Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Korean Culture as I see it, Volume I

Wow -- long time between posts. Dropping the ball, here... sorry bout that, ya'll.

Good news first. Classes are over for the semester. I've got 2 weeks of English camp starting next week, and then off till September. Unless (at the last minute, as always here) some school wants to participate in a summer program at the Global Center, in which case I'll have to rush back from wherever I am to work, or something. Doesn't sound like a very restful vacation, but I'm sure it'll work out. Also, I'm going with the other teachers to a resort this weekend. I think it'll be pretty low-key, but we're leaving Friday after school, relaxing in the sun, maybe some swimming, then a barbecue (with soju, of course) and then something on Saturday. Not sure why, but I keep getting flashes of the Beach Games episode of the Office in my head. Where, by the end, Michael was trying to get people to walk across a bed of coals for his job? Yeah, I'm getting that kind of vibe. Hopefully I'm wrong though. If I burned my feet and went to the hospital, I'm 99% certain that part of the treatment would be an injection in the ass. And a whole boatload of happy pills. Worth it? Hmm... maybe so, maybe so. OK, I'm down for the coal walk. Thanks for talking me through that.

On the "No news is bad news" front, there's been no progress on the girl situation. We had a great time on Friday -- went out with Mi Jin, had spicy octopus, went to a bar, drank so-mek (soju+maekju... soju beer bombs, basically), then finished up at the noraebang. Tomorrow night we're hanging out again, going out for dinner. And I guess we'll be spending the weekend together (well, not together-together, but you know) at this resort too. When I write it all down like that, it sounds great, huh?! Well, unfortunately, we're hanging out a lot but it feels awfully platonic. Still, not giving up.

Ok -- 1st post promised long long ago about some Korean cultural oddities, rarities, what-have-you. Let's see, where to begin. I'm not gonna go all deep into why these things are the way they are. For one, I'm not much of an expert on Korean culture and pyschology, so I'd probably just be wrong, and two, it's funnier this way. OK, here we go.

You can't pick up your chopsticks for dinner until the oldest person at the table does first. You can't pour your own drink -- you must wait for someone to pour for you. This sounds like it might be a pain, but they're very observant: by the time you finish the drink, but before you put the glass down, they're ready to hit you up with a refill. When the drink is pouring, you should hold the bottle/glass with both hands, to be respectful. When you drink after an older person poured for you, you should turn away to drink. It's customary during a meal for younger people to take their empty glass and soju and kneel down and offer the glass to an elder. Then you pour them a drink, and they shoot it. Then you take the glass back and they pour you one, which you throw down, while turning your head away, of course.

You always take your shoes off when entering a home, school, church, or any traditional-type restaurant. Some kim-bap places and fast food joints you can just walk in and sit down, as well as stores, but any place where people generally spend a lot of time or go to relax, shoes off at the door. It's important to wear clean matching socks, for this reason. I suck at this. I realized soon after I moved here that a good percentage of my socks had holes in the toe or heel or both, because hell -- who sees your dress socks in the states?

It's rude to smoke in front of your elders. It's rude to fail to acknowledge the eldest person first when making your introductory bows. So, people in Korea, upon first meeting, will almost always ask your age either right before or right after your name. Soon after will be your job title. This is because your age determines what verb endings to use when conversing, and your job title (and not your name) determines what they will call you. Koreans rarely use names with strangers or people they've just met. Or with their superiors. Or colleagues. Or elders. Or family members. Or anyone, really, except people you've known and been friends with since you were in the same grade in elementary school. Yes, the same grade. That's important.

I'm a teacher: in Korean, it's 선생님 (sun-sang-nim). This is also a general title of respect for strangers or people whose position you're not certain of yet. Teacher is a very respected profession here, by the way -- as it should be. So when teachers talk to each other, they just call each other sunsangnim. Or, if there are many teachers present and they're addressing a particular one, they'll use their full name + sunsangnim. So, Hwang Bo Il Sunsangnim! Yes, it does take a lot longer to say than "Hey Sean!" in case you were wondering. Now, with text language and those crazy kids changing the language all around (sounds familiar), it's ok to shorten sunsangnim to just 쌤 (ssam). Or, Hwang-ssam! The kids use this a lot but I hear it even more from the younger teachers when they talk to each other, actually.

Now -- this aversion to using names goes much further. In families -- you don't call your siblings by their names. Like, if I had an older sister -- she'd be 누나 "nu-na." An older brother -- 형 "hyung." But if a girl has an older sister -- she calls her 언니 "un-ni" and her older brother 오빠 "ohp-pa." There are different words for younger siblings too, actually... which means a boy who has an older brother, a younger sister and a younger brother could actually be "a nam-dong-sang," "oppa," and "hyung" all at the same time. Weird, right? But get this -- people in school who are even a year above you... well, they're called the same things. So like, in my after school class, the 2nd grade boys call the 3rd grade girls "Nuna!" (mostly because I can't for the life of me get them to remember each other's English names...) Which technically means older sister, but it applies to the more general Korean family as well. When you go out to a restaurant, and you want to get the waitress's attention, and if she's around your age (because she gets a bump in respect for working there and taking care of you) you can call her Nuna or Unni (if you're a girl) as well. Or you can just yell out "Yogi-yo!" Which sounds rude when translated into English ("Over here, please!") but is perfectly acceptable. If she's older, she's "Ajuma" -- literally, woman who's already raised children. Always makes me think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, quoted here in its entirety for your enjoyment:

King Arthur: Old woman!
Dennis: Man.
King Arthur: Man, sorry. What knight lives in that castle over there?
Dennis: I'm 37.
King Arthur: What?
Dennis: I'm 37. I'm not old.
King Arthur: Well I can't just call you "man."
Dennis: Well you could say "Dennis."
King Arthur: I didn't know you were called Dennis.
Dennis: Well you didn't bother to find out did you?
King Arthur: I did say sorry about the "old woman," but from behind you looked...
Dennis: What I object to is you automatically treat me like an inferior.
King Arthur: Well, I am king.
Dennis: Oh, king eh? Very nice. And how'd you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers. By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.

Note that in Korea, ajuma is a title of considerable respect, for it's said that women must be something akin to superheroes to successfully raise children. So if Dennis were Korean, he might not have minded so much about the "old woman" thing.

One more interesting factoid: Lots of Korean girls call their boyfriends Oppa. Sounds funny, at first, but no worse than Hispanic guys calling their girls "Mamacita," right? Ha, anyway... I guess the guys like it cause it makes them feel like they're in charge and the protector and all that. Coming up next time (or at least, the next time I feel like writing about this): Why the guys are definitely not in charge...

I'm back, baby! It's the summer of Sean!

And I'm going to make a concerted effort to update more regularly, promise.


Anonymous said...

very interesting. I guess that makes me Ajuma. Look forward to more culture lessons! So how do parents refer to thier children?Hope you have a great time this weekend. Love ya

emily said...

Funny. I'm looking forward to the next installment. The men are definitely not in charge, I could tell that just as an observer, I imagine that it's more obvious to you as someone who wants to be in the relationship.

Tell me!! :)