Thursday, November 02, 2006


I got some comments that in IE the font size I was using came out too small so I'm making this bigger... but it looks good in firefox the other way!

One thing I found really bizarre about speaking Korean in Korea was all the language of effort: 수고했다. 흠드렀지? I do the dishes and my mother-in-law says, “ 수고했다” which you could translate as “You worked” or something similar. I am not a good translator, but that’s not the only problem -- we don’t say stuff like that in English. In English I feel uncomfortable, somehow, talking about effort. Every time my mother-in-law would say something like that, which was frequently, I would feel uncomfortable. Did she really think that doing the dishes was such a big deal? Was she making fun of me and the fact that I’m so bad at household chores? Was she being patronizing?

But as my ears became accustomed to Korean, I began to hear the phrase everywhere. Leaving a store, it is customary to say “수고하셨어요" (“you worked well” or you could say it in the future tense: “work well”) to the salespeople, even if they didn’t actually help you with anything. Getting my hair cut, the women says “수고하셨어요" after she washes my hair, like it is so hard for me to lie back and let someone else wash my hair and massage my scalp. I began to use the phrase back to my mother-in-law with good results, acknowledging her work making a meal, watching the kids, going on a long outing, etc. Similarly, “흠드렀지” (“it was difficult, wasn’t it?”) and variations of that function to acknowledge someone’s effort and possible discomfort.

I have lived here long enough that I have, for the most part, melded into this system where you are constantly acknowledging and making visible other people’s effort. Now when I exit a store in the U.S. I feel like I’ve missed something -- there’s nothing to shout at the clerk! You can say “thank you” but not many people actually do. I feel rude leaving the store without saying anything, but most of the time the people who work there have barely acknowledged my existence and seem glad to see me leave, or just bored, or just onto the next person. “수고하셨어요" is kind of a thanks, but also more: it is a way of making visible the way in which the little things we do affect and aid others. And it is a way of cementing the understanding that we had some sort of relationship, no matter how brief -- some moment in which we were dependent upon each other, or expected something of each other.

I’m sitting here trying to figure out why this made me so uncomfortable long ago. Americans don’t like to complain, they don’t like to hear about complaining, and somehow remarking on something so little like doing the dishes or carrying something heavy for you seems... I don’t know. Like an insult to that person’s ability? There’s a difference between this and “thank you.” Thank you means: you did something for me and I’m grateful. “수고하셨어요" focuses not on you’re own feeling but on the other person’s side: the effort that went into the doing. It is a subtle difference but somehow important. And more importantly, the commonality of this language of effort serves to somehow create a world in which you are constantly doing things for others and having things done for you by others. It is a word of a greater sense of the importance of little interactions and little dependencies on others. Perhaps that is why it made me uncomfortable in the beginning -- it changes me from an independent agent to one who is always serving or being served. I can’t think of myself as removed or standing alone. I am, whether I like it or not, always surrounded by responsibilities and debts, opportunities to impact someone else.

Korean is full of these kind of scripted interactions. When you wake up you bow to your parents and say, “안녕히주무셨어요?" (“Did you sleep well?”) When you leave the house you say, “안녕히단녀오겠습니다." (“I will return.”) And all the kids should go and bow and say “안녕히단녀오세요." (Please return.”) When you return you say, “안녕히단녀왔습니다." (“I have returned.”) and your kids say “안녕히단녀오셨어요?" (“Have you returned?”) When people come over, you have to go to the door and greet them. Before eating, you say, “잘먹겠습니다." (“I will eat well”) and after eating you say “잘먹었습니다." (“I have eaten well.”) I found these phrases stiff and formal and awkward at first but I have assimilated and now I like them. I like them because, like the language of effort, they make simple events like eating and coming and going into daily rituals. The kids are not hiding out in their rooms (well, to be truthful, they don’t have rooms so they couldn’t if they wanted to) downloading porn and penning manifestos, they are forced to come out and engage in some nice words and social behavior, whether they like it or not.

These days manners seem to be out of fashion. When I go back to the U.S. I’m shocked at how rude people are. Manners are important to me, and I’m strict about my kids’ manners. I tell Aiden, “saying hello and goodbye and thank you are important, because it makes people feel special.” I think that manners are not just about empty phrases or outdated senses of courtesy, but a way of teaching kids empathy and other points of view. “Hello” and “goodbye” are ways of noticing someone and, in a sense, respecting his presence. “Thank you” acknowledges effort. And talking nicely is part of showing respect. When Aiden says something like, “This is yucky,” or “Is this all there is?” at the table, I ask him to think about how that makes me, the person who put all the effort into making the food, feel. Figuring out how to phrase something in a kind way is about seeing yourself from another’s perspective and acting accordingly. It is not, to me, about being dishonest, or hiding one’s true feelings under some cover of politeness, but rather thinking about how the way we treat people affects those people.

You can see this, I think, when kids show up at kindergarten with poor manners. They are usually deficient in other areas of social interaction as well. They haven’t been taught to pay attention to how what they say affects others and so they often focus on what they want and can’t engage in any productive give-and-take, leading to fighting and lack of self-control. Teaching manners teaches kids that they are not in fact the center of the universe, that they live, whether they like it or not, in a larger society and that meaningful engagement in that society means figuring out how to deal with other people who have different desires and interests.

Manners have been on my mind for a while because it upsets me to see kids, both here and in the U.S., who don’t have any. A little boy Aiden’s age lives down the hall from us and used to come over all the time, but this boy was one with no manners and was very verbally mean. Not because, I think, he’s a bad kid or had bad intentions, but just because his parents never taught him how words can hurt other people, and verbally lashing out had become such a habit that he wasn’t able to control or change it easily. This kid was also verbally gifted and could talk like an adult -- a rude adult -- at the age of 5. I was shocked at the things he said to his own mother, and that she only gave mild protest and didn’t try, in any meaningful way, to make him understand how much those things hurt her. He was better behaved in my house because I would ask him, “How do you think that makes so-and-so feel?” And “If you say that, your brother is going to learn to say that too. Do you want him to talk to you like that? You are your brother’s best teacher.” Eventually, despite being the closest playmate around, Aiden decided not to play with him anymore, because he was “not nice.” Especially here, where friendships are so important, that kid is, I worry, handicapped by his lack of ability to engage, not in talking, but in conversation.

Manners are also on my mind because of the discussion following my printculture article, E. Hayot's post on the "Ugly American Abroad", and S. L. Kim’s follow up on wearing the veil. Following S. L., I do think that rather than talking about subjectivity, talking about manners and social interchange is an interesting and useful turn to the conversation. Perhaps this is just another debate about working within the system vs. tearing the system down, but if we think of manners as a kind of grammar guiding social interaction, than something like wearing the veil, or being disagreeable can really break down that interaction. If social interaction depends on gaze and visual communication of emotion and attention, then the full-face veil makes that kind of social interaction difficult or problematic. If being an ex-pat or being in a cross-cultural relationship depends on dealing with people of different social grammars, how far can you dismiss the other grammar in favor of your own? Where there is consciousness of difference and education of what that difference is, maybe we can learn something from each other or at least “agree to disagree.” But I get nervous at the instinct to dismiss.

That piece went through about 20 drafts, because I myself wasn’t sure what I was trying to say about identity and subjectivity. Writing it was a process of figuring out what my own, deeply entrenched ideas about identity were and I’m still trying to figure that out.

I’m still thinking this through, but ... just as the Korean “language of effort” makes visible and cements a certain kind of worldview and a certain kind of emphasis on mutual dependance, the debate over the veil seems to make visible a dependence on visual acknowledgment and communication in Western cultures. When one person’s custom impedes meaningful social interaction or social participation, whose responsibility is it to change, to bear the burden of discomfort? And how do we weigh those discomforts? In the Slate article, the author compares wearing the veil to donning a sarong to visit temples in Indonesia. It is not really a valid comparison, since it cost the author very little relative discomfort to don the sarong, but it would cause some Muslims much more discomfort to shed the veil. On the other hand, I think the points made in both articles about the importance of visual contact in Western societies are important. Veiled women can interact with people in a non-veiled society, but that interaction will be uncomfortable and limited, just as, perhaps, foreigners can interact in Korean culture without attending to Korean social grammar of bowing or gesturing. This interaction is limited by the degree to which each party can “read” the other.

Currently listening to: Pearl Jam: Elderly Woman Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town


Melanie said...

I really enjoy your writing. You say some really interesting things about Korea and I appreciate the way you're able to articulate some of the things that I feel, but am unable to express.

Most of all though, you make motherhood sound really appealing.

Thanks for the insight.

Jennifer Lee said...

Thanks, Melanie! Motherhood... makes me feel like I'm "on crazy pills" (I love that line from Zoolander). But in a good way, most of the time.

I'll try to write something about ddokboki and mandu sometime!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jennifer! I found you through your article (great!) in Multilingual Living. (I did the one about the fiestas in Spain.) I hope you don't mind that I've added you to my Blogroll.

I thought this post was very interesting, too. Here in Spain too, there is more ritual involved in social interactions than in the States, though perhaps not as strictly followed as in Korea. And as far as language of effort, one thing I've noticed here is kind of the opposite. When I'm with my (Spanish) mother-in-law, she protests when I thank her for something like passing the salt. As if thanking someone for something so minor introduces a level of formality into the relationship that creates distance (like using the formal "usted" instead of "tú.") And especially when she does something that actually does take some effort, like cleaning out my silverware drawer or cooking an elaborate meal or something. In that case it's almost an insult, like "I'm doing this out of love in the context of a family relationship, and by thanking me, you're treating me as if I were a stranger or someone whose goodwill you question, someone for whom it seems highly unusual to be helping out." Yet if I don't say anything, I feel like a heel, and I think she does like to feel acknowledged, even if politeness dictates that she fell "insulted" at a thank you. So sometimes I try to come at it backhandedly, like "Oh, how wonderful to come home to a nice tortilla de patatas after such a hard day!"

Anyway, I will go read your article now. So nice to have found you!

Beloved said...

Hi Jennifer,
I found your blog through Expatriate Games and just wanted to let you know I'm reading.
I agree that manners are at a deficit in the U.S.
Another polite practice in Korea is asking about one's family. I didn't realize this while first living in Korea but when I started to use it with a supervisor (asking about his wife and children), he seemed really pleased. I didn't even know his wife or kids. I don't think I ever fully picked up on manners in Korea (probably due to my lack of Korean skills) and I'm impressed at your knowledge of them.
In response to kate's post above, it reminds me of when my husband and I were first dating and I would use "please" and "thank you" routinely. He told me that Koreans believe if you love someone you don't have to say those things; they're understood. It was too hard for me to change this part of my culture though (and he told me he actually liked it), so he now uses and sometimes overuses those expressions.