Regardless of our nationality, we all have merits and flaws. Of course, it all depends on people, but sometimes we unwittingly exhibit collective characteristics that contribute to the public image of a country.
Living in America, for example, one can be impressed by Americans’ good-natured personality. Generally speaking, Americans are exceptionally nice and friendly. Look at their smiling faces, and you are compelled to smile back. You do not see any sign of malicious intention to hurt others or compete with all their might in order to win. There is no sign of distrusting others either. Living in a serene, worry-free environment, they seem to be raised and educated in such a fashion.
Regrettably, Koreans seriously lack such admirable qualities. Instead, we easily become emotional and impetuous. Our facial expressions often reflect our quick temper, distrust and determination to win competitions no matter what. The other day, I went shopping at a big Korean supermarket near my apartment. At the entrance, an old Korean American security guard looked at my backpack suspiciously and bluntly told me, “It’s not allowed in here.” His attitude suggested that all the customers were potential shoplifters. I never encounter difficulties entering any other American stores with my backpack on. In the Korean supermarket, however, I saw fundamental distrust and unfriendliness.
Of course, Americans, too, have problems when they are overseas. Some Americans have a tendency to edify foreigners, thinking that the American standard is exemplary and so supersedes others. While living in Spain as a visiting professor last year, I dropped by a coffeehouse. Inside the shop, there was an American tourist with his family, carefully inspecting the pastries. Surely, it would take a while before they made up their minds on which treat to buy and then came to the cashier to order beverages. So I approached the cashier to order a cappuccino. Suddenly, I heard the American complain, “Hey! We were here earlier than you.” Perhaps he thought he had to teach an Asian tourist who was obviously ignorant of American etiquette some manners in front of his wife and children. But instead, his condescending attitude ruined my day and the otherwise good image of Americans overseas.
Back in the US, I encountered a similar situation, this time the other way round: I entered a restaurant and stood in line to sign in at the entrance in order to be seated. When I was about to put my name on the waiting list, suddenly, an American entered. Perhaps he thought I was done signing up and was waiting to be seated. So he approached the sign-in pad to write down his name before I did. Unlike the American in Spain, however, I did not complain to him, croaking, “Hey, I was here earlier than you.” Instead, I smiled and entered my name below his. “Oh. I am sorry,” he realized the situation and apologized. “Don’t be,” I replied pleasantly. “It’s OK. I’m not in a hurry anyway.” If my wife and children had watched the scene, they would have respected me for my cool manners.
In the eyes of foreigners, Koreans are sentimental and emotional. Watching Korean politicians shedding tears on TV, my American students at the University of California, Irvine asked me why Koreans cry so often, regardless of age. I answered them that in Korean culture, crying is nothing but a natural outburst of feelings, and therefore, Koreans do not attach a stigma to crying. They were amused by my answer that you can cry in Korea regardless of age and still nobody will mock you as a crybaby. In the international community, however, crying can be seen as a sign of a weak personality or emotional overflow.
Next to my apartment in Orange County near Los Angeles is a Montessori school. Every morning, a child cries loudly, shouting and yelling persistently for about an hour or two. American teachers take the child out and try to soothe the crying child with patient, sweet talk, and yet none of them succeed in making him stop crying. Needless to say, the incessant crying of the child was so annoying to the residents in the vicinity that they could not but think of him as a terrible nuisance. Since it is very unusual to see such a child in American culture, I was curious of the ethnic and cultural background of the child. Then one morning, I heard the child yelling in Korean.
In the international community, there is nothing crying or weeping could do. In many other cultures, it is shameful when grown-ups cry or shed tears. Even children are taught to refrain from crying in order not to be called a crybaby. In the Korean language, we have an expression: “Appealing with tears.” It may work in Korea, but not in other countries. We should know that at the very moment of becoming emotional or crying, we lose the battle as well as our reputation.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.