has a hand in the dominance of fast food, as many families don’t give time to sit down and eat together.

Seeing people from all these cultures also gave me a better opinion of American education. Not that we’re great, because there’s clearly big problems we have to work on. But more because these college age kids were equally as embarrassing. And the school I worked at was an expensive language school too, so these were the upper crust kids.

Americans get a bad rap for not knowing geography. Europeans love to say that Americans don’t know anything about the world. I had this one student from a mostly European class that asked if I had seen the YouTube video which proved Americans are stupid because they couldn’t place countries on a map. I told him I had seen it and I doubted he or the other students could do much better. I pulled up a world map, everyone lined up, then they took turns calling out a country.

They were only calling obscure European countries. Azerbaijan, Moldova, etc. I said that wasn’t satisfying. “Ecuador,” I called out. The location is in the title, but the student was looking for it on the southern coast of Africa.

“Laos,” I called next.

“That’s not a country,” was the response. I told her it was next to Vietnam, but she couldn’t find that either.

So the next time you hear a European say “Americans don’t know about the world,” just know that they only say that because they think Europe is the world.

Students from other cultures didn’t say things like that, they just openly admitted to knowing nothing about the world.  I had a Japanese student that didn’t know where Russia was.

Are Americans stupid? No. Or more accurately: yes, but only as stupid as everyone else.

These are generalizations, of course. I’m sure you may know a shy Latin American and a warm, out-going Chinese girl. But it’s impossible to talk about culture without generalizing. Also, it’s impossible to talk about culture without ruffling some feathers. These observations are just the way it is, as far as my experience has led me to believe. So ruffle away.

In the end, I think the most appropriate quote for American culture must be, “Time is money.” And I mean this in a good way. We don’t have patience for drawn-out formalities or pompous speech or cumbersome hierarchy. If it works, we like it. If not, we don’t give a damn.

You see it in everything, even down to our language. American English is direct. We’ve stripped away almost all structures of formality that would stall us from getting to the point. And I miss that directness when, even after a month, lesson planning with my Korean co-teacher still takes far longer than it should because she’d rather be polite than tell me what she really thinks. I miss that individuality and diversity when my waiter refuses to hold the spicy sauce because she thinks it tastes better with it.

Korea is a fantastic place full of beautiful and kind people, but over the last few years I’ve realized how much where I’m from is part of who I am.