Amazingly, not everyone on Earth is reading Curious George or Eric Carle to their kids—Koreans have their own set of classic children’s books, about which I naturally know nothing at all. But yesterday after two hours of tutoring my wife, A., came back home with a couple of hard slim volumes for our son, who alternately loves and despises works of fiction, much like his father—he devours them and slaps them as hard as he can, while I devour them and also devour myself, convinced I can never hope to reach such levels of mastery.
Most of the books for my son were at or above my level of Korean—a volume on different kinds of cars featured mispronounced English (dumpuh tuhluck) mixed in with mispronounced Chinese (주유차). Another was all about this frog who didn’t have a belly button. The frog wanders around looking for friends, to different animals, and even people, asking them where his belly button is, and each person or animal has a belly button, and so the frog gets pretty distraught, until eventually he finds a bunch of other frogs without belly buttons and they all become friends.
Now let’s put on our armchair anthropologist hat and use this book to extrapolate all the information we need to make sweeping generalizations about Korean society. Speaking as an American, which means that I believe American culture is neutral, even though it isn’t, I have encountered several Koreans over the course of my time here who claimed it was impossible for two people to be friends unless they happened to be the same age. Otherwise the relationship is skewed, and the older person sounds absurd if he speaks intimately to the younger, and the younger sounds disrespectful if he speaks intimately to the older. Language and culture prevent them from attaining intimacy.
At the same time the society here strikes the American as being fairly cliquish. Although there is some crossover, ajoshis and ajummas (old men and women, i.e., past the age of thirty) stick together if they stick with anyone at all, as do the suits, the drunks, the high school students, the college students, the grandparents (past sixty), even married couples. Only the strangest Korean race traitors hang out with foreigners, and then just white foreigners, not Southeast Asians; regardless of this fact, anyone who steps out of line and forsakes Korean waygookinphobia can expect to be glared at everywhere as a result; like the homeless, they become social outcasts. Koreans appear to believe that they can only make friends with people who are their own type.
Most Americans are pretty much the same, I think, but there is marginally more fluidity, and the ideal at least is to embrace differences—a children’s book in America written along the same premises as the frog book would have each animal complaining about some sort of flaw, and then they would all get together to help each other out and live happily ever after, or something (think the Wizard of Oz, one of many odd movies that never could have been made here, a country that appears to possess very little in the way of fantasy or science fiction (compare Korea with Japan!—my theory is that a culture won’t have science fiction without colonial guilt)).
Still, I don’t think there’s any harm in reading this book to my son, because he’s never going to fit in in this country anyway (one reason we, or at least I, plan to get the hell out, someday), and I suspect he’ll draw his own conclusions about how to deal with being a fairly new and fairly rare sort of person, and that most of his friends will either be open-minded or the product of two starkly different parents.