Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Spitting on the street and Barney the Dinosaur (kind of)

IT IS easy to assume that what counts as good manners or plain rudeness is more or less self-evident: you don't eat from other people's plates, you don't pick your nose in public, you don't touch yourself - or anyone else - up on the bus etc. . .

But, of course, what we call "good manners" is culturally determined. Consequently, some of what Koreans consider everyday behaviour might seem rude to outsiders at first. For example, Koreans don't say "sorry" when they bump into someone on the street. Now, Seoul is packed, and I mean packed with people. If you felt the need to apologise every time you rubbed shoulders with a stranger your lungs would probably pack up and quit. You'd be better off sticking a "sorry" sign to your forehead.

You will also never hear "thank you" if you hold open the door for a stranger. I've read that this relates in part to their Confucian heritage, which traditionally saw society as very structured and hierarchical, in which people had their place and stuck to it. As a stranger, your place in this scheme of things simply isn't known.

Least pleasant of all is many older Korean men's tendency to spit on the street. And they won't just spit either. They'll hawk and rasp until whatever persistent globule of phlegm is discharged. Charming stuff to drink your iced coffee to in the morning.

But in many other ways, a lot of Koreans display a level of kindness that would be rare back home. I've had dinner bought for me. Another man stopped to replace a creased bank note of mine with a fresh one because it wasn't working in a vending machine. At various restaurants, well-meaning staff have warned me about how spicy the food will be, as though nothing fierier than a packet of smoky bacon Tayto's is ever eaten in Ireland. In short, my experience of the people so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

When you jump in at the deep end of another culture, especially one as distinct as Korea's, you simply have to make allowances for the inevitable differences. The differences, after all, are half the fun. And if we can all try to understand each other, maybe we can all just get along and then the world. . .

Right, enough of that, I'm beginning to sound like Barney the Dinosaur. And that purple freak wouldn't last a day here.

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