Sunday, July 18, 2010

Freedom means only hiring Chinese people to work for $3 per hour

When I first decided to come to East Asia, a prescient friend told me to go to China for the freedom. We don't typically associate the PRC with freedom, but he insisted. "You'll get away with so much," he said. "Like what?" I asked. "Just, you'll get away with so much." At the time, I had no idea what he meant. I didn't even know what there was to get away with in China, except maybe the sort of thing I already get away with here, like Googling the June 4 incident.

Now, when I describe living in Korea to Koreans, I tell them that one of the things I like most about living here is that I get away with a lot of things. It's partly because I'm a man, partly because I'm a foreigner, partly because I live in a country that doesn't have the myriad of rules that other developed countries have.

Consider the pizza place down the street that sells pizzas for as little as $4. For a long time, they had had a sign that said they were looking for a female to work there. Recently, it was changed to specify a Chinese female. There probably are reasons that they're looking for a Chinese person, namely the large number of Chinese university students in the area who apparently devour pizzas late at night. In most places this would probably violate laws, and my impression is that this also violates laws in Korea, not that the old men who run the country care particularly.

As a foreigner, I encounter lots of cases where rules don't apply to me, but these are minor and insignificant. I can muddle around and avoid the obvious rules that others have to obey: don't wear your shoes in, don't put more than five people in a taxi, buy a ticket when entering a park or museum, treat older acquaintances and strangers of all sorts with obsequience, and so on.

Where we can get away with things is that, unlike in Japan, Canada or elsewhere, social niceties aren't quiet there. I was just in a coffee shop next to several groups of people speaking at the top of their lungs. On my way home, I passed piles of garbage of all sorts from all kinds of people. In between those piles was garbage randomly tossed aside. There was no point crossing the street on a green light since cars run red lights, and it's not just cars. I've seen buses and police cars do the same thing.

Here, you can walk where you want, spit where you want, through your garbage where you want. You can hire who you want, depending on their hometown, appearance, gender and race if you're talking about foreigners (hint: be white). You can drive as fast as you want as drunk as you want (less so now) in as many lanes as you want. You can park your car wherever you want. If you're a child, you can play soccer in the parking lot as buses come and go. If you teach, you can yell at students, beat them, and generally punish them however you'd like.

Freedom has been turned into an empty buzzword in the last ten years, a guaranteed plus word that no one would be opposed to, but also one that no longer really understands anymore. If you're big on it, you could define it positively, ie the freedom to do something. If you're not so big on it, you could define it negatively, as Hobbes did. Cats, after all, are freer than we are. I have to go to work in the morning, but the stray cat I sometimes see under my air conditioner doesn't. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle, much like Korean freedom, which noxious as it is sometimes, is enjoyable and amusing even when I pretend otherwise.


Shan said...

This is exactly what my cousins said to me when I was in Pakistan; that they live in a truly "free country" because they can do a lot of things I would never be able to do in Canada, like driving backwards down a road or something equally ridiculous. They were joking, as that kind of excessive freedom is not a good thing, but it's an interesting way to consider freedom.

Adeel said...

Pakistan is all kinds of free. I remember a public service announcement that came on TV at night: "Both the person giving and taking bribes both go to hell."

If you're rich in Pakistan, you can get away with anything.