This post comes from my friend Josh Akonom. We attended orientation together at Jeonju. He was kind enough to share some of his experiences with you, so I hope you’ll take a minute and check out his blog, www.leaponover.com. Enjoy.
Etiquette In Korea
Upon moving toKoreaI paid a lot of attention to the different etiquette and traditions in place because I have the goal of assimilating into the culture as thoroughly as possible. I read several sites that talked about dining etiquette, greeting etiquette, street etiquette and the like. I also received a lot of information at the EPIK orientation atJeonjuUniversity.
So I walked into my first day at my new school with several main goals in mind. I would definitely bow first, shaking hands would be done if offered by the person I was meeting. If I did shake hands I would make sure that my other hand was on my waist as a display of politeness. I would make sure that if I was on the subway, bus etc. that I would give up my seat to the elderly if need be. I would make sure that I took my shoes off when I was in someone’s home or at the main areas of the school. I would always let the eldest person at the table begin eating and drinking first before doing so myself. I would not pour my own drink. I would offer two hands when giving or receiving something rather than one. I thought I was pretty equipped for at least being perceived as a foreigner who was trying.
I met my coteacher on day one and he immediately offered a hand shake and not much of a bow. No problem, that’s what I know and it was simple. When he introduced me to the principal it was the same thing with a small bow in the beginning. Great! This is easier than I expected. Apparently my first snafu came in meeting the head teacher. The greeting was only a bow which I believe I handled fine. We were then seated at a comfortable couch and after a moment or two of them talking the phone rang and he went to answer it. I have long legs and sore knees so I crossed my legs to make them a little bit more comfortable. My coteacher tapped me friendly on the leg and told me that Koreans don’t do this, it is a sign of disrespect. It was a great little constructive tip and not done in an embarrassing manner. The head teacher was on the phone and it was perfect timing to clue me in on this new tidbit of information. I still felt pretty confident that I was on the right track.
My coteacher then showed me my rather large and spacious apartment and the building manager met us there. They were walking around showing me different thing and there was literally a pair of plastic sandals there for every room. He was using them and I was just walking around in shoes because there was really nothing else there and it didn’t appear that we were staying there long. Well, he eventually told me that if I was in someone else’s home I should make sure to take my shoes off. I was totally prepared to do that when the time came. I am getting rid of all those plastic sandals though. I’ve had athlete’s foot and it is not an enjoyable experience. The school, however, seems to throw all those rules out the window. Only students don’t wear shoes in the classrooms but the rest of the time they do. All the teachers wear their shoes. I actually brought a pair of school shoes with me and I am one of the few people who use them. I’m pretty proud of myself because I do not appear to be odd by doing it because Koreans are used to that, and I almost feel a bit special because I am one of the few teachers doing it.
The first teacher dinner was where things got a little interesting. The English Department at my school is composed of seven teachers. We all went out to a classy beef restaurant in Iksan where they serve you the meat raw and you cook it on burners in front of you. You also sit on the floor. There was a wide array of dishes to choose from on the table, but it was family style so everyone shared. I was immediately taken aback by this. I was not sure if I should be wiping my spoon or chopsticks before digging in to each dish, or just using utensils I’ve already put in my mouth. That question was quickly answered when people started digging in with their saliva covered utensils. Even the soup and salad! I am not a germaphobe by any means but this was just a tad bit skeevy for me. I stayed away from a lot of the side dishes and would only try them if a teacher asked me to. I had been doing a great job of not pouring my own drink and using two hands when handed or handing something. Nobody else was doing this though. I figured, hey, doesn’t seem necessary; it’s like the sandal thing at work. The first time I don’t use both hands when I was handed something my coteacher said something immediately. Seriously? You aren’t doing it bud! Why do I have to do it! I let it slide though. I’ll just make the habit of doing it, like wearing my sandals.
So I feel pretty confident that I’ve done a decent job of adhering to the social manners that make Koreans tick. I will advise any foreigners that this can go a long way in opening up to meet some friendly Koreans if you ever visit or stay here. I also advise you that if you are friendly with Koreans, it appears they have no problem calling you out if you don’t follow protocol. There is etiquette police everywhere and they are watching. I will let you know next time I get busted.