Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lack of Space

Ten months, friends! Ten months.

That's how long we've been in Korea. I say that as an accomplishment as if Korea is such a hard place to live. It's not. In fact, it's been easier to move and get adjusted here than we expected. Only two months in I was pretty sure we'd be staying a second year. It's just a good place.

There are things I love about living in Korea. That Koreans don't sprawl and apartments are the norm. That Korea is fairly environmentally friendly. Everyone composts, friends. It's the law. That we ride our bikes everywhere. Bi bim bap, yum. And how this morning over breakfast, Jeremy and I could hear yelling and cheering out the window. The guys at the car wash down the street had gathered to watch Korea play in the World Cup. We'd hear a huge explosion of cheering and read the description on-line: Oh, Russia just got a yellow card. It was fun that everyone was watching and everyone was cheering. Even when I got to school.

I cannot stress enough how great Korea has been to us.


Will you grant me a moment?
Just this one moment to talk about this one teeny, tiny frustration I have with living in Korea?

Personal space.

When you know Korean people they are kind and friendly and all-around great people.
If you don't know a Korean stranger, all bets are off. All social rules of conduct go in the trash.

Now, I am not a sociologist/psychologist or anyone else credible. I am not harping on nor attacking all Korean people. My Korean friends and I will humorously discuss these cultural differences and they chuckle at my hang-ups just as I chuckle at theirs. I'm only comparing the Koreans I've encountered to the Americans I encountered in the mid-west. We are a disgustingly friendly bunch. We smile at the grocery check-out guy. We make eye contact and smile or half-acknowledge the person walking down the street. A waitress might call you "Sweetie" and if you bump into someone, you say, "Excuse me."

However, here are a few things I've noticed about Korea:
-I'm regularly bumped into or barely avoided by students in the hallway. And they always seem surprised, but they never say, "Excuse me" or "Sorry."

-I've come close to hitting easily two dozen Koreans on my bike because they just weren't looking around.

-Motor bikes will frequently take short-cuts onto the sidewalk where the rest of us are walking. It's kind of terrifying.

-There is not a right side of the sidewalk to walk on. Even when there's a designated bike lane (with a picture!). There's a lot of swerves and near misses. (I'm not making this up, Korea has the highest pedestrian death rate in the developed world)
-Koreans will often make contact with me, bump into me, clip me with their grocery cart without a glance or an acknowledgement.

The first word I learned in Korea was "excuse me." It's the most common word I use and the least common word I hear. I asked my friend, Jongmin, about this and he said, "Koreans don't say 'excuse me' because if they did, they wouldn't have time to say anything else!" He also mentioned that maybe it has something to do with the "saving face" culture in many Asian countries. Not wanting to take time or energy to admit to such a minor offense.

So here's my theory on the personal space issue:
Americans have the luxury of sprawling. We leave a lot of space between each other in the grocery store, between our houses in our neighborhoods and between our cities. So we learn to keep our head up and pay attention.

However, Korea is a small country with a lot of people. Koreans don't have the luxury of having any space to themselves. Your apartment's about all you've got. They are used to being in close proximity to other people. So they learn to only be responsible for what's right in front of them. If they spent time and energy thinking about what's fifteen feet ahead, they'd be encountering 5-10 people. Constantly. Best to just keep your head down (usually in a cell phone...that's not unique to Koreans...) and push through.

And Koreans have their own perceptions of personal space.

I asked a Korean friend if she thought Americans were friendly when she visited Oregon. She said, "Yes, but also kind of exhausting! Everyone says 'hello.' Everyone smiles. By the end of the day, my face hurt." And another friend cited how everyone wanted to know how we was doing. They wouldn't stop asking, "How are you?" and he felt tired (if not intruded upon) trying to provide genuine answers to the butcher, the check-out lady, and the gas attendant.

And when I get too high and mighty regarding my own "issues" with personal space and awareness in Korea, I remember this story my co-teacher told me about visiting Seattle: "I was standing in-line at Starbucks to get coffee and the white woman in front of me kept turning around and giving me dirty looks. I couldn't understand why. I thought it was because I was Korean. So I was nervous because my English isn't very good, but I didn't know what to do. After a few minutes, she turned around, looked angrily into my eyes, and shouted, 'Do you have to stand so close to me?' " This story breaks my heart.

Because my co-teacher had no intention of angering this woman. She was not doing anything on purpose. She just had no idea. And neither do the people I encounter in Korea. They are just going about their business and I'm the one wasting time and energy fretting about this.

And I am indefinitely clueless to some of my own cultural norms that contrast with those of Korea. My friends here are incredibly gracious in spite of my oddities. Like last week, when I was sitting in a chair at school, an ankle tucked under one leg and a co-worker walked in, looked at me, paused, then said, "Heather, in Korea, feet belong on the ground." I was embarrassed. I was not trying to make anyone upset. But, it happens.

And screaming and yelling wouldn't make me suddenly break that habit.
Just as screaming and yelling isn't going to make Koreans walk on the right side of the sidewalk.
Because apparently, I'm the only one who cares.

So, basically, what I'm trying to say is: I'm silly. Korea's great. Yay.

All right, I'm done.

Thanks for listening.