Learning by taking time to slow downHaving been born in Korea, but not bred here, I have always had a slightly different perspective on the things that other Koreans do. It was always easy to spot the differences that separated me from them, like the way they dress or their taste in men. While I am good at surveying the hills and valleys of the landscape, what lies beneath is the unknown.
For instance, I see how Koreans tend to rush around as if it were the national sport. But why are they always in a hurry?
I might have discoverd the answer the other night during a trip home on the subway. Sleepily flipping the pages of yet another Cosmo, I was surprised to suddenly hear the sound of a saxophone blaring from the middle of the car. A foreign man dressed as a Buddhist monk was playing for the passengers, and a Korean hippie woman smiled as she walked around, holding out her hat for donations. Unlike the usual subway alms-seekers who trudge from car to car with a tapedeck playing a monotonous Christian anthem, this couple actually had a gimmick. But I was the only one taking notice; the other passengers were just annoyed.
The duo and I changed trains at the same station. The scene at the train doors resembled a rugby scrum, and I watched the befuddled pair with the huge sax struggle through the jostling crowd. Finally they broke free, and, with a good-natured laugh, said in unison, “How typical of Koreans.”
A little hurt by this, I said, “I apologize for the rudeness there, but you have to understand this is a busy station during rush hour.”
“Oh, but no!” cried the man, in a charming French accent. “Koreans are like this everywhere. But we understand.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” the woman smiled and replied, this time in Korean, “they just don’t have the reserve for anything.”
I was stunned. “What do you mean by anything?” I asked.
“Anything important!” she called out as she and the monkish-looking man hopped on the next train.
Despite the brevity (and weirdness) of our exchange, I actually learned something. Koreans are lacking reserve, or “yeoyu.” That is why they stampede through life, cursing anything that gets in their way. The couple had picked up on that. The fact that I had not made me wonder: Do I need to take it easy and show a little reserve myself?
by Kim Hyun-jung
Ms. Kim attends Seoul National University.