Strange Inconsistencies

June 15, 2010

Korea seems to a place of contradictions.  Not that America doesn’t have tons of contradictions itself but it seems they always stick out more when you’re a stranger.  The first contradiction being Koreans are constantly trying to avoid getting sick.  Everywhere you go there are hand sanitizers and air purifiers.  It is also common to wear medical masks around everywhere, which means hiking outside, going to dinner, going to the gym, playing table tennis, reading a book, kissing or performing CPR, the mask must stay on.  This is a difficult situation in class when I have a hard time understanding some of them to begin with.  It seems that there are two schools of thought to this practice.  One school of thought seems to think that cold air is what makes you sick, so by keeping the air from entering your lungs in it’s coldest state you can avoid getting sick.  The other is that you will keep other people from getting sick by containing your sickness to your person, coughing and sneezing into your mask instead of in other people’s faces.  This is all fine, I don’t think there is anything medically proven about the temperature of air leading to sickness or those poor eskimos would be screwed.  If this is the case everyone should drive around for no less than 8 hours a day in order to turn up the old thermostat and save a few Eskimo lives, it’s just the right thing to do.  As far as the second reason, it seems very considerate.  How wonderful that they would try not to get other people sick but the mask seems to be undermined by their drinking solutions. There are Community cups at all of the water coolers.  Two or 3 plastic cups waiting for anyone to use.  Sure, often there are paper disposable cups next to these but it’s seems many people think, “I would have to fill that paper cup upwards of 2 times to get the amount of water that I could get out of this crusty old spitoon.”  I have actually seen someone remove their sick mask in order to take a long sip from one of these communal cups.

Another strange contrast is in everyone explaining, “Korea is a very conservative country, picture America in the 1950’s”  This is definitely true in many cases.  Women are expected to cover their shoulders when they go outside.  They are also expected to hide their vices, smoking cigarettes in private so no one would think less of them as a woman.  People tell us constantly that you must hold you’re temper at all costs as any showing of this kind of emotion in public is an enormous knock against you.  You must remain courteous in the face of whatever your opposition.  Boys and girls are also not supposed to show interest in each other.  Especially in any kind of physical way.  We are told that some married couples will not hold hands in public and often sleep in separate beds or bedrooms.

Then come more contradictions. Women can show off as much of their legs as they want, just no shoulders.  It is also true that for most of the time people don’t seem to let on when something is wrong.  This is until someone cuts them off in a car which seems to cause many to pull over and yell idle threats at the disappearing bumper of the assailant.  It’s also true that many Koreans won’t show much physical affection to each other but business men will walk hand in hand with each other down the street and 15 year old boys will play with each other’s thighs and tickle each other.  Kids up to the age of 15 love to play a game in which they try to shove their two fingers up each other’s butts (or mine, until I told them that I eat fingers).

I don’t pretend to understand the Korean culture.  I certainly have not lived here long enough to speak with any authority but there are things here that seem to contradict each other.  To me it feels like there are a lot of unspoken cultural rules that may cause order in some ways but underneath there seem to be a lot of things trying to bust their way out.  Like a fat man in a tight shirt, who is covered until the day his buttons start shooting off in all directions leaving what he was trying to hide exposed.


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