Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Oh Ji Ho and the Korean Caste System

Judging from the many hits I’ve had here at the site, I feel it safe to assume the word about Oh Ji Ho’s friend and companion committing suicide has hit the fan, and everyone wants to hear all about it.

I probably know as much about it as you do, but do you know…?

Korea has a distinct caste system, although they are loath to call it that. Instead they excuse it by calling it tradition. I have despised it since I became aware of it, and I don’t excuse it on any grounds.

There was an amusing piece about K-Dramas posted at K-PopVideo recently. I thought it was pretty funny and close to the bone, so I posted it at The Hyacinth Papers.

Yes, it’s funny, but, there is something unfunny about the nasty truth it reveals.

8. When someone hits a subordinate, it is always on the head, and most often across the back of the head.

My note: why feel so free to hit a subordinate?

9. The wealthy have contempt for those without, and those on the lower rungs kiss the feet of their superiors. Korean society treats the wealthy and the poor completely differently.

This applies to those public figures that have achieved fame also. And it is a very powerful force in the culture of Korea, and within families where the bludgeon of guilt is useful.

If a family doesn’t want a son or daughter to marry someone they don’t feel fits their idea of ‘correct’ in terms of status, for one thing, the marriage is almost impossible to achieve. (See My Lovely Km, Sam-soon for the perfect example, or if you can stomach it, see Memories of Bali, an unfunny terrible story of family, business, and propriety according to the omnipotent parents who lean on custom like a crutch, and wield it like a club, in order to control, and incidentally destroy, their younger son who loves a ‘common’ girl. Nobody wins in that one.

Oh Ji Ho is a victim of this societal structure, this caste system. He is a Korean. He was raised with the customs, and has evidently buckled under their weight. You have to have seen Memories of Bali to appreciate just how intense that weight can be. It is The Irresistible Force.

You have no doubt seen the news coverage regarding Oh Ji Ho. In a sense, it makes him look so guilty because he lied.

Guilty of what? Self protection?

Yes, he did not tell all when the news first leaked out. His career is in jeopardy now, and in fact it may already be in ruins because this unhappy woman killed herself, and initially he denied being involved with her.

According to some articles I’ve come upon in a very conservative online version of the news(The Korea Herald), suicide has become almost a national pastime. I just typed the words korea suicides into Google, and got 1, 800,000 entries to choose from. It seems to have become the awful solution for so many woes.

When I view this situation in that light I see it from a perspective that is very saddening, but also more understandable. I have trouble with Oh Ji Ho’s denial, but I also have a real problem regarding doubtless extreme blame that will be launched at him from so many sides.

The bottom line is this though: This young woman made a choice. She took her own life. She was not murdered. She killed herself.

I am not romantic enough to believe that love is something you kill yourself over.

In my country, it would be viewed as a tragedy for all involved, definitely including Oh Ji Ho. He would be supported by those who care about him. He would very likely not be dumped alongside a cliff because he has become a financial liability. Actually, here he would not become one. We are not as a nation, so full of self-righteousness.

He will feel guilt for the rest of his life because the culture has failed him as it has so many others. It has formed him; it has overburdened him with obligations to a skewed societal structure. The woman was a bar hostess. So what? If he loved her here, they'd be left alone to live their lives and flourish. That's called Democracy.

The Korean culture creates people who are driven to be successful from the first minute they enter school. They are obligated the second they are born. Bucking up against the parental, scholastic, employer related, public related wall of demanded obedience to that society is to crash and burn.

It will be easy for some to say things about him that are damaging to him because they have an image of this man that is not accurate in the least. It is a dream.

He is imagined to be a hero of some sort. He is imagined to be a great lover. He is fantasized about as the rescuer who will ride in and take many women away from their drab lives. He is envisioned as a prospective husband to thousands of wishers.

He is none of these things.

He is human. He has his failures and flaws of personality. He has weakness and fear within himself. He is, simply put, just like me. And if you are honest with yourself, just like you too.

I will continue to support him, and I will continue to give all my heart over to understanding the entire thing with clarity, and good judgment.

There is a song sung by Tom Rush from a long time ago. One line always stands out in my mind. It is, “Don’t confront me with my failures, I’ve not forgotten them.” Right.

And just before you say, “I would never have done what he did”, remember this: never is a long time, and you don’t know what’s around the corner.

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