April 25, 2006

Courtesy and Culture

Sunday afternoon I switched plans and hung out with two friends. One, M., is Nigerian-English, the other, S., moved here from Korea as an 8 year old. I didn't call Jrex till after the fact. My cell phone died a week ago, I didn’t have his memorized, and for some reason (DBM), I didn’t think of paging him. An hour after I’d been due to arrive home, I called to say I was on my way. I got in trouble**. As deserved.

One of our themes lately is that I need to be more considerate, to slow down and put myself in someone else’s shoes. I realized a couple things after our discussion. One, right after we married, I tried doing things my Mom’s way. She always complained when Dad was late or didn’t call her, so I complained. Jrex became quite good at calling to let me know when plans changed or he was running late. Two, I have a double standard. If he’s late and I’m waiting, I’m pissy, if I’m delayed, the reasons are valid and he shouldn’t be upset. Which is obviously crappy on my part.

In any culture not calling was discourteous, but what intrigued me was my Korean friend’s reaction. I emailed both women to let them know how it turned out. When I said I’d forgotten to call Jrex, M and I thought it was no big deal. S told me later she was horrified! I told her about Jrex wanting to feel considered. She emailed me about it and then called me later that night. That’s been a HUGE theme for her, esp. in friendships with Caucasians. In Korean culture, as I’ve learned the hard way, I’m supposed to call my MIL before and after every trip. I should call to say I’ve arrived home after a visit. If I’m shopping, I should be thinking of her and buying things for her and Dad. I should send cards with checks in them for every birthday, anniversary, or special occasion. For S, those things are second nature, but none of her white friends reciprocate. It’s been hard for her not to take it personally. For a long time she assumed white friends were cold, disinterested, or just didn’t like her. I know that for Jrex consideration looks different than that, but for S, it was like I’d set off a light in her head.

*The picture is from this site which features experiences (for English or Japanese speakers) in authentic Korean homes! Learn to bow! Learn to wear a hanbok. Do they teach courtesy?
**It should be noted that Jrex wasn't so much concerned with me being a little late. He's not that petty. It was that he'd tried to call me cause he was running late (due to the lack of cell phone he had no way to contact me), he was concerned for how long the dog had been home alone, and we were expecting a delivery/vistor between 6 and 7. So he had to curtail experiments, rush home, I wasn't there and he had no idea where I was, if anything had happened to me, etc. It was a potent cocktail that could have been avoided if I'd called to check in.

I know every friendship and marriage is, in fact, cross-cultural. The challenge is to learn to articulate your cultural (or just familial) assumptions. Being from different races or nations just make it more obvious there are differences. What about you, have you hit the consideration wall? Experienced (or done) things that seemed completely rude, but were in fact just culturally different?


weigook saram said...

This post really resonated for me, for a lot of reasons.

The fact that A is so considerate is one of the things that drew me to him in the first place. He is considerate in small things, like always asking if I want some water if he's getting a glass for himself. Early on, he used to be hurt if I didn't do the same, so I learned.

He also calls his mother when he arrives safely after a trip, and she does the same. We've always sent cards or called for birthdays, but we haven't always given gifts. Now that we're living nearby we take Amuni out to dinner.

When I was teaching ESL, my students often said that Americans were "cold". I think the problem is that Americans are very friendly on the surface, but that doesn't necessarily mean we want to form a deep friendship with someone. People from other countries take the "let's have lunch" thing literally, and are hurt when the person never follows through.

OTR sis said...

My white Minnesotan in-laws do everything that you described about Korean niceties. T's parents and grandparents even sent us cards for Easter. We get random gifts in the mail from them. It is very humbling. Yet T strongly disagrees with me that gifts are a power game. (lightbulb) Because for his family it truly isn't. They are just that NICE. Maybe it is a Minnesota thing.

I prefer my birth family: honest, emotional conversations and less 'thank you' letters to write.