Soju, Noonchi, and Jeong.

How to explain. I mean, do I even want to explain here? Well.

Last night was good. Really good. Garfield.... God bless him. He's been studying really hard and as soon as I walked in, he greeted me loud and proudly in English. It was like a completely different person. He did so well. Of course, I was too shy to use any of my Korean, since everyone at the table was watching eagerly. C kept saying I was disappointing him, because as the teacher, he wants to see that he's done a good job. He alternated this approach to making me speak Korean with the bold-faced lie that my Korean is really, really good. I told him I would speak Korean, but only to Garfield when no one else was listening in. I didn't want to perform in front of the entire table. Unfortunately, due to the seating arrangements, the chance never arose, and eventually Garfield went back to being quiet and looking a bit uncomfortable. I'll try harder when we all go away to the island this weekend. It's only fair. Anyway, I'm inspired by his braveness. And I do want to make C proud.

Everyone bowed out around 11:30, save for me, C and Small Town. C decided it was time for us to drink Korean style. He took us to a beautiful little restaurant where the paper-paneled doors slid open to make the outside patio an extension of the entire restaurant. He ordered mae hwa soo -- syrupy sweet plum wine -- and some kind of seafood tang which was, of course, put over a gas burner on the table. From there, the conversation could only get better.

I like this kind of drink setting. Just as I find Korean restaurants to be far superior in setting to Western restaurants (shoes off, sitting on the floor, cooking the food at the table), I also think there's something inherently intimate about the tiny soju glasses and the communal pots of soup. C, who normally discourages my little Korean mannerly habits, switched over immediately, as we began pouring drinks. Although he continued to place his hand over his heart to pour for Small Town, he insisted that we are good friends and I should hold my glass with only one hand.

Earlier in the evening, I had pulled C aside to talk about something that had been bothering me since the night before. He knows I try hard to understand Korean culture, and that I'm not the kind of foreigner who expects the world to change around me, to accommodate me and my foreign understanding of things. But on Friday night I had noticed that, for the sake of the kind of close friendship that I think is developing, there was one thing we should talk about -- saving face.

Face saving is immensely difficult for foreigners, and, I think, one of the things that creates the most bitterness and anger in foreigners toward Korean culture. The basic idea, as I understand it, is not causing another person to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. This manifests itself in the form various 'yes's that can mean 'no'. Koreans have something called noonchi, which I think is understood as inherent and natural, rather than cultural. This is where the trouble comes in -- foreigners, having not grown up in a face-saving society, definitively lack noonchi. The closest English word to noonchi, so far as I understand it, is intuition. It's the ability to read a social situation based not on what is being said, but on an underlying communication. But it's not just intuition -- it's intuition, plus the ability to react appropriately to what you understand, to read a social situation and accommodate others' feelings without making a scene out of the entire thing. To Koreans, it may be as clear as day when a 'yes' actually means 'no', and how to react in that situation -- to foreigners, this is as confusing as fuck. And immensely frustrating. You feel always a step behind, lost, left out and basically like you're making a social prat of yourself.

I did my best to demonstrate that I understood the concept, and that I understood the intentions behind it. It's not that Koreans don't want to give a clear and honest answer -- it's that they are giving their version of a clear and honest answer in a way that won't offend the other person. It stems from kindness and concern for the people around you. I know that. But it's really, really difficult to adjust to. I explained that in Western culture, it's not offensive to just say, no I don't want to, or I would prefer to blah blah blah. We say what we're thinking and don't really think twice about it, on either side.

"Look, we're both Pisces, right? So we're always concerned about the people around us -- how they're feeling, if they're happy and comfortable. For you, your way to make sure is to always say 'yes' and do whatever you can for the other person, even if you don't want to. But I'm a Pisces, too. I have the same worries. For me, it's really hard to think that you might say 'yes' when you mean 'no', and I won't be able to tell. It's really hard to think that you might not be having a good time, but you're only going along with something to make me more comfortable."

I explained that, for a Westerner, I have pretty good noonchi, but that it takes me some time to develop it with each individual person. Soon, I'll be able to read his face. I'll be able to hear what he's saying behind his words. But I don't know him well enough yet. This is where he mentioned another Korean cultural concept that I had brought up to him before, and he knew I understood -- jeong. Jeong is basically the close, reciprocal relationship between people. It means that you will do for another person, take care of another person, take on another person's problems, and in return, they do the same for you. You share each other's burdens, without justification, without keeping score. In short, jeong is love -- not the emotion, but the act.

C and I are building jeong, which means sometimes we will do for each other, even when we don't really want to. But he promised then to be careful for me, and to try his best to give direct, honest answers. Just until my noonchi gets a little better. It's as hard for him to look me in the face and say 'no' as it is for me to look into his face and automatically glean a 'no' out of his 'yes'. We're both going to have to work at it.

Sometimes, I feel caught in the middle.

As we left the restaurant around 3, Small Town started gearing up for noraebang, another bar -- anything to keep the night, which had been decidedly lovely, going. My mistake was going around the corner to have a smoke while the two discussed our next move. Before that moment, my noonchi was dead-on -- C wanted to just go home. As did I. But when I came back around the corner, Small Town took me under his arm and announced that we were, indeed, going to noraebang. I pointed to my watch and shoved it in his face. "But it's time to go home.... really.... and C wants to go home, too." Small Town then conveyed to me that C was completely compliant with noraebang, and that it was just out of concern for me that he seemed to hesitate.

Bang. Noonchi obliterated. Which was it: A 'yes' that meant 'no', or a 'no' that meant 'yes'? If I had stayed for the conversation, I would have heard it, caught the meaning. But I was around the corner, and in the meantime, C's determination to give straight answers had apparently also been obliterated by Small Town's incredibly endearing child-like persistence.

It took me about five minutes to sort it all out again. Unfortunately, those five minutes cost Small Town a lot. As we walked along the side streets, out to the main road, I began to notice that we were passing quite a few noraebang. Small Town was cheerfully chattering on about how I shouldn't be known as the girl who can't hang -- that if I want to be treated like one of the boys, then there can be none of this going home early. C was growing increasingly quiet. I was going to have to be the one to break the news.

"[Small Town], we're not going to noraebang. We're going home."

"... What? Where... where did that come from? Are you serious? What?"

"We're going home."

"That's like a sniper shot, that...."

I knew exactly how he felt, but there was nothing I could do to smooth it over. He climbed into a cab, still confused and a little angry, and I turned to ask C where his apartment was from where we were standing. He indicated the opposite direction of the one we'd been walking in (toward mine). "Go home," I said. "I can walk home on my own. I'm a big girl. You're too drunk and you need to go to bed."

He stood in the street staring at my face for a moment, his own face reflecting a visible struggle -- him trying to stop himself from insisting on doing something that he really didn't want to do. Fine, I thought. I'll make this clear one way or another. You've had your time with the jeong this weekend -- now it's my turn. "You're too drunk." I shifted my tone to the one I use for the boys who come in to class with broken legs, scratched up faces, black eyes, aching stomachs. "Can you make it home on your own? Are you okay? You'll be able to make it?"

His face immediately broke from conflict into a gentle smile -- he had understood. "I am okay." We settled our time to meet tonight and shook hands goodbye. I crossed the street and noticed that we were a lot closer to mine, and a lot further from his than I had realized. I got about ten yards down the sidewalk when I heard C shout from across the street where he was still standing on the median, watching me go -- "Liz!" I turned around, expecting him to make an alteration or addition to the plans we had just set. But instead he just waved and shouted, "Bye Liz!" What do you do with something that cute?

As I climbed the stairs to my front door, I noticed I had a missed call from Small Town. Out of respect for him, I won't go into everything that was said when I phoned him back. But suffice it to say that noonchi, saving face... all of this is not easy for him. It hits on a very personal level. I tried my best to explain it from two directions: 1. I know exactly what you're feeling and you've every right to feel that way. 2. Please try not to feel that way -- it wasn't what it seemed like.

I hope the damage C doesn't even know he did can be repaired. In the meantime, there's me. Shuttling back and forth. Trying to understand and be understood. Ah, me. It's not that different from life anywhere else, is it?

1 comment:

MikejGrey said...

Are you serious?