I’ve been at the school since February—now, at the end of October, nearly 8 months later, students still don’t know how to greet me when they pass me in the hallway. There’s always the hesitation over whether to use Korean or English, and if they use English, what should they say? Most first year students greet me comfortably with “Hi, Teacher,” a group of third years in my advanced classes have a little sing-song of “Hello, Teacher” that they like to throw at me even if I can’t see them over the masses of other students in the hallways between classes… and others usually stutter through whatever it is they choose to say, half-bowing, half-smiling, caught with only a split second to make a kind of decision that isn’t necessary in any other realm of their daily life.
As you may know, it’s customary in Korean culture for students (or any company / gathering-place junior) to bow and politely greet their teachers (and seniors, including older, known students). Because I fit in some students’ minds quite neatly into the teacher category, most students bow politely to me and mumble the standard Korean an-yeong-ha-se-yo as they pass. Other students want to interact directly, so sometimes I’m stopped by students with random questions. I like this best, actually. Teacher, what’s the most popular food in California? Teacher, do people know BTS in the USA? Between these two groups of students are those who recognize Korean isn’t my language and that I may not understand their intention or meaning when they greet me in Korean, and who because of that awareness hesitate and deliberate between hi or hello and who chatter about it in Korean afterwards, how they still don’t know what they should say to me when they pass me in the halls.
To be honest, I kind of dread these interactions because I also kind of still don’t know what to do. I have to actively pay attention to how they’re engaging with me—if they bow, I nod my head back and smile. If they say hi, I say hi back. If they greet me in Korean, I respond with hello. If they ignore me completely—which sometimes they do—I don’t make a big deal about it.
I recently talked with my co-teacher about this culture difference. Because I teach the entire student body, all students know me, as opposed to other subject teachers who teach only a portion of their designated grades. And because I teach all students, I receive a lot of greetings in the hallways. From the second I exit the classroom to the second I enter the office. I was walking with my coteacher back to the office from one of our shared classes and after my fourth or fifth “hello,” she asked me if students in America greet their teachers like that. I almost didn’t have to think about it—my neck sprang into action before my mind, shaking my head a vigorous no. I told her it was only if students were really close with that teacher would either greet the other. Or just if the kid is friendly. But to be honest, I can’t exactly remember what happened if I ran into a teacher outside of their classroom in high school. In university I always greeted professors outside involuntarily, spurred by my fanatical respect and/or admiration into greeting them heartily, even from far away.
Although I’ve lived in Korea nearly continually since August 2015, there are still some elements of culture difference that will perplex me and aggravate me to no end. I was talking with a friend earlier this year, maybe springtime, and she said something that I thought a lot about at the time. That as visitors we’re just observers of different cultures and it’s not really our place to say whether or not that culture is right or wrong, just whether or not that culture suits us or not.
I don’t agree.
Okay, yeah, if you speed through a country on a world tour and come back spouting things about which country is good and bad or make premature judgements without engaging enough with information or data on an issue, then it’s not really your place. Sometimes it’s not your place. But I don’t think we should withhold judgement about right and wrong just because the culture is different. I completely understand that I will never, ever, completely grasp or comprehend a culture that is not my own. I know I can never understand the ins and outs and the history and all the complications. However, after living within (or among) a culture for a couple years and seeing its effects on people and using my actual observations and experiences, I think it’s okay, and necessary, even, to attempt to combat something I think is wrong, even if it falls under the guidelines of a culture that I didn’t come from.
I’m not going to go around telling people “yeah um hi excuse me your whole culture’s way of understanding and talking about feminism is deeply flawed and harmful” but I’m still allowed to think that, and share that opinion with friends if they ask me. I think I’m allowed to attempt to secretly disseminate empowering ideas to the young women I teach because I believe that the culture they’re growing up in is systemically oppressive to all members of their gender. I would never say to a classroom that the way they’ve been taught to think about themselves as relating to men and to others in general strips them of their ability to think healthily about themselves or makes it much more difficult than necessary to establish truly meaningful relationships with the opposite gender. But if a student comes to me seeking advice in a safe setting where she can choose to leave at any time… I’m going to tell her what I truly believe.
My friend didn’t mean it wasn’t okay to do those things. I know she just meant we shouldn’t pass judgement on things we can’t fully understand. But in terms of a different culture, that’s something we can’t ever fully understand. If my reason for believing something is wrong is because I believe it fundamentally harms an entire group of people, and I just want to help those people, I think I have the right to judge even though I don’t fully understand.
I recently posted a status on a language learning application about my frustrations with my co-worker’s appearance and the fundamental assumption in Korean culture that if you dress up or “look pretty” you’re doing it in order to gain someone else’s approval. The comment that made me upset was “You look really pretty today. Do you have a date after work? No? Then you’d better make plans for one.” I posted the quote and noted that I know it’s culture difference but I don’t think people should say this kind of thing at work; also, this question was coming from another woman, and why is it always the assumption that women’s effort to look beautiful has to be effort made to please men, OR, that it has to be made “useful” in some way, usually by appealing to men?
More than any other status I’ve posted before this drew a lot of comments, but the most opinionated commenters were men. One man felt it was his duty to point out to me that not only women receive those kinds of comments. (Thanks cause I didn’t know that already or anything and oh yeah thanks for reminding me that this status update was actually about YOU.) Another man told me that he was a guy and he cared a lot about his appearance and he dressed up for women and it was just a way of being in the office, it wasn’t a comment with a lot of malicious thought or anything, it was just a standard saying kind of like a greeting. He also took the trouble to explain to me (because I am an imbecile) that the reason people dress up when they’re going on a date is because the other person likes it when they do that. I wanted to comment back that the fact people say it as “just a greeting” is kind of exactly my issue with it. Because it’s been so normalized to think that way, that “dressing up” (as the guy put it) is ALWAYS for someone else and because of that beauty must be made useful in that way, people just say it without thinking and if people keep defending that kind of statement, then Korean culture’s acceptance of people always making it their business what other people look like is never going to self-check, it’s never going to loosen up, and people’s daily routines will always center upon that vicious, poisonous awareness of society’s gaze. But I did not comment that because I lost energy and I’m not sure how to get it all across in Korean.
People who, never having been to Korea, wonder why parents are buying their teenage kids plastic surgery packages as high school (or middle school) graduation presents, I invite you to come and spend a couple years here. The answer is suffocating, inescapable. Everybody makes other people’s appearance their own business. They care about it. They talk about it. They think about it. Why is that happening on such a scale that I can basically never feel like I get away from it? And I’m a foreigner? This phenomenon occurs to some extent in any culture. Humans as animals care about the appearance of other humans. But I don’t think you’d argue with me, had you been here for as long as I have, that it’s amplified to an intolerable scale here.
Also, while I’m at it.
The fact that mostly men commented with opinionated comments on a status about my experience as a woman, trying to modify my thinking for me even though they’re a man and can’t know or share my experience in any way… Well, that’s just more of the same, isn’t it.
In talking to my coworker (who is a math teacher) about feminism yesterday, she told me that when she was a kid, she overheard the line in a drama that a man said if a woman weights over 60kg (just over 130 pounds), she’s not a woman, implying that she’s a pig or animal instead because of her weight. My coworker told me she had been shocked by that, but I could tell that her reason for being shocked was different from mine. I think it was the number itself that shocked her.
Whether he’d said 40kg or 100kg, to me, it doesn’t matter. To me, the fact that men think that it is okay for them to define what it means to be a woman, to define the scope within which a woman is allowed to experience life as such, is a fundamental problem that men themselves cannot understand, and which most women are living unaware of. Every time a woman says she can’t be a feminist because she wants to have a rich or handsome husband, every time a woman says she has to wear makeup or weigh in at a certain number in order to be successful, these women are letting men make the rules of who they can be and how they can be themselves. And when women, like my coworker, tell other women to make their beauty “useful” by planning a date on a day they look pretty so their beauty doesn’t “go to waste,” they’re only perpetuating the cycle.
So these days, I’m a little frustrated.