Walking the fine line – I read something yesterday that I found quite disturbing: a recent post on the Korea Life Blog. The long and short of this post is that the site owner (a Westerner living in Korea) discovered a dog behind his building that is tied up in a little shack 24 hours a day, apparently with only a chicken to keep it company. At the end of the post, the site owner intimates that he freed another dog that was tied up nearby, and would have freed the dog with the chicken if it hadn’t started barking when he approached.
There are currently 39 comments on this post. Many of the commenters applauded him for his heroic and compassionate deed. Some warned him about the wrath of the owners or the police. Others made the excellent point that the dog could very likely end up as roadkill or, at best, a hungry stray. Surprisingly, though, no one touched on what I believe to be the real issue here—what I found to be truly disturbing. This incident is not about animal cruelty or compassion, it is about one person imposing their own cultural standards on someone else.
The idea of dogs as “man’s best friend” is a Western idea, one that has no historical precedent in Asia. Things are changing in Korea, of course, and I know plenty of people who keep dogs as pets and treat them much the same way as they are (supposed to be) treated in the West, but traditionally dogs are not shown affection as pets. From what I have seen and heard, there are traditionally two primary reasons to keep dogs in Korea: to guard the house and to become dinner.
Most Westerners (myself included) experience severe culture shock upon arriving in Korea—the gap between Western and Korean culture is quite broad. Often the first reaction to some of these differences is: “I can’t believe they can think that way! That’s just wrong!” I know this because I have often thought this myself. It is natural to make value judgments of the world around us—we each have our own set of values, and those values act as a filter for our experiences of our environment. When I see a dog being mistreated I feel sorry for the poor creature, but the Korean owner likely sees nothing wrong with his actions. It is not that he is deliberately being cruel or mean, he is just acting in accordance with his own set of values.
There is a fine line that people living in a foreign culture must walk when it comes to values and beliefs. On one end of the spectrum, values and beliefs erode to the point where we lose a part of who we are and struggle to maintain our identity. On the other end of the spectrum, obstinacy and stubbornness in championing these values and beliefs prevents us from properly assimilating into the new culture. This spectrum I speak of is simply a measurement of how much you internalize your environment and how much you project yourself into your environment. In the middle of this spectrum is a healthy balance where you maintain a strong set of values and beliefs, but do not allow them to interfere with your integration into society.
That’s the theory, at least—in real life (at least in Korea), there is no such thing as true assimilation or integration for foreigners—once a foreigner, always a foreigner. This ever-present reality will sometimes tip people the other way, away from integration and toward isolation. It is very hard to strike the proper balance, but I believe it is possible.
I’ll get back to that balance later. Right now I want to delve a bit deeper into value systems and how they affect the way we see the world. Most normal people have a sense of what they consider right and wrong. Some people have a stronger sense of this than others. For some people, right is right and wrong is wrong, just like black is black and white is white. These people also react quite strongly to what they perceive as wrong. For them, morality is a priority—they regard their own internal values as more important than assimilation with their environment.
Then there are those who give the world a little more leeway, and don’t react as strongly against wrongs. For these people, it is more important that things go smoothly than it is that everyone adhere to a strict code. This does not necessarily mean that they are immoral, of course, it just may mean that they are more tolerant. Neither of these personality types is inherently right or wrong (although the former would likely tell you otherwise), but they do react differently in different situations.
Very shortly after my wife and I were married, we lived in Mongolia for six months. We had quite a few interesting experiences while we were there, and I think I probably grew more during that time than in any other six-month period in my entire life. There are some memories of that time that stick in my head, even though the incidents themselves are not very memorable, and one of these memories is appropriate to the subject at hand. One day my wife and I were going to the market, and she dropped a wrapper on the ground. I immediately picked it up.
“What are you doing?” I scolded her.
“Do you see a garbage can anywhere?” she replied. “All the Mongolians just throw their trash on the street.”
“That doesn’t make it right!” I exclaimed, and launched into one of my famous lectures on morality.
My wife did have a point—there are no public waste receptacles in Mongolia (at least there weren’t when we were there), and the Mongolians do tend to just drop trash on the ground. Nonetheless, I held on to that wrapper the entire day, only throwing it out when we got back to our apartment.
(I don’t mean to imply that my wife lacks a moral sense, but that she is far more tolerant than I am. She is much more willing to let things slide. To be perfectly honest, I am extremely grateful for this—if she were like me, I doubt we’d still be married. One of us would have either killed the other or blown up in a fit of righteous indignation by now.)
To this day, I am adamant about disposing of waste properly—I will still hold on to a piece of trash until I get home if I can’t find someplace to discard it. As this incident shows (and as you likely already know if you’ve read anything else on Liminality), I am a morality-priority person. I believe it is very important to maintain one’s own beliefs and values in the face of opposing beliefs and values. For me, to compromise my beliefs is to destroy part of who I am.
There is a fine line, however, between maintaining your beliefs and values and imposing them on others—the former is admirable, the latter is arrogant. To take the Mongolian trash example, it was perfectly acceptable for me to resist littering with my own trash (well, by proxy, at least), but I would have been way out of line to walk around with a club and threaten Mongolians with bodily harm if they didn’t stop littering. I must admit that that probably would have been fun, but it still would have been wrong.
The same goes for the dog situation here in Korea. I have every right to own a dog and treat it in the way I see fit, but I do not have the right to deprive others of their dogs because they are not treating them in accordance with my beliefs. I do not have the right to impose my set of values on them.
There is something else that I haven’t touched on, but which is vital to this discussion. I’ll segue into this by quoting one of the comments I mentioned above: “When something is abused and beaten, it doesn't often know it needs anything better because it knows no difference. It's the moral obligation of the person who does know the difference to struggle with what is the correct choice; knowing that there even is such a thing as choice.”
This sounds very noble and very proper, but followed to its logical conclusion it hides a sinister message beneath its noble veneer. Yes, I do believe that there are situations where morality has to take precedence. But we are not talking about a case of abuse here. The dog in the pictures looks fine, and the website owner admits that the dog is fed every day. It may not be a glamorous life, but how is it any different from the calves kept locked up in spaces so small they can’t even turn around, just so people can eat veal? Does anyone smell a double standard?
The double standard, however, is not the “sinister message” I referred to above. The sinister message is simply this: some people just don’t know any better, and it’s our job to make their decisions for them. Sound familiar? In days gone by, this idea was better known as “The White Man’s Burden.” The party that doesn’t know any better in the quote above is, of course, the dog, but it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to applying that to human beings. It’s not really as much of a stretch as it might seem.
For the record, I believe in absolute morality—I do not believe that right and wrong are relative terms. However, I do believe that we often confuse our own cultural values for absolute morality. And whether we are talking about true absolute morality or mere cultural values, I do not believe that anyone has the right to impose either on anyone else. I believe that we can offer to teach others our view of right and wrong, but it is ultimately their choice whether or not they will accept it.
There are many aspects of Korean society that I personally feel are “wrong”—treatment of dogs being, in truth, very far down on the list. I will freely admit that many of my views are colored by my own cultural upbringing. There are, however, areas in which many Koreans will agree that Korean society needs to improve. Age discrimination, attitudes toward the law, and attitudes toward women are just a few examples. I have even been interviewed on a radio program and asked my opinion of certain Korean attitudes and values, how they compare to the United States, and what I think could be done to improve the social situation in Korea.
The difference here, though, is that I always try to avoid imposing my own values on others. If someone asks for my opinion or help, I will give it, but I will not try to force Koreans to think the way I do, nor will I attempt punish them for thinking differently.
It is not easy living in a foreign culture. Sometimes people swing to one end or the other of the spectrum I mentioned above. The balance, I believe, is being able to remain true to yourself and your own values, yet also be able to accept the fact that there many in your current environment who may not share those values. We must stand up for what we believe in, of course, but we need to temper this with a respect for the rights and beliefs of others—if we don’t, we are merely zealots. This of course applies wherever you live, but the disparity experienced while living in a foreign culture magnifies the difficulties. Perhaps it is an idealistic goal, but that is what I aim for. Maybe someday I’ll even get there.