Wednesday, January 29, 2014

People Watching - Some Obvious and Superficial Differences Between the UK and Korea

For the last month, I have been back at home in England.  The differences between my home and Korea is something that has always fascinated me, so it has been interesting to wonder around in my hometown and do all the things I used to do and just people watch, whilst at the same time have a strange feeling that I now have a rather Korean perspective about it all.  Here are some really obvious things I noticed this month:

1.  Happy Dogs Being Walked

It is nice to see loads of happy dogs enjoying their time with their owners and stretching their legs. Such a sight is not a common one in Korea, despite great access to all the little mountain trails.  Even though it was wet and muddy for the whole of my trip back, dog owners would still put their animals in the back of their car and bathed them when they got home so they could curl up beside the fireplace later on and not sit outside in the freezing cold (no selfish and counter-productive worries about making the house dirty and unhygienic).  Generally, Korea is not one of the happier places on earth to be a dog.

2.  Fat People

The difference in the size of waist-lines in the UK and Korea is simply startling.  Yes, Koreans are becoming more obese as a nation, but they have some way to catch up with us Brits.  It is noticeable that there were lots of news stories about obesity and lots of TV programs about fighting the flab as well, while I was home. Attitudes to food, health and exercise appear to be much better in Korea (as I have alluded to before) and it amazes me just how ignorant many Brits are about diet and exercise.

3.  Cheap Looking Women

It had been nearly three years since I had returned home and I had a diet of a relatively more conservative culture in Korea for all of that time, so seeing British women on a night out again was a bit of a shock. Korean women will typically not be too shy about showing-off their assets, i.e. their legs, but most of the rest of their body tends to be covered.  But despite it being the middle of winter in Britain, I was treated to an exceptional show of flesh on a night out with friends.  Breasts, legs, shoulders, and bellies were all out there, regardless of whether these women had nice figures or not.

Now, I am a red-blooded man, just like any other and I know some of you will be wondering where the problem lies in all of this.  There isn't a problem, of course, women can dress as they please (obviously, but just thought I'd throw this line in to protect myself from the feminists).  Maybe I am becoming a bit of a grumbling old miser, but there was something horrible about it all - perhaps that something is that the vast majority of them were not especially attractive and had an air of desperation about them.  Hate to say it, but the Korean women I see come across as generally much classier, have a nicer style, and are more attractive. Perhaps at least some level of modesty in dress has something to do with this.  I suppose it could also have something to do with the amount of time they spend preening themselves in the mirror and forking-out half their yearly salary (at least) on beauty products and accessories.

4.  Arrogance/Confidence of the Young

While I was back in England, I spent a fair amount of time at my local squash club trying to recapture my old form, so I got to interact with a lot of youngsters and especially teenagers.  As a high school teacher in Korea, I can compare 16-18 year olds especially well and it is quite noticeable how different British teenagers are to Korean teenagers.  A staggering amount of confidence oozes out of many Brits at this age (much of it misplaced), so much so that it does lurk into the realm of cocky arrogance in some.  I am sure a lot of this has to do with insecurity and bravado and it is not as genuine as some would have us believe, but still it is a striking difference.  A dose of British-style teenage confidence would be really beneficial to some of my students sometimes and a dose of modesty would also help some of those cheeky British teenagers. Why oh why can't we find a compromise somewhere in the middle of the two extremes?

5.  The Size of the Young and People Generally

I while ago, I got hammered for what I thought was a fairly uncontroversial statement, in my Asian couples post, by saying that Western men tend to be taller and bigger than Asian men.  It turns out that this is factually correct, but if you use your eyes at all and visit different countries and areas of the world, words fail me to describe just how obvious this statement also appears to be.  The size of young people was a real eye-opener, not just the height but the width of them.  I had coached a number of young squash players a few years ago and three years later they had become absolute monsters, I barely recognised them.

Its not just the young though, as I stood-up having a drink with friends one night I looked around and discovered I was one of the smallest guys in the room, even some of the women made me feel small.  I have never felt this way in Korea.

6.  Interesting and Moronic People

People having to conform to social norms exists everywhere, but in the UK it is easier to be different and sometimes people are admired for being so.  Leeway is therefore given to people who don't quite fit in.  I have always thought less leeway is given to Korean people, there are tighter controls on their personalities created by society.  I think this is the source of a greater variation of characters in somewhere like England. This is both good and bad; I find this variation to create more interesting people, but at the same time more moronic people who can also be a right pain in the backside.  I know this sounds like a bit of a stereotype of East Asians, but I think it is true that they have a more rigid social structure which causes rather predictable patterns of behaviour and even appearance.  I find I am surprised more often by people in the UK.

7.  Interactions Between Young and Old

It was really fascinating, and rather shocking, to witness how much more natural young people are when interacting with their elders in England.  There were many times that I felt that not enough respect was being given to elders - this feeling was strangely strong, no doubt caused by such a long time spent in another culture - but overall the relationships between young and old felt much better, more friendly and both parties seemed to get a whole lot more out of interacting with each other compared to what I see in Korea.  It is also nice for me (as a getting on for middle-aged man now) to be able to act so normally - and this be reciprocated - with 18 year olds and those slightly older and younger.  They can even be friends, this would be almost impossible in Korea, which is something I have always thought of as a great shame for both the older person and the younger person.

8.  The Ease of Eating Badly

The temptations to eat badly are far more present in the UK.  Supermarket aisles are filled with more unhealthy food (with the bakery particularly tempting), desserts are served more often, and treats generally are sweeter, more fattening, less healthy, and occur in larger amounts.  Brits have some really bad habits when it comes to food, Koreans - especially in the older generations - tend to have much better habits when it comes to eating and preparing food.

9. Offence

Brits appear to get offended by almost everything; bad driving, skipping queues, not putting the divider down at the supermarket, subtle physical nudges, etc.  Slights such as these are regularly taken in Korean people's stride.  They seem not to have such high expectations of the behaviour of people they don't know and mistakes or examples of bad manners are taken like water off a duck's back most of the time.

10. Running and Walking

Perhaps this is down to the terrain of South Eastern England (my neck of the woods) and South Korea, but in Korea people are always walking and in England a lot more people can be seen running.  One of my students did inform me - upon seeing me running the streets of my city of residence in Korea - that Koreans don't usually do this.  They usually run in a park or in the gym, not on the streets.  He did so in a bit of a 'so you should not be doing it' tone, I don't really know why though.

11. Not Getting Bumped and Cut-Off

It really is extraordinary how often people are generally in the way in Korea.  I thought it might have been a view I had caused by Korea fatigue, but sure enough it was confirmed when I went home.  People in England generally have so much more awareness of their surroundings and other people, and therefore their manners in this regard are so much better.  It was so refreshing to be able to walk along, and in tight situations, have someone let me go through or at least make some space.  The same goes for the driving; people stopping at zebra crossings, they made kind and considerate manoeuvres, and (gasp) waited for each other!  However, as I said in No. 10, woe betide anyone who is not considerate to others because they will receive an earful in the UK.  Koreans seem much more tolerant of such misdemeanors.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Good on you McDonalds, get those Ajusshis Outta there!

For the first time in my life I find myself a supporter of McDonalds.  I know they are loved by some, but personally, I can't stand McDonalds; I hate their food, I hate their image of corporate greed, low wages for employees, watching big fat slobs munching their way through gargantuan amounts of their food (and then not seeming to understand why they are overweight), that they market such unhealthy food heavily to children, and the fact they manage to weed their way into almost every city and big town on planet earth.  I don't like McDonalds, got it?

However, as much as McDonalds grinds my gears, there are some things that irk me so much that I rather spend my evenings listening to a nails on chalk board orchestra than have to hear about or see on a regular basis.  One of these are flippant accusations of racism or discrimination and phoney outrage, when the issue has nothing to do with discrimination or insensitivity (happens a lot these days) and one of the others is the smug, magnanimous, arrogant sense of entitlement of some older men in Korea and how they get away with it.

Why do they think they are entitled to so much respect?  Because they are old, period.  Well, it might work in Korea, but when they do something dumb, annoying, rude, or down-right out of order in other countries, they should not be surprised if some people call them out on it.  It isn't about racism, ageism or any other form of prejudice, in fact it it is the opposite; when people are being a dick, they should be called out for it, regardless of race, age, or whatever.

So to help me raise my blood pressure this week, we had a story that combined these two pet hates of mine.  Apparently, some Korean-American old fellas have been thrown out of a McDonalds in Queens, New York, by police because they - after only buying coffee (obviously not eating and I don't blame them) - then spent hours and hours gossiping away with each other whilst taking-up seating in the establishment.  One of the gentlemen involved, Man Hyung Lee, 77, had this to say (with some added commentary taken from the New York Times article):

"Mr. Lee said the officers had been called because he and his friends — a revolving group who shuffle into the McDonald’s on the corner of Parsons and Northern Boulevards on walkers, or with canes, in wheelchairs or with infirm steps, as early as 5 a.m. and often linger until well after dark — had, as they seem to do every day, long overstayed their welcome.
“They ordered us out,” Mr. Lee said from his seat in the same McDonald’s booth a week after the incident, beneath a sign that said customers have 20 minutes to finish their food. (He had already been there two hours.) “So I left,” he said."
Then, upon being ordered out of the restaurant by the police, what did he do?

 “Then I walked around the block and came right back again.”

Now, there is something quite comical about this, and at this stage, I did see the funny side of this story, at least to begin with.  Then Christine Colligan, a leader of the Korean Parents Association of New York, called for a worldwide boycott of McDonalds because of it all (from the New York Times second article on the story):

“Senior citizens should not be treated as criminals,” said Christine Colligan, a leader of the Korean Parents Association of New York, as she stood outside the restaurant, her voice rising. “They should be respected.”
That morning, Ms. Colligan had contacted her sprawling network in the Korean community urging a “worldwide” boycott of the fast-food restaurant for the month of February. In a letter, she attacked what she saw as “stark racism” by McDonald’s: “We will teach them a lesson,” the letter said.

"Stark racism", really?  Surely, in any restaurant (especially a fast food restaurant) if customers were buying a minimal amount and taking-up seats all day, something would be said, and if they didn't move, they would be forced to.  In my neck of the woods, if someone (and let's not forget, it seems to be a number of older Koreans) bought a coffee in a fast food restaurant and sat there for hours on end, preventing other customers from sitting down, most people would be thinking, "Are you taking the piss?  Bugger off."  I got told off for flicking through a magazine for a minute or two in a newsagents the other day and told, "this is not a library." Wait a minute, perhaps that was an example of racism, I should be outraged!  Or maybe they were just being a little harsh, but perhaps I'd had been reading it too long and they are a business selling magazines after all and many people do push the limits of browsing through a magazine in order to buy it sometimes.

I wonder if these Korean-American older men thought, "I wonder if my behaviour could be deemed a little cheeky, unacceptable, or inconsiderate to others" or "I wonder if a group of White older men - to prove a point - made sure they got into the restaurant before them at 5am and then sat there all day - not allowing us to sit down and have a chat over coffee - how we would feel about it?"  I am guessing from the stupidity of these reports and what has been said by the Korean community leaders, that this may not have seriously crossed their minds.

I suppose the 20 minute rule might be a bit strict, but they brought it on themselves.  If they stayed for half an hour, even maybe just an hour, they might have been annoyingly tolerated, but let's face it they were pushing it from even the most generous perspective.

I have ranted about Korean respect cultural many times on this blog, and this one side effect of it really gets to me.  I genuinely hate the feeling of superiority, the entitlement of elevated respect that many Korean older gentlemen think they deserve, and what they feel they can get away with because of it.  You're in America now gentlemen, respect has to be earned and you will be treated just like everyone else.  The horrible irony is that, these days, when Western countries do treat people of other countries, races, and cultures the same as everybody else, it's called 'racism'.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Defending the Tiger Mother

First let me start with what I am not defending, and that is the whole idea of tiger mothering.  Perhaps it breeds success, maybe it gives some children a leg-up in the world today, but this supposes that earning lots of money should be the number one goal of life.  I strongly disagree with this and like many who disagreed with Amy Chua's first book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother", I believe success and happiness in life is possible without ruining the relationship between parents and their children, without placing undue stress, strain and pressure on them, without spoiling all their fun, and without emotionally scarring them for the rest of their lives.

What I am defending is the principle behind her recent ideas.  According to the New York Post, she argues that some groups of people are more likely to be successful than others for a number of reasons.  In the New York Post's article they equate greater success with being 'better' full-stop.  Without reading the book, I cannot be sure of Amy Chua's intentions and whether she really thinks these cultures are actually 'better' or not or simply more primed for success in a world of global capitalism.

If all she is saying is that the following cultures/religious groups/ethnic groups are more likely to produce successful people, I really don't understand what all the fuss is about:

  • Jewish
  • Indian
  • Chinese
  • Iranian
  • Lebanese-Americans
  • Nigerians
  • Cuban Exiles
  • Mormons

I don't know anything about the vast majority of the groups listed here, but I can make a well-educated guess on why she puts the Chinese there based on her previous arguments and the similarities with Korean culture also.  Tiger mothering, for example, is something that I see present in Korea and the three key factors she explains as being secrets to the above group's success (a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control) are also often attributable to Koreans.

So with this in mind then, I can readily imagine how some cultures or cultural thinking may serve some people better in helping them build successful lives in the modern world.  In fact, it seems a no-brainer to me.  The argument laid-out as simply as possible is basically, "Some cultural behaviours and thinking work better than others in certain areas."  Who can really argue with this?

The argument presented by Amy Chua and friends is actually so banal and uninteresting that one wonders how it would cause any controversy at all.  But here again, the insinuation of racism comes to the fore.  This is summed-up by this statement (mainly aimed at her original book, but the accusation is that she is continuing the trend), which I believe should be apologised for:

"Her book really can be reduced to one simple argument: Chinese mothers are better than those of any other race"

How has race been brought up in this context?  As much as I disagree whole-heartedly with Amy Chua's style of parenting, she is not making the claim that her DNA is the reason why her children will be more successful in life (and is she arguing that Chinese mothers are 'better' or just better at making children successful?).  The whole point is clearly that it is her method of bringing-up her children - rooted in her country's culture - is what can make children more successful.  The colour of her skin has nothing to do with it.  These are the sort of errors in discourse that we should be at pains to point out, because the link to racism always serves as a tool to silence debate and to not confront arguments with reason and evidence.  It is a subtle and nasty little insinuation that must be confronted whenever it appears.

The inclusion in the list of what some would call ethnic groups is still not enough to justify accusations of racism because what is being put forward is that these group's culture - how they are behaving and thinking - is what is making the difference.

I think she may well be right that being brought-up in one of these eight cultures may give individuals a better chance of being successful in life and for the reasons she mentioned.  Of course it would need further investigation and evidence to sort it out, but she is making some logical inferences that are worth exploring, and this is what writing speculative books is all about, it drives us to further study, debate and to forward our knowledge.  So while I couldn't be more against Amy Chua's priorities in life, the principles behind her theories have some basis in reason and logic, are not racist, and for this reason are worth defending.