Firstly, before I begin, I would like to say upfront that this blog post is going to be a critique of a portion of Korean culture. Therefore, I would like to start out by saying that it is difficult, if I may be allowed to understate, to say what constitutes Korean culture – it's not exactly quite a matter of listing a few points that every Korean agrees on.
Korean culture itself has drastically changed over time, particularly since the Korean War . To further compound the issue, as with any culture, the ideals of Korean culture are not necessarily followed by every individual who considers him/herself a Korean. Many Confucian values as well as traditional Korean values have since been modified, updated, adapted, adopted, and co-opted by the modern Korean State, and this, too, caused them to mutate into something that pre-modern Koreans would not have recognized.
And in recent years, these traditional ideals have met competition in the form of personal liberty through globalization. To put it bluntly, the ‘culture’ that defines Korea today is a mess. I hope that whoever reads this will realize that I know that when I speak about Korean culture, I fully understand that it is nearly impossible to define and that, as a result, I have no choice but to generalize.
Without further ado, here we go.
Like many people, I, too, appreciate holidays – the comfort of home, the tranquility of peaceful quiet. However, considering the fact that today is Hangeul Day, I think it would be remiss if I didn’t take some time out of my daily life to sit down and commemorate Hangeul Day in my own way.
When a non-Korean (from a non-Confucian culture) spends any significant length of time in Korea, one of the first things that he/she notices is the level of conformity that exists among Koreans. Considering the collectivist nature of Confucianism, which Koreans have historically been strongly influenced by, and the numerous times that Korea has been invaded by its neighbors throughout its 5,000-year history, which forced Koreans to become more insular and protective of their traditions and cultures, this should come as no surprise.
|Even Korean protesters tend to be conformist.|
Aside from history, Koreans’ conformity can also be found in everyday behavior such as popular trends. For example, in Western countries, where individuality is championed over assimilation, individual consumers have a tendency to purchase certain brands because they have associated those particular brands with their own identities. As a result, brand loyalty tends to last a relatively longer period of time in the West.
(Though it is debatable whether this sort of individualism seen in the marketplace is genuine or not, the fact that the word ‘I’ is capitalized is reflective of Western values.)
In Korea, however, individual consumers tend to choose which goods or services to purchase, at least partly, in order to conform with each other. A very good example of this kind of behavior, though certainly not limited to, is the sudden increase in the popularity of North Face jackets. When one looks for a rational reason for its sudden popularity, one cannot help but simply be stunned at the sheer absence of anything that resembles rationality.
As such, with the exception of certain ‘national’ commodities that are protected from competition via tariffs or subsidization such as Hyundai cars, Jinro soju, KT&G cigarettes, or your typical Korean apartment building, product life cycles of most other commodities tend to be much shorter. A new (or even long-existing) product or brand’s sales will explode inexplicably one day, but often decline just as precipitously.
More telling than the distant past and trending behavior, however, is the fact that conformity can also be found in the Korean language itself; especially in the prevalence of the use of the word ‘우리’ (pronounced as ‘oori,’ which means ‘we’ or ‘our’) in everyday speech. For example, you will seldom, if not ever, hear a Korean refer to his/her country as “My country,” but rather as “Our country.” Though there is certainly a word for ‘I’ (나, which is pronounced as ‘na’) and ‘my’ (내, which is pronounced as ‘nae’), the collectivist philosophy that underlie Korean cultural norms shows itself through the more popular usage of ‘we’ as opposed to ‘I.’
And therein lies one of the fundamental problems that plague Korean society – the philosophy that states that ‘we,’ which is nothing more than a numerical superiority, somehow becomes sacred whereas ‘I,’ the individual, is forced to suffer an ignoble death.
It is the philosophical assumption that individuals are nothing; Mankind is all. Forget that Mankind is nothing more than a collection of individuals. The collectivist ideal that Koreans adhere to imply that individuals exist through, by, and for each other. It is therefore not good to be different from one’s neighbors; it may lead to sticking out, which one is not supposed to do. However, the crime of being different pales in comparison to being superior to one’s neighbors, which is utterly evil.
Is it thus any wonder that Koreans seldom ever express strong disagreement unless it is through the anonymity that is granted by the Internet or the mob? Koreans almost always insist on remaining silent rather than disagree for they dare not speak the thoughts of their own minds. That is because Koreans have been socialized into believing that all must agree with all. But as they cannot know if their thoughts are the thoughts of all, they fear to speak, especially when in opposition.
Traditionalists who abhor modernity and all the ills that are associated with it claim that Koreans ought to return to the morality that was provided by the teachings of Confucianism. There could not be a more perverse idea. ‘To return’ implies that Koreans were once aware of a rational morality. Considering that Confucianism is a school of thought that has indoctrinated Koreans into believing that the individual is nothing compared to the collective, and that this school of thought has influenced Koreans for millennia, it would appear that what Koreans need to do is not to return to some old morality, but to discover morality – a morality that champions the freedom of thought and actions of the individual; a morality that allows people to know that the fact that they exist need not indebt themselves to others, that they need not live for others nor ask others to live for them. A morality that states that one needs to do more than be merely born to deserve love or respect from one’s brethren.
The Korean language as it currently exists has made the word ‘we’ a primary cause for an individual’s existence whereas the word ‘I’ has been relegated to nothing more than a mere second thought. If Korean history and culture are anything to go by, the word ‘we’ must never be given the level of importance that Koreans have given it. Doing so forces people to live a lie – to subjugate their minds to a Collective Mind, which, in fact, does not exist.
|This DOES NOT exist!|
More perversely, however, the word ‘we’ allows the unworthy to earn unearned pride (see “The Irrational Challenges to Interracial Dating” for my notes on unearned pride), which sullies the hard work of rational men. It makes everything that was once clean unclean and once wise unwise. The word ‘we’ is monstrous because it is a word that sanctions serfdom and shame while it suppresses free will.
What the Korean language lacks, if not in existence, but certainly in importance, is the word ‘I’ so that people can finally know that their lives do not belong to gods or kings or the proletariat. By championing ‘I,’ people will finally begin to realize that the only obligation that people owe is the obligation to pursue their own individual happiness.
Of course, blaming the Korean language for Korea’s societal ills is akin to blaming cars for automobile accidents. It’s not the language or the car that is at fault, but the driver; the driver in this particular case being collectivism. As perverse as collectivism may be, however, it is nothing more than an idea; and the only way to defeat an idea is to replace it with a new idea.
Hopefully, by accepting the supremacy of ‘I’ over ‘we,’ Koreans can begin to heal their wounds, both physical and psychological. Otherwise, Korea will forever be defined by nothing more than this: