Confucianism was decreed the official ideology of the state in the late 14th Century, at the beginning of Korea’s final (Choson) Dynasty. It took hundreds of years for the policy to filter down from the elite to the masses, but eventually Confucianism became such an intrinsic part of daily life that the Koreans now don’t even seem to notice it as being the driving force behind pretty much everything that goes on here – which is kind of weird because without this little snippet of knowledge, pretty much nothing that goes on here makes any sense at all (hat tip to Douglas Adams). The bowing and kowtowing to anyone older than yourself, the ancestor worship, the subservience of women and children, the national obsession with education and status… ‘That’s just Korean style’ they say, but you don’t generally hear the topic of Korean Neo-Confucianism popping up in casual conversation.
For a homogenous 5000 year-old culture, the rate of social and economic change has been astonishing during the 60 years since the War. In that time, South Korea built itself up from being arguably the poorest country on Earth (North Korea was considerably wealthier in the immediate post-war years) to one of the world’s wealthiest.
With over one million foreigners in the former ‘Hermit Kingdom’ the locals don’t stare at us so much these days (well, the younger ones don’t). Word has filtered down to the school children that making monkey noises when they see a black person is somehow inappropriate. I’ve already had a bit of a rant about all the women suddenly smoking in public, those brazen hussies! There have been countless little social changes since I was fresh off the boat only seven years ago. It is little wonder the Koreans themselves seem often to be struggling to keep up with the rate of change, especially considering that until very recently they have had very limited knowledge of the world outside north-east Asia (Korea, China, Japan).
I can’t imagine what the elderly here must think when they look around, having lived through the war, their nation decimated; then starvation, eating grass and boiling soup from the bark of trees. Now every person over the age of three has a smart-phone that tells them to the exact second when the next subway train will arrive, and how they can use those 97 seconds to remotely purchase that afternoon’s groceries.
During one of my first ever Seoul subway experiences, a new friend of mine (who was far worldlier than I – he’d been in the country for several months) pointed out how amazing it was that most of the passengers lucky enough to get a seat in the crowded subway were asleep, but always woke up exactly when the train arrived at their station.
Later another friend (who had been here several years) explained that the seated passengers, whilst perhaps resting their eyes, were not actually asleep. They were apparently simply avoiding making eye contact with anyone older than themselves which, as custom dictates, would mean they would have to offer their seat to the elder person. So many things suddenly began making sense to me… the pushing and shoving without any acknowledgement, commuters staring so fervently at nothing, or something invisible in the imaginary middle-distance, as if the entire country is playing an endless game of, ‘If I can’t see you, you can’t see me’. To the newcomer is a bizarre spectacle in a nation more densely populated than China or India, and sometimes downright frightening when the game continues on the streets of Seoul and the nations highways.
These days people don’t bother pretending to sleep on the subway. Since the advent of smart-phones and tablets a few years ago the younger generation is permanently transfixed by the small screens in their hands and the ubiquitous headphones that keep everybody happily oblivious of each other. It’s always funny when someone walks into a wall but the screen-zombie situation is getting ridiculous. Everybody here knows screen addiction is a serious problem in Korea and everybody has heard the news stories about people dying of starvation/dehydration/mental exhaustion after spending 96 straight hours in the PC Bangs (computer rooms). Really fucked up are the reports that the deceased individual was not ‘discovered’ for 12 hours or more, because the zombies sitting two feet on either side were so engrossed in their own gaming they didn’t realize they’d been sitting next to a dead guy all day.
Anyway, back in the subway… I’ve noticed during recent times a lot of the young people don’t even bother hiding behind their screens anymore. Most people in their thirties or older continue to offer their seat to the elderly (who then refuse the offer twice before reluctantly but thankfully sitting down, as is customary), but these days increasing numbers of younger adults and teenagers have different attitudes toward random old people, and I wonder whether this visibly non-Confucian lack of reverence toward elders is a sign that the whole system appears to be slowly breaking down.
To me, traditional Korean life appears to be like some kind of ‘hazing’ process that lasts for about 50 years, after which a person finally gets to push everyone else around, tell everybody what to do, elbow their way to the front of the queue… they’ve earned it. Suddenly, the young trendy middle-class Koreans who have never known hardship, hunger or war, are wordlessly saying (whether consciously or not), ‘fuck you grandpa, this is my time now’.
The old people riding the number one line seem to have a kind of empty sadness in their eyes.