Saturday, October 4, 2008
Thoughts on Japan - part 1
All right - so I didn't blog every day since the last one. Here I am now and since the rest of my photos from Japan have finally been loaded onto flickr (you can see them by clicking on the "my pictures" link near the top left of this page), the time has come to actually say something about our trip. I won't go into grand detail here as I spent a lot of time going into grand detail in each photo description in flickr. Still, I thought it would be a good idea to comment on a few things I noticed before, during and after my trip.
I guess the first thing to say would be that we almost considered not going. After planning bills, debts to be paid back home, our upcoming trip to Southeast Asia, and the cold reality of a few months without pay when I get back to Korea in the new year, the news about a little work-related decision made months earlier really started to hit home. Without going into specifics, a decision was made by the majority of the teachers in our branch to go another way with one of our work responsibilities. The result: apparent increased free time for those who wanted it, and a loss of over $1200 for me over a period of 4 months.
So, Japan for us was dangerously close on being set-aside. Of course, that would have simply pissed me off too much, so we made the choice to bite the bullet and just go.
Like many westerners, before coming to Korea, I didn't know a whole helluva lot about Korea other than from what I learned watching Oldboy, The Host, and M*A*S*H, not to mention the reports from people who had travelled here previously. Popular culture is something I participate in as much as the next person, in some ways even more so, but even through popular means, Korea does get over-looked as the "lesser East Asian country" for the most part. I suppose that's a result of general western ignorace as well as our lack of proper schooling on the "hermit kingdom". Whatever the cause, I thought I knew a lot more about Japan and China before coming here, even if what I knew about them was really very little.
In a year of teaching and living in Korea, having ventured outside of Seoul for weekends with friends - both foreigners and Koreans, I feel that I've gotten to know at least a piece of the country that I've called home for the last 13 months, but clearly I am still a child when it comes to the actual amount that I really do know about Korea. Work keeps me busy most of the time and that's the reality of working in a country that values dedication to and time spent at work. You work here, you're not really travelling here.
Which brings me to the first real point I wanted to make about my trip to Japan. Living in Korea, it's a common knowledge among most foreign teachers (apparently) that Japan is just "better". Better food, you ask? Better jobs? Better popular music? Well, know - it's just a "better" country according to some.
Being a guy who likes to count myself among the less judgemental of foreigners (I can only judge by what I see around me), I think that the best word to describe my reaction to this general sentiment is "surprise". And yet, I'm not sure why I should be surprised. Though there have been a lot of great foreigners here that I've met, befriended and come to respect, there have been other people, foreign and Korean, who have given more intense and concrete meaning to the term "Judgemental". Social circles sometimes ebb and flow around summer camp / junior high school mentailities of labeling and excluding, "higher minded" individuals cast aspersions on people they don't understand, and others reveal personal beliefs that, if expressed loud enough, might have gotten them a VP nomination for the GOP. In my time here in Korea, I never thought I would have to hear a person express the following: "I know people who used to be homosexuals", only after expressing that he also knows "saved" people who "used to be muslims". But I digress.
Point is, there's a lotta judgement being thrown around. I would like to think that my experience here isn't the norm in this regard, but I'm sure that's not the case. The Korean English language newspapers here are often full of op-ed columns from foreigners mocking Koreans for the ways in which they protest political issues or react to political shifts. For some, Koreans being protective and to some extent reactionary over the cattle trade with the US, or the recent and continuing furor over disputed islets in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) can easily be laughed-off by some as the actions of a hysterical people.
As a Canadian who cannot really read Korean and hasn't been able to participate in the society here at a level that has given me any kind of true understanding, I'm not quite so comfortable in laying out the condemnation for something I don't understand.
Which brings me back to Japan. I know people who have worked in both Japan and Korea as teachers. Some prefer their experiences here in Korea, while others had a better time teaching in Japan. That's all good. What I see as being less good however is the assertion from some that "Japan is better."
Maybe it's the Canadian in me. I know what it's like being the neighbor of a bolder nation. I know the parallels perhaps end there, but there's something to be said for giving a chance to understanding nations that often get overlooked for nations that are maybe more demanding of the world's attention.
What we can't really understand after working here for one or two years is the fact that Korea is new - modern Korea, redundancy be damned, just is newer than most places in the world. It's discovering itself at a faster rate than most developed countries and that comes with a price - one of which being the fact Koreans battle with tradition and modernization more than other countries might. When your grandmother remembers the effects of the Korean War on her undeveloped country, and now has to sit through Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) ancestral rites while her grandchildren twitch in boredom - longing to head to the PC room to play Starcraft, you know that there is perhaps too much happening - too soon.
But that's what's going on. There's too much to say for me to even begin. So I'll leave my comments for a time when I know what the hell I'm talking about. For now, I'll be contented in relating my feelings on this small and perhaps inconsequential reality: it really bugs me when people say that they think Japan is better than Korea. The main reason is this: most people who say that have only ever been there for a 10 day vacation. You know what? working in a country is a hell of a lot different from cruising around on bullet trains, eating new food, and taking pictures of cool shit. Secondly, even if you have worked there, do you really feel that your limited experience of the country: hanging in ramen shops, clubbing in Rapponggi, and being in a bubble of mostly foreigners, actually qualifies that statement?
To be fair, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I'm sure that some people just dig on one country more than another. For me though, I'm content in knowing that my vacation to Japan was wonderful. After living a year in Korea, a country that had been colonized and treated unfairly and often unforgivably cruelly by the Japanese, I am happy to report that as nice a time as I did have in the land of the rising sun, I will not be telling my fellow (just as ignorant) foreigner friends that one country is better than the other. Really, I'm just not qualified enough on the subject.