Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Reach Out and Traumatize Someone
I haven’t written home as often as I thought I would. Part of the reason is that there is simply so much happening here in South Korea and so quickly that I can’t think of what to tell you next. Another part of the problem is that where myself and my keyboard used to be the closest of companions, I have discovered the greatest threat to a humor columnist’s career: a girl my age.
This is devastating on two counts: 1) I find myself spending what could be valuable time pounding the word processor calling her or, even more extreme, seeing her, and 2) she has deprived me of one of my greatest source’s of material, meaning my natural awkwardness. Self-deprecation is, after all, a critical weapon in any humorist’s arsenal.
However, the last is not really a valid excuse; the actual people of Korea have given me no shortage of good substance to draw upon. Today I want to talk about gender roles, and the differences you would find here.
Virtually my entire life has been spent in the South, where there are very clear rules for contact between members of the same gender. In particular, men have very clear rules. They shake hands if there is real respect or camaraderie between the two, slap shoulders after accomplishments and hug if a relative dies or their favorite (insert sport) team wins the (insert name of dead coach) Cup. All touch between men I have known is applied forcefully, in such a way to convey strength and show the other man that you are absolutely, positively in no way interest in sharing feelings.
Men in the South do not ever touch each other below the waist. And I mean ever.
Okay, maybe, perhaps there would be some unavoidable touch if, say, one man’s leg had been cut off with a circular saw and another man had to tie a tourniquet on to keep him from bleeding to death. Even in this instance, the man tying the tourniquet would still be required to deliver the post-touch “I didn’t mean it that way” declaration.
It occurred to me that things were different here during my first week in Seoul, when I saw many women, and even some men holding hands as they walked down the street. There appeared to be nothing amorous about it; just people identifying themselves as friends or possibly giving directions.
It became very clear to me when I arrived in Suncheon and met one of the other teachers. He is the only other male teacher at the Suncheon Institute where I am assigned, a 30-something Korean man who selected “Brian” as his English nickname.
Once while asking Brian’s advice on a textbook, I grabbed him by the wrist, using the usual Southern-approved amount of force and lead him across the length of our staff room. He responded by taking hold of my hand for the duration of our walk.
I believe this was only a cultural misunderstanding; a normal thing in Korea that might result in a loss of trust and an imaginary barrier of personal space in the South.
Later in the term, while I was walking between classrooms I happened to see Brian, who was singing a song by 70’s classic rock-icons Queen to himself. He asked me if I knew it, then proceeded to sing me the chorus as he grabbed me by the belt for emphasis. The image of the late Freddie Mercury is perhaps the last thing a Southern-born male wants to think of if another man touches his waist.
However, I believe this was only a cultural misunderstanding; a normal thing in Korea that would, in the South, likely result in a right hook to the jaw and maybe a broken bottle of beer over the head.
But one example stands skull and shoulders above the rest. One weekend, after taking my girlfriend to the bus terminal in Suncheon so she could return to her place of employment in Seoul, I got in a taxi cab to return home. To an extent, this incident was my fault; I was wearing shorts, and my legs have enough hair on them to keep an average-sized Grizzly warm in winter. Naturally, this will draw attention in a region of the world where people grow less extra-cranial hair in a lifetime than a Southern man does during his lunch break.
The cab driver asked me where I was from, and I told him America. The preliminary introductions over with, he proceeded to turn around and run his left hand through the hair on my left knee. I don’t believe this was an advance on his part; his next move was to raise the right pant leg of his slack show me how hairless he was.
To at least a degree this was a cultural misunderstanding; a somewhat-less-than-normal in Korea that would, in the South, result in some rope-related abrasions to the area where the neck meets the jaw.
If you know what I mean.
I have since talked to Brian, who said the cab driver was “rude.” We have also talked about the important disparities in our cultures and how certain things are handled.
“(Contact between men) is normal in Korea,” he said.
“It’s not in my neighborhood,” I said. “It’ll get you shot.”
But, I suppose the people of our nations have much they can learn from each other. For us Americans, we can learn from the people of South Korea how to not be ashamed of showing warmth to others without being branded less manly.
South Koreans, on the other hand, can learn from us how to solve their misunderstandings with the use of physical violence.
And that’s multiculturalism.
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