Startled, Carly stopped mid-step and ripped out her headphones before almost running into one of her favorite students, standing in front of her and looking up with her precious 14-year-old face. Carly realized she must’ve walked at least two minutes behind Sooyeon* without realizing it was her. Feeling guilty, Carly patted Sooyeon on the head, turned her around, and marched with her the rest of the way to school. She didn’t have trouble telling faces apart. Sure, it was more difficult to recognize specific students among the crowd of Korean faces, a race that was not her own, as compared to recognizing Caucasian students among a crowd of Caucasian faces. But this ultimately was not an issue with her and was not the reason that she had failed to recognize Sooyeon.
You see, from behind, Sooyeon appeared almost identical to her female Korean peers of the same height (~5.2). Black hair, cropped just above the collarbone, black skirt, sky blue button-down, and navy blue vest. The appearances of her students are strictly controlled. All are required to sport the same hair-cut and uniform. No makeup, jewelry, nail polish, hair dye, or other hair embellishments allowed. (The boys also have restrictions regarding hair, jewelry, etc.,) This lack of diversity in style and details is what made it difficult to recognize Sooyeon that morning and become another addition to her reservoir of “Korean conformity” moments she was collecting.
So let’s backtrack a couple of weeks to share another with you, dear reader.
Her second week at school, whilst enjoying her lunch with her new coworkers, one of her co-teachers leaned over to her and said, in a whispery tone one would use when gently breaking the news that there was spinach in one’s teeth,
“In Korea, we put the bowl on the right.”
Looking down, Carly noticed that she had put her soup bowl in the left pocket of her tray, instead of the right. She did not know if she had been doing this from the beginning or she had switched up her bowl placement each lunch, but either way it made no difference. The placement of the bowl did not affect the taste or the quality of the food, and she was completely indifferent to its position. But, looking around the table, she saw that, yes, every single teacher, and student, around her placed their soup bowl in the right pocket of their metal trays. Her co-teacher laughed softly and murmured,
“Easier to eat the soup, I think.”
Carly gave a laugh and a friendly “Oh, I didn’t even realize”, but didn’t really understand what the big deal was.
Later, while talking with Sooyeon, as she did almost every day after lunch, she inquired about the incident.
“Huh,” Sooyeon said, crossing her arms, pursing her lips, and looking up in contemplation. “I guess I didn’t realize.”
“Is that something you learned when you were younger?” Carly asked, wanting to know the origin of the custom.
“No,” Sooyeon replied, shaking her head and letting her bangs fall into her eyes. “We didn’t learn it. It’s just what most people do. But it doesn’t really matter.”
Carly nodded. If it “didn’t really matter”, then why did her co-teacher tell her so secretly about her mistake, as if she were afraid to embarrass her? Carly was tempted to put the bowl on whichever side of her tray pleased her most that day, but was too desperate to fit in and to appear open to Korean customs. So, since then, Carly has put her bowl on the right (and correct) side of her little tray every single day. Because that’s what most people do.
Fast forward to today, and the incident that inspired this post.
Several minutes into lunch today, as Carly was slurping her soup from the bowl on the RIGHT side of her tray, her co-teacher (a different one from the last incident) leaned across the table, pointed to her tray, and informed her that she had placed the sauce on the wrong food item. Provided for the tofu, Carly had placed the brown sesame sauce on her fish. Her co-teacher shook her head lightly and laughed a “this silly foreigner!” laugh. Carly gave an “oops!” and laughed in such a way that implied that she also found herself silly and couldn’t believe she had made such a faux pas. She looked around the table and saw that, yes, everyone had placed the sauce on their tofu. Thinking about it, that seemed to make more sense, but Carly did not want sauce on her delicious, egg-covered tofu. So what if she put it on her fish? What if she had wanted it on her rice? Would that have been strange? What if she hadn’t gotten sauce at all? (This did happen one time and the lunch lady followed her to her table to inquire about the lack of sauce on her sausage.) Of course there were no bad intentions behind her co-teacher’s recognition of her mistake, and Carly didn’t (and doesn’t) resent the curiosity, it’s just interesting the way that conformity and sameness here affect matters that, to Carly, seem trivial. Perhaps she’s just used to the myriad of strange eating behaviors she observed during her school life, like putting strawberry milk on pizza and dipping chicken nuggets in butter, and how these behaviors were, in the individualistic society of the United States, seen as compliments to a child’s personality rather than characteristics that made them an outsider, as they may in an Eastern, collectivist society.
*name has been changed
–> Please take this post with a grain of salt. I’m not making assumptions about the entirety of the Korean population. This post is merely based on observations I’ve had during my life in Korea so far.