At first, and now.

5.16.2011

At first, I...
...would get so angry at how Koreans pushed and elbowed their way through crowds, rather than say "Excuse me."

...hated how there was no word/expression for "Excuse me."

...couldn't stand how every native Korean over the age of 50 felt like it was acceptable to lecture me on the importance of knowing the language and my heritage.

...didn't understand why manners meant so little in Korea.

...didn't see a distinct cultural identity among Koreans.


Now, I...
...laugh every time I get elbowed or pushed because of how ridiculous it is. But I don't mind when the elderly do it. In fact, I quietly step aside and applaud their fiery boldness. One time on the subway, I was going towards an empty seat, when all of a sudden, a grandma grabbed the back of my jacket, pulled me back and sat down. Then, when I looked at her in shock, she just smiled back, toothless.

...still don't understand why "Excuse me" doesn't exist in the Korean language.

...try a little harder to speak Korean instead of resorting to the "I can't speak Korean at all" approach. As a result, I receive more appreciative responses and laughs rather than the finger-wagging you-should's...

...see that manners mean a lot, but in a different way. Manners among strangers and passers-by are nonexistent. When you live in a big city like Seoul, I guess you can't bother with moving out of the way or saying "Excuse me." But manners between families and friends are very important and very evident. If you go to someone's house, they will feed you until your stomach explodes. And even then, they will probably give you some more food to ease that explosive stomach of yours.

...finally understand the most important and distinctive character of Korean cultural identity: community. On the surface, it looks like everyone is doing their own thing, unconcerned with anyone else. But if you look a little deeper, you'll find that people are more than willing to help each other out because that sense of community is what makes this culture so alive. Last week, when I was walking to a bus stop, I approached an old woman, who stood no taller than 4 feet and 7 inches because of the 90-degree angle her body took as a result of decades of back-breaking work. As I neared her, I noticed she was just standing in front of a curb with her wobbly cane, looking down, then looking up, hoping to make eye contact with anyone who passed by. As I walked by her, I looked at her and our eyes met. Without a word, she held out her hand and I grabbed it, knowing exactly what she needed. Squeezing tightly to my hand, she found all the strength she could to step up onto that curb. As she slowly hopped up, she released my hand and went on her way.

Had this occurred a few months ago, I might have grumbled to myself, "Psht, you're welcome" since she didn't thank me. But when it happened, my heart leapt for joy because I finally understood something I've been missing this entire time. I understood that the reason she didn't thank me was because once upon a time, that would have been a common and expected gesture among the community. Helping each other out was normal, not a special occurrence that deserved recognition.

But the next realization made my heart sink, which is how times have radically changed through the generations. Before I came along her side, 10 or 15 Koreans walked right past her, unconcerned with what was happening outside their own world. Had they taken a second to step out of their tunnel-vision life, they would have seen an 80-something woman in need of a hand (literally).

On another occasion, I was leaving the subway station and as I was stepping onto the escalator, I saw an old woman (probably in her 80s as well and just as small as the other lady) on her way down to the subway. She was clearly confused as she walked in circles, not knowing which platform to go to. Suddenly, from all corners of the station, three or four equally-old men and women wobbled to her, eager to help her find the right platform. It sounded like they were all yelling at each other, but considering their age, they were most likely just talking and trying to figure out where to go. At that point, I was so curious that I went back down on the escalator to see if everything was alright. Sure enough, the "helpers" were slowly making their way back to wherever they came from and the little old lady was standing at the right platform.

How can you not fall in love with Seoul when moments such as these occur in your daily life? It's exciting to know that I have a lot to learn about Korea and its people, or shall I say, my people :)

6 comments :

Jamie said...

i LOVE this post. so much.

I couldnt agree with you more about the aspect of community. When you stop making your own assumptions about Korea, you start to understand and see how compassionate and strong-willed Koreans really are. Yeah, there are a few that always prove you wrong, but the ones that DO share the great qualities of this culture make up for it, ten folds.

You have inspired me to write about the qualities that I have learned to love about Korea. Thanks love.

AuntMary said...

Loved it.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to add...

실례합니다 - Shillae Hap Ni Da.

Mark said...

Great post Liz. It was touching and a very accurate explanation of how a foreigner needs to adjusts out in Seoul!

Susan said...

I think this is one of my all time favorite posts. I love the depth of it all.

Sharon.Mom.Granny said...

If all foreigners could open up and see the world through the people who live there....beautiful!