Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Korea vs. Japan

So it's probably not fair to compare Seoul to the Fukuoka suburb I live in, which, although near a city is in a part of Japan rarely reached by foreign tourists, but I couldn't help doing just that when Jonathan and I visited earlier this month. We both felt that our experience in Korea was closer to what we expected visiting a foreign country to be like--there are language difficulties, many things are unfamiliar and challenging--whereas Japan has defied our expectations in often seeming more like an alien planet. Impenetrable etiquette aside, things like this happen to me in Japan: people literally slow down in their cars so they can turn and get a good stare at me while I wait for the bus. A stranger runs up and snaps my photo when I am posing for a friend in front of Kumamoto Castle. On visiting day, parents come into the classroom where I am teaching solely to take my picture, then leave. A group of young men come into the ramen shop where we are eating dinner and spend the entire meal looking at us and making comments to each other; we have no idea what the hostility level there is, because there is never direct confrontation. I think the most draining aspect of being here is not the work, which is almost embarrassingly minimal, but the constant awareness of my sticking out so dramatically and people's behavior confirming that I am not in fact being paranoid--at best everyone notices me and is curious; at worst they are resentful that I am here bumbling around their town speaking English. I suppose it's a worthwhile experience to be a minority somewhere if you haven't been before, but I don't think I particularly needed to be enlightened as to the difficulties of, say, new immigrants to New York--I was aware at least intellectually that it must be very difficult indeed.

Even Tokyo has this aspect; there are organized anti-foreigner groups that demonstrate publicly and even in that huge and diverse (for Japan) city the neighborhoods are still relentlessly Japanese; there is very little familiarity. (If you go, don't expect to find an "East Village of Tokyo" or any such thing.) This may be because Japan generally does not allow foreign franchises (save apparently for McDonald's and Starbucks) and doesn't even allow foreigners to own businesses without a Japanese partner. I don't necessarily blame the country for resisting the forces of globalization and wanting to preserve "authenticity," but it is a bit strange coming from such a major participant in global economic forces, one that so readily incorporates foreign ideas (but then, of course, Japanifies them).

Korea, or at least Seoul, on the other hand, seems really eager to be considered a "modern country," to be welcomed into the global power fold (whatever that is). Maybe that's due in part to the massive American military base there. In any case, it had a savvier, more New York feel to it, with hip college neighborhoods, aggressive street hawkers speaking Korean, English, and Japanese, men who look less likely to blow away in a strong wind, etc. AND great international restaurants. Jonathan and I were super thrilled to find a delicious Greek place in Itaewon, the uber-foreign neighborhood. There is Krispy Kreme and California Pizza Kitchen and Outback Steakhouse. Not that I crave mediocre chain restaurants particularly, and they are outnumbered by Korean barbecue and bibimbap and juk (delicious porridge!) but these things made me feel less conspicuously other. It's not like I'm saying all countries should have these things--I don't feel entitled to be made comfortable anywhere I go in the world by the presence of friendly American franchises--but visiting Seoul did highlight for me how completely bizarre I am often perceived to be in Japan: "Every day in America--BIG STEAK?" "Do you have four seasons in your country?" "Do you argue with your family in English?" (Actual questions from Japanese people.)

Not that your average American high school student knows f*ck-all about Japan, but it occurs to me that the kids' world here is very, very small. The centuries-long tradition of insularity and the obsession with preserving Japanese culture has made it so that for many young people, America is a fantasy land, and anyone who can speak English fluently is an awe-inspiring miracle creature. At least, that's how it is for the kids in the Fukuoka burbs, where every foreigner you see is surely an ALT, imported here to open the world just a little--and then, of course, go back to their own country.


  1. am I detecting some sort of disdain for Japan?

  2. I've often thought that the psychological stages involved with living abroad in some ways mirror the stages of grieving. I remember it clearly in Germany, and watched this in Megan in both Italy and Abu Dhabi. In death though, what we grieve may be a bit more clear: it is either the person, or a memory of one's self with that individual. Living away from all that is familiar though differs in that the 'grief' (because I don't have another word) can be for what is missing, or for what is too very present. Sounds like the angry stage now. Yes? All too soon it will be acceptance, and then you will be home. Too soon, and missing the wonder that is best viewed in a rear view mirror.

    I don't envy your place now, Alanna, but I still envy the adventure. Love your writing -- very, very much. Love you, too!

  3. I know juk/congee for its transformational hangover cure properties. A+ will eat again.

    Your comments about Seoul's cosmopolitanism are interesting. There's maybe a kind of de facto cosmo-tribalism engaged in by the 'other' especially in countries not necessarily kind to immigrants. I was absolutely guilty of this when I studied abroad, where virtually all the people I hung out with were fellow international students (despite being in a lol-english-speaking nation). I can't imagine the challenge of dealing with this in a country whose language and customs are so utterly different than my own.

    In a weird way, I feel the opposite about this in American cities, where a degree of insularity and tribalism helps establish a sense of place. Meeting a native Coloradan in Denver was like finding an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. That city felt more like a collection of buildings with random people running around, rather than an actual place. Washington felt that way too (granted that's totally unfair to the many locals who actually do live in both towns).

  4. Dad -- Not disdain really, because it's not like I think America is *better*--I just get fed up with being treated on occasion like an exotic animal.

    Maggie--I think that's a good description of what people call "culture shock" which isn't really the right name for it, exactly, because I think people don't feel shock so much as fatigue, irritation, homesickness, etc.

    Anders--Your observations about tribalism are very true. In Japan, ALTs do make Japanese friends (if they can speak Japanese decently) but also hang out together most of the time. In fact, Japanese people who join up with these expat groups are known as "gaijin hunters." (Gaijin is foreigner.) Like there's a suspicion about them that they just want some exotic tail, or to piss off their parents, or whatever.

  5. It is hard for me to understand this feeling you have because I was not there long enough, but I can see how you could feel like you are under a microscope...are you sorry you signed up for another year? I hope you arent, but if you are.....

  6. Oh, this is indeed good news for your avid readers!

  7. Allana, re "The centuries-long tradition of insularity and the obsession with preserving Japanese culture has made it so that for many young people.."

    No, stop there. It's 2010. The centuries long insularity stopped long ago. The reason Japan is that way today is because the J govt is a semi-police state running a semi-democracy which uses school textbooks to indoctrinate and brainwash the students into believeing what the govt tells them, namely that they are a unique people with unique small intestines and unique taste buds and unique sexual perversions that are simply fine to exhibit in public in subway manga and that the rest of the world is bonkers, includiong them Koreans and Chinesee. The govt is run by 100 rich families who control Japan Inc. Ask anywhere there. This is true. i know bceause i lived in Tokyo 1991-1996 and enjoyed every moment until the time i got arrested and jailed and deported and blacklisted for life. did Senator Kennedy come to my aid like he did for Paul McCartney. No way. And my "crime" was not even a crime. But they saw it that way and dumped me. Watch your back. Japan is not a civilized society, all bowing aside. sigh. enjoy your time there and get out.

  8. Are you talking about nihonjinron (the small intestines thing)? From what I understand, most Japanese people know that stuff is nonsense now. But yeah we can have a who knows more about Japan contest if you want.

  9. And clearly the policy of insularity doesn't stop having an impact on the culture once it legally ends any more than America's Puritan roots stop having repercussions in how we live even today.