Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Minding Everyone's Business: Collectivism

They are everywhere: riding the subway, standing on street corners, scanning my groceries, driving my taxi. I cannot step foot out of my apartment without running into one. Who are they? People telling me my business. Where I come from, this is a serious no-no. Friends, let alone strangers, will be met with a harsh glance and a terse reply should they comment on my choice of food or attire. “Mind your own business,” is a phrase that we learn in our very early playground years and it sticks with us through adulthood. Living in a collectivist culture, however, has brought me to reflect about what exactly is my own business and what makes it so sacredly personal.

We noticed this phenomenon while living in Taiwan. People would come along and show us how to correctly stand in line or hold an umbrella. We learned when it was appropriate to wear gloves (answer: October through February) and when it was appropriate for women to wear high heels (answer: Every. Single. Day.) Sometimes this unsolicited advice was welcomed, sometimes it was fodder for comedic storytelling, but frankly sometimes it was simply annoying. Nonetheless, we learned to deal with it and recognize it as a part of our daily lives.

Fast forward to the arrival of babies last February. Everywhere we turned, Korean women were there with their wise counsel about what I should be doing better. Why aren’t the babies wearing socks right now? Where are their hats? That position is much too uncomfortable for them to sit, you should move them. That is not a good toy for them. Your babies are clearly too hot/too cold right now! You need to add/subtract clothes immediately. And the list goes on. People telling me my business. I have to admit that these comments often left my feathers a bit ruffled. Do you not think that I care about my babies’ welfare? Would I intentionally dress them inappropriately or give them something that was unsafe? Through my own cultural lenses, I perceived this unsolicited instruction as a personal affront to my ability to be a mother. However, after further reflection, I have come to the conclusion that this is not at all the case.

Having grown up in an individualist culture, I learned to value independence above all things. The more you can do on your own, the better person you are. At the other end of the spectrum, collectivists value what you can accomplish together, how well you all can excel by putting your heads together. Through this cultural lens, I can appreciate collectivist advice for what it is. Koreans don’t have the concept of minding their own business because no one has their own business. It is all “our business”. When Koreans offer their assistance on how my children should be dressed, it is not an attack on what I am doing wrong but rather a plea to be involved, even in this tiny way, in my and my family’s life. From that perspective, it is really pretty cool.

So, go ahead. Tell me my children should be wearing more clothes. Help me change their diapers. Give them snacks from your own diaper bag. But be ready, this American girl has a few opinions of her own.

Lucy enjoying the company of some women on the train

Lily getting passed around the subway

Lucy making friends in the local coffee shop


Alice Robbins said...

Sounds like Poland! Our poor missionary moms! They have to get thick skins and just smile, say "Thank you" and walk away. I just look at people, smile and continue on. My neighbor tells me ALL the time that I will get sick since I do not wear a scarf when I go out! They are also amazed in the summer when I walk up to their flat, barefooted! I do that just to tease them! ;) If you don't take it to heart, it is funny to hear and "feel" how other cultures think you are weird, while at the same time, you are thinking the same about them!! :)

Tori said...

Very cool blog sis!

stephanie g said...

Cute pictures of the girls with strangers!!

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