A Cake of Soap and Korean Hierarchical Collectivism
A few weeks ago, I was showering in the bathhouse. The soap is always provided which is something which irks many westerners. Somehow, we seem to find pollution everywhere but on ourselves and are quick to condemn a number of Korean habits, including the ones concerning communal hard soap as opposed liquid soap. I have cited, on numerous occasions, the research on the hygiene of British people where a culture of super-clean toilets seems to mitigate the need to actually wash your hands. When you take a dump in a nice clean toilet with white tiled walls, devices that automatically jettison a fragrance into the air to mask unpleasant smells, and mop up with two ply, scented toilet paper, it is easy to forget how dirty shit is. In 2008, a major British study revealed 25% of those tested had faecal matter on their hands and 33% of home work surfaces were contaminated by faecal matter and strains of E-coli (Daily Telegraph). It is no exaggeration to say that British people have so much shit on their hands they might as well have mucked themselves out manually especially when international research ranks Britain as the third most contaminated society after India and Malaysia and more contaminated than Arabic countries where one traditionally cleans their bum with a hand and water. So, among Brits at least, I always titter when they bang-on about how dirty it is to use communal soap because only 43% of British mothers see fit to wash their hands after changing their baby’s nappy. The chances are, a great number of people who condemn communal hard soap are the same people who ‘shit and go,’ without bothering to wash their hands.
So, there I am using one of a hundred bars of communal soap and I notice it is rather hairy; in fact it’s so hairy I can feel the coarseness on my skin. For a moment, and it is brief, I am repulsed but then I’m pacified by the thought, it’s only hair, Korean hair and in that moment, not only do I continue using it, but I start to reminisce.
My family shared soap in the bathroom as well as towels and I can even remember we shared bath water. Back in the 60’s you didn’t shower every day, but on a weekly basis. For many children of the 50’s and 60’s, Sunday was traditionally bath day and for me that meant stepping into second-hand, scummy-gray water and wanting to get out as quickly as possible; not because the water was gross, but because by the time I got to use the bath the hot water had expired.
Maybe it’s the memory of the bathing experience as a child which makes me wallow in the luxury of a Korean bathhouse. I am not surprised we bathed on a weekly basis and hated the process. In the days when central heating was an emerging luxury, and before double glacéing and hot-water-on-demand heating systems, bathing, especially in cold weather, was unpleasant. Then there were the damp towels, the dubious face cloth and sponges whose possible journeys and uses, as a child, I never contemplated. Eventually, when the final dregs of gray scud whirled and gurgled down the drain, the final bather had to prostrate themselves at the edge of the bath, Ajax in hand, and scour away the crusty tide mark. Drying my face with the ‘family’ bath towel and detecting an odour, the origins of which I don’t wish to recall, was an experience a lot less traumatic than had the odour belonged to an outsider. I think most of us are more tolerant of ‘dirt’ and ‘pollutants’ when we are either related genetically or are familiar with the owner. In sexual relationships, most people will happily rub their faces in the gutters of the human body but the moment they have to wash their hands with a communal bar of soap and they are offended. I have known numerous dog owners who would happily let their dog lick their face and lips, or lick their ice cream, after it had sniffed and tasted the back-end of every other dog in the neighbourhood. Familiarity has powers of sanitation far superior to the most stringent bleaches and cleaning agents, and as for sexual passion, the atomic bomb of hygienics, in its radiance all filth and the veiny, mucous-lined channels from which it oozes, are deified.
I want to see that bar of soap as a Korean sees it, not because I want to be Korean but because in its comprehension lies something of the mystery of what it means to be Korean as a Korean and which as a cultural phenomena, eludes all outsiders. How Koreans perceive a simple bar of communal soap, I am beginning to think, shares a proximity to communal plates and bowls, the communal bowl of odeng which has almost disappeared, the act of drinking a shot of soju from another person’s glass, sharing water in the bathhouse, dipping your toothbrush into a communal bowl of salt, and cascades down through various other social interactions far removed from ablutions and yet intrinsically connected through their relationship with the community. This is not to say Korea doesn’t have taboos and social mores, it does. You can cough in someone’s face and share food from the same plate, picking at it with your chopsticks, but suck the end of your pen and you’re ‘dirty.’
The bar of soap reminds me how human reactions to ‘pollution’ are affected by familiarity and hence a mother will find the contents of her baby’s nappy much less disturbing than if it belonged to that of a stranger. I have quite often seen Korean men pick an Italy towel or razor out of a bathhouse bin and proceed to use it and indeed, some of my friends do this. It’s easy to condemn this as a disgusting act but we have all used each others’ Italy towels and razors and the only difference between using your friend’s towel and a discarded one, is that your friend has a relationship with you and you know for sure they haven’t got face fungi.
Korean society is far more homogeneous than that of the UK where our gene-pool has been thoroughly mongrelised. Many Brits, often comment on how ‘orientals’ all look alike but the fact is Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Thais etc, all have their own distinguishing features and it is only ignorance and lack of familiarity, which masks them. I can tell apart a Korean from a Chinese or Japanese person, with far greater accuracy than I can a Russian, Frenchman, Englishman or German. And the process of mongrelization in Britain, started well before the Viking raids and French conquest of 1066. That Koreans are more homogeneous genetically, plus their isolationist past, the influences of Confucianism and recent history in which their national identity was suppressed, have conspired to produce a society with a strong sense of group identity.
There are many points at which you can observe Koreans expressing their identity through a shared framework and one of the most obvious is through the values surrounding education. Regardless of social position, every Korean parent has much the same academic expectations for and of their children. In Britain, educational values, and sometimes the lack of them, tend to divide society. Other examples, if practiced in the UK would be deemed archaic, even invasive. I don’t think I have ever heard a British school child talk about their future aspirations in terms of ‘their country’ but Korean students often tell me they want to do something to ‘help’ or ‘better’ their nation. The National anthem is not only heard more often that it would be in the UK but most people can sing the verses. The national flower, the mugunghwa (Rose of Sharon – 무궁화), is a well know image. National Service is often perceived by many, though indeed not all, as a duty towards ones country. Even kimchi and Korean martial arts are important facets of Korean identity. Perhaps, because the formation of modern Korea and its struggles with both foreign aggressors and internal political fracture, are relatively recent events, the important historical figures, the Korean founding fathers, are well know to all Koreans. If you should praise Korean society, many Koreans will be quick to thank you. Meanwhile, back in the UK, political correctness has tarnished the Union Jack and anything British with slurs of imperialism, racism, and oppression. Indeed, I think it not wrong to claim that in Britain, British culture is a dirty word and British culture the most inferior of all the cultures now inhabiting the British Isles. Meanwhile, the influences which shaped European and British history have been discarded and the significance of Marathon, Thermopylae and anything else pertaining to ancient civilizations are deemed crusty, boring and thoroughly elitist.
In western society, we value individuality and see its development as worthwhile and important and whenever we cooperate or interact with others we very much do so as individuals working with in a group. And if a person were to exhibit characteristics which conflicted with the group, their subsequent labelling as ‘an individual’ could be very positive. We respect ‘individuality’ even if we don’t agree with its content. For westerners, it is possible to develop as a respected individual without any need of group associations and one can forge an identity in isolation. For Koreans however, it is the group which defines their roles and gives them their identity and they can be quite lost without the security of its parameters. I have on numerous occasions seen students ‘shut down’ or socially paralyzed because group dynamics weren’t quite right. Identities articulated around work, the army, school and university, ferrying individuals through the various stages of life are integrally important, lifelong points of reference.
And at all times in Korean society, you notice the importance of hierarchy. You can chuck western kids together, mixing ages, abilities and gender randomly and they will basically work but Koreans are likely to suffer almost a trauma if the groups aren’t structured properly. Difference, for Koreans, is much more difficult to deal with. Age cohorts are incredibly important and Koreans constantly refer to their position either currently or in the past, not only through age cohort terms like ‘first grade’ or ‘sixth grade’ but by larger structural ones such as ‘high school student’ or ‘university student.’ That you can address a young person as ‘student’ is reflective of both the pivotal role of education and age banding. I have know a number of Korean high school students who, after spending a year abroad, returned to Korea to be put back a year into a class with students younger than them and they found the experience quite difficult.
The importance of age in Korean society can never be underestimated and it is for this reasons they always want to know how old you are. Without knowing your age, a Korean is not only unsure what language to use addressing you, but is unsure how to act towards you. Knowledge of your age allows them to place you in the appropriate group from which they know how to treat you. And don’t necessarily expect relationships determined by such factors to change over time or with familiarity, as they would in the west. I’ve taught English students who very quickly treated me in manner which in Korean would be seen as intimate; that is they use familiar terms of address and treat you as an equal. But Korean ‘friends’ I taught almost 12 years ago, when they were high school students, still address me as ‘teacher’ and some find it difficult not to. Another, who will use my first name, finds it difficult to smoke in my presence and may turn their head while drinking alcohol. And you will be sorely reminded if you make a blunder and assume students belong to the same age cohort when in fact they occupy adjacent ones.
The Korean Language expresses both collectivism and hierarchical stratification. Indeed, Korean is a language of built-in deferentially and when using it you are constantly aware of your position in relation to others. The terms to address people are rarely their names, but their function within the group. Koreans rarely uses personal pronouns as these are seen as intimate and in the wrong context rude, and position, rank, family relationships or specific occupations commonly replace these. In terms of collectivism, Koreans refer to their parents, schools, universities and the largest structural unit of all, nation, by way of ‘our’ rather than ‘my.’ Whenever I refer to ‘my mother’ as ‘our mother’ I am a little unsure whether this is correct, or possibly bizarre, as I am not Korean and not part of the collective.
There is probably no better example of the differences between ‘collective’ and individualistic’ ideologies than in the conflict westerners often encounter when the ‘interest’ of the ‘individual’ clash with the ‘interest’ of work. In the west, we are used to a very clear division between work and ‘play’ and it is not appropriate to spring meetings on people at the last moment, ask them to change their plans for that evening, or expect them to ‘stand a friend up’ in order to work. If this is a necessity, financial recompense can be expected. When Koreans expect westerners to behave in the same manner as Koreans, they do not really understand the sacrosanct nature of free time and the importance of individuality as an expression of identity. Koreans however, will suppress all individual pursuits, interests or engagements, if work requires some additional input. Koreans do not divide work and free time so absolutely and they will work way past their contracted time if the organisation requires this and not expect a financial reward for doing so – though I suspect they would expect their diligence to be acknowledged and perhaps foresee some in-lieu benefit at a future date. (Of course, it is equally as plausible to interpret this work ethic as exploitative and manipulative). And, in terms of obesity, the collective ideology is definitely more judgmental. I sense, that whenever I am in the presence of a Korean who is proportionally fatter than I, I can relax because it seems a far greater social offence to be a fat Korean betraying the parameters of the Korean frame, than a fat foreigner.
In the West, the rights of the individual are so crucial that it is almost the case that the rights one person can easily trample on the rights of another. I am reminded of the time I witnessed an argument about someone playing loud music at an inconvenient time and where the perpetrator claimed playing loud music was, his ‘right.’ As with many facets of life in Korea and life back home, there is a clear polarization where both extremes each seem too extreme. As much as I love living in a society that is a collective hierarchy, and enjoying the benefits it brings, it is as a foreigner and outsider who is absolved from transgressions and given leniency. I would certainly hate to be part of that collective and stripped of those component parts which I believe are integral to my individuality and identity. I actually shudder to think how my Korean friends, and especially my boss, perceive my passions and would imagine that for all the importance I attribute them, they probably view them as trite and puerile and in some way detracting from my responsibilities.
And so my little sojourn returns to the bar of hairy soap where this epic began. I realise of course, that most of the other bars are hairless and that I suspect the hairs are mine. Westerners, we’re gross! I love the Korean physical homogeneity because my western body, my British body is riddled with the mutations of cross breeding, of mongrelism. And, I’ve inherited that horrid propensity for chest hair, and worse, back hair which is just too great a reminder of my primate past. I can tolerate the soap with Korean hair attached, but with those western straggles matting the surface of the soap, I’m both revolted and ashamed. Westerners, we’re just too different, not just physically but mentally. We cling to immobile markers of identity and individuality, our sexuality, our colour, our religious and political affiliations, mountain dew, pop groups, and a ton of other crap, with such passion that our differences and the importance of our affiliations hinder and obscure that which we do share. When we do identify with each other to the extent of it representing some tangible community, it tends to be through trivia such as the royal weddings, football, Big Brother or Pop Idol. For so many westerners, their name and their sexual, political, religious, ethical or sporting affiliations are fundamental components of any social introduction are often of more importance than work. For many Koreans, the most important topic is work and for most adults life comprises of little much else.
And so I come to the conclusion that if my Korean friends can use someone else’s Italy towel, they can just as easily tolerate the hairy soap and do so because they are familiar with the hair’s owner, who was in all probability, a Korean and possibly a distant relative with whom they have much in common. Meanwhile, the westerner perceives that last person as anything but a relative or countryman and instead a dirty fucking stranger who probably has a hideous skin disease.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.