Saturday, January 30, 2010

Guilt And Shame In Southeast Asia

There are things that I feel guilty about, in fact it’s getting to be an impressive list, I’ve had so long to work on it. And shame, well, I’m no stranger to shame either. I have done things that I am embarrassed about, things that no man should ever do, like learn to sing the entire theme song to “Friends,” that was last year.

I read a book long ago that compared guilt and shame, European style guilt v. Asian style shame, guilt culture v. shame culture. It was very illuminating, I wish I could give you the title. One of the main examples was a comparison of the behavior of Germany to the behavior of Japan after World War II. Germany accepted guilt for the acts committed on her behalf, apologized, made reparations, and took steps to insure that it would not happen again, such as including the real facts in its education curricula. Japan, on the contrary, did nothing, preferring to act as though nothing had happened, and if it had happened, it was someone else’s fault, and Japan was just one of the victims.

In the guilt culture of Germany, acceptance, acknowledgement, and atonement equaled expiation; in the shame culture of Japan, even accepting that anything untoward had happened would lead to shame, for entire families, and shame is forever, so take this stony silence and like it, all you dead Chinese, all you sword-practice-dummies, all you casually murdered Filipinos, all you Korean kidnapped sex-slaves, all of y’all go take a walk!

We still remember what the Germans and the Japanese did in the Thirties and Forties, but we give the Germans some credit for sharing our horror of it and dealing with it, dealing with reality. The West is more disposed to accept reality and deal with it; Asia, not so much.

I witnessed a motorcycle accident yesterday in my Bangkok neighborhood. I was walking along the main drag, in the direction of the traffic, when I heard something behind me and was suddenly being passed by pieces of motorcycle sliding down the road. I turned back to look, and there was this guy struggling to his feet near the downed motorcycle, pointing down the road, no doubt indicating the car that had clipped him. He looked like he was trying to will it to stop, and he made some attempts to induce other drivers to chase after them. Pretty soon it was too late for that and they were safely gone.

I don’t know how this accident fits into the above discussion, but I have a feeling that it does somehow. Probably a money thing, more than anything else, if the guy stops maybe he’ll be on the hook for some money. Car insurance is mandatory here, but like everything that has been mandated in the Thai legislature, enforcement is spotty. No, the errant driver just split, not having been caught equaled no shame, and a penny saved is a penny earned, so it turned out to be a good day!

Asia is a different world, and there is more at work here than a little savings of money and the avoidance of taking responsibility. The borders of right and wrong are also stretched in this milieu.

Like cheating on tests. I have taught at every level in Thailand, literally from Kindergarten to graduate school, and I have never encountered any reticence to cheat on tests. Grammar school students are shameless, they will copy entire tests from their equally ignorant neighbor, in fact, clusters of five or six of them will hand in identical tests with identical, hysterically wrong answers. They don’t find anything wrong with the behavior. High schoolers either, except that there they may be clever enough to change a word here and there, more experienced at cheating, no doubt.

What could be wrong with cheating on a test? No one got hurt, and I was just helping myself, where’s the harm?

I didn’t do much cheating in high school, and none at all in grammar school or in higher education. Once, in sophomore year of high school, I was in with a group who got the World History test in advance. The teacher was the coach of the basketball team, and one of the team members had stolen a copy, a good friend of mine was on the team. So the group of us all got like ninety five percent on the test, and it was a tough test too. We never got caught, but even so I felt pretty guilty about it. Well beyond any fear of being caught.

Maybe something like an injury hit-and-run accident, or war crimes, is wrong, but bringing the shame of it back home to the family is more wrong. What about the cheating? I’m pretty sure that’s not considered wrong at all. Same goes for plagiarizing graduate papers, “everybody does it!”

I don’t even understand my own culture, so I guess it’s safe to say that Asia will always be a mystery to me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

a standup comic's take on the "Friends" theme song you might enjoy--