Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Ballad of East and West / 동과 서의 발러드

There's a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which starts with this very famous line:
루댜드 키플링이 쓴 이 아주 유명한 시구(詩句)로 시작하는 시는 있다.

"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,..."
(오, 동은 동이고 서는 서이고 한 번도 둘 만날 수 없으리라,...)

I've been thinking about something an old Chinese-Malaysian [중국계 말레이시아인] and I had a deep conversation about a month ago:

I realise what I'm about to say is probably controversial. I'm offering it up for debate rather than offense or ridicule. [말할 게 논쟁적인 걸 깨닫는데 화나게 하거나 비웃음이 아니고 토의로 드린다.]

It seems, generally speaking, that westerners [서양사람] in the East (specifically here I mean East and South-East Asia) seem to have a lot of trouble adapting to local ways - struggling with the complex social rules [복잡한 사회적인 규칙], often closed cultures [닫힌 문화들], bemoaning sometimes blatant corruption [노골적인 부패],...

And that, again generalising, easterners in the West tend to thrive in the more permissive and individualistic societies there. 그리고 (일반화로) 서양의 더 관대하고 개인주의자의 사회에서는 동양사람이 잘 해내는 편이다.

Also, when visitors arrive, the West is often more helpful in making allowances for the cultural differences of the foreign guest (because of the higher number of foreigners who visit and participate in society?) and more welcomingly open. We still expect people to "do as the Romans do"[入鄕循俗(입향순속) 하라] but the West, like ancient Rome, covers a very wide scope of permissible behaviours and attitudes. We understand that people are all different. "Different strokes for different folks,"[사람마다 제 각각이다] as the saying goes. ("Ten people [have] ten characters,"[十人十色(십인십색)] as the Koreans say.)

East Asians (especially the conservative ones) often seem to find foreigners difficult to cope with - despite the quantity of western films and TV thrust upon them. Could this be due to the relatively low number of visitors from other continents? (Less trust or fairness in the society? Traditionally less tolerance of differences?)

Can it be put down merely to conservatism? These attitudes, for example, are still at large in the west too - especially, it seems, in the neo-conservative religosity of small-town USA.

Here, the "when in Rome" attitude is often a criticism, a restriction, sometimes very narrow, sometimes even exploitive of differences. (In particular, I'm referring to the way two of my previous employers in Korea used this phrase (and similar ones) to validate illegal practices.) It's also a way for old traditionalists to control young people who "don't know any better" - many of my students have been complaining about this recently.

Do we westerners get similar levels of exposure to Eastern cultures? I'd argue not. But perhaps there are parallels between the shallow cultural content of most western exports (cf. McDonald's) and the bastardised versions of Eastern cultures we import (the feng shui(풍수) fad, for example).

My Chinese-Malaysian acquantaince seemed resigned to the facts of how things are: high levels of bribery and corruption in his country; 'double standards'[이중 잣대] of laws that apply to the poor but not to those rich enough to bribe their way out of trouble or with friends in high places to solve their (il)legal problems; resigned to living under oppression.

There was nothing anyone could do about these problems, he suggested, so we should just give up. And westerners like me should indeed "do as the Romans do" and simply 'put up and shut up' [싫으면 입다물고 있어! (?)].

It seems deeply fatalistic to say things are forever wrong and can't change - that we can't change anything. (Isn't that what democracy's for?)

This is a view I've reached talking to people from both the East and West, and also from articles written by easterners who've lived or travelled outside the East. I'd like to hear if anyone else has views on the topic.

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