Social norms: they exist. Canada has them, and so does Korea. Canada’s are deeply programmed into my brain, and thus I anticipated a great deal of trouble moving to Korea, having to stifle these rules of engagement for a set often completely unlike my own. In social situations, I assume I’ll be taken as a sort of marauding barbarian–a defrosted caveman completely incapable of restraining my natural urges set fire to villages and steal all of the comely wenches. But living here for a year, I’ve come to learn how much lee-way I’m given, how much people are willing to pardon my comparatively Viking-like ways.
To be quick here: Korea is a face-saving based culture. In the essentials, it means not embarrassing other people, especially your superiors, and doing everything you can to not make other people look like jerks, even when they’ve done something super jerky. Running along with this is 눈치 (nunchi): spidey sense for social situations.
As someone preternaturally worried about making a giant ass of myself, I did what I could to learn about these, to prepare myself, to maintain my own face and that of others in conversations. I avoided certain bumpy topics, I never correct people in public (and only do so with surgical care in private), and just act like a bleary, unaware bag of sand when it comes to embarrassing situations for others, lest I somehow make it worse for them. But I don’t need to.
Because I’m foreign.
For good or for ill, most Koreans are willing to waive a lot of cultural norms when it comes to foreigners. The things they expect from their own people, they just don’t expect out of non-Koreans (whether from knowing it’s awkward to expect others to conform to your own culture’s rules, or knowing the difficulty, or thinking someone’s too dull to handle the subtleties). Granted, this brings its own slew of problems: my Korean-looking, but certainly non-Korean, friends get a lot of flack for things where I am given a “How cute!” wave and giggle. Some foreigners take this as license to be drunken mooks spraying Korea in beer, noodle-vomit, and ejaculate. Some Koreans take this as license to see foreigners as inconsiderate, stupid piles of goo incapable of civilization or class.
But for most normal people, it’s a gentle acceptance that cultural norms are hard, especially if you’re new, and especially especially if you don’t speak the language.
In restaurants and shops, people will rush to serve me, usually arguing amongst themselves for who has the superior English and should thus be burdened with cracking it out and trying to make it easier on us. When no one has any English, the people go to absurd lengths, doing most of the work and going beyond their call for fear of us asking a question in English, and both of us losing face for not being able to communicate adequately. The people fret that we won’t be able to handle the food, or that our hands (barely more flexible than cloven hooves) will be unable to maneuver chopsticks, and thus ask if we require forks to evade embarrassment.
In language, people are ceaselessly forgiving. Korean is a language with formality levels installed, and thus you suffix your words with different signifiers based on who you’re around. Because I’m still learning, and because I find 존댓말 comparatively difficult to pronounce, I am excused from its use. Where coming out of a Korean person my speech would be taken as unconscionably adolescent and rude, from me, it is waved away: well, at least he’s trying! When I flew back to Toronto in April, a Korean man sat next to me, and every time I spoke to him, I used the polite, though still not appropriately leveled speech, and despite him being 40 years my senior, my horrible blunders each excused: hey, at least whitey can tell me what’s for breakfast.
Am I this forgiving? I am this willing to turn a blind eye when I’m at home? I don’t even remember. I’d like to say that I am, that I would simply give out high fives to new Canadians for trying, but I can barely even remember, because the norms are so set in my brain. I don’t have to try, and so it confuses me when others need to exert effort.
Once, I came to the lunch room at high noon, when the tables were teeming with ravenous, food be-flecked children, and the ambient noise level was like an airport tarmac. There is one table for the staff, usually bountiful in seating, as there are three different lunch rotations. But that day, a perfect storm: the maintenance, tech support, admin, subject teachers, and principal and vice principal came for lunch at the same time. Only two or three spots were open at the whole table.
Usually, to evade these sorts of conundra, I stay behind the other English teachers in the lunch line so I can follow their lead, but today I had stupidly meandered to the front. I had to choose my seat: one of the empty two directly across from the principal, or the two other ones dispersed amongst the other groups. I tried to divine what was ruder: slopping myself in front of the principal, or splitting up the English teachers so we couldn’t eat together, and in that split second, I decided that sitting across from the principal was the best strategy. There were two seats, so another English teacher could join me, and thus we could eat together, as social custom demands of us. When the other English teachers saw where I chose to sit, they high-tailed it, leaving me to quietly stew in my neurotics.
The principal glanced up when I sat, nodded to himself, and went on with his eating. After some time, and some other seats clearing, he summoned an English teacher to our side, and began a long diatribe in Korean: one, I assumed, detailing what an officious, arrogant foreign mule I was. When the translation came up, my relief was palpable: “Michael, principal says that all other teachers are scared to sit across from him, they think maybe it is rude. But you don’t. You are confident teacher, and you treat him as person.” Knowing the mood had softened, I explained then about how I had been nervous, and this in turn only made him like me more. (Two days later, at a male staff dinner, he regaled everyone about how confident and great I am because I sat across from him at lunch; this may have also been his way of telling them: calm down and sit across from me, you nerds.)
When in doubt, I have the foreigner card. I try not to use it often, to excuse myself from the social niceties of the society in which I have chosen to live for a few years. But it’s reassuring to have a parachute, to have an eject button which I can press when things get too arcane and confusing, or when the odds of making an enormous ass of myself become to great. And often times, the card is checked without me even knowing: to save my face, to save the face of everybody else, people usually won’t even tell me when I’ve already knocked down the displays of fine china.