Watching popular American sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” Korean viewers could be appalled at the character Sheldon making fun of Howard for holding only a master’s degree from MIT.
In the show, Sheldon, who is a theoretical physicist with a Ph.D. from Harvard, openly mocks Howard for his lower academic degree and his alma mater, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If a Korean TV series aired such a scene of belittling a specific degree or university, it would immediately create a nationwide scandal, condemning the show as committing an unpardonable sin of hurting the pride of those who hold a master’s degree or who attended the university. Then the broadcast company would be forced to apologize to the public and end the show once and for all.
To many Korean people’s surprise, however, no one from MIT seems to have filed a grievance. Perhaps because it is just a comedy and it is already well-known that MIT equals Harvard, or even betters it, especially in science and technology. In fact, Harvard and MIT are not only rivals, but are also mutually beneficial and cooperating institutions. Sometimes Sheldon disparages Princeton, too, as his roommate Leonard attended it. Yet, no protest from Princeton has been heard either.
In addition, Sheldon frequently humiliates Leonard’s wife Penny for attending a community college, deriding her low level of intellect. Surely, Sheldon’s derogatory jokes may have hurt the feelings of those who are attending or have attended a community college. Yet, no community college-related person seems to have criticized the sitcom either.
Sheldon also makes derogatory remarks on other fields of science such as geology, snorting, “Geology is not even science.” However, not a single geologist seems to have complained about it.
Such a generosity of the American people is a sphinx’s riddle to many Koreans. The American psychology seems to be as follows: Unless you have an inferiority complex, why would you be upset about such a trivial thing?
As long as you are confident of yourself, you do not need to be offended by a simple comedy show. You can just laugh about it. Koreans cannot help but be amazed by such magnanimity of the American people, which presumably comes from firm self-confidence that is not easily swayed by the jokes of a TV comedy.
In Korean culture, you have to be very careful when you write a TV or movie script. For example, if a TV show or movie disparages a particular occupation in Korea, it would immediately come under fire from those in that profession, who would think they were mortally insulted and would react vehemently. One of the reasons for such a phenomenon can be found in the Korean psychology that cannot tolerate losing face, especially in front of others. Traditionally in Korean society, people value “chemyeon,” or saving face. Therefore, when they fear they are losing face, especially in public, Koreans cannot stand it and tend to react violently.
Koreans think that others’ derogatory remarks about their schools or jobs hurt their pride. Strictly speaking, however, it may not have so much to do with their pride, per se, as their latent inferiority complex. Koreans call it “yeolpok,” or explosion of one’s inferiority complex.
Indeed, if you are confident of yourself, you would not explode in anger. Instead, you would be able to laugh about it. Regrettably, however, many Koreans seem to harbor an inferiority complex instead of self-confidence.
Perhaps an inferiority complex and the lack of self-confidence is the reason that “breakup violence” so frequently happens in Korea.
When a girlfriend announces a breakup, many Korean men do not seem to be able to cope with it coolly and rationally. Instead, they become furiously upset and do not let her go easily. Psychologists point out that such a situation would trigger a Korean man’s inferiority complex and make him react violently. If a man is confident in himself, he can deal with it calmly and let her go, even though he is devastated. That would be so cool. Unfortunately, however, that is not the way it is in Korea.
There were times when Koreans could not be free from an inferiority complex.
For example, when Korea was a poverty-stricken, totally unknown country that had to depend on foreign aid in the past, the Korean people inevitably had an inferiority complex. But those days are over now. Korea has become an internationally well-known, affluent society admired by other countries. Besides, young Korean men and women are distinctively tall, refined and stylish these days.
Now is the time, then, that we should say “No!” to our inferiority complex and have self-confidence instead.
Foreigners have pointed out that Koreans are not tolerant of criticism. We should build confidence in ourselves, so we can embrace criticism. We need to have self-confidence, generosity and magnanimity to laugh about jokes at our expense. We do not need to be offended by silly humorous pranks. We should overcome the inferiority complex and be confident in ourselves. Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.