My friend Frank Concilus came to Korea in 1966 as a teacher with the Peace Cops. He returned to the States and received a graduate degree in Asian Studies in 1970, then came back to Asia for two or three years’ practice in Asian languages. He stayed. He married a Korean woman, they had a child, and he took two jobs—one teaching English at a Korean university and one teaching anthropology and sociology at the branch of the University of Maryland on the U.S. Army post. (See his interview on Korean Shamanism at link.)
“I was sitting in the subway car,” he said, “when a young man and an old woman got on. The old woman said in Korean, ‘What’s that funny smell? Is it that foreigner over there?’
“I thought, I hope it’s not me. I did shower this morning. The young man leaned over and sniffed at me and said, ‘No, it’s not him.’“ Frank laughed and made a good-natured, bashful movement with his head.
I said, “Couldn’t you have found some way of showing those two you knew what they were talking about?”
“Oh no. I couldn’t do that.” He winked.
In my classes we deal with the common problems of cross-cultural interaction. For example, I think Westerners develop a tremendous self-consciousness living in Asia. Because people are always looking at you, you’re waiting to see how they react to you, you’re expecting strange things to happen. But I think the curiosity which people exhibit towards foreigners is just a part of Asian life. People are so over-socialized that they’re all very much aware of one another.
When I first came here, I was offended that people didn’t say hello to me. I thought it was because I was a foreigner. I used to get into trouble in discotheques saying hi to people I didn’t know. The Korean tough guy would say, “Who are you? Do you know me? Who are you talking to?” I was in this really stupid stage of trying to see if I could go into Charles Bronson bars and soju [a cheap, clear alcohol] tents and handle any kind of situation. I guess I did. I have all my teeth still. But I’ve still got a lot to learn about macho bars, and I don’t intend to learn the rest of it.
There are all sorts of other things, like pushing, for example. Sometimes it’s easy to get paranoid and think that people are bumping into you because you’re a foreigner. Now, when you first get to a place, you’re out of rhythm. You don’t have the moves. Even going from Japan to Korea, you find you have to rework the way you move on the sidewalk. You’ve come in from a different culture, you’re walking with a different gait and you’re out of rhythm, so you get bumped more. You don’t know whatever semblance of order and pattern there is to the movement. But the other thing is, Korean attitudes about this are different. I once watched a guy stand on the sidewalk in a crowded area, talking to his friends. He was being buffeted around like a rag doll, and he wasn’t paying any attention to it. Any one of those blows was strong enough—in some parts of the United States you’d get killed, at least assaulted, for piling into someone like that.
A foreigner can also over-react to the pushing and to people cutting in line. Twenty years ago I was waiting in line in a post office to get a letter. People kept coming from my blind side, and little old ladies were just knocking me out of the way. An elbow would come in, and an arm would slap money on the counter. At first I thought it was just one rude person, I waited, and BAM another person got in front of me, and I got mad. I saw someone else coming and I thought, “Not this person, too.” I threw a football block on him and sent him flying up against the wall. Everybody gave me those shocked stares.
People also drive like that. I’ve seen Americans trying to match Korean aggressive driving. They may be under-aggressive in one situation, and then they overdo it. Getting in sync with everyone else isn’t easy. The pushing and butting in front of someone is something that bothers foreigners, though. My American students always bring it up.
People have observed, both in Korean and Japan, that behavior is almost schizophrenic. A person will fight—elbow and push and be unthinkably rude—to get on the train and get a seat. But then after sitting down and recognizing a relative, a neighbor, or someone from the same company who’s a couple of years older, the same person will insist on getting up and giving his seat to the acquaintance—and will fight almost as wildly to do it. There’s a great division between the people you know and the people you don’t. Among their acquaintances, the Koreans are very polite and formal. In fact, Korea was once considered by the Chinese to be the land of good manners—meaning that the Koreans were formal and Confucian, at least among the upper classes.
There’s a word, chilsǒ, which is translated as “public order.” On the back of cars you’ll see “Nae Ga Monjǒ Chilsǒ Chik’inda” [I’ll be polite first, before others]. I will observe public order first. What is meant is not spitting on streets, waiting in line for buses, waiting in taxi lines, being courteous to people. I’ve often been asked for a better translation than “Let’s observe public order.” Koreans are surprised that it’s not easy to translate what that means into English. That kind of courtesy or civility grew up in our culture. You don’t think of seeing slogans and banners involving that kind of courtesy in Cleveland. Koreans are very conscious of these things because they are just learning them from the West. Also, Korea and China are Confucian slogan cultures. They use slogans for everything.
Then there are the language levels, several levels of politeness and formality marked by verb endings and so on. It’s better to err in the direction of being polite, but often being polite makes you look faintly ridiculous. I’m a forty-eight-year-old professor. If a Korean professor my age walked into a restaurant and there was an eighteen-year-old serving tables, probably the professor would speak down to the waiter. As a foreigner, my situation is different. A foreigner whose Korean is good enough probably could get away with it, but in my case the waiter might think, “Why’s this foreigner speaking rudely to me?” You’re a foreigner before you’re anything else.
When my father-in-law first came to my house, I was so confused that in five minutes I was speaking down to him and up to my wife, when it was supposed to be the reverse. I was supposed to speak down to my wife and up to him. Even now—I got a phone call recently from my brother-in-law, who’s twenty years younger than I am. Without thinking, I was saying ne, ne [yes, yes] politely. When I hung up, my wife said, “You were talking to my father?”
“No, your brother.” I couldn’t understand what she meant.
“Then what were you saying ne for?”
I should have been saying, “unh, unh.” Ne was too polite. So I’ll never get used to it. That’s part of living in another culture. It continues to be a challenge. You continue to notice things, to learn things little by little.
I am probably Koreanized in some ways, but it’s uncanny how quickly little kids pick up on how American I am. Koreans treat little kids as a special category. The language has a special verb ending for kids, a very stylized sort of dialogue with a particular intonation. Korean kids see that’s not going to work with me.
My daughter doesn’t use that language. She uses very abrupt intimate Korean with me, with none of the polite verb endings. A Korean kid her age would be expected to use the more polite forms when speaking to her father. Once I heard the cleaning lady correct her and say, “Don’t talk to your father that way.”
She said to the ajumma [auntie, ma’am] because she has been through this so many times, “That polite language is not necessary, Ajumma, because in America they don’t even have that polite business.”
The ajumma was speechless. All she could say was, “Then America must be a bad country.”
Koreans use two hands to give or accept something from someone who’s older—either two hands taking it or one hand touching the arm that’s taking it. The right hand always gives or takes something. I overdo it sometimes, being too polite, and my Korean counterpart may be Westernized and using one hand.
Once during the year I taught in a high school, the teachers went on a school picnic. I was pouring beer for another teacher, a guy ten years younger than me. You never pour for yourself, just for each other. I was using two hands. He was a little drunk, and he shoved my left hand out of the way. “No, no, don’t. You’re my older brother. I’m your younger brother. Why are you using two hands? Use one hand.”
So I used one hand. But I took the informality too far. A couple of days later when there was hardly anyone in the teachers’ room and I was leaving, he asked me, “Are you leaving early?”
I spoke without the polite form, down to him. “Yeah, I’m leaving.”
He answered back rudely, “Oh, you are?” He was clearly insulted that I had dared to speak down to him like that.
I walked out of there really hurt and mystified. First this guy tells me to use one hand, and then he gets insulted when I speak intimately with him. Later I ran the problem through a couple of Koreans. One said, “He’s just a strange guy. Things are tough for you foreigners, aren’t they?”
The other said, “Of course it’s different. Using one hand, since you’re older than he is, makes sense. But you wouldn’t dare use familiar language. He’s a fellow teacher.”
The nuances here—it’s okay to use one hand, but you ought to use polite language, particularly if a third person is listening. Or maybe it’s okay, if you’ve had a few beers, to knock off the polite endings. This is a culture where people can be very formal, and yet they prize “junior-senior relations” [relations between people of different ages].
The second time I met my wife’s relatives, I took them to the officer’s club on post. I had a beard and long hair, but I also had some things going for me. I could speak a little Korean, I was a teacher, I’d gone to Harvard, and I could eat kimchi [cabbage pickled in red pepper]. So it was about a draw in their estimation.
My father-in-law ordered a beer, and so did I. I shouldn’t have drunk alcohol in front of my father-in-law. If I did it anyway, I should have done it in as low-key a way as possible. According to the rules, if you drink with someone who’s older than you are, you put your glass out of sight. You’re supposed to make a show of turning your back to take a sip, keeping your head low and drinking quickly. All of that would be adding to the “face” of the situation. But I didn’t know. I was sitting there with my father-in-law and the other relatives, and I lifted my beer glass and proposed a toast to my father-in-law. Everyone else at the table was aghast. Proposing a toast was the stupidest thing I could possibly have done in that situation.
As long as you don’t flaunt it and you turn your back, you can drink in situations where you can’t smoke. When I was in the Peace Corps, I lived with a Korean family. The son put the ashtray under the table when his father walked up the stairs. The room would be filled with smoke, and smoke would be rising from under the table. Obviously, the kid wasn’t hiding anything. You just don’t smoke in front of your father.
I have a Korean friend—but he’s ten years older than I am, so I guess he’s an “older brother”—but then I don’t know that those terms really apply to foreigners. We went to a restaurant, and he said, “Jeez, I can’t talk to my sons.” He’s got a son in graduate school and a son in high school or college. “I talk, and they say yes. They never say anything else. I wish it weren’t that way, but it’s much too late to change it.”
“What do you mean? Your kids don’t feel free to talk to you?”
“Well, they talk, but they just say yes.”
“But don’t you ever exchange ideas with them?”
“If it’s necessary, like once or twice a year, we have a discussion on something.”
I said jokingly, because the faculty hear so many of these terms from the students nowadays, “You really are a fascist dad, aren’t you?”
“Well, I kind of said to my sons that maybe I was too strict. They said no, no, I was much more democratic than most fathers.”
Then there was a young Korean woman I know who comes from a family with no sons and four daughters. Of course, there are supposed to be sons. I know something about her family, and I asked her if she could talk to her father.
She said, “I can talk to my dad.”
But she’s the baby. She’s twenty now. Her three married sisters answer their father with ne, ne. Korean families are close, but there’s a pecking order in families. Families are not relaxing places to be in. You don’t let your hair down.
I said to my brother-in-law, the one I know the best, “You’re a good friend of mine.” He was insulted. It made no sense to call someone so much younger a friend. You refer to someone as your “junior” or your “senior” or your “older brother,” but not your “friend.” That’s a translation from English.
You ask a Korean about his best friends, and he’ll mention friends from junior high school or high school or college, probably the only people he speaks to with familiar forms. Koreans also make new friends, but the long-standing friendships have seniority. New friendships can be cast aside in favor of older ones. So if you’re new in Seoul, you have a hard time of it. You have friends, but they’re all recent friends.
Friendship is also expensive. Your friend can come to your house drunk at three o’clock in the morning. You have to let him in. Your friend can ask tremendous things of you. A GI will go into a bar and introduce someone as his friend, and later people will call him up and hold him responsible for what his friend did. “Your friend did this. What are you going to do about it?”
“I hardly know the guy.”
“Why did you call him your friend, then?”
Parenthetically, Koreans ask a lot of each other outside of friendships as well. In a graduate level Asian Studies class in the States, I teased a Korean student once. This was the only time I saw her offended by anything I said. I said, “You know, Koreans do go too far sometimes in asking favors of people.”
“Well, it may seem to you as an American to be excessive, but if you really think about it, asking favors of people, what a great way to get to know them.”
That’s really true as long as it’s reciprocal. A Korean will ask a favor of you, and usually go out of his way to repay it—maybe in spades.