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.