Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Got 눈치?

눈치 (nunchi, pronounced noon-chee,) is a complex concept inextricably woven into the Korean everyday. You can go here to read a little about it. I like that somebody mentioned paralinguistics in the post. However, I had to remove an idiot's product placement in the first paragraph and citing himself from a stupid book about Korean culture. I hate when people do that--and, go figure, the link was dead anyway. I'm only going to discuss my experience with nunchi in this post. I'm not going to go into tone of voice or social status and attempt to be objective about it. That would be impossible. I like to leave that sort of cultural anthropology for the colonialist social critics and tourists. There's blogs-a-plenty of haters and fetishists out there who love to oversimplify the Korean everyday. I try not to. Moreover, there's no need to address such things. When it comes to nunchi, some people have it and some people don't.

When I first arrived in Sillimdong (신림동,) Seoul, I lived in a neighborhood with few foreigners. That's not true. Very few native-English-speaking foreigners lived near me. My neighborhood has a diverse group of foreigners because of Seoul National University and a large Asian immigrant community. I spent most of the first two-months with my colleagues and the neighborhood friends I played soccer with on Saturdays. I think I was so fed up with the United States I only ventured out for social interaction with other foreigners once or twice. I hadn't studied the language before moving here, so I relied on my wits and desire to fit in to get by. Many days were lonely trials.

One of the concepts I learned about was nunchi because I was praised for having it. That's a good thing: you don't want to hear nunchi eopda (눈치 없다) used to describe you and your behavior. Unfortunately, you either have this or you don't. I know many foreigners believe you can learn it. If you don't have good nunchi, you can learn how to perform it, but we all know the difference. And my Korean friends seem to recognize the people who possess it as part of their ethos (habit and character). If you have to perform it at the right times, you're faking it.

I first learned about what this meant after going out on my first five or six weekends with my soccer team--I play with an all Korean team on Saturdays and nobody speaks English--and with teachers to hike and to learn about the neighborhood. To be honest, I had a blast figuring out who to sit with, how to play with, how to eat and drink with my new friends. I first thought this was nunch: doing the right things at the right times. Iquickly learned that was not it at all.

I think I first heard about my nunchi after a younger teammate who takes care of the club's money insisted I need not contribute because I was a guest. I told him I wanted to be a member and shouldn't receive special treatment. He didn't understand me and simply left me with my money. I had to out-insist him. I succeeded a little later after we were all good and drunk. I have paid dues ever since. It's important to note that I decided to pay without them hinting that maybe I should. I believe to this day they'd permit me to play as a guest and without paying dues. I had to make the decision and be consistent. But to do that only would be a performance, wouldn't it? There's something about the way I communicated wanting to be with them that they appreciate in addition to my decision to pay dues, and that's much more difficult to convey right now.

The insistence to pay is one thing I think many foreigners simply do not understand and find easy to oversimplify, as is the obligation to go out with colleagues. There's a lot of literature out there, many videos, many blogs about how to know when to pay and when to attend, but they're almost every one of them over-generalized and stereotypical nonsense. I suppose this misinterpretation of complex social fabric is understandable. People want some concrete statements about what to do and what not to do. Yet, I wonder.
Westerners love to understand others. Understanding others is part of our bigoted colonialist character. It's part of manifest destiny for US citizens, for sure. I hate it. I disavow it. We get a kick out of saying that we know what something means. We get a super-kick out of dominating foreign scenes as expats. I find it rather obscene, to be honest. I think this disavowal in connection with the way I want to participate is the key to my nunchi. I don't have to think about it.

I'll give you an example of what I mean. I was the first Native Speaking English Teacher (NSET) to teach at my school. I was brought here because the school wanted an experienced teacher. I was all-but-dissertationed from University of Denver and had been teaching since 1999. So, they got me. Nobody at my school was good at speaking English. (That's changed now, the younger English teachers are quite apt and, frankly, I'm no longer needed here.) The first year, my co-teachers were substitute teachers who'd never co-taught before. However, I had one helpful, permanent co-teacher who went out of her way to try to accommodate me and advise me about learning to fit into the faculty and culture of the school.

My school is tough. It's a poor school with poorly performing students many of whom will not attend university out of high school. They'll go to open university, I suppose, but that's not a very respectable thing here. The students are not happy and not interested in my class. I don't blame them. My school is proof that Korea is hurting for educational reform. My conversation class and speaking tests only add to students' English-language study load. They're already frightened about the future. I'd say 60% of the students like me but feel oppressed when I enter their classroom.

When I first arrived at school, the English faculty held many meetings to figure out my role here and our roles together. Nobody spoke English, so everything had to be translated. When we disagreed, the translation could cause trouble because comments were often accidentally and, sometimes, willfully misinterpreted. I once said, "Let's put the students' needs before teachers' desires" when referring to use of the only room with functioning technology and it was translated, I'm not kidding, as "Gary says we're incompetent."

I had to be patient. I had to be willing to take some abuse. (That willfully awful translation of my critique is what I'd call stubborn abuse, but after a little reflection, I recalled my experience as a faculty member in college and university English departments where such complaint is common, sometimes insulting, yet permitted as a way for colleagues to vent. It's permitted there. Why should it not be permitted in Korea?) My closest co-teacher and I came up with an idea that we called "Korean Time". We'd have our meetings. I'd appear in the first part and speak about my classes, lessons, complaints and/or questions. They'd respond. Then I'd leave and permit them Korean Time: time to talk according to their style about work and scheduling without my presence, which can be oppressive. Imagine having to explain yourself all the time to a person who thinks differently about your tasks than you and your colleagues do. Why it's like the government placed a white person in your school just to insist you justify your underpaid and overworked presence each and every day. I understand the contempt. I don't like it, but I get it.

It might sound silly, but it worked. And that's possessing nunchi. They needed not for me to go away or take unearned criticism but for me to understand that my presence really alters their working environment and, though it might pain me to admit, it wasn't necessary and it wasn't useful. It's sounds simple, but being able to publicly acknowledge that I'm not the center of their universe worked wonders. And many NSETs insist as a rule that they are the center of Korea's universe.

I know a lot of NSETs who'd disagree with my interpretation. I worked with a woman at a junior high school summer camp who routinely screamed at our Korean colleagues after common confusions. She didn't and still doesn't, I'm sure, possess nunchi. But she does have (as do her partner and their friends, yes I'm dishing,) plenty to say about Korea and Koreans. By the way, there is a time and a place for screaming in Korea. And I've had my fair share of tirades. You just have to do it properly. But that's for another post.

I don't know why I'm thinking about this right now. Maybe it's because I resigned from my position and will leave my school in August. I'm taking a year off to finish my novel and defend my dissertation before attempting to locate work in an English department at a university here, well anywhere. (Though I'm happy to say that Korean university folks have already shown interest. With a little patience, I'll have a nice position here and I continue to study the language and live in the US when I'm not teaching. Home for vacation and Away for work is a nice proposition.)

I think I'm going to miss my school and my neighborhood, too. We'll be moving to a different part of Seoul. Sillimdong and my high school were very good to me. It's not the hip part of Seoul. It's gritty and dirty. The working people around here are pushy, but I love it. They permitted me to fit in, which is more than I can say for the segregated neighborhoods I lived in back home where difference is shunned and severely beaten down as a rule of citizenship. For all the cries of nationalism I hear in foreigner discussions about Korea and Koreans, I've been welcomed much more sincerely here than in most place in the United States.

Of course, the reason I'm welcomed is that, for some unknown reason, I've got nunchi. I know how to act without having to perform. I know: I'm bragging. Fuck it. I've earned it.

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