"Do you mind if I ask a personal question?"
"Can I ask you a personal question?"
"Can we talk privately?"
"Do you mind a personal talk?"
I arrived in Korea in late August 2008 with no idea what to expect from my school or new students and colleagues. I quickly discovered most of the information on the web from blogs and ESL web sites was exaggerated, improper, or horribly skewed. I was prepared for more work, more expectation, no preparation, a poor school district, a language barrier, and a rather radical change in my diet. Two things affected me more than anything else: Koreans are not as good at English as everyone insists they are (yet they are better than they think they are) and Koreans have no real expectation of privacy in their daily lives and don't do much to extend that to their privacy-obsessed western guests. The language thing doesn't bother me at all. But I had to quickly learn how to handle the lack of privacy.
I really did fear the above questions about private matters more than anything because they always dealt with what are the most taboo subjects for polite conversation in the United States. Generally, I enjoy conversations most when the discourse gets personal. I abhor small talk and prefer uncomfortable silences to meaningless chats. I like digging into issues and concerns no matter how trivial. I love watching people talk, especially when they get to personal matters. I'm a voyeur; I enjoy causing trouble; I like being engaged with others.
I discovered on only my second day in Korea that a personal question or private discussion here has to do with matters Koreans know Westerners like to keep private: there is no sense of shame or prohibition about bluntly asking a person to be frank about private matters. During my first few weeks in Seoul, these discussions were often wickedly personal interviews with me providing intimate details about myself to a relative stranger who appeared no more than momentarily interested. I often explained a personal detail in a hallway in between classes.
My new colleagues and students weren't trying to be provocative. They were satisfying a curiosity. This curiosity and satisfying it are what Westerners here often criticize as a rude or mean Korean behavior. The stares, the questions, the quick conversations can often seem like interrogations. I have commented on dagSeoul about this. White folks trek across Korea pointing, staring, teasing, laughing, and sometimes interrogating Koreans and yet are shocked when a Korean returns the favor with a comment about stocky or overweight white bodies, blonde hair, blue eyes, strange accents, drinking, sexuality, among other things. There are dozens of popular, Korea blogs written by white folks. Each of them has posts about rude Koreans. Yet each blog has within its archives many posts observing Korea and Koreans as if it's nothing at all. I think it's apparent people don't get irony.
Within my first 72 hours in Seoul, I was asked about my religion, my politics, my body shape, my lack of hair. I can only imagine what many of the foreigners I've met while living here did when confronted with similar questions. I got a weird kick of it, I must admit, but did become a little indignant with some particularly intrusive questions. I think I was shocked because I was taken from the airport directly to my school to work. I had no orientation period, nor time to sit and consider where I was, what I was getting myself into, what my fellow foreigners were like, and what Koreans thought about us.
I learned very quickly that my new Korean friends ask the personal or privacy question because they have learned that what they will ask next may offend me--US, actually. However, they aren't asking because they don't want to offend us; they are asking to warn us what's coming next. They are going to ask regardless of your answer. I think this is what some westerners find rude. As if to ask, Why seek my permission if you're going to dig into my personal affairs anyway?
No matter what you think of the question, you'll eventually hear it. It's better to be prepared. If you answer No, you're safe. Unfortunately, answer No several times and you'll always be kept at a safe distance. If you answer Yes, you must be ready for what will follow. Answer Yes several times, and everybody will assume it's permissible to continue personal discussions. Things got very personal with me. I'm very comfortable being a public individual here. So, I frankly answer all sorts of questions I know most people wouldn't.
Here's the tricky part about navigating these questions. I was asked about my background. Most Koreans want to know a foreigner's heritage. I mentioned Irish and Swedish and spoke about my family's focus on Irish culture. Koreans believe they have an affinity with Irish people, so that turned out well. Nevertheless, the conversation quickly became about religion because the teacher I was speaking with is Catholic.
Are you Catholic? I was raised Catholic.
Do you go to church ever Sunday? No.
Why not? I have some real problems with the Church.
That's how I decided to answer realizing I couldn't really explain to her in my native language the complex relationship I have with Catholicism. I just said, I don't feel I can go anymore. The response I got was something I've never heard from a Catholic and likely never would in the United States. The woman talking to me said, I'm worried for your soul. Please let me take you to church. I beg you to come.
I politely declined. I smiled. And we went to teach. I still remember walking down the hall and thinking "You've got to be kidding me." Here I was at my job and being cornered to discuss religion. My American self was ready to cry harassment. But these are not extraordinary discussions here. Iㅜ addition, this happened between periods, in that ten minute break between classes. Basically, I was being introduced to Korean scolding as caring. But the lesson I learned that day was that I had to be willing to both truthfully answer the question and politely accept the response if I was going to participate in these personal discussions.
Here's another example. I was asked, Why are you fat? Talk about awkward. I had serious health problems with intestinal bleeding before coming to Korea. I was considering an operation to remove a Meckel's Diverticulum that doctor's had diagnosed after a series of various tests. And I worked my ass off getting into shape and healthy to come here. I was running 40k a week and working out everyday. I was in the best shape I have been in since high school. When I was asked if I was fat, I just about lost it. But I am a barrel-chested and stocky man living in a country of thin, sinewy Korean men. If you're not thin here, you're fat. It's that simple.
I absolutely hated the fat discussions. Your fat. Your big. Are you healthy? Do you exercise? Why don't you lose weight? What do you eat? I had been overweight. I had been unhealthy. I have to stay healthy and keep an eye on things because it's likely that one day sooner than later, I will need an operation to fix what appears to be a congenital defect in my intestines. You'll likely sympathize when I complain that I hate thinking about it. But what was I supposed to do? Getting upset and complaining about it wouldn't change anything. Telling the person asking the question how rude that sounds to an American certainly wouldn't work. I had to decide to continue saying Yes or to begin saying No.
The fat discussions ended when I began playing soccer with the college students in my neighborhood and knocked the living crap out of them while outrunning them. Now, I am "strong Gary". They were amazed that I'm fast and in shape. An uncomfortable question turned into a nice accomplishment for me: I was able to feel wonderful about me and my body for the first time in a while. But I had to endure being put on the spot and that was hard.
Actually, they still call me fat from time to time. And that's another point worth considering: you really do have to be willing to sacrifice tact when have a discussion in English with most Koreans. Their vocabulary is understandably limited to a popular set of ordinary English words. For body type, the vocabulary is quite limited. Words like beautiful, pretty, ugly, fat, thin, tall, small, old, young, cute, healthy, not healthy, sick, and good are as much as most people will be able to use in any given conversation. Folks often know more words but rarely use them to be able to recall them while talking. I think it's very important to realize this, to admit it, and to allow for the problems that will occur as a result of the limitation.
To talk about health here often means directly addressing your body or their bodies. I turned what I saw as an unfortunate obsession into a benefit for my language classes. We had lessons about vocabulary to describe people. It was refreshing not to have to focus on political correctness and politeness. I was able to run through a whole set of vocabulary in a basic and honest way. As a result, I learned a few things about the horrifying ways the kids describe each other. I write "horrifying" because the teachers do nothing to challenge some of the hurtful ways Koreans classify each other by face shape, height, width, gender and age. I'd say the classification is enabled if not actually encouraged. I had a female student exclaim in response to being called a grandfather by her classmates, "Well, it's OK; I am ugly."
The noun phrase "personal question" means one thing for westerners: for me and my friends, we try not to get too personal because it's considered impolite in many social situations. A personal discussion is for friends. We permit people to volunteer such information. The more friendly, the more personal. If a friend confronts us about personal matters, it usually because what they see has become problematic and/or worrisome. For Koreans, it's a phrase that can be used before talking about private matters of personal significance. More than any folks I have met, Koreans will withhold judgments about a person until they know about you. A good first-impression is paramount, yet it's the discussions after that impression that will be used to classify you in some manner. I found within two months living here, people were quickly deciding whether or not they could be friends with me based on my likes, dislikes, personality, family history, spirituality, politics, et al. And not as they got to know me, but as they had a short and personal discussion about me.
So, the best way to think about personal questions is they are warnings about what is likely to happen if you answer Yes. Namely, I may offend you with my curiosity about you, your body, your politics, your religion, and/or your family. I write "personal" not to be sarcastic. It's just that we don't typically talk about personal matters when getting personal with each other. When getting personal, we purposefully relate a claim and reasons for making that claim to a person and his or her behavior and beliefs. And it's a difficult thing to do with strangers because we don't know them very well and must base our claims on assumptions that are likely not entirely the case. And it's a difficult thing to do with our friends because we more or less objectify them in some way to address a matter of disagreement. Getting personal often has a pejorative sense.
If a Korean wants to talk to you about personal matters that involve you, you'll likely be addressing marriage or your body. Why aren't you married; why don't you date; why are you fat; why do you die your hair; why are you always mad; why are you tired; why don't you dress well; do you drink; why do you live with your girlfriend; do you like Korean women/men? These are simply annoying questions that nobody wants to answer in front of strangers.
In a worst case scenario, you'll be talking about your lifestyle. As in, you came to work smelling of 담배 & 소주 (dambae/cigarettes and soju) and toothpaste and they want to know if you drink too much. Or, more innocent but still invasive, you called in sick on a Monday and your coworkers all assume you were hungover. It's an uncomfortable discussion many foreigners have with their Korean coworkers at some point.
(to be continued...I have a nasty cold and it's hard to write and keep a focus. I'll add to this post and develop some of the ideas as I get well.)