The People at First Glance
The first thing you notice in Korea, besides a seemingly futuristic, science-fiction-like landscape, mixed with a sort of third-world feel, is the equally dichotomous behavior of the people.
Like anywhere else, there are all types of folks here; “good” and “bad”, and all stops in between, but I venture a guess that like nowhere else will you experience-day-to-day-such an enormous disparity in extremes as is exhibited here; ranging from over-the top, almost in-your-face generosity, kindness, and attempts at helping you (almost to a fault and even rivaling the kindness of the Japanese) to displays of apparent, outright contempt. Perhaps it’s because I am a white guy? An American? Funny looking? More on that, later.
Some of the old men here offer a look of recognition in their eyes when they see you; you’re the new-comer from America to them. These old men feel good about you because a soldier, like my uncle (who unofficially adopted a homeless boy on Kudjiae island during the war) was kind to them. Or because they were katusas, the Korean soldiers who worked with American soldiers. Or maybe they just studied abroad ad have fond memories.
They will smile at you, with a ‘gee, might you be American’ twinkle in their eyes. That’s the closest I get to feeling some home-town country sentiment that I experienced around the heartland, back home. It’s the look an old-timer betrays when he sees his youth in me and grins for the same reason I take pleasure in watching young boys cutting up with one another. It’s a common affinity for a bygone time that perhaps all men feel when they advance in years.
This type of man in Korea will offer you a seat on the bus, the subway, or a bench-welcoming you almost aggressively, as if to say, ‘Hey traveler, you must come and rest, and tell me all about your journey.’ And this kind of Korean friendliness is wonderful, unrivaled, and even a bit embarrassing, for you almost cannot pass it up. And when you do, you feel like you have been un-neighborly.
This type of “han-gook-bun”, or Korean person (in the most polite speech), is the type that lets you ride free on the bus when your commutation card is empty. Or he offers you money when you come up short.
The Bad (or The Ornery)
Other men, middle-aged men, will glare at you, as if you have just lifted their wallet from their pocket (or tried to). I experience this almost every day, at one point or another. I have been attacked by this kind of man on several occasions.
Still, other folks pay you no mind, rarely smiling when they catch your eye-as is customary in other countries, like mine.
Most interesting is when men are out together-especially older men who are out drinking and moving from watering hole to watering hole or restaurant; they will hold hands, and argue and cajole one another very loudly over who should take a seat on the subway or the bus.
In Chongno, a soldier once took my hand to guide me while giving me directions, and I sheepishly slid my hnd ut of his, like jelly sliding down the sie of a table-after a few seconds. Though I am a man of softer sentiments about humanity than many I have met and grew up with, I am still from the somewhat homophobic USA, where men do not hold hands, unless they live in Chelsea!
Young girls and teenagers hold hands too, of all ages.
And everyone seems to feel free to announce his or her business to the world, talking loudly, on buses, trains, and in airports and subway stations-in booming voices-in person, or over their ever-present cell phones.
Children seem to to be freer; able to walk into alleys and big streets unattended, shockingly close to traffic, almost being hit by motorists, but never quite. It used to give me the willies, but now I am used to it.
One also finds extreme frankness and honesty. “Teacher, this is Hye-kyung, my friend. She is nice, but she is fat”, and Hye-kyung blushes. Adults are this way too, often, and it takes a while to get used to the fact that when they are talking about you, they mean no harm, but it is always hard to tell whether you are being put on or not.
In business, or on the subway or a bus, this almost embarrassing frankness is very direct, especially among the older folks who come from a more simple life: “Hi! Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? What is your job?” How much money do you make?” After you summon some answers and manage to display a bit of composure by taking a step back, you may hear, “I am Kim! I graduated from Seoul National University!” Apparently everyone has!
It has often been my experience that Koreans seem to have the warmest hearts I have come across, but express that warmth sparingly. These people, so accustomed to having to behave well according to their hierarchical confucianist societal rules-in place for thousands of years-seem to practically take it for granted that their indirect nature, discretion, reserve, and strength to tell many white-lies, and display apparent outright fabulism is seen as a form of politeness, or even shyness that has to be understood and accepted-for the sake of social harmony. Or, they don’t think you can see through it at all.
Many people often make the unconscious mistake of thinking other people are like themselves and that they expect to be treated the way “the treater” wants to be treated. Across cultural divides this is the biggest mistake a person can make, I have found.
I cannot speak for those from other western countries (though I have heard my observations echoed thousands of times), but to the foreigner raised in New York, where a social premium is placed on “keeping it real”-to the virtual point that a measure of whether you are a cool person or not, depends on how well you can do it, the perception that Koreans try to make you feel so good all the time that it seems like they are trying to keep it as unreal as possible…can be really mind-bendingly frustrating, to say the least. But you fall for it, or you learn to see through it and forgive them, or you just refrain with all you strength from wringing their necks over it. And on the other hand, you also privately thank them once in a while, because they are masters at trying to conceal bad news. But I hate that, because I feel like I am being treated like a child when anyone does it.
To be fair, human beings often-if not always-want to be told what they want to hear, and so sometimes (maybe even more often than not), it really works, and Koreans perhaps know this better than anything else.
Whatever stress and frustration I feel living in Korea over culture shock is often made up for by kindness; more on that later. And I also find it helpful to remember what Kipling said about the cultures of foreign countries having been set up for the locals, not the visitors. That helps deal with the problem.
Many are successful at understanding the intricacies and nuanced differences between East and West here. I am working on it all the time. Meditation and prayer can help. Also, having a very loving friend who knows your world is crucial. My friend Dave is a master at dealing with the nuances and discretion of Koreans. It’s quite remarkable. But then, Dave left…