Saturday, November 10, 2012

Is a Clash of Culture Inevitable and Irreconcilable?

From the perspective deep inside the culture of Korea with Korean in-laws it starts to become clearer to me why the East and West do have so many problems in relations.  There are some key differences based on our core values that are simply not compatible with each other.

Let's start with the West and our core values: freedom, equality, and individuality.  There are obviously others like fairness, for example, and even respect is important, it is just not as important and is over-shadowed by the others when push comes to shove.

In the East (focusing on Korea) the core values are contrary to the West: respect and duty.  This is not to say that freedom, equality, and individuality are not at all important but they are superseded by respect and duty.

Everyone, to some degree, is probably aware of these differences but some practical examples are needed to illustrate just how badly these can clash sometimes, and I can give some from personal experience.

In Korea, the old have a duty of care for the young and in return the young have a duty to respect and obey older people's wishes, especially that of family.  As a son in-law I fall into to this family dynamic and I am expected to obey my in-laws when they ask something of me.  Most of the time I accept this duty, not least because often they are not asking for the world and it is better to simply not cause any trouble.  This is not to say, however, that this cannot be tiresome on occasion as even the mundane, like going round for dinner, to a small degree, requires that I abandon my own core principles.

When I arrive, where we go, how I behave, and when I leave are all out of my hands, so that is freedom gone.  Throughout the whole time I have to respect the in-laws also, bowing, respectful language, turning away when I drink, etc.  Equality gone.  Individuality is the only thing that remains but even then I am required to conform, which is certainly not in my nature, so I think we can safely say that is all my core values jettisoned.

If this is beginning to sound like a moan, you maybe right, but honestly I accept most of this from week to week without that much trouble, only if I am tired or in a bit of a bad mood do I become slightly grizzly about it or if I have spent too long in their company.  It is clear that I need to compromise some of my own culture's beliefs in order to make things run smoothly with my wife and her family, so I don't mind too much, especially as my wife's parents are good people, they were merely brought up from the opposite side of the world to me.

Every now and then, however, (perhaps even as little as once a year) a situation comes up that reminds me of the fragile nature of the peace between our cultures.  I can think of a few instances where I have flat-out refused to do what my in-laws require of me, where what they have asked has just tip-toed over the line of what I believe is acceptable.  On a couple of these cases in point, my wife has lied to her parents to avoid conflict, not just little white lies, but some pretty whopping porky pies.  To a Western ear, lying to your parents sounds abhorrent but I have learned that this is common in Korea and what's more I believe this is preferred to honesty by parents themselves if the honesty causes any disruption in the social order or the family dynamic.  Some of the lies my wife has said to her parents have been so transparent they must have known she was lying, and I see this in the culture generally, it really seems as if lying is not that bad a thing to do if it maintains the status quo.

On two other occasions, however, no lie could save the situation.  The first is the situation I shared in the post on 'My Korean Family' where I met her (rather wealthy) uncle for the first time, who invited me for dinner with the rest of the family the next day and then about an hour before the scheduled meeting time informed me, via my wife, that he would like me to pay for all ten people present.  I refused as I had only met them for an hour or two the day before and felt this was stretching my charity to them a little too far.

The other occurred last week after I had just finished dinner at home on a Wednesday night at about 8 o'clock.  My wife received a phone call from her mother, who was drinking (and drunk) with a friend. Her friend decided to phone up her daughter and ask whether they could meet with them with her son in-law, and because they were Korean they dropped everything and joined them at short notice.  This is done more as a way of showing-off just how wonderful your family is, in Korean culture, and as cynical as it sounds, the most probable reason for her friend to call her daughter to meet was to make my mother in-law feel jealous.  These acts are painfully easy to see for what they really are, even if you do not have a great grasp of the language, but my mother in-law took the bait and was indeed jealous.  This was all the motivation she needed to call us over.

Now, there might be times where I would be a willing participant in this little status game to save any aggravation but that night was not one of them.  I was tired, ready to relax, and wanted to get up early for a run, and besides she had given us no notice whatsoever, just 'come now!'  My Western ideals started clapping like thunder inside my head, 'I am not here to be used and commanded by someone else' was my immediate reaction.  However, after a few minutes of seeing my wife looking a bit upset and wondering what on earth she was going to say to her mother, I offered a compromise and that was that I would go out but I did not want to sit in a smoky bar.  We could have gone to one of the many coffee shops around or even met around their house which was close by but that was not acceptable.  We had to meet on exactly her terms because that would show her friend what a dutiful and wonderful daughter and son in-law she had.

While I have some sympathy for my mother in-law in this situation - it is her culture after all - this was grossly unfair on me, and especially unfair on my poor wife who was stuck in the middle.  What should have happened was that she was fine to ask if we wanted to join her but not to demand it and certainly not to be upset with my wife when I did not go.  In my eyes, she was behaving like a dictator and from my point of view and my core values, I cannot respect this and in-fact I actively want to disobey this behaviour simply because it flies in the face of my principles.  From her perspective though, I was not respecting her wishes and not fulfilling my duty as a son in-law and she was probably as offended at my behaviour as I was of hers.  The difference is irreconcilable and the only thing that can be done is to paint over the cracks and forget about it.

Bring these same issues up to societal, country, and regional level and it is easy to see where we have problems in relations.  What we think is important and right, deep down inside, is not only different but opposed and actually clash head on.  I have a deeper understanding than most and I am keen for things to work out well because of my wife but most people do not have this close cultural connection or so much vested interest in a pleasant outcome.  No wonder we have problems in the world.

The important thing to remember, even though these differences are so damaging and cause a fair amount of anger and conflict, is that there is no doubt that my in-laws are good people and no doubt that most Koreans are good people, this goes for Chinese, Japanese, Iranians, Afghans, Russians and all the others we might have troubles with.  Travel teaches you this, most people are great, even if you don't enjoy their culture.  What's more I am good too, and so are the vast majority of people from Western countries also.  Just because we offend each other sometimes does not mean one side is evil and the other righteous.  On the other hand, maybe it is just because of where I was brought up but I genuinely think that Western core principles really are better, but many in the East will of course dispute this.  So we have come full circle again and it could be that there is no solution, we'll all just have to live with it the best we can, like I have to.


  1. To be fair, it is only in a very specific set of circumstances where they clash head on. They can usually be danced around -- but when they do clash.... yeah. It can be rough. It requires some diplomacy, some tapdancing, some flexibility, and some self-respect, to be sure there's a line that doesn't get crossed.

    It helps when alcohol isn't in the mix.

    1. Yep, it doesn't often happen, and I do my best to be flexible but sometimes the wall goes up. Also, I think it might actually help that my Korean speaking isn't all that great, when these issues crop up, so I can't make things worse.

  2. Well, my friend from Western Germany told me she felt far less lonely in Korea than when she was back home. So it could depend on the individual.

    1. Being lonely is not my problem with my Korean family, it is the clash of culture. If anything when I am with them I am saturated by too much company and want to be alone after a couple of hours.

      The cultures clash, there is no doubt, it happens often with many other Koreans I have dealings with, but you are right that some things very much depend on the individual. I, for example, rarely spend time with my own family very much so I am bound to be uncomfortable spending long periods of time with a Korean family.

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