by Lindsey Coulter, Greenheart Travel Teacher in South Korea
Of all places to experience a significant cultural rite of passage, I wasn’t expecting an Outback Steakhouse happy hour. Those familiar with Korean culture may not be impressed, but amongst co-workers, chicken wings and foamy pitchers of Hite, I was finally invited to refer to the male teachers as my oppas, my big brothers. For me, this seemingly minor exchange was anything but. It was a subtle reassurance that I have a place in Korea and in this community.
Since arriving in Incheon, a city pressed up against the western edge of Seoul and spilling out into the sea, names, titles and language in general, have taken on an entirely new significance. The Korean system of hierarchical, honorific language and gestures is both an interesting cultural facet and an anxiety-inducing formality. There is a grace and ceremony in Korean interaction that’s not always found in the West, where a handshake and a polite “sir” or “ma’am” are about all one needs to get by. Here, conversation requires thinking and acting in a way that respects status and life experience. It also requires patience and a little dedication.
During the 16 hour flight from O’Hare to Incheon International, I thumbed through a guide to Korean culture and discovered hierarchical terms such as oppa, unni, nuna, hyung and dongsaeng; words too specific to have a tidy, one-word English translation. The book’s brief introduction to the non-verbal honorific world of bowing and mental age/rank tabulation proved that nunchi must be intrinsic to Koreans for this reason alone. A few words about formal and non-formal language were tossed about and then, suddenly, it was time to put my hasty studies into action. It was mildly intimidating to say the least.
Realistically, it would take years to become fluent in the intricacies and delicate nuances of Korean honorifics. There are five different forms of formal speech alone (break that down to three high, two low). However, even newbies can pick up on the more important non-verbal clues. Over time you learn to accompany greetings with bows, use an open palm for motioning gestures, avoid prolonged eye contact, accept money and pour drinks with two hands and realize laughter is an accepted cover for any number of emotions. At first it feels as though you’re doing everything wrong and grossly offending everyone at every turn. Then you realize it’s kind of lovely and the ceremony becomes second nature. Over time you learn to say the right things, do the right things and the stress slips away.
Maybe now my moment of pride in the Outback is understandable. Working to integrate respectful language and gestures and build genuine relationships paid off. Although I could have easily thrown out an oppa in casual conversation with a male teacher, the invitation was deeply gratifying. It meant I was part of something, that my efforts were recognized and appreciated and that I could find a home even thousands of miles from the only one I knew.
Sitting around the table, surrounded by my Korean community, I enjoyed the increasingly familiar cadence of the conversation, pleased to pluck out snips and phrases. Obligingly, I accepted another brimming mug from my doting onni teacher with both hands, a trace of a bow and a sincere kamsahabnida.