A Different Kind of Culture Shock

The Busan Skyline from Haeundae Beach

The Busan Skyline from Haeundae Beach

I’m sitting in Busan yet I could be in New York: that’s the dilemma. Whatever Western Culture is, however we define it, it has come here, and the process of wiping away the autochthonous culture—if such things can exist (I’ll cover my tracks by using the term loosely)—is already well underway. The largest difference between South Korea and New York City is linguistic, and if the government continues to focus so intently on Englishifying the country (through importing so-called teachers like me) even that difference, within a matter of decades at most, will disappear. The world is far from homogenized, like the milk I use to make my instant coffee more palatable, but it doesn’t seem to me as if anyone here is questioning that homogenization. Must a culture imitate and then duplicate the West if it’s to be prosperous? Must all differences be washed and scraped and etched away in favor of skyscrapers, factories, hamburgers, electricity, business suits, credit cards, handshakes, and the English language?

If the goal of this autonomous idea, this living breathing notion made of countless people and places and things, is ever realized—if the West ever truly conquers the entire world, and reduces the last archipelagos of individuality to miniature Manhattans—the inhabitants of that future world may find themselves not only disappointed with their inability to go anywhere to see anything new or different, but also with the plain fact of this process’s irreversibility.

Though I can’t prove it, I suspect that you can destroy culture in an instant, in the flash of a well-aimed nuclear explosive, but to create a culture, to build a rich and unique identity, a literature, a language, a custom, a tradition of painting and sculpture and architecture, a mythology, a history, a politeness—isn’t that somewhat miraculous? Isn’t that somewhat impossible for human beings to consciously do?—to create a culture that’s believed in, that’s taken seriously—doesn’t that only come about as the result of centuries of outside forces acting upon human beings?

I’ve made esoteric assumption after abstract assumption here, and masked these assumptions by posing them as questions—all are meant merely to provoke thought. Hopefully it hasn’t been too boring.

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One thought on “A Different Kind of Culture Shock

  1. Luna says:

    I don’t know if we’ve given this Westernization thing enough time to accurately postulate whether it’s going to grind out all other cultures or not. I think, in fact, that it’s equally likely that the Western way of doing things will collapse under its own weight.

    But I also think that we do create culture. Every family has its own culture, its own stance towards a greater culture of which it is a part, its own community within the larger community, its own sense of who is and is not a member, its own idiosyncrasies and language and history and art. I even think that we can intensify the uniqueness of a small-scale culture and pull it further and further back from the larger culture from which it sprang.

    But I’d also give Busan more time to show you how it’s different. Hamburgers, skyscrapers, business suits and handshakes aren’t the totality of a culture; and of all of East Asia, it seems that Korea has the most reason and potential to have been Westernized. The aftermath of the Korean war put the United States and Korea in a uniquely cooperative position. But Japan and China, despite their skyscrapers and business suits, have certainly not become European or American. Maybe the uniqueness of Korean character will present itself as you get to know the place better.

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