Contradictions? (Bored of Waiting)

The quote below is from a review in the Seoul Herald of Michael Breen’s book “Korea.” I include it because it points out a misinterpretation some outsiders have when approaching Korea. In fact a problem that any outsider might have approaching any culture he or she can’t understand from an inside perspective. Here’s the words:


Michael Breen illuminates through countless anecdotes and personal observations the weird and wonderful ways of Asia’s most paradoxical, polarized country. Few Koreans, let alone foreigners, have a better understanding than Breen of how a people can be alternately warm and ruthless, shrewd and childlike, tolerant and pigheaded.

I say contradiction, they say paradoxical and polarized (when referring to North and South Korea you also must say “divided”). We’re in the same ballpark here. But drop the specifics and what do your really have? You have paradoxical and polarized people who alternate between warm and ruthless, shrewd and childlike, and tolerant and pigheaded. In other words, normal people. And, pretty much, in defined arenas which I will discuss in a bit.

Why in the world is this considered “contradictory?” It shouldn’t be. Most of the specifics don’t fit. First, the “contradictions” are usually completely consonant with Korean cultural belief. Second, in case where there might be contraction, there is no more contradiction than in any other culture. We all might as well save our ire for our native cultures.

One weird thing is that Koreans seem to hear the message that they are contradictory and polarized without ignoring its simplicity and silliness. This is partly why Michael Breen is so popular.

But not much in the Korean model actually is contradictory. Everyone who writes on Korea recognizes that Korea is a nation built on the Five Confucian Relationships. Breen mentions this explicitly and then goes on to forget it entirely. When Breen wonders why Koreans can be so lovely in personal relationships but still kvetches that 20 years in Korea is not enough to make one understand/get used to being bumped on the subway? He’s forgetting his own previous argument.

Take a look at the Confucian Relationships:

Ruler to Subject
Husband to Wife
Parent to Child
Older Sibling to Younger Sibling
Friend to Friend

and tell me where there is anything indicating an anonymous public relationship should be anything but brutal and brief? In fact, Koreans are hewing rather directly to a moral code which implicitly excludes the public realm from importance. This isn’t contradiction, rather it is social system.

More than that? What this really is, is an outsider finding a contradiction between what he/she thinks a country should be like (perhaps based on some experience like personal friendliness from a Korean), or even worse something the outsider truly likes about a country which fits in with the outsiders’s natural prejudices (again, personal friendliness will work) and something that outsider disliked (e.g. bumping on the subway) about their experience of the country. Unwilling to fit these disparate facts into known social structures, the outsider prefers to call names.

In other words, the contradiction is in the observer, not in Koreans.

And to the extent contradictions do exist? There is the second issue of how different a perceived contradiction of this sort is from similar contradictions in other countries. By which I mean, hey, if contradictions do exist why does this suprise an observer? I think Walt Whitman was right when he asked the question,”Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself I am vast, I contain multitudes.” I think here, as I must, of the United States. The US is a poster-child for contradiction between belief and practice.

Hunter S. Thompson, many years ago, wrote an article (“Living in the time of Alger, Greeley, Debs” National Observer) in which he noted that the US preached the glories of rugged individualism while it was becoming increasingly difficult to live outside of the semi-benevolent umbrella of some kind of corporate sinecure.

Rugged individualists, after all, don’t have retirement benefits, dental insurance, or paid holidays.

Which is all only by way of noting that every country has its contradictions. And when I look at how tightly the Korean behaviors that “contradictionists” dislike are tied to Korean normative principles? I wonder how they are called contradictions.

We can continue to discuss where the normative principles came from and what they really mean (e.g. how much is imposed by the government, how much is innate, how much is based on social deformation caused by Japanese colonialism, US colonialism, whatever) but the normative principles are floating out there..