For cultural mix-ups, a table for one, pleaseThe Koreans have customs different from almost everybody else. Even after two years here, I still feel that I’m always doing something wrong.
It was never worse than when I was freshly arrived, with only two weeks under my belt in a strange, new land. I had been invited to the home of Park Son-young, a Korean teacher at the school where I had recently started working. I arrived with another fellow teacher, Zach from Dallas, and we found Son-young tidying things up as we stood in the doorway.
She stopped in front of a small closet and pulled out what looked like a square-shaped coffee table. She put it on the floor in the center of the room, and said, “I’m sorry I don’t have enough chairs, please have a seat.”
I glanced over at two chairs beside the kitchen table and made a snap decision. Being the well-bred Canadian prairie boy that I am, I politely surrendered the comfortable chairs and plunked myself down on Son-young’s dinner table.
The look on Zach’s face betrayed that something had gone horribly wrong. “Dude, what are you do―,” was all he could get out before Son-young, who’d had her back to us in the kitchen, whirled around to ask what we wanted to eat.
I suppose the sight of me, sitting cross-legged on the dinner table, stupid grin stretching ear to ear, would be enough to throw most Koreans. Son-young, however, seemed to take it particularly hard.
“Oh! Oh-moh!” she shrieked and grabbed the counter for support.
I have a history of not being great at thinking on my feet. And unfortunately, that thought process becomes no clearer when I’m sitting on someone else’s dinner table. I froze, trying to figure out what I’d done.
“Grant, that’s not a chair!” Zach finally burst out. I sprang to my feet and began bowing profusely in Son-young’s direction. She, for her part, appeared to have lost the ability to speak.
The silence was deafening and seemed to last an eternity, until Son-young began laughing uncontrollably. Zach wasn’t far behind, and it was with massive relief that I joined in.
The incident has become a bit of a legend between Son-young and myself. And I’m sure the story of the white man who sat on the table will be told for years to come at her family home in South Gyeongsang province. I’ll gladly accept my small contribution to Park family folklore.
As much as I have to learn when it comes to the Koreans, I can, at the very least, take heart in the progress that’s been made.
by Grant Surridge