Marriage Prep"Stop giggling!” ordered the older woman to the students. “You should never giggle when you’re drinking tea.”
The students, all young, unmarried women dressed in a palette of hanbok, are learning the proper posture for sipping tea. Their teacher, Kang Young-sook, a 50ish woman in a navy blue dress, is president of Ye Ji Won Cultural Institute, near central Seoul.
Many of the students, clueless about the details of Korean etiquette, and how to behave around a spouse, are holding their tea cups as if they were beer mugs. Snickering at their mistakes, several students raise their hands to cover their smiles.
“You should always wear a slight smile, but don’t laugh out loud or show a smile that stretches from ear to ear,” Ms. Kang goes on. “That’s simply bad manners.”
As the students work to correct their grips, Ms. Kang peers at them like a hawk swirling above prey. With a gentle voice, she points to a girl and tells the student to pull back in an extended pinkie.
On this particular Monday morning, approximately 25 students, in their 20s and 30s, are beginning the institute’s three month gyusoo or “maiden” course, targeted for single females.
The institute offers two of these courses yearly -- in the spring and the fall -- and each costs 500,000 won ($398).
The maiden course, which consists of three classes per week, concentrates on decorum and other fundamentals the institute feels necessary for a happy marriage.
“These girls are learning more than just good manners,” says Ms. Kang during a break. “They are learning how to familiarize themselves with family customs that they have to deal with once they get married. Marriage is not a union between two complete strangers. It also includes an entire new family.”
Ms. Kang says a lot of newly married women confess to suffering from the stress of adapting to a different family’s customs. For instance, a new wife might want her husband to turn his socks inside out when she gives them to her to wash. She’ll complain and he might say, “But that’s not the way I’ve been doing it for the last 20 years.”
Ms. Kang says her job is to help the young women understand the art of compromise. In other words: Wash the socks his way.
How best to get along with a mother-in-law? Uphold her, instructs Ms. Kang. Treat her better than your own mother.
The institute opened in September 1974. “It was a period when our country’s economy was beginning to bloom,” recalls Ms. Kang. At the time she was working as a commentator for MBC-TV.
“When I was in the broadcast business, I saw our culture deteriorating,” says Ms. Kang. “While the country was improving in many ways, people were losing their sense of good manners.”
Ms. Kang was determined to bring back comportment and breeding that had been in practice in Korea for centuries.
She began by teaching wives of prominent people, hoping that would trickle down to the general public and start a better-etiquette movement. Since 1974, more than 300,000 students have taken classes at the institute.
As times have changed, so has the family system in Korea. Fewer extended Korean families live under the same roofs with one or more sets of in-laws. The modern family has been simplified and more and more parents and grandparents now live separately, no longer dependent on their children or grandchildren.
To many young Korean women on career fast tracks, the institute seems passe and out-of-date. They often ask, “Is respecting the older forms of etiquette necessary?”
In a society that is growing more and more feminist, some young Korean women show a strong dislike for courses that emphasize submission to elders and a docile attitude.
“I would never pay anyone to teach me manners,” snaps Park Min-sun, a 27 year-old unmarried music teacher with no interest in attending the institute. “I think the idea of learning manners is just ridiculous.”
Ms. Kang says good manners are not all about how you appear in public. She says a person will grow like a weed if she is left unattended. To be attended to brings a growth in good manners, which dictate a pleasant personality.
A person with good manners is someone who can lead the 21st century, suggests Ms. Kang. “The time of appointing a person just on their educational background is over. Technology is now so advanced that we now look more into a person’s personality.”
“Good manners helps people feel happy, too,” says Ms. Kang -- with a slight smile.
Ms. Kang says that the institute’s way of applying manners to daily life is changing according to the times. “We’re not people who only insist on manners that fit olden times. There’s a form of manners for every period and lifestyle.”
But basic politeness never changes, she says. For example, the institute believes that when you come to a cushion on the floor, you don’t step on the cushion. Rather, you kneel on it.
The institute says that women must never apply makeup after a meal in front of other people.
And that women must never put a purse on a table (It’s a sign of wanting to leave).
The students at the institute not only learn how to drink tea, but also learn how to serve tea. They gain various cooking skills, design traditional ornaments and home interiors, master ironing and how to dress. They study marriage psychology, pre-natal training, conversational techniques (“When you’re on a date, never show off”) and knowledge of jewelry (“Never wear pearls with jeans”).
“At first it was my father who suggested that I take a class here,” says Cho Joo-yeon, 32. “I’ve learned a lot of theoretical things, but the class is only one-third over. Still, I’ve learned things you can’t learn in college.”
Park Hee-yun, 24, and Sung Young-joo, 27, agree that since taking classes at the institute their manners have dramatically changed.
“I’m supposed to get married this October, and after taking this course I’m feeling more love from my future in-laws,” says Ms. Park. “In the past, I really didn’t know what they thought about me.”
Ms. Sung says it was her mother who suggested that she take the class. “I lived in the United States for seven years and each time a Westerner asked me about Korean traditional customs and manners, I would hesitate answering. I really had no idea what to tell them. Now I do.”
“When women first come in, all of them have strong individual traits, which is good,” says Jung Young-soon, a teacher at the institute. “Their attitudes slowly change and they become properly adjusted. By the time they finish the course, they have two great traits -- strong individualism and a mild manner.”
by Lee Ho-jeong