Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Korea Tip 114: Crazy May Have a Cause

Be careful what you call crazy.  When you enter a very different culture, some things will seem very strange - even senseless.  Korea is definitely not an exception in this category - at least not for Westerners.  I can't count the number of times I've said or heard someone else say, "That's just crazy."  Not to mention the thousand other variants.
However, one thing that dawned on me this week (once again) is that most of the unusual practices in Korea that seem crazy to me at first actually have a pretty good cause in reality.  Here are a few examples.
  • Brushing teeth after every meal.  I was shocked to meet several of the professors in my office building every day around 1:15 - brushing their teeth in the bathroom.  That seemed a little excessive to me.  That is until, I started eating in the faculty dining room.  The kimchi, onions, and garlic had me reaching for a toothbrush, too.  On occasion, I even stoop to an afternoon flossing to get those little bits of green stuff out of my teeth.
  • Last minute planning.  This is one that really drives most westerners crazy.  The plans change 3 times before the event, and then 5 more times during the event.  You can't figure out what classes you're actually teaching until the week before the classes start, and even that might not be the final say.  But, this one is kind of a vicious cycle.  It's hard to make and keep plans when everyone else is changing their plans because other people are changing their plans, too.  After reformatting the event 7 times, some people decide that the simplest thing to do is to wait until the last day - after it's almost impossible for any more notices of change to come in - and then work super hard to plan the whole event.  For Westerners, this seems terribly inefficient and stressful, but it actually kind of works in Korean culture - and may even work a little better, given the structural limitations.
  • Opening the windows in the winter.  So the heat's on full blast, and icicles are forming outside (or inside), and the windows are open - all of them.  This leaves lots of Westerners scratching their heads or angry.  Or, the first student to walk into the classroom and turns heat up to full blast.  Then, 20 minutes into class, it's crazy hot, and all the students have their coats on, so one of the students opens the window instead of turning down the heat.  Lots of cultural reasons here.  (A) The primary traditional heat sources (stoves or propane heaters) gave off noxious fumes, so fresh air was very important for health.  (B) Airing out a house is important in Confucian philosophy.  (C) With the class room scenario, the students may think the teacher turned on the heat.  Therefore, they don't have the authority to override the teacher's decision there.  However, they are sitting next to the window, so no problem with opening it to get a little more comfortable - especially considering A and B.  (D) Also, many Koreans will keep their coats on inside for lots of reasons.  Schools weren't traditionally heated well, so coats were necessary.  Taking it off just seems like too much trouble - or possibly an insult to the person who sets the classroom environment.  

I could go on and on and on and on.  The point is that there are usually good reasons for most of the things we don't understand.
What are some things you don't understand about Korea?
What are some things you have learned that have helped you understand Korea?

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