Cultural Lesson #2837: Learning What’s Polite in Another Country
In Korea, it’s polite to bow when you meet someone for the first time. Also when you see your principal walk by, when you see your vice principal walk by, when you see someone you know in the hallway, when you complete a monetary transaction anywhere, when someone enters or leaves the room even if it’s for the fiftymillionth time. It’s polite to bow all the of the time in Korea, and it’s a cultural practice I am happy to accept and participate in. The same goes for other very strange feeling habits, like always extending my money to a cashier with both hands and accepting change with both hands. Or pouring drinks for people with both hands. No problem.
But even after seven months living here, there are a handful of common Korean behaviors that I just can’t get behind. Some of them I’m simply not wired to perform and others are so unspeakably gross that even in the name of cultural diplomacy I am flat out unwilling tolerate.
Any foreigners who haven’t been fully briefed on the customs of Korea (me and Erin) will inevitably walk into a bar their first few days here and attempt to get a beer. But instead of a server or bartender seating the foreigners and returning to take their order, they will seat them and avoid them like Koreans avoid real cheese, making them feel non-existent and terribly confused. The foreigners will mutter amongst themselves, try to figure out what’s going on and desperately seek eye contact with anyone working at the establishment until finally, 20 minutes later, an employee realizes they are ready to order some beer. It is a most awkward and unpleasant way to begin a stay in another country.
The secret that the foreigners are not yet privy to is that there is a magic word, one that when hurled across the room at any waiter or waitress will cause them to come bustling right over. At your service, Waygook! This word is “yeogiyo” (yau-gee-YO), and as our Korean teacher taught us (a little too late for Erin and me not to experience the aforementioned scenario), this word is not meant to be “uttered”, “said” or even “announced”. It is meant to be thrown across a room, called out in a most passionate moment of epicurean desire. And this is precisely why I cannot do it.
Being American and fairly timid when dealing with strangers, I simply cannot bring myself to HOLLER yeogiyo in a restaurant. Even though I know it is perfectly acceptable here and holds no stigma, I was programmed to feel that shouting or demanding service in any form is not just impolite, it’s straight up rude. Instead, I take advantage of foreigner-directed stares to eventually make eye contact with the server and beckon them my way, or I wait until they’re within arm’s reach and then I say yeogiyo just loud enough so that they turn around to make sure they aren’t hearing things. It’s not the best method, but after seven months I’m comfortable with it.
Another situation I find myself in regularly is that of having to actually PUSH a person out of my way to get to where I’d like to go. Like yeogiyo, this I know is standard form in Korea, especially in crowded public places like buses or bus stations. I frequently cede to this shoving, not because I’ve embraced it as a social norm, but because I become so frustrated by the human roadblocks and the people who are pushing me, that out of pure aggression I bust my way through a pile of Koreans. And that is exactly the reason I find the behavior objectionable in the first place, is it is arguably born of hostility and an unwillingness to properly communicate. In other words, a lack of what I know as manners.
This next set of cultural differences is all related to food. These are rarely things I feel forced to participate in, but I cannot help observing and consequently trying to fit them into my understanding of my current home.
Koreans like to share food, a premise I’m generally fond of. But some food they share in a way that is less than kosher where I come from. In America, home of the Independent Individual, most meals are eaten from a single personal plate. In Korea, no meals are eaten from a single personal plate. Eating is a social activity, and as such, a social group shares every dish on the table. Not sooo different from America, except that instead of spooning food out onto your individual American plate from the 17 plates on the table, you cut out the personal plate and go communal plate to chopstick to mouth and back again. It’s a little weird at first, especially when anyone at the table is visibly sick, but eventually you get used to it.
Except for the soup. For some reason, I really struggle with the sharing of the soup. I’ve probably spent far too much time considering just how fully my restaurant companions have wrapped their mouths around their spoons before they dip it back into the communal bowl for more, but regardless it gives me the willies. (This Seinfeld square gets it).
I also am baffled by unspoken rules about not eating with your hands. It’s strange that in a place that has no problem with ingesting other people’s germs via utensil, eating with your hands is a serious faux pas. It’s rare that Koreans use their hands to eat, usually only with grapes or tomatoes which are round and challenging to control with sticks, but even chicken wings fall into chopstick territory (I’m not lying). And what’s most interesting to me is that Koreans take multiple bites off the same piece of something (chicken wing, giant hunk of apple, large piece of fish) instead of cutting it into smaller pieces. I try to imagine if I were to do it that with a fork, stab a large hunk of meat and hold it to my face while I nibbled on it and I’m pretty sure that could get you thrown out of some of my favorite restaurants.
This is where you will find the most pronounced cultural gap and the one that I am least apologetic about judging.
We’ve mentioned it before: The Spitting. It’s possible that if I did some serious research, I might find that all Koreans are predisposed to an obscure bronchial disease that causes an excessive build-up of mucus, which simply must be expectorated or the consequences are certain death. But I doubt it. (!!) For some reason that I cannot understand, Koreans aren’t bothered by each others’ constant loogie hocking. And to be totally honest, my fundamental problem is not the coughing up of the phlegm wad. Be ye free to clear your throats. Really it’s the frequency at and indiscretion with which it happens. Because it happens ALL OF THE GODDAMN TIME. On any given night, I can sit in my apartment and hear between 5-15 loogies being hocked right outside by passersby. In fact, see that random “(!!)” up there? As I was typing this very paragraph, someone outside just shot a lung booger onto my street. And there is never any concern about where it falls. Two ajummas have done it practically right on my shoes, and countless ajusshies in my path. I even sat next to a man INSIDE the airport who spit right on the floor. I am, and will continue to be, offended by this amount of spitting.
The lax Korean rules about where and with whom you share your bodily fluids is most disgustingly experienced in a classroom full of fifth graders. I spent the winter watching in complete horror as my students sneezed and hacked all over each other. They walk around the classroom coughing straight out into the open, not considering that perhaps they might cover their mouths with an arm or a hand or a tissue. It often appears as if they don’t have arms at all. These seemingly useless appendages hang carelessly by as they moisten the neck of the kid in front of them with a sloppy sneeze. It’s foul. And it causes me to make a face not unlike this:
The culprit will catch me staring at them with that expression of utter repulsion and it startles them. Under normal circumstances I would feel bad about getting caught with that accusatory face, but here, with these gnarly little children, I maintain my countenance and motion at what they’ve done in the vain hope that my repugnance toward their behavior will be forever imprinted in their minds. Waygook Face will make them think twice next time.
To wrap it up, I’ve written a poem:
There will always be cultures,
There will always be gaps,
Some I can live with,
And some I just can’t.
Starting with Boogers.