My last post generated a substantial discussion on Facebook (i only wish it would have taken place here), which got me thinking about a phenomenon the Korean at Ask a Korean likes to call culturalism: “the impulse to explain minority people’s behavior with a ‘cultural difference’, real or imagined.” A culturalist encounters a clash between him and an individual of another culture and chalks it up to cultural difference. ‘He’s from a different culture, so this clash is only inevitable.’ But it isn’t so. It’s not inevitable, because we’re really all the same. We’re all human, which means we share the same core values. Isn’t that all that matters? Why must we break down this commonality into unnecessary and cumbersome classes of ethnicities and nationalities and cultures?
In theory, a unified humanity would be best, but in practice, it doesn’t exist. We all know this. Of course it can’t be denied that despite us being one species, different cultures exist, and they clash. Some of the issues i’ve been dealing with since my arrival here in Seoul are due to exactly that: cultural difference. Many advised me before i left the States and continue to advise me now that i’m here to go with the flow and try to assimilate to Korean culture, because i am the visitor after all, and i should respect the Koreans’ ways. But i can’t do that, because i don’t believe in culturalism. Like i said, we’re all the same, which means we are capable of working towards the same goal. It’s because we’re all human that we owe at least one thing to each other: respect.
When someone takes a culturalist attitude towards me, whatever interpersonal transaction that might transpire is immediately broken or nullified, because, once again, i am not a culturalist. And when they refuse to drop their culturalist attitude, i continue to be unable to interact with them in any meaningful way.
When a Korean writes me off as a Korean-American and neglects to confront whatever might be “American” about me that displeases them, they are being culturalist. When a Korean treats me any differently for being Korean American, they are being culturalist. If anyone has a problem with any of my actions or words, whether it be typically “American” or “Korean” or just plain offensive, they should confront me about it, as i would with them, instead of disrespecting me without giving me a chance to explain myself.
Culturalism is objectionable because it unnecessarily disunites us and does nothing to resolve these clashes. I refuse to subscribe to any culture, because i believe there is a better ideal for us to work towards: a humanity of mutual respect—nothing more, nothing less.
ADD. I understand that for those who grew up in a single culture, it could be difficult to adopt a nonculturalist view. It’s easier for me because i grew up with two cultures, and in straddling them, i’ve learned of the uselessness of and harm in explaining things away with culture. I can’t think of a convincing reason for an enclosed, homogenous society to shed its culturalism for outsiders’ sake (though progress by way of successful interaction with other cultures could be one), but i think for all other societies, it’d be in everybody’s best interest to refrain from culturalism. South Korea is certainly not enclosed, though it is still largely homogenous (this is changing, too, but slowly and with much resistance from the Koreans). Since it’s not my place to decide what would be best for Korean society, i can’t say whether or not Koreans should eschew culturalism. All i know is that i’m not comfortable being culturalist, and i wish others wouldn’t launch culturalist attacks on me. I don’t treat Koreans any differently for being Korean, and i expect them to not treat me any differently for being Korean American. Whether or not they actually will return the favor is a different question, but one can hope.