Okay. To illustrate this one clearly, I'll start out with quite a personal anecdote, which so far hasn't been recounted in this blog. Because it really upset me at the time, not because of the situation so much itself, but because of the principle of the matter, which ended up coming down to what I'm going to try to talk about: saving face.
Saving face is a powerful part of East Asian culture that I definitely, definitely do not really understand quite yet. So I feel nervous even trying to talk about it. But I feel like it's important, because I know so many foreigners here really struggle with it, and it alone has led a good percentage of the ones I've met who are not happy in Korea to being unhappy in Korea. I've had countless conversations about it, with both foreigners (who fall on both sides of the getting it/not getting it divide) and Koreans, trying to understand. But I'm definitely not all the way there yet. Hopefully I can still come up with something valuable to say, that isn't completely off the mark. What I can say is that, while it's not something I'm thrilled to be dealing with in my every day life, I understand that it's a cultural aspect I don't yet "get", and I have not come out "against" it, in any sense of the word. It's an ongoing struggle for me. I understand and appreciate the basic ideal behind it, but still don't really jump up and down with a smile on my face when it affects my personal life.
So. Here's the story.
One night way, way back when, when I was still running around being somewhat of a wild thing here in Korea, one young Korean fellow I knew phoned up and asked me to come out. It was a week night, and I had to 'work' the next morning, even though the work was only deskwarming. I'm still pretty against any nonsense on a worknight, even if you don't technically have to work, but after ages and ages of his texting and ringing nonstop about how "누나 보고싶어요~~~! 진짜로~~!" I gave in and went. We did our basic kind of running around, and that was fine, and ended up in a bar I absolutely loathe, because again the kid deployed the 아 누나~~~~! tactic, and, whatever.
When we walked in, his friend immediately spotted a table full of blondes. Oh, a Korean young man's fantasy. He was gone. But my little buddy felt honor-bound to remain by my side. About fifteen minutes in, however, a lovely tattooed Irish gentleman had taken up a conversation with me, and I was quite otherwise occupied. I saw the kid squirming in the booth across from us. "Hey. Go find your friend. Go talk to the blondes."
"아 누나 어떻게하지?! 누나 [blanks in my Korean at the time] 혼자 [blank] 어떻게 [blank]?"
"Oh stop it. Go talk to the girls with your friend. Look! They're ALL blondes!"
After a few more sorrowful mutterings in Korean that I didn't quite grasp, eventually he went. Long story short, or shorter than it could be, he ended up coming over a while later to say that his friend was too drunk, and he needed to take him home, with still more postulations about how he couldn't bear to leave me alone. I waved him out the door with no more than a second thought, taking note that the blondes remained at their table.
Flash forward a few months and it's his birthday. After being the only friend who bothered to show up to his birthday party for several hours, and picking up the tab all night, even buying him ice cream at the GS25, because I felt so damn bad for him, eventually he says some of his foreign friends are finally ready to meet us. We wait at the station in Hongdae for the cab to arrive, and when it pulls up, out pile four or five blondes. I get talking to them on the way to the club, and manage to suss out that yes, they are indeed the same ones from the bar that night. Funny. I share the whole story with them, and we have a laugh over how damn young this kid is.
In the midst of the conversation, one of the girls mentions something that crawls under my skin and just won't crawl back out for the rest of the night. The first night they met this kid, they went to noraebang and a hof after being at the bar.
Now, miscommunications happen. And even if this wasn't one, what did I care, really? I don't care that he ditched me for the girls -- I had basically ditched him for the Irish guy (who, by the way, had proceeded to give a slightly offensive comedy act after he had gone about how he couldn't live up to the standards of the kid's permed hair and low-cut V neck top, and how I must be so disappointed). So... why was this starting to bother me more the more I thought about it?
I got it. He lied. He stood there and, in front of my fucking face, made all these unnecessary apologetic poses about how the situation couldn't be helped, and he was so, so sorry to leave the bar without me. Instead of just saying, "Hey those girls over there want to go to a hof with us! We're gonna get right in on that! Good luck with this guy -- text you in the morning!" He had done a whole fucking song and dance about the situation that was, frankly, just fucking insulting to my pride.
What, was I gonna go home and cry myself to sleep otherwise? How fucking insulting.
I walked out of the club that night without even saying goodbye. I tried to tell myself it wasn't a big deal, he's just a kid, just overlook it, but the more it sat there in front of me, the more I just couldn't stand the thought of looking that kid in the eye and playing nice. And, since it was his birthday, after all, it wouldn't do to make a scene. So I just left.
The next day, my Korean friend came over early in the morning to make breakfast and sit and talk with me about the situation. After I had finished explaining my side of things, he just looked at me with a face that I could tell was trying to piece together what had happened, from my perspective, and come out with something neutral in reply. The thing is, I already knew what was at the root of this situation: saving face. I just didn't know how to separate what, for the kid, was saving face, from what, for me, was a spineless fucking lie.
Here's the thing: remember when I said that preserving the group harmony in Korean culture usually comes before all else? Well, often that includes telling the truth, or being honest. Saving face is a concept that revolves around not making other people look or feel bad, not directly insulting someone's pride, especially in front of others. This also includes not directly contradicting what another person says, especially if that person falls above you in the hieracrchy, which means that American style conversations about politics or other contentious topics are extremely difficult for many Koreans, because they aren't used to just coming out and saying, "I think your opinion is wrong, and here's why...." To Koreans, the whole activity is quite base, tasteless and fucking rude.
That morning, my friend did his best, even while employing face saving himself within the conversation in order not to insult my point of view on things, to explain that what the kid had done, from the kid's own perspective, was simply polite. For that kid to march over to my table and announce that he was leaving with the other girls would have been, from the perspective of Korean culture, unbearably fucking disrespectful. It would've taken real balls, in other words. He had instead done what, in his culture, was what good manners and respect for me dictated.
This friend was already aware of my struggles with saving face, because we had come up against them in our own relationship. We had already had more than one long, honest conversation about how saving face is extremely difficult for me, and how I needed him, for at least the time being, to try to set it aside at times, while I also tried to make strides in understanding and coming around to it. This related to situations such as me suggesting we go to this or that particular place to do this or that particular thing, and him taking an awkward pause and then agreeing, which I was supposed to interpret as him saying 'no, I don't want to'.
Now. To Western readers who have not experienced this aspect of East Asian culture, this is all bound to sound fucking crazy. What is the point in talking around things, giving half-answers, non-answers, or telling what to us are flat out lies? Why can't everyone just say what they have to say, and then we all know where we stand, and that's it? Everyone's a big boy or girl in these situations. What's with all the beating around the bush? And how fucking confusing....
But what you have to understand is that culture, when it isn't culture to you, but simply the way that life works, is not so simple. When you're raised within a society that does things a certain way, it's not so easy to see things from the opposite perspective. It's also just not confusing to you, the same way it is to an outsider. I struggle with saving face because I was not raised in a society that employs it -- in other words, I don't understand it. I don't understand all of the signals involved that communicate things beneath the surface, which "come naturally" to Koreans. Which isn't to say that they come naturally at all, but simply that they have lived with them all of their lives, so it is a language that they speak fluently, natively, whereas to me, it's yet another foreign language that I am struggling to pick up, without any real awareness of context.
Of course this means that saving face, like speaking Korean, is just yet another area where I'm reduced to the status of a mumbling, idiotic child. It's another area where, in Korea, I am constantly embarrassing myself and struggling to keep up. But it's possibly more pronounced because, whereas it's easy enough to meet Korean people who have learned English fluently, it's not nearly as easy to meet Koreans who have learned Western style "honesty" or bluntness as fluently. While my co-teachers may have studied English for 20 years, my workplace doesn't speak Western Bluntness. I can't take Saving Face 101 down at the local university, and improve my understanding -- I certainly can't pick bits of it up from listening to pop songs on repeat. And, in a lot of my relationships with Koreans where saving face is most important, this very fact alone makes speaking openly about the practice extremely difficult. I have to rely exclusively on my ability to alter or suspend my own understanding of things and observe situations with extreme acuteness, as well as my relationships with Koreans who are in the process of (or have been before), themselves, learning the language in reverse.
In the meantime, it hits on extremely personal and deeply rooted parts of the pride and personal security of people on both sides. When I make a mistake in Korean, most good-hearted people will just laugh it off and give me a big thumps-up for simply trying. When I make a mistake in saving face, however, it doesn't go over quite as well. The exact same thing happens in reverse -- when someone makes a blunder that insults my sense of Western Bluntness, it's not so easy for me to overlook as when they cock up with their English, which obviously isn't an issue at all.
So. There you have it. The most difficult part of Korean culture for me. And I have a feeling it will be possibly for the duration of my time in East Asia. But I'm aware of it, which is half of the battle, and I'm working on it every day.
And now I'm out of questions. So if you have anymore, feel free to speak up!