▲ Sir Edward Belcher, by Stephen Pearce (died 1904)
Winston Churchill once said about Korea: “I’d never heard of the bloody place until I was 74.” Thanks to Psy, and maybe Samsung, few people today could now get away with claiming that.
Korea is everywhere. While its culture is still an opaque minefield of potential faux pas, we now have every opportunity to arm ourselves with the bows and chopstick skills to avoid serious embarrassment or offense. This wasn’t always the case, however.
At a time when more and more of the globe was being turned Empire red, a British naval officer was plying Asia’s seaways encountering new cultures. With less-than-innocent intentions, Edward Belcher (1799–1877) sailed to Jeju Island on H.M.S. Samarang between 1843-46. Belcher, without the luxury of Google, or even Bruce Cumings, anchored armed with just good old-fashioned British common sense. More by luck than by design, it turned out to be all he needed.
Belcher is a model in how to alienate the locals (perhaps a prerequisite in the Royal Navy of the day). His journey was recorded in his log, “Narrative of the voyage of H.M.S. Samarang.” While from a distance this throws up a series of comedic capers, there are also some fascinating lessons, showing that while things change, others stay the same.
The cultural hurdles we experience today were clearly very much present 170 years ago. While Belcher resembled a bull in a china shop (he later laid waste to Canton to press this point home), today we have no excuses.
Here is a lighthearted look at Belcher’s 10 Lessons in Culture Shock as taken from his logbook.
Lesson one - When language fails, don’t resort to aggression
Belcher landed on Udo, an island to Jeju’s east. In a strange land with unknown mores, he decided that under the law of the jungle, violence was universal. He must make a stand.
“I thought it better to put the matter beyond further doubt ... I leaped on shore, with a musket ... and took possession of the mound. They instantly perceived that we were not to be trifled with, and a better understanding was soon established between us.”
While foreigners brandishing muskets are few and far between - outside of Itaewon, at least - frustration, leading to aggression, is a common experience of living in a strange land with odd customs. Belcher, however, should have endured a little longer before playing the “aggression card” to get his point across.
Lesson two - Sunbathing will mark you out as strange
Having forced his way onto land, Belcher found his cover story provoked profound confusion. He explained to suspicious locals that his purpose was “to catch a small piece of sun, and measure the land.” Belcher felt this only confused matters.
“It is very probable ... that our mysterious dealings with the sun had a much stronger effect in preventing any further opposition.”
Foreigners here are more than familiar with the Korean regard for sunbathing, or “mysterious dealings with the sun.” It is comforting to know Belcher was similarly pitied for his strange ways.
Lesson three: - Resist cultural chauvinism
It being the 19th century, Belcher assumed that being white gave him dispensation to act like an ass.
“[T]he [locals] were so filthy in their manners and persons, that it became a matter of necessity to keep them aloof. [They were] so far beyond the bounds of decorum, that they were very soon taught that the white-faced foreigner was able to punish their presumption, even without the assistance of weapons.”
There are many times in Korea when being a foreigner can be advantageous, but Belcher misplays his card very early on. This is not recommended.
Lesson four - You will be feared
Fear is still a common response to the sight of a foreigner in Korea. While observing the locals, Belcher saw the 19th-century equivalent of screaming schoolgirls running behind a car at the sight of a hairy foreign barbarian.
“Those of the laboring class were only noticed when taken by surprise, and they certainly had no cause for their extraordinary alarm and rapid flight.”
While today this is just as much driven by fear of using English, or catching HIV, in Belcher’s day it was probably the musket he was brandishing. (See Lesson one).
Lesson five - You will provoke amazement
Children might stroke your arm hair, slack-jawed, and villagers might cross the road to check if you are human. Belcher found this out, too.
“[T]he customary curiosity about the texture of our clothing, uniforms ... was indulged in. [A]n inquisitive member of the rabble ... had been carrying his curiosity to an impertinent excess [and the police] repelled him more roughly than he anticipated.”
Unlike Belcher, most of us don’t have armed guards, so just get used to it.
▲ Narrative of the voyage of H.M.S. Samarang during the years 1843 - 46, circa 1848.Courtesy Robert Neff Collection
Lesson six - Respect local etiquette
Few moments are as important as introductions and Korean etiquette here is quite nuanced. Belcher didn’t care for that, however, and gladly steamrolled over custom.
“He received me sitting [and] I planted myself sans ceremonie on the mat near him, and shook him by the hand, in true English style, a compliment which I observed somewhat to discompose him.”
Planting yourself “sans ceremonie” on the mat and giving a firm, manly handshake to show who’s boss is a good way to alienate your Korean host. For Belcher, local custom is nothing but an affront and inconvenience. Don’t follow his lead.
Lesson seven - Prepare to witness corporal punishment
Despite the fact it is officially outlawed, you will see students beaten in schools. You will also see them toddle off, as if nothing has happened. Even Belcher was impressed with this.
“I interceded to prevent the repetition of such torture, but at least a dozen of these terrific blows were inflicted...yet the instant the culprit was released he nimbly tucked up his garments and fled, possibly accustomed to this mode of castigation.”
We’ve all seen a student toddle off, “possibly accustomed to this mode of castigation.”
Lesson eight - Don’t view everything through a western lens
Belcher just couldn’t understand the strange acts of the Orientals he encountered. Upon attempting to cut down a tree, after receiving official blessing, Belcher was stunned when:
“[T]he authorities withdrew their consent...because one old man chose to embrace the tree ... terming it his “child,” doubtless his private property.”
Belcher, clouded by assumptions, assumed the crying man was driven by commercial interest. More likely it was a sacred tree which stood in every village. Western values are not always readily transferable to the Land of the Morning Calm.
Lesson nine - Use Korean whenever possible
Whether it be the kids’ names, local landmarks or the language itself, learning Korean is often the most important - and difficult - step in overcoming culture shock. Belcher didn’t show much interest in this. He wrote this upon spying Udo, a local island.
“I have thought fit to designate [it] Beaufort Island, after our worthy chief, at the head of the Hydrographic department.”
Don’t follow Belcher’s example, the old salt, and name students - or geographical features - after friends in your local hydrographic department. He also renamed Mt. Halla, after his boss. Resist this also.
Lesson ten: Try to accept food offered
Arguably the most important of all cultural lessons: never, ever, refuse food offered to you. The kudos you will receive will always outweigh any temporary discomfort you experience as you chew down on some pig’s feet, or silkworm larvae.
Upon being wished bon voyage, a local official also: “express[ed] chagrin that I did not eat the breakfast provided for me.” While Belcher may have thought nothing of this, it almost certainly led to a loss of face for the unfortunate official. Protect face, eat everything.
Next week - the Prince Philip guide to getting down with the natives.
The Narrative of the voyage of H.M.S. Samarang can be read in full here.
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