I came from a collective culture and I used to hate it. Growing up in South Korea, I remember having to drink 6 ounces of whole milk each day in elementary school because the government believed it was good for the development of children. I had no choice but to drink whole milk each day. Many years later I learned that my body is lactose intolerant.
The elementary school I attended in South Korea served school lunch with low cost but the menu was decided by the school so every student ate whatever the school decided. During my freshman year in high school I had to wear a school uniform and my hair had to be maintained to no longer than 1 inch. If it wasn’t, I had to endure public shame. Life was simple. Decisions were made collectively and I rarely had to deal with the question, “What do I want?”
Then I moved to the U.S. as a 16 year old.
“What kind of bread? What size of the drink?” I was bombarded with mountains of questions from the moment I arrived in the U.S. The most frustrating thing to me was that I didn’t know what I wanted. In collective culture, decisions were usually made by people at the top and choices were extremely limited. But in the U.S. I had to learn to swim in a new water called “individualism.”
Each day I became more familiar with concepts of privacy, personal preferences and boundaries. After much trial and error, I learned to order a subway sandwich or starbucks coffee exactly the way I wanted it. The longer I stayed in the U.S. I started to see collective culture as “bad” and individualistic culture as “good.”
In collective culture, a person’s identity is deeply embedded into a group so it’s expected for an individual to share resources, to make decisions together, and to sacrifice personal preferences for the benefit of a larger group. The downside of collective culture is that an individual’s idea, dream, and preferences are often sacrificed for “what’s best for the group.”
But the more I reflected on this and tried to cultivate a beautiful community with diverse people… I realized that I needed both individualistic and collective culture, just like we see in the triune-community of God. Each distinct and individual Godhead works together with mutual honor, respect and love to manifest a beautiful and flourishing community.
Now, I find it beautiful when I see worship songs written in Korean that don’t have personal pronouns because there is no clear distinction between “I” or “we”. I find it beautiful when New Testament epistles refer to “you” in the Korean Bible. It is always written in plural forms like “you guys” or “y’all.” I find it beautiful when churches in other parts of the world sing songs and nobody knows who wrote them…because no one cares about individual authorship or ownership. I find it beautiful when my Korean friends and family send me masks and even kimchi without asking because it’s okay to assume that I’d appreciate them.
Of course I don’t appreciate or find beauty in every aspect of collective culture. Every culture is affected by sin and people know how to abuse the system in any culture. But the more I reflect on it and cultivate a community with a diverse group of people, the more I am certain than ever before that individualistic culture alone won’t lead us to a vision of a good community.
In fact, individualism in its purest form is an illusion. From the moment of birth till death we are interdependent. We can never survive nor thrive as autonomous individuals but only as an interdependent community.
Individualism says, “whatever the individual ends up with is what the individual worked for, earned, deserved and wanted.” But this doesn’t make sense at all to people coming from a collective culture. We’re all connected and affected by decisions and actions especially as one body in Christ.
Here’s a hard pill to swallow for those who grew up in individualistic culture. I still vividly remember and have negative emotions attached to a memory of something called “collective punishment” back in Korea. No matter how good a student you were, if one person broke a rule the entire class had to be punished. If one person doesn’t make it, everyone doesn’t make it. How unjust is that?!?
I was furious but eventually had to accept the reality that we all make it or we don’t. We all have to help the weak ones walk with us to keep the same pace. If you are taught to see interruption, collective shame, invading personal boundaries and top leaders making decisions for all as “bad” or “negative” please think again. Consider re-reading all of the scriptures with the lens of a collective culture. You may be surprised to find more beauty that you haven’t seen before.
“For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” – Romans 5:19
[written by Jaewoo Kim]