Written by Cornelius Cornelssen ETA’09-12
I had the perfect photo in mind for the next edition of my annual holiday card and I knew my host brother, Jin, was just the man — or kid — for the job. For one thing, he has a Sony 14.2-megapixel digital SLR camera, a piece of equipment far too nice for someone his age. Perhaps more importantly, however, Jin is a clever character, the kind that can appreciate the need for discretion. One can’t be too careful when international clandestine correspondence (read: holiday cards sent to other countries) weighs in the balance.
I suppose you could make a strong case that my holiday card is a personal tradition and, as much as I hate to admit it, you would be right. While tradition is honored in the minds of most, it’s a bit lower in my own lexicon. I have no problem with traditions that remind us of shared values or reconnect us with a common culture. Tradition offers the comfort of a collective beyond the self. It provides the promise of predictability. It returns the order of routine to our ever-more-multitasked lives. But tradition also insulates us from new ideas. It binds us to antiquated notions of acceptability; it prescribes limited possibilities and potential. When tradition becomes more exclusive than inclusive, I respectfully (or sometimes, disrespectfully) step off the bandwagon. Korea is steeped in tradition of both the implicit and explicit variety. Koreans are proud of their past — as they should be. Staging a remarkable recovery after the Korean War, the country is perhaps the best illustration of capitalism and globalization the world has ever seen. Maybe that’s why I find some Korean habits so curious.
One of the first lessons I learned about Korean culture was the practice of removing my shoes upon entering a room. It doesn’t take long to recognize the benefits of removing footwear before walking through living quarters. In fact, when I think about some of the places my shoes travel in a day, I may very well extend this tradition to my State-side return. Enforcing this tradition at school, however, is a policy decision which I have no qualms firmly condemning as silly. Students run through the halls in soccer sandals they must carry every day to school. When they arrive at the front doors in the morning — rain or shine — they are forced to perform a balancing act of sorts as they switch between sneakers and sandals. If either the school or the sandals were clean, this would make sense.
But that’s simply not the case. As far as I can tell, there is no maintenance personnel employed at my school. In their stead, boys run around after sixth period with mops and brooms and — as one would expect — perform an extremely uninspired cleaning effort. Judging by appearance, the mops pre-date the boys by at least a decade. Students drench them at the stationary tubs in the storage closets and then drag them in a straight line down the middle of the hallways. Suffice it to say that my middle school was not in contention to host the scene of my holiday card photo.
During Orientation we were advised to procure a pair of comfortable sandals or ‘slippers,’ and save them expressly for indoor use. Once their virgin soles ventured outdoors, all was lost and wearing them inside would be the gravest of cultural sins. I frankly didn’t have time to get a pair of new sandals during Orientation and thus showed up on the first day somewhat anxious about my footwear. My Italian loafers were well-polished and — if I do say so myself — pretty stylish. But they had seen the light of day and the sidewalks that go with it. I nervously asked my co-teacher about my shoes, but she assured me that the policy at our school was simply for our own comfort: if my feet were happy with my loafers then the school was happy with my loafers.
And after a couple of weeks I thought I had gotten away with it. Unfortunately, the principal was onto my ruse. One fateful morning he brought me to the teachers’ shoe locker and instructed me to change into an old pair of slides, long forsaken by someone who had recognized their lack of appeal. Ever the cultural ambassador, I played along by dutifully donning my soccer slides each morning from that day forward. That is until I had a particularly taxing weekend — the kind of weekend so busy that it leaves you more tired on Sunday evening than Friday afternoon. Hardly rested and rejuvenated for the lessons that lay ahead, I entered school on Monday, took one look at my assigned cabinet, and kept going. I clicked past the cabinet and never looked back, gambling that I could play the naive foreigner card if my principal caught me in loafers again. To this day I have yet to return to my soccer slides. The principal must have noticed my footwear by now; but for one reason or another, he has yet to comment. I like to think it’s out of guilt for his own footwear faux pas. Ever tending to the botanical garden he grows outside of the school, he often walks between garden dirt and school hallway indiscriminately. Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? The state of the school aside, one can’t very well claim that a strict policy of switching footwear is grounded in school cleanliness when the headmaster himself is traipsing around in fertilizer-laced garden clogs.
Entering a very different culture with very different traditions accustomed tends to have a magnifying affect. The U.S. is a young country by almost every standard. Korea has had a lot more time to develop its traditions. Beyond apple pie, the Super Bowl, and fireworks on the Fourth of July, there is little consensus that defines one activity or rite as particularly American. Spending my formative years in such a society, I suspect that I am suspicious of tradition because I have not grown to rely on the comfort and assurance it can provide. But by the same token, I have not grown to tolerate the assumption and antiquity tradition facilitates.
Being a native citizen in Korea, a by-and-large homogeneous society, also means being an ethnic Korean. In the U.S., however, it’s impossible to say what an American ought to look like. My reasoning for calling ethnicity to mind is two-fold. The first is to mitigate my own scrutiny for Korean tradition. In an environment where national heritage and pride coalesce with physiological identity, it’s not unreasonable to imagine a strong allegiance to a set of traditions. Simply because my home doesn’t display this commonality doesn’t make it wrong.
My second observation is a bit less benign. In my unqualified opinion, pride is an emotion most appropriately linked to agency. We take pride in something we have had a hand in. Pride in ethnicity, however, strikes me as misplaced. Ethnic dialogue in Korea is a curious phenomenon. With its ever-growing number of foreigners, Korea must re-evaluate its pride in homogeneity, historically seen as a source of national strength. Fighting external aggression often requires inward strength and solidarity. Joining together with fellow countrymen to defeat a foreign threat takes a strong national identity, and Korea has spent centuries honing its own. This spirit is not easily turned off, however, during times of peace. When there is no enemy at the gate, nationalistic tendencies can manifest as xenophobic fears. There is a developing dialogue in Korea between those that want to welcome outsiders and realize Korea’s true globalized potential, and those who want to insulate Korea’s ethnic majority.
It is fascinating to bear witness to the evolution of thought in a living, breathing country. And with that I return to the notion of tradition. I’d like to claim that refusing to sport soccer slides in school is my way of fighting prejudice and advancing the modernization of Korea. I’m fairly certain, however, that you’d call my bluff on a hand so patently false. I’m content to cast a critical eye to traditions we all blindly follow — myself included. Doubt, after all, is a personal tradition of sorts — just like my holiday cards.