Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Communist China & Democratic South Korea: Same Same, but Different.

Around the Bloc is travel memoir by Stephanie Elizondo Griest relating "her experiences as a volunteer at a children's shelter in Moscow, a propaganda polisher at the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece in Beijing, and a belly dancer among the rumba queens of Havana."

There are plenty of book reviews to judge if it's a good read or not, but what I found fascinating was how Griest tales of interacting with Communist China are eerily similar to waygooken's tales of interacting with South Koreans. There are tons of examples, but here's two dealing with mianzi, the respect of "face" that has hindered so many foreigners. Take for example dealing with a superior:

Late that September, I heard word that Lao Chen wanted to meet with me. Widely rumoured to have been a People's Liberation Army officer in his youth, Lao Chen had the unenviable job of keeping tabs on the danwei's foreign experts. After politely inquiring about my well-being, he announced that nearly all of his experts had requested the following weekend, Chinese National Day, off.

"So we'd like to offer you the opportunity to work in China Daily for us that Sunday and Saturday," he said grandly.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I can't I've already made plans to go to Shanghai then."

"Why don't you think about it for a few days and let me know what you decide?" he countered.

Assuming he misunderstood, I repeated myself. "I'm sorry but I really can't. I'm going to Shanghai for the holiday."

"So think about it and let me know."

I stared at him. What was he trying to do, play some Jedi Knight mind game on me? "But...I know right now that I can't. My friend and I bought plane tickets and booked a hostel in Shanghai weeks ago.

"Think about it, and let me know if you can help us," he repeated, his face stony.

This continued for five excruciating minutes, neither of us giving and inch until someone else entered the room. Then I stalked of, furious at both of us: him for being so difficult to deal with and me for not knowing how. Time like that, I almost envied "ugly Americas" for being so blissfully unaware of their cultural faux pas. Far worse is being cognizant that you're blowing it but are unable to figure out how to stop.
If there was a textbook on native speaker and co-teacher interaction, this would be a textbook example. The key points here are plans made without consultation, illusion of foreigner's choice, and debate by refusal to acknowledge foreigner's statements and the repeating of the statement again. It's so common a pattern that's really expected in all aspects of Korean life and requires some preparation of effective strategies. The easiest example to illustrate this pattern is dealing with vacation.

Another great example of the same-same but different comparison is in the glaring cultural ignorance of African Americans. I already posted about the Korean views about African and the visibly similar and I hinted that what most foreigners experienced wasn't really limited to Korea. Greist confirms this in the same chapter:
I learned this the Saturday afternoon my paper held a free screening of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for our readers. To give the event some authenticity, Lao Ye asked me (token American) to introduce the program's hostess, a Chinese professor of American culture. Some 250 colleges students showed up that day, and never having seen the movie I lingered beyond my duty. The screening took nearly three hours, as the professor kept on pushing the pause button to expound cultural insight. Her commentary made my blood run cold, though: Not only did she refere to African American as "Negroes," she pronounced it like "Nig-gar-o"--and the the students followed suit. Unease churned in my belly. Should I correct her, at the risk of her losing mianzi? Or let it slide?

After the film ended, the student asked more questions about the present-day status of "Nig-gar-oes," and the professor responded with the stats she probably researched in the 1960s. At last, one girl stumped her: "What's the difference between a drive-in and drive-through?" The professor thought a moment or two before her eyes lit up: "I know--let's ask our American friend!"

I had every intention of promptly sitting back down after my response, but once those 250 pairs of eyes focused on mine, my years of training as a race and diversity facilitator for the dean of students at UT [University of Texas] surged forth as an extemporaneous speech about people of color in my country. When I mentioned that the terms Negro and Colored had been obsolete for as least three decades, the professor--who had been beaming beside me sank into her seat. I quickly tried to return the floor to her, but a dozen hands shot up, each with a question for me. I spoke for nearly fifteen minutes, during witch time the professor left the premises.

My colleagues brought the program to a close, but a clump of students followed me outside for more discussion. Once their numbers dwindle to a manageable half dozen, I invited them over to drink tea. They stared back aghast, as if I'd suggested smoking crack instead. When one boldly agreed, however, the others trotted behind. As soon as we were locked inside my apartment, the real questions spilled forth. Did I have any black friends? Could I trust them? Why were they so violent? Did they really dress the way they did on TV? What made their hair stand so high?

Never actually having met a black person, they had formed their perceptions largely through Hollywood and news coverage of the race riots that erupted on several Chinese college campuses in the 1980s against African students accused of "stealing" their women." I tried to explain racial profiling and stereotyping by drawing a parallel between blacks and people a little closer to home: the highlight oppressed Muslim Uighurs of northwest China. They didn't buy that analogy ("But Uighurs really are that violent!"), but the message seemed to stick when I revealed a few stereotypes that many American had of Chinese. ("But I'm terrible in math!" on protested.)

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