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Don’t Believe What Any One Person Tells You about a Culture

January 22, 2009

Including me.

A major fallacy that I see a lot of expats fall into is that they are advised by one Korean about some aspect of Korean culture, and then accept it as gospel. This is even more likely to happen if the Korean is very good with English and/or has spent time living in a Western country.

There are two main reasons why this is a bad idea:

  1. Not all members of a given culture agree, even about aspects of culture. I think this speaks for itself. The smallest unit of cultural transmission is the family. Anyone outside your family has a slightly (or maybe not so slightly) different culture, because no two families do everything the same way. Start adding in the variation of class, ethnicity, region, and you can see that differences can become great, even though you and I might both be from the same city.
  2. Being a member of a culture does not make one an expert on that culture. To demonstrate, how many Asian Americans can describe the “Model Minority Myth”? It is a well known Asian American studies concept. Let’s get a little less specialized: How many people can tell me how they came to develop their own cultural identity? Now I’m not saying that if one doesn’t have a degree in sociology, cultural studies, or anthropology that one has nothing useful to say on the subject of culture. If I wanted to know something about Korean culture, it is easier for me to find Koreans than non-Korean cultural experts to ask. But I’d ask a Korean a little differently (explained below).

So my premise begs the question: Then how do you come to all your conclusions about culture and cultural differences?

The answer is that I use a time-honored method of inquiry: the poll. I ask a dozen people the same question. More than that, I tell people about other people’s answers to the same question, to get their reaction. You can learn tons this way. “Hey, yesterday a Korean guy told me that all Koreans, [insert statement here]. What do you think about that?” Then you get to see a variety of opinions, and from there, you can see wherein lie the commonalities and the differences in them. Sometimes there is a common thread that runs through them all. Sometimes there is a strict polarization: people think A, or B, but never in-between.

The reason I’ve added this post is because I’ve met foreigners in Korea who are desperately searching for meaning in a culture they don’t understand well. It is very difficult to be comfortable in an environment where little makes sense, and motives can’t be intuited easily. A Korean who provides a foreigner with insight is a good thing, but the problem is that sometimes foreigners latch on to the first piece of “insight” they get (as it brings order to a part of the chaos in their cultural environment), when it might be incomplete, taken out of context, or just plain incorrect. I had the damndest time convincing a friend of mine that just because you’re the oldest, you can’t burp or fart whenever you want, because some Korean told him that the oldest guy in the room can do whatever he wants and doesn’t have to be polite. That Korean wasn’t talking about a 34-year-old foreign English teacher, though. He was talking about a 70-year-old Korean man. And what he also didn’t say is that those social structures are changing, and that Korean people may not say anything to the 70-year-old man farting audibly in public, but they sure as hell don’t like it and wish he wasn’t so crass.

So if you learn something interesting about Korean culture, bounce it off a couple others and see what they say. Not just to confirm the truth of it, but because you can often learn a little more than you would have otherwise.

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