Monday, February 1, 2010

The Korean New Year; to bow or not to bow, that is the question.

As the Korean New Year approaches I have a decision to make. Traditionally on this holiday Korean families bow to the patriarch or matriarch of their family and in return recieve a token amount of money. This activity is not reserved merely for children although they are allowed to bow to multiple elder relatives in order to "earn" more money. All family members are expected to bow. Furthermore the bow is not merely a small bending of ones head or hips, but consists of fully prostrating oneself, nose touching the ground.
When I first met the matriarch of my girlfriend's family, her grandmother, I was asked to, and did, bow to her in this manner as a gesture of cultural understanding. However since that time I have questioned the wisdom of that decision and whether or not I should bow again at the upcoming Korean New Year family get together. Besides a personal distaste for bowing to anyone, I fear that by doing so I am sending a message to my girlfriend's grandmother that I do not actually agree with. Bowing, to my mind, indicates to her that I assent to being part of, and controlled by, the strict hierarchal family structure of which she is the head. However I do not assent to such a relationship and do not wish to send that message Therefore I am inclined not to bow.

Nevertheless my girlfriend, under pressure from her family, but also equipped with an interesting argument that has been corroborated by numerous other Koreans, believes that I should bow. Her reasoning is as follows. In a similar vein to
my previous post on the orthopraxis, as opposed to the orthodoxy, of Korean culture, Koreans often do not see an important contradiction between acting in accordance with socially expected norms while at same time disagreeing with those norms on a personal level.
Westerners have a lighter version of this. When someone asks "how're you doing?" he/she is rarely expecting a real response, and indeed would probably feel awkward if in reply they received anything but a vague positive statement such as "I'm fine" or "Great."
However I would argue, or more correctly it has been argued to me, that Korean culture has a much higher level of tolerance for these kinds of "white lies." Generally they prioritize maintaining social harmony over honoring one's personal values. Accordingly my reservations about sending the wrong message by bowing, from a Korean perspective, misses the point. The point of bowing is not primarily to send a message of fidelity, but again simply to maintain social harmony. It is done because grandmother expects it, period. Furthermore my unwillingness to place myself under grandmother's authority is for the most part unproblematic and tacitly respected to the extent that she does not make any real demands on me except for this bowing show once a year.
I must say although the argument is interesting, I don't find it entirely convincing. What do you think?