It’s come to the point where I can predict the answers to most of the questions I ask in my conversation classes. “What’s your favorite kind of music?” “Balla-duh.” “Who’s your favorite actor?” “Won Bin.” “Why do you like him?” “He is so sexy.” “What do you like doing?” “I like sleeping.” “What are your plans for this weekend?” “I’m going to a cafe to talk with my friends.” “What’s your favorite kind of coffee?” “I like Americano.” “Why?” “It is very delicious.” And on and on.
There are numerous exceptions, naturally. I spoke with one guy yesterday who spends two hours of every day pumping iron, and has been doing so since middle school. Another girl gives a lot of her free time to helping out at the local orphanage. One of my younger students spontaneously declared that Dokdo is not important—it took almost four years, but a Korean finally said this to me. Yet another complains that everyone on Korean TV looks the same because they all get plastic surgery.
There is uniqueness and individuality here, though it can take time to find, and the language barrier is difficult to surmount. How many of you, after all, can explain why you like your favorite movie in detail in Korean or any language besides English? I’m reading a bilingual edition of Animal Farm right now, and it takes me thirty minutes to get through a single page.
But the language barrier isn’t the only explanation: just by looking around Korea one sees that it’s a homogenous place. Even my old Chinese teacher complained that the Koreans all dress the same (and she came from a poor family in Guilin, not exactly the richest part of China!). The buildings are all the same. There is no variety. These are easy generalizations to make, and I don’t think they’re untrue; despite all the ridiculous paeans to Seoul, there is more beauty, uniqueness, quality, and even friendliness, on a single Manhattan sidewalk, than the entirety of that other megalopolis, and anyone who wastes two thousand dollars on a trip to Seoul expecting anything other than a city of apartment buildings and highways clogged with white Hyundais is going to want their money back.
And then there’s the plagiarism. I taught writing at my university for a year, and have to say that despite warning my students in English and Korean in every single class not to copy from the internet, despite spending hours illustrating how one can paraphrase rather than copy useful material, despite warning them that they would get Fs when I inevitably discovered that they had tried to pass off someone else’s work as their own, something like ten or twenty percent of them still turned in papers with whole paragraphs ripped straight from the internet. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Rumor has it that most of their professors and most of the leaders in this country worked their way to the top by plagiarizing the living shit out of every single last assignment they were ever given, from kindergarten straight to the end of grad school.
In Korea it’s not a big deal if you dress, act, and think, the same exact way, as everyone else. You must conform to the crowd, while in America you must conform by being unique. You cannot dress the same way as anyone else. You have to like bands that no one has ever heard of. You need to be able to discuss obscure foreign films. Some people will think you’re lame if you can’t spout off a twenty-minute tirade on the flaws in Derrida or Foucault (or if you use the word “lame”). And if someone else starts a conversation about something cool you’ve never heard of, you have to counter with something cooler that they’ve never heard of, or else you are stupid and worthless. The crazy thing about this culture is that there’s nothing better or worse about it than the Borg-like conformity in Korea. Conforming, or being unique, for the sake of conformity, or the sake of uniqueness, is equally brainless. Ideally we would all like what we naturally like without being pressured by the opinions of others.
This individuality thing is a bit of an illusion, regardless. I always come back to this, but Borges said something like, a coin flipped an infinite number of times will always give you the same result: humans think they are different from one another only because they don’t live forever.