Cultural Clashes – March 25th – 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)
I am still giving Ji-won a lesson on a Saturday evening. His father, Pak Jun Hee is the same age as I and so we have a very good relationship. A new teacher, Lisa, had arrived from the UK and we decided to take her out to their restaurant and during the course of the evening Ji-won asked her age, Koreans always want to know your age. Lisa, who is possibly nearing retirement, was visibly offended and tried to explain that this was a rude question. Of course, asking ones age is a necessity for Koreans as they need to ascertain where to place you within a hierarchical structure and to address you both in terms of behaviour and language. In order for Koreans to form relationships with westerners, especially ones who fall outside their own peer group, they have to invent relationships in order to ratify a friendship. So for Ji-won, I am his teacher, for Ryo Hyu-sun (료휴선), I am his older brother and I have to refer to him as ‘dong seng’ (동생) and correspondingly, he has to refer to me as ‘hyong je’ (형재). When I thank Ryo Hyu-sun (료휴선) I have to use informal style language whereas towards me he uses formal language which is used from a junior to a senior. When I thank him I will say ‘komapda’ while he will thank me by saying ‘khamsa hamnida’ (감사합니다). Needless to say such linguistic etiquette makes learning the language all the more difficult.
Ji-won is a keen student who at the moment is going to school from 7am until 9pm. He will stick to this regime for the next two years. Last week there were classes at Di Dim Dol hakwon which started at 11.15 in the evening. It amazes me how we moan about child exploitation in the west and yet Korean children lead such hideously pressured lives. A fifteen year old boy jumped out of a tower block here last week, and died all because his maths teacher had been disappointed with his ‘average’ maths score.
At the restaurant Ji-won and I sat talking for several hours and then his father came over with some soju and sashimi. Pak Jun Hee often brings sashimi and I think he considers this a treat for me – which it is. However, while I enjoy sushi (초밥), which is small slices of fish on a small ball of vinegared rice, Korean sashimi I am not so keen on. This is a full platter of various cuts of raw fish and the skill of a sashimi chef is dependant on how long he can keep the fish alive as he is slicing off its flesh. As with Korean barbecues, this fish is eaten with a variety leaves, garlic cloves, the Korean equivalent of wasabi (고추 냉이) and red pepper paste (고추장). One places a small selection of fish in a leaf and adds the other ingredients, wraps it and then eats it. Among Korean friends it is quite acceptable to place food, by way of hand, into you someone else’s mouth. Pak Jun Hee made a massive ball, of sashimi, and mostly fish, which I could only just fit in my mouth and I very nearly puked. I can take a little raw fish but not half a pound of a cold, raw seafood cocktail. Lim Sun-hee, who is Pak Jun Hee’s wife could see I was a little distressed but I pretended it was the heat of the wasabi and everyone laughed. Koreans find it very amusing when you find their food too spicy. The ball was so big I couldn’t just swallow it so I was forced to chew that cold flesh into swallow-able portions. Pak Jun Hee’s has invited me to go to Pusan with him on August 23rd, which is his family’s ancestors’ day. Then he will go to his family tomb on the mountain and pay respects to his dead relatives. It is a very private affair and I am quite privileged.
I have taken a short break from taekwon do as I have had constant problems with my left hamstring. I think I need to strengthen it as stretching weakens the muscle and maybe it needs a little building up. I have started some special exercises which I do in the lunchtimes before I go to the mokyoktang.