My parents taught me good manners when I was a little girl. That means, be polite. Speak kindly to adults and children alike. Say “please” if you want something. Say “thank you” when someone does something nice for you. Play fair. Tell the truth. Don’t try to hurt other people. Reward others for hard work and effort. Don’t judge a book by its cover (though this makes no sense because we always picked bedtime stories by the cover). These are excellent rules when other people have similar values and manners.
However, where my parents failed to instruct me is regarding what to do when people are completely oblivious to your manners, say, because of a complete culture difference and language barrier (OR PERHAPS: extreme stupidity, borderline personality disorder, or subpar IQ/EQ). What am I supposed to do, when I tried with good intention to adhere to the cultural norms and be “respectful” and the only result was I got more confusion and usually a lot of dishonesty? I understand that it is a normative standard here to tell polite white lies in order to avoid conflict, but it has gotten to the point of ridiculousness. I have yet to have a conversation with my boss where he gives me the same answer twice to the same question. And generally, my entire personality is frowned upon, because I am a woman, I am educated, I speak freely when I think strategically, and I value my juris doctor/law license (mostly because it was hard, it hurt to leave social work, and I’m still paying for both). At what point, do I decide my own comfort is not something I’m willing to forsake in order to appear “culturally sensitive”???
Since I’ve been in Korea, Korea has mostly tried to “change me more Korean.” To some degree, Korea has succeeded. I’m lackadaisical most days; I know what is essential will get done, and what doesn’t get done can get finished urgently if necessary, and if not necessary, then whatever it is probably isn’t important. Hopefully, it’s not important. I sometimes abuse the hierarchy rank system to force people to fetch me coffee (but I also buy a lot of freaking coffee for students and staff). I take for granted my personal safety when walking down dark alleys at 3AM. I pretend I’m going to sing at norebang, but then refuse to hold the microphone. I learned to act cute and say “Oppa! Sarangayo!” (this was actually quite effective over the winter break…) And I am completely obsessed with slapping on face creams and making my eyes look bigger.
But, Korea also wants to destroy me in the ways that I find myself to be distinctly American. I value conciseness, efficiency, diversity, adversity, and conflict. I see change as progress, not destruction. I believe in equality, which means EQUAL, not token. I laugh without my mouth covered. I like to be tan. I don’t feel bad that my friends have children and are unmarried. I do not feel compelled to be married. I don’t take time off work for a government authorized menstruation day (but I should in Korea….) I’m tired of tip-toeing in Korea so that Koreans don’t think I am an obnoxious American. Koreans will treat me however they wish, regardless of my ability to conform to their norms. And that treatment is unequal, inefficient, and often lacking in truth or integrity. My parents may have taught me to be quietly obedient, but I have taught myself to carry myself with authoritative self-regard. I’ve worked diligently to teach others that I require equal respect, that I command the attention of any room, and that what I have to say is thoughtful and purposeful. I’m done apologizing that I am not Korean enough. I’m ready to remember what it means to be American, even in Korea…
However, I don’t have to act Korean by treating those around me with the same ill-regard that I receive. After all, **I** was raised with good manners.
OKAY, I am a really crappy blogger. And I’m actually pretty bad at being accountable for my pro-procrastination tendencies. This morning, The BF said, “Why are you always getting on me about being consistent and following through? Have you done ANYTHING in Korea you said you were going to do?” OUCH.
So, for the record, YES, I’ve done SOME of the things I said I was gonna do. I ate exorbitant amounts of soon dooboo jjigae (soft tofu soup). I volunteer (semi) regularly at an orphanage. I am not spending more money than I earn (though I’m not really saving any money when I keep booking new vacations to various islands every break). I am no longer afraid of public transportation. But, yes, The BF is right – I’m not doing most of the stuff I said I was going to do, and his not-so-subtle reminder that I have problems being self-accountable has lit a recent fire under my over-sized ass.
This past month, I started planning stuff again – planning for the future and planning specifically for my OWN future and making conscious decisions about what is most important to me. This means that my choices don’t always make sense to 99% of the people I know – but I understand my own intentions and my own desires better than ever. Now, I just have to eradicate the firmly placed belief that I cannot afford to try anything new. The BF: “WTF? If you fail, you’ll just be as broke as you are right now. Better at least see if you can earn the life you want first.” I hate when people are right more often than I am (especially this really unconventional person).
This also means I (along with my two business classes) have been planning a full-day event for Korean orphans and I’ve been teaching my students how to solicit donations and funding. This is a novel concept in Korea – where bribery is called “favor” and relationships mean “guilt-funded.” My students were incredulous when I told them we would raise over 1 Million won (about $1000) for this event, but we are nearly halfway to our goal now. I feel the old GRRR start to growl, and remember how satisfying it is to plan an event that also has a social impact (see “Diversity Queen 2008”). In addition, I have begun planning my exit route from Korea, a place that has the potential to become a black hole of stagnation. It’s easy to get comfortable with the lifestyle here, but the longer I’m here, the more risk I have of losing sight of the things I ultimately want.
I also did a 5 day fast, started counting calories obsessively, reduced the number of cups of coffee I drink, and started taking yoga at this expensive studio across from my office. Taking an exercise class in a language you don’t understand is basically as hard as it sounds. Coupled with the fact that a lot of yoga should be done with closed eyes or looking toward the ground or ceiling, and you have your classic recipe for clumsy disaster. Last week, the instructor asked every girl in class if they wanted to be my friend and translate into English for me. A sixteen year old high schooler got the job:
16 Year Old HS Girl: “Um, teacher says, um, you should use contraction to lose your weight. She really is caring for you and wants to help you lose your weight. She wants you to find a nice husband before you are too old. She said to our entire class! So, she says, work hard to lose your weight. Practice yoga everyday.”
Meanwhile, I can understand “Now left, now right.” But I have no idea which left or right body part should be moving, or to where it should move. As an even greater bonus, I think I appalled one of my students by showing up during her yoga class. I’m pretty sure she was freaked out.
Today, I posted my birth plate in hopes of helping to locate my birth family. This has been a process of stop-starting, and I haven’t received much help from my agency here. Now, I just wait and see what happens. I am currently living in the city of my birth, and I am also comfortable finding nothing. Only time will tell if I am also comfortable finding something.
The last goal I had set for myself was to begin writing my law school memoir (and to make it funny). Since I am unimportant and irrelevant to most people in the world, getting it published is a non-issue. I want it written before I forget all the stuff that made law school hilarious…
So, I’m still here in Korea, working, living, searching… and procrastinating. Let’s hope next month, I’ll have more things checked off the “To Do in Korea” List!