Questions, questions: On the older sibling/younger sibling aspect of Korean culture.

I'm a real asshole. I know. You don't have to tell me. I've had a few really great questions sitting around for a long time, which I need to do. There's one in particular that I've been mulling over all week about isolation and being an outsider in Korea, which is a huge enough topic on its own, but the asker was referencing a situation where kids are involved. And that's just hard for me, because a. I'm not a parent and b. part of the reason I have a hard time ever imagining myself as a parent is because I know how vicious and Godfatheresque psychotic I would be when it came to protecting my kids from anything that could be hurtful to them. Some of the shit I've been through myself here in Korea -- sure, no sweat. I can handle that. Apply that same thing to someone of my kin who I perceive as being younger or more vulnerable than me, and I don't think I'd take it so much in stride. So. I'm having to ponder on that one, a bit.

But here's a nicer one, which I think I can handle on this beautiful sunny vacation morning:

I really enjoy reading your blog. I was wondering if I could get your thoughts on something that I think is one of the best parts of Korean culture: The oppa/hyung/unni/noona & dongsaeng relationship. Because of my own Asian cultural background, I have some experience with this kind of social construct, but I was wondering how others might view it. It can be especially confusing, I think, because of the role it plays in dating sometimes.

Thanks for you time, and thanks for writing.

Yesterday when I met Whiskey and his own "jinjjah hyeong", who's visiting from out of town, for a lovely club sandwich minus pickles, corn and coleslaw in an open-air pub in Itaewon, we got onto this very subject. The short answer is, I also think it's one of Korean culture's best features. When it's handled appropriately.

A lot of my post-New York friends were a little baffled when I took the hierarchy structure within Korean culture like a fish to water. It didn't seem like me. But what they were missing was the perspective of my own upbringing which, while not in the slightest bit Asian influenced, was heavily conservative in many ways. I was brought up in a strict household with regard for manners and respect for elders. I was not unaccustomed to yes-ma'ams and no-sirs and "because I told you to" and "speak when you're spoken to". While I don't believe that individual respect for people should be doled out solely based on age, or other external factors, I'm not unfamiliar with the concept of respecting the position a person holds, regardless of how you feel about them as an individual, and, for lack of a better way of putting it, knowing my place. Whether it's something I like or not, it is something I can do and do well. Not getting a smack on the ass throughout my childhood largely depended on me developing this ability. And it's served me very well in my workplace, where I don't have the seemingly daily struggle some other foreigners do with "why should I?"s. I don't have to know why -- I know that I have to, and that's that. Because that's the way it is. Because they told me to.

Furthermore, it's something that you learn as you get older that, whether you like someone or not, there are reasons why you should show them respect. Namely, that you don't know everything that you think you know, and people who are older are not always wiser, but generally, no matter what kind of a fuckup they are, they do probably know a few things a bit better than you do. And also, when someone is in a position of taking care of you or providing for you in some way, you owe that person a certain degree of respect whether you like them or not.

All of these things are aspects that I find a little lacking in a lot of modern versions of American culture. And I like that they are big, inherent parts of Korean culture. Nothing drives this home more than being a teacher, and watching young teenage boys struggle with their developing suspicions that they understand everything in the world better than any adult ever could, but having to yield to what an adult is telling them is best out of respect. As we all know, there's very little they actually understand better than their teachers or parents, even if their teachers and parents are not so good sometimes at understanding how they feel. That concept of accepting someone else's authority on a subject, even when you feel in your very heart of hearts that they are wrong, has saved their little hides more times than I can mention.

When the older brother/sister - younger brother/sister system is used in what I understand to be the traditional, correct way within Korean culture, it's a really beautiful thing. The idea that even if your whole family is gone, anyone in your life who is older than you by even a year is obliged to look after you is incredibly reassuring. That family aspect of Korean culture has saved me from feeling lonely and lost here so many times. I don't find myself outside of that, as a foreigner -- it's too intrinsic to Koreans for them to let you escape it, even if they do still marvel at your ability to use chopsticks.

As I've mentioned many times before, I'm a very prideful person. And part of what I was looking for in coming to a foreign country was conquering a large portion of that pride by making of myself a total idiot. But the payback, in that regard, has come in the form of a culture that doesn't condescend to the concept of asking for help. There is a whole network of people I have access to, who not only do not mind if I ask stupid questions or for assistance with a million asinine things, they believe it is their obligation to be as helpful as possible. They are older and more experienced than I am -- it's only natural that they would be the ones, regardless of their complete lack of personal investment, to step in and show me the ropes. And a lifetime of doing these kinds of tasks has given them a kind of grace about it. I never feel as though I'm putting someone out, or as though they are judging me to be far too incompetent when I have to ask for help with something.

Even among my boys at the school -- at first, when I arrived to find that none of the students from different grades so much as look each other in the eye while passing in the hallways, I was completely bewildered. It's a year's difference in age -- surely it doesn't matter that much? But after having over 2,000 students pass through my hallways and observing them for nearly two years, I've noticed something else, which is the times when they do interact with each other. The older students sling their arms around the younger students' shoulders, gently tease them about any number of things, while often quietly palming off candies or pieces of chocolate or a leftover something-or-another from their lunch trays. The younger students, in turn, look up at their older brothers with a kind of awe, and seem to feel lucky to have someone who pulls such rank show them this kind of attention. They know that the biggest, baddest bully in their own grade can't touch them at all, because they've got an "older brother" at the school who outranks him and could quickly and easily put him in his place.

Of course, I've seen the system abused nearly twice as often as I've seen it used in a positive way. But they're kids, and kids are assholes. I think the lessons they're learning from it on the plus side will far outweigh the way it's used to accomplish all kinds of bullying and nonsense, which -- let's face it -- would find a way of happening one way or another, regardless of the hierarchy. That they're learning at such a young age what it's like both to feel responsible for another person's well being, and also how to rely on others in a functional way, are valuable components of becoming a good person. By my own definition, of course.

I've always freely admitted that one of the biggest deficiencies I've discovered in my home culture since I've been in Korea is our general lack of interest in taking responsibility for other people, and putting aside our own pursuits and happiness at times so that other people around us may suffer less. I didn't realize how dog-eat-dog American culture can be until I came to Korea. And it's been something I've struggled with within myself most of all. It's one place in Korean culture where I can take a severe lesson, and would do well to humble myself and absorb as much of it as I possibly can. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to learn that lesson.

That having been said, as far as the dating side of things goes, I don't really know. My own feelings about the need for equality in any romantic relationship will probably always trump any sense of age-based hierarchy. I don't even allow myself to try to consider it, because I know there are some lines in my own cultural programming that I will never be able to cross, and that is one of them. It's not that I'm not familiar with the concept of one partner deferring to the other within a relationship -- it's that I'm far too fucking familiar with it (born and raised Southern Baptist, remember? don't make me start pulling quotes off their website about wives being submissive to back myself up here....) and refuse to have any part in it. I already know that's not for me, and that is not negotiable.


Tiffani said...

Excellent post. I find it shocking the way, for example, my senior will pay for my meal outside of my line of sight and without even mentioning it. At home, if you paid for someone, you made a big show of it so you knew for sure they appreciated it. Here, it's just how it's done, and it's not a matter of showing off or trying to impress anyone.

I still struggle in a lot of ways with the humility required to accept things like that. I also struggle with showing the proper respect to my seniors. In my head, I carry such a strong perspective of the world that people are equal. So when my 사부님 (jiu-jitsu master) talks to me, there's always this senior-junior dynamic that will never go away, no matter how close we are. To me, 34 is not that old. I've had friends older than that that I went out with on a regular basis, and we treated each other like equals. But to Koreans, 34/22 is a lifetime of difference.

Sometimes it feels a little oppressive to me, but actually...I like it. I agree with you in that it can be very comforting to know there are always people out there to take care of you.

Korean-American said...

What an interesting, well thought out account of the honorifics in Korea! And from a foreigner (if you don't mind my saying)! If the incoherent, calculated responses on Misuda comprise of the desert, your take is oasis. Cheers!

John from Daejeon said...

How do orphans fit in this?

I'm wondering because one of my students is forced to act like her mother's death to cancer last year was/is a joke around her so-called older brothers and sisters, yet when she is alone, I can see it eating her alive.