Saturday, March 16, 2013

What Should Make Us Feel Proud About Our Country?

I guess the short answer to this question is nothing because, for example, me being English does not mean that I can take credit for my country's past achievements or indeed have responsibility for any of its atrocities.

It seems to me that slogans - sometimes even worn on T-shirts - such as 'Proud to be British' (or you can insert whatever country you like) are a trifle confusing.  What exactly are you proud about?  That your country is powerful, rich, a nice place to live, or has a beautiful landscape?  OK, so what part did you play in all this?  Personally, I did not have a hand in making Britain a past world power with a great cultural influence on the world, I did not play a part in developing its culture to a point where it became reasonably civilised, and I certainly did not make any difference whatsoever in sculpting its often idyllic countryside.  Maybe there are people alive today that can take some credit for these things, but in truth their can't be that many.

You may be wondering how this has any relevance to South Korea, but I will come to that.  Right now, let's just ignore what I just said about pride in one's country, to some extent, and have a think about what could make us proud to say we are British/American/Canadian/Irish/Korean/Chinese/etc.

Perhaps, instead of thinking about what would make us proud we should eliminate the things that we should not be proud about:

Currently it is the Americans that are the great power of the world, increasingly being caught up by the Chinese.  This is achieved through a strong economy and military might.  A strong economy could be something to be proud of but if it is a strong economy built on exploitation of people, this might not count.  This is what I worry about with regard to the Chinese.  Military might is something the British did very well before the rise of the US, but is this really a good thing?

If it is fame for great kindness then OK, but if it simply notoriety for it's own sake, I am not convinced.

Fame and power might buy you a higher status as a country.

Maybe you can see where I am going with this, but it seems to me that the main concern of South Koreans and indeed of the Chinese is to elevate their country in these three categories to gain the feeling of high status in the world.  It is no surprise that this is the case given the importance of status to people generally in these countries.

I have already mentioned the Chinese rush to become a powerful nation and their exploitation of their workforce and Korea has this to a lesser extent but Korea seems to accept the fact that it is simply too small to be the strongest of world powers, so it is going for notoriety.  Korea is so keen on promoting itself it becomes a little tiresome for the rest of us and I know from previous experience of talking with people who previously lived in Korea that they often got a little sick of the relentless self-promotion as well.

Korea has the best culture, history, food, landscape, music, and electronics, they are also the kindest and smartest with the purest bloodlines, don't you know.  I am taking a bit of a sarcastic swipe at an attitude present in quite a few of the Korean people I have met here, as I have heard this kind of thing mind-blowingly often, I nod, agree and then roll my eyes once they have left.

The truth, however, is neither a story of great Korea nor a complete downer on everything Korean.  In many ways I really like parts of their culture, food, landscape, etc.  I also think many Koreans I have met are kind and smart.  I couldn't give a monkeys about their bloodline.

This is what I see when I look at the majority of countries, including my own.  There are some things I like, some things I dislike.  Many countries promote what they can about themselves, most often to encourage visitors, but pride plays a large part in this.  But in the the Western world, people increasingly look at their own country and others and are proud of or admire the quality of life, the morality, or the reasonableness of it's people and the realisation that the job is still not complete in all of these departments.

Who cares how powerful a nation is or how famous it is, if the people within it are unhappy, unhealthy, or mistreated.  To me, this is what China and Korea are confusing very gravely when it comes to their greater prominence on the world stage.  In two cultures where respect and status is seen as so important, they are now expecting the once most powerful countries of the West to respect them for their power, for their wealth, or for their popularity and make no mistake they do crave our respect.

Much like an old man in these countries expects to be respected, bowed at, talked to politely, and not questioned, this is how the Chinese and Koreans want us to be with them.  Yet while they are undoubtedly making admirable progress in their societies they are mostly ignoring the things guaranteed to achieve true respect and maybe even envy from the rest of us, to build societies where people are, happy, treated fairly and with respect, have a working system of justice, equality, freedom of speech and freedom generally, fair-play and morality in business, and exhibit kindness and charity to everyone, including animals and the environment.

If there is a reason or justification for some Westerners smugly walking around with an air of arrogance about where they are from it is the fact that, for all the creases that still need to ironed out in their societies, their countries are much closer in achieving these ideals.  Let's briefly examine South Korea and China on all these factors:

Happiness - Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world and Japan is not far behind.  China, despite being the second-largest economy in the world, does not even come close to being one of the best places to live in the world.

People are treated fairly with respect - in Korea people work some of the longest hours, many work overtime without pay, have few holidays, are bullied at work, and are required to placate seniors and work harder than them.  The Chinese are world renown for exploitation of their workforce by giving them extreme hours and high standards of speed and accuracy with low pay. Indeed Western companies exploit this too, but do we respect them for it?  I guess we still do buy their products.

A Working System of Justice - before it sounds like a complete butt kissing on my part for my own culture, I should say that the libel laws in my own country are a joke so don't think that all is rosy in the West also, and the fact is that worldwide you can buy your way out of trouble in many cases.  The justice system in China, however, is almost continuously questioned for a lack of transparency and a high amount of corruption.  Korea has, to a lesser degree, some of the same issues and added to this is a string of laws that are not enforced by the police and not followed by the people.

Equality - you might say that I am imposing Western values on Far Eastern culture here and with freedom as well, but societies that are not built on these principles have oppressed people, oppressed minorities, and in the case of age discrimination in China and Korea, lack some efficiency also.

Freedom of Speech - is vital, and just think about what happens in countries where it is curtailed; human rights abuses tend to be frequent and are able to be covered-up and progress in all areas is stunted.  This is one of the most common criticisms of China and South Korea is still not especially comfortable with the idea.  Do I need to mention the North?

Morality in business - we all know that Western governments are not innocent in this regard, think of arms dealings in particular, and corporate control of government policies.  But when it comes to demanding high standards of the treatment of workers, both in our own countries and in others when we have dealings with them, Western countries are more likely to be seeking a fair deal for all (note, more likely) than in Korea and especially China, where laws and practices on treatment of workers, animals and the environment are not so rigorous or enforced when they are broken.

Kindness and Charity - surely something that could be improved upon in all countries, but human rights abuses in China and the poor treatment of animals in both China and Korea leave me suspicious as to the development of these countries morally.  There have been various anecdotal examples on the news of heartlessness in various situations caught on video in China, but maybe you could say that Western news media latches onto these with too much vigour.  It is difficult to find statistics on animal cruelty but trade in body parts from endangered species is almost entirely dominated by China, think sharks-fin soup, ivory from elephants and Chinese medicine derived from tiger and rhino parts.

The Environment - when it comes to the environment Western countries must surely shoulder a large portion of the blame, other countries are now polluting the same as us and we criticise them for it, a tad hypocritical I know.  That said though, do I think that in the present day most of the major Western countries are more concerned with how their practices will affect the environment?  Yes, I think they are.  Look to the high levels of pollution in China, and the slightly dated attitude towards pollution and littering in Korea.

Now I'd like to run a thought experiment; think of a news report about your country on each of these categories, where it had been shown that a company, the government or the people had been deficient in one or a few of these factors.  For example, Germany is 18th in the world in the list of best places to live, the US has one of the biggest gaps between rich and poor, the Australians give less money to charity than other Western nations, a UK firm creates one of the greatest environmental disasters in an oil spill at one of its refineries, in Canada someone goes to jail for criticising one of the governments policies, South Africa has a high rates of crime (note, some of these are based on truth others are just hypothetical for the sake of argument).

As a resident of these countries, would the fact that you are rich, powerful, are a great tourist destination, or are famous for music or film culture make you any less ashamed of any of the above? Could you be proud of your country if it were shown to be guilty of human rights abuses, were bottom of the league tables for happiness, had one of the highest crime rates, oppressed innocent minorities, or caused greater environmental damage than other countries?  As an Englishman of at least average moral standing I would expect change or some heads to roll for any of the above and this is the general attitude I see in most developed countries, but particularly in the West.  There are, of course corrupt people in government, greedy people, and unscrupulous companies but the trend is that we want to see improvement in all the areas I have mentioned above.  If someone or a group is seen as going backwards in any of these they are roundly pounced upon in our cultures, at least by the populace (many big companies still get away with it all, like banks for example).  It is these issues that concern us and rightly so.  When my students say they are proud of Samsung, for instance, it is not encouraging considering its record of ethical issues.

In the case of China, it may soon become the most powerful economy in the world but it will not have the respect of other countries because in seeking that power all the things that really matter have been forgotten. How can we respect a country where it is unsafe to breathe the air in the capital city, where people work all hours under high pressure for low pay, where people are jailed and never seen again for uttering unwelcome thoughts or where the quality of living for all but the richest minority is desperately poor.  How can we respect them being so successful at the Olympics when stories of the mistreatment of young athletes tarnish all the gold medals.

In Korea's case, who cares how many youtube hits Gangnam Style gets, if people are knocking themselves off in record numbers, are constantly being treated unfairly at work, or if people spend most of their young lives with their head in a book and not have the freedom to express themselves. Any sensible person knows the priorities of their culture at large is wrong just like any sensible person knows the priorities of the showbiz and materially obsessed Westerners are wrong.

There are always individuals that buck the trend in all countries, you never can tell about a person until you know them, but the pattern as a whole is that one of the major cultural priorities in the East is respect and status, and this plays out in their attitude to some key elements of life.  Collective status seems to be a major preoccupation in China and Korea that trumps many other more pressing concerns.  I hope to see a change, but for now the increased wealth and power of the Far East is not something that fills me with optimism for how the little guy is going to be treated in these countries in the near future.


  1. Good post, and nice to see something as volatile as this subject to be theoretically concluded.

    It's difficult subject to converse about. I'm slightly disheartened over China and Korea thinking the west would respect them out of pure status.
    The west have made it a key point in it's progression, to value not just professional or commercial production, but also social produce. Not being obstructive of others, or outright just being empathic and caring. It's something that shouldn't be as alien as respect cultures make it seem.

    Korea blindingly overvaluing status and power makes me want to bring up the Soviet Union. You know, just to amusingly mess with their cognitive reality.

    Quick economic note on China though: China is far more dependent on USA, than USA is dependent on China. WHEN the dollar collapses, China is gonna get belly blow to it's own economy.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I hardly think so, basically China is the producer of cheap goods and the west and US depends on it.

      and China economic growth is still strong despite the downturn from US and Europe.

    3. This was a difficult piece to write as it sounds like a case of 'my culture is good and yours is bad.' The West undoubtedly has many many problems also but there is no doubt from my experience living in Asia, that generally people do not prioritise well-being of others, and even themselves. Most people are, worryingly, highly concerned about what others think of them and this translates to a national level also as the different cultures take a collective pride in themselves that strays from patriotism to a kind of nationalism and a refusal to accept much criticism. I think this creates an overly stubborn clinging to of traditions and grudges best left in the past and is why progress appears to be slower in some areas of morals.

      The cause seems to be a combination of group and status culture and a feeling of insecurity and frustration at the past (some of which the commenter below points out). Regardless of the reasons, however, things do need to change.

  2. Very nice post from an Englishman perspective, as an East-asian(in order to avoid unwanted things some people may associate with one's nationality), you failed to mention how asia was under Europe colony for centuries, how europe influence Japan indirectly to counquer Asia ( search Meiji Restoration), and in this case which Korea suffered the most, how the West invaded China, how asian people idolised white looks.
    Surely , asia has its bad and no one can denies it(as you mentioned in the post). But still, it is the effect of colonialism for centuries. Asian people are tired of being too kind, tired of being tolerant in the past. So that's why....
    And also, the style of speech from a white person is seriously sweet, but dangerous. That's why europe can invade and colonise asia for such a long time. No offence...
    well, that's my opinion.
    thank you

    1. Your knowledge of colonial history obviously trumps mine but the post wasn't really about the past but the here and now. Granted the past explains the here and now but it would require a hell of a lot of explaining on a blog post. Even with this good point in mind, I do believe there is a link between a culture that values status and the group over the individual and the mistreatment of people. I think that is there regardless of what happened in the colonial past. This is why I worry about forward motion in some areas.

      I am constantly frustrated when people say that because I am white that my opinion is dangerous or from a poor perspective or even racist. What does that matter. I would not care if an Asian came to my country and criticised some aspects of it. In fact we should all welcome criticism as long as it is sincere and does not require us to step on or hurt people. The sooner we all take the colour of our skins out of the picture the better. The point is race should mean nothing, but culture really does because this is how people think and act, so it is not outside criticism for this reason and sometimes it takes and outsider to notice it. What if I told you my Korean wife wrote this piece, would that make a difference? She didn't but she could have, as she shares my opinion after reading it.

      This is a tricky post to write because it is obvious that Western culture is far from perfect and individuals are all different of course. In fact, I will even go a step further and say Western culture has a lot more to answer for because of many past crimes. Which is the best way now though, that's what I was asking, who is closer to having the desired way for a better future? Maybe the West have made all the mistakes in the past and perhaps the people have learned something from them.

    2. @steven on economy: If you don't think so, then you need read up your economy. Even now, China struggles because of lack of investors, and even a decline in the produce of goods, mainly due to it's pseudo capitalist planned economy, and mixed cultural influences. There's a lot more background work than just "cheap goods" being sold.

      Another note to Steven: "Influenced Japan indirectly" assumes choice on behalf of Japan, and indeed it was by choice, and not manipulation that Japan attacked China. However, before any of that, foreign traders, and shippers suffered sabotage and civil attacks encouraged by the government at that time. AFTER that came the Meiji restoration, with some of the most bullshit political obligations ever, military expansion included, true.
      Western occupation of Indo-Asia, protecting established trade agreements with the China sovereignty, turned Japan away from conquering more of China, and preventing them from attacking further.
      Western interference was what STOPPED Japan, not the one that encouraged it. Roosevelt received a nobel prize for his efforts at stabilizing Asia.
      Even despite US attempts to compromise with territory dispute, war broke out anyway between Japan and Russia, which led to the Treaty of Portsmouth. Blame the west all you want, i don't care, but I wouldn't blame a wife for having an obese husband, because she doesn't hide the cookie jar.

      Indo-Asians suffered the longest and most from the colonialism, by the way, and they are no where near as butthurt as Korean or Japanese nationalists.
      Korea's hostility of past events, is an embarrassment to the friendship of, for example, Scandinavian countries, which have had past rivalries for longer than Korea's actual existence.

      Chris is right. South Korea needs to change. Not for anyone else's sake, but for it's own sake. SK stands to lose far more, than the countries it deals with.

    3. First, you shouldn't accuse someone of having a dangerous mouth because they are white. That wins you no favors. Second, if people are tired of being too nice or too kind, it would be more because of the Confucian based society that Asians themselves have cultivated (in China or Korea at least). I have had quite a few Korean friends and they become endeared to me because we talk on a personal level, no restrictions based on age, which they don't encounter. We learn a bit from each other when we take the ego out of the way. Which is how it should work.

      I have a question you guys on the ground can answer...maybe...most of my friends are in school or are searching for full time jobs in Korea. I have one that has just started one of those 12-16 hour a day jobs...but he doesn't really tell me a lot about what goes on. I know Korea ranks quite low in productivity (or did). So how many of these long hours are actually work hours? I've always heard about long lunches, naps, long dinners....I am sure this varies from industry to industry of course. Maybe some could shed light on this.

    4. While it does vary from industry to industry, I do think that a lot of this is long lunches, nap times, desk-warming etc. That is certainly how it seems to work in the public schools anyway. For Koreans I think it can depend on your age and seniority within the company as to how much work you do in a day. New to the job or young and you can be rushing around while the elders put their feet up.

  3. All countries have their flaws. I agree with you on the subject that pride should not come from material wealth. I also agree with you that ethical values are important in developing countries. But, as you take pride in your country as a true Englishman should, Koreans have a sense of pride in their country just because they are Korean. I am sure that China and Korea have a long way to go in their advancement of ethical values and practices. But, the reason why people gather in front of their televisions to watch the Olympics or the World Cup is because they love their country and take pride in their country because their identities come from their mother lands. Like a child loves his or her parents, Koreans and the Chinese love their country.