Sunday, May 16, 2004

Generalizations of East Asians... Chinese, Japanese, Koreans

Parable of the Dragon and Ten Pigs... Are Japanese The Model?

A few weeks ago I read a column by an attorney in a Korean newspaper on his recent travels to Shanghai. I tried to find the article online but could not obtain it so the details will not be accurate. He was a Korean working at an international law firm in Hong Kong whose work had taken him often this year to the mainland. His article focused on the parable of the dragon and ten pigs that he learned from his friends in the mainland. The lesson in this Chinese parable was comparing the skills and characteristics of the Chinese with the Japanese. The Chinese are like a dragon, which they described as strong and skillful individually, but within a group they become like ten pigs squealing and running aimlessly in the pen. The Japanese are like ten pigs, who are weaker individually, but come together to become a dragon. The lesson is the work and sweat needed to get things done is in groups not by individuals, and a self-criticism by the Chinese.

I found this interesting because Koreans recognize and sometimes discuss the strength of the Japanese in their teamwork skills and ability to support each other, but it isn't often they are reflective on their weaknesses as much as I hear from the Chinese. I remember listening to various criticisms and comments from Japanese and others about Koreans when the topic of reunification of North and South first came into the forefront about a decade ago. The great potential of reunification would be discussed, but soon dismissed after noting that Koreans would eventually backstab each other and its maximum potential would never be attained.

Though disappointing to hear as a person of Korean descent, I see some of these characteristics. One example is when I first moved to Korea four years ago for work, I learned about a phrase in Korean that people state when good fortune happens for their friend or colleague: "my stomach hurts." This phrase means that you feel a sense of envy for your friend or colleague that receives a promotion at work, windfall of money, etc. It is also disheartening when you see and hear stories of backstabbing and jealousy in Korean corporate environments. I hope this generalized characteristic fades from Korean and Korean American culture.

It's interesting though to hear in the U.S. how Koreans were considered the "Asian Jews." Primarily in a positive spin, this comparison stems from the perception that Koreans are hard-working, intelligent, and very driven to succeed. Also there is a more tangible fact in that many businesses Koreans obtained when they immigrated during the 1960s and 1970s were from Jewish Americans, such as dry cleaners and various retail operations in Chicago and New York.

I grew up in a suburb with a large percentage of Jewish Americans, and some of my friends' parents acknowledged this perceived similarity. A few of them would say that they would allow their daughters "to marry either a Jewish or Korean boy" because they believed Koreans to have "similar values." I would state that one difference I recognize is the formal and informal support system that Jews have which Koreans do not in the U.S. This might originate from all those hurt stomachs in Korea.

It's interesting to hear while living in Asia that the Chinese are considered the "Asian Jews." Not always in these words, but Chinese are considered by most Asians to be the best "money makers" or the smartest with money. Even my native Korean friends and family state or agree on this stereotype of the Chinese. So I assume many of the Chinese in the U.S., being in there several generations longer than Koreans, are diluted too much by American culture. :) Anyway, my mother is one of those Koreans that believes once China has the infrastructure and economic and cultural maturity that they will dominate Asia and much of the world.

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