The Korea Times had a banner headline that drew my attention a while ago titled, Korea Sees Decreasing Use of Honorific Words.  There are several reasons this article motivated me to write about it, but the primary source comes from a shopping trip at Lotte Mart during the week before Chuseok.

UPDATE:  A friend of mine sent me the link to this article, Koreans Need to Improve Their Global Image. It’s a good read, and there are points in it that are relevant to this post.

Lotte Mart was pretty busy and many people were out getting things they needed for the weekend.  The aisles were very crowded and moving my shopping cart up and down them while looking for the stuff on my list was a big exercise in patience.

At one point I started down an aisle and saw two shopping carts, one on each side of the aisle, in front of me.  I began pushing my cart towards the middle to try and squeeze between the two carts when an ajumma (ajumma, “middle aged married woman”) came flying past my cart to stop and stand in between the two carts–thus blocking the entire aisle and making it impossible for me to get past her.  Nice.

There were several other Korean shoppers behind me, and on the other side of the ajumma, who all wanted to move up and down the aisle–but this ajumma had decided no one else in the world exists, and that only her shopping needs and wants were important.  (As a side note here, it is really amazing when you see nearly every Korean committing “deliberate obliviousness acts” when there are many people all trying to do different things in one social space, like a grocery store, because the number of mild collisions between bodies and shopping carts is astounding.)

All too often in Korea I see this cultural phenomenon of DOA’s, “deliberate obliviousness acts.” It is something that most foreigners when they come to Korea are shocked by, and sometimes outraged by, because we cannot believe that Koreans are TRULY OBLIVIOUS to the degree that they cannot know what is going on around them (though in some instances it actually appears that the Korean is truly DOA).  Yet DOA’s happen on a daily basis in my experiences and interactions with Koreans.

When I am teaching and ask a question and gesture towards a student in my class the student will 99.9999999% of the time pretend to not understand that I am looking at him, pointing at him, and directing my attention at him.  The student immediately puts on his DOA-face, looks behind him at another student, and then pretends to not understand that I’ve called on him; sometimes even after I’ve walked right up to their desk and pointed at them again, repeated the question, the student will still look back at the other student and then make a ‘who me?’ face, lol.  DOA’s occur in the classroom nearly every time a question is asked.  (Okay, I’m exaggerating, but the frequency with which this happens is very high.)

Foreigners will also often complain about how a group of Koreans will slowly walk arm in arm spread out across an entire sidewalk thus making it impossible for people behind them to pass.  This is something that also frequently happens in shopping malls.  COEX mall is the biggest mall in Korea.  Its corridors are extremely wide, and yet you will see a group of Korean friends meandering along the corridor and blocking the entire width of one side of the corridor like there is no one else in the mall.  This particular group-DOA forces other people to submit to their walking pace and submit to the group-DOA’s dominance of the social space that they occupy–that, or it forces people to take action.  This is when, for foreigners, the criticisms of ‘rudeness’ and ‘not understanding Korean culture’ are often made towards us even when we are not the instigators of the DOA.

Yet to foreigners it is the Koreans who are breaking their own ideals of social harmony and paying extreme attention to the relationship dynamics with everyone around you according to Confucian rituals and the social ranks each person has.  One might argue that it is difficult to know what the social rank is of each and every person around you when you’re in a social space like a busy shopping mall like COEX–but I don’t think Koreans would suggest that busy social spaces lack Confucian social codes of behavior.  I think the problem is that the Koreans are not following their own socio-cultural traditions (as the KT article points out).

If Koreans are not following their own modern Confucian behavior rituals and relationship dynamics where does that leave foreigners when they come to live and work in Korea? If a foreigner coming to live and work in Korea did take the time to study Korean language, culture, and Confucianism in particular, and then came to Korea and tried to follow these things strictly . . .  I think KOREANS themselves would think the foreigner is crazy and has no understanding of the current social realities of day to day life in Korea.  The reality is that in nearly every situation in Korea there is a battle for power, for domination of the other, and to achieve the needs and wants of the INDIVIDUAL regardless of the group’s gibun–and especially regardless of Confucian rituals that ‘should’ regulate the individual’s behavior.  The source of this reality probably comes from the aftermath of the Japanese colonial period in Korea that shattered Korean culture, and attempted to impose Japanese culture on Korea, and after the Japanese left  the Americans moved into to fill the power vacuum.  The grievous injuries to Korean Confucianism caused by the Japanese, and then the Americans, gave very little chance of this social philosophy having any real chance of positive effects in the day to day realities of the Korean people.  To exacerbate the problem even further the absolutely insane levels of competition in the public school and university systems makes polite social etiquette almost obsolete.  Everyone is jockeying to push themselves into the lead position in the mad race towards the ever receding finish line so that they can climb just one more position up the social rankings–and all too often I see Koreans willing to do whatever it takes regardless of the cost to themselves and others.

Also, whether or not Koreans will discuss it, RACE  plays a huge role in how modern Confucianism functions today in Korea.  I have seen a 60 year old foreign male teacher treated with a complete and utter lack of respect by younger Korean teachers and supervisors–where is the basis in Confucianism that justifies this kind of treatment?

There is a kind of cultural anarchy that dominates Korean-foreigner cross-cultural interactions.  You would think that Korean culture ideals would be the basis of interactions with foreigners but all too often in my experiences in Korea, and those of many other teachers and foreign visitors I’ve talked to, the KOREAN CULTURAL RULES are discarded and the only ‘guiding’ force behind what is said and done is the individual’s desires.  If it is rude in Korean culture to ask another person how much they weigh, and to tell them that they need to lose weight, then why isn’t it rude to say that to a foreigner whether it’s in Korean language or in English?  The answer is that when some Koreans speak English they often don’t use their own cultural rules of etiquette let alone try to use English rules–yet when a foreigner is interacting with a Korean we are expected to follow the Korean cultural rules and ideals.

This double-standard is glaringly obvious to the foreigner and when they leave Korea I highly doubt that they have positive things to say about Koreans and Korean culture (which is extremely unfortunate because many Koreans are extremely polite and respectful, and make efforts at cross-cultural communication in a polite and respectful manner).  Another facet of this cultural anarchy that occurs when a foreigner and Korean interact is that some Koreans deliberately distort and twist how Korean cultural rules should apply to the situation in favor of what they want to happen.  Yet Confucianism says that, “While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe their seniors reverence, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors” (from wikipedia, my bold and italics).

Let me repeat that again, “. . . seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors.”  I’ll link this back to the situation I was in with the ajumma who rushed past me to block me and everyone else trying to walk down the aisle, and how she then stood there committing a DOA.  Most of the shoppers in front of her, and behind her, were younger and yet there was not an ounce of consideration for their needs in the situation.  No body language signals, eye contact, or even a quickly uttered ‘just a moment, I’m sorry’ in Korean.

Perhaps a better example, although very different, of this comes from the Korea Times article I mentioned at the beginning of this post which says,

“This concern was highlighted recently when a 39-year-old judge reprimanded a 69-year-old man during a trial, saying the latter was behaving “rude.”

Many Koreans found the “young” judge’s remark very “inappropriate.” The oldman indeed may have behaved in an ill-mannered way. But in the Korean language, the term “beo reut eop da” (rude) is exclusively used by an older person in rebuking someone who is younger. For many Koreans, the judge’s remark was unacceptable because the role was reversed and he was 20 years junior to the oldman.”

The cultural ‘logic’ at work here is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of my limited understanding with regards to the nuances of Korean Confucianism in modernity.  Yet it seems to me that the old man has an obligation to the younger judge with regards to helping him perform his duties–as opposed to hampering them with his rude behavior.  Maybe someone who has been in Korea longer than I have, and has studied Confucianism (I’ve only read a little bit about it, and definitely have not made a formal and prolonged study of it), might be able to explain this to me . . . I don’ t know.

But based on what I’ve read in Korean history and culture books, online articles, and discussions with Korean English teachers who also studied Confucianism in university I stand by my criticism.

From wikipedia’s entry on Confucianism and relationships,

“Relationships are central to Confucianism. Particular duties arise from one’s particular situation in relation to others. The individual stands simultaneously in several different relationships with different people: as a junior in relation to parents and elders, and as a senior in relation to younger siblings, students, and others. While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe their seniors reverence, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors. This theme of mutuality is prevalent in East Asian cultures even to this day.

Social harmony—the great goal of Confucianism—therefore results in part from every individual knowing his or her place in the social order, and playing his or her part well” (my bold and italics).

But it seems like this social harmony is now only at play in Korea when it facilitates an individual’s needs and wants, when it helps them compete for the first place ranking in school testing, in getting a job, in getting a promotion, in getting whatever is on the radar screen of that particular person.  The rest of the time, when social harmony is NOT in the person’s favor . . . well, the rules get thrown out the window.

Also,  “Ritual and filial piety are indeed the ways in which one should act towards others, but from an underlying attitude of humaneness. Confucius’ concept of humaneness (Chinese: pinyin: rén) is probably best expressed in the Confucian version of the Ethic of reciprocity, or the Golden Rule: “do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.””

Yet all too often in my day to day life in Korea I witness Koreans doing things to other Koreans that they would NOT want done to themselves, and Koreans doing things to me that they would not want done to themselves.  The idealized and highly theoretical ideas of Confucianism do not generally exist in the daily reality of modern Korea–especially in interactions with foreigners because of the language and culture barriers.

I realize that at this point I should own up to using an idealized sense of Confucianism in modern Korean society, but I’ve learned this way of seeing things because of the expectations imposed on me frequently as a result of the admonitions and commandments and criticisms that Koreans have made to me about how I speak/act/think/feel while I’m in Korea . . . the double-standard makes me want to say, “LOOK IN THE MIRROR and point that finger at yourself!”

Something else that occurred to me one day while thinking about Korean culture was this: even walking down the sidewalk in Korea is an exercise in the assertion of one’s rank and the relationships one has with the other pedestrians.

Anyways . . .

If someone was to draw up a list of rules for how commit a DOA in Korea, (deliberate obliviousness act), I imagine they might be the following.

1.  Only use your peripheral vision when scanning the situation you want to dominate.  Direct eye contact is a give away that you know what is going on.

2.  Your face must assume a fixed, expressionless mask wherein there is no hint of any type of reaction to elements that exist outside the ‘obliviousness reality bubble‘ you must project all around you.

3.  If, by some unforeseen accident or freak of nature,  your obliviousness reality bubble is burst you must act extremely shocked and surprised and display that your innocence has been ‘violated.’

4.  If you have the higher social rank in relation to the person who has burst your ORB (‘obliviousness reality bubble’) you should immediately find a way to make the problem the other person’s fault, and give them a severe lambasting (ooh! good word, don’t get to use that one often, lol).

I’m sure others will contribute more DOA rules in the comments section of this post, lol.

I’ll close this post with a video to illustrate both a DOA and its ORB in real life.

Seriously . . . oh . . . my . . . god!