[Outlook] Image of a nation

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[Outlook] Image of a nation

‘Is it true that Koreans do not say ‘sorry’ when they bump into you on the street?” The other day a friend of mine who is French asked me this question with his eyes wide open in surprise and disbelief. He said he was surprised to read about the custom in a guidebook about Korea. I asked him for the title of the book, found it in a bookstore downtown and read it. The book was written for French people who are planning trips to Korea; in it, there was a section on what one should do and shouldn’t do while here.

The book stated: “When Koreans bump into people on the street, no one apologizes. They don’t say they’re sorry even when they step on your foot.” The book advises the reader not to be upset when this happens. It went on to say that Koreans hardly say “thank you.” I felt unhappy because the book described us as being almost uncivilized.

But as I thought about my experiences on the streets of Seoul, I changed my mind. When walking down the street, people’s shoulders often bump into mine. But I hardly remember anyone saying, “I’m sorry.” Few people hold doors open for those that follow. When I hold the door for those behind me, few people say “thanks.” Therefore it makes sense that the guidebook would inform travelers of these “street manners” so that travelers do not feel offended when these things happen to them.

In Europe, people almost never bump into one another on the street. The act, even when it happens accidentally, is regarded as rude so people walk carefully so as not to push or bump into other people. Even when two people come close to bumping into each other, they simultaneously say, “I’m sorry.” It is almost like a rule society has set for itself so that everyone can live pleasantly. There are many rules of this type in Europe and citizens generally heed them well, which still comes as a surprise to me.

Last year, I went to the train station in Paris to pick up a guest. The train he was aboard was scheduled to arrive at 11:30 p.m., but due to the summer heat the rails stretched, delaying the train by more than three hours. It finally arrived at 3 a.m. the next morning, but by then there were around 100 people waiting at the station and some 1,000 passengers. Not a single person among them yelled at or complained to the company. In silence, each passenger received an envelope with a stamp on it from the station staff. The announcement over the loudspeakers said that if they sent their tickets to the railway company they would get a discount the next time they purchased a ticket.

It was hard to believe, especially for a person from a country where people take railway staff by the collar or commit acts of vandalism when a train is delayed and people protest at an airport when airplanes are grounded because of a heavy snowstorm. In Europe, the French are often regarded as impatient people who lose their tempers all too easily. But at the railway station that night, everyone calmly abided by the rules and maintained order. I realized that this was what made their country an advanced one in the truest sense.

The Korean government has been promoting the slogan “Thoughtful Koreans, beloved Korea” to improve the image of our country. But it doesn’t seem that the government’s having devised a slogan will suddenly better the image of our country. Will a foreigner who never hears “sorry” after having his or her foot stepped on think of Koreans as thoughtful and Korea a lovable country? The image of a country is formed by how every single person in that country behaves.

*The writer is the Paris correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Jeon Jin-bae
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