The Importance of Being Polite

19 06 2009

Learning the hard way often seems to be the only method from which I am capable of perceiving any discernible lesson. For certain subject matters, I lack the kind of common sense intuition that comes naturally to most. One of the standout incidents examples would be in the area of tact and politeness. My mother spent hours drilling a relentless amount of such lessons into what has proved to be a very unreceptive brain. She apologizes for this profusely to any women I date and stresses that she tried, really she did.

soju

What is Soju made of? As it costs about a dollar a bottle, I'm gonna say it's chemically synthesized.

Korea then, presented an interesting challenge. How would I fare with my prospective employers considering I now had two barriers to scale, that of my own lack and that of geographic displacement? Asians, presented in the stereotype of the American mind as formal and stiff, might find my more casual attitude lacking in propriety. I discovered Koreans to defy this categorizing and instead presented themselves as an effusive and warm people, given the proper environment. This small story details one such situation and the lessons in Korean mannerism which I gleaned from the experience.

Two weeks into my new career as a molder of young minds, our boss decided to prove his gregarious nature with a generous buffet at a local raw fish joint. The whole staff was to be treated to plates of raw fish and bottles of booze, for Korean employers like their employees to think the company is doing so well such a feast can be afforded. This is often the case even when it’s actually not. Indeed my particular academy had long since left the black for the red, but appearances had to be maintained, I suppose.

As a recent transplant, the whole experience served as an introduction to many quintessential aspects of Korean culture. We dined on the delicacies of the sea, imbibed the national liquor of Korea (Soju) and heard speeches presumably about the general awesomeness of our work establishment. Or at least, this I assume as no one bothered to translate said articulations for me. This was the first of many linguistic lapses on my employer’s part (the sign that informed us, in Korean, that we would be paid five days late springs readily to mind).

As the diner wore on, I grew tired of the chatty company of women, both foreign and local, that surrounded me and spied the Korean men, cigarettes in hand, engaged in animated discussion further down the low tables at which we sat. I had learned zero Korean at that point, but knew that at least one of the three could speak some English, so I decided to attempt a conversation.

Aware of my own intrinsic lack of courtesy, I made every attempt at politeness and learned a very hard (that’s in terms of alcoholic content, not difficulty) lesson about Korean culture. The three I had joined consisted of my direct manager, the owner of the English academy and the head bus driver. The owner, who’s name I learned many times but never remembered, had no grasp of English and instead supplanted this absence with a firm grasp of the Soju bottle. Koreans have many rules governing the consuming of alcohol and it’s important to show the proper respect when drinking with elders. I had already learned the very basics, such as holding your glass out with two hands when an older person pours a drink for you, but there was a second rule about which I had not been instructed.

In such a social business situation, it is considered rather rude for someone to have an empty glass and borderline insulting if you must fill your own glass. Upon sitting down with the three gentlemen, a large shot glass full of Soju was offered to me. Such a presentation is bound to confuse the average American. To us, liquor in a small glass hearkens back to the days of our drinking’s first experience. We know that to maintain our machismo, the liquid must be consumed completely, quickly and without hesitation. The offer thus made to me, I quaffed the libation and set the empty glass down.

The thorough dispatch of the beverage amused my Korean compatriots and I immediately found another full shot in my hand. This I also vanquished in seconds and in seconds more, my glass was brimming again with Soju. I thought of my mother then and how she always stressed the importance of being a gracious guest and properly respectful in all manner of interactions. Compelled by such a creed, I threw back the glass yet again, bringing laughter and bemused smiles from those who had offered it.

Yet, they were not satisfied and a fourth full glass sat on the table in front of me. At that point, I decided that if I desired to be able to walk away from this restaurant under my own power, it would be best to adapt the virtue of restraint. My glass no longer in need of refreshing, the Koreans continued merrily with their conversation while I contemplated ordering some water.

Minutes later, however, the shot which I had been regarding warily on the table in front of me needed consumption. Koreans, as it turned out, are also quite found of toasting, cheering and clicking their glass together whenever possible. Such an occurrence demanded my participation, though I cannot say to what I was so heartily saluting. So, my mother’s instruction ever in my mind, I dutifully obeyed my superiors and got well and truly drunk.

Lesson learned. I think. My memory of the evening grows increasingly foggy from that point onward.

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2 responses

19 06 2009
Steve

Yes! The rules of engagement are quite interesting. But also be aware that if a glass (of soju) is poured for you, you don’t have to one-shot it. Simply taking a sip satisfies the requirement of drinking it (in most cases).

20 06 2009
relativepragmatism

Steve, you are absolutely right and that was something else I learned later. That night was one of my first experiences drinking with Koreans and I thought because it was poured in a shot glass it therefore must be consumed like a shot. Rookie mistake.

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