There are people in every nation in the world who are absolutely confident that their country is the best. Not just in a, “Hey, our national cuisine is super! Isn’t our anthem just epic and heart-warming? And just check out that flag—why, I have several attached to my lapels!”, but something beyond that. A weird, seedy, deep-down knowing that your people are basically the Übermensch. That yeah, cultural relativism is nice and all, but isn’t everywhere else full of kind of… icky people anyway?
It’s a common enough belief. And one with an understandable base, if not an understandable outcome. Everyone wants to be special – and if, as is likely, being one of about seven billion-odd people on this planet, you are not actually special yourself, don’t you want to be part of a special group? Of Stonemasons or Elks or Bridgeport Ladies Knitting Group or a master race? People around the world want to feel as though they’re a part of something, and especially so if that something is kind of better than all the other and opposing somethings. If it involves not doing anything more than continuing to live in the place they already live, and be born the way they do, well, then, hooray! Superiority with little to no effort is the best kind.
It takes a lot of forms, this idea of the chosen land. For a lot of countries, it’s defined by divine hand. God, or gods, or Gods (depending on who you talk to), decided to get all picky and play favourites amongst the children. He, or She, or They, or It (or it) decided that exactly one group of people with barely distinguishable genetic variances from the others in their species were just kind of cooler than the rest, and bam, suddenly their country is the greatest. No arguments now. God said it, you all heard him (or etc.).
In others, it has to do with being the best at something. Having the shiniest, most phallic nuclear warheads. Having the most thoroughly oppressed and hardy people. Possessing great deals of natural resources, television entertainers, or just world-famous mouth-burning foods. Something about the country makes it special, and as it is special, it is thus greater than all the rest.
Most people around the world, not being nutjobs, take it easy on hits from the nationalism bong. They understand moderation, and thus love their country in a sort of bland, mealy-mouthed way: you love your country the way you love porridge, or new car smell. And in your own country, this sort of bland love is a kind of comforting background, a shared assumption, a common vague, passionless love affair in which you all participate.
It’s weird to experience this from the outside. Your own country’s nationalism is pleasant and non-threatening because you’re on the inside, because the Other is out there, and far away, and your unity is vague and yielding like a nice pudding. You’re with the in-group, and if your nation is the best, you’ve already got citizenship and a nice passport.
But when you are on the other side, when you are the Other, and view nationalism through the window, it can come off weird. Your own nationalism is, of course, acceptable and easy and righteous, because that’s where you’re from! The nationalism of others, even the bland, inoffensive kind just seems weird and overbearing.
When you go somewhere and get to be the actual other, it is bewildering long before it can ever become threatening. Most people are just proud of Korea, in the same way that back home, lots of people are proud of Canada (though as good Canadians with deeply installed confidence issues, the pride is tempered with a healthy dose of wishy-washy regret and self-doubt). As people who are proud of their country, occasionally it leads people to go on and on about what makes their country great (if you prod a Canadian, they can easily rattle on about either free health care, majestic mountains, multiculturalism, or stupendous indie music, depending on their generation). That Korea, traditionally known as the Hermit Kingdom, is trying to be known in a big way, means I endure a lot of conversations trying to extol upon me the virtues of various Koreana. Which is fine, because I prattle just as well.
The trouble comes when you suddenly are forced to interact with the hardliners. Back home, they are horrible, certainly, but being part of the the in-group softens the blow. Yes, their opinions are gross and you do what you can to make them go away or shut up, but ultimately they aren’t talking about you.
It is thus more than a little jarring experiencing strong nationalism from a place where I am not part of the nation, to finally be on the other side, to be that one that they’re talking about. Mixed with Korea’s understandable tendency to get all Jan Brady about the world stage, suddenly you have someone yapping in your face about the glorious nation of Korea, in which you have already lived for over a year, but obviously know nothing about.
Korea is special, these people say. Super special. And Korea is actually special, but usually the stuff you get presented with approaches a mundanity that makes porridge-love seems ever more appropriate. Korea has four seasons. Korea has spicy food. Koreans don’t wear their shoes indoors. Koreans care about their parents. I don’t have time to be angry, because I am too busy being confused.
In turn, for these people, Koreans themselves are special, and thus anyone else achieving the heights of their lifestyles must basically be superhuman. You can use chopsticks very well! they declare. You can read Hangul! At first meeting, these are simple appreciations of your effort, and your worldliness. But I have some people who have known me for going on two years who still express shock and surprise that I am capable of the most simplistic of feats. Wow, you can use the buses here? Congratulations! That student was crying, but you comforted him, and now he is not crying?! You can buy groceries from the store? You can cook ramyeon?!
I am put off by these attacks upon not even my intelligence, but my very sapience as a human being. Many people in Korea will use, “You’re just like a Korean!” as a compliment, usually after one of the above discoveries. From regular people, it means this: “You’re approachable! You’re trying and I like that.” From jerkbags for whom your ongoing survival abroad is near-Herculean, it means: “Wow, it’s almost like you’re not that horrible race you are!”
And for most of the populace, these people are horrifying. They look upon these mouthbreathing trolls the way I look upon their Canadian equivalents in my homeland: with a deep, cringing embarrassment. With every fiber of their being and fingers clenched on the bridges of their noses, most want to inform me that these goons are the exception, and they don’t know how much it pains them to have me deal with them (I once told a coworker about some old drunken lout who had harassed me for… being whitey on the subway, to her clenched-teeth horror). But I do know. Because there are chosen land loons all around the world, the crazy uncles and aunts of the world stage, who we all have to roll our eyes and put up with.