Friday, July 16, 2010

Slipping away in Korea

I had an interesting experience the other day. It requires a little introduction.

Every Wednesday all the teachers at my school have dinner together. These dinners are fairly informal affairs however the expectation is generally that everyone should attend. This past Wednesday I promised the students that I would go swimming with them at 4:50pm. We usually eat at 6 or 7pm so I thought I would have a enough time to do both swimming and dinner. Another teacher had also promised to go swimming, lets call her "Kim." On this occasion it had been decided that we would eat at the school and prepare the food ourselves. As we were doing so, at about 4:30pm I asked (in Korean) Kim when/how we should start going to the beach. She quietly replied "soon" and went back to setting the tables. I then asked another teacher (again in Korean) when we were going to start eating and she said "5:30." Surprised, I walked over to Kim and asked "What should we do?" She quietly replied "lets go swimming, I'm not going to eat dinner. I'd rather hang out with the kids." At hearing this I began to repeat her words to confirm what she said and to tell the other teachers that I too wasn't going to eat dinner. However she quickly "shushed" me and motioned that we should go. Though confused, I complied and off we went to swim with the kids without letting the other teachers know that we in fact were not going to eat with them.

We swam. It was fun.

Upon my return none of the other teachers were concerned that I had not told them earlier about my intention not to eat with them. They simply asked where I had been and then poured me some soup.

I found this experience interesting on a couple levels.

1. Whereas my instinct was to make clear that I would be absent and why, if for no other reason than for courtesy's sake, apparently such an announcement was unnecessary.
2. Furthermore the announcement, at least from Kim's perspective, would have been troublesome in some way.


Here is what I make of it.

First is helps to know that Kim, as well as myself, are the youngest teachers at the school. As always in Korea, age matters. If I had announced that I was not going to be eating with them because I was going swimming the other teachers, who are older than me, would have felt obliged to entreat me to stay and eat with them, forcing me to either break my promise to the children, or disobey a request from my elders. The same goes for Kim. Now the dinners are not strictly formal affairs and the other elder teachers would not really miss me (I am never the life of the party) but nevertheless they feel a responsibility to promote camaraderie amongst the teachers and to provide for those below them, i.e. me.

So what do you do?

Well in Korea the answer is often to avoid the problem altogether remembering that being indirect in Korea is usually a virtue rather than a vice.
By simply slipping out quietly we avoided disappointing both the children and the elder teachers. We got to go swimming and we didn't put the elder teachers in a position where their demands would be rejected. When I arrived late for the dinner and told them why the elder teachers were not offended because, a. they had never directly demanded that I be there, b. deep down didn't really care if I was there or not, and c. liked that I had gone above and beyond my call of duty by actually engaging with the kids after hours.

Variations of this situation have occurred before where simply slipping away or solving a problem by avoiding it proved to be the best course of action.

Anyone else had similar experiences in Asia or elsewhere?