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)