Finding Chwulsin

I am discovering that this first post is the hardest.  I already have a back log of posts, ready for posting (but we will wait for now), but I’ve re-written this particular post three or four times.  And within the hardest entry, is the hardest paragraph.  That would be this one.  I want to explain here where I want this blog to go, but I find that maybe I don’t know myself.  Nevertheless, broadly speaking this blog will chronicle my experience as a Second-language Educator in the South Korean public education system.  The interpretation of “experience” is pretty open.

To start this whole thing off, I want to address a core or fundamental idea about why I am here, doing this.  Lay out my thesis.  I will probably have a much better idea of what I am doing here, once it is all over.  Hindsight has tremendous power.  Writing out my best guess now and then comparing as we go along might be fun too.

As I have been reading and preparing myself to really dive in and learn Korean, I have come across some interesting linguistic and cultural ideas that are expressed in the language.  One of these ideas is briefly discussed in The Korean Language: Structure, Use and Context by Jae Jung Song; it is the idea of Chwulsin.  In a phrase, chwulsin is your background, your origin, where you come from, but also something more; and it is very important in Korean culture.  When I read about it in the opening chapter of Jae Jung Song’s book, I was immediately interested in learning further about this idea.   It is a shame that it is not a common topic of discussion, at least in English writing on Korean language and culture, and I could not find any other sources to add to my understanding.  I suppose I’ll get the hands-on education while I am here.

As I understand Jae Jung Song, chwulsin, as an idea, comes from the Confucianism teaching that society’s organization needs to be based on organization found in nature (as Confucianism sees it).  To quote a passage:

In a society organized in this way, social relationships cannot but be rigid and fixed.  It is assumed that people are not (created) equal, just as things in nature are not.  Social harmony, it is maintained in Confucianism, can be achieved by stable social relationships.  Knowing one’s place in social groupings is, therefore, crucial for social harmony and stability (pg 10).

I don’t want to pretend to know the nuances of such a philosophy.  From what I’ve seen so far in social relationships is that it’s often not about a person but their station.  For example, the first time I saw a police officer with my Korean co-teacher we politely addressed the officer and bowed.  So far, not so different from America, I wouldn’t bow to a cop; but of course I would give them a certain amount of respect that comes simply from their station as a police officer.  That may evidence itself in a simple head-nod, a hello, a wave or at most, a handshake.  I could also show respect by staying out their way.  Next, in the same building we saw the police officer (a bank) we ran into the “chairman of the bank”.  I don’t know if that’s what we call them in America, but he was just the highest ranking official for that specific location.  When my co-teacher greeted him (like he knew him?) and then bowed (as if this guy had social power over him), I was a little surprised and even though I mimicked my friend, I found it strange that I should bow to the guy who runs a bank?  But like they say, when in Rome…

The idea within chwulsin that I find even more interesting than how one operates social relations, is how your “rigid and fixed” social status affects your life, and how one can make that rigidity soften and become fluid (as Koreans do; (pg 10) and how a Korean comes to understand their identity in the context of their family status, education, marriage, etc,.  While a person may be born into a lower class, a family can, and often does, work hard to give the children the opportunity to get a better education and attend a better university, so that while their social class may be considered “bad” chwulsin, being a college graduate from a prestigious university can help you out.  Perhaps you’ve met a Korean who told you about spending around eight hours a day in school and then went to tutoring institutions.  It’s a pretty important part of your chwulsin.

In all honesty, this is not so different from the United States and our western culture.  We just pretend that we don’t live in such a culture that has well-defined social classes, or that, given their existence, we can move up and down those social scales based on our individual hard work and effort.  But, research in anthropology suggests that Americans are more likely to marry within their social class (referred to as ‘Caste Endogamy’) than other socio-economically similar societies.  I’m not exactly well-versed in either the western or eastern ideas and philosophies that might give more insight, I guess my point is, as Jon Stewart recently said in an interview with Mormon historian Joanna Brooks, “We’re all the same shit-heads at heart”.

I write as if I actually know what it is I am talking about.  I am neither an expert in anthropology broadly or eastern cultures specifically.  I certainly am no philosopher in the tradition of Confucianism.  That’s part of what this is all about.  Describing where I am at and correcting the course. Feel free to help me there.  Moving on.

Upon considering his place in the cosmos, Calvin in Calvin and Hobbes once proclaimed, “Thousands of

I *am* the end result of history

generations lived and died to produce my exact, specific parents, whose reason for being, obviously, was to produce me”.  My insight, or the thing I want to delve into further with this blog, that this whole idea of chwulsin started, is: How do I view my origin as seen through the experiences of living in Korea? And, beyond that, how do I identify (if at all) with that story?  I know my origin/cultural story; as a Mormon, my mother raised me on genealogy and in church I heard countless stories about my pioneer heritage.  Like most young people, my ancestors didn’t exactly enthrall me and listening to my mother explain (verbally) how I am related to old so-and-so could be quite painful.  I think I understand that story.  But is it too insular?  Am I missing something obvious by not taking into account at least another portion of the 99% of non-utah, non-mormons?  What can they tell me, about me, that I already knew, but didn’t know that I knew? Sounds contrived and convoluted, but I think the “answers” to the meaningful question hiding behind the words, are probably simple. Occam’s Razor, or some such.  Hopefully I wander into some of those.

If such questions bore you, or irritate you, this blog will probably bore and irritate you just a little.  No fears however! I will also write about other equally boring subjects, like ESL education, lesson plans, teaching techniques and, from time to time, a travel log.  I know people like pictures.

2 thoughts on “Finding Chwulsin

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