Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In defense of farmers in suits

Two months ago I decided to answer the question "where are you from?" with the non sequitur "I'm from China". I would then explain that although my nationality is Chinese, I'm really Uzbek/Kazakh/Kyrgyz/Uighur. Part of it was to introduce some novelty into a conversation that I've had probably hundreds of times by now, partly just to see how much I can get away with.

Right after I said that, surprisingly no one ever asked me where I was from again, absolutely stunning considering that sometimes I answer that question 3-4 times in one day. It's not that I stopped putting myself in strange situations, I made a couple of trips out of Seoul, went to a wedding and generally felt comfortable enough to ask all sorts of people all sorts of things.

Tonight, finally, as the driver explained that he would take one bridge across the Han River instead of the other (these cab rides are like ordering off a menu you can't see or read), he took the chance to ask where I was from, literally just "where person?". For some reason, I responded with the neighbourhood I lived, then caught myself and said Uzbekistan.

That stopped the conversation cold, but when I said a few more words to direct him, the interview started. He asked what I thought of Korea. I replied, in character, "it's very rich, much richer than my country." He said he didn't like Korea, because Koreans were honest. The grass is often greener on the other side, I replied, but Korea was a great place to live, all things considered.

I added that I felt Seoul's passive-aggressive mania with the G20 summit indicated a lack of self-confidence, but that it's not a country which needs to be so insecure. It's not the richest country in the world with the widest eyes or the fairest skin, but it's a developed country with a high quality of life.

Many Westerners on message boards deride Koreans as farmers in suits. This is a country that was built out of nothing, so I wouldn't necessarily take that as an insult, though others would. The not-so-distant agrarian past is, to me, both interesting and something to be proud of. Korea has much to teach the developing world, a role that it is gradually taking on even as others try and sanitize Korea into a globalized "advanced nation".

In this highly critical, often unwarranted thread about Korea's racism and its psyche (albeit from one of my favourite bloggers), a few comments caught my eye. First, this one about the farmers in suits mentality:

Koreans went straight from rice paddies to modern cities in a very short amount of time, and it shows in the way they treat themselves and each other. While foreigners may complain about the rude comments Koreans make about them, it often pales in comparison to their provincialism and distrust of anybody outside their immediate circle of friends and relatives.

My mother would recall with tears in her eyes how badly she was mocked by her co-workers in Seoul for speaking the Gyeongsang-do dialect, yet it never occurred to her or my other relatives that it is just as damaging to make disparaging jokes about people from Jeolla province. I could go on and on.

With respect to Korean nationalism, someone writes:

Korea is just not mature enough to accept a fairly mediocre history for people who insist that they are 'older' than others although Europeans, Africans, Indigenous people and everybody else have old or older histories.

Korea's relatively mediocre history is not something that many Koreans would ever admit. To them, this is the country that invented the world's most scientific alphabet, a movable printing press, bibimbap and, retroactively, has been one of the world's greatest civilizations for thousands of years. Except, of course, that it's not true.

Nor does it need to be true, because many now-great countries were nothing until they were. Prussia was nothing until Frederick the Great came along, Arabia was nothing until the Prophet Muhammad came along, modern China was nothing without Deng Xiaopeng, and even Britain was nothing until trade allowed it to gain power disproportionate to its size and military.

But my favourite comment was this one, by someone who was in the Peace Corps in Cheongju from 1971 to 1974. Writing to a Korean-American, he wrote:

In the winter there was a black pot belly stove in the middle of the room, that never seemed to get warm, let alone hot. The kids were cold all the time..hands red, noses running with a long school day, until 6pm....So damn cold....even the teachers froze.

We had ondol floors, charcoal to heat the floor but not the room.
I remember walking to school over the bridge in November, already cold by then, and in the river below, more a stream, I saw the wife of my laundry guy, in the cold water, washing clothes..

Korea has come a long way since then, thanks to the sacrifices of folks like your parents. Hug them, kiss them and bless them for what they did.

This is undoubtedly still a country that I call rough around the edges. It's corrupt, laws are often disregarded, women and minorities have a status that ranges from low to nonexistent, and as it Korea prepares to put the icing on the cake of development, it also confronts the issue of demographics, namely that its population will start to decline before the end of this decade. But as a wealthy country, Korea should be mature enough to recognize and even embrace the fact that it was dirt-poor just two generations ago.

It's disingenuous to talk about the country to outsiders as though it's the greatest thing ever invented. This ad, for example, combines what I love and I hate about this country. Its accomplishments are greater than the status it has (51% of Americans don't know that this is a democracy), but look at the cringe-inducing commercial (fun fact: haughty in Korean is 'dodohan').

The gist of it is that non-Koreans don't know about Korea, but through developing a "national brand" (their words, not mine), apparently blue-eyed white people will be impressed and shake the hands of square-jawed Korean men (but not women). The moment Korea can stop caring what the rest of the world thinks, out of confidence instead of insularity, will be the moment that it will be a truly "advanced nation", "global hub", "developed nation" or whatever the buzzword of the day is.


The Korean said...

Thanks for this post Adeel, and I agree with every word of it.

Adeel said...

Thanks for reading, and the compliment. It's an honour to have someone like you (스탠퍼드 출신) read my blog.

The Korean said...

Are you trying to get my goat here? I went to the other prestigious SF Bay Area school, not the Farm.

Adeel said...

Ah, my mistake. Not sure why I thought it was Stanford.