Differences. Think About Them, They’re Not So Different

Difference isn’t something we should chastise, it’s something we should celebrate. How many of us who complain about how things are done in Korea don’t complain about the utopia which we came from?

Yang Liu was only 14 when she moved from China to Germany, where she became a graphic designer. She presented a series of artworks detailing the differences between living in Germany and living in China. Her collection of graphics were based on her experience growing up in two distinctly different cultures, and despite the generalisations, they are relatively true, especailly if you change Korea for China.

I say this from a country that I believe has many socially cultural similarities (and many huge differences also) with Koreans but which is also considered western. And I also know that there are huge differences between western national cultural traits.

However, what is most important is that you have to understand here is that these images just describe the cultural attitudes, they do not judge or speculate the problems which either practice may encourage.

Every time I hear people complain about anything and everything in Korea, and I hear it a lot including from myself, this helps me to remember that this is just the way things are done.There is nothing you can do about it, you just have to hope that things don’t effect you negatively.

Ost trifft West (East vs West) by Yang Liu

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Letter from Korea, May 2010

Like many “western” countries or “westernised” countries, Korea is perceived as a modern democratic nation, a country that represents the development and organisation expected of the young twenty-first century. It is a country, like many countries at all points of the compass, that has suffered from the over zealous ambitions of its neighbours and rivals.

I’ve always found Korea to be quite Americanised, unlike its neighbours who have more visible influences from Europe. I take it that this has a lot to do with the influences of European colonialism throughout the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This is definitely the case with China, and also Japan which seemed to legitimise its own colonial ventures by replicating the efforts of the colonial powers that dominated the era, who were of course Britain, France, Russia, and to a certain extent the United States. Korea’s greatest ‘foreign’ influence came in 1950 with partition, civil-war and the taking of sides previously unthought-of. Ironically, South Korea went east over the Pacific Ocean and the north looked west to China and the then USSR.

Gyeongbuk Palace, Seoul

During the period before Japanese occupation, specifically speaking the nineteenth century, Korea attempted to keep its doors closed and to prevent foreign intervention. But, the more I think about this period, I wonder how much truth lies in this. The outcome of the Russo-Japo War of 1906 laid the foundation for the Japanese protectorate and furthered its claims to colonial dominance. The war itself, a key event in international power politics, allowed Britain, and possibly France, to concentrate their colonial defence closer to home while relying on a treaty with Japan to police the seas around East Asia. Britain, France and Germany had considerable economic interests in this part of the world and Korea, known as a closed kingdom, lay in the middle. While there may have been no foreign merchants (there certainly were missionaries) carousing the streets, there was no doubt a select few representatives scratching at the Gyeongbuk Palace gates itching for the ears of officialdom. What foreign intervention there was before the 1905 war appears to be celebrated as brief interventions on behalf of convention, as was the case with the French expedition to Gangwha Island in 1866.

Korea maintained its resolute stance against foreign interference only to become the object of  colonial expansion with no say in its own future. Surely any previous arguments in favour of foreign association were quashed once this reality set in. Some may argue today that opinions against foreign involvement still hold in modern day Korea.

The entrance to the very funky Passion 5, a bakery...

The “western” influence in Korea is new and is most clearly seen in the buildings of Seoul. What old western styled buildings do exist in Seoul came from Japan’s colonial authority suffering from its own crisis of identity attempting to meet the criteria of a colonial power. The monolithic ‘nice’ European buildings littered around Seoul are a testament to this.

In the five years since I first arrived in Korea, Seoul has become more self assured of the image it wants to portray to the world. A skyscraper littered cityscape is no longer enough to convince visitors of Korea’s economic prominence. International travel by Koreans has only been permitted since the 1980s and even still it has taken some time for the effects to sink in. Now, governmental delegations regularly visit international partner cities and confer over planning and administration strategies and techniques. Having realised that an open door is a sound method of achieving success, Korea is reaching out.

People here have travelled the world and seen that buildings all go up and a tall building will always stand out, but to really stand out a tall building must look good while standing tall. Koreans, as a society, are very image conscious and it comes as no surprise that this consciousness coupled with the demand for global success has earned Seoul the title of World Capital for Design 2010.

Downtown Seoul from the Namsan cable car.

Yes, there are still many gruesome eyesores all over the city, some crumbling and some that look like they will never go away. These eyesores are slowly losing attention, being replaced (not yet outnumbered) by fresh modern and adventurous design ideas that any city in the world would be proud to own.

Like Seoul, Dublin has been criticised for the numerous dated buildings which dominate the once modern blemishes which now make up Georgian Dublin. Seoul and Dublin both have the intention of becoming cities that are looked on for inspiration by the rest of the world. Both can learn from each other through design which, although modern, must be able to last beyond the next phase in the always fickle fluctuating tastes of design enthusiasts.

When I came back to Dublin in 2008 after three years in Korea I got the feeling that the capital had learned its lesson. Can it be said that Seoul has learned from its mistakes and the lessons of others, or will we have to wait and see?

Thinking “West” with the help of Said

Edward Said 1935-2003

‘How can one today speak of “Western Civilisation” except as in large measure an ideological fiction, implying a sort of detached superiority for a handful of values and ideas, none of which has much meaning outside the history of conquest, immigration, travel and the mingling of peoples that give the Western nations their present mixed identities?’

I am not sure if a review and a critique of Edward W. Said’s Orientalism are necessary, considering so much has been said before. If you combine this with the fact that I am far from an expert on either orientalism, or the Middle East and its relationship with ‘The West’, any proclamations that I make on this subject can be automatically considered redundant. But I am not going to let these two factors stop me.

The quote above is taken from the afterword written in 1995, some eighteen years after the book was first published, and it is from this quote that I would like to continue in my own words and with my own thoughts, and elaborate on what Said said.


There is no barometer to measure the imperfect against the perfect. Equally there is no way of comparing the wealth of two kingdoms, nations or societies, who previously have had no interaction. To apply social norms across an entire planet, for me, is like enforcing the four seasons in a tropical climate; while it may make organisational sense to divide the year evenly, it just doesn’t work and it never will, outside of the confines of an official’s diary. Established social and political norms may appear sound, but that is because a better alternative is unknown.

The past two hundred years for the west has seen unrivalled technological progress, but what about social progress? Because there are laws does that mean that they are just and society is happy? Because there is wealth, does this not neglect mention of the poverty and social divisions caused by wealth? There are too many critics of modernity to spend time complaining about the ups and downs and mishaps and wrongdoings of western society. What I will question is the structure that holds western society together is the belief that it is, above all, the most civilised.

“Western Civilisation” is itself a tenuous term. Civilisation ties so many different eras together within the characteristics of social and technological progress over time by a specific ethnic or national group. Civilisation relies on so many different factors; like building a house it needs to built on a strong foundation with walls to define its boundaries, windows to offer a view inside and outside, furnishings to add character, and people to function within to define and build society. Civilisation is knitted together into a beautiful, diverse, and complicated construction that cannot be separated and individually defined within the confines of a unique concept. What is unique is incomparable, because it is only one and it has no other. The other that is imbedded in a civilisation is part of the civilisation, and only that civilisation has a right to condemn or criticise it, no matter how right or wrong it may appear from the outside.

I share Said’s view that there is no such thing as the right way, and that the West’s way cannot be superior to the East. They are both fundamentally different societies that have grown organically with established traditions which have held millions together for centuries, but without each others influence, neither could conceivably exist in its present state, despite the lessons history books attempt to teach us. Our society and civilisation has preached its own hierarchy since before most modern nations were formed, before it was known the East could be reached by travelling west.

We, as people, are immersed deeply in the West, while the East is seen as an exotic accessory, something mystical and distant, something that cannot be understood and something that is quite foreign. This is to an extent understandable, but there is nothing that cannot be understood in modern Asia. Asia, or in fact anywhere I should add, should not be interpreted from a different perspective because it is not a comparable entity, like two different coloured balls or two different kinds of food. A society is a very complex formation with similarities and massive differences in every aspect of its life. In the twenty-first century civilisation has expanded beyond previously defined physical borders, and now relies as much on its internal elements as it does on external influences to survive.

In the years following World War II, words like ‘globalisation’ and ‘coco-colonisation’ have crept into vocabularies and resurfaced within East-West (or West-East) discussions. Yet this process is often viewed as one-way traffic with negative connotations due to the commercial nature of much of the neo-colonial commercial domination by many major corporations whose origins lie in North American and Western European states. By allowing corporations to grow beyond their borders we permit the impression that the West is dominant culturally, and this grows to be a shared opinion across the globe.

To say that one Civilisation is superior is white-washing the whole painting and ignoring the reality of the cross-cultural-multi-dimensionality of the twenty-first century. I’ve heard a saying that goes something like ‘the Chinese built the rail-roads’; it leaves me thinking that this was only the beginning, now ‘the Chinese’ have built most of the electronic goods that are used in most western households. If that doesn’t surprise you then a lesser known fact would be that it was the Japanese who led the drive to remove European colonialism from South-East Asia, a drive which ruined the country temporarily but which opened up the markets, so that while its two nearest and closest potential rivals were locked in civil war, Japan was able to establish an economic and political dominance over the rest of the continent, laying the foundation for companies like Honda and Toyota to lead the way with a standard of engineering as benchmark that, recent upsets aside, the rest of the world is only gradually catching up with. The opening up of the continent allowed multinationals from all over the globe to establish bases and exploit previously protected indigenous economies and fostered extreme reactions to the international abuse of national identity in places like Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and also arguably Indonesia under Suharto.

There is more to the cross-cultural-multi-dimensionality of the twenty-first century than just commercial and economic superiority. Culturally, just as the East looks to the West for brand recognition, the West looks to the East for the unfamiliarity that is hidden behind the unpronounceable and illegible languages. Countries who interpret social behaviour differently lure travellers looking to advertise their bravery in daydreams of jungle treks and peculiar gastronomic experiences. As one of these travellers myself, I can personally list the values of the world I once sought; loud markets, spicy aromas, sweating twenty-four hours a day, crowded spaces, ancient literary traditions, cities with more people than the population of my own country, palm trees everywhere, coconuts, slanted eyes, kimonos and rice for breakfast lunch and dinner.. All this attracted my young and ignorant ego, and they still do. When I go home after being away I boast of strange experiences of laissez faire attitudes to public safety and an apparent disregard for the values that were beaten into us for years in primary and secondary school. When I first went to Asia straight out of university it was a personal escape, and one that is shared by so many other young and old men and women who leave the apparent safety and familiarity of their Western homes to learn the mysteries of the East.

But what is mystical about it? Globalisation has made it as easy for me to buy a Guinness in Shang Hai as it is in Dublin (easier in fact as you can’t buy alcohol after half past eleven in most places in Dublin) and Coca Cola has the same advertisements in Tokyo as it does in New York. The world has marvelled at the growth of Shang Hai and Dubai, Tokyo has long been considered a glittering megalopolis, and Seoul is World Design Capital for 2010. The West lags behind the Asian determination to succeed on the international stage (if we did a list of ‘World Capitals’ of modernity, Asian cities would outplace the West considerably). Is it mystical that countries and societies that were under-developed after World War II now out perform the societies which have grown accustomed to being looked upon as the leaders of modernity?

The people in the cities of Asia, despite what may be apparent, still worry about the same things; unemployment, marriage, education, taxes and what they will have for breakfast lunch and dinner. The brains behind the faces of the countless anonymous faces that pass by also want to enjoy foreign, exotic food like pizza, spaghetti, sausages, steak, and deep fried food, just like westerners obsess over curry, sushi, chow-mien and pad-thai. The expensive tour groups that travel West all seek the opposite of the individuals who migrate east; organised, peaceful and aged sensible architecture with restaurants selling food that can’t be found on your local corner. The talk in the restaurants of peculiar habits echoes and reverberates as globally as the food that they exchange and prepare so differently than what can be called authentic.

A hierarchy of societies exists only in our minds, and the minds that propagate these hierarchies are possibly the ones least open to the criticism that they are not right. The pillars that built their world may in fact be built without enough cement to hold them strong, and the only reason that they are still standing is because the wind hasn’t blown strong enough to knock them over.

Let me conclude by saying that as the world grows in population more and more every day, the environments in which we live change with every birth, for better or worse, prompting a situation that abandons any chance of a status quo. Recycling only works on plastic and metals. Everything that begins must conclude, and in anticipation of a storm that might one day be the final gust to topple the pediment supporting pillars, I will also.