Tag Archives: korean

A Not So North American Paradox

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A couple of months ago, while I was still living in a dreamlike state in Taipei, I wanted to write a blog post about a curious phenomenon I experienced while living in multicultural North America. I wanted to call this blog post “the North American Paradox.” This blog post was going to be written about the North American tendency to lack cultural understanding and knowledge of world history despite North America being a center for immigration, as various peoples have come to pursue new lives by crossing one of two vast oceans. Of course, as my experiences were mostly centered in Toronto, Canada, it was going to be representative of only one North American city, and one with a large number of immigrants from various countries, so it could have been more of “the Toronto Paradox.”

This still doesn’t change the fact that this phenomena does exist in Toronto. Despite having an immigrant population that amounts to 50% of the total city population, and people from literally all around the globe, I have found Torontonians to be largely clueless about what happens outside Canada, if they followed news from outside Toronto at all. Aside from current world events, I have found only shallow forms of cultural exchange happening in this great global city called Toronto. When we (Torontonians) think about other cultures and people, I think the only thing we know about them is their cuisine, and this being the adapted North Americanized version. Even the friends we make are those that are culturally similar to us. I guess this last part cannot be helped so much, as language and cultural barriers can stifle the creation of tight bonds. But this barrier creates further divisions between groups of people of different cultures. The result is a city where possibilities for cultural exchange seem to be limitless but end up being quite few.

I found it ironic that Torontonians proudly refer to global Toronto as being a melting pot of the world. I do not dispute this, although I see it being a “melting pot” in another sense as well. My friend, whose ancestors moved from somewhere in Germany to Canada four or five or six generations ago, put it very nicely when he said, “after a few generations, you just end up being white.” Being apart from the ancestral home and its cultural density, Torontonians start losing the drastic spices and flavours of their home country and find in its place sanitary but insipid flavours. Different flavours come in but melting pot of Toronto tastes bland, much like its cheese. But of course, I should note that I cannot help but being biased, as I lived most of my life here. I guess foreigners coming to Toronto would find it exciting in some way.

I think the experience that contrasted the most with my Toronto experience was the time I spent as an exchange student in Milan. There I met many Europeans and found them to be incredibly knowledgeable and worldly. They seemed to know all about what was happening in the world – the world at that moment for me being Europe – and much about its past too. Languages were another matter that impressed me, as all Europeans seemed to speak at least three fluently. My German roommate might have given me a particularly one-sided perspective in this matter, as he was interested in history and claimed to have known at one point all the countries in the world and their capital cities as well as a lot of their basic history. He also spoke German, English and Spanish fluently. With this environment and these kinds of people around me, it is no wonder why I thought so favourably about Europeans and disappointed from the contrast at bumbling, monolingual North Americans. (Torontonians)

A year went by and the time came for another plane flight, this time to Asia. Here again I met many Europeans. However, in contrast to the sophisticated and noble Europeans I met while in Europe, this new batch of Europeans seemed to shine less. They were just as clueless as I was about what was happening in this side of the world and this time, I had an advantage on them in language proficiency. Of course, when they discussed the various perspectives of World War II during a party I found it novel and interesting, but Europe was a world away.

The conclusion I got from thinking about this “paradox” was that it is actually not a paradox at all. North Americans learn in school about the history of colonial powers in North America – with a brief sidenote mentioning the Native Americans – because this is what happened on the continent. Europeans learn about Europe, because tension have historically been present there and with two large scale wars destroying the continent and taking too many European lives, it is important to learn about the history of the Europe. With the European Union, and the proximity of different cultures, I guess learning languages has also been pragmatically emphasized in their education system. If my family never moved out of South Korea I would be learning about the history of the Korean peninsula. I asked a Taiwanese friend and he told me the Taiwanese learn about the history of China and Taiwan. I am in Beijing right now and I am guessing that the students here are not learning about the history of Ireland. As for Torontonians lacking deep cultural exchanges, I do not think that I should be pointing any fingers. When I was living in Taiwan, I always found myself hanging out with the exchange students more than my Taiwanese classmates. And when I did hang out with the occasional Taiwanese friend, we would use English most of the time. I think it takes serious conscious effort to reach out to people using an unfamiliar language and most people, including me, lack patience.

I still think that cultural understanding – and by extension, language – is a worthwhile goal and one that I would like to pursue. Learning about different cultures and peoples destroys ignorance and brings humility. It brings to light the truth that human essence is the same. There are times I see ignorance at an extreme level, particularly on online channels where one group of people are put down as being less than human due to misinterpretation of their actions. I believe that proper respect and understanding of one another are missing in these cases. I think that beneath the surface (I’m not sure if this layer is thick or thin) there is a part within that is relatable. Maybe I am being too idealistic. History is another discipline that is worth pursuing. Learning about the stories that have taken place on this planet earth before this moment in time gives us a proper perspective on life. The world does not revolve around us, despite how much we would like to give ourselves the role of the main character in our personal stories. The world just revolves and will keep on revolving way after our death. It will revolve and revolve and then it will stop revolving sometime in a distant and unseeable future. Then there will be imperceptible darkness. But as accidental and fortunate receivers of the blessing of life, it is important to play our role and play it with conscientiousness and humility and without an overinflation of our ego.

 

Picture above is somewhere in Taroko Gorge in Taiwan

 

Mold of Masculinity

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I have been in Seoul for a month. In comparison to the family free environment I lived in while in Taiwan, Seoul has been completely different. I haven’t been hanging out with many people my age here and instead the people with whom I’ve been passing time have been mostly family members who are from a past generation. Unavoidably, constant communications with this generation have brought their influences and ideas into my head. In this month, their wise but ancient values have seeped into my head slowly, like rainwater into sodden soil.

One of the impressions that quietly formed during this month relates to masculinity. What does it mean to be a man? I think that all guys contemplate this question while passing through the years of their teens. I don’thave a satisfying answer to this question myself. However, as I grew up in North America, I was exposed to one definition of what a man is. Coming back to Korea and being exposed to the culture on this side of the world has given me peeks at another.

In Western culture, I think that the archetypal male is someone like Ernest Hemingway. From what I know of him, he was someone who was similar to the persona of his protagonists. He enjoyed manly activities in the outdoors like fishing and hunting, and was an aficionado of bullfighting. He confronted death as an ambulance driver for the Italians in the Great War when he was only a mere boy at 19 years of age. Of course, as a man, he had his women as well, and plenty of them. He was married four times and even had an affair with a 19 year old Russian beauty when he was at the ripe age of 49 and still married to his fourth wife. Being a man, he was tough and honest, which reflected in his prose. There is something lonely and tragic about his story which also added to his public profile and mystique as a man, as he eventually ended his life by hanging himself.

Although Ernest Hemingway was a figure from many decades ago, this kind of definition of what “the Man” is supposed to be still prevails in popular Western media. We usually see this figure in movies being a leader, someone who directs and runs the show. He has a special aura around him that makes people around him want to listen. He is fatally attracted to females, while they are in love with him. He is largely indifferent to what people think of him, and knows what it is that he wants. There is something that is romantically self-centred about him that is related to a search for freedom, as he engages in a struggle for what it is that he desires over the obstacles that restrain what is essentially him. To get more concrete examples, I think a lot of the action movies in Hollywood promote this mold of masculinity, from Fight Club to the Fast & Furious series.

Meanwhile the idea of masculinity I gathered in Korea was different. Of course, I am not attempting to say that this mold of man is one with purely “Korean” characteristics. It is just a structure that built itself out of the impressions I accumulated in this country. It is a very limited idea that is not representative of the Koreans, as most of my contact had been with the older generation. This accumulation of my impressions is just a description of what masculinity could be, without any attempt at labelling.

In either case, the stories of men that I am exposed to in Korea are different. They are less manly by the standards of the former and far less glorious. The men that have left an impression on me in Korea are figures resembling my father. They are devoted to their family at the cost of themselves. An example can be seen in the less than glamourous example of the “seagull fathers.” These men are nicknamed “seagull fathers,” as they continue to work strenuous hours in Korea and live on basic needs in order to support their families who live abroad. This is done in order to give their children an education in English speaking countries. The mother of the family goes over as well in order to take care of the children, leaving the father halfway across the world in a completely different time zone away from the people he is making the sacrifice for. I think that the man in this context is one who engages in a struggle with himself in order to overcome his desire for freedom.

In the end, which of these two definitions are correct? I think that it depends on the cultural context. With societal developments, the role a man should play, thought convenient by that society in that particular moment of time, might be what determines the definition of an ideal man. Perhaps it is unfair to judge one as lacking masculinity for not conforming to the popular definition. Maybe the essence of masculinity and the sole requirement of being a man is something much simpler and more fundamental, like the blessing all men are cursed with from birth that has a mind of its own.

 

Picture: Somewhere in Corleone, Sicily (think about the Corleone family in the Godfather) where we were very nervous about everything, including taking photos. (Hence this bad photo with my finger visible)

Korean in Paris

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It was mid-November in 2012, and the days were growing colder in Milan. The cold breeze signalled the impending arrival of winter and the encroachment of the day in which I would have to go back to Toronto. Long past seemed the days under the hot Tuscan sun in the month of August in Siena, in which cold weather seemed like a foreign concept in the dry and cloudless weather. At that particular moment, the cold was not foremost in my mind, as I was soon due to leave to majestic Paris.

Paris may seem like an eventual destination for an exchange student in Europe. One of Europe’s great capitals with a worldwide recognition and reputation for culture and beauty, it experiences innumerable tourists annually, who wish to have a taste of a fantasised Parisian life. Cities like Budapest and Shanghai have been given titles like the “Paris of the East” or the “Paris of the Orient” respectively, as if Paris holds the absolute measure of a beautiful city. To contrast, no one would dare call Paris the “Shanghai of West” or compare Paris at all in such a manner. There is a unique romantic mystique associated with the name Paris that prevents the demeaning suggestion of such titles. Perhaps all this is just speaking from a North American point of view, but Paris can only be described as Paris.

Despite Paris being Paris, it was not a location that was originally on my list of places to go to. I was very happy in Italy and enjoyed the culture and the lifestyle. Most of the travelling I did was to Italian cities. It felt like every new Italian city I visited was a puzzle piece which helped me piece together a greater understanding of the country. Ironically, with more pieces came a realization that the picture was exponentially larger than I thought.

However, there was a French friend I wished to visit in Paris. We had met two years prior in the summer of 2010 in Seoul. We were studying in the same Korean language program. He developed an interest in Korean culture due to his Korean girlfriend. Being a relatively cheap and short flight, I took the opportunity to go see him.

There is always an emotion that is part anxiety and part anticipation when seeing a friend that you have not seen for a long time. Change is always happening to people, and you are not certain whether the previous connection you and the friend once shared still holds. Change is particularly prevalent for people in their 20s, who still are going through a period of many decisions. Add the fact that you have also changed as well, and we get a further compounded problem. Maybe it is just the physical features that are the remnants of an old friendship, and the feeling of comfort you get along with the familiar face, which is a solid, physical affirmation of a previous shared connection. Maybe this feeling of ease is the most fundamental glue in a friendship, with the rest being details that are whisked off with the passing of time.

When we met at Crimée Station, it was a relief to find out that the friendship was still there. There was one big difference that I immediately noticed, and it was in the language we used to communicate. Two years prior, we used English due to his insufficient Korean. At this meeting, we used Korean. While acquainting ourselves with each other anew, I started to find out how excellent his Korean grew to be, far surpassing my own abilities in my first language. It was an interesting turn of events. In the month of our friendship in Korea, I had always thought that he was reticent and reserved. I was finding that he was not. I was seeing aspects to his personality that were put behind an opaque wall when we used English to communicate. With Korean, his self was able to shine through. Meanwhile, it was the opposite for me, as my Korean put me behind the opaque wall this time.

For lunch at his place, we were joined by another Frenchman, an acquaintance of my friend who also spoke very good Korean. Together, we ate a nice simple lunch of some bread, potatoes and blood sausages with a cocktail. Afterwards came the drinking of an alcohol made of oranges that was as strong as vodka and reminded me an orange version of the Italian limoncello. Of course, the primary language of our increasingly drunken communications was Korean. Two Frenchmen and a Canadian in Paris, who would have thought.

Continuing through the afternoon fuelled by drinking games involving the Nintendo Wii, we started to think of options for dinner. Naturally, we decided on a Korean Barbeque restaurant, not even discussing any French style bistros. Away in the Parisian subway we went, speeding off in tunnels below the surface to some location in Paris I still do not know to this day, while the orange liquor slowly withdrew to the bottom with each passing of hands.

It was the first Korean restaurant I went to while in Europe, as Italy did not have enough of a substantial Korean population to justify such a luxury. While in the restaurant I remember flashes of merriment; drinking a soju cocktail which involved a loud banging on the table for its creation, which brought the owner up to our table to quiet us down, although afterwards he was appeased with a taste of the cocktail; meeting French-Koreans, some who were ironically not able to speak Korean at all, while the Frenchmen at our table spoke fluently; eating wonderful tasting meat with each bite bringing me a supreme happiness, while the drinks contributed with a bright and dreamy glow. Afterwards, the two Frenchmen and the Canadian walked downstairs to the basement of the Korean barbeque restaurant in Paris to sing karaoke on a Korean karaoke machine, bringing an appropriate end to all festivities.

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After sobering up and reflecting on this experience while walking on Parisian streets, I began to think about language. The use of language is an aspect of communication we do not think too deeply on, for the reasons that it is a part of daily life so basic that it is unnoticeable. We can often be oblivious to the role it plays in our communications with other people.

As a student in the University of Toronto in the Rotman Commerce Bachelor’s program, which holds a 50% international student population, I had the chance to interact and work with many international students. I always believed that they were shy and afraid to express their opinions. I did not like working with them in group projects for this reason. Now in Taiwan as an exchange student, there are times when I am put in the same situation. One of my classes requires group work every lecture, and the class is comprised of all Taiwanese students except me. My group members have been very accommodating and have spoken English so that I can also contribute my opinions. There was one class when they communicated in Mandarin instead, and I was unable to contribute although I had done the work beforehand. I think they probably thought I did not do the work for that class. Just like my French friend when I first met him, just like the international students in the University of Toronto and just like me here, we may find ourselves in situations in which one of the parties involved in a communication is stuck behind the opaque wall of an unfamiliar language. In an increasingly global environment, perhaps patience and understanding is required for better communications, and not unfair judgements.

Languages are also interesting due to the special characteristics each language holds. Korean is a language which has many graduations of formality and respect. There are two main methods of speaking, one which is an informal way a person would use with friends, and an informal method, which one would use with strangers, elders and peoples of higher position. This method carries with it implicit assumptions of respect and formality. Age is an important determinant in creating the context the relationship operates in. If an individual is even one year older than another, the former has an authority over the latter. The younger individual must address the older person with special titles which come with implications of respect and deference, while it is the other way around for older individuals to younger individuals. Furthermore, the informal method of speaking is often used by the younger individual when communicating with an older individual.

As my French friend is 3 years older than me, I did not know how to address him in the correct way when using Korean to speak. I remember avoiding using his name or any title to address him, due to the ambiguous nature of the current relationship. There was a cloud of uncertainty hanging over our interactions, until without thinking I called him “hyung,” the proper address for an older male. After addressing him in this fashion the first time, the once cloudy and ambiguous relationship became as clear as day with this single admission. At the same time, there was a feeling that it signalled the start of a relationship with a slight submission from me to him.

I saw him twice afterwards in Paris, once in a Starbucks completely incidentally while on a guided tour, and finally in another Korean restaurant for lunch, where the waitress commented on his proficiency in the language, and told him that he was so lucky to have a good friend to learn from. She was referring to me, so I kept my mouth shut and smiled so she would not find out the truth about our actual abilities. And thus went my first experience in Paris, city of lights, city of romance, city of beauty. It was an unexpected surprise, finding a culture so close to my heart in a location that was so foreign to me. The five days in Paris ended quickly and I soon found myself boarding the plane back to Milan, my temporary home which held the promise of more adventures to come.