Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Being an Ambassador

My friend Terry, a lovely Kanuck woman (I probably misspelled Kanuck - arrogant American!), and I were talking the other day about the difficulties of being so very different here. It's like we have a big target on our foreheads, people stare. It is sometimes like being a monkey behind bars in the zoo. "Oooo look at that - they can eat with chopsticks, just like us!" or "Wow! They are speaking our language HA HA HA!" or the worst one, "Get out of my way, damned waygook." That last one can be a real pisser.

In Korea, there is a huge hierarchical system set up. They don't talk about, and it isn't always obvious to us, but it's there in some subtle and some not so subtle ways. The people at the convenience store will take the money from the ajeshis(older men) before taking our money, the older folks can touch others without being reprimanded. More obviously,people defer to each other, stepping aside, bowing their heads, averting eye contact. There are 7 levels of respect in the Korean language. So, the Koreans need to figure out which level to put you into. I've not really managed to let them know that we have (from my observation) about 3 levels in English.*

Koreans can't figure out how old we are, they don't know what job we do or how much money we make or what our title is. Therefore, they can't figure out if we are worthy of respect. So... sometimes ugliness ensues. Their sense of hierarchy smashes right up against our beliefs in equality and fairness. For the most part, the ex-patriates are ok with the difference, we handle it, we respect the culture, we let it go. But some days...SOME DAYS we just want to play Smashmouth.

There is a responsibility that most of us see as part of our duty of living abroad. We are ambassadors for our countries and for the world in general. We don't want to offend, we want them to think well or our countries, we are aware we are *guests* in their country, and frankly we don't need a run in with the law. Geesh, can you imagine that kind of fiasco! So, when they shove us or butt in front of us or slurp their noodles so loudly we can't hear ourselves think, we grin and bear it. Sometimes we grit and bear it. Other days we get in their faces.

I've been here for two months, and already someone has confronted a Korean *for* me and I've confronted one for someone else. We do it when they cross a line that means "danger" to us somehow, and we are careful. Because we are in a foreign environment, we don't always see the danger that comes our way or we don't want to confront it. Realistically, it could be a misunderstanding. So we try to be gentle about it. Ok, sometimes we do it when they just piss us off and have caught us on a bad day. But hey, you don't get to shove (truly SHOVE) my friend out of the way so you can go stand at the front of the line to get into the subway. Evidently men don't get to openly stare at my breasts about a foot and a half from me either.

In the end, we feel the weight of being on display and needing to respect their culture while honoring our own. It can be at times something of a heavy burden. Holding back because we know there is probably misunderstanding is one thing. Letting people bulldoze us is another. It reminds me that there are assholes everywhere. Sometimes I'm the asshole, sometimes I'm the one shat upon. Meh. It's the same everywhere.

*Nothing scientific about this or necessarily even correct, but in case anyone is wondering, the levels as I see them: Authority (the way you talk to a judge or police officer or the principal at school using words like "May" and "would you mind if..."), Informal (the way you talk to most everyone else, ("Can" instead of "may", using first names and no titles, etc.), Friends (the way you can say, "Hey bitch, what's up" to your best friend and not begin a smackdown).

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