Name game: A cultural epiphany at a skate shopWhenever I went to Knox Church in downtown Toronto last year I used to get butterflies in my stomach.
I could see lots of familiar faces and make plenty of new friends during the refreshment breaks. And, I was amazed that those Canadians could remember each other’s names without any honorifics.
In Korea, a title reflects a person’s age, profession or some other measure of social position. To call someone simply by his name can be a sign of intimacy or it can show disrespect. If someone is older or has a higher position, then I would always attach a title to the name. It’s the polite thing to do.
But in Canada, I learned, formality can sometimes come across as coldness.
I’d get nervous each time someone I had met at church would approach me and start a conversation. “Gloria, how are you doing?” one might ask.
Sometimes, I wasn’t sure how to respond. It was a challenge, not only because I was uncomfortable with informality, but it was simply hard to remember all those names. For the first couple of months my mantra was: “I’m sorry. I have a short memory. Would you tell me your name once again?”
Eventually I found it easier to remember my Canadian friends’ names. But sometimes it was still confusing.
In the winter, a Canadian friend and I went to a hockey shop to get our skate blades sharpened. The clerk was very polite and helpful, which is why I was shocked when my friend abruptly asked him, “Say, what’s your name?” I could feel my cheeks turning red. It was so embarrassing. To me, a customer would only ask for a clerk’s name if he wanted to complain about the service. The man who sharpened our skates had been friendly and attentive. Why would my friend want to complain?
“Philip,” came the clerk’s reply. Then my friend smiled and said, “Thanks a lot, Philip.” It was like an epiphany for me.
In that instant I understood a major difference between Korean and Western culture. It reminded me of “Flower,” a poem by Kim Chun-su: Until I spoke his name,/ he had been/ no more than a mere gesture./ When I spoke his name,/ he came to me/ and became a flower./ Now speak my name,/ one fitting this color and odor of mine,/ as I spoke his name,/ so that I may go to him/ and become his flower./ We all wish/ to become something./ You to me and I to you/ wish to become an unforgettable gaze.
by Cha Bok-hee