Sunday, March 06, 2011

Why Korea is a sort of cleaner Pakistan

Someone once told me that Korea is a lot like Pakistan. On the surface, it's not clear why a wealthy democracy with a mix of Confucian, Buddhist and Christian thought is in any similar to a feudal Islamic basket case that's a perennial contender to blow up half the world with its nukes. So, allow me to share this anecdote with a taxi driver, a la Thomas Friedman:

Adeel: Wangsimni station, please.
Driver: Wangsimni station? I was just there.
Adeel: Oh really? That's weird.
Driver: So where at Wangsimni station? The intersection, the stores or the subway station?
Adeel: Uh...
Driver: Just the intersection?
Adeel: Yeah, sure.
Driver: Do you live there?
Adeel: No, I live here.
Driver: Then why are you going there?
Adeel: I'm going to get on line 5 there.
Driver: Ah, so where are you going in the end?
Adeel: Yeouido, Yeouinaru station.
Driver: Do you live there?
Adeel: No, I live here.
Driver: So why're you going there?
Adeel: I have a race.
Driver: You're running a race?! Where are you from?!
Adeel: I'm from Canada, but--
Driver: You're a professional? You came from Canada to run this race? Are you going to be on TV?

Maybe it's just me, but it's often the case that older Koreans will make your business their business, whereas Canadians often seem to go out of their way to keep your business yours and yours only. I've had taxi drivers analyze my finances for me based on my salary, the rent I pay and how often I cook (don't ask me why I answered those questions).

A woman once yelled at me from about 50 metres at Haeinsa temple in Gyeongsang-do to leave my bag behind considering the hike I was in for. Older men have, on several occasions, offered a free-of-charge appraisal of my clothing and equipment with respect to the weather and trail conditions before a hike.

Pakistanis, of course, are similar. When I came to Korea for the first time, the man operating the metal detector was a Pakistani. He deduced that I was a Pakistani-born Muslim from my passport and used the opportunity to learn where I was going, why I was going there, and to offer his approval. At my first part-time job in a mall, I was stocking cans of Coke when an old man stopped to inquire about my ethnicity and, upon learning that I was Pakistani, proceeded to narrow that down to a specific city for his own edification.

There are, of course, other signs. There's the culture dominated by the whims of older males. There's the way of informally dealing with people that considers rules, regulations and procedures to be incidental at times, with the potential to be either exhilarating or disastrous. There are the laws that get ignored.

There's the narcissism of relatively minor accomplishments: I grew up proud that many soccer balls were made in Pakistan, Koreans will tell you about the way they preserve wooden blocks at a temple. This, likely, is the result of living next to a giant neighbour that's far more famous, two giant neighbours in the case of Korea.

Less critically, there's the spicy food that's similar but not identical to that of its neighbours. There's a national myth-making machine with heroes known only to those on the inside. There's the feeling of immense pride every time someone on the outside takes notice of an export like Park Ji-sung or Imran Khan.

There's the vast diaspora living overseas, the near-constant state of war for the last six decades, a long stretch of military rule by sometimes-benign general-slash-dictators. There's a royal dynasty deposed by a colonial power, a peculiar style of dress and the burgeoning popularity of cultural exports (okay, Pakistan's going to piggyback on Bollywood here) overseas, along with the immense pride at seeing a white person eat "our" food.

While I was born in Pakistan and while I live in Korea, I don't think many people would consider me to be fully a part of either culture. The annoyances of nosy strangers, cultural foibles and other peculiarities that can seem burdensome to those who can't just laugh off the advice of an older man still retain charm and novelty to me, no matter how much I act like it's normal.

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