(This post was written during my flight home, on 6 Sept. 2010.)

Before I came to live in Asia, I’d hear people explain how a phrase like “so desu ne” could mean all kinds of things from “I see,” or “really?” all the way to, “I’m glad you see it my way, and acknowledge the responsibility that falls upon you in this position given your involvement with my enemies, and the inevitability of this confrontation between us.” I’m alluding, of course, to the ambiguity of language which is universal: “Uh huh” can denote all kinds of things in English, and all one needs to do to see even greater versatility is to look at curse words and how they function in English. (Tom left his shit all over the floor and the cat shit on it; when he found out, he lost his shit and started screaming, “Shit! You little shit!”)

My experience in Korean is that there are words that can mean a range of things, too. “Ya!” is one of them: to someone close to oneself, it can mean anything from, “How dare you say/do that?” to “Hey, what’s up?” or “Listen, listen!” But one thing I’ve learned is that it something one doesn’t use on strangers, much less shouting it at them.

So what am I to think when the older Korean lady (I think she’s in her late 50s or very early 60s), while grabbing at a stewardess passing by, shouts, “Ya!” at her? It’s not as if they’ve been ignoring us all day — they’ve been extremely attentive. I can certainly understand an older person not understanding that at the push of a button, someone will attend upon her needs. But the combination of grabbing the woman’s arm and shouting “Ya!”, that just makes me uncomfortable…

Well, and there’s one more detail. This flight attendant she was grabbing for is Southeast Asian, as far as I can tell. Interestingly, the old lady has had to flag down the attention of the other flight attendants, who are (or can pass for) Korean women, but this one woman was obviously not Korean. I have to wonder to what degree it’s not a question of age, or some sort of anxiety over communicating with someone who may not speak Korean, and how much of it is just skin color?

There was something about it that was just not very respectful at all, but then, what I get from a number of older people I’ve met is that respect is a one way street anyway: everyone should pay it to the elders, but a number of elders seem to think that they needn’t pay respect back down the line to the young.

Which reminds me of a comment a teacher friend was given by a couple of her high school classes, when she asked, “So how are things supposed to change, if older people are keeping them the way they are?” The students said, “Things will get better when they’ve all died.” One could argue that this is a very disrespectful thing to say, but then, what else can be expected? When respect is, “Do as I say, not as I do,” it’s inevitable that displays of it will devolve into resentful obeisances. Which is pretty much ubiquitous, if you ask me.

As a Westerner, maybe, it’s just that the crazy, contrived systems by which we maintain community and civilization are transparent to me (that is, difficult to see clearly), and all I see is the contrast in Korea, but this respect-as-obeisance seems to me to be a burdensome thing for the vast majority of people. Meanwhile, and this is fresh from my experience in Australia, respect expressed as not just politeness and consideration but downright niceness is quite a bit more fulfilling. Maybe, as I say, I only think this because I’m Western. I don’t think so, though, since more and more Koreans have been saying this to me, too.

And not just that: it seems strategically quite useful in a lot of ways to use respect-as-obeisance and the whole age-hierarchy thing for ill. When a Korean asks, “How old are you?” in the context of a dispute, it’s often an attempt to shut down rational, respectful disagreement. I’m older, I’m right. I’ve seen it time after time, though often less explicitly put: often, younger people’s training to just put up and shut up is too strong. Better that than whatever the hell crazy behaviour that some older person might impose on juniors who dare to disagree.

I was struck, during the Hugo Ceremonies in Melbourne, by a comment Peter Watts made: he explained that his informal attire was on account of having been sure he wouldn’t win the Hugo this year for his novelette, “The Island.” He said something like, “As someone who’s been wrong two million times before,” he said, “being wrong has never felt so good.” While it’s rare to find someone in any culture who is willing to admit to having been wrong a million times before, I get the sense — from aversion my students and colleagues seem to feel with regard to errors — it’s especially rare in Korea.

Me, I want to be the kind of person who’s open to saying I’ve been wrong about things many times before, and could be now, too. But you know what? It’s a funny thing about Korea: it rubs off on you. I remember I wasn’t like that when I was a kid, but I learned it, and what the hell? In the past eight years, I realize, I’ve been unlearning it again. I’ve been unlearning a lot of little things that, in the aggregate, make me a “civilized person” in terms of the Western world. Things that I kind of miss about myself, but which I had to amputate because otherwise I’d be walking around in a rage or in disgust all day long.

On the Sydney airport terminal shuttle bus, I noticed some guy waving me to an empty seat, which I promptly came over and took. Then he sort of paused a few moments later, when a woman came onto the bus. The thing was, she was a very, very big woman, the sort of size of person who one never sees in Korea. There was no way in hell the woman would have fit on the seats of the bus unless two people got up, and even then, there was a pole beside me, so offering my seat to her seemed pointless. But the man stood and offered his seat anyway. She declined it, of course, and he accepted the refusal and sat down. But the woman smiled all the way to the terminal, because of that little act of considersation.

Huh , I thought. I think I used to be polite like that. And yeah, I’ve unlearned it. Maybe unlearning some of the polite inhibition I picked up as a well-raised Westerner is good — I was raised to be pretty uptight, or at least my temperament conspired with my upbringing to that end. But now, I stand in front of elevator doors and have to stop myself from hurrying in when they open, and someone inside wants to come out. I don’t often offer people help spontaneously when they are carrying heavy stuff. I don’t think for a second about giving my seat to another on the bus, unless that person is very old and polite.

And I don’t like that about myself, but I see that it’s not a sensible thing to try change about myself while I’m living in Korea. I put up a good fight over the years, but I lost at least some of it. Not all, though: I also was surprised how naturally polite and friendly conversation was, and how comfortable it remained for me.

It almost takes the sting out of the culture shock.

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