Upon her move from Poland to Korea, Smith finds that it is possible to be nearly killed by kindness. A child of postcolonial wealth and might, and all that implies, negotiates in fits and starts, her early days in an ancient, Confucian land. Culture clash is inevitable.
Immediately after my university graduation I moved back to the land of Tyskie, Zywiec, and Warka to teach English at a small college; an idyllic situation that financial matters now pressed me to leave for the ESL gold-mines of Asia. Torn between Japan, which theoretically offered a more laid back lifestyle than Korea, where I read, the inhabitants would be in my face, literally, picking it apart and gleefully announcing every zit and under-eye bag as if I’d never noticed them myself, as well as metaphorically in all other aspects of life, I perhaps somewhat foolhardily chose Korea. I put all I’d heard about language schools placing foreign teachers in unlivable apartments filled with mold and cockroaches and then, on top of that, frequently firing such teachers abruptly, or not paying such teachers at all behind me, and looked forward to the high savings potential and free plane ticket Korea offered.
But not with ease. In addition to worrying about my basic living conditions, I fretted about how I’d be treated on a daily social basis. Would I be like many Western women who come to teach but are soon eager to leave because they are unable to handle the female social oppression of Korea; much which strikes parallels to and then often nosedives below the standards of 1950s America? Would I be looped in with the buzz cut and drunken, stumbling American soldiers Koreans are rumored to spit at and even punch while they wander the streets at night? Or would the natives simply glare me off the daytime sidewalks, muttering indiscernible Korean slurs while brandishing middle fingers?
Much to my surprise, upon my arrival at the public middle school where I’d be teaching ESL to groups of approximately 40 students the typical Korean classroom size my teaching colleagues immediately attached themselves to me. They repeated over and over that they wanted me to adjust to my new home smoothly, and that I should feel at home in Daegu, Korea’s most conservative city. a description they’d deliver cringing with the knowledge that the city’s proud attachment to traditional Korean culture, displayed everywhere on billboards exclaiming “Welcome to Daegu: Confucian City,” might make it harder for a Westerner to adjust. But after a few weeks had passed and I was still being greeted with animated waves and obsequious hellos from both coteachers and students who seemed to consider me a daily Christmas present, it was becoming apparent that Korean hospitality left little room for settling in or feeling comfortable. Rather, this ongoing hello to the outsider approximates a tractor trailer overloaded with welcoming notions smacking into whatever cultural unease stands in its way, running over the hapless victim completely, and driving on without wanting to know from the flattened cultural norms how it likes its new experiences: unless the pained answer is a convincing “It’s good, thank you”.
If the answer is less than enthusiastic, say, the polite, “This is different than what I’m used to but, it’s OK, thanks”, the typical Korean response is not to back away and let the foreigner breathe, but to keep pushing full force in the same awkward direction, until the foreigner simply has no choice but to give up and say “Thank you for the hospitality!” and mutter to herself, careful not to be overheard, “Hospitality that no longer seems hospitable at all since it was implemented with such pounding imposition and unspoken demand for thanks.” Shortly after my arrival in Daegu I began avoiding my coworkers; not answering my phone when they called, anything to get away from their excessive attempts to welcome me, attempts that were starting to seem worse than the unwelcoming outsider treatment I’d been warned to expect for my mistake of not being born on the Korean peninsula.
The taxing hospitality I met with takes an ingratiatingly self-sacrificial form, the kind found in people who throw enormous dinner parties but disdain any much-needed aid with the pile of dishes afterward. Such tasks are so ridiculous for the person performing them that they become almost impossible to appreciate; the sacrifice is too absurd, too unreal, and too easily avoidable. As an example: after a couple weeks of driving a half hour out of her way to chauffeur me to school, my boss decided that I knew the city well enough for me to travel on my own. Without much trouble I walked the five minutes to the bus stop and then, 15 minutes later, arrived at school, well prepared and early for my first class.
My former driver loitered around my desk, and probed me with questions about my uneventful morning commute. I nodded and smiled my way through her inquiries, and happened to say that I had noticed some of my students on the bus. When I mentioned that, an evasive grin turned the corners of her mouth and she surprised me cold: “I know, I saw you!” she said. Stunned and recoiling from what I assumed was open spying, I asked for an explanation, though, in the back of my mind I knew why she saw me. This was a woman who, during my first weekend in the city, sat outside of my house, baking in the sweltering summer heat of her car for over an hour, waiting for me to unwittingly return from some errands so she could take me out to a surprise dinner.
As she stood by my desk on the day of my first lone commute she giggled, and repeated, “I saw you.” Again, I asked how. She strung together a sentence in her broken English, “From across the street.” I made a half-joke about stalking. It made her defensive. She parried, telling me I simply did not understand Korean culture. Probably not. Definitely not. So I held in a sigh and began the painstaking process of trying to explain why I found it uncomfortable that someone would wait outside my bus stop to make sure I, a 23-year-old woman who used to live in New York and who is quite familiar with public transportation, thank you very much, would feel uncomfortable being watched, nay, spied upon! She refused to listen, unable to connect the necessary wires to cross cultural miscommunication boundaries, and I soon found myself smiling, nodding my head, and saying “thanks, thanks”, while she declared how much she cared about me. Giving up and just letting oneself fall into the arms of illogical Korean rationalities was something I was learning to do.
But why did she care so much about me? I’d known my boss for less than two weeks. It seemed her concern for my well-being and happiness wasn’t so much earnest worry over a young woman far from home as it was obsessing over a ward; much like playing with a new toy. That night she emailed me a further explanation of her bus stop lurking, petulantly claiming that I did not understand the Korean language and so she could not explain her goals to me. However, I remain doubtful that her offered English explanation, “truth on my way to school, I wanted to call you to come I with you” and her conclusion that since offering me a ride was unfeasible she would just park near my house and wait to see if I got on the bus, could make sense in any language, except as a prime example of cultural awkwardness. Her cordiality, with its design to over-impress, had unfortunately only succeeding in making me paranoid. I had become a guerrilla fighter in the war of hospitality. The exceedingly polite Koreans were the more efficient and better-trained army. It was enough to stay alive.
This behavior of, shall I say, “over concern” for me on her part would appear again and again during our working relationship, as she took it upon herself to drive an hour and half from her house, into the city, on certain days that she wasn’t working and I had to be at the Daegu school district’s main office. The district office was all of 15 minutes from my house, near major landmarks, and easily accessible by an inexpensive taxi if only someone would write out “school district office” for me in Korean. Instead, she sacrificed her time, leaving her house at 6am to pick me up and meeting me again late in the afternoon to take me home.
Was I thankful for her kindness? No! I felt guilty and embarrassed, like a 10-year-old whose mother still walks her into the school yard. But as there was little I could do to repay such pestering kindness, their stance seemed to be that not only had I been impossibly helped, I’d also been socially trumped and would remain at the bottom of their hierarchal scale as the fleeting, alien, guest worker. Forever in their debt, forever deemed an inconsequential stand-in for all the foreigners inhabiting the bottom of the Korean social pyramid.
The realization that my Korean acquaintances didn’t adhere to social rules I’d ever feel welcome by or comfortable with became more apparent as time passed. The first day I called in sick a few teachers came to my house to bring me chicken soup, and possibly, I suspected, to make sure that I was actually at home, sick in bed, and not out cavorting in some irresponsible and Western way, like nursing a hangover or taking in a matinee - a deceitful self-indulgence no Korean would ever partake in. I found their attention to my welfare rather cute, traditional, hospitable, and, I thought, not likely to reoccur once my colleagues got to know me better.
A few months later, I called in sick, again. My boss okayed the day off, a much needed combination mental health/recouping from the flu rest. I hung up the phone and promptly fell into a tranquil and much needed sleep. . . only to be awakened by my boss’s phone call an hour later, when she rang to ask if she could drive me to the hospital. Having dealt with this odd Korean practice before that when someone has a cold, you don’t just take over-the-counter medicine and rest, you go to the hospital (or, at least, you try to convince the foreigner you’re worried about that the hospital is where cold victims go) I said politely assertively, yet repeatedly, that I’d be fine, really, I only needed some rest, please. Rest, in the way that a bear needs hibernation. I should have turned off my cell phone, but having learned the hard way (Surprise! Visitors!) that inaccessibility upsets Koreans immensely, I left it on.
At 5pm, the phone rang, again. My boss, again. This time she was ring-leading for a group of teachers who wanted to stop by to say ‘hello’, with medicinal soup and juice in hand. I calmly, firmly honestly, not enraged at all said “No, thank you”, and tacked on the excuse that I was still in my pajamas and in no proper state to accept company. I explained this slowly, multiple times. That was sick and not in the mood for entertaining visitors seemed never to occur to my boss. Finally she hung up, but not before apologizing, claiming that she “would stop bothering me, now”.
At 6:30pm a different boss (it’s not enough that I have one caring boss, but two), the one who’d previously performed the bus watching duty, called to apologize for not coming to my house earlier, since I had said no guests allowed at 5 O’clock. She seemed confused and put out when she heard me say “No, thank you”, as if I’d just announced to the entire country of Korea that I disdained her friendship and rejected her presence for all eternity. Not willing to attempt to cross cultural boundaries with the explanation that it was not her, personally, I didn’t want to see, but all obsessive mothering and meddling coworkers who should not have been calling me on my sick day anyways, I said I was “sorry”, and “but thank you”, a few more times. She kept repeating that she, too, was very sorry that she could not come to my house and her pauses indicated she either wanted more of an explanation as to why she was not invited, or she wanted that invitation to come over. Now. Guilt crept up, and I began to feel even more sick.
At 9:00pm, whether out of her own curiosity or at the bequest of my English teacher bosses, the geography teacher, who lives closest to me of all my coworkers and who is frequently dispatched to my house like a babysitter to represent the school whenever someone seems to think I’m lonely, called to say she was bringing me food. I said wasn’t hungry as I had the flu and it was time for bed. My lack of open-hearted thanks confused her and she paused, searching for the English expression to say that she just wanted to know how I was doing. Luckily, after about 30 seconds of silence (no way I was going to help her tonight), her English failed her so she said “goodnight” and quickly hung up. My peace for the remainder of the evening was worth the price of her embarrassment.
She called back 15 minutes later. Gloating and trilling with pride because she’d figured out how to offer, in English, something I couldn’t refuse. She was coming over with medicine. Right now. Worn out, I gave up and laid my head on the kitchen table, counting the minutes until she arrived because the faster they passed, the faster she’d be here and gone. My only comfort was that the visitor was the geography teacher, who barely spoke English, rather than an English teacher who would hound me with grammatically muddled questions about how I spent my day, how I felt, and whatever American news item (usually involving something on the Oprah show or one of the cast of Friends) she’d recently seen.
The first medicine the geography tried appeared to be the same coke syrup my mother used to give me for stomachaches, only now it was spiked disgustingly with hot pepper to please the kimchi-addicted Korean palate. While I gagged on the medicine, the geography teacher, like a doctor preparing for a long surgery, lined up bell shaped glass objects and a suction pump on my table. Before she could offer to apply them I held up my arms in a giant “X” blocking my face, the Korean shorthand for “Oh, No!” The geography teacher had tried the bell-medicine on me once before, after showing me a bunch of bruises on her neck and declaring, “No kiss mark”. The bell clings to the skin like an elastic band wrapped too tightly around the wrist, cutting off circulation by drawing all one’s blood under the bell’s dome, leaving a giant bruise as a memento upon the bell’s removal. The first time she’d tried this, she’d laughed at me while I asked, repeatedly, for her to quickly remove the bell because of the pain it caused. Somehow, this treatment seemed like a doubtful solution for an upset stomach.
Perhaps because I looked as if I might kill her or, worse, never speak to her again, which would cause her endless embarrassment the next day when I might slip to a coworker that I’d been (the shock!) offended rather than restored to health the geography teacher allowed me to pass on the bell therapy. Instead she offered to give me a back-rub, which I politely declined. All I wanted was to be asleep in bed, with her gone, but I was careful to tiptoe around saying that the excessive attention was bothering me, yet I hoped I conveyed my desires firmly enough that she might . . . get . . . the . . . . hint.
I felt queasy, especially after the pepper coke syrup, and her late night attention was probably making me, at least psychologically, feel worse. She kept her hands to herself, but unable to explain in English how a back-rub would solve my upset stomach, she promptly sat down and, grabbing a pad of paper and pencil, drew complicated sketches of the body’s inner workings, complete with a food moving along the digestive path and pointed to my back, the stomach area in the drawing, and my back, again. I got it. I just didn’t want it. She relented, but before leaving she cooked me porridge for the morning, demanding that I stand beside her and watch how she made it so that next time I could cook for myself. She pointedly tried to teach me some Korean during this cooking lesson, as if I would learn the language better now that I was sick, as all my sub-conscious resistance was broken down. Or maybe to hint that if I knew Korean, I wouldn’t be sick, because an illness that required time away from work was a problem that strong-willed, diligent Koreans never succumbed to.
While to some, it might seem that I could appreciate my coworkers’ help more, the problem is that skulking to make sure I board the correct bus and badgering me to accept help when I’m down with the flu are just two examples of an excessive, desperate desire to please accompanies almost every offer of so-called hospitality; offers that never come just once, but always repeated and in largesse. To accept such overbearing assistance turns the foreigner not into some kind of respected friend of the seemingly well-meaning Korean, but rather ,one becomes like a desired little trinket the Korean can show off to her friends and brag about, mostly describing the favors she did to aid her helpless foreign friend. A competition then ensues among one’s Korean “friends” to see who can do the most favors for the foreigner.
Some teachers at school openly cringe when it seems I’m spending too much time with others. The cringer will usually bring me another round of gifts the next day. Nothing fancy, just an energy drink or fruit, which is nice, until someone else notices the gift-exchange and decides to present me with some more fruit or maybe some candy, leaving me at the end of the day with more food than I can carry home, scuttling around, feeling wasteful as I try to throw it out in places that won’t be noticed. Although my coworkers also exchange gifts and share constantly with each other, it is only, I, the foreigner, who constantly ends up in the unenviable position of being on the receiving end of more than I could possibly consume and, even, sometimes platitudinous secondhand gifts rejected by others.
This is partially because it is hard for me to say “No” and partially, because any sort of friendly gesture towards a foreigner, no matter how base, is considered hospitable. No seems to think it possible that I know I’m being wooed with the food and drink that no one else wants. My boss, for example, keeps a drawer full of vitamin drinks people have given her over the course of the month. At the end of every month she cleans out the draw into the trash, excepting the few bottles she presents to me along the way whenever she seems to think I’m angry at her, or bored, or tired, or any sort of negative emotion she thinks I might be feeling. I have never seen her offer a drink from the drawer to any one else at the school. This leaves me a superficially flattered outsider, rather than one basking in the feeling of inclusion customary to the receiver of a welcome present. Granted, not all the token gifts are cast-offs, but enough of them are that I relate to the family dog freezing outside on a runner while his owners inside discuss what table scraps he can consume.
That the competitive nature of the gift-giving, not the pleasure of the receiver, is often seen as more important, became most obvious in my “teachers class”, where I instructed a group of six middle and high school English teachers after the traditional school day. During one such class, early in the year, completely out of the blue, a teacher showed up bearing an expensive looking box of bakery buns stuffed with various delights ranging from brown sugar to red bean paste. I thanked her, puzzled, and then offered the sweets to the rest of the class. At first none of the other teachers would eat. Not wanting to carry the whole tray home, I implored, then demanded, and eventually the others picked at the snacks. As with the gifts I received from the my coteachers, I felt confused and flattered, perhaps a bit endeared to the teacher who’d brought me the food, but also wary of her because the gift had brought out such animosity and competitiveness in everyone who lacked the foresight to purchase me an uncalled for present.
A few weeks later, a casual chat about some troubles I had with cooking dinner (I couldn’t find bullion cubes in Korea) invoked at the next class an expensive gift of jarred bullion cubes from the same teacher who previously brought me the bakery buns. The other teachers glared at her. Well, the more polite ones cast embarrassed eyes downward, staring at their desks. Although part of the motivation for the bullion cubes gift was an honest and sweet desire to make my life easier, to help welcome and adapt me to Korea, another, perhaps, more pointed motivation, was to put down the other teachers. Clearly, they were not welcoming enough. Clearly, the one bearing the bullion cubes was the friendliest of all.
If this was a graded class, I’d probably be writing that the traditional goals of winning the teacher over in order to secure better marks and favor were at play, but since I was not to give these teacher/student grades, that motivation can’t be factored in, except maybe as a habitual inclination, since students’ parents frequently give gifts to teachers here (the concept of monetary bribes for good grades having fallen out of fashion - other types of gifts for good grade are in, now). Similar to my coworkers’ squabbles over who can present me with the most pieces of fruit, what seemed like an innocent hospitable gesture spiraled into message to the other teachers about their insufficient kindness; especially as the year wore on and the quality of the gifts ratcheted up to include homemade scarves, elaborate Christmas presents, and herbal throat care medicines.
I have come to dread each new welcoming gesture. I have come to think that I have Korean slaves rather than friends; invisible servants who bring me gifts and disappear quietly (if I’m lucky and they don’t linger). They perform tasks for me and ask for little in return, indeed acting either offended or so surprisingly grateful and overflowing in their thanks when I do something for them that the fawning puts me off from ever giving back again - ever!. There are teachers who do my shopping, cook me dinner, and then leave because they then have to go home and prepare food for their families. They have sewed my clothes and cleaned my house, without my asking and without my being able to stop them because I had to cave to their repeated offerings, my chance of resistance parallel to Laurence Harvey’s in the Manchurian Candidate.
This incessant, sycophantic behavior occurs partly as out an outgrowth of Confucianism, arising because as a female in a decidedly segregated society I deal primarily with women who have been trained by their parents and teachers to selflessly please from the cradle to the grave. But what else explains the persistent hospitality drive? Some internal Korean competition, perhaps; the same complex that forces children here to attend school after school until 9 or 10 at night, and drives their parents to work equally late. I guess this is the result of being a citizen in a small nation that is overflowing with people who are trying, desperately, to prove themselves to the world at large.