-- "The Korean society's highly touted strong communitarian spirit, on the other hand, has eventually bred very harmful social diseases. The widespread sticky group mentality based on connections through blood, hometown, school, and many other attributes has mass-produced circles and clubs, parties and factions, and groups and organizations in Korea, which all ardently pursue the interests of their members at the expense of non-members. The results are favoritism, nepotism, cronyism, and regionalism, which Koreans themselves call the incurable Korean diseases. " --
The English word 'brother' means a male sibling. But people
from Korea may find it unsettling that when someone says
'He is my brother,' it's not always clear whether the speaker means an older or a younger brother. Whereas the Korean language has specific words for an older and a younger brother separately, English has no such words. The same is true
More unsettling (to Korean people) is an expression like 'sister-in-law.'
A sister-in-law can mean the wife of your older
or younger brother, whether you are a male or female. It can also mean your spouse's older or younger sister, again whether you are a male or female. But the Korean language recognizes 'sister-in-law' with as many as six different names depending on the speaker's gender and the relative's ages of the persons involved (i.e., Hyung-soo, Jeh-soo, Cho-hyung, Cho-jeh, Shee-nou, and Olkeh). Now, some may start branding American people ignorant of their own kinship.
Since Koreans are accustomed to their gender- and age-specific familial
titles, they understandably feel uncomfortable with those under-specified
English counterparts. Nonetheless, such lingual difference can be
attributed to the stark contrast
between the two cultures - the leveled, individual-centered American culture versus the family-based, community-oriented Korean culture.
America, with some indelible exclamation points in its history accentuating the issue at hand, is generally perceived as a leveled society where you recognize other people equally, whether they are your family members, relatives, or complete strangers. On the contrary, the long tradition of Confucianism-based family ties in Korea has produced a system where you recognize other people differently and discriminately depending on whether you have a relationship with them and how close that relationship is. A blunt and extreme example displaying this contrast is found in the fact that Korea stipulates a more severe mandatory punishment for patricide than other homicide - an idea the American system would not entertain.
Again, some may start branding American people as self-centered egoists
who don't fully appreciate the value of family relationships. This
line of 'attack' on the American system tends to further argue that it
is such extreme and blind individualism that makes America, for better
or worse, number one in single parents, teen mothers, alcoholics,
druggies, murderers, rapists, and psychopaths. So, the old guards
of the traditional Korean values may proudly praise their strong ethical
they believe has shielded their country from such 'social ills.'
The traditionalists are probably right about this claim. Indeed, Koreans have long cherished their Confucian ethical standards known as 'Sam-Gang-Oh-Ryoon,' which has been the source of authority for their age-old ethical virtues, such as strong family ties, filial piety, and trust between friends.
However, a closer look at Korea's traditional ethical standards reveals that they are largely confined to some close relationships you maintain in your life, namely, your relationships with your spouse, parents, children, and friends. Although the traditional virtues originally included the respect for kings and elders, this concept has gradually faded over time. Thus, the traditional Korean ethics is basically ethics for your relationships with those who are near and dear to you.
The fact that the old Korean ethics is largely family ethics and does not go beyond those narrowly defined boundaries is problematic. Of course, it is important and good for you to maintain healthy relationships with the people close to you. But what about other people? The traditional Korean ethics is silent about how you should recognize, treat, and respect John Doe or Jane Doe. This apparent ethical lapse has in fact planted an ill-advised notion in the mind of Korean people - the notion that those people you have no relationship with are 'nobody.' They are the people you can ignore, disregard, snub, renege, or beat up. Ouch!
Hence, argues this writer. Perhaps, the Korean society now needs to expand its ethical boundaries. We should realize that in this day and age of globalization and communication one's life touches, and is touched by, great many people - far more than in the old days of family-based farming society. More than ever people interact, physically and electronically, with strangers and the general public. More than ever societies need to promote sound ethical rules and guidelines that govern all of their constituencies in order to maintain civil order and social harmony.
Although many Korean traditionalists may recognize a typical American as a self-centered egoist, it is probably safe to say that a typical American is much more altruistic and philanthropic than a typical Korean. In general, Americans are more generous in charity giving, more active and participatory in volunteerism, and more open to family adoption than Koreans are. Their love and care do not discriminate people by the closeness of relationships. This is the spirit generally seen through their Christian tradition and specifically found in the Good Samaritan who would go so far to give the best care to a complete stranger
The Korean society's highly touted strong communitarian spirit, on the other hand, has eventually bred very harmful social diseases. The widespread sticky group mentality based on connections through blood, hometown, school, and many other attributes has mass-produced circles and clubs, parties and factions, and groups and organizations in Korea, which all ardently pursue the interests of their members at the expense of non-members. The results are favoritism, nepotism, cronyism, and regionalism, which Koreans themselves call the incurable Korean diseases.
One may find it very surprising that South Korea, a country even smaller
than the size of the State of Illinois, still harbors so distinctively
different regional dialects. More startling is that this small country
known by its racial and cultural homogeneity is plagued by persistent regional
prejudices, stereotypes, and discrimination. This is due to the strong
mistrust among Korean people that stems from collective rent-seeking behavior
based on social ties. Such collective rent-seeking behavior tends
to make people callous to social justice, and in fact, has been the bedrock
of the rampant corruption in almost every aspect of
the Korean society.
It is rather enlightening to realize that "Kwen-chan-ah," the Korean phrase equivalent to "That's okay," "No harm done," or "That's not a problem" actually means "There's no relationship between . ," "I have no relationship with . ," or "It has nothing to do with ." This implies that by the Korean ethical standards your behaviorism concerning the people outside of your 'relationships' is not a matter of ethical concern. It's okay (or 'Kwen-chan-ah') whatever you do to them because they are 'nobody' to you. You are called on to take good care of your family members, relatives, friends, schoolmates, and even hometowners. But once you step out of your inner circles, you have practically no ethical norms to follow. What a dangerous idea!
Let's make no mistake. It would be ill advised to try to determine which is inherently better between America's individualism and Korea's collectivism. As each culture has its own good and bad, we know no cultures are inherently better than other cultures. Just as the Korean society has its wrongs to correct, America has its own deficiencies that need to be rectified.
Nevertheless, it is embarrassing, shameful, and sad to note that Korea
is far trailing America in terms of the ever-important civil ethics and
social discipline. Embarrassing because Korea, which was once self-proclaimed
as 'the civil country of the East,' is trailing America, which was often
ridiculed as 'the unruly country of the West.' Shameful because Korea
trails even though it has long been educating its citizens ethics and morality
in schools. Sad because Korea's ethical lapse in civil and social
discipline is taking a heavy toll. After all, it may be convenient
to have a separate word to mean your older brother's wife.
But that a person is given no specific name, title, or word doesn't mean that you can ill-treat that person.