Source: Jason Teale Photography
As much as I complain about Korea, there are some things that bring a smile to my face. I guess one of the biggies would be the brotherhood (or fraternité) I've observed and felt here.
Koreans are one of the most adamantly exclusive ethnicities I've ever encountered. There are some cons to this, naturally: perhaps stronger racism than other groups, a ridiculous amount of pride and nationalism, and also a higher than average rate of deformities/handicapped folks due to a smaller and less diverse gene pool.
However, the flip side of this staunch ethnic "solidarity" or whatever you may choose to call it, is that many Koreans consider each other and act as though they were all "family." This contributes to what I sense is rudeness on the street and subway (being bumped into and never apologized to). But it also has some nicer effects.
1. Seated passengers holding standing passengers' bags and parcels. I had never seen this in America but read about it in About Korea guides. Be it the subway or bus, I've seen people who are seated grab at standing people's bags and belongings. This is not theft but rather an offer to ease the discomfort of a standing person carrying heavy items.
The first time this happened to me I was pleasantly surprised. It was my 2nd day going to the pool and I was carrying 2 heavy bags: my usual schoolbag with books and such and my duffel bag with all my toiletries (shampoo and other heavy things included) that I was bringing to put into my pool locker. The elderly gentleman sitting in front of where I stood motioned to me to give him my bags. I hadn't been expecting it but I was glad he did, after a full day of teaching, those bags were so heavy and the bus ride is about 20 minutes on a quick day.
2. This second event happened today and it brought a smile to my face (in a good way). After swimming I was in the locker room shower. The showers at my pool are just a longish rectangular shaped room with showerheads and mirrors every 3 feet or so. There are no curtains or other barriers between people in there. Just the showerheads and the drains.
Anyway, today it was me and a group of 3 little girls (def elementary school-aged). One of the girls walks over to me and politely requests that I please untangle her hairtie from her hair. Apparently she had tried to do it herself and it had gotten horribly tangled. I obliged and told her it might hurt a bit but don't worry I'd get it out. It took about a minute or two and after I had finished she turned and politely thanked me. And as she walked back to her friends I smiled because this was a nice little encounter that I can't really imagine something like this happening in America.
First of all, America's crazy about child sexual predators and abuse and all that and even if such a request were made of me, I'd be nervous about being SEEN helping a naked little girl. I had not really thought about how conscious America is about physical contact between "adults" (I still don't feel like one) and children until my freshman year of college.
I was in an early childhood ed. course where we all interned at various infant and child centers. One of the only boys mentioned during one class that he is VERY careful about his interactions with the children because they climb all over him and want to sit in his lap and give him hugs but he's wary of how the other (female) workers at the center would watch him. This was true, I had never confronted this but he said that people are often suspicious of males who are interested in young children.
Anyway, this event along with the whole priest-sexual abuse scandals heightened my awareness of adult and minor relations in America. As the head coordinator person of our church's youth group, my mom even had to attend and consequently run "Protecting God's Children" seminars to educate and train EVERY and ANYone over 18 working with the youth at our church (this included the PTA parents and the college-aged counselors). This only increased my sensitivity to the delicate matter of adult-minor relations.
So coming from this very cautious background where I've heard stories from friends during their "student teacher" period having to watch little things like ruffling students' hair and giving hugs to crying/injured students, what happened today was kindof heartwarming. It was like a nod to the safe world of yesteryear shown in TV shows like "The Wonder Years" and "Leave it to Beaver" where your neighborhood and community FELT like one and people trusted each other.
This small gesture by a little girl who needed help made me realize that despite it's flaws as a tiny country inhabited by a very strongly defined ethnic group, there is a degree of (default) trust here that I have rarely witnessed in America. I am often surprised by the little displays of trust that I see here everyday. And although it does seem as though this trust is a bit on the decline as urbanization and development chip away at the old community feel, it's nice to know that it's still alive and kicking.
National unity and pride is thrust upon them while they're still young.