I have to be more careful with my words. This was the realization that came hand-in-hand with a gentle reminder that I am currently living in a country where I am not fluent in the language. Wait, let me revise that: I am reminded daily that I cannot speak Korean well, and these reminders themselves are not always gentle. Like when I struggled for an hour to open up a checking account only to be told finally that without an ARC it just was not possible.
But this time, the reminder was gentle, and it came from a friend who has lived in Korea for longer than I have and knows a great deal more about it. We met up last weekend since he's currently doing his graduate studies at the same university where I'm taking language classes, and I have perhaps unceremoniously latched onto him as my go-to resource for cultural guidance and assistance with quotidian matters.
After I left Korea nine months ago, I forgot one of the basics of cultural communication, the one that is drilled into every language student's head from the very beginning: Korean culture is built on a hierarchy. In society, what this means is that the young and inexperienced always defer to their elders and superiors. Children obey their parents; younger students take orders from their seonbae (upperclassmen); the employer's word is law to their employees.
In language, this means that one's vocabulary and grammatical constructions change depending on whom you address. It's much more complex than a handful of polite terms. I would ask a favor of a friend using a wholly different grammatical form than that which I'd use to ask the same favor of my teacher or grandfather.
Of course, I didn't forget that this rule exists in Korean. What I have neglected to remain mindful of, then, is how strictly it actually applies to me.
You see, while I do I fairly a good job of blending in with the crowd here in Seoul (the expectation is that an East Asian face equals a Korean face, unless it's dressed in the outlandish garb of the Chinese tourist), as soon as I open my mouth, most people realize that I am very much American. My accent cues them off, and then my face and fashion sense fall into place with it. I guess this morning was an anomaly, when my new language instructor asked me if my parents were Korean, apparently surprised at my speaking fluency. Anyway, humblebrag aside, once I'm tagged as a foreigner, what has happened generally is that all linguistic rules are tossed and my stupid mistakes are forgiven. I can ask for a head of cabbage instead of a beer and nobody will fault me for it. I can stare dumbly at the real estate agent as he tries to explain the security deposit without him thinking that I am actually dumb. And, critically, I can use the wrong forms of address to everyone -- casual conjugations with a stranger, super-honorifics with my former student -- and I'll get a free pass because I'm still learning.
I am not saying here that I should make these kinds of mistakes. After all, as a perfectionist, I cringe when I catch myself saying something wrong or culturally inappropriate. But my point is that I do make these mistakes, yet I've been let off the hook so many times that I haven't really properly internalized the rules of what to say and when. Or at least, if I had had everything down after the first two years, I had promptly forgotten when I left.
And now I'm back and I'm making a fool of myself. Why? Because I'm here, newly determined to show that I have learned something after months upon months of intermittent language study, and along with this courage comes a fair bit of hubris, and from this hubris arises a situation in which my friend introduces me to his classmate, both of them my seonbae, and I immediately talk with him as if we've been buddies for years. So much for cultural competency.
Hence the gentle reminder: remember who you are and whom you're talking to. It may not be important to you, or any American for that matter, but it matters here.
My friend himself admitted that it took getting used to, being a graduate student in linguistics (a field generally as casual and laid-back as you can imagine; my professors at Berkeley eschew being addressed by anything other than their first names, for example), but in a country where hierarchy is deeply entrenched in the ivory bastion of cultural conservatism and academic tradition. The constant bowing, the formal pleasantries, the obligatory grad student drudgery for tenured professors: it's all here, and while my friend is just beginning to tire of it, I realize that I haven't even begun to process its reality.
If I really want to pursue Korean linguistics, then the hierarchy, ingrained as it is into both the language and the culture, is something I will have to acknowledge and accept. I don't like hierarchy; let me be clear about that if it isn't already obvious. But as an academic, I have to respect it, and step one is taking pains to use the proper honorifics in the right contexts.
Even with my Korean friends -- the ones with whom I converse freely in Korean, who only correct my many errors when I demand for them to -- I think it's time to be more disciplined about my language use. Who exactly is my nuna, my hyeong, my dongsaeng? It's admittedly a bit complex: is age the only factor? Should I ask my Korean friends for their opinion on how I should categorize them, or is that rude?
There's sure to be some discomfort as I recommence navigating this cultural landscape. I thought two years' worth of experience wasn't too bad, but it's nothing. And it's not just the hierarchy thing, either. I only have two months this time, and I wonder if tackling headfirst questions like my place in Korea as an American, the ups and downsides of rapid globalization, or the uncertain future of LGBTQ rights in this country are even worth my while. This summer, will I traipse through Seoul taking pretty pictures of food and blogging about the charmed expat life, or will I choose my words -- and thoughts and actions -- more carefully?