The concept of face is supposed to be the holy nexus through which all foreigners must pass if they wish to understand the cinnamon-scented isles of the east—or, more realistically, the forests of high rises and the reek of sewage that greet the foreign traveler almost before he or she steps off the airplane and onto Korean soil.
But of course I’m not so sure if face is the key to understanding this bewildering place, and, actually, I’m never sure of anything. With cultures and stereotypes and generalizations the answers to such simplistic questions—i.e., how can I understand Korean culture?, can only really be answered nonverbally, by steeping yourself in the world, by going beyond the position of tourist, traveler, gawker, onlooker.
But some brief anecdotes can help to illustrate this idea. Or at least hopefully provide entertaining reading.
Long-time followers of this blog may remember an old nemesis of mine, the good Doctor No, whom I was forced to teach next to for several months, perhaps a year, up until last July. She and I initially liked each other but grew to despise one another as we were forced to spend more and more time in the same company, chained to the same sinking ship. She was also a woman of severely limited charisma and intelligence—my wife complained that she spoke at an incredibly slow speed even in Korean—and so she was also probably a little jealous of a mind that was perhaps a bit quicker than hers.
So anyway we’re in the English classroom. This woman doesn’t speak English so well. The speed of her sentences, the gaps between her periods and commas, allow you enough time to compose entire paragraphs of thought; it is indeed possible to drive on several trains of steaming, roaring pensivity while this woman is struggling to form ideas out of the abysmal plasm that is her consciousness, and then translate those vague globules into Korean, and then translate that Korean into Korean-English.
Actually, let me just say this before I continue: there are some people who are just totally feckless. You know who I’m talking about. You must have met them. You look at them screwing up everything they do, day in, day out, never learning, never improving, totally ignorant of how clumsy and helpless they seem to others, and you wonder about the mystery of their existence: how did they ever work themselves into a classroom? And how do they spend their free time? I suspect Dr. No did a good deal of wall-staring when she wasn’t shackled to her computer and reading through celebrity gossip at school—staying an extra hour late, even when no one else was there, just to seem like she was working hard.
She was one of these proverbial feckless people.
One day, we’re in the classroom together, and she gives a completely bogus pronunciation of some random word, I can’t even remember what it was, but foreigners who’ve lived in Korea for a few months probably recognize that Koreans who haven’t spent any time learning English abroad usually have the most ridiculous accents; sandwhichee, languajee, Englishee, etc., etc. Dr. No traveled outside of Korea as a child but had never left during her adult life; this resulted in a rather ducklike face that expressed the most unbounded provincialism. You would recognize something in common if you took a picture of her (without ruining your camera) and then placed that picture next to the chicken-eyes of Sarah Palin.
So she mispronounces this word. Whereupon I break out the Korean. I interrupt her like a total asshole, or maybe I waited until she was finished, I don’t remember, and I said this word (zoo is pretty famous for often coming out of Korean mouths as “Jew”, so let’s say she mispronounced zoo) in an American accent, and then in a Korean accent. “Meegook satoli—zoo. Hangook satoli—Jew.” The kids laughed. But Dr. No was enraged. She spat out some acidic skin-eating venom on my face, and stormed off, leaving me rather confused and bewildered; I apologized to her immediately, because even though I despise her and don’t think she has any business in an English classroom, let alone a hot dog stand, I still wouldn’t actually purposefully make fun of her in front of her own students. I did, however, constantly make fun of her behind her back, here on this blog and to anyone who would listen.
But I had still crossed the face threshold. My wife explained it to me later. Dr. No lost her face in front of the kids. A bone of contention between Dr. No and I was the woman’s age superiority over me: although she was completely incompetent, she was born several years before me, which means that I must obey her at all times and never contradict her, especially in front of others. Of course I frequently did the opposite of that, and caused a bit of tension, as a result. And then for a younger person to correct an older person in front of lots of other people is a huge no-no: I might as well have gotten it over with, and just pissed in her face instead. Laughter from a classroom full of children added insult to injury; an extra sting to that stream of green urethric discharge.
It has happened elsewhere as well. During yet another bogus teaching session here in education-krazy Korea, I was forced to sit through six hours of utter lunacy while supposedly being “trained” via skype by a random guy who works for one of the larger hagwon (cram school) chains in the country; because the hagwon is large, they want you to treat your students like robots, and teach them so that they can pass a multiple-choice test, which the hagwon itself administers.
During this session (spent in the cybernetic company of several other extremely bored, frustrated, yet competent foreigners, each with years of experience) our trainer, whom I believe got this job as a result of being fully bilingual in Korean and English, told us that we cannot ask anyone in our classes (which are typically full of grown men)—“Do you know what ___ means?” because that assumes a lack of knowledge, and we cannot insult our students by assuming that they are less intelligent than we are; instead we should ask “What does ____ mean?” If these older men don’t know, and screw things up in front of others, they lose their faces—the world ends, the ark of the covenant opens up, and blood starts pouring out of their melting eyeballs. Faces: gone.
Sorry about the mess.
One more thing. I’m still continuing to enjoy the company of my adult business English students at a certain shipping company here in Busan, but a few of them have not been so good about showing up, and I suspect that loss of face is part of the reason.
Despite being sensible to the cultural differences between America and Korea, I will still not hesitate to correct a student when he or she is wrong; and this, I suspect, is part of the reason why Koreans are generally so shy in the classroom—if they don’t speak, there’s no risk of being corrected and thus losing face. There’s a popular saying here about the nail that sticks out getting hammered down harder, or something—but no one would say such a thing in America, where everyone sticks out like a fat, sore, obese, corpulent, cholesterol-clogged, that-man-is-a-walking-heart-attack, thumb.
Indeed, Americans will blab their heads off in class like pez dispensers, regardless of how stupid they look in front of everyone. And oddly enough as a result of these oppositional approaches to learning, both countries are full of people who cannot speak more than one language; the difference is that Koreans are obsessed with learning English, while Americans are more concerned with things like eating and making themselves disgustingly overweight in preparation for winter and summer hibernation.
So perhaps America has this excuse: it doesn’t care. But Korea cares a lot; it just needs to get over this losing face thing if it wants to learn, because you cannot learn anything without constantly making mistakes, and often in front of your betters.
Anyway, one of the guys in this class, a less-likeable froglike character who hinted that he enjoys the company of prostitutes and also stated rather boldly that one day he wants to be the CEO of the company—this guy’s English needs a lot of work, he doesn’t really care about the class, and he hasn’t shown up for a few weeks, and I suspect it’s because I wounded his pride by correcting him in front of his lesser sararimen (some of whom are fluent) a little too often.
Ah well. That’s life.