Even if you know you are right, life can stingI have always prided myself on being able to speak Korean better than most of my Korean-American friends back home in New York. But the three weeks I have been in Seoul have been a whirlwind of rude awakenings that have shown me that the Korean language has far greater cultural implications than I could have ever realized living in the United States.
Koreans are very role-oriented people. The language is suggestive of this, with its countless titles to delineate everyone’s relationship to everybody else. When speaking to someone older, or someone you just met, addressing them by their name would be a sign of disrespect. Instead, some kind of title indicating their position, like eonni, or “older sister,” is better. Whether you should use formal, semi-formal or informal forms of speech is also determined by how well you know the person and your relationship to them. Annyoung is the informal way of saying “hello” to friends or people you are meeting for the first time in an informal setting. If you are meeting someone for the first time in a more formal situation, annyoung hasaeyo is the appropriate greeting.
My first weekend in Seoul will remain branded in my memory as the most oddly traumatic experience of my life. My cousin, who is a couple of years older than I, insisted on taking me out on the town with his friends. As we approached a table in the corner of the bar, two of my cousin’s female friends, slouched in their seats, scrutinized me from head to toe with narrowed eyes. I smiled awkwardly and said, “Eonni, annyoung.” They stared at me with horror, then at my cousin, asking him, “Didn’t you teach her how to greet someone properly?”
I thought that since they were my cousin’s friends, and around my age, I did not need to be so formal. Their progressively rude behavior told me that they felt I needed to show more respect to my elders. Eventually, my cousin left the bar, furious, dragging me out with him. He later told me that their behavior was unacceptable and was no longer common in Korea, especially among younger people.
Nevertheless, the incident left me scathed and a little confused about why people would place so much emphasis on rank in a casual social setting. It also made me angry that they had mistreated me. Maybe it is the American in me, but I feel that respect is something that must be earned, not something to be given on the basis of age.
by Stella Lee
Ms. Lee is an intern at the JoongAng Daily.