Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The nature of the beast

I believe that any important lesson we could possibly need to learn about life can be learned directly or through analogy by looking at nature. I love nature! If you asked me my religion and forced me to reply I'd say the most accurate answer would be that I'm a Pantheist. I believe nature provides all I need and all I want. I feel closest to God in nature. Nature is pretty much God.

I also believe that if you want to know the nature of the beast, observe the beast in its natural environment. Like most foreigners here, my spare time in Korea has been an extended sociological and anthropological study on the Korean. Whether or not we take notes, publish papers or write books, we are all gathering data on the Korean while we spend time with them in their natural environment, that being the streets and highways, classrooms, in front of computers and in the restaurant/bars.

It's rare to find a tourist in Korea so without too much generalization, foreigners in Korea are engaging in business with Koreans in some way. In almost every case we are shocked when our Korean business partners do something outside the boundaries of what would internationally be considered good honest business. Had we taken the time to observe them in the wild, (so to speak), there would be no shock short of finding a Korean business partner who believes good honest business exists.

Let me give you a few examples. I started playing Starcraft because it is by far the biggest thing to hit Korea since, I don't know, chopsticks. When I first got here it was an industry of its own. People were making entire internet cafes for ONLY Starcraft. It remains a very popular game here. A guy could make a good living playing Starcraft professionally. In fact the best players are asked for autographs and undoubtedly GET LAID!!! I had to see what all the fuss was about so I tried it. It IS fun. I was going through the levels and I got to the last one but tried maybe 10 times and failed to make it through. I asked a Korean friend to help. He said, "Oh that level is really easy. I'll show you." He hopped on my computer and started punching in cheat code after cheat code. "Power overwhelming", "There is no cow level", and I forget the others. I said, "No, no no. No cheat codes. I don't use them." The look he gave me was a wondrous anthropological study in itself. He could not conceive of doing that. He asked, "WHY?" Instead of saying something like I prefer to do things honestly or work for what I get or earn the victory, I simply asked him why he used cheat codes. I think I saw smoke come out his ears. It is just not DONE any other way. You MUST cheat! I eventually figured it out without his help or cheat codes. And it felt really good to win honestly.

The other day I was walking down the street and I saw another anthropological gem at a three-way stop light. There was a car going through a red light across the horizontal top part of the T intersection. There was also a motorcycle going through a red light going up the vertical part of the T and turning left onto the top horizontal. They met in the middle of the horizontal both wildly blowing their horns and cursing at each other. Let me clarify, both were breaking the law and inconveniencing another person and both were FURIOUS at the other for breaking the same law they were breaking because it inconvenienced them. Again I wished I had a movie camera.

Once I was working at a school and it was final exam time. The Korean teachers all got together and made the exam schedule without the foreign teachers input. Of course foreign teachers got every single one of the dreaded morning exam times and we also got the exams latest in the week. I had three subjects that all had exams Friday, (the last day of exam week), at 8:00 A.M. Of course there is no way for me to proctor three exams in three different rooms all at the same time. Conflicts were not a priority at the meeting. I could have easily switched times with another teacher because I noticed the conflict early in the week with enough time to adjust the schedule. However, the eventual solution was for me to combine all three of my classes into one giant room so as not to inconvenience any of the other, (Korean), professors who already had their schedules and didn't want to disrupt them.

These are not isolated incidents, they are daily occurences for myself and every other foreigner in Korea. It's not that I haven't gotten used to it, after all I've been here 9 years, it's just that I can't wrap my head around the idea of Korea's economy, more specifically international trade here, continuing to grow. It's either a tribute to the acting skills of Korean businessmen in the boardrooms, or a sad statement about every other country in the world that they aren't preferable to Koreans. Either way it's a wonder to me.

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