Saturday, December 29, 2012

Korean Kindness

If you speak to Koreans about kindness they will say that Korea is the most warm-hearted of all the countries in it's vicinity.  Now we all know that Koreans never really like to blow their own trumpet about their culture so this must be true.

Seriously though, I have experienced many examples of great kindness from Korean people.  The instances which have been the most touching, and indeed helpful, have been acts of kindness from strangers when I or my friends have been most in need of help. 

Korean people will have an explanation for this kindness and it is the concept of '정' (Jeong).  This roughly translates to a warm-heartedness, affection, care, and sentiment.  People who live in the countryside will often display '정' to complete strangers with tender acts of kindness such as allowing them a place to sleep.  Indeed one of the co-teachers at my school travelled all over Korea and stayed mostly in strangers houses because he said he had a very pleasant attitude towards people which made them want to be kind to him (although this man sounds almost as big a cheap-skate as me, he is indeed very amiable).

It is in the countryside that most of my fondest memories of Korean people are situated.  I go hiking regularly, and not just to the national parks and well-known mountains but all over the place and sometimes well off the beaten track.  This means that I have got lost countless times, ended up in odd little villages, and had no way of getting home sometimes because of a lack of knowledge of the local public transport system.

It is in these situations where Korean people really have been great.  My friends and I have received a number of lifts to local bus stations from drivers who pass us by when we were looking very lost.  Each time we have been visibly muddy, sweaty, and smelly but that has not deterred them.

While hiking, Korean people regularly offer us food and drink and are ready to help us out whenever they can.  Just last week we were helped out with our cooking equipment on top of Jirisan mountain.  We had a rather dated gas burner and rather tiny pot for our noodles so a man gave us a bigger pot and a better burner to cook on and we experienced similar little gestures throughout the trip.

Generally, I find that when I am outside of the cities, whether it be in the country or on top of a mountain Koreans are friendly, kind, helpful, and often interested in a pleasant chat with you.  When I travelled to Japan for hiking I did not find this so much.  The Japanese were super-polite and very considerate on the mountain by letting me through on tight trails (unlike the Korean freight train storming through) but they seemed far less inclined to stop and be friendly or offer food and assistance.

Even in the city Koreans have on occasion ran across the road to share an umbrella with me when it is raining when I did not have one, or even just given me an umbrella without any expectation of anything in return.  This is what I find so nice about the kindness of strangers and is key to my warm feelings of this part of their culture, it is a genuine act of kindness with no want of reciprocation.

I become far less comfortable with Korean kindness when it is with Korean people I know, i.e. co-workers, family, or acquaintances.  This is when I feel that their kindness is either forced out of duty or that they have have expectations of kindness in return.

This all sounds a little like I just want to receive acts of kindness without having to give out any myself, but that is not the point.  The reciprocal nature of gift buying here makes me a tad uncomfortable sometimes as on many occasions I don't even want a gift or help in something but I receive it anyway.  This then obligates me in some way to return the favour and indeed I have often felt pressure because of it.

Kindness can even turn into a problem with my Korean family who are so hospitable and so sweet that I just do not know what to do with myself, I have too much to feel grateful for and again all of their tendernesses are, it pains me to say, unwelcome.  I hate to say that because it sounds dreadfully horrible to such kind people.  The reason for it, however, is that there affection is based on duties of kindness and tradition and the sort of things they would like and not what I would like.

Here is a brief example of what I am talking about, which I had mentioned in a previous blog, but it worth repeating here: having seen a couple of weeks previously that I had greatly enjoyed eating chicken and kimchi round their house (to be fair I eat almost anything with enthusiasm but my mother in-law's kimchi is something rather special) my father in-law decided he would buy two chickens and slaughter them himself and starve them for 3 days tied up in a bag beforehand to improve the flavour, all just for my benefit.

Where my problem lies with this sort of kindness is the lack of empathy involved in it.  Eating a starved chicken is something that he would enjoy or a Korean might enjoy.  He did know, however, that I had been a vegetarian for most of my adult life and knew that my reasons had been because of the cruelty of intensive farming practices.  He knew that I only ate meat in Korea because of an effort to fit in with the culture both at work and with his family. 

There will be those that will say that this was just a well-meaning gesture and I am being too harsh, but this sort of thing happens too much in Korea.  All too often I have been given gifts and had favours done for me by a wide range of people that they must have known that I would not like.

I have one teacher at my school who always insists on buying a bottle of the strongest alcohol to share with me at staff dinners despite me having told him numerous times that I dislike drinking alcoholic beverages.

Even if all of this is caused by simple ignorance I still wonder at how little they are listening to us or have learned about people from Western cultures.

Their acts of kindness are very situational, very specific, and very duty bound in my experience.  I am not sure how much empathy is being displayed.  I would love to know what is going on inside of people's heads at the time of an act of kindness, are they thinking 'if I was this person I would really appreciate some help, so I will help them' or are they thinking 'this situation means I am duty-bound to offer assistance or give a gift.'

The answer is probably a subtle mixture of both, but I suspect most Westerners will err towards the first line of thought more often than Korean people.

Either way it is a kind act, I hear you say, so who cares?  But the troubling effect placing more importance on number 2 is that it is possible to ignore those in need (indeed those in most need) who are outside the traditional situations where duty-bound kindness is necessary.  I see this in Korea with people in lower positions at work, younger people, foreigners, and animals.  In the case of foreigners, they are wonderfully kind most of the time but regularly in ways that make us uncomfortable and ignore the times when we really could do with a bit of help but don't get any.

There is a positive to train of thought number 2, however, and that is that gestures of kindness may become more frequent when they are ingrained in a set moral duty.  In my country we tend to let people suffer minor inconveniences because, after-all, it is no big deal and it is difficult to feel so strongly as to act about someone who has merely an inferior gas stove to me when cooking noodles.  I cannot imagine an English person doing the kind deed of that Korean fellow on the mountain that I mentioned earlier.  So it is for these reasons that acts of kindness really are more frequent here than back home.

I think this may be the reason I experience the odd paradox of so much kindness in Korea whilst at the same time seem to notice so much heartlessness.  I, personally, am not a very unfortunate guy and a very self-reliant one who doesn't need gifts and doesn't need help but receive it in Korea anyway.  I feel saturated by kindness every day.

However, I can then see a poor old woman whose cardboard cart has fallen over trying to correct it and with all passers-by ignoring her, an emaciated dog chained up outside in the freezing cold, see the tears roll down my wife's face having been bullied at work for simply being one of the younger nurses, my students suffering with unnecessary workloads of study, and notice the extreme discomfort of younger teachers when they are forced to get drunk and tag along with the older teachers at staff dinners.  These are just the simple matters of everyday living with people and animals that fall outside the call of duty.

I think Westerners notice these sort of instances more because we more readily put ourselves in the place of these people or animals.  We imagine how we would feel if we were in each situation, whether it be outside in the cold, being forced to do things we don't want, being stressed from too much work, or being old and vulnerable and in need of some help.  We envision these things despite the social status of the individual or indeed the species of the individual concerned.

Surely Korean people do feel this way too, but I have to say that it appears less ingrained into their way of thinking as a whole.

In practice it appears as though our societies run very similarly, even allowing big differences in thinking.  Crime rates are similar, for example, (only in America is violent crime more prevalent) and on charity South Korea come out generally lower than Western countries but not all of them, so maybe it doesn't make a great deal of difference how you think about morals and kind deeds - whether they are done because of duty and social cohesion or out of an empathetic urge to not see suffering of others.

Perhaps the West could follow the Korean way a little more and make acts of kindness and morals more regular and set in stone in certain situations and Koreans be more empathetic, maybe this way society would be better for everyone concerned.

Korea has certainly left me with many great examples of kindness that I do not find in England and create a warm fuzzy glow in my heart but at the same time has also shown me some horrible examples of misdeeds that I would also never see in my country, leaving me cold and over-shadowing some of the sweeter moments of my Korean experience.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Korea Fatigue

Although I have lived in Korea for over three years now, I have done it in three different visits, which means that I have had regular breaks from Korean culture.  My current stretch in Korea is the longest, I am almost a year and a half into a two year stay.  At one stage I even contemplated this stint being much longer, but alas, I think this is impossible.

My current teaching position in Korea is the best job I have ever had, both in Korea and England.  I usually arrive 45 minutes early for work everyday.  It is an easy job but that is not the reason I like it.  It is great for two reasons:

1) It is intellectually stimulating as I write all my own lessons and it is a nice challenge to be able to motivate up to 40 over-worked high school students.

2) In practice I have no boss telling me what to do, my school just leaves me to it, I think because of a combination that they trust me to do a good job and that they just don't care about my class that much.  Either way it works out well for me.

The combination of having a wonderful job and also not living alone, but living happily with my wife, made the first year of the two very comfortable and I didn't miss home much. 

However, now that I am well into the second-half of my stay, now a number of factors are starting to bother me about living in Korea, despite the fact that my job and my wife are still as fantastic as ever.

I can sense my mood shifting.  I went from taking all the cultural differences in my stride to now being regularly irritated by them.  A change from an almost wholly positive state of mind to a slightly negative one makes all the difference in dealing with the challenges presented by living in another culture.  This is something I know all too well about because of my difficult first year in Korea back in 2008/9, which I wrote about in a previous post.

Any regular reader of my blogs will realise that I have my issues with Korea but understand that I have many gripes with the culture of my own country too.  The fact that I write less about them on this blog is simply a reflection that this blog about Korea and not about England.  The fact is, though, that England is my home and I am used to her ways and the irritating things about England don't ruffle my feathers quite as much.

There are obviously personal reasons for my increasing negativity, major ones being the missing of friends and family, the comforts of my own country, and enjoying the odd game of cricket.  But there is something else that wears me down like a soldier weary of too many battles.

I am a very self-relaint sort of fellow, I value my independence and the freedom to make my own choices and I am quite principled about this (maybe my blogs show this).  This makes me easily antagonised when I feel my, or indeed any other person's freedoms are compromised.  Unfortunately, personal freedoms are something that are continually compromised from small to large scales everyday in Korea.

For most Westerners living in Korea it is only small clashes that they have to experience, but even these, in a significant enough number, can begin to erode positivity.  I, on the other hand, have to put up with the odd larger confrontation as well, seeing that I have to cope with a Korean family also.

I often get lampooned for writing simple and blunt statements in my blogs, but here goes another one anyway.  It is simply much easier for someone to settle into a Western culture than into a Far Eastern culture, especially Korean culture.  Perhaps I should explain.

Western culture is far more welcoming.  Sure we have our issues with hate crimes sometimes, but in principle we are completely open.  When people of other cultures come to our countries we do our best to try and understand, accomodate, and accept their ways of doing things. 

There are many historical reasons for the higher diversities of people in Western countries but the fact is that there is still high demand for people of other countries to come to Western countries.  The reason why is that they know they will generally receive fair treatment and we as a culture are loathed to force people into a certain way of doing things.   Despite the wealth of Eastern cultures (think Far and Middle East), there is not so much of a rush into these countries with perhaps the exception being English teachers.

This tolerant attitude is often to our detriment as we also appear to be hessitant to enforce even our own laws on immigrants to our countries.  In England the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury (someone who is listened to, I don't know why) and Prince Charles famously suggested that we as a country should incorporate Sharia law into our own legal system, having different laws for Muslims and non-muslims.  This is cultural suicide.

Outside of our own countries there is a strange attitude present within Western people that takes the expression, 'When in Rome do as the Romans do', to its extreme and we only really utilise it for ourselves and not for people who come to our own countries.  I will use the analogy of my family situation to illustrate this;

I do think that I have a more difficult time with my wife's family than she does with mine.  I don't resent this, it is a fact of cross cultural relationships between West and East, I am merely stating a fact.  I gladly tolerate the tough times for the sake of my relationship.

Conversely, when my wife comes to England she can spend as much time with my family as she likes; when she is tired she can choose to go home, there is no special cultural etiquettes she needs to be aware of or follow, she can be open and honest with my parents, and generally my parents expect nothing of her except to treat me well in a loving relationship.  This, in a nutshell, is the Western position on cross-cultural affairs, 'do what you want, just don't hurt people.'  At least this is the Western position in principle.

There is a stark contrast in what happens in dealings with me and my wife's family, of which I have described before inposts on 'My Korean Family', 'Death Anniversaries in Korea', 'Is a Clash of Culture Inevitable and Irreconcilable?', and 'Korean Family 'Pension' Outing.' 

To be frank, I like my Korean family they are good people, but they are not - even in the least bit - really trying to understand where I come from or respect my opinions or culture.  They want me to conform, plain and simple, and on the rare occasions when I don't they appear to be in a state of denial about it.  Even those who don't have Korean family connections can experience this when living and working in Korea through their schools, and in everyday situations.

We all seem to accept that the correct way to behave in these situations is to 'do as the Romans do' to conform and do what they wish us to do.  I think this can be a form of dishonesty when we feel forced into doing things we are uncomfortable with.  Those moments when inside you are screaming, 'I don't want to do this, drink this or eat this', but outside you are smiling and saying 'sure, that's fine, no problem.'

Whether this dishonesty is inherently wrong is debatable, but be sure we are conforming for a smooth ride and not to upset people and I find this can make most of the Korean people I know very difficult to be friends with, or really enjoy their company that much.  You enjoy people's company when you trust them, understand them, and can be yourself with them and vice versa.  When we conform to their wishes all the time we cannot achieve this relationship.

This was never more apparent than when I took a bus home from a marathon race I did a few weeks ago.  I met a New Zealander at the race who was also doing the marathon and he said there were spaces on his marathon club's bus and that I could join them for the journey home.  I accepted his kind offer as I actually did not know where to take the public bus home.  On the way back we were treated to the usual delights of a group bus journey in Korea, kareoke, soju drinking, and strange food eating.  One woman in particular kept on forcing food and soju on my new friend and he accepted, despite really not wanting any of it.  She and many others then continually asked him to perform a song for them in front of a bus load of people, but he refused.  I refused the strange seafood, the soju, and the singing, again despite being pestered continuously about it for most of the hour and a half journey back home.

Now ask yourself, would this ever happen in the West?  A Korean is on a bus full of Westerners and he doesn't speak much English, would we be forcing them to drink beer, eat greasy and oily food like fish and chips, that they don't like (Koreans usually dislike oily food), and sing songs in front of us?  We might ask them once, sure, but they would not be made to feel obligated like we were on that Korean bus.  Yes, they were doing me a favour by taking me but that does not obligate me to do everything they want of me.

The fact is that the only Korean I am honest with is my wife, every other Korean I meet I have to be dishonest with.  I have to suppress my principles and feelings, and this is energy sapping, this is the source of my Korea fatigue.

Once the fatigue sets in, then a range of things can begin to get up your nose, like Korean driving, men spitting, lack of personal space manners, smoking on the street, communication problems, etc.  This can then spiral into even greater fatigue.  There are different irritating problems I have in England but the fatigue does not present itself with the same intensity because I can be honest with almost everyone I have dealings with on a day to day basis and if I have a problem with them or a situation, I can speak out about it.

In my head and in my writings, I am trying to be objective and not pit one culture against another, but I cannot help make one observation about an important difference between our cultures.  Maybe I am wrong and I will readily accept a rebuke, but here it is; there is only one side that is trying to understand the other, only one side that wants an open and honest discussion, and only one side that is prepared to, or indeed has to conform to the other.  Again there are exceptions in individuals - I have a sample of one that I am pretty sure about, in my wife - but there is a great deal more compromise and understanding inherent in Western culture at this moment and I think it is time to be honest about it.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Ministry of Gender Equality and the Banning of Tetris, Sugar Puffs, and Car Lights?

I came across an interesting department of the Korean government the other day while my wife was reading an article about how men who have only one child who is female are the most likely people to support the equality of men and women in Korea.  The report also showed other trends and biases of Korean people based on the gender of their children.  The research was carried out by the Ministry of Gender Equality (여성부). 

I was curious, and I remembered my students (all boys high school) mentioning something about this department before, which wasn't at all kind.  So I questioned them further.  It turns out that the rather interesting study they funded, was a significant improvement on past endeavours.

Korean High School Boys Vs the 여성부

I asked my students what they thought of the Ministry of Gender Equality (or Women's Affairs) and I was met with a groan of disapproval and detected the odd Korean swear-word mixed in.  It turns out that this particular department is responsible for taking away much of what they find enjoyable in life.  I checked out what they said and it all seems to be legitimate, so let's see what they have been up to.

1. Banned - The Computer Game Shutdown Law
This is a law that stops all internet gaming after midnight and is obviously highly unpopular with my students, especially as most of them probably don't get back from school until midnight.  Their favourite waste of time has been restricted by Korea's version of the Ministry of Truth, well that's how my students see it anyway.

2. Banned - 죠리퐁 (sugar puffs in snack form)
Apparently, students around Korea used to make fun of the appearance of this innocent snack by saying it looked like the female genitalia.  This was deemed enough of a menace to society by the 여성부 (we'll call it the Minstry of Plenty this time) to outlaw this particular snack.  I can remember the offending snack, they were the equivalent of a breakfast cereal called 'Sugar Puffs' in my country, England.  I have a fairly dirty mind sometimes, but I have never looked at a sugar puff and thought of a woman's vagina.  These Korean kids have some vivid imaginations, but banning puffed wheat, are you kidding? 

This snack has recently been recalled to the sanck shelves.

3. Banned - online Tetris
What could possibly be wrong with Tetris, I hear you say.  Well, it seems that Korean young people's sexual comparisons do not stop at sweet treats but also make their way into computer games too.  You know when you make a line in Tetris and it leaves a big hole to be filled by the long straight piece?  When you can perfectly fit that long one into a hole it feels almost orgasmic doesn't it?  Yep, Tetris was banned because of this little innuendo, although this law has recently been rescinded.  The madness of it is that surely you would have to ban an awful lot of things to block us all from sexual punnery.  Here is a list of other possibly offensive things based on this argument:

A USB stick into a computer
A key into a door
A straw into a fizzy drinks bottle
A book-mark into a book
A letter into a letter-box
A biscuit into a cup of tea (almost equally pleasurable, especially for an Englishman)
Eating bananas
A CD into a CD player
A pencil into a pencil sharpener
Connecting your charger to your phone, in fact, plugging almost anything in.
Digging a hole and putting a post in it
Picking your nose
Launching a rocket, etc, etc, etc...

4. Banned - Websites that show adult videos
I never remember pornography being such a hit when I was at school, but maybe the internet has brought this into young people's lives.  When I was their age the internet was not quite so developed, I didn't even have a computer (bloody hell I am getting old).  Needless to say, however, if popularity with young men was what the Gender Equality Ministry were after, they could have done no worse than block adult videos.  As we have already seen, though, they seem to be Korea's version of Mary Whitehouse, the supreme Killjoys.  Perhaps this might not be the worst thing they have done, though, maybe Korean boy students do have a little too strong a fascination with it all.

5. Banned - Hyundai Sonata III's car lights
At this point The Ministry of Gender Equality was starting to remind me of an old joke about the writer of the first dictionary, Samuel Johnson, retold in one of my favourite speeches by Christopher Hitchens on the issue of freedom of speech:

The ladies said, "Dr Johnson, we are delighted to find that you haven't included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary."
Dr Johnson replied, "Ladies, I congratulate you on being able to look them up."

Hitchens went on to say that there are those that will search through a treasure trove of English in order to be offended and accused many of the religious in this world of similar behaviour.  One wonders if this is what the 여성부 are doing, except they are not looking for words but for things that look like parts of sexual anatomy.

They outlawed this particular thing because of its phallic resemblance - which, now that they mention it, does indeed look rather suspicious.  However, again if we were to ban all things that could be linked to the look of a penis we would be extremely busy.

Pepperamis (maybe UK only)
Bananas (again, pesky things)
Gear sticks
Mushrooms, etc.

I could go on and on again, but wait... sorry the other thing banned for phallic resemblance - at least in school dinners - is indeed a certain kind of Korean mushroom.

Bizarrely, those ice lollies they sell here that come in a hard plastic covering are not banned.  To me they have always looked like ice cream in a hard condom.

Now I can see the reason for the hatred of the Ministry of Gender Equality in my students.  I think they have covered most of the major interests in their lives in their policies; pornography, computer games, sexual innuendos and jokes, and snack food. 

However, if they start banning skimpy K-Pop outfits on girl groups they better be prepared for war as that could be the straw that breaks the camels back and cause a student push back.  I might even join them on the front line. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Korean Obsession with Being Warm

In many of my blog posts I have compared ways of thinking and doing things between my culture and Korean culture and come to conclusions that certain aspects of one or the other really are better.  I have come in for some abuse for saying this, not so much on my website but on sites that republish my blog or write articles for.

Sometimes I fall on the side of Western culture, but I have often fallen on the side of Korean culture too, much to some people's annoyance.

There are some issues, however, that are not really a matter of right or wrong or better or worse, these are the strange little things we perceive each other as doing that are simply culturally different.  This is not to say they are benign, though, they can often delight or regularly frustrate.  They are difficult to make a judgment about as they appear to be heavily rooted in culture and what suits one culture does not always suit another.

The Korean obsession with being warm is one of these little oddities, at least from my perspective.

Whenever I walk into a Korean's house I notice immediately that the temperature is about 5 degrees hotter than in mine, jjim jil bangs (kind of like warm relaxing communal areas, usually part of a public sauna or gym, for those with little experience in Korea) are popular, my wife sleeps on a heat mat along with many other Koreans I know, Koreans sleep on the floor which is heated, and in summer Korean people walk around with, what seems to me, excessive clothing - this has a lot to do with not getting a sun-tan but how they are not too hot has always amazed me.

Korean people also place a very high importance on warm food, of which they usually have three hot meals a day.  My Korean family doesn't understand how I can start the day without hot food and just eat cereal.

I came across another example of the importance of being warm (I think hot) when my wife was rushed to hospital the other day for emergency surgery.  She suffered a ruptured ovarian cyst, which meant that she had to go to a specialist hospital dealing with mainly women and pregnancy.

The doctors did a great job and she was fine, but when I visited the hospital I couldn't help but notice it was like stepping into a sauna.  The temperature in the room my wife was recovering in was 30 degrees on the thermostat.  When I went to visit the next day I came prepared wearing a vest and bermuda shorts as I sat at her bedside and I was still unbearably hot.  Needless to say my wife was fine and my mother in-law was sitting there still wearing a scarf and a jumper wondering what on earth I was complaining about.

It turns out that being extra-warm is particularly important with regard to pregnant mothers, new born children, mothers who have just given birth, and sick people generally.  This is fairly obvious, but I have never known the temperature to be so high in England for the sick in hospitals or when they are recovering at home.

I can easily theorize why this line of thinking appears in Korean culture.  Korea has harsh, freezing cold winters and I can imagine many people used to die because of them in the not so distant past, and especially the vulnerable like babies and sick people.  They have harsh summers too but, while it is possible to die from the heat, it is far more likely to die in the cold or exacerbate sickness through cold weather.

Keeping almost overly warm is a tradition that has lingered into modern Korean culture, and I would say that it has become a superstition and something that is now over emphasized and not necessary.  That is only from my point of view, though, and I have to admit I have rarely experienced Korean people showing discomfort in the kind of situations where they usually promote being warm.  Maybe they are so used to it, it is what suits them best and I am simply a cooler weather person coming from the famously inclement weather of the UK.

This problem with the heat I have could even be personal, I don't know.  Maybe Westerners coming to Korea love the idea of warm places like jjim jil bangs and being extra warm (over and above what we would normally do in the West) when they are resting or sick.  The only thing is, it does actually give me a few problems from time to time.

Last week my mother in-law was quite a drag, demanding that I sleep on the floor next to my wife at the hospital.  To keep her happy I said I would but it didn't take long for me to change my mind.  I felt a little guilty, but my wife was stable and at no risk after her operation and I did not see that it was integral to her recovery that I suffer with no sleep on a hot hard floor every night for 3 days, and neither did she.

It is also extraordinarily how hot my wife's sleeping mat is, which she uses regardless of whether she is sick or not.  I find it truly unfathomable that she can sleep on it, it makes me bake going anywhere near it and feels uncomfortably hot to the touch.

Needless to say, the issue of feeling the heat is a minor one, and the difference is because of culture and there is no right or wrong answer to the behaviour, it is just different.  Some cultural attitudes, thinking, and practices (whether Western, Eastern, English, Korean, or indeed religious), however, can and should be judged as right or wrong for logical and moral reasons. 

I am a cultural relativist when it comes to matters of what temperatures we find comfortable to live in, but not in all matters.  Finding the line between relativism, cultural bias, and truth is a tricky one but also of high importance.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Reasons for the Poor Treatment of Dogs in Korea

Well, it finally had to happen, a blog post about the treatment of dogs in Korea.  I have been trying to avoid it as it is just so obvious, but I have touched on the subject briefly in a few blogs already. 

Due to an interesting disagreement with a reader of my blogs I thought it would be wise to spend a little more time and effort on the subject.

I have always argued that dogs are something special and that we have a deeper relationship and connection with them than any other animal and this is precisely the reason I find the treatment of our best friends in the animal world so abhorrent in Korea.  There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that there is indeed a close connection between us.

Very briefly, I will describe some of the problems involving dogs in Korea.  Everyone, I dare say, knows that some Korean people eat dogs, but it is not the killing of them for food that is the biggest evil, it is the care of them while they are alive that leaves little to be desired.

In the dog meat trade they have a reputation for beating or hanging dogs to death, slowly and painfully because they feel that the adrenalin produced by the stress makes the meat more tender and delicious.  Many also spend most of their lives rotting away in the filth and squalor of their own and other dogs feces and urine, tightly packed into cages.  This is all illegal, but the laws are rarely enforced.

Outside of the dog meat trade, unless they are small dogs - which are pampered house pets with often coloured paws, ears, and tails - a dog can look forward to a life sitting outside of the house, tied up on a small leash and rarely, if ever, let off it in all weathers.  I am fairly confident that almost every foreigner living in Korea will have seen examples of this, it is extremely widespread.

In my post on abortion in Korea, I made a judgment about Korean culture partly based on its treatment of dogs, which was that they had a lower respect for life generally than in Western culture (bear in mind that I do realize that all individuals are different and that there are many Westerners that have less respect for life and dogs, I am merely commenting on general observable trends I have noticed).  This does not mean that I do not think Korean culture has no respect for life, of course it does.

What I do regret about that particular post is not the conclusions but the fact that I did not explain fully where I thought attitudes to life, abortion and the treatment of dogs came from.  I think this made the post seem overly judgmental and lacking in empathy and understanding of their situation.  The reader I mentioned earlier quite rightly pointed to an important point that I failed to include.

It has only really been about 30 or 40 years since Korea has been a developed nation and not in the midst of stark poverty.  The change in the country's fortunes is unlike any other country in history and there are bound to be issues involved with it. 

When we talk of Western culture we must realize that we have lived in relative affluence for much longer, and the higher levels of our society have had the means to live comfortable lives for hundreds of years.  This makes thinking about morals in detail much more possible and it makes treating others around us with affection a lot easier, whether they are human or not.  Even in the West today, poverty is obviously related with higher rates of crime and animal cruelty.  Morals are not exclusively a luxury of people who can afford them, but it sure helps.

If you can't scrape enough food together to feed your family, you are hardly going to worry about the moral value of animals, and if any of us were in that position we would kill dogs and eat them if they couldn't help us find food in other ways.  This is exactly the situation as it was in Korea, and not that long ago.  There are probably many people alive today who faced that level of poverty in this country and in North Korea (although it is hard to know exactly what is going on there) this problem still exists.  North Korea can help us paint a picture of how the South once was.

This extreme need may have even reinforced their already ingrained culture of the group, helping each other survive (mainly family), and may also reduce the thought of welfare of outsiders, again whether this be animal or human because they had enough to worry about keeping themselves fed and warm.  Within the group or family unit the value of life is as high as anywhere and any culture, it is outside of the group that I am really arguing about.

It is difficult to say these things without sounding rather blunt and harsh but our own culture can be no better, as the bloody history of Western Europe shows.  We will have no equal in the level of cruelty our ancestors reaped on animals and people, and the sheer enjoyment they experienced from it.

For example, medieval European crowds used to gather at such wonderful spectacles as bear baiting - tying a bear to a post and unleashing a pack of dogs to see which would tear each other apart first, which unfortunately still occurs in many countries - and cat burning - where cats were bundled together in a bag and slowly burned over a fire while crowds of people laughed at the shrieks of pain as the animals were roasted alive.  People still enjoy cock fights and dog fights in the nasty little underbelly of our culture and it also is quite observable just how much violence is present in Western movies compared to in the East.

Europeans also perfected the art of torture, especially the Spanish Inquisition.  It took hundreds of years to combat these ways of thinking with gradual moral progress.  The Korean 'Civilizing Process' has not had nearly enough time to seep into the culture as a whole. (Note: the term 'Civilizing Process' and descriptions of torture in the last couple of paragraphs are sourced from Steven Pinker's book 'The Better Angels of Our Nature').

Right, back to dogs.  Western cultures, I believe, amplify the connection between dogs and people.  We are individualistic and because of this I think Western people put themselves in the position of other individuals a little more naturally.  We humanize dogs because of this. 

Dogs as companions also have more relevance to us.  In Korea, when people are older, they tend to have a closer relationship with grandchildren and therefore the whole family.  Family groups usually stick together a little better, at least that is my observation.  In the West, dogs are often seen as a friend for older people and take the place of family members when they cannot be around. 

Westerners are also more prone to live alone generally, making the dog more likely to give good company.  Even attitudes toward cleanliness in our houses may make it easier for us to welcome dogs into our lives.  Most Koreans I have met do not like the idea of dogs dirtying the house with hair, mud, and dirt from outside.

It could also be that the topography of Korea has not helped in building a bond between man and dog.  With such a mountainous country Korea does not have the perfect kind of land for rearing animals on wide open stretches of pasture, because of this they may have not had much need of dogs except as guard dogs and as early warning systems of intruders - this still appears to be their main job, tied up outside in front of houses.

The fact is that if we had grown up in Korea, with a Korean family and friends, our attitude to dogs would be exactly the same.  This makes it impossible to characterize Koreans as evil or inhumane, even if that is the first thought that leaps into our minds when we see what looks like the abuse of our furry friends.

It is so easy to look at controversial practices in other cultures and be so shocked or even horrified about what is happening and demonize those that are doing it.  If I, in this post or any other, seem like I am doing this, it is not my intention but I think it is important to speak out about things and being offensive appears to be a fiendishly easy thing to do on touchy subjects like culture, race, and religion. 

People will cling on to traditions of the past even if they are bad ones, calling them out is the only way forward and having some understanding helps cushion the blow that these criticisms have.  Perhaps it was this understanding and sensitivity that I was missing on my post on abortion and the value of life in Korea.

The only problem is that as soon as I write with some sensitivity, I can't help but notice the tone changes to condescending.  'Give them a little while longer and they could be as moral and civilized as we are.'  I think that sounds almost just as bad, but maybe I can provide something a little more palatable. 

I think it is a legitimate exercise to judge some aspects of culture good or bad and this can be helpful in identifying which practices should be encouraged and discouraged with your own culture.  Saying a whole culture is good or bad, right or wrong, however, is never helpful. 

When it comes to their current treatment of dogs specifically, I am judging it as bad and I claim the right to say it.  Too many people have almost no thought for the suffering of the animal and it is a sad sight to see.  This does not mean that I do not understand why they behave this way or judge the culture as a whole as wicked or inferior.  Indeed, in many of my blog posts I have highlighted many other aspects of Korean culture that are superior to our own.  It is a question of give and take, but taboos about what we can say or write about are still very relevant, and anybody who questions the practices of other cultures, especially anything to do with morals and ethics, better be prepared to take some abuse for it.

Sources: Again an update to prove I am not making this stuff up about the killing of dogs in Korea, but my sources were Korean people that still admit that it goes on. (search on youtube for dog cruelty in Korea: warning, videos have the potential to upset people)