Having lived overseas this long, we’ve had ample opportunity to make spectacular cultural faux-pas. Since we’re on vacation this week and don’t feel like posting anything serious, I thought I’d share the story of my most staggeringly awful blunder aboad.
So here’s the story of how I flipped off a small child in public. In front of his mother.
This tale dates from our time in South Korea, when I tutored my coworkers’ children as a way to repay them for their kindness and generosity. They put up with a lot from me at work, mostly because I never had the slightest idea what was going on.
As Sam has had reason to note, hand gestures can take on different meanings in different lands. A few Korean gestures seem specifically designed to get well-intentioned foreigners into trouble. For example, it is customary and proper to point to things with your middle finger in Korea. This gesture is most often used by the older generation, who grew up unaware of its American counterpart. It can be shocking to have a smiling grandfather flip you the bird, but (assuming he’s actually pointing at something) no offense is meant.
The same cannot be said for the playful American gesture known as Got Your Nose. Stealing a child’s nose and displaying it between your index and middle finger results in the most profoundly dirty gesture in the Korean repertoire. My intake of EPIK teachers had been solemnly warned never to do this during orientation unless we wanted Bad Things to ensue.
I was a good little foreigner and resisted the impulse, regardless of how cute the children were or how often they poked my own nose (they were drawn as by gravity to its monstrous size). It was in this pious state that I entered a crowded coffee shop to spend the evening practicing English with my favorite co-teacher’s kids. We wedged into a tiny table in the middle of the room—just as well, since I was the center of the café’s attention. It was me, my co-teacher, and her son, who had just started middle school.
The transition to middle school is a big deal in Korean culture. It’s the transitionary period between carefree elementary school and the incredible burden of high school. Middle school teachers take this responsibility seriously, and load kids up with homework to prepare them for the even greater workload ahead. I asked my co-teacher’s son how middle school was going.
“It’s so hard,” he complained. “We have to study so much.”
He went on to detail the list of subjects on his plate. Now I knew this kid was a smart and conscientious student, who spent the weekends locked away in his apartment complex’ study room. However, I also knew my role as an adult in South Korea, which was to encourage kids to study as hard as humanly possible. Preferably harder. After all, even this meeting was a study session, hot chocolate and socializing aside.
Torn between sympathy and the pressure of expectation, I fell back on one of my mother’s old standbys.*
“Awww,” I said, dragging my index finger back and forth over my extended thumb. “Here’s the world’s tiniest violin playing ‘My Heart Bleeds for You.’”
My co-teacher froze. The room stopped. My eyes slowly shifted focus from the stunned expression of the child in front of me to the hand I’d stuck in his face. Uh oh. In Korea, the world’s tiniest violin played a different tune altogether.
“Hahaha, it’s supposed to be a violin,” I trilled maniacally, shoving my hands into my pockets. Too late. I felt the flush climb my face as I tried to explain away the fact that I’d flashed this cherubic, round-cheeked child a very public bird. “My mother always used to do that when we were kids.”
There was a pause as the table absorbed this.**
Gradually conversation began at the outskirts of the room, working its way inward until normalcy returned. My co-teacher chose not to comment on the matter, then or afterwards. We moved on to safer subjects, like the potential threat of war with North Korea and weekends spent in group nudity at the bathhouse.
But we never met at that coffee shop again.
*Yes, I just tried to blame my mother for this.
**Ok, I’m a terrible daughter. But in my defense, she did this all the time. Also, may I say here that she is widely known to be a fantastic mom. (Except in Korea, where it is possible people think she flipped me off throughout childhood.)