Reading my recent column, “Seven enigmas of Korea to Westerners,” Ogan Gurel, a medical doctor who had been affiliated with Harvard and Columbia until recently joining Samsung, sent me feedback in which he insightfully compared the Korean enigmas with American culture.
As for the first enigma concerning candlelight vigils, Dr. Gurel writes: “There were no candlelight vigils when Ronald Reagan died, or Richard Nixon … But vigils spark up, sometimes even on a national basis, when some five-year-old is raped and murdered by a pedophile, or in the wake of the latest school massacre.” As his observation correctly indicates, candlelight vigils in America are primarily held to cherish the memory of those who met abrupt, tragic deaths. In contrast, Korean candlelight vigils are primarily staged for political purposes, rather than as a requiem for the deceased. Critics maintain that the political masterminds who pull the strings from behind conspire to kindle the wrath of the people against their government or to stir up anti-Americanism for political gain; as for the dead, they could not care less.
The second enigma is the antagonistic confrontation between left and right. Dr. Gurel points out that America is no exception, lamenting, “The level of red/blue animosity is stupefying.” Indeed, since the Bush administration and 9/11, the United States has been sharply torn between Red States and Blue States. But the increasing political polarity in the U.S. is primarily due to the gridlock between liberals and conservatives. In Korea, however, polarization stems from the antagonism between pro-North Korean radical socialists and pro-American conservative capitalists.
The third enigma is the irreducible chasm between the countless hours Korean students spend studying English, and their lack of English proficiency. “I must say this is truly a mystery to me,” confesses Dr. Gurel. “Koreans are among the most studious, educated, hard-working and intelligent people I have ever met. But the majority seems incapable of even uttering a single word of English.” He laments that in today’s world where English has become “the staple of world culture” and considering “the prodigious Korean intellectual talents,” this phenomenon is a “deep mystery that demands some resolution.”
The fourth enigma is the generosity towards “useless” celebrities. Dr. Gurel says that such a phenomenon is endemic in America as well. He laments: “Some of the smartest Americans I know, fellow Harvard grads included, have unwittingly succumbed to celebrity worship.” According to Dr. Gurel, in the U.S., “dollars and dotage is doled out to a baseball player (someone who knows how to connect a wooden stick to a white ball).” Likewise in Korea, money is doled out to a soccer player (someone who knows how to connect his foot to a ball). Meanwhile, much less attention and allocation are given to an eminent scholar or artist. Worse, professional athletes are exempt from their compulsory military duty, while making a fortune in a foreign baseball or soccer team. It is only natural that Americans complain: “How can you relieve athletes from their military duty, while our American soldiers are risking their lives on behalf of you in your country?”
The fifth enigma is the driving habits of the Korean people. Dr. Gurel writes generously: “I have actually found Korean drivers to be better than the average American driver.” As a former resident of Boston and New York City, where aggressive drivers are rampant, Dr. Gurel must have found Korean drivers much gentler. Referring to those who drive on dark, snowy nights with no headlights on, or to those who do not use turn signals, he says: “It used to bother me until I realized that worrying over such a prevalent habit ― bad habit, that is ― would only hasten my chances of an early cardiac death.”
Dr. Gurel stops there, but I can add two more enigmas of America to make a full set of seven. The sixth enigma is the surprisingly small offices provided to professors in the United States. The average faculty office at an American university is incredibly small. Given expansive university campuses and the size of the country itself, such a trend is indeed a deep mystery. Of course, American professors, especially those who are in the humanities or social sciences, conduct research in their study at home, not in their office at school. Nevertheless, offices are so tiny that sometimes there is no room to even turn around comfortably.
The seventh enigma of America is the garbage disposal system. In many states in America, separate garbage collection is not in practice yet. So you can put all sorts of garbage, recyclables and non-recyclables, in one plastic bag. In Korea, however, garbage separation has been strictly enforced for the past few decades. It is a mystery that in such an advanced country like the United States, separate garbage collection is only partially in practice.
Every country has its own enigmatic phenomena that are either embarrassing or amusing. Sometimes, two countries may share similar enigmas and at other times, contrasting ones due to cultural differences.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. ― Ed.