[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]All this leaping must be tiresome

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]All this leaping must be tiresome

It seems to be human nature to jump to conclusions. People are constantly making assumptions, many of which are unfounded. Of course, there are certain very deeply ingrained assumptions, called "root assumptions," which we cannot do without. They help us go about or lives without wasting energy on things that can be taken for granted. For instance, when we go to bed at night, we can safely assume that we will not wake up to find everything in a state of subatomic disarray because the laws of physics were altered as we slept. We should be careful, however, not to grant root-assumption status to things we have become accustomed to but which are not fundamental.

I have allowed this to happen with electricity. Though I know intellectually that this is not the case, deep down in my heart I feel that everything except bodily functions depends on electricity. When the power fails and my computer whines to a halt, I find myself thinking, "Darn, now the mail won't come and I can't flush the toilet." I'm always surprised to discover that my ballpoint pen still works, and suddenly I appreciate it all the more for being a sort of handheld computer that never needs recharging.

Basic assumptions vary widely from culture to culture and region to region. Americans and Canadians assume you own a car, and if you have ever tried to get around in North America anywhere but in a few large metropolises, I'm sure you know why. Northerners in the U.S. assume that if you have a southern accent you like Johnny Cash's singing. Many also assume you are not as intelligent as a Yankee with the same education.

Koreans do their share of jumping to conclusions, too, especially when it comes to foreigners. I have been told by several Americans and Europeans of Korean descent that if your forebears were Korean, you are expected to speak Korean well and practice Korean ways. Judging from what I hear around me when I am walking the street, if you're Caucasian, most Koreans figure you are American and you do not speak Korean. (If you are black, your nationality is not immediately assumed.) Not only are my British, Australian, Dutch and other non-American friends annoyed by this -- so am I.

Normally I do not let it bother me, because I love Korea and know many Koreans who are enlightened enough not to make such a quick assumption. In any case, it is a minor vexation that is usually easy to overlook. But there are days when I have gotten up on the wrong side of the floor and I let it get to me. I have on occasion made an issue of the matter with someone who keeps talking about the American's weight, beard and so on while standing right next to me on the subway or bus.

"Why do you assume I'm American?" I ask in Korean.

"Oh, you speak Korean!" comes the astonished reply.

"You haven't answered my question," I insist. "What makes you think I'm American?"

Then there's an embarrassed giggle. "Oh, how rude of me. Of course, nowadays there are people from everywhere visiting Korea . . . ."

"I'm not visiting. I live here." I am determined to maintain my miffed tone of voice, even though this person seems to be quite nice.

"Oh, then you're a missionary. Are you Christian or Catholic?"

That does it. Now I easily recover my testy tone: "Do you think Catholics aren't Christians? So all foreigners who live here and speak Korean are missionaries, eh? And you still haven't told me why you think I'm American!" Boy, am I riled up now.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," my adversary replies gently. "I didn't mean to offend you. What country are you from?"

"Well, I am from the United States, originally," I admit, "but that's beside the point." By now everyone is watching us and, for some reason, I feel like a total idiot.

These assumptions can be especially frustrating in a situation where two expats, one of European background and one of Asian background, go to a restaurant together and only the white guy speaks Korean. This has happened to me more than once. The waitress comes over to our table, looks straight at my Asian friend and asks, "May I take your order?"

"Yes," I reply, "I'll have the doenjang-jjigae and my friend will have the bibimbap."

She looks at me quizzically for a moment, as if to say, "Why is this person talking to himself?" Then she asks my friend what we want again. Finally, dawn strikes and we get our order.

Maybe someday when Korea gets its wish and becomes the hub of Northeast Asia this annoying habit of jumping to conclusions about non-Koreans will disappear. Let's hope it does not take too long.

* The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Daily. His e-mail address is gary@korealore.com.

by Gary Rector

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