Thursday, September 29, 2011

Appeared in Newsweek Korea: On Ajummas and Knee-jerks

So... back in June (i'm terrible at writing these kinds of posts on time) I was translated into Korean and featured for the second time in Korean Newsweek Magazine, in the section titled "Seoul Serenade." The article was a riff on this post I wrote a few years ago. So... enjoy it.

Too quick to judge?

Even when expats don’t speak any Korean, some Korean words creep into our vocabularies, especially words that can indicate something specifically Korean.

One example of this is the words “ajumma” and “ajosshi.” The dictionary says “ajumma” and “ajosshi” mean older woman and man, but everybody knows that in different kinds of conversations, those words have extra, added meanings. When my university-age (Korean) female student had a bad experience with an ajumma one day, she came into class looking upset. When I asked, “what’s wrong?” she said the word “ajumma” with a face, and a voice, that told a whole story in one word. We could all imagine the kind of situation that had happened.

These kinds of stereotypes can come to mind for foreigners, too: we also have stories about ajummas and ajeosshis waiting in line, or at the department store, in a drinking neighborhood. Everybody has a story or a joke about those kinds of situations.

I also have an “ajumma story.” I was on the Seoul subway, at a stop. When the doors closed, I heard a commotion: somebody had fallen through the sliding doors as they closed.

An ungenerous thought came into my mind: “It was probably some rude ajumma throwing her purse to catch the train before it goes” -- Koreans and foreigners all know about that stereotype. I thought, “well, if she got caught in the door and fell, and if she got embarrassed, she deserves it for being so pushy and impatient.”

With that righteous attitude, I turned to look more closely, and maybe to feel some ugly satisfaction at seeing the rude ajumma’s embarrassment...

but it wasn’t the scene I imagined. Three people lifted somebody to her feet, but it was a tiny, thin, white-haired grandmother, with her spine curved like a question mark, so old her feet were unsteady, even with three people holding her. Limping on one leg, there’s no chance she could have sprinted, as I imagined, to catch the subway: she had probably been unable to move her slow, uncertain feet quickly and carefully onto the subway car, and tripped and fell as the doors closed.

Immediately I felt ashamed for judging a stranger without even thinking about her situation, without even bothering to see who she was, before deciding, in my mind, that she deserved to fall on the subway. The old lady apologized to the people around her in a low voice, and the strangers helped her sit in one of the end seats of the subway, reserved for seniors.

I thought about my own attitude: it is easy to dehumanize strangers: I don’t know the name or history of the driver who cuts me off in traffic, I don’t know the family situation of the bureaucrat who gives me more paperwork at the city office, and I don’t know the life experiences that led the shouting drunk in the street to make his life choices. Because I don’t know them, it’s easy to have no compassion, and assume the worst about them.

Because of the language barrier, many expats cannot even speak to the Koreans around them as humans, so the tool that can lead to human connection is not always available. Without connection, it’s harder to develop compassion, and it becomes easy to turn someone into a bad guy, or a scapegoat, and forget they are human beings, just like I am.

As I thought about it, I realized that kind of judgement goes in both directions:

Expats in Korea know that not all ajummas act like the ugly stereotype, and most of us also have lovely stories about friendly, warm, hospitable, sweet, and funny older Koreans we have met. In fact, my mother and father in law are a perfect example of a wonderful ajumma and ajeosshi who show all the great virtues of Korea’s older generation.

And if you ask around, many people met a foreigner during a trip, or in a class, or at an event, who was sweet and kind, who made a human connection. But because of language barriers and cultural differences, those connections can be difficult. Some find it easier to build up an image based on a few ugly stories in the newspaper.

 However, it’s unfair for me to take the worst ajumma story I can remember, and use it to judge every ajumma I see (as I did on the subway that day), and it’s unfair to judge the individual expats living on your street, and teaching your children, according to the most shocking story you saw on TV.

I can’t say if one side judges the other side more often, or more harshly: I’m sad to say I’ve seen judgement go in both directions, but that’s not the point, anyway... I CAN try to change myself, and remember to think about the humanity in people who are different than me. I try to do that every day, so that my Seoul is a city of humans, not strangers.

1 comment:

Gisela Verdin said...

Very nice post, I'm a long time reader but not much of a commenter :/

i have this problem with my sister all the time, she easily get upset and take it on people on the street, just last friday she started yelling at the Cab driver because he didn't have change, then ran behind him and throw some coins at the cab O_O ... not her brightest moment, I know the driver was a bit rude but we didn't need a scene like that.. I constantly ask her to think how others feel and to remember those times when she's rude to people for no reason.
I do judge people from time to time, but most of the times try to put on his shoes...

-Gisela V.