Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Kevin the holy terror

Apparently, it must have looked to the two student staffers who "man" (woman?) the office in Room 206 as though I'd freaked out yesterday, because the Big Boss herself approached me today about the bulletin boards in our third-floor hallway. Those boards-- rarely updated by some of our colleagues-- got an unasked-for overhaul yesterday, during which most of the pictures I'd recently placed on my board were taken down and replaced with... empty space. I had put those pictures up there because I'd wanted the students to have a glimpse of what classes are like, and most of the returning students are curious enough to want to look at themselves on the boards. Many do so, pointing and laughing at the various tableaux. I was told that my photos had motivated some new students to register for our courses because our classes looked like fun. My board used to be happily chaotic, but now... it's the picture of Swiss-style orderliness.

What happened was that I made a face when I saw the newly redone boards, and my reaction apparently upset one of the student staffers (do-u-mi hak-saeng, or "helper student"). She must have spoken to somebody who eventually spoke to the Big Boss. When Dr. J came up to survey the boards today, she acted as if I were an irate customer needing immediate placation: "Don't worry about a thing... the boards are yours to do with as you please... we'll put your photos back..."

I was somewhat taken aback by all this, because I hadn't thought my minor annoyance was anything more than that: minor annoyance. I'm not married to those message boards, and while I was indeed a bit miffed at how they had been altered without first consulting the teachers, I have no desire to start a crusade or go rampaging through the hallowed halls of Smoo.

This highlights one of those intercultural issues that will pop up every now and again when Westerners and Koreans interact. In this case, no one had bad intentions. Koreans very often "do your thinking for you." If you walk into a company executive's office, for example, you're likely to be asked if you want anything to drink. Should you say yes, you will probably be served coffee with cream and sugar, or green tea. It's not guaranteed that anyone will actually ask you what you want; it will be assumed that what is provided will suffice.

Another, more serious example: one of my Korean relatives died of cancer in the 1980s. She was never told that she had cancer; this was a decision made by the doctor and my aunt's family. It was assumed that she would be better off not knowing that her cancer was terminal. The relatives, and the doctor, did my aunt's thinking for her. Here, too, no one had bad intentions. Someone recently emailed me about a similar case involving a Korean woman the emailer knows. That woman, too, is currently unaware she has terminal cancer. From the Western point of view, it's shocking that people would deprive someone of such basic information: surely the afficted person has the right to know what's wrong with her! But that reasoning is possible only in a society that values individualism.

Koreans like to give gifts, and they'll give something based on what little they know about you. It is assumed-- and I'm actually sympathetic with this assumption-- that the gesture itself is more important than the actual object given. This is, in a sense, a good way to approach gift-giving, an event that is otherwise too intertwined with ego, overly high expectations, and selfishness. Ideally, a gift should never cause the recipient to grumble. "It's the thought that counts" is a Western proverb, but it reflects a pancultural sentiment.

However, we Westerners also appreciate the practical effects of not asking before giving gifts or doing favors. We understand that it's often smart to find out what, exactly, is needed by the recipient. Why? To maximize the value of the gesture, not merely in terms of friendship but also in terms of practical utility.

Korean society is not individual-first, and Koreans often rely on their nunchi (very roughly, "perception" or "intuition," or even more deeply, "percipience"; there's no direct analogue in English for this word) to guide them to the best gesture or gift. I'm not convinced nunchi exists-- at least not to any greater degree than a similar phenomenon in the West or elsewhere. Koreans are good at reading other Koreans, but that's no different from claiming that Americans are good at reading other Americans. If nunchi exists, it's not uniquely Korean. "Piercing insight" is found all over.

In any case, nunchi (or whatever) was of no help yesterday, which was why I made a face about the new message boards: the overhaul was in response to a perceived need, but once the teachers had a chance to react (I wasn't the only one displeased, you see), the need was shown not to exist. Nunchi was of no help in reading my facial expression, either, because someone seems to have thought I was a lot angrier than I actually was. As I said, I was miffed, nothing more.

The Big Boss is a very nice lady. She's not the type to crack the whip, and that's part of why I've elected to stay here. Working at Smoo has been a very different experience from working at all my previous hagwons. I feel somewhat guilty that my boss felt she had to "placate" a purportedly disgruntled underling. But there we go: in the human realm, culture often determines perception, and too often, we think we know. That last observation, by the way, applies equally to West and East.


1 comment:

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

As you note, Kevin, "Koreans very often 'do your thinking for you,'" a characteristic that I find rather irksome.

More irksome, however, is the Korean characteristic of not listening when I do my thinking for myself -- a point related to my old complaint about Korea lacking a culture of discussion.

But that's another rant...

Jeffery Hodges

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