It seems like there are a lot of rules here.
Not the sort of rules we have in the UK, however. Traffic rules are few (and it shows!), you can’t get arrested for taking photographs of public buildings, and it’s perfectly legal to light up a cigarette after your restaurant dinner or in the bar if you wish. But despite the absence of hundreds of official rules and regulations, there’s an overwhelming number of social, respectful rules to confuse us instead. Obviously, these aren’t confusing to Koreans, who are brought up understanding them, just as we are taught from a young age that it’s rude to belch at the dinner table or yell “Mummy, why is that man so fat?!” at the top of one’s voice.
The children at school will always, always cup both their hands together to receive anything that I am giving them, be it a sweet, a pencil sharpener, or a book. That’s because they are infants and I am their teacher – it’s a respect thing based on both age and authority. If I am receiving something from the principal of the school (a very grand man, who speaks little English and simply oozes power and grandeur. I’m a little nervous when he appears.) I will cup my hands as my students do to me. I will probably also bow my head, and look down at the ground – it would be disrespectful to look him in the eye, because that would imply that I want to be friends with him, and it’s not my place to initiate such a thing. When he greets me, I look away, smile (a polite and dignified smile rather than a friendly, cheerful grin), and bow from my waist, keeping my gaze lowered.
The lack of eye contact confused me a little at first. I was unaware of it during my first few days of teaching – and of course, because I was new to my students, they were all being very formal with me and automatically following strict rules of ‘respect etiquette’. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t look at me when I asked them a question. I even became slightly annoyed with one girl, who stared at the floor every time I spoke to her. “I’m trying to explain what this word means!” I told her gently, thinking she was shy. “Listen to me!”. She watched me as I walked back to the board, but as soon as I looked at her again, her gaze dropped back to the floor. I said her name a few times, urging her to listen, because it really looked as if she was deliberately ignoring me. When I began to raise my voice in frustration, she looked distressed and stared even more intently at the floor, lowering her head so that I couldn’t even see her face. I only realised afterwards that she had simply been showing me respect by not making eye contact with me, and the more agitated I became with her, the more respect she tried to show me by bowing her head and hiding her face from me – when all I wanted her to do was look at me so that I’d know she was paying attention. Yep, it ain’t easy.
The children make eye contact with me now because, as the elder and the authority figure, I was able to set the tone of our relationship. It just wasn’t up to them to decide that. And in my relationship with the principal, I cannot set the tone – it’s his right, as the more important person. He has continued to keep me at a distance and use very polite and formal greetings, so I must continue bowing low and avoiding eye contact. However, if the school director (with whom I am on friendly, first name terms –although she is still my boss and thus must be shown respect in some small formal way) greets me, or one of the Korean teachers, I will usually not avoid eye contact, and my bow will be nothing more than a slight lean forward. The smaller the bow, the more comfortable and familiar I am with the person – so the Korean English teachers, with whom I can enjoy a bit of banter in my own language, usually just give me a nod of the head, and I do the same to them. If they give me anything, I won’t cup both my hands. Instead, I will hold out just my right hand, but touch it with my left, or support my wrist or elbow (as if I am receiving something very heavy). The only circumstances in which I can receive anything using only one hand without causing offence are if the person passing the object is (a) a great deal younger than me, (b) under my authority, or (c) a close friend or family member – but not an elder!
In shops, the cashier is supposed to show me respect by accepting my money with both hands, and I am supposed to return respect to the cashier by taking my change either with both hands or at least by touching my right arm with my left as I accept the money. This one causes me the most difficulty. I am always fumbling with my purse and trying to lift my shopping bag at the same time as they’re reaching me my change. It’s very awkward to free up both hands, but it seems to be the norm all the same – I’ve even seen a woman carrying a baby and laden with shopping bags managing to do it!
There are all sorts of other rules, and I’m sure I don’t know the half of them yet. I only discovered the other day that if you’re at the table with an elder (I reckon it would be like an older relative, or an employer – and for children, it would definitely include their teachers), you’re supposed to turn your head away from that person when you’re taking a drink. If you have guests, it’s considered extremely rude to say goodbye to them while they’re still in your house. Kind of like you’re throwing them out. A Korean host will always bid you farewell at your car or at the garden gate.
And you have to be careful when you’re answering a yes/no question. Saying no is generally avoided by Koreans, as it can be seen as disrespectful or even taken as an insult. This one, I find infuriating. I have quickly learned, from much painful experience, to rephrase my questions so that they can’t be answered with a yes or a no. For example, you could find that if you say “is there a bus from here soon?”, a Korean will be so anxious to make you happy that they will say yes, even if there isn’t! It’s a strange one. If you phrase it “what time is the next bus from here?”, you’ll get a much more helpful answer. I’ve felt like banging my head against a wall several times because of this one, particularly in work when I’m trying to establish what I need to do, or whether something is ready for me to use. “Ne, ne, ne…” (“Yes” – usually repeated for extra positivity!). It took me a while to figure out that these yesses need to be taken with a pinch of salt, or – even better – completely ignored.
I’m learning something new every day. And no doubt accidentally offending people, too! Fortunately, as a foreigner, you get a decent amount of leeway with The Rules, as Koreans don’t usually expect you to know any better. However, I try to imagine how I would feel if someone came to my home country and did something that would be completely out of order if they weren’t a foreigner. I might be able to excuse it on grounds of ignorance, certainly, but I would definitely be appreciative of them finding out about and respecting our rules. So I’m trying to watch, listen, copy, and repeat… every bit as much as the children do in my English classes every day!