May 30, 2013 by travelinggrits
I’ve been here for nearly year, but just today a fellow teacher approached me at lunch and complimented me on my chopstick-wielding prowess. I was tempted to tell him that I would practically starve if I hadn’t figured out how to use them by now, but I just acknowledged his comment and continued to scarf down the dried squid, soondae and kimchi like any other good Korean.
With my shock of light brown, curly hair and blue eyes, I am certainly never mistaken for a born and bred Korean, but thanks to thorough cultural training during my orientation program and living in a homestay, I can act like one. It pays off–sometimes literally, like when I regaled a taxi driver with light banter in Korean and he subsequently gave me a 500 won discount on my fare.
I am sure I have unconscious quirks that label me as American, but once I return to the States I anticipate that a few Korean mannerisms might also remain, perhaps drawing confused reactions from strangers and acquaintances alike.
In Korea, bows are the official gesture of salutation, and there are different degrees of bows depending on the superiority and familiarity of the person you are greeting. It is like the physical equivalent of “aloha” – appropriate for use with both hellos and goodbyes. A full 90-degree bow is appropriate for your boss, but a head nod is fine for passing in the hallway or the clerk at the grocery store. When I went to Hong Kong over my winter break, my head instinctively twitched too many times to count, likely labeling me as a naive tourist.
2. Two Hands
Coinciding with the head twitch, It is customary to accept an item with two hands or with the left hand touching the right wrist, forearm or side as if this limb is incapable of supporting the object being received. This was troublesome for me when I first arrived since my left-handedness gives me a natural tendency to lead with my left hand; I feared offending store owners by accepting change with an errant hand. However, these days I am so accustomed to this practice that I accidently offer this respectful move to my students, which is not necessary since I am their superior. They generally giggle at me if I use this or a head nod (see item 1).
The epitome of habits #1 and #2
3. Finicky Footwear
Just past the entryway of any Korean home, there is a small ledge before you enter the main room. Like taxis in a queue, your shoes will wait here until you are ready to journey onward. In the dormitory during my training, I repeatedly tripped over the uneven floor and grimaced at the nuisance of removing my shoes even to run in for a forgotten item. But nowadays, even entering a hotel room where shoes are permitted makes me feel like I am trespassing on hallowed ground. In school, students and teachers alike pause at the threshold, and I never wear heels to work because I would take them off to don my school loafers once I arrived anyway. Likewise, when entering a bathroom in a home and even some restaurants, there are separate plastic shoes for use while standing at the sink. This particular practice has also led to a booming market for cute socks.
4. Listening Cues and Konglish
Rather than murmuring “mmhmm” in acknowledgment of a speaker, I have adopted the more staccato “uh, uh” response used in Korean conversation. I’ve also grown so accustomed to hearing the English equivalent of several common Korean phrases (“I will take a rest,” “eat a lot” and “I will go first”) that sometimes I have trouble distinguishing what is actually said by native speakers.
5. Dental Hygiene
I am the odd man out if I don’t brush my teeth after every meal; one of the first gifts from my host family was toothpaste for use at school. For good reason–it seems that if I ever forget this ritual, I later come to find that I’ve been garishly grinning at my afternoon classes with flakes of red pepper from kimchi stuck in my teeth.
Modern Korean living rooms do have couches, but a recliner is a rareity. After all, most Koreans enjoy sitting on the floor to watch TV, talk or even eat fruit or other snacks. My host mom even squats on the floor in the kitchen to mix up a fresh batch of kimchi. These days, many restaurants have tables and chairs, but more traditional establishments still have cushions and low tables. I’ve grown fond of sprawling on the floor, even without carpet, to read books or work on my laptop.
Korea is all about community. At restaurants, patrons often order a certain number of servings and the meat or stew is brought in a communal container for everyone to share. Likewise, if you crack open a snack, you are expected to offer some to those around you too. I have been the beneficiary of this generosity in the form of an elderly woman offering me an orange on a train, a child handing me a cup of yogurt on the subway and even a fellow concert-goer sharing a packaged cookie with me in our stadium seats. As the recipient of such kindness, this has helped me in turn to become a better gift giver and to be more gracious to others.
Perhaps my mannerisms will be strange, but I’ll be proud to retain them, at least for a little while, as simple signs of the way Korea has changed me from head to toe.