Tag Archives: china

Pity for Man pt. II

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Part II of this post.

Some months prior, I wrote a reflection comparing my previous experiences and hopes for (what I would call) an earthly communal paradise with Albert Camus’ The Fall, in which lawyer Jean Baptiste Clement confesses his selfish virtuousness in his unpaid work with orphans and widows – “the noble causes.” My encounters with the disabled and the poor in China left me not with a sense of deep sympathy, but a feeling of detachment, a complete 180 in comparison to my prior emotions of solidarity in my pre-China state of innocence, when I would watch the spectacle of the wretchedness of the Chinese poor behind electronic screens from the comfort of my airconditioned Canadian home. Justice spoke and I felt a vague wave of indignation, which I found to be empty once confronted in the flesh with dirty dismembered coal miners and rural sojourners who lacked refined and civilized urbanite mannerisms. My reflections led to a cynical conclusion as I realized that my solidarity and respect only extended to (wo)man in the abstract, not (wo)men in the concrete.

I thought of young university liberals full of moral righteousness and indignation as being unreflective and selfish unbeknownst to themselves, as they used the floating images of third world bodies as a way to clothe and brand themselves to gain status in a moral hierarchy and rise above so as to be able to look down on others from the elevated heights of ‘correct’ morality.

Jean Baptiste Clement confesses that he aimed for a moral highground that would let him become beyond reproach, setting him “above the judges whom I judged in turn, and above the defendant, whom I forced into gratitude.” While he may have provided his services gratuitously, with no strings apparently attached, even offering financial help to the family of the defendant in what appeared to be an action of pure kindness and benevolence, he did not leave them light and free but with the greater burden of existential debt.

Anthropologist David Graeber, writer of Debt: The First 5000 Years calls (in this interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnOqanbHZi4, 9:00 ~) debt a crucial aspect of human sociality. Debt cannot be reduced to control and slavery (a forcing into gratitude). Debt is the chain linking and creating a relationship between two social beings or groups, with mutual indebtedness being a sign of a social relationship. In fact, according to Graeber, the paying off of debt was an insult, a rejection of future social interactions.

In China in full contact with some of the impoverished Chinese, I felt repulsion. Forcing these people, who I could not begin to relate to, into gratitude (or debt) would have meant the formation of a relationship, one I was not adventurous enough to start. But my cynical conclusion does not necessarily extend to everyone else, who may be by constitution more willing to engage in a relationship with this ‘other’ a fruitful, longlasting dialogue between two equals both indebted to each other. For some, (wo)men in the concrete reaffirm their belief in (wo)man in the abstract.

Pity for Man

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A mankind in solidarity, humanity in one collective voice; such are seductive concepts. It brings to my mind an image of brothers and sisters of one human race, arm in arm, with differences put aside for an unending celebration of peace, love and unity on the terrestrial plane in a lifelong jubilee. The good is reciprocated with good and becomes an end to itself.

诸重佑 (제중우), these are the Chinese characters of my Korean name, translated as ‘ giving all a heavy help.’ There was once a time when I took this as a mantra, a supernatural calling, a fate decided from birth and thus accepted the inscriptions of these characters. I remember one particular scene four years ago, when I was inspired by a book titled Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood, a former executive of Microsoft and the later founder of charitable foundation ‘Room to Read.’ I told my mother that I wanted to devote my life to helping people and changing the world. It would be a meaningful life that I would lead, soaring on lofty heights looking downward towards the crass materiality of commerce and the world below (I was a commerce student at that time).

Albert Camus’ The Fall tells in second-person narration the confession of Jean-Baptiste Clement, whose life went through a vertical translation from up to down, from a former life as a virtuous lawyer defending widows and orphans (in short, noble causes) to the seedy central district in subsealevel Amsterdam as a practising “judge-penitent.” His cynical reflections of his former life recount his gradual enlightenment on the superficiality of his existence, leading to his fall. He acted for and on the vulnerable as a way of chasing summits and becoming one above reproach to a level of purity and innocence. He was an actor on a stage; his generosity to beggars and his aid to the disabled was all a play for the surrounding public, just as when he tipped his hat to a blind man after helping him cross the street. From great heights he expressed his will for domination onto the human ants crawling insignificantly below.

One of my predominant impressions of China before my actual sino-voyage was that of pity. I heard and read and saw the conditions of the majority who were not able to enjoy North American middle class privileges. From my North American heights, I looked down onto the poor Chinese people and I felt my heart reaching across the Pacific Ocean out to their poor lives, full of pity for these not-knowing people, wishing dearly to teach them something of my North American knowledge and experiences to make an impact on their poor existences, an impact that would undoubtedly be positive (after all, I was from North America, the opulent).

While living there, I found that I could not connect with my fantasized Chinese people. I could not relate with their squalor and my sympathy turned into indifference, although pity remained. In Nietzschean terms, I was the good and they were the bad. I saw one sight (which I wrote about in a previous blog post) that made even the homegrown Chinese bourgeois turn their heads for a split second in interest. It (or he or she) straddled the boundaries between the categories of human and non-human. I had five mojitos that night, not because I felt a profound disturbance about the sight, but because I enjoy drinking and wanted to get drunk and have a good time. So much for my pre-Chinese ideals. Why did I have the desire to change the world as a younger man?

In approaching man as a totality, a reified abstraction, a personal interrogation is necessary. Why am I doing this? Who am I doing this for? Is this a self-branding initiative? Do I approach man as a collection of subjects or objects? It is a continual affirmation and reaffirmation of a belief.

I still have strong feelings from time to time about (wo)man, but I realized that I do not always like (wo)men.

 

Note: Second time using that photo, “it” is there

Expats in Beijing

It was around 3am on a Friday in Beijing and the six of us were sitting in a circle just outside of the club Fifth Floor, where we had free drink tickets and cocktails were heavy. The club was in an open air mall complex with stores on both sides parted by a wide lighted area inbetween that stretched perpendicularly from one road to the next. We were sitting cross-legged in this area in this centre area, with the starless Beijing night sky above us and the comfortable brand names of the developed world around us. This was a special area in Beijing as the floor beneath me was clean enough to sit on and there was none of the chaos of the rest of China.

“I’m going to get some beer, who wants some?” I asked.

“Yea sure, thanks.” There were also thirsty people so I collected money and went to the dirty corner store just outside the area of the mall to buy some Qingdao.

Beers were opened and cigarettes lit up as there was a sense of happiness being expats from the developed world in China.

“Hey so I was talking about camping under the Great Wall,” said the Canadian,

“Yeah sounds awesome.”

“Think about it, we can all go sleeping in tents and bring whisky and drink and sing songs on the guitar.”

“Is it expensive?”

“Probably a couple hundred kuai, but it’s the Great Wall, it’s something you have to do while you’re here.”

“That’s true”

“So you are Korean?” asked one of the two Chinese girls.

“Yeah, I am,”

“Ahnyounghasaeyo!” said the second Chinese girl.

“Oh boy.”

“I was teaching English in Korea before,” said the American girl.

“Yeah a lot of people do that, did you like drinking soju?”

“Oh yeah, but it makes it hard to work the next day.”

“Yeah terrible hangovers.”

“Yeah and Koreans drink it like fish.”

“There are some crazy parties in Seoul man.”

“Whats soju?”

“Its like Korean vodka.”

“Vodka,” said the Canadian to his friend, the Russian.

“You’re Russian?” I asked him.

“Yeah.”

“What are you doing in Beijing?”

“I’ve lived here for over 8 years.”

“Wow that’s a long time, what are you doing here?”

“I just party full time, some clubs hire me to drink because it looks impressive when there are foreigners in clubs.”

“Hey kid! How old are you?” the Canadian discovered a Chinese kid squatting outside our circle.

He looked in curiously at our group, and was squatting opposite to where I was sitting, where I got a good look at him. He was short and dirty and sun tanned to the skin tone of the average Chinese labourer. He wore a buzz cut which showed the roundness of his chubby face and matched this with ragged plain clothes. There was a typical Chinese look to him and it was a look that you would see several times a day in a dirty crowded area in Beijing. He clashed with his present surroundings.

“He says he’s only 14.” One of the Chinese girls was translating.

“What are you doing out here? Where are your parents?”

“He says he doesn’t know.”

He remained squatting on his stubby short legs with his hands in front of him.

“What? Then what are you doing here? Why aren’t you home?”

“He says his home is in Inner Mongolia but he’s in Beijing to work.”

“Wow.”

He answered placidly and did not seem upset that he was 14 and living hundreds of kilometers away from his parents and in the large impersonal city of Beijing to work.

“Do you want to join us? Come join us!”

“Yeah we should finish these beers and then get back inside the club.”

“Then let’s ganbei them, and finish it.”

“Ganbei.”

After drinking I realized that the kid had disappeared. He had left to go back to his Beijing, which was the Beijing outside the lighted clean outdoor mall we sat in with its brand name stores, and towards the 3am darkness of Beijing’s streets, where he came to find work.

All of us finished our remaining beers and smoked our cigarettes, and we finally stood up to go back into the nightclub. We left the trash there because we knew someone would come and clean. Some dirty Chinese labourer would come and pick out the beers cans and beer bottles to exchange for some money. This made it convenient for us and we were content. Inside the nightclub we drank some more and danced funny dance moves.

YOLO and Happiness

YOLO. You only live once. It is a popular phrase in North American society among the 20 somethings. Often yelled out before undertaking audacious actions which express the spirit of youth – after all, this phrase is said to remind you that you only live once and therefore must live to a fullness without regrets – this phrase represents a mentality for the generation. What better can    represent this generation who is on the lookout for happiness? A generation who actively seek out new experiences for the semblance of fulfillment? YOLO has caught on for a reason; it touches and impresses deep into the heart. YOLO is not just a catchphrase. It is the affirmation of a lifestyle.

After being caught up in YOLO North America, I was given the chance to move away and examine YOLO while undertaking a YOLO trip in Asia for a year. In the process of a gradual de-YOLOization, I started having thoughts about YOLO and the happiness it represents.

When I was in the “Spring City” of Kunming in the Yunnan province of China, there was a clear blue sky and sunlight and some friends to get drunk with in the hostel, so I stayed for a week to restore my energies after a 20 hour train ride to the city. I studied Chinese during the day and drank beer and baijiu (Chinese white wine) at night, and in the midst of this routine I came across Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ by Nietzsche in the hostel library. One sentence I distinctly remember remarking upon was this one, “… for him (Nietzsche) the only happiness worth having is that which is the by product of strenuous efforts in various directions, effort without a thought for the happiness they might produce.” Upon reading a brief history of his life, in which the latter part was marked by illness, solitude and a lack of success or recognition, it seemed that this phrase described his own life pretty well.

A month passed in the sunny Yunnan province, and I went through various conditions, from the warm tropical town of XiShuangbanna in the Southwest to the cragged snowy Tibetan mountain town of Shangrila up 3200m in altitude in the North. It was time to move on to the next province, to Sichuan where I made my homebase the provincial capital of Chengdu, a city that was humid and cloudy in contrast to the sun. From this ancient city famous for its spicy cuisine and “spicy” girls, I made a trip to the neighbouring city of Leshan, which held the monumental Leshan Stone Buddha.

It was still the period of the Chinese Lunar New Year, and the whole of China was on holiday. Many Chinese people had the same idea as me and there was a three hour line up to see the Buddha. Slowly the line crawled, from behind and around the massive head of the Buddha, snaking down to the feet, as the immensity of the Buddha revealed itself. In the line I felt increasing reverence to this figure, which was 70 metres tall and made the worshippers below seem like clothed ants.

Once at the bottom I looked up, craning my neck to see the whole figure. Carved into the mountain facing a flowing river rushing past, the Buddha seemed as though it was a hidden extension of the mountain that found expression. I leaned back on the railing which blocked the river, and stared up for a long time at its head, which seemed to be a part of the ceiling of the darkening sky. The eyes were in a placid meditative state, staring across the rapid river and far beyond the city and through it, resting its gaze past the world of smaller sentient beings to a world of mortal incomprehensibility with fullness and compassion behind a knowing smile. Sitting straight on its humble mountain throne, as it had done for centuries, weather worm but without a hint of cumbrance, there was a feeling of naturality in its deportment, as if it was comfortably waiting for the right moment to awake from its age long meditation. I felt humbled and although I am not Buddhist I felt compelled to bow down to this great figure before me to express my veneration.

I then imagined the building of the Buddha from the point of view of its constructors. It took almost a century in its making and its makers toiled assiduously, removing morsels of stone at a time, meticulously chiselling through rock over decades and generations of man. The end result: what was once a wall of stone, now a towering Buddha. What an inexpressible feeling of delight one must have felt at its completion! To look up, exactly as I had, toward the Buddha, up to the head that seems to be a part of the ceiling of the sky, looking to the same tranquil, meditative eyes that I had stared at. Examining every detail of the limbs and body and understanding, with the process of work deeply impressed into the body, what exactly every inch of the Buddha meant. What a feeling it must have been to have one’s existence tied with this creation, which will be admired for centuries to come. All out of a lowly and insignificant being with human flaws and a weakly mortal body did such a manifestation of grandeur appear.

The YOLO mindset could not have built such a marvel. Focused on fleeting instants of “happiness” and momentary gratification, there is no ensuing fulfillment in the YOLO mindset. All that results is a hollowness and growing anxiety, mounting as the years mount on the physical body. Perhaps inside all of us there is a Great Buddha that lies in wait, waiting to be revealed. Unworked on and only with brief flashes of its true figure, we may pass over it while living for the moment, scrambling after quick “hits” of “happiness.” But what if we started this slow arduous process of sculpting? Working with patience towards an End, with care and painstaking effort? I think it would be marvellous to look back (and up) at personal creations, and feel warm waves of contentment emanating from deep within. After all, you only live once.

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Sunday Night Protests (November 30)

On Sunday we went to see the protests. At around 10pm we came lumbering out of the hotel with an innocent curiosity at the vague news of some movements, mistakenly thinking that we would return to the hotel in time to wash up for a night out. But a single hour grew to be many, and we stayed until the next morning.

We walked towards the protest camp site under a night as silent and empty as any night could be in Hong Kong. The silence and the faint yellow emitted by the streetlights with the sole sound of our faint footsteps seemed to portend an indistinct omen. The first sight of scattered tents led to the presence of scattered groups of people who cheered on the protesters from a distance. The uncertain shapes of a multitude of faint black shapes moving back and forth while shouting rallying cries were all we could see of the action around 200 metres away. Curiosity led us onwards, first towards the heart of the bustling life of the community of hundreds of tents, the humble community that was a natural manifestation of the peoples’ hopes for democracy.

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The community was in front of the major subway (MTR) station, Admiralty. The community blocked a major road and was surrounded by tall, blocky and lifeless buildings on all sides, a contrast to the frail and spontaneous nature of the tents. In the core the community of protesters were roused. It felt as if a beast had awoken and was preparing for a fight. Purposeful brisk movement was all around us, and the sense of urgency washed upon us. We were soon outfitted with a cold mask and safety goggles and were joined in appearance with the idealists. Students laboured back and forth around us. The mood was infectious; a youthful excitement tinged with the protesters’ childish innocence about the belief of their own invulnerability. It was heart breaking to see a young female student, small in size and stature, grabbing a yellow safety helmet in a frenzy of excitement with an air of self-importance.

We moved closer and closer, first drawn off by uncertainty but led by a familiarity mixed with curiosity. There were two major sites of conflict on both ends of Lung Wo Road, a street in front of the Central Government Offices, as the protesters aimed to paralyze the government on Monday morning. We headed to the closer one on the eastern side. There were countless yellow helmeted heads in front of us, staring forward towards a common vision. There was a tension in the air, as if everyone was waiting for a promised affair.

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Barricades and the media separated the police and the protesters from each other. Meanwhile, a system of distribution brought umbrellas to the protesters in the front; the unified umbrellas which served as a simple shield against oppressive forces; the umbrellas which were the symbol of the movement, and protected the protesters’ dreams under the subjection of man and nature. With umbrellas and strong hearts leading, the protesters won the first battle and pushed the small number of police away.

With the first side won, we followed the protesters to the other side of the street, near Tim Wa Avenue. Students with barricades ran by at our sides, feet in unison. A large crowd quickly gathered. A flurry of yellow helmets and yellow (but not only yellow) umbrellas were moved to the front. Tension began to build. There was cheering from all around from the protesters crowding around the railings of the street, giving the front line recruits energy and encouragement.

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Then began the chant for democracy. “我要真普选!” (“I want real suffrage!”) recited the protesters, and the chant quickly mounted momentum, from a few scattered protesters to the whole horde, becoming a hypnotic incantation which started a typhoon of violence.

The next moments were chaos. Under the expansive night sky and the grand towers of commerce there were only the shouts of “走!” (Go!) as the protesters were overwhelmed by this batch of policemen, who were more numerous. All we could do was run back around the distance of 100 metres to jump over the final barricades leading to the safety of the main camp. In the next minutes there we were joined by countless others, running from the terror of possibility. Many were hurt. There was pepper spray and the use of batons as we saw the pitiful sights of the injured. Some children were being dragged to safety by fellow friends, innocent faces without the scars of time and hardship marked with the first carvings of experience. I remember one injured teenager in particular. He looked as if he was pepper sprayed badly. I don’t know how he made it past the final barricades into the safety zone, when he seemed so hurt. There was a group of eight attendants looking out for him, holding salt water and other first aid materials in their hands. Some formed a protective circle around him, giving him a metre radius for personal space. What I can remember are his loud screams, distinguishing him from the other injured. They seemed to express a feeling more than pain, perhaps a feeling of surprise, at the realization of his vulnerability. Nonetheless, in less than 30 minutes, the status quo was returned. The protesters were off Lung Wo Road, defeated. The police removed the barricades on the street and came dangerously close to the final barricades to the main camp – where a minor scuffle broke out, with the masses of protesters swearing at the defenders of justice – but this was only to reopen the road. An occasional red taxi passed by in front of our eyes, on the street that the protesters worked so hard to block. It was a little past 3 am, and this was the result of hours of cooperative work; nothing.

But youth would triumph again. The police left a short while after their work was finished, perhaps to get out of this nightmare into the cozy compartments of their dreams. There was still time before the rays of the sun would impart its wisdom, and the protesters worked like thieves in the night to bring new barricades that replaced those taken away by the instruments of the state. Excitement was in the air again, as a sense of purpose spread and agitated the emotions of the crowd. In 30 minutes the barricades were installed anew, and the road was blocked off again.

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Then came a period of waiting. We were back at the protest site near Tim Wa Avenue where the violence occurred. Until the morning sun arrived, there was an unexpected laziness on both sides. In comparison to the violence of the hour prior, there was only resting. It was the calm before the storm. In front of the barricades protesters were sitting cross-legged and casually chatting. Sleep overtook everyone. Protesters rested heads filled with ideas on each other’s shoulders, envisioning everything that should be good with their world from the shelter of this sanctuary. While these dreamers dreamed, the media excitedly captured all these moments on their cameras.

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The sun rose from behind a cluster of tall buildings on the East to rise and shine its light again, as it had done time and time again. It would only be an hour or two before the protesters reached their goal, the paralysis of the Central Government Offices. All that was required was that they hold this last fortress with their determination. Tall buildings reflected lights onto the antlike figures on the road.

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The early morning siesta and the calm ended at around 6:30am. There was a breeze of cool morning wind, a chilly wind which brought somnambulant bodies up to the morning cold and present realities. The beast started to awake and every part of it followed. Front line protesters in front of the barricades were crossed-legged before, but started to stand up. On the other side of the barricade, lines of police in black uniforms and helmets arrived, armed with short batons and shields. They were indistinguishable from each other and stood straight in a perfect line. The protesters formed little groups of support, innocent faces filled with the promise of the sun. I remember seeing a young couple hugging each other to keep warm; it was a moment of tenderness in the face of a coming conflict. The media with cameras soon flocked around them hoping for the perfect picture.

The chanting began soon after. It started like a mere suggestion, whispered into the ears by an enchantress. The mob soon took up this magical spell, one with the power to escape the limitations of the self and bring it together with a greater whole.

“我要真普选!”

“我要真普选!”

Then the police put on their helmets in assembly.

In less than 30 seconds, the protesters dispersed from a great river to individual droplets of water. Their umbrellas were no match for the storm that confronted them. Some were beaten, others arrested and a great number pepper sprayed. Then came the flood of running; running from the law, from justice, from the system. Reality being taught firsthand with the force of the baton on the limbs, the burn of the pepper spray in the eyes, the serving of a sentence for the pursuit of what is thought to be right, all captured with the snap of the media cameras.

It was now Monday morning. Hong Kongers woke up to the sound of their alarms, busying themselves with their morning routine. A simple breakfast followed by dressing up in business attire, riding the MTR to work, reading a newspaper about the night before, with the article leaving a casual impression before moving to the section about stock movements. Having a coffee, double cream and double sugar, sitting in the office in front of the work computer in an elevated modern building, perhaps with a view of the noisy community of tents down below. It was all business as usual.

China and Gross Overgeneralizations

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It has already been over a month in Beijing. I cannot believe that time has passed so fast. It seems like last week when I first arrived, registered for the Chinese academy that I currently study at and spent a week and a half searching for a place to live. Already autumn is well underway and the cold approaches.

I have wanted to come to China for a very long time. Ever since the Shanghai Expo in the summer of 2010 I have wanted to come but could not. Even in the long four month university summer vacations afterwards I remember trying to find opportunities to come. Taiwan and a short stay in Korea, help from my parents with the Chinese visa and some luck (as applicants are required to go back to their country of citizenship to apply) has led to this stay.

Before coming here, I have heard from many non-Chinese sources about some “special” characteristics of the Chinese. In 2010, my parents used to scare me away from my desire to come to China by telling me a story about a Chinese taxi driver and a Korean couple. Apparently, a certain Korean couple snuck away from their package tour group to explore China on their own on a particular evening, taking a cab to start their adventure. The cab suddenly experienced problems and the driver asked the husband to push the cab from the back in order to provide momentum, leaving the wife in the cab by her lonesome. When the husband got out, the cab driver drove off into the night and the wife’s dead body was discovered the next morning with her organs missing. Apart from this story, I have heard other comments laced with misunderstandings. There were many times where I heard acquaintances that the Chinese were “the most pitiful people on the planet,” and other such unfair statements in different variations.

However, so far I am still healthy and with my organs intact. I have not been robbed or mistreated or beaten up. The most major things have been mild food poisoning after eating some street food in the middle of the night and a fever for a day for sleeping with my windows open. Contrary to what people say, the sun often shines very brightly in Beijing as it did today. Everything that I was told did not happen, except for my inability to use Facebook without a VPN.

I think that people often hear one or two things about the Chinese that creates this image in their heads. It is often not known to them how large a place China actually is. China has an area of 9,596,961km2 , which makes it slightly bigger than or smaller than the United States of America, depending on the source you consult. It is only slightly smaller than all of Europe (not just the European Union), which has an area of 10,180,000 km2. In terms of population, China is bigger than the USA (318,793,000) and all of Europe (742,452,000) combined with a population of 1,350,695,000 people. Certain Chinese cities are more populous than certain European countries. Shanghai is the most populous city in China and has a population of 22,315,426 people, which means that the Shanghainese outnumber all but nine of the fifty European countries. With bad news often being the best news for media companies, the one or two bad things that escape to the North American public are unfairly reflected onto the countless Chinese masses.

Unconsciously, this is unavoidable as our brains are hardwired to think this way. Our cognitive biases project individual characteristics onto the tribe, and are drawn to qualitative individual stories instead of quantitative data and numbers. Because of this, the Chinese are not the only one affected. We might hold certain unjustified feelings towards particular nationalities, subcultures or any distinct groups of people. Without our conscious awareness, the individual fades away and disappears into the crowd. Ultimately, it is us that prevent ourselves from obtaining the truth about people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But there is one accurate bias. All Korean men smoke cigarettes, drink soju and have small eyes if they did not have plastic surgery.