I was rifling through an antique store with my grandfather a few years ago in Smalltown, Idaho when we ran into a Mennonite woman he apparently knew and with whom he chatted briefly. He and I then headed to the car.
"Wish I could remember who that was," he said when we were underway.
"Sure looked like you knew her," I said.
"Well, I think it was Patrick's wife," he said. "But all these Mennonite women look the same with their clothes on."
* * *
I spend a lot of time riding buses nowadays and there's no better place to consider the tides of society. Buses in Korea aren't the same cultural trainwreck in Korea as in the United States. Everyone rides public transportation here, traffic being impassable, and in riding you need only about fifteen minutes to see what's percolating in the public mind - which is to say, not much. Nevertheless, one of the chief concerns of these bus riders is the desire to look different from the other passengers. But not too different. This is Korea, afterall.
Homogeneity, the Confucian quality of sameness, is a virtue in Korea (though, I assure you, patience is not). The columnist PJ O'Rourke commented on it when he visited Seoul in 1987:
"...and I was thinking, "Oh, no, they really do all look alike," - the same Blackgama hair, the same high-boned pie-plate face, the same tea-stain complexion, the same sharp-focused look in 1 million identical anthracite eyes. They are a strange northern people who came to this mountain peninsula an ice age ago and have kept their bloodlines intact through a thousand invasions." 1
Koreans are One, the same, together in everything and damn proud of it. Whereas in the West we use singular pronouns like "you" and especially "I," the Koreans make every effort to kill uri (we/our/us) through usage. Everything is uri: Uri Bank, uri country, uri Dokdo, though not, presumably, uri underpants. As such, Koreans are expected look, act and think exactly as the next person on the bus. Any obvious difference is eliminated through breeding and everyone looks the same with their clothes on.
But a claustrophobia has developed in the minds of younger Koreans. They're not sure this prefab system has much to recommend it. Unfortunately, their solution doesn't involve the removing clothes. Rather, many Korean women have taken to dying and perming their hair in rebellion. This is a double shame, really, first because Korean women are at their most fetching in a natural state (in all that implies) and, secondly, when one person does something in Korea, they're sure to be followed by a stampede of others. Individuality is acceptable provided you're not alone in it.
Korean adherence to all brands of Normal is pervasive: everyone gets married in the same wedding halls, takes the same honeymoon to Bali, buys apartments of the same design, and drives cars of the same color. Hobbies appear and disappear in waves as everyone and then no one takes them up. So do you think we could find a bowling alley last weekend? Hell, no. We were ten years late. We really must be the local wongda (outcast).
I'm reminded of one of Gary Larson's Far Side comics, where one sheep stands up among a grazing flock and declares, "We don't have to be just sheep!"
I'm waiting for someone to do that in Korea.
1 "Seoul Brothers," by PJ O'Rourke. From Holidays in Hell.