One of the nice things about having a blog is that you can just start throwing ideas out there, into the world, imperfect as they may be. So here's a few.
There's a man who works at my hagwon who I find pretty fascinating. He's a bus driver for one of the school's private shuttles. He is a stout guy, with a round face that is always beaming in a huge smile. We see each other almost everyday, albeit for very short periods of time. He lives in the same apartment complex as I and his jacked-up off road jeep is always parked out front, covered in mud from some weekend adventuring I can only imagine. We pass each other in the street often, saying hi and having a short conversation consisting of what little Korean I can speak. Usually it goes something like, "Have you eaten yet?" "No, I'm going to eat now." "Great." From time to time we eat dinner together in the cafeteria, the conversation there limited to how long I've been in Korea, where I'm from, and a little social dance in which we discuss his interests (off-roading) and mine (climbing) and that we both approve of each other's lifestyle. I can't overstate what a big smile this guy is.
What I find amazing about the situation is how little communication is required to form a relationship. From watching him and talking to him, I get a sense that he's a pretty simple guy, who takes a great amount of joy in his life. Watching him eat, you can see he loves his food. Talking to him about off-roading, you can see that it's very exciting for him. Whenever we discuss climbing, he gets a funny look on his face and tells me about how dangerous it is. Funny to me, because the idea of tooling around in that big yellow Jeep of his is far scarier for me than climbing. On these small chunks of each other's personality, we've developed a sort of shared benevolence toward one another. And I speak about 50 words of his language, and he even less of mine. Every time I see him though, my heart swells with affection. He's promised to take me off-roading, and I've invited him for a beer sometime, I hope this goes down. I'd be interested to see what would happen if our relationship progressed beyond pleasantries, and we got into some sort of difference of opinion. With the state of the world being what it is, and a holy war currently dominating the political spectrum, a big question that's on everyone's minds is "How can we get along?" It's not enough for us just to say, "Well, these people are fundamentalists, we can't get along with them, our values cannot possibly be in line." At this point, that's probably true, but in the interest of survival and breaking the constant cycle of empires, war, and power struggles, I think it's worth taking a look at how it's possible to relate to someone with a different outlook. Given, the difference between my Korean friend's outlook and my own is much smaller than the difference between my rather libertine views and your garden-variety religious fundamentalist. But, on the other hand, underneath the pleasantries, there is a constant sense that we are very different from one another. Being a "waygookin" or foreigner here has allowed me to see what it is to have someone not hate you, but assume that you have a different value set. There's a paradox in how Koreans see Westerners (generally). On the one hand, we are oversexed, warlike, and lacking in respect and tradition. On the other hand, our innovation, wealth, and pop culture (particularly the consumer-based sexiness of our media) is constantly emulated and aspired towards. Current Korean culture is a model for how two cultures might collide, and though it has its problems, Korean parents (the more traditional) still love their children (more "modern"). Interestingly enough, an adult student at our school, an older man and I were discussing the issue of seniority in Korean culture, and according to him, it's young people who are still holding on to this notion that with age comes not just wisdom, but unquestionable correctness. In Korea, in times past, in a group of people the eldest male in the group made decisions. It's still like that to a great degree, leading to obvious problems when the eldest male is not the most qualified. But Mark, the adult student, who is in his sixties, posited that older Korean men now see themselves as having the freedom to be young in mind and quite modern, and that it is the younger men who are keeping this tradition going. Makes sense, in a way, leaving responsibility to someone else is attractive, and keeping any objections you have to an elder's behaviour to yourself allows you to avoid actually engaging in argument, and discussion. This is why I would be interested to see what would happen if my Korean friend and I got to know each other better. Would we no longer be friendly? Would the gap between our values simply be too great? Or could we actively engage each other as people, and discuss what we think is right and why, and maybe both be changed for it? The likelihood of this particular relationship going in that direction is slim. My Korean is not going to massively improve in the next couple of months, and I doubt his English will either. The importance of this sort of engagement remains the same, however. Too often we shut our intellect down and draw lines in the sand when we fundamentally disagree with someone. I'm guilty of it, we all are. It's easy enough to say "He/She can go be with his people. And me with mine." But we're in the middle of a global clash of ideals, and I think it's in our best interests for the people on both sides to relax a little, and put their minds to work on how we can avoid the sort of polarization of cultures that led us here. People have often said to me, "How can you argue with a true-believer? It's impossible to argue against faith." I couldn't agree more, traditional argument and debate isn't likely to take place. But looking at where things are headed, we better figure out some sort of dialogue, because in this war, it doesn't look like either side can win.