30 April 2004

Neighborhood Mountains, Neighborly Relations

Today was a day off, no meetings, appointments or anything else. So I slept in (until 8:00 AM), got up, had my daily breakfast of toast, jam, milk and homemade yogurt, checked my e-mail and headed to the neighborhood mountain with my host and her son.

First let me say that it is nice, when living in the city, to have a neighborhood mountain – and in Korea and even Seoul, the phenomenon is not all that unusual. We walked to the mountain (and we use that term a little generously, but calling it simply a hill isn’t really polite, and anyway, you do get quite a view from the top – at least what bits you can see through all the trees), climbed to the top, and relaxed on a park bench across from two dozen grandmothers doing their morning exercises.

According to my host, part of the reason there is a revival in Korea regarding healthy living is that people are no longer poor. They are not rich, but they are not poor, so they can spare some time and money to take care of their bodies, to exercise, go hiking, take walks, whatever. In a city where everyone seems to walk at an extraordinary pace (though I will admit my near decade in Texas has slowed me down quite a bit), it is interesting to note that many people still have time for exercise, hiking, health clubs and other such physical exertion, while in America, we have no time and now have one of the world’s fattest population. Perhaps it is just a matter of re-ordering priorities.

Speaking of health, my host is rather health conscious, trying to buy primarily organic foods, keeping sweets and fats to a minimum, washing dishes with flour instead of detergent (yeah, I had never heard of that one either. It is the only thing she will use GM flour for). Thus my regular breakfasts of corn toast and homemade yogurt. And it explains why the chapchae I had my first night here was, well, bland. She doesn’t like to use much soy sauce, because some of the soybeans may be from America and therefore may contain Genetically Modified (GM) products.

But back to neighborliness. OK, well maybe not back, as I never really started with that in the first place, but enough babbling. One of the most noticeable differences between Korea and the average city in America is the overt friendliness, the signs of affections from total strangers toward children and even adults and foreigners. In America, we are scared to death to touch a stranger’s child for fear of being labeled a molester. And we are equally scared to let strangers talk to or touch our children, for fear that they are molesters.

Here, that just doesn’t seem to be a big concern. This is a society that is much more tactile. In America, we each try to create a bubble of personal space, no matter where we are, no matter how crowded a place we are. In Korea, it is the exact opposite. Friends hold hands all the time, purely plutonicly, guys rest a hand on their friend’s leg at the coffee shop, people push and shove and jostle together on the metro, and it seems sometimes that the fewer people in an area, the closer together they will gather.

This can be very uncomfortable for a foreigner, and in particular an American, when they first arrive in Korea. I know it took a bit to adjust myself when I first came here. But after a while, it just feels right, the concept that people want and need to be together. Whether it is the result of coming from a small country where most of the land is largely uninhabitable mountains or from some other deeper or more distant sociological or anthropological cause I don’t know, but after a while, it makes the entire country seem like one big family reunion, rather than a foreign and impersonal place.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying one system is better than the other. Korea and America are very different countries, with very different histories and cultures and physical characteristics. And in America, physicality is rather common among friends and within families, just not so prevalent amongst strangers.

The physicality in Korea has its downsides as well, as it transfers not only to the positive side of social interaction but to the negative side as well. Korean television is filled with everyday run-of-the-mill physical violence – between students and their peers, teachers and students, bosses and employees, parents and their children, spouses, patrons and service staff… How much of that is based on reality, I cannot tell, but there must be some bases for it given the prevalence of such images.

And it also can cause problems for Koreans going overseas. Some of the so-called “Ugly Korean” behavior comes from a failure to take into consideration the distinct differences in physical and social interactions in foreign countries. And when there is an understanding, it can sometimes lead to anxiety and a sense of reticence or standoffishness as Koreans fear breaking the social bubbles westerners protect themselves with (a problem my host ran into while visiting England and fearing everything her very outgoing and gregarious son did would offend the British or cause some sort of problems).

Well, I’m off to eat an orange, relax, and ponder the various methodologies for studying languages.

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