In America, even if many attendees are Christian, general consideration for adherents of other faiths dictates that we steer clear of rhetoric or actions that could remotely be perceived as intimidating or offensive. (Politically correct translation: Words or deeds that actually express an opinion or belief.)
Refreshingly, Koreans don't seem to have this problem.
At a recent Korean trade event in Atlanta, the opening banquet started with a prayer, and not one of those stale, impotent supplications to some distant cloud-sitter. The pastor actually mentioned Jesus and asked for things, big things, like the eradication of poverty through the prosperous business deals that would emerge from the conference. This was not your ordinary moment of silence.
Whether it's inherited or culturally learned, Koreans have an unquestionable zeal for living, a fervent emotionalism that guides thought and action. I've seen it and read about it on occasion, and I've heard from Americans doing business there that this can be both an asset and a hurdle.
Korean businesspeople, a high-level American executive told me, can be reluctant to make a decision, but "get out of the way" when they do. When the slow deliberations have ended, they bolt with a gazelle's speed.
This passion can become a hassle. I've heard outsiders, especially Americans, say that organizing an event with Koreans is next to impossible. This unnamed passion, this zeal for life, is transmuted into a disgust for those who don't share the same lofty vision. Consensus comes only after what we might consider inordinate amounts of bickering. Don't believe me? Ask the Korean lawmakers who were sprayed with fire extinguishers by their political opponents as they used a sledgehammer and electric saw to break into a committee room in December 2008. Barred from what could've been a decisive vote on their country's FTA with the U.S., they didn't let a little thing like locked doors get in the way.
The author of the Korea Dispatch blog calls the phenomenon "Korea's Emotional Logic" and describes the difficulty of cross-cultural communication:
Look at the disparity between how Westerners, both in Korean and abroad, view current events and how Koreans see things. It’s like they talk around each other, rarely if ever connecting, even when speaking the same language, whether Korean or English. One side is trying to apply logic while the other is speaking from the heart. It’s not that one is right and the other wrong. It’s that they just don’t connect.The Western pursuit of logic, has left us somewhat cold, unwilling to live from the heart, the author goes on to say. It's exactly the Korean propensity to let the heart have its say that I found so refreshing while meeting people in Seoul last year, especially in the context of faith.
Take Eu-jin, the computer science major turned kindergarten teacher who was searching for a way to glorify God with her life, or Eun-hye, known by the English name Chloe at her hagwan, who was determined to find a way to take the gospel of Jesus to North Korea. Then there was Mr. Shin, a complete stranger, who just five minutes after meeting me on the subway escorted me to his church, where I ate the most hospitable potluck lunch I've ever had.
Ambitious dreams and sincere hospitality don't come from logic. They emanate from passionate hearts. We'd do well to take a page from Korea's book and love a little - before our minds get in the way.