I remember a few years back, after we had moved to Korea, flipping channels to find something interesting to watch and coming across a horrible episode of the Oprah Winfrey show. The episode was about a boy who had been murdered in a bathroom while on a trip with his family to some park or campground. His aunt had taken him to the bathroom, but since he was 9, he didn’t want to go in the women’s bathroom with her, so she took him to the men’s bathroom and stood outside the door while he went in. While he was in the bathroom a man stabbed him to death. Having children of my own, this was so awful to listen to that I can barely write the words even now. But perhaps worse than that was the conclusion that Oprah and the other members drew -- that we all, as parents, should never let our children go to the bathroom by themselves, even if they are 9 years old and don’t want to go to the women’s bathroom. Even if other women don’t like having older boys in the women’s bathroom. We must control all sources of risk, without sense of proportion. And it is the mothers/parents who are responsible, individually, for protecting the children.
When I hear things about the US these days, and when I visit, I feel like the U.S. is becoming a culture of fear, obsessed with prophylactics. But somehow the prophylactics start as “shoulds” and “don’ts” -- admonishments and cautions to be internalized by all responsible individuals -- and end up as laws, part of the system that holds us all into place and governs individual behaviors. Seat belt laws, smoking laws, leash laws, laws about bringing peanuts to school. Everything, it feels to me, is put upon the individual or the legal system. There’s no sense of the social body, of the whole “it takes a village” community. People are so scared to tell others how to be behave or think that every admonishment, every piece of advice, has to be prefaced by some horror story of “I know someone who died because...” or it has to be law.
I feel this so strongly every time I enter the U.S. because Korea is so different. In the winter, kids go “sledding” on a patch of ice near our apartment, but it is not downhill sledding. The kids sit on a square piece of wood and push themselves around with sticks that have nails in the end to provide a point to stick in the ice. When I first saw that -- and remember that in Seoul any place is a crowded place -- I thought, “my god, someone’s going to get an eye poked out!” This would NEVER fly in the U.S. And for good reason. But there’s lots of that stuff going on, and people watch out and tell the kids what to do. That doesn’t mean that accidents don’t occur (and perhaps this was not the best example) but the point is that the knee jerk reaction here is not to put all the onus on the individual or on the law, but rather on the group of people involved in a collective sense.
I went to a talk at an American Women’s Club meeting last year, and the speaker (Michael Breen who wrote The Koreans) said something about how Korea has very low trust. And I disagree -- I think you have to make a distinction. Koreans don’t trust the government and people in power (with good reason... hard memories of the colonial era, of Park Chung-Hee, etc.) but they trust other people in general, even strangers. On the other hand, it seems to me, Americans don’t trust strangers but they, in general, trust authority figures and the government. In Korea, people don’t drink the water even though the government says the water is drinkable, because nobody believes the government. But if a few ajumas say that doing taekwondo at an early age stunts growth, somehow a lot of people believe that. (Before you all jump all over me I do realize I’m conflating a bunch of social groups here... what and who ajumas believe is different than young people, men, educated people, etc...And I’m also ignoring the fact that almost anything on TV is taken as fact by many many people.) In the U.S., my sense is that even if we believe that President Bush is stupid, we have faith in the system that supports him, so that when he says something like “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction” we tend to believe him. (And apparently people STILL believe that, which is very scary indeed.) But if some stranger at the check-out counter told you that gymnastics stunts a kid’s growth you’d probably ask your doctor before you disenrolled your kid from Marva tots. (As I write this I’m thinking of how the system in Korea DOESN’T support itself... you couldn’t ask your doctor about the taekwondo argument because you only have 5 minutes to talk to him during your kid’s annual checkup.)
Now, my perspective is skewed for many reasons. First, because my mother is a total control freak and plans her life around minimizing risk. “Don’t drive on the beltway, Jennifer, it’s too dangerous. Always park in the same space at the mall so you don’t lose your car. Leave for the airport 3 hours ahead of time just in case. Throw it away if it’s past the expiration date.” etc. etc... Maybe she should have her own talk show. She can tell a lot of horror stories about e. coli and traffic accidents. She spends so much time minimizing her risks (and mine too) I'm not sure she has time to live her life. (Ma, hope you’re not reading this...)
And also, Korea feels a lot safer than the U.S. I don’t know if it is safer, but it feels that way. Of course, I don’t understand all of the news. And perhaps some of the bad stuff is underrported. Or perhaps it is overreported or sensationalized in the U.S. It’s funny, how differently people see danger. When I mentioned to someone in the U.S. that I live in Korea, she said, “Oh my, aren’t you afraid living so close to North Korea? I’ve been reading such scary things about that place.” And I told her that I don’t really think about it, and that to me and many people here, life in the U.S. is scarier -- all we hear about are school shootings, kidnappings, terror alerts, rapes, inner city crime.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Do one thing every day that scares you." It is one thing to be cautious, but where is the line between caution and having one's life regulated by fear?