One of the major cultural differences I’ve noticed in my short time here is that Koreans don’t have the same sense of politeness as us.
That’s not to say that they’re rude. In fact, they are very polite people, with many different gestures of respect (I’ll write about those some other time). However, there are things which in our culture would be regarded as impolite, rude, or even insulting, but which for the Koreans are nothing more than statements of fact or interested questions.
An example of this is the selection of questions you’re likely to hear the first time that you talk to someone new. Koreans do not really do small talk, preferring instead to find the important things about you – the things that, for them, define you as a person. You will not immediately be asked your opinion on current world events, or drawn into a gentle chat about the weather. More likely, you will hear the following questions (and usually in this order) – questions which would likely be seen as intrusive or “none of your bizney!” in our culture:
What age are you?
What are your qualifications?
How much money do you make?
Are you married?
The last one is not a polite chit-chatty remark. It is an important question, and there will be follow-ups. If you answer yes, you will be grilled on your husband’s occupation (if you’re female), or asked if your wife is beautiful (if you’re male). If you answer no, the next question will be a serious “Why not?”, which I found hugely offensive the first time it happened to me. Then I realised that this is just the way it is here. Your marital status says a great deal about you, and asking questions about your spouse and family is the natural direction for the conversation to take. If you don’t have one, they want to know why.
In Korea, there is no such thing as making a conscious choice not to get married. Nor is there such a thing as just not having found the right person yet. Being a single woman for any longer than you can avoid is unthinkable. You get out there and you look for a husband until you find one. If you don’t have one, then clearly there is something wrong with you – and they won’t hesitate to ask you what it is!
The first person to talk to me like this was my boss, in our first conversation. Given my state of mind over The Break-Up, I was slightly taken aback and felt my breath catch in my throat. I… I just haven’t found anyone to marry yet, I said eventually, feeling a bit raw and wounded. You have boyfriend? she pressed on, unruffled. I… I… no, I faltered, trying to keep my bottom lip from wobbling. When was last boyfriend? she wanted to know. Good grief. Before the summer, I said in a small voice. He… he…
In truth, I was waiting for her to see my discomfort and tactfully change the subject, but tact is not something that the Koreans do. She waited expectantly for a reason. Why would I have let this prospective husband go when it meant that I would have to be an unmarried woman in her twenties? It required an explanation. He didn’t want me, I said eventually, sniffling slightly and trying not to cry. She nodded, satisfied that I was in fact a problem, perhaps wondering what it was about me that made me repel men.
I was a little traumatised, but I’m getting used to it now – plus it helps that talking about the Last One can no longer reduce me to tears. At least not immediately. I have smart and sassy answers at the ready now. And I’ve discovered that while the Koreans are very polite people, they are not tactful at all. They say exactly what they think and ask exactly what they want to know. Calling someone fat and ugly would not be seen as an insult, for example. If you were to point out how rude and hurtful it was, they would stare blankly at you and say “But she is fat! And she is ugly!”. It’s statement of fact, it’s the truth.
And to illustrate my point, here are some pictures of the writing exercises I was doing with the 6-year-olds today.
It horrified me, and I felt compelled to explain to them that in Western culture, saying such things about your classmates would be forbidden because it is rude and hurtful. They didn’t understand in the least.
At least I know not to get offended if a child says “Teacha is fat!”. It’s not a positive thing and it’s not a negative thing. It just is. Fact. Say what you see!