8/17/09

How will I know Korean culture when I see it?

A few days ago a Korean colleague mentioned that she was trying to learn about American culture. I had caught her printing out a long bilingual text explaining American history and culture, sent to her by a Korean professor.

She mentioned, that after hearing Americans complain, she had gotten uncomfortable asking people their ages. She said she had stopped asking other Koreans she met. I tried to explain that Americans will discuss each other about their ages, but in context. Just my presence isn't enough context.

I guess some may consider that Koreans altering their behavior to be a good thing. It is a big world, we have a lot to learn from each other. Societies evolve, outsiders sometimes have great ideas and inventions.

But...I'm still in the learning stage about Korea. So at this point I'm hesitant to draw conclusions about the things I see, hear and do or to welcome the role of the lecturing visitor.

I've noticed that Koreans who speak English well seem to be on guard to protect Korea's image. I suppose they have met Korea-bashers so they don't want to share details to give them evidence of Korea's flaws. There are plenty of world-savers always ready to lecture other people about how they should live. As Thomas Sowell has said, "The sins of others are always fascinating to human beings."

I like learning about Koreans as they are, not as the way they want to package themselves to Americans and other world-savers. I don't go so far as the Prime Directive of Star Trek of non-interference.

"No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations."
--Star Trek's Prime Directive

But at this point, I'm more interested in Korea as it is. Perhaps a few years from now I will change and have recommendations about whether or not Korean women should have cosmetic surgery. I guess before judging that one first must understand.

* * *

"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."
--Adam Smith

According to today's Korea Times:

"Lotte Chilsung, the biggest beverage maker in the country, was fined 21.7 billion won and the prosecution indicted its CEO. The Free Trade Commission (FTC) said Sunday that five beverage companies ― Lotte Chilsung, Haitai Beverage, Woongjin Food, Coca Cola Korea and Donga Otsuka ― colluded to hike prices four times between February 2008 to February this year."
Perhaps they should not be allowed to collude, I don't know. But government punishment of private companies is often done even as the government colludes with interest groups to inflate prices, at a cost much higher than what is being done in the private sector.

For example, wouldn't it be crazy to read a headline like this:

President Obama calls for steps to consume more hamburgers

Actually, I wouldn't be surprised to read such a headline.

But here's an actual headline from the Korea Herald, "[South Korean president] Lee calls for steps to consume more rice." According to the article: "There is an excess of at least 160,000 tons of rice every year. The government spends some 600 billion won in storing extra crops in order to support rice prices and thereby protect farmers."

I hate it when reporters talk like government officials. I believe that "storing" crops means keeping them out of the market. In some countries, they will even BURN some crops. That way, there's more of a demand for the available supply, meaning prices will be higher.

Flashback to 2001: "Korean farmers on Saturday denounced recommendations forwarded by a government advisory panel to lower the government's purchasing price for rice next year."

And what about those prices? According to the same article: "Korea's rice, due in part by the subsidies provided by the government is about nine times as expensive as rice produced in countries like Thailand, and even if a 400 percent tariff rate was slapped on imports, local rice would be hard pressed to compete with imports."

Just to be clear: some Korean companies collude to jack up prices by 10 percent, with the result being that one company gets fined almost $20 million and the CEO gets prosecuted. The Korean government colludes with farmers to force Koreans to pay several times the world price for rice and the government spends almost $500 million on storing crops to inflate prices and the result is that the Korean government encourages Koreans to eat more rice?

Of course, there is room to condemn both the Korean companies and the government.

* * *

I'd still prefer T-shirt, shorts and sandals

According to the Korea Times:
The Cool Biz Campaign encouraging office workers to wear short sleeves and leave their ties at home during the summer has proved to be effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.The National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER) made the conclusion after measuring temperature changes and perspiration rates.

The campaign was launched to reduce the energy used for air-conditioning during summer by wearing comfortable clothes. The campaign first began in Japan in 2005 and Korea adopted it in the summer of 2006. Office workers are advised not to wear jackets or ties during the summer months, which is supposed to reduce their temperatures by one or two degrees Celsius.
I think I'll celebrate by running my air conditioner for the next 24 hours.

What I really like is the way the test was carried out:
The experiment was conducted on four males and a mannequin. The Cool Biz group wore short-sleeve dress shirts, without neckties, while the control group wore long-sleeve shirts and ties.The average skin temperature of the Cool Biz group was 0.47 degrees Celsius lower in 27 degrees Celsius conditions, which is the recommended summer room temperature, and 0.8 degrees Celsius lower in a 25 degrees Celsius environment, which is the average temperature at offices.
* * *

The Moment

Yesterday we learned our first complicated swing moves at my swing class. For the first time I struggled. Because I've been the only non-Korean in the class there is plenty of attention on me when I can't catch on quickly.

And, of course, the Koreans in the class seemed to assume that all Americans can dance swing. After all, they all do in the movies.

Plus, I'm such a cool and smooth looking fellow, it would seem natural that I could already dance swing.

There was finally some attention on someone else yesterday. An Australian who has been in the country for almost 4 years joined the class. He stumbled along. Of course, there was what I call The Moment.

This goes back to America when other black people show up in a professional or business context. Do you embrace them immediately? Or keep your distance? I've heard some black people complain about other black people ignoring them in the office because they want to be special. But then, I've heard other black people complain about black people trying to buddy up to them in a professional context, thus making it seem they were conspiring or closer than they really were.

My rule is: just do what I want to do. You can't please everyone and not everyone will always agree. So I encouraged the guy, introduced him to a Korean woman in the class who had lived in Australia for a while, tried to help him learn the basic steps and moves.

Last week, I saw a rare sighting: a black woman. I started to say hello, but she looked at me, then looked away. I'm thinking, in my Ebonics voice: "Sistah, we 9,000 miles away from home, I know you see me!" But I let the moment pass as she walked on by...

To give her the benefit of the doubt, she was dressed rather nicely, probably on the way to the office, perhaps in a hurry, while I was in a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. In America she may have also kept on walking...

CJL

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