A Welcome Of The Most Korean Kind

Thursday, July 29, 2010

South Korea, my Asian home away from home where I experienced my first living abroad experiment, is an anomaly of sorts, really. There are aspects of the culture I will never comprehend, nor should I. There are things in which I tilt my head in confusion, which is fine. There are things I embrace and wish the world would adopt, which it should.

Perhaps encapsulating all three of these at once, I read a recent article at The New Zealand Herald that sent me spiraling back to my first days in the “Land of the Morning Calm.” The article is titled, “A warm welcome without words,” and it couldn’t be more accurate.

Those that have spent any time in Korea know that it takes a little while for the locals to achieve a comfort and confidence level to put themselves out on a limb using their English. Let’s be perfectly honest about a couple things. One: Because of my one year of teaching elementary English in the rice farming community of Yeoju, the entire population of town is totally and completely fluent. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, though. Two: The Korean language is not quite yet a global dialect.

So, when the author’s first meal on a long layover in Seoul — a pantomimed conversation that ended up with a small keg of beer and some fried chicken parts (they tried to order small beers and French fries) — isn’t that unusual, what was unusual, especially for such a large city, was the pride and excitement that was evident by their arrival.

In this part of the city clearly we have novelty value. She finds us a table on the terrace and she smiles encouragingly. There is an almost complete language barrier . . . two of our fellow drinkers walk up and stop to welcome us to Korea and congratulate us on our choice of meal.

Where else do you know, in a city of over twelve million, are you “novelty” enough to be approached by two patrons simply to welcome you, let alone congratulate you, on your choice of food?

That brings me back to those memories of the first night in Korea. My teaching staff took me out for BBQ, too much soju (Korean rice liquor similar to vodka), and even more karaoke. I’m sure there were less than a dozen English words spoken the entire night. The crowd erupted into applause at my chopsticking abilities. I was pantomimed directions on proper eating and drinking etiquette, and even instructed on how to No Rae Bang (singing room). By the end of the night, there were hugs all around, and more laughing than I remember ever having in one night. I knew, instantly, this was a place I would enjoy.

And everyone knew the words to the song Kung-Fu Fighting. That sealed the deal.

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