Laura is not a Russian prostitute despite the perception of those who see her in public with her Korean husband. “I often get mistaken for a Russian prostitute,” she wrote. Laura ranted online about lack of social etiquette in Korea. We invited Laura to explain herself in more detail. She offered the following for publication:
Today I was transferring lines at Cheongju station, line 5. As the train approached my station, I made my way to the doors, ready to disembark. When the doors slid open I was confronted by a slew of ajummas and halmonis blocking my way. Instead of allowing me to exit first, they pushed their way onto the train, eager to sit in an empty seat. The same scenario replayed itself in an office building later in the day whilst attempting to exit the elevator.
Often when observing Koreans in their natural environment I am reminded of a scene from Disney’s “Nemo” where a flock of seagulls attempting to devour the beached fish descends on them screeching “Mine! Mine! Mine!” Alas, Koreans in general appear to lack, in many ways, the basic tenets of social etiquette. In this dog-eat-dog city, it seems that most residents are only interested in their own comfort and convenience, while ignoring the most basic principles of social etiquette.
It’s a balmy Friday evening and as I make my way home I am greeted with groups of young Koreans enjoying a leisurely stroll through the streets of Gyeongridan in Itaewon. In front of me are four university girls, dressed up to the nines in high heels and the ubiquitous mini skirt, chatting excitedly and pointing to the array of ritzy new restaurants that now dominate the strip. Together they form a line, blocking the entire sidewalk. I attempt to pass them several times. Finally, one woman turns around and signals to her friend, who temporarily moves aside, allowing me to pass.
Other pedestrians coming from the opposite direction face the same dilemma. One can either turn one’s body sideways to avoid contact or risk death by taxi by stepping into the street. Such is the norm on a Korean sidewalk.
In recent times Itaewon, once referred to as “the ghetto of Seoul,” has revamped its status from a dangerous, scary place full of foreigners to one of Seoul’s newest must-see hot spots. Curious Koreans from the numerous suburbs have amassed en force, bringing with them their cars which they subsequently illegally park in clearly marked No-Parking zones or in front of disgruntled residents’ houses. In the past month I have had to call the local district office three times to have a car towed from the parking space in front of my house.
Itaewon, much like the Gangnam area, suffers from a dearth of parking spaces, but despite the parking maids’ prodigious attempts to ticket cars, Koreans still do not seem deterred in parking illegally wherever it suits them. This is a problem endemic throughout Seoul. If a space exists, regardless of the law or thought to the resident, the “mine, mine, mine” mentality kicks into full gear.
It’s Saturday night, and my husband and I decided to patronize one of our favorite gogi-jib/barbeque joints. As soon as we step inside we notice a small group of soju-ed up ajeossi boisterously finishing off what appears to be the 6th bottle with shouts of “One shot!” They are extremely loud, but understanding the extreme stress of grueling Korean corporate life, I take no offense in allowing them to blow off some steam.
We order some galbi and sit down to enjoy our delicious meal. However, after several minutes we sense a marked shift in the mood of these older men. First the swearing commences with notable curses “Gae-ssaeki and ship-saekki.” Then an empty bottle of soju flies across the room. Two men stand up and proceed to begin strangling one another with a firm grip on the opposing man’s tie.
As the oxygen is cut off, one man’s face starts to turn red. Next a table is overturned, with banchan side dishes splattering their fermented delights all over the floor. And what does the owner of the restaurant do? Absolutely nothing.
Eventually the two other members of their crew convince them to take the fight outside where a screaming match continues for another ten minutes outside the doors. After all is settled, one member of their group enters the restaurant, bows to the owner and kitchen staff and offers his sincere apology. You might be tempted to think this altercation occurred in some obscure outskirt of Seoul, but in fact it was in a fairly prestigious restaurant in the elitist plastic surgery capital of Seoul, Apgujeong.
This is not the first time I have experienced social demonstrations of aggression and violence in a Korean restaurant. It has happened so many times that a friend once remarked to me, “Never visit a chicken hof after 8pm if 40% of the customers or more are ajeossi.” While some may enjoy a little WWF action with their evening meal, I see no reason why a paying customer should have to endure such displays.
When discussing the lack of social etiquette in this country, many Koreans are quick to offer up excuses. A typical response begins with “Please do not misunderstand our country.” Koreans cling to the idea that because this nation industrialized quickly in a relatively short period of time, Koreans have yet to catch up with the norms of using simple technology such as subway trains and elevators.
Others opine that it is because of the Japanese occupation that Koreans have become confused and do not know to walk on the right side of the sidewalk, facilitating an easier flow of pedestrian traffic. Subway stations in the last 3 years have begun to cordon off areas and mark the floor with arrows and signs that indicate that users should walk on the right side.
In a country where people drive on the right, it makes sense that people should also walk on the right. However, try walking up or down stairs during peak hours while Koreans traveling in one direction occupy the entire stairwell, despite the signs, and you will see what I mean.
Some claim that other cities like Tokyo and New York have the same issues and that Seoul is not unique in its problems. Certainly, in New York City there is a lot of pushing and shoving in crowded areas, but on a recent visit to Tokyo I discovered that the Japanese, despite having a similar population density, manage to ambulate in a much more organized manner. In fact, in my three-day visit, not once did I find my way blocked. While the Japanese walk on the left, and Americans walk on the right, both methods allow pedestrians to reach their destinations in a time-efficient manner. Why do Koreans not yet grasp this concept? Anyone who has played the daily game of sidewalk zig-zag knows well that much time and energy is wasted trying to navigate the typical Korean street.
Since the election of the conservative Saenuri party head Park Geun-hye, smoking has been banned in many public areas such as restaurants, bathrooms, PC rooms, and even on the streets of Gangnam. I can only suppose that this was due to complaints of non-smokers who do not wish to breathe in sickly second-hand smoke on a daily basis. I applaud this effort, but it is sad that the government had to enact a law in order for Koreans to gain some degree of social consciousness.
As a smoker myself, I do not smoke and walk, taking into consideration that the people behind me may not enjoy the smell of my burning cigarette. In Japan, it is actually illegal to smoke and walk at the same time. In Korea, I still encounter smoke filled stairwells from time to time.
Koreans have only just recently become aware of basic hygiene through the events of the MERS crisis. Noting a lack of social consciousness concerning such behaviors as coughing and sneezing, the government embarked on a nation-wide campaign of mask wearing and hand sanitizing. Yet I am yet to read an article in any Korean newspaper that emphasizes covering one’s mouth or nose when expectorating, in consideration of other’s health and well-being.
Many Korean bathrooms are not equipped with soap, which further facilitates the spread of germs and disease. A deeper issue is that even when soap is provided, many children consider washing their hands to mean merely dousing them in cold water. Despite campaigns, Koreans continue to sneeze and cough in public areas. Just last week, while riding the bus, a woman behind me blessed me with her snot droplets all over the back of my neck. If any thought was given to others in this country, the average citizen would think to contain their illness and not spread it to others.
Yet even as the news reported, several Korean citizens under quarantine decided that it was more important to go golfing, visit the sauna, or attend a real estate meeting, resulting in hundreds of more people having to be quarantined to prevent the spread of infection. While many Korean citizens were rightly outraged at the self-centered, irresponsible actions of a few, they did not seem to learn a valuable lesson about their own personal hygiene habits.
I do not give much credit to any of the arguments I have heard from Koreans concerning the lack of general consideration for others. My personal theory is that Koreans do not care much about people with whom they have not been formally introduced. In essence, in Korean society, without a formal introduction, you do not exist as a person who needs to be respected or whose needs should be considered. You are simply an “other” and one need only observe Korean driving culture to observe this fact.
Koreans who travel abroad are often mourned by the local population as being rude. I once saw a Korean man in an American restaurant order a waitress by loudly shouting “Come here now.” From my personal observations, some Koreans take advantage of their supposed “customer status” to belittle and degrade wait staff, convenience clerks, and other workers deemed as subordinate.
In recent news one Korean lady threw a piece of toast at a train station café worker. These are people who are often working at a minimum wage of less than $5 an hour. Do they really deserve to be treated this way, or should customers thank them for their service and show some degree of appreciation for their work?
At the heart of many rude behaviors is a tool deeply embedded in the Korean language itself. Koreans seem to hold the view that King Sejong’s masterpiece, the Korean language (Hangul), promotes civilized behavior. They often point out that the Korean language contains three forms, (low, polite, and honorific speech) which can be used to show respect for elders and for those who occupy positions of esteem. However, I would argue that this is a double-edged sword, because surely if a polite form exists, so too does a form exist that can be used to offend and degrade.
Throughout my time in this country, I have witnessed numerous staff members using ban-mal (low speech) with me, wrongly assuming that because I am a foreigner, I would not know the difference. In companies like Samsung, issues arise between young staff members who occupy higher positions than older workers resulting in a company memo that chondaemal (polite speech) should be used by all company workers. The older workers felt that they should not have to use honorific speech with their superior officers and team leaders, due to a Confuscianist idea prevalent throughout Korea that dictates a one-way system of respect between younger and elder.
Personally, I would like to see Korea do away with all forms of lower and honorific speech and just stick with polite speech. I find it superficial to use either form as a token of respect when respect in essence is something that is earned between individuals and society, not guaranteed. One need only read the articles criticizing the current president and government leaders to see that actions, not words, are the real indicators of venerability.
As an expat who has lived in Korea for almost 10 years, I can tell you that I used to hope that Koreans would progress as a society in terms of social consciousness and general manners. That change, unfortunately, has yet to fully materialize.
Having pointed out several areas in which I believe Korea falls short, it would be wrong of me not to offer several solutions to this problem. In short, I am of the opinion that manners begin at home. Korean parents need to discipline their children from a very young age, for that is when our habits and codes of conduct are formed. The freedom given to young children in this country, in my opinion, is abhorrent.
While I understand wanting your children to have the best in life, it is irresponsible for a parent to fail to guide their children as to what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior. I have seen elementary children scream and whine at their parents, throw temper tantrums, or beg them until the parents give in to their demands. At restaurants and other venues across this country, many children are allowed to run wild, so much so that “Kid-Free Cafes” are now starting to pop up here and there.
The second point of contact in terms of education in decorum lies with the school teachers. As an after-school English teacher, I dread each day when the lunch time commences. All of the students pour out into the hallways, yelling and running about in what I often refer to as the “Elephant Parade.” The homeroom teachers pay no attention to this, although many accidents occur because of it. I have also born witness to a variety of bullying that some teachers choose to remain oblivious to. This behavior, however, is not shared by all students.
Among my students, there exists a large percentage whose fathers currently serve in the Korean military and the difference in manners is striking. To prove my point, I once told a class that I could predict if their father was a soldier or not. The difference between a polite child and unruly child is so clear that I was able to guess with 90% accuracy. During my formative years, first at a private school, and then at a public school, I learned from teachers to obey instructions and observe school rules.
Unfortunately, Korean teachers have few tools at their disposal to punish students and parents are not always in alliance with the teachers. Errant students typically write “ban-seong-mun” or a “reflection letter” where they must explain in detail what they did wrong and what actions they will take to correct the behavior. These are only handed out for the most serious offenses, and not often enough.
It is well known that public school teachers are guaranteed a position until retirement and have little impetus to strongly enforce class manners. One teacher at my school regularly does online shopping at her desk instead of monitoring the students’ behavior. On the other hand, there is another teacher who brings out some of her more impudent students into the halls and disciplines them on a regular basis.
When I first taught in Korea (prior to the criminalization of corporal punishment in schools) I was given a 2 foot wooden stick and told to hit students who misbehaved. Now that these instruments of discipline have been taken from teachers, we must ask ourselves, what remains? These days, children are often told that a behavior is wrong because it gives a bad feeling (gibuni nappeuda) to others or others will receive a wound (Sangcheo batda). This attempt to explain inappropriate behavior is an over-simplification of a wider Korean problem. You cannot blame a child who is merely emulating the behavior of adults or an individual has not been taught to directly respect a parent’s authority and obey without questioning that parent’s decision. As the old adage goes, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
Although I did not always agree with my parent’s rules or directions, I respected them as the heads of my household. Too much emphasis is placed on education and not enough on learning basic manners. Many Korean children are spoiled. Korean children, who inevitably become Korean adults, are not incorrigible, but without proper education at both home and school I doubt there will be much social change in this country.
Common sense dictates that it is much more difficult to change the behavior of adults, whose basic manners are already solidified in childhood. If Koreans truly care about their international reputation among the international community, this concept of “Me first ” and “Only I matter” has to be abolished. Unless something is done to educate and discipline the youth of this country, future generations of Koreans will likely continue to think of the sidewalk and other public spaces as merely mine, mine, mine.
Submitted by Laura who did not offer a last name or contact details