Monday, April 04, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 4: Social Responsibilities

About 'Open Mike in Busan'
Listen to the segment on Koreabridge


In the previous week at Busan e-FM, I talked about a few experiences I’d had living with my Korean parents-in-law. This week, I thought I’d expand on that, and talk about some of my experiences with families, and family responsibilities.

There can be a lot of social responsibilities in Korea

And I really wasn’t prepared for that. I work for myself and I like doing my own thing. So plugging myself into a society where I suddenly have a lot of formalised family obligations, and social responsibilities – well that’s difficult for me. Having said that, maybe a lot of foreigners living in Korea are the same, because I think if you really fit in well with your own society, what are you doing in Korea? But then it often seems to me that the type of foreigners who end up living here are exactly the type of people who really shouldn’t be living in a more socially ordered country like this.

So it’s true that I’ve experienced some serious culture clashes. Sometimes it’s little things. For example, when we first came to Korea my wife told me that we had to go to Namhae to visit her father’s parents to give them a ‘big bow’. The idea of travelling for an entire day, just to go and do the required ‘big bow’, in a place that sounded rather rural and remote, didn’t really appeal to me at all.

Big bows

I didn’t mind that as such, but back then I thought I was only going to be in Korea for a short period, and I still had my job to do, so I was racing against the clock to experience as much of Busan as possible, in what little free time I had. The idea of spending a day on a bus, just to bow in front of a couple of people because it was a form of social obligation – well it just made me wonder what else I’d have to do in Korea because other people demanded it.

Actually though, foreigners wrote about the ‘big bows’ last year on an Internet forum here in Korea, and I was shocked to learn that some of them actually refuse to do the ‘big bow’ - even to their parents-in-law. They say it’s dehumanising – demeaning. Well, I know I can be difficult sometimes, but maybe this means it’s nothing compared to some other foreigners.

So the grandparents got their ‘big bow’, and then there was a funeral

So I went to see my grandparents-in-law, and they got their big bow. And it’s just as well, because a few months later my wife’s grandmother died suddenly. Then of course, we had to go back for the funeral. That was when the whole family responsibility thing really shocked me, because it turns out that I’m sort of the eldest son of the eldest son, so I had to get involved and I ended up helping to carry the coffin.

There were a lot of rituals to go through – we were there for two days – and then there were more responsibilities afterwards, like going back for another ceremony on the 49th day after the death. My father-in-law had to move down to Namhae to help his father with the small farm he lives on, because apparently that was his responsibility, and that was a huge change – because it meant my mother-in-law was on her own then. So I really felt it was our responsibility to move in with her. Lots of things changed, and people didn’t seem to have a choice.

Do you take this country to be your lawfully wedded wife?

You know, I didn’t react so badly to all these sudden family responsibilities. I’d been here long enough by then to know that when you marry a Korean, you marry the culture, the traditions the attitude and of course, you definitely marry the family. But families are difficult things. I didn’t really agree to live with my brother-in-law, but he lost his job and came back home for a while. Each extra family member that lives with us feels like a bit more privacy and space lost for me, but what can you do?

I don’t talk with my brother-in-law, which is strange. He doesn’t speak any English, and I can’t really communicate in Korean. But the truth is, the job market isn’t good for him, so he hasn’t done much in the last year. If he spoke English we’d talk. Actually I’m a few years older than him so – according to my wife – if I were Korean I would have given him the talk by now, you know – get back up on your feet. It must be hard. He needs some sympathy and motivation, or maybe, in the Korean hierarchical system, he needs his older brother figure to put pressure on him.

The language barrier stops you living up to your social responsibilities

I can’t live up to my Korean social responsibilities because of the language barrier, but I’m not sorry about that. I don’t want to feel it’s my responsibility to kind of lecture people younger than myself.

Actually, he hasn’t visited his grandparents in a long time, and I couldn’t understand it until he said once “when will my job be good enough to visit them?” And that’s the problem isn’t it? It’s not only about showing respect fr your elders, but to go through that, you have to be happy with yourself first, because otherwise they are going to lecture you, and you feel bad enough as it is. To be honest, I understand that because I’ve got a similar problem with my Korean relatives – which is both job and language related.

But it doesn't stop you being on the receiving end of a lecture

There was a big family meal where I met some relatives for the first time. It didn’t start well because they demanded to look at my hands when we were introduced. Do you know what they said? “Soft”. In other words, I hadn’t worked hard enough in my life – I wasn’t one of them.

Then they criticised my lack of Korean language – I’d been here a year by that time - “it’s not good enough”, “you’re not working hard enough”, “this is typical of 미국 사람”, that sort of thing. Yes, I know I’m British, but in my experience, all 외국인 are Americans when we’re in trouble. My wife took this as long as she could, and then she turned to me and said “We’re leaving!” And I guess that was it – we stormed out.

And you can’t avoid them forever

Of course I have seen them since. You really can’t avoid it in Korea can you? But I’m used to family meals being a bit tense, because my family has a lot of differences between them – including religious differences. One of my aunts is a Buddhist fortune teller, and one of my uncles is a Christian pastor. They take their religion very seriously. Chuseok dinners can be... a little difficult. But people have to go because it’s their social obligation. Then again, I find responsibilities are everywhere in Korea, even with friends.

Social responsibility in friendship

We’d been out once in a group and several of us went back to a friend’s apartment for coffee. We ended up sitting in a circle playing this sort of number sequence game called Silent 007 – and if you make a mistake then you have to go into the centre of the circle to be beaten on the back.

We had this 9 year-old girl with us. So when she made a mistake... well, I wasn’t getting involved in hitting her – even if my wife called them ‘gentle poundings’ rather than ‘beatings’. So one of my friends really wasn’t happy about this, and he kind of told me off. “Everyone must take part in the beatings!” he said. And he really meant it. So you know, in the end, I really had to take part, even though I hated it. It was a social responsibility to participate – there was no choice.

Everyone must take part in the beatings

I’m not sure I’m learning to live with all these social responsibilities. As a Westerner – I’m not sure I’ll ever really get used to them. But I guess as long as I’m here, I have to remember what my friend said to me, and see it as good advice for living in Korea: “Everyone must take part in the beatings.”

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan
Koreabridge - Open Mike in Busan audio (MP3)

Air date: 2010-11-17 @ ~19:30


tofu_thief said...

Hey Mike,

I've been following your blog for a while now, and I really enjoy the insights/tidbits that you share about Korean culture. I'm Korean American myself, and although I was (sort of) raised with some Korean culture by my parents, when I went back to Korea this spring to visit family I couldn't help but feel as though I were missing a lot of unspoken social cues.

Anyway, it's really nice to read a blog about Korea from the point of view of a foreigner who's now part of a Korean family and not just there to party and teach English.

Mike said...

Hi tofu_thief,

Thanks for your comments - and thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed your trip to Korea.

It certainly fees like there are a lot of unspoken social cues here. Actually, even though she was born and grew up in Korea, after eight years away I think even my wife struggled a little with some of them when she got back. Perhaps growing up in another culture - or even spending long periods away - is always going to give you a different perspective or expectations.

Post a Comment