Friday, December 18, 2009

Korean Hive-Mind.

Perhaps that's extreme. But Koreans have a kind of group-think mentality that is difficult for individualistic Americans to understand. I've blogged about it directly before: once about being accepted by my swing club and another time when showcasing my students' opinions about Korea's core values.

Well, of course, naturally, Koreans also have a difficult time understanding the concepts of "rugged individualism" and "alone time" as positive things. They think if you are alone, then you must be lonely.

Recently, fellow blogger Liz of I'm no Picasso, encountered this culture clash in a very direct way and tries to make sense of it in her latest post. She has been planning a lovely solo trip to Vietnam (highly recommended, btw) when her co-teacher decided to join her. Although she remains torn over what to do about the situation because she likes her co-teacher, but that streak of independence is what kicked in at first:

When it first happened, I was infuriated. Who does something like that? I've been looking forward to this vacation for an age, with visions of me playing Thomas Fowler in a gorgeous hotel room overlooking a main road, waking a little late in the mornings and drinking strong Vietnamese coffee at a table outside on my imaginary hotel's imaginary veranda overlooking an imaginary busy, scenic Vietnamese street. I would then spend the day wandering around and taking in the various cities, not bothering with anything too touristy or pressurized, basically just trying to soak up the place in whatever way struck my fancy that day. Time alone. To unwind and decompress from the continuing uphill pace of life in the ROK.

Now I've got a middle-aged Korean tagalong. What in the hell am I going to do with her?

And, more importantly.... I.... it's vacation, okay? Who doesn't look forward to the potential, while traveling abroad, of meeting a cute little local and having a bit of what-happens-in-_____-stays-in-_____ fun? Or just meeting new people in general? Which is a lot harder to do when you have a travel companion.

Later she reflects on her difficulties adapting to this culture:

I hope it stops after this, though. I get a little tired sometimes, in Korea, of the group mentality. It's the one thing that's really hard for me to cope with about Korean culture. I like doing things alone, and I like doing things my own way, and I don't always want other people jumping in. Sometimes I don't want a ride to _____, because I had my own plans about how I was going to get to ____, and a whole schedule worked out for the day I was going to _____. Sometimes I don't want someone to join me going to that museum, or that temple, or that store, or that movie. I just want to go and enjoy it on my own, without the stress of it becoming a social situation. I don't need help with everything and I don't always need (or want) company. Just because I mention my plans to do something doesn't mean that you're invited.

Does that sound really bitchy? Well. Whatever. I'm trying my best to adjust. But some things about me are not American or Western -- they're just me. And they're not likely to ever change. That doesn't mean I'm wrong.

I love Liz's style of writing, btw--so full of voice and character, even while exploring some very complex cultural issues in an honest, personal, raw way. However, I have to disagree a little with her last statement. The ability to even conceive of yourself as separate from your culture or any other group, to make bold claims like these qualities are "just me" is a distinctly Western and American approach. Not that she's wrong at all--just that this kind of thinking is more culturally based than we realize.

Anyhow, I've struggled with all this myself and so I commented to her about my own frustrations:

I had a really hard time at first planning the wedding because I had NO control over the guest list. In Korea, if you mention an event, it means the person is invited. Foreigners often take YEARS to realize this, so they wonder (I've wondered) why they're not invited to the company dinner, yet asked why they didn't attend the next day. Why a casual mention of your weekend plans suddenly means your co-teacher is taking you out to the family farm for Chuseok.

I've finally learned, after much trial and even more error, that if a party is talked about around you, you're invited to it and that co-workers find it completely acceptable to invite themselves into your plans (especially if you'll be alone--who would WANT to be alone? they think) if you mention them at work. There was also a very interesting (not at all sarcastic this time) thread when Liz posed her problem on Dave's ESL Cafe. I highly recommend that you read it!

(Many thanks to Liz for sharing her experience and--hopefully--not minding my re-bloggering of it. Yes, bloggering is totally a word.)


  1. Haha the blogging world. I still can't get over the interconnectedness. That's definitely a word, as well.

    You make some great points about how mentioning things is like an invitation, and also how it's part of my culture to claim individual traits. Part of my culture or not, though, it's something I don't see changing. I guess I'll hit up against more of those kinds of things as I spend more time here, whereas in the past it's been things that are more simple to see objectively from the outside, and adjust myself to, with little or no bother.

    I guess what I meant by it not being my "Americanness" or "Westernness" is that, even back at home, I was still known for these traits. Famous for not answering the phone or dropping off the radar for a few days at a time. So it's even harder, when something is already a defining factor in your personality, to hit up against a cultural difference that simply doesn't allow for it.

    Hopefully my Korean friends and coworkers can come around to see it as a personal quirk like my friends back home do.

    By the way, the wedding thing would seriously drive me crazy. You think I'm anal about my vacation time.... I'd go mental if people started hording in on my wedding. Kudos to you for taking it all with such grace.

  2. By the way, now I feel really self-conscious about having rambled on for an age like a pre-teen girl about the PE teacher in that same post..... apologies to any of your readers who chance to endure that.

  3. Diana:

    I do hope you realize you've just invited the entire interweb to your wedding ...

  4. Liz--

    Hey... don't be ashamed of drooling over hot Korean men, ever. God... PE teachers here as a group are just so... YUMMY!


    I've done it before. Hell, there's a facebook page if you want all the details and feel like showing up :)

  5. ah yes, the lack of personal space... def. one of my biggest problems adjusting to life here.

  6. S-

    I think you're right--the lack of personal space connects to some of the same ideas.

    I hadn't thought of that, though.

  7. Hi,

    I'm a Korean-American who was born outside Korea and who never lived in Korea, and while I was raised by conservative Korean immigrants and retain a measure of Korean culture baggage, I'm also rather individualistic and hate it when Koreans display this hive mentality myself.

    Liz of I'm no Picasso hit the nail with the phrase "without the stress of it becoming a social situation." I've struggled a lot here in America when dealing with Korean immigrants and Korean expatriates, and they often thought I was selfish, cold, and unsocial - they assumed I was just like them by virtue of race and even near the age of 40 I still sometimes have to verbally explain to them why I do the things my way. They are just not used to it.

    Liz also mentioned not wanting a ride. years ago I went to a wedding, mostly Korean immigrants. I planned my own itinerary with my best friend; it took me over 1 hour of public transport to get to the town where the venue was located. My best friend picked me up. My scheduling worked out flawlessly; he met me at the agreed-upon time, and we got to the wedding on time - only for it to start 45 minutes late.

    Previously, an acquaintance had offered to drive me. I politely refused. I'm glad I did - he meant well, and I was grateful, but I didn't want to be subjected to him; I didn't want to be dependent on him driving, etc. I preferred to do things MY way on MY terms even if it meant public transport and out of pocket tickets.

    This acquaintance got to the wedding after it ended. Now, lack of punctuality is not confined to a given nationality, but it was a stark reminder I was wise to have done things my way.



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