12 June 2008

Student Annalog: Humility

One of my primary reasons for spending a year in the Motherland was to improve my Korean. It's been over nine months and I've finally enrolled in a Korean class. I had intended to take a class at one of the big universities in Seoul, but the campuses are just too far from Bundang and my teaching gig consumed more of my time than I had anticipated.

Plus, I'm lazy.

I just started a Korean class at YBM in Kangnam (near Exit 2, surrounded by two Dunkin' Donuts).

No, the irony is not lost on me. The hagwon teacher is now a hagwon pupil.

My listening skills in Korean have naturally progressed as a result of living in Korea, but my speaking skills are still pretty pathetic because I primarily use English with co-workers, relatives, friends, and Piggy.

I'm probably a better fit for the 201 level class, but with my inflated perception of my study abilities, I asked the teacher to let me try out the 301 level. There are three other students in my class. I am most definitely the weakest speaker in my class (though my pronunciation is slightly better than the white dude from Atlanta). The teacher scolded me today for my continual use of English phrases like "Oh, really!?!' and "Oops!" She threatened to level me down, so I've switched to the more Korean sounding "Waaaah," to express surprise. I guess I'll have to use aigoo and aish in lieu of "Oops."

I'm enjoying the class thus far. The teacher is very chatty and will often go off on fascinating tangents. In the process of learning grammar and vocabulary, I've started to learn more about Korean culture.

With the presumption that you're reading my blog because you have some interest in Korea, and not just because I'm so darn tootin' awesome, I've decided to periodically share some of the cultural tidbits that I find most curious.

Without further ado, let us begin today's lesson on HUMILITY.

My sonsaengnim (teacher) recently taught us the following structure:
A/V-(으)ㄹ 뿐만 아니라, N뿐만 아니라 (Not only is the SUBJECT ~A/V, but also...)

The teacher had each of us tell her what we thought of each person in the class. I should note that this was my first day of class, so when she asked my classmates, "Annalog씨가 어때요?" (How is Annalog?/What do you think of Annalog?), there was a bit of an awkward silence.

Finally, one student replied, "Annalog씨가 예쁠 뿐만 아니라 성격이 좋아요." (Not only is she pretty, but she also has a good personality.)

All eyes immediately turned to me as if waiting for some sort of response. I sheepishly replied, "감사합니다." (Thank you.)

The teacher immediately burst out into laughter, then explained that Koreans would normally respond, "아니에요." (No [I'm not]).

Then the teacher proceeded to mock me and imply that I suffer from 공주병 (Princess Sickness), meaning I'm full of myself.

The fact that I said "Thank you" apparently affirmed my belief that I am pretty and have a good personality. (Totally not my intention!)

I always thought that the most appropriate way to respond to a compliment (whether you agreed or not) is to graciously express your appreciation. I used to have great difficulty taking compliments (and still kind of do), so I've had to push myself to simply thank a person for their kind words. Perhaps my discomfort with compliments stems from this Korean notion that individuals must be humble. Now that I think about it, if you were to tell my mother that she raised a good daughter, she would probably reply, "She's a good girl, but she's also lazy and clumsy." My mother's wasn't being critical. She was just being Korean!

The importance of humility also appeared in today's lesson.
If a person says, "여자친구가 예쁘네!" (Your girlfriend's pretty!), the appropriate response would be, "예쁘기는. 보통이야." (Pretty? She's just average).

If you were to say instead, "Heck, yeah! My girlfriend is hot!" you would be seen as arrogant and rude.

Now, you must be thinking, what if my girlfriend is standing right next to me, what should I do? As my teacher explained, it basically comes down to the lesser of two evils rule. Sure, your girlfriend will be offended, but it's better to offend the person with whom you have a closer relationship with.

You could also respond, as Cyndi suggests, by saying, "My girlfriend is not as pretty as yours." Consequently, if the other speaker's girlfriend is fugly, your comment may seem derisive.

Humility probably stems from old school Confucian beliefs, but if Western influence prevails, I'm sure that Koreans will soon be brimming with swagger and hubris. In the mean time, Koreans will just have to resort to backdoor bragging.


Anonymous said...

You ARE pretty and doing just fine in Korea. Just laugh with everyone else and don't take it personally. Hell...today a customer (Korean) didn't understand me in English so I answered her in my "broken" Korean and she was happy that I was (part) Korean and then was disappointed that I didn't speak flueantly. Cest la vie!

Julian Warmington said...

This is a really good post.

I grew up only surrounded by English and was also taught the same as you, to accept compliments with a pseudo-polite graciousness, although it wasn't natural and I still feel uncomfortable with them sometimes, especially coming from fellow expats.

I mean, I realised the other day that the Korean way actually seems more natural... altho maybe that just says something about me... perhaps less about humility than confidence in certain contexts.

Like, for example, Korean language. I've been here for years and still only know real basics. I learned a lot from the small amount you've included here. ... Thanks!

More, please!

Anonymous said...

This is sort of ironic because you would think Asian culture would be more focused on how you said it as opposed to what you said. Asians are supposedly focused on subtlety so I'm somewhat surprised that they would consider you rude when, which I assume, your facial expressions and intonation probably didn't concur with what your verbal agreement.

annalog said...

Glad you enjoyed the post. I think my teacher was trying to be funny by making fun of me. For some reason, I think she thinks I am idiot. Most Koreans understand your intentions if you just say "Thanks" to a compliment, but they will probably rib you for your faux pas. Heng also told me that young people these days don't care how you respond.

Anonymous said...

be careful you may have a new enemy rising...it's your teacher!!!!!!! =D

annalog said...

I think she already dislikes me...:(

Gerry said...

Interesting situation and it's the sort of faux pas that I'd find myself in. Although taught to be humble and politely play down any compliments the Chinese way (Confusionism rearing its head here)it conflicts strongly against the Western culture of accepting compliments graciously.