Memorial-Gate: A Tale of Cultural Yardsticks and the Paradox of Being Foreign

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A month or so ago we came into work to learn that our principal’s wife had passed away after a long illness. It was mentioned that we might like to give condolences. This was the extent of communication on the matter, until my boss arrived to say we’d be leaving in half an hour, and I looked up to see that everyone in my office had changed into black suits. In keeping with the arrival of Spring that morning, I was wearing a floral tea dress. When, panicked, I expressed that perhaps this wasn’t the most appropriate attire, one teacher piped up: ‘It’s OK – you’re not Korean.’

I feel like this situation neatly demonstrates a particularly thorny thorn in the side of foreigners in Korea. On some levels, we are expected to assimilate unquestioningly with the group. This explains what would, in the UK, be considered a phenomenally poor chain of communication: it was simply taken for granted that everyone would go and there was therefore no need for me to know such small details as the fact that ‘giving condolences’ meant ‘going to a memorial service’, that it was today, located an hour’s drive away, and required appropriate clothing as well as arrangements for transport home. Simultaneously, however, we are seen as entirely other to the group. So other, in fact, that it does not matter if we rock up to a memorial for our boss’ wife looking like we stopped in on the way to the Henley Regatta.

An extra strand to this is that it did not cross my colleagues’ minds that showing my respect in the appropriate manner would be a matter of personal importance: in a society where group opinion and surface appearances trump individual will and genuine intention hands down, they simply did not understand why my appearance causing a grieving family I had never met to think ‘she clearly doesn’t know how to dress but we’ll let her off cos of being foreign’ would not constitute enough reassurance to put my scruples to bed. It was also entirely normal that it was the Japanese teacher trying to reassure me: she and the Chinese teachers – also foreign, but crucially Korean-looking enough to draw criticism if inappropriately attired – had all got the memo.

At this point, I felt, there was no right thing to do. However, trusting that my colleagues were right and the family would only think I was horribly ignorant rather than utterly disrespectful, was, I decided, a marginally better option than not turning up at all. I went, paid my respects, had my tea dress and foreign-ness scrutinized, and came home to a dark room and an entire pack of Choco Pies.

My highly productive and measured initial reaction to all this was one of mortified frustration-rage. By every yardstick of my culture, I had been monumentally snubbed with nauseating consequences. The rational side of my brain railed valiantly against this, pointing out that the situation was the result of an extreme and unfortunate convergence of factors I had known about before I left home; that my reaction could have no positive outcome; that no-one, even utter baddies, goes about monumentally snubbing people in this kind of context for no good reason. What had living far from home for so long taught me, Rational Brain argued, if not that the experience essentially constitutes a series of leaps of blind faith that such snubbing is not occurring, in spite of the chorus of cultural yardsticks screaming otherwise? Trouble is, some of these cultural yardsticks are so deeply stuck into our minds that we don’t even know that’s what they are – we think of them as solid markers of fundamental truths rather than permeable ideas subject to interpretation. For this reason, it took a while to really process and understand Memorial-Gate. Even now, although it’s something I can understand academically, I feel it (and my reaction to it) has changed my working relationships fundamentally which has been sad at times. In the next few posts I’m going to look a little more closely at some of the deep-set cultural differences between the UK and Korea which cause situations like these: please feel free to leave me your comments, and/or your experiences with such things.
Wanderings and Ramblings of an ESL teacher currently based in a tiny mountain town near the North Korean border.


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