June 9, 2009


I started teaching culture class last week. Immediately after observing the class, I had to teach it to a group of mid-level students. I quickly learned that describing culture is a somewhat difficult task to do. I felt like I was losing the kids' attention, so I started talking about manners, as there were flashcards with manners of both Korean and Western lifestyles. After stating the manner, I asked what the kids thought about it. Their reactions expressed what they could not say in words.

When asked how they greet a friend, they agreed "hi" was appropriate. To a teacher, "hello" with a smile or a wave was acceptable. (Though I sometimes have students bow to me.) But, when asked how to greet their grandfather, they all agreed that bowing was absolutely necessary, and little to no touching is the norm. When I explained that we greet out grandparents and elders with joyful expressions and hugs, they were shocked. I held up another flashcard of a man jogging without a shirt on. They all gasped and said man should never do this. They kept exclaiming, "teacher... so weird!" about the customs that are so very common in western countries.

I highly doubt that Bon Qui Qui could last a week here in Korea. In our Western ways, even in big cities, we try to maneuver ourselves to avoid bumping into other people. If we do, we usually apologize, however casual. In Korea, it is quite the opposite. I've grown accustomed to standing on the subway and having people literally ramming into me as they pass, with no acknowledgement of wrongdoing. I even had someone deliberately whack me in the back with her purse this weekend and spewing something off to me in Korean; my only guess is that I was walking too slow by her standards. Though, I'm pretty sure she was missing some of her marbles.

While a waitress or waiter in the States would no doubt spit in a customer's food if he had the audacity to scream "waiter" from across the restaurant to get his/her attention, it is commonplace here. Yelling the term "Yoggio!" (literally meaning "Here!") will summon your service person immediately. And mind you, there is no tipping in Korea, but the service is always excellent.

Koreans like to ask many, many questions, even on first introductions. These questions are very personal and can range from "Are you married?" to "How old are you?" to "What do you do for a living?" These questions are often avoided in many Western cultures, at least until getting to know someone a bit better. The answers to these questions determine how much respect you will receive. Seems unfair, but it's all based on the Korean societal system of Confucianism, which governs all relationships and maintains social balance.

Other oddities include: don't write anyone's name in red- it means that they're dead. Never stick your chopsticks in rice; this is only done when making symbolic offerings. And God forbid you blow your nose in public, though it's perfectly okay to hack up the biggest possible loogie and spit in the middle of the sidewalk. Still, I refrain from raising my hand in uh-uh fashion and blurting out "Ruuudde." As gross as it is, it's still their culture. It would take all day to write about the differences in cultural manners and societal norms between Korea and Western countries. Although the list is continuous, I find myself not even noticing men walking with their arms around each other. I now tend to pass everything with two hands and reflexively fill the table's water glasses or drinks as needed. Needless to say, I'm sure there will be many more blog posts to come about the customs we find to be such oddities.


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