Tag Archives: man

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.

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)