A Word On Cultural Difference

I promised ages ago that I would write about this. The thing is that cultural differences aren’t usually an easy thing to discuss. And the ones that matter aren’t the loud, in your face things that annoy you, or the other things that you really enjoy. The ones that are likely to get you into trouble are the little things.

So… a while back this post, (and variations of it) was floating around the expat community. It illustrates the differences between Germany and China, as illustrated by a Chinese artist who lived (or still lives) in Germany. I’m aware that these aren’t all true of Korea, or of all Western backgrounds, but some of them are useful to bear in mind.

So, let’s start with the amusing ones:

Attitudes to how tanned one is, and which is regarded as more beautiful.
Attitudes to how tanned one is, and which is regarded as more beautiful.

One of my co-workers is a Chinese native teacher. She has told me, on several occasions, that she loves when I wear green, because “It makes you look more white!” This… this is not a comment I’ve ever received in a positive way. In her mind, there is no conceivable way that I could be ‘too white’. I shrug, and say thank you. This doesn’t bother me.

Attitudes to new, trendy objects
Attitudes to new, trendy objects

I’m not sure how true this is everywhere, but where I’m from, a trend is often seen as something one should perhaps not buy into. They may not last, and buying into it can be seen as tacky. If the North Face jacket thing had started back home, it wouldn’t have lasted. I can just imagine:

“I can’t believe you bought into that North Face jacket trend.”

Here… they are everywhere.The kids have told me about them, when I expressed my confusion. I thought it was a big deal being made out of nothing. Not so. It is a big deal.

There are some that were rumoured to exist, but that I’ve found to be 50/50. For example.

Expressing opinions/ making suggestions

This is what we’re told: Western cultures hold to the idea of time being money, and thus problems are expressed directly. The Korean culture prefers winding your way around an issue, until you reach a point.

Sometimes, I’ve found this to be true, and sometimes not. This, I find, depends on the person in question. I’ve known some Koreans who are very direct with their opinions, and some Westerners who will weave their way around the point in a maddening fashion, until I’m ready to explode.

And then there are some that are… true. Very true. And very serious.

The boss's position.
The boss’s position.

I have found this to be all kinds of true. Infuriatingly so. Your head teachers, your vice-principal, your principal… you need to be aware of who has what position, and treat everyone with the correct amount of relative respect. This doesn’t bother me.

The part that bothers me, and that I didn’t realise I was having a problem with, is the fact that, when one has done something that is perceived as incorrect, one does not stand up for oneself or defend oneself.

I didn’t realise this, until I was discussing one of my co-teachers with my mom. (This teacher had, at one point, when a collection of things all collided one evening, reduced me to tears (at home, later).) My mom asked whether things had been sorted out, and I explained that I had become masterful at placating this teacher. My mom said that she would have done the same, but that the people at her job had not started to respect her until she stood up for herself.

(To be clear, my mother is about the least confrontational person in the world.)

“Oh… oh no no no.” I said, “This is not a culture where that happens. You don’t stand up for yourself. You don’t complain. You do what you’re told, and what you’re meant to. If they’re higher up the hierarchy than you, they’re right.”

Now… that is a bit of an exaggeration. This isn’t exactly as hard and fast as that. You can actually get around this kind of issue, but you have to be careful about how you do it. And for me, that’s been a bit tough.

I think my first job kind of ruined me for this. As did my second job. As did living in South Africa. As a country, we know that being quiet and hoping things will change will get nothing done. Doing the right thing will not get you noticed. So we don’t do that. We defend ourselves, and stand up for our rights. This action, no matter where you are in the hierarchy, will get you noticed, and your case will (at least in theory) be weighed on its merits.

But in Korea, a lot of weight is given to handling things in the proper channels. Going over someone’s head – your co-teacher’s, your head teacher’s – with a complaint (legitimate or otherwise) is as often as not a way to get all hell brought down on your head. Following the right channels, however, is more likely to get things sorted out.

Now… I don’t want to complain about this. I don’t think either side is right. I certainly wish people would pay more attention to using the proper channels to complain about things. Leaping over the head of the person in charge is annoying, and causes unnecessary problems, even if it does take more time. But I still feel the need, sometimes, to defend myself. I seldom need to do this, but I am nervous about it coming up.

At neither of my previous jobs did I fear being called in. This is because the attitude to problems is like this:

Germany China Problems

It is direct. Had something been wrong, my boss or my head of department would deal with it immediately, and directly. There was no talking around the problem.

One of the most striking differences I realised recently was that I came from what is referred to as a ‘guilt based’ culture, whereas Korea is a ‘shame based’ culture. This is, in essence, based on both one’s own guilt of wrongdoing, and the view of others as to whether you are guilty or not.

I have attempted to explain this, but it’s beyond my skills. And it would also make this blog post a great deal longer. Instead, I found this, which is probably the clearest explanation of the situation. Also, it has diagrams.

The difficult thing with these kind of cultural differences is that to each side, their way of doing things seems right. For example, the fact that foreign teachers are quick to whip out their contracts, and point out “that’s not in the contract” may be confusing for Korean co-teachers. My head teacher found this quite odd a little while back. She asked myself and two other foreign teachers to sign contracts regarding test making. While we all signed, and we found no reason not to, but the fact that we expressed discomfort over it was a bit strange to her. One of the reasons we gave her was that we are bound by these contracts, to follow their terms, and if anything goes wrong, being fired is not just being fired. It could be having your visa revoked. It could be having to go home.

What I said at the time, jokingly, was that my lawyer father would have been furious had he found out that I signed something without being fully aware of it’s contents.

I guess if you want to end this with a moral, or a lesson, then this is it:
Culture shock is going to happen. You are going to find yourself in some interesting situations. Some of these changes are easy to understand (like the different view of beauty), or they are things you get used to (like not tipping). Or they are things that you never get used to, but you deal with them anyway (like spitting on the pavements). Some things you may even feel are definite improvement on the way things work at home (High speed internet and use of technology! To mention just one…).

But there are things that are difficult to get used to, because you might not realise the difference, or your own culture will stand in the way. It’s not that these are a problem of logic, or a problem of difference. It’s that these are problems that are firmly rooted in your way of viewing the world, and the basis of that world view. I studied this in greater depth when I studied philosophy, but this isn’t the time or the place to be discussing Heidegger in relation to my experiences in Korea)

And perhaps a superficial understanding of the situation – that things are the way they are – is enough for you. And if it is, I’m jealous. I really wish I could simply accept this kind of thing, but it doesn’t help me. I find that it helps to understand that this is where it’s coming from.

What it comes down to is that the difference is… it’s just different. It’s not bad. It’s not wrong. But it is just very, very different.

(My apologies that this is so long. Dealing with it in a shorter manner would have been more difficult though, and wouldn’t have done the topic justice. This doesn’t do the topic justice.

But, as I know this is a touchy issue, I welcome anyone who wants to disagree with me, clarify any of the issues, or discuss any of the issues further.)


One thought on “A Word On Cultural Difference

  1. This was a very interesting post to read. Personally, I can’t believe that in America so many parents drive their kids to school (high school).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s