“Most classical shame events simply center on failing to meet a minimum standard for social acceptability.” 1 Restoration of one’s face is the desire of many in Asia. Loss of face is as old as the first stories of humanity living under sin. Cain does not receive the face he expected when God disregarded his sacrifice (Gen 4:4-5). Consequently, Cain “lowered his face” in anger. Cain inherited his face-hiding tendency from his parents who in shame hid their (social) face from God’s Face. But God offers restoration of face to Cain.“If you do what is right, will there not be a lifting up of your face?” (Gen 4:7). Cain’s status could change! Some versions translate this as “If you do good, will you not be accepted?” to capture the communal and relational meaning of face. But Cain’s longing for face became recklessly uncontrollable and he removed his brother’s face from the picture altogether. Consequently, Cain lost access to God’s face. “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face” (Gen 4:13-14). Upholding this concept of cultural honor is what drives Asian relationships, thus shame and honor are inextricably tied together. They are the yin and the yang of the Asian life. They coexist together to bring harmony, cohesion, and order to Asian countries.
Cal Newport writes his book, Deep Work: Rules for a focused success in a distracted world,2 as a way to help people find success. He believes his approach is one that will allow the creative, yet unfocused, to find and develop those tools or rare ideas that will help them be successful in their world. In Asia, where the success is defined in both production and how it honors your family, western models don’t always seem to match up unless they also seek to bring recognition to the community. “Success for many Asians in Asia often means finishing that law, medicine, business or science degree. (It means)Getting a job in one of these fields or a job in an air-conditioned, sky-high office building. (It means) Getting hitched at a certain age and with someone of the same race.”3 These attributes have been set up as mile stones for parents to help their children define an acceptable way of life. This not only creates great pressure, but also lends itself to an affinity toward valuing those that appear fruitful in their work or ministries.
When dignity and status are seen through the lens of achievement, honor is given and shame assigned; even within the church. I want to be culturally sensitive at this point and recognize that there are some aspects of Asian culture that will not be totally understood by my western mind. I smiled as I watched this phenomenon take place within the church meeting I was recently apart of. Name tags that display name, job title, location of service and educational or religious titles are crucial in navigating the waters of Asian cultures. My name tag (purposely) had no title on it, ie. Rev. nor Dr., nor printed location. As hands began to shake and introductions were made, those with higher displayed status or education seem to get the immediate attention. I realized that I was casually bypassed on the first set of handshakes in order to make sure all those honored guests were properly greeted. This was rectified and they were extremely gracious once they realized that my name tag was plain for security reasons. Success in Korea, as well as many Asian countries, has subtleties that can be missed but are significant in relating, ministering and ultimately helping to create something that is long lasting.
I also observed another form of face saving. As part of the Christian celebration that took place this week, a magazine was distributed that included the program, some acknowledgments to those being honored, as well as a half page picture/ description of each of the fellowships on this district. As I thumbed through this booklet, something very telling of the culture and how they see themselves became obvious. There were pages and pages of pictures of large churches, big steeples. and beautiful manicured lawns. What I found interesting was what was not there. There were also many places that the churches were listed with little description and only a picture of the pastor. I read this to mean that either the location or the magazine did not want to call attention to the facilities; be it run down or small. I am an optimist and am going to assume this was an attempt to help those smaller locations save face.
When success brings honor to the individual (and the family they are connected to) it becomes difficult to define it using western techniques. Newport reminded us to find focus and minimize our distractions in a noisy world. I found that this was a good reminder as I did my homework but I wonder about the over emphasis of producing as a form of success. In the culture I find myself in, successes and failures have ramifications beyond personal achievements. I do think there are many Asians that would read this book and see it as a path to work harder to find that status that might let them be seen by their family as having made something of themselves. Christ desires our success to be the restoration of our true face. All of our striving does not produce what is truly desired; love and acceptance. Whatever has caused us shame and ultimately allows us to be distracted by this world, the deep work that needs to be done is by the one that transcends the cultures and the problems we find ourselves in.
1 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/minority-report/201406/asian-shame-and-honor accessed
October 10, 2018
2 Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for a focused success in a distracted world. Grand Central publishing. New York, NY. 2016
3 https://mabelkwong.com/2013/05/30/the-two-types-of-success-in-asian-cultures/ accessed October 10,