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Monday, August 17, 2009

Confucianism on Line 4

Imagine walking onto a crowded subway car in any major city and seeing this:

There are no open seats -- plenty of people, including you, are standing -- and this guy sleeps in peace.

What would happen?

I can already picture the scene on Metro in DC degrading into shouting and/or an angry exchange of words.

But what happened in Seoul?

Absolutely nothing. During my 30-minute subway ride, not one person bothered the sleeping rider. Although there were no open seats, no one tried to wake up the man or even seemed particularly bothered by his lethargy.

Korea has an ingrained Confucian system of hierarchy that governs virtually every social interaction. On the most basic level, grammar and sentence structure change depending on whether you're speaking with an elder or someone in a different social position than you (i.e., talking to your boss). Even more specifically, you address someone older than you, even if it's just by a few months, as opa or oni (big brother/sister).

Language aside, there are also simple ways that body language reinforces politeness and hierarchy -- always use two hands to give and receive, bowing, etc.

So the sleeping guy on the subway: why did no one interfere? At the very least in most countries, someone would have shaken his shoulder and woken him up. And yet here, nothing.

I don't have an answer but it was interesting to observe.



North Korea reopened its border for tourism -- might a quick jaunt up north be on my agenda over the next 6 weeks? I'd like to!

(Which reminds me, still need to schedule that DMZ trip. And figure out if this news means that Americans can enter North Korea, or if that's still not an option.)