Thursday, September 14, 2006

Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere...

Many things divide the childless from those with children. One of them, undoubtedly, has to be ideas about the cleanliness of excrement. You all are probably sick of my peeing stories, but I can tell you that pee doesn’t faze me -- as long as it is my kid’s pee. When Emily was here in July she happened to witness Aiden spraying me in the eye during one of his midnight bathroom runs. This disturbed her because it was gross and disturbed me because I was wearing glasses and couldn’t understand how such a thing could occur given the laws of physics.

Exhibit A: average childless person. Avoids other people’s excrement.
Exhibit B: parent of baby or toddler. Swims in excrement all day with little or no perturbation. “It’s not pee, it’s my baby’s pee!”

I bring this up to make the point that cleanliness is not all that straightforward. In colonial, missionary, imperialist rhetoric the promotion of ideas of cleanliness and hygiene reinforced categories of civilized and barbarian, conqueror and conquered. Even these days, cleanliness provides a way of ordering the stages of development within the 2nd world -- those who have been to China are surprised how clean Korea is and people who have been to Japan are surprised how dirty it is. There is little garbage on the ground (especially compared to many large American cities) but the pollution is pretty bad.

But to really discuss contemporary “cleanliness” in Korea, we have to go beyond the amount of garbage on the street and the quality of the air. We have to recognize another paradigm shift -- another divide -- between Korean senses of cleanliness and American ones (not to lump the spic and span among us with those who have dried up pieces of bread under our beds -- I know the category of “American” is problematic, but hear me out).

Let’s begin with the shoes. Most Koreans would have a heart attack if you entered their house with your shoes on and lay on the bed without taking them off. Shoes belong to a very specific geography -- namely, the floor outside. On the subway, people will take off their shoes if they wish to put their feet up on the seat. At the park, they take off their shoes to sit on the mat/picnic blanket, or on the wooden raised platforms where people rest. In a restaurant, you take your shoes off to sit on the floor.

The rules surrounding the proper placement of footwear are just a symptom of a larger, foreign system of categories of inside and outside. Let’s look at clothes, for instance. In high school, I was notorious for not wanting to sacrifice precious moments of sleep in order to get dressed, so I would occasionally go to sleep wearing some or all of the clothes I had intended to wear to school the next morning. Here, however, you have inside clothes and outside clothes. You come home and change into your inside clothes. When it’s time to leave you put on your outside clothes. Outside clothes, by virtue of being worn outside, are dirty. Inside clothes are clean (unless you are Christina Aguilera, then they may just be dirrty). My Chinese teacher lives with her grandma, who won’t even let her past the shoe cabinet -- she has to take off all her outside clothes and shake them out before entering the apartment proper. Coming home has all sorts of new procedures here -- shaking out your clothes, changing them, washing your hands, and sometimes also washing your feet. Because feet (since you have to take off your shoes so often, or because you may have been wearing sandals) have come in contact with the dirty world, they need to be washed.

Categories are indicated not just by what you wear, when, but also by what you wash together or separately. Underwear? Washed separately. Baby clothes? Also washed separately. Cleaning rags are also separated into two categories: “haengju” (행주 ) are rags used to wipe tables and dry dishes, and “kollae” (걸레 ) are rags used to wash the floor (generally no carpets here, so people wipe the dust off the floor periodically -- much more often than you would in the States -- much more dust here). These rags are also often sterilized by boiling them in a mixture of water and bleach on the stove. But separately, of course, so you don’t mix the floor dirtiness with the table/dishes dirtiness.

No one has expressed this directly, but there seems to be some idea of cross-contamination underlying all these categories, handed down from elders to the younger generation. Just as it is my Chinese teacher’s grandma who makes her disrobe at the entrance of the apartment, it is my mother-in-law who insists on having all the cleaning rags boiled and washed separately. Now a habit, I can’t even think of washing them with the rest of the laundry. And I wonder how much of these cleaning ideas come from older notions of the spread of disease. My in-laws, for instance, seem to have very weird ideas about disease transmission. They don’t seem to understand about germs, but they have all sorts of ideas about the harmful effects of wind and sun on babies and weak people. Women who have given birth, for instance, are supposed to stay indoors and rest for 3 weeks, being careful not to touch anything cold. Somehow a weak body’s sudden exposure to coldness is supposed to to take a toll on one’s system. This is why babies are not supposed to be in the wind; the wind will sap the heat from the baby’s body. When my kids get sick, my in-laws assume that they have eaten something bad or done something wrong. My explanation that it is just a virus going around, nothing much we can do about it, falls on deaf ears. When Max was young, it drove me crazy that strangers on the street would come up to him and touch his hands, and then tell me I didn’t dress him warmly enough. In my vision of the world, they were making him sick by spreading their viruses to him through his hands (which he would immediately put in his mouth) and in their vision of the world I was making him sick by not keeping him inside and warm.

These alternate inside/outside/clean/dirty categories apply to food as well. Food you make yourself (or rather, food your wife or mother makes for you) is “clean.” Food from restaurants is “dirty.” So feeding Max kimpap from a restaurant was considered “dirty” even though it is healthier than some of the junk food I see small children eating here sometimes (chips, sweet drinks, etc.) I can understand that where this understanding comes from, however: until recently, the health and cleanliness standards at various restaurants and shops were pretty uneven. Even now I wouldn’t feed my kids kimpap from the people who sell them at small stands near the subway.

Any anthropologists out there wanting to do a field study? You are welcome to come to my place and clean for a while. Just be prepared for all the pee.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love the way you write:)

Jon Allen said...

Hi Jennifer, I too like the way you write and posts you've done. I've added you to my blogroll.

Jennifer Lee said...

Thanks!
Jon, I added you to my blogroll as well...

I thought of another shoe example... at my gym, you're supposed to wear "clean" shoes in the fitness center -- shoes which are only used indoors, not the same shoes you wore to walk around outside.