121124122333Stereotypically British in my desire to be polite, this past month I’ve been trying to gage the system of social customs I am now amidst.  So, bows are in and shoes are off.  Pointing at people is rude, leaving chopsticks in rice means impending death (symbolically not literally) and a public blowing of the nose is far ruder than spitting everywhere.

Due to the uncertainty of exact bowing protocol I have adopted a frequent fervid nod for anyone my age and above.  I make my way through the teacher’s room like a head-bobbing toy dog someone tapped absentmindedly.  I have to remind myself not to bow back to students.  This is especially important as, due to catching the bus in the morning, sporting a rucksack and measuring the same height, I sometimes I feel like one of them:  I fear returning nods with a big grin might not do wonders to maintain an authoritative teacher / student distinction.  And then there is the residing anxiety that I will not recognize the vice principal and therefore not bow accordingly – though who knows how low to go?

Perhaps most interestingly for me, smiles are not big here. Traditionally, someone who smiles a lot is considered light or superficial, and a somber expression communicates that you are a serious person to be taken seriously.  I don’t do very well on this point and I’m kind of okay with that.  I suppose things have always worked best when I don’t take myself too seriously.

Despite this minimalistic approach to bearing teeth in Korea, there is a deeply ingrained cultural kindness.  Walking is a great example.  I walk the mountain in front of my house often.  Yesterday I relayed with a middle-aged couple a few times, who unsmilingly and silently looked at me.  On the third passing the man backtracked, not to shout at me in Korean about defiling the native woodland with my foreign presence, but to hand me a satsuma.  This is the third walk in a row I have been given (unpoisoned) fruit by a stranger.  It seems that fruit, not smiles, are the national currency of friendliness.

As I said, I can’t always help the smiling. I’m sure I’ll bow my way into many more socially questionable situations and someone walked into my classroom the other day while I was having a good nose blow. However, I have started carrying satsumas around with me, just in case the opportunities arise to give them away.

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