Monday, December 03, 2012

The scramble

A perceptive observation by Kevin Kim:
Koreans are infamously zigzaggy: Korea is the land of last-minute changes in plan, as well as last-minute accomplishments of plans. But despite having lived in Korea for eight years, I've never gotten used to this flexible relationship with punctuality, and often marvel at how such an efficiency-averse culture has managed to succeed as well as it has, both economically and technologically. The answer can only be the scramble: Koreans are famously hard workers, and I suppose much of their effort is devoted to (wasted on, more like) compensating quickly for all the zigzagging from Point A to Point B. This vicious cycle of plan-change-replan reinforces the peninsula's headache-inducing "Hurry! Hurry!" mentality. While the scramble does make Koreans more flexible and open-minded than many of us planning-happy Westerners, it produces a great deal of unnecessary stress and chaos along the way. Korean culture, far from being Swiss-linear, is a drunkard's aimless stumble.
On the other hand, Westerners of the procrastinating type tend to force the scramble upon ourselves, instead of letting other people do it for (to?) us. I'm not sure if that's better or worse...


Kevin Kim said...

A honor to be quoted by a respectable blog. Many thanks.

I agree: we have our share of procrastinators in the West, and I suppose an argument could be made that, on the whole, Western culture is sliding more toward the "procrastinator" end of the spectrum as we lose our post-World War II can-do spirit. But I still think the cultural non-linearity is more visible in Korea than in the countries bordering the North Atlantic: Koreans often have a hard time giving straight "yes" or "no" answers, and are often masters of finding the most indirect route of accomplishing a project. And I've never seen a Korean either walk or drive a perfectly straight line.

If there's an aspect of Western culture that parallels Korean culture, it's the theater: theater folks in the West are some of the zigzaggiest people on the planet. It's a miracle that they manage to get anything done, what with all the interpersonal drama, the battle of easily bruised egos, the extravagantly creative outbursts that lead to distraction from set goals, etc. And yet, night after night, this fractious, motley crew puts on magnificent entertainment for the masses. Somehow, it works.

Cultural nonlinearity has its disadvantages, but it's also a less boring way to live.

matt said...

Less boring, indeed!

As a procrastinator myself, I imagine there's a subconscious desire to make life a little more interesting involved in putting some things off.

As for theater, in high school, I was on the crew of three drama productions, and and it always involved a lot of barely contained chaos. And yet, as you say, it always worked in the end. Good times, they were - thanks for reminding me of them.

bdh said...

"and often marvel at how such an efficiency-averse culture has managed to succeed as well as it has, both economically and technologically. "

Not really that hard to understand. Korea received massive handouts for decades from USA. Korea also received low-interest to zero interest loans from Japan a number of times. The 4 bln. USD low-interest loan in 1983 - in order to help with Korea's Olympic bid (I am sure they teach all about that in school and kimchicheerleaders like Cummings talk about it in every book, no? - later increased to 5bln USD, later zero percent interest never-mind low-interest, later partially forgiven, comes to mind. Further, USA helped prop up a number of companies with illegal or quasi-legal work tenders in the late 60's and early 70's. The most famous of which is of course Hyundai and hundreds of construction contracts they were awarded (sic) in and around Vietnam. Moreover, the people of Korea have (had, have, and continue to) sacrificed quality of life (no parks, no sports fields, no garbage collection, no lights on streets, a sub-standard legal system, environmental degradation etc., etc.,) for national gains and a way to compensate for wasted taxation, systematic inefficiencies and horrible worker productivity (in spite of the propaganda that foreigners love to grasp to - that Koreans are "hard workers") . Finally, Korea has, with US help, played the exporter imbalance because wee-little-us card very well.

Kevin Kim said...

Such animus!