Something happens every morning and it unnerves me. Not that it happens to me every morning, but the idea that it's happening at all is vaguely unsettling. I'm referring here to what I call "the gauntlet." Every morning at 10:00 AM, when Korean department stores and supermarkets open, the sales staff line up at their positions within the store in order to greet the first customers of the day. As you walk through the store, these folks bow to you and then scurry off to their fishmongering, gimchi-making or trying to sell me women's cosmetic items. This whole production includes two parallel lines of middle-aged women at the front doors who bow to you and through which you have to walk if you want to get into the store.
For me, this is all too reminiscent of my days as a third-string, seventh grade football player. During practice the coaches would toss us a ball and we'd have to run through two collapsing lines of defensive lineman whose only goal in life was to not get their asses sent back to the McLaren School for Juvenile Reprobates. The coaches called this The Gauntlet and it used to scare the wholehearted hell of out me, which might explain why I've yet to become comfortable with people bowing to me.
One spring morning in Seoul, I tried to avoid going through all this by walking behind the bowing women. I might as well have been wearing a giant chicken suit as confused as these women looked. They all tried simultaneously bowing to me and to the customers who were behaving themselves and it just threw their whole respectful charade into a very un-Korean disorder.
I use the word 'charade' here because Korea, not unlike other countries, is obsessed with the notion of superficial courtesy. The Korean language is nothing if not hierarchical and one must change their verb endings depending on the level of respect demanded by the person they're addressing. Naturally this doesn't mean that you actually respect the person - you might, in fact, think he's a proper jackass - but somehow you can't let him know this.
Of course, none of us is so naive as to think that these polite words will translate into actions with any regularity. The same people calling me 'Aaron-ssi' or 'Aaron-nim' (essentially, Mr. Aaron) seem always to be the first ones to push right through to the front of the same line in which I happen to be standing (there's an absolute oblivion to the idea of queues here, but that's another rant entirely). At these times, the old adage 'actions speak louder than words' often comes to mind, but I can't think about it for too long because I usually have to elbow a pissy old geriatric out of the way so I can actually accomplish whatever it was I came to do.
Those of you reading this are no doubt thinking, "but, Aaron, don't we cloak our words in these empty formalities in every country? Does the American shopkeeper really mean it when he says, 'have a nice day?' Aren't humans, at their basic DNA level, just a pack of insincere toads?" And you're right, of course, every society has cultural mores very similar to those of Korea, but Korea sets itself apart in its noticeable lack of anything outside spoken courtesy. No one holds doors for those behind them. People push into the subway before anyone can get off. Drivers seem to live for plowing pedestrians in intersections or on sidewalks. People feel entitled to act rudely toward anyone younger than them or who might not have an 'equal' job to theirs. And the list goes on. I don't want to suggest that Koreans are a rude, mean-spirited lot, but for all their obsession with polite speech, one would think it might flow over into everyday life a bit more.
I'd like to think that I respect people not because of their age or their position in the world but rather because, if pressed, I'd admit that anyone taking up space on the earth deserves at least a modicum of respect. If I don't know that person, though, they certainly deserve neither more nor less respect than the next person. If you're Nelson Mandela, I might change my verb endings, but otherwise, I couldn't care less if you're the CEO of the Chia Pet empire or the man who hauls away my garbage.