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What Refraining from Judgement Does and Doesn’t Do for Me

January 24, 2009

I (often) see how Korean culture influences the behavior of the individuals I encounter in my everyday life in Korea. This helps me refrain from making judgements about things, which in turn seriously cuts down on frustration, but it doesn’t always mean that I don’t have typically American reactions. Let’s look at some examples of where it helps, and how much.

I had a job once where all the teachers ate dinner together in the teachers lounge. One foreign teacher couldn’t handle the sounds of their eating: he would leave when they all got going. Thinking abstractly, a sound has no meaning until it is placed in a context. In an American context, it rude or thoughtless. In a Korean context it is not (although I do know a couple of Koreans that don’t like to hear lipsmacking and chewing either). I’m American, and I recognized that I’m socialized to find it offensive, but I’m not in my culture, so I just decided that it wouldn’t bother me. That wasn’t an instantaneous transformation, of course, but over time, it was fine. A Buddhist monk once said something to the effect of “If you were deaf, and the first sound you ever heard was someone chewing, it would be the most beautiful sound in the world. So appreciate your hearing when you hear things that irritate you.” That helped me. Now its just another difference between my culture and theirs that I have little concern about. So that’s one place my background helped me a lot. Next is a story about where it helps me a little, and I’ll follow that with an example of where it doesn’t help me much.

From my American perspective, Koreans lack situational awareness of their bodies in relation to the people around them. This is why a Korean will stop in an aisle to look at something, and turn their shopping cart sideways, thereby blocking the entire aisle (between their body and the cart), not noticing until I walk up and stand there looking at them (and sometimes not even then). Or a Korean will stop in a doorway to rummage through her/his bag, forcing those following her/him to stop or push past. I don’t place a value on this. I don’t say “It’s bad.” I refrain from judging, as it’s just different. Different cultures prioritize their values differently (for example, most any Korean will tell you that loyalty is more highly valued in Korean culture than honesty). The reason I say my background only helps me a little, however, is because I amAmerican, and I still have American reactions: I get irritated. I thnk “Can’t you see there are other people who want to get by?” So in the moment it happens, I don’t emotionally refrain from judgement; it comes instantaneously, but in the 15 seconds that follow the initial reaction, I think “This is Korea. This is just how it is. He isn’t being thoughtless, because he is not forgetting to do something his culture has sociallized him to do.” That helps me feel better. I actually use the same thought process in America when I get cut off on the highway by someone speeding by me: I think “What an ass!” and then fifteen seconds later, I think “Well, who knows. Maybe he’s rushing an injured child to a hospital. I don’t like being cut off, but who am I to judge?”

Now let me tell you about a situation where I recognize I cannot suspend judgement from my culture’s perspective: It is not an uncommon practice, especially among older Koreans, to play with their baby grandson’s penis. Their “little gochu.” They’ll diddle around with it until it becomes erect (it can and does, even in toddlers or younger), and then giggle and say “Isn’t that so cute!” My culture socializes me to judge this as unacceptable. I recognize this, but choose to judge it as unacceptable anyway. I have no motivation to desensitize myself to this behavior. I think Koreans should stop doing it, and I’m seeing that they largely have in younger generations.

When to make judgements and when to refrain from them is really up to you. I think it is better to make judgements consciously, though, not unconsiciously.  Consciously choosing not to make a judgement is a form of acceptance and tolerance, and the more you can accept the world around you, the less culture shock you’ll experience and the happier you’ll be.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Gomushin Girl permalink
    February 4, 2009 12:41 pm

    But why is it that you can (or chose to) adapt in one instance but not the other? What is the objective criteria by which you decide? It’s all well and good to decide you’re uncomfortable with a cultural phenomenon, but what does your discomfort do? What are the implications for deciding something is “unacceptable”? Do you publicly confront people over this issue? As noted, it’s not a common behavior anymore, but is there some particular reason you can articulate which lead to this decision? It seems a bit arbitrary, and I’m sure that’s not the point you were trying to make.

    • February 4, 2009 1:20 pm

      Great questions!

      Why do I choose to adapt in one instance but not the other. Congratulations…this is the first question I’ve received that has made me think really hard since I started the blog. I choose not to adapt in some situations because to me, the price of adaptation (retraining my responses, changing my values) would alter me in ways that I’m not ready or interested in being altered. You might say that some perceptions are “negotiables,” but others would alter the fundamental concept of who I am (my self-concept, or my identity as I see it). So what is my objective criterion? There is none; the criterion is entirely subjective. And yes, it is arbitrary too (arbitrary defined as based on or subject to individual discretion or preference or sometimes impulse or caprice, and in this case, usually not impulse or caprice).

      I generally don’t confront people, as I recognize that I’m in their culture and they can’t be expected to somehow intuit my perceptions and expectations. Occasionally if someone does something I think is egregious I will confront them, mostly to try and make an impact that will result in them altering their future behavior toward other foreigners (i.e. if someone hits me with a shopping cart, hard, I’ll let them know that it is unacceptable, and hopefully they won’t go around hitting other foreigners.)

  2. Gomushin Girl permalink
    February 6, 2009 12:29 pm

    I was especially curious because although I’d been aware of the genital-fondling bit for a while, I saw it for the first time ever this past new year. My big surprise was how nonplussed I turned out to be, and how utterly dull the act seemed in real life.
    Thanks for the very thoughtful response!

  3. February 6, 2009 12:42 pm

    You’re welcome. Check your email, I sent you one.

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