A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Different Strokes

I'd be mistaken to label the bulk of Koreans as a non-physical bunch, who prefer the respectful distance of a curt Eastern bow over the over-bearing handshake of a foreign investor, or a big boisterous Mediterranean man-hug.

The kids, of course, are all over each other all the time, and sometimes see me as a wayguk jungle-gym with the bonus attachment of curious "golden" arm-hair for them to stroke with wonder, or try and rub their little cheeks against when I'm not looking.

Kids are kids.

When puberty hits however, there's the instinctive polar separation of girls and boys in the classroom, and everyone, naturally, becomes more awkward and reserved. I've noticed though that the boys, even the 12/13-year-olds, are very affectionate with each other. They'll stroke each others heads and legs, and there'll be the occasional "good game!" style butt squeeze. It would definitely raise a few eyebrows in school back home, if not get you A-listed on a daily beating schedule.

My Junior High school was an incredibly homophobic experience, where the worst possible thing that could befall someone was to earn the scornful, and savagely misdirected title of "gay." It was dreadful, but doesn't seem to register with these Korean bosom chums, where the touching seems to be just a display of male camaraderie. I guess the rampant racism makes up for that fact, but I won't get into that now...

Anyway, there must come a time during young adulthood when Confucian conditioning kicks in, and propriety takes center stage; don't make prolonged eye-contact, unless you're looking for a fight, and keep the touching to a minimum safe distance. These are, of course, old values and ones witch are changing with an increasingly Western-influenced generation, who don't think it inappropriate to take to the streets and embrace the "Free Hug" campaign, which I wrote about briefly before.

The reason I bring up the subject is something happened last night when I was out for a drink with my boss and our other two teachers. We spent a couple of hours in a neighbourhood bar, sharing some beer, laughs, and strange Korean bar food (I could write a whole series of entries on that...). It was a really nice time. It didn't feel awkward like some of our other drinking nights, and we had some good laughs. In fact, my boss mentioned to me today that he really enjoyed himself last night, but for one, apparently traumatizing experience towards the end of the evening. The trauma in question was having his head touched by a portly, middle-aged New Brunswicker, who had guzzled down 2 bottles of soju by himself.


The offending fellow was apparently a teacher at another nearby academy, and was sitting in a booth next to us the entire time we were there. He meant absolutely no offense, and was in fact an incredibly pleasant guy who came over and introduced himself to the other teacher and I, but being as tall he was, and as tipsy as he must have been, and with my boss' head at about chest level, I guess he must have brushed it absentmindedly, or maybe missed his shoulder? I don't know, and I'd employ the cliche "don't lose any sleep over it" only apparently my boss did. As he explained it to me tonight, after he told me he had such a nice time with us, he said he couldn't sleep that night because the contact had made him so uncomfortable. I guess I wouldn't cherish what he had apparently counted as 3 seconds of desperately inappropriate contact, but then again I didn't suffer any after I had to hoist the sleeping soju wino off my lap in the subway...

He was very confused about the whole affair, and even said he was angry with the hapless Canadian for being so impolite.

We have very different notions of personal space. I guess this shows not to overstay your visit to someone else's.


riley said...

and I had the complete reverse happen to me last night - I was bitten. no joke. one of my drunken co-teachers took offense to me pointing across the table at someone so he took it out on my finger.

you've probably already clued in that pointing in general, as a gesture, is apparently rude, and Koreans expect that you'll always refer to someone with a turned-up open palm to avoid being so impolite, but how's my finger being noshed on any less rude? I'm not sure I deserved it. he bit me hard too. then he even spent the next hour trying to rip my hand away from its clutched hiding place under my ass just so he could blow on it and 'make it better'!

honestly, ask your touch-sensitive teacher friend what he thinks of that.

double standard? Koreans can violate my bubble in all kinds of ways, but soju-soaked New Brunswickers can't accidently brush a bald head? lucky I'm not that sensitive.

no toucheee!

/rach said...

Wow, this gives me so much more to be paranoid about.