There’s a lot to be said for the little things in life. Your child’s breath on your neck. Candlelight. Fresh tomatoes. A clear blue sky. Here’s one I took for granted before I came to Korea: walking “to the right” in any given walking situation. Foot traffic runs pretty smoothly at home – in the mall, on the sidewalks, in a hallway…here, not so much. There simply is no rule for slipping naturally one way or the other when you meet someone coming in the opposite direction. In fact, even if one person does veer one way, a Korean person coming the other will not read or recognize, or care?, that you are doing so and will very often just stay in that path as well, until you are basically on top of each other trying to do a pretzel maneuver to pass by. At home, if one person isn’t paying particular attention (say, they’re texting) and isn’t “to the right,” the other, who is paying attention, makes the choice to go left a solid 6 feet before meeting the other. Here, no. The decision is up in the air until you have to basically slink by each other like snakes on a plane.
I’m getting used to it. Personal space is tiny in Korea. Women of all ages hold hands here a lot, as they shop or walk along a street, head to head, quietly talking. At first, I thought there were a lot of same sex couples. Incorrect! Couples don’t necessarily hold hands or link arms…couples dress alike. They wear matching sweatshirts or jackets, so there is no mistake who “belongs” to whom. Hand holding and arm wrapping is for friends, but color and style coordination is something very special.
Another thing that takes getting used to: teenage boys can often be seen with their arms (or entire bodies) draped over one another. Way more so than the girls, boys show their affection for their friends outwardly. They sit on each others’ laps, rub each others’ backs and are generally very caring toward one another. It is very sweet, to tell the truth. The culture at home strictly forbids this type of show of emotion. When asked his thoughts about it, Garrett said “yeah, it’s different. But it’s no big deal.”
Personal space on a bus: non-existent. As I’ve mentioned before, children are invited to sit in the laps of perfect strangers. Also, on a particularly bouncy and jarring ride, people just grab onto you if you have a sturdier girth than they do. It’s a kind of survival love hug. Which is fine, unless that person is a smoker, or has made kimchi recently. Then you kind of wish they’d keep their distance.
Standing in line: no space there either. People push forward into the back of you, as if you have a choice about how fast the line is moving, or can make a cashier hurry the hell up. And here’s where that darn language barrier is a challenge. You want to say something, like maybe “dude, chill,” but you can’t. So you do that stupid half smile thing you do when the words won’t come. Which seems to please people in line, somehow, apparently giving them the go-ahead to then rifle through the items in your shopping basket, babbling along and laughing at what you are buying. Strange but true.
One last thing on personal space. Korean people do not generally eat with their hands, viewing it as unsanitary. However, they do share communal bowls and plates at meals, using individual forks and spoons to either serve themselves or just eat directly off said plates. In essence, you are then sharing spit with whoever is sitting near enough to you to be sharing the dishes. But. White face masks (yes, a la Michael Jackson) are frequently worn by people feeling a bit under the weather, or who deem they’re in a space where someone else near them might feel under the weather. And god forbid we share germs then! It’s a conundrum – but again, I’m getting used to it. For the most part, because we are foreigners, mistakes we make are forgiven immediately. Some cultural differences are so small as to more accurately be called nuances. You don’t even know it’s part of your culture until someone does it differently, and you think really? Did you just use your fork in those noodles I planned to eat?
I know I come from a different culture, but that one kind of grosses me out. Just sayin.