In Korean culture age is revered more than talent, success, ability, fame, beauty... basically more than anything. What this translates into in everyday life is, simply put, old people get a ‘free pass.’ This goes beyond others giving up their seat on the bus or helping someone cross the street. These are actions done by others to show respect generally not actions carried out by the elder in a show of their status. In Korea the social status of age is demonstrated more by the actions of the older people and the choice of inaction or reaction on the part of the younger. The older the person the more this applies. Yelling, burping, farting, pushing, poking, sleeping in public, slapping, spitting on people, etc… anything goes if you’re old enough.
Those who are the oldest in a certain group, even if they are quite young, will get preferential treatment in that group. I’ve seen it among high school students in the same grade. The oldest gets served by the youngest and then up the chain. A younger group member would never contradict or correct an older group member. If an older group member wants to eat a specific food all group members will eat that food. If an older group member wants to talk about a specific subject the group will talk about that subject.
There is even more deference given if the oldest person is male. I don’t really want to get into gender roles and treatment yet, but let’s just say an older male is king. He can do no wrong. For example, I have seen an elderly man walk in off the street and start drunkenly yelling at people in a restaurant. The diners sat, saying nothing, not making eye contact with the man. He then escalated to spit on the younger diners at their table. Still no one did anything, no response was given by anyone at the table or in the restaurant. After the man did not relent and continued for 10 minutes, an older woman (roughly the same age as the older man) came out of the kitchen and yelled at the man to leave. He left momentarily then came back and repeated the same scene three times. After the third time the police were called. So I guess there are some boundaries, but they are very extreme.
Anyway, I tell you all of this to set up a string of more pleasant stories. I want to preface this by saying that even though extreme actions by elders are tolerated in Korea, it does not mean they are socially acceptable. When I related some of these same stories to my Korean co-workers they listened in horror and said, “I’m so sorry. That is not right. I think maybe that person is uncultured or uneducated. It’s not acceptable to do that, but what can you do it is an older person.” So I guess you could relate this behavior to that of someone making vocally racist assumptions in the US- everyone feels uncomfortable, everyone knows it wrong, but generally everyone keeps their mouths shut and doesn’t do anything about it and if/when you do people are just as mortified. In learning about a new culture you can’t help but see the reflection of your own (and really you should try to; cultural self-awareness is a wonderful thing).
In the coming weeks, get ready for some awesome, hysterical, awkward stories!
P.S. I'm really only doing this to keep up with Goal 1 in my last blog post.