I've lived in this society for a long time and have come to understand a lot of things, adapted my behavior to others, and learned to define what I won't allow myself to change.
For example, I will never accept a bribe, especially since they usually require one to do something quite odious, like change a grade, accept something deemed unacceptable, do something harmful to the greater good. That's why you're being bribed, right? And that's an active choice I made.
Some things you just become inured to. When I was first placed in a Korean boy's middle school on Cheju Island in 1994, horrible beatings of students by teachers was an everyday matter. The first time I saw a boy being slapped, punched, and kicked while he was on the ground, I teared up. As violent as people think America is because of highly public (but relatively rare on the everyday level) gun shootings and whatnot, I'd never experienced such levels of violence on a nearly daily level. And the verbal abuse that accompanied this attitude towards discipline was just par for the course.
I began thinking -- what does this do to the group being forced to accept this? What is this doing to me?
The fact that I didn't tear up anymore, or even get interested enough to want to react anymore, meant that something, some part of my humaneness, no matter how small, had died. And that is what saddened me after a year of working in that school. And even into my second year, in a co-ed and much less hard-hitting middle school, another member of my program had a student she knew die as a result of extreme beatings. He was forced to run around the school, and at the end of the lap, was beaten with several blows. Another lap, another beating. No water for several hours. When he was finally sent home in the evening, he died of massive heart failure. A 17-year-old kid. In the end, the parents tried to do something, they were shunned and ostracized, the teacher was moved to an administrative position. Welcome to Korea, foreign teachers.
At that time, before YouTube and there being no foreigners around in this particular institution, our program collectively saw one kind of Korea's dirty little secrets and how they are dealt with. We lived in host families, sat in the teachers' room, went on the school field trips, and saw everything because we were small enough to be ignored. When one friend of mine saw male teachers bringing female high school students into a hotel room and giving them soju and other hard liquors, and reported it to her vice-principal, she was brushed off because she apparently didn't understand that this was a "Korean custom." (Hmm. I wonder if the girls parents would agree.)
Some people out there who come across this blog accuse me of some kind of cultural imperialism because I refuse to budge on certain moral points that I refuse to cross. And that I use these moral boundary lines as the launching points for some criticisms of the culture. What these people usually don't realize is that one doesn't live here, learn the language, successfully make a living, and maintain social relations without doing some serious adaptation to this culture. And having lived here off and on since the early 1990's, back then, before Internet and cable TV, before ubiquitous "air-con" and the days of having to teach class in a winter coat with students competing to sit nearest the gas heater in the center of the class, when I lived in the countryside and the big bookstore only carried 3 copies of international Newsweek that I was rarely quick enough to catch -- Korea was a lot harder to get used to. I put in my time, baby. And I'm as culturally adjusted as I can get. I've given ground on just about every aspect of my life and personality, adapting to the Korean condition.
But on a few things, I won't budge. To some people, me criticizing the mental (and formerly, physical) violence of the school system, or the ubiquitousness of prostitution, turning a blind eye to obvious and clear human rights abuses in the North, or the fact of the massive corruption that continues to eat away at Korea's own values of equality of opportunity -- makes me some kind of cultural imperialist. To me, these are either people who just don't like me and will attack me anyway, or they assume that I haven't thought about the fact that these values are shared by many Koreans themselves. The "right thing to do" is often clear and obvious, actually -- the only thing that makes certain issues huge contestations is the fact that on one side stand people who want to do what everyone agrees is the right thing, and on the other side stand those who simply stand to use their power to exploit others.
To return to my question -- what does living in an environment that forces you to make huge moral concessions to to a person -- this society has huge moral and social problems that one either accepts or fights against. Take corruption, for example. Right now, Samsung is a company whose very structure depends on corruption, whose success often relies on unfairly clearing obstacles and clearing the playing field, whose government connections give it protection even the mafia couldn't touch. And it's been exposed in great detail by a whistleblower whose acts should be commended and praised to the hills. But instead, his name is cursed. And not just by the expected corporate types who obviously want his head on a platter, but by the society in general.
In the distorted version of Confucianism that this society follows, a notion of morality is not at the center. It is not the fulcrum around which things find balance. Morality is secondary -- the maintenance of social rules, the sanctity of the hierarchy, of relative social positions -- this is priority number one. This is why I say that Korea is not really a "Confucian society" in the sense that a full set of Confucian-based moral values dictate how things go; no, for post-Chosun Korean society, it is a merely a rulebook mostly designed to maintain a rigid social structure.
And traditional Korean society only cares about whether or not one violates the rules, not with what moral/ethical values the rules are designed to preserve or actively foster.
That's Korean style. Take the typical Korean ajussi. He simply wants respect and deference because he is older, might have a higher place in the hierarchy, has put in his time as a junior for a long time. And those junior to him are supposed to defer and kowtow. But what is he supposed to do? In the typical Korean way, you da younger, you da bitch. Period.
But traditionally, the Ajussi the Older also has an obligation. He is obligated to stand as a living example of virtuous behavior for the Youngers; he is supposed to use his power to help deserving Youngers advance in life; the Older has a moral obligation to earn the respect he is given. Contrary to common Korean social practice, the Older does not deserve automatic respect, especially when the Older has clearly stepped outside of agreed-upon social/legal bounds. Hence, the Confucian justification for standing up to unjust rulers, resisting social oppression, etc. Because that's in there.
So, am I supposed to respect a drunk ajussi cursing at me on the subway? Or an administrator who is altering the rules to take bribes? Or, closer to home -- a supervisor in my school who wants to change my grades after the fact, which tacitly involves me in their bribe-taking and the unfair altering of the life paths and life-chances of dozens of students? Or how about just sitting and listening to the screams of a middle school boy being kicked in the face and chest? By doing nothing, I am tacitly participating in his abuse. That's the only way to cut it. And why I teared up -- by following the accepted social rules that gave this teacher the right to be a monster, I was, even though it was to the tiniest extent possible, becoming a monster, too. Because he was a student, and I was a teacher who did nothing.
For all those who sit on the sidelines, criticize those who criticize Korean society -- you all have the luxury of truly being outsiders. This is obviously the case. Because my social criticisms aren't rooted in some abstract, America-based objection to the way things are in Korea because of the ways I think they should be in my own country -- I'm not that fucking stupid. But I've been here long enough to see bright-eyed, eager children chewed up by the system and become the sad and cynical teachers who abused them; I've seen kids beaten within an inch of their lives and known of one who was literally murdered by the teachers who are supposed to love and nurture them; I've been forced to sit and accept a policy that would make me an accomplice in such huge corruption that I could scarcely feign moral innocence, even if I didn't stand to get any of the money; when you're deep enough within the system, you don't have the luxury of choosing whether or not to take a position, or to be on one side of the fence or the other. You're already there, and you make the choice whether you sit on your ass or standing up for what you believe in. For those who think it's wrong to do anything, you're deluding yourselves.
Or, you're "fucking the bear," as a good friend put it, in jest. Like the anthropologist so invested in simply following the ways of the natives that even recording their sense of morality becomes secondary to the simple and superficial aping of their "ways," or the animal behavior scientist who lives with gorillas (or, more comically, bears) and studies their ways, lives among the animals, forgets to be human -- and starts "fucking the bears."
That cracked us both up at the bar, but my friend was dead serious. You learn to survive here, then truly adapt, and then -- you truly become inured to things here to the extent that things that should bother you, and which even bother a good percentage of the people here, don't anymore. Because you've become used to it, because you're dependent on some aspect of it, and maybe you've even become a party to some of the thing you once found morally detestable.
Because you've been "fucking the bears."
The point is, if you're part of the society, if you've developed meaningful human ties here, if you do work that emotionally and materially affects others -- how the hell can you feign non-involvement? Or on the flip side, assert the fiction that you either aren't or shouldn't "get involved?" I mean, anyone here teaching English, for example, is part of the same soul-crushing system that we criticize. And don't say you're not -- you fucking get paid to teach this Language of Power. I get paid to teach in it. We've all been been fucking the bear since we got here; or at least, we've been doing a slow dance and copping a feel.
My point is that standing up for what is right isn't that hard to do, isn't that complex, isn't as fraught with issues of "cultural imperialism" or power dynamics or "problematics" as you would think. Because if you've done your due-diligence here, if you've put in your time, if you've figured yourself out vis-a-vis the many, but superficial cultural differences you observe -- you know that refusing to participate in a bribery scheme, or watching your boss openly and crassly put his hands repeatedly all over the new girl's thighs, or not stepping in to tell the Korean teacher kicking a student in the face, "That's ENOUGH!" isn't some cultural faux pas.
People use the word "culture" like its some magical invocation, as though, once named, it becomes a thing of religious significance, as though it's some kind of blasphemy to "interfere." But it's not that fucking complex. In fact, once you've figured out how things generally work here, it's not hard to figure out what's culture and what's just plain wrong.
I guess you could say whipping "nigger" slaves in the South was "culture." I mean, it's what people did, right? Not educating women was "culture" in Chosun Korea, especially amongst the yangban, which makes Mary Scranton an ethnocentric bitch, right? Fucking Underwoods, too. Establishing universities and shit, trying to educate women and people from the lower classes. How dare they?
Or calling the South the Uncle Tom, money grubbing hypocrite that it is for so wanting cheap North Korean labor and economic concessions from the North that it actually downplays or even bans reporting on clear human right violations in North Korea because that might piss them off.
Or disturb relations enough to mess up things for the Kaesong slave wages camp, oops, I mean "industrial complex." I mean, they DO make $42 a month for 52-hour work weeks. That's $.20 per hour! My bad.
Again, there's nothing wrong with standing up for what's right, even (and especially) in another place. And if a lot of people agree with you, or are already standing up for something, and you're part of the society, too -- you can't act like you're not involved.
So, power to the whistleblowers who take a baseball bat and chainsaw to the machine of corruption and abuse of power. These people, in the end, make our lives better, even if it hurts. And it doesn't matter whether you're an American or Korean or whatever. If you live here, you are an insider enough to know right from wrong. You didn't leave that cognitive power at the Incheon immigration desk.
And finally, to the Daewon Foriegn Language High School principal and administration with whom I last worked in 2005, with whom I did not cooperate when they tried to use my US History grades (which had the largest weight in the GPA at the time) as monetary leverage to adjust class rankings, after which I was harrassed by the Korean teachers to the point where even students were coming to warn me of the things other teachers were saying in their classes about me, actively encouraging students to file complaints about me, for simply asking to be left out of their corruption scheme -- BOOYAH!
Now accused criminal, former Daewon FLHS Principal Choi Won-ho
You got caught! Principal Choi, remember when you said you were "going to get me" and "destroy my life" in our last conversation? Well, karma's a bitch, ain't it? Who done gone and got got? You were and are an evil man, and you simply got what you deserved. And I continue to be eminently proud of the fact that I'd rather turn down a $100-per-hour teaching job there than continue to work with you and your mostly-evil administration. And now, you can't sue me for defamation any more than you can The Korea Times, because I'm just asserting I saw the same corruption as documented in a national newspaper. And this issue definitely lies in the realm of "the public interest."
And if anyone wants to talk to me about what I saw there, I'd be MORE than happy to cooperate.
And this post is gonna live on in Google FOREVER. And hey, Won-ho, I'm not even publishing your face -- it's on The Korea Times' server! Whoo hoo! I love it!
Still gonna "destroy me," Won-ho?
I guess it's really true that sometimes the universe simply does unfold as it should.