Friday, March 19, 2010
My Noonchi is Broken
"Nunchi refers to a concept in Korean culture, described as "the subtle art of listening and gauging another's mood".  It is of central importance to the dynamics of interpersonal relationships in Korean culture. Nunchi is literally translated as "eye-measure". It is closely related to the broader concept of paralanguage, however nunchi also relies on an understanding of one's status relative to the person with whom they're interacting. It can be seen as the embodiment of skills necessary to communicate effectively in Korea's high context culture."
I guess we have this in Canada, too – only there the need for its employ, or at least the open encouragement and acknowledgement of it is far less pervasive in day-to-day life there as it is here.
As Malcolm Gladwell could tell you in a far more entertaining way, life here in Korea, under a still-clinging Confucian societal structure, pretty much requires good nunchi in most situations. This is especially true in the workplace where the structure can be even less malleable than it is on the street. “Culture Shock” books and I think even the Lonely Planet describe Koreans as being incredibly aware of the concept of “saving face.” It is said that they want to avoid arguments at all costs.
I suppose this is true, but I’ve also seen the opposite – confrontational being the most common and most recognizable character trait in Korean women over the age of 40, and certainly over the age of 60. Anyway, in a culture where people are supposedly trying to avoid arguments at all costs, you can easily see why good noonchi (and I'm going to spell it this way so you know how it sounds) is a desirable asset. Rather than ask your boss an important question to clear-up expectations or deadlines, why not just “read his mind”? This appears to be the point of the thing, but you can see how it often ends in complete disaster.
Noonchi, however, can also serve a purpose, and I have been able to harness its undeniable powers with increasing regularity – especially in the realm of conversing with Koreans with minimal English skills (my less-than-minimal Korean skills being a given).
You know, it’s ironic that I’m writing this after such a great noonchi episode just last night – at dinner with Choi Yong (one of my school's PE teachers) and his family. There, we spent time over dinner at a restaurant and back at the apartment with his wife and two young girls and we had a great time – both parties crossing a million bridges to meet in the middle and communicate, and both parties feeling comfortable enough to intuit, and to make mistakes that we know would be forgiven with a laugh.
And yet, how quickly things can turn.
Let me back-up a bit. Last year, sometime in the Spring, it was raining on a Thursday afternoon. A fellow English teacher approached me and asked if I wanted to accompany her and some other teachers from my school for dinner and maekoli (Korean rice wine). She called this “Maekoli Thursday” – saying that it was a tradition going back decades in our middle school – whenever it rained on Thursday, it was Meakoli time. What a great tradition!
It turns out that it wasn’t a tradition at all – just a fun excuse that day for a good time with friends after a stressful day at work. We ate, drank, and then went to a norae-bang (“singing room” or Karaoke) for about an hour, where I was serenaded by K-pop songs, and I busted-out some Neil Diamond. I also took some pictures.
It’s one of the photos that I took that night that ended-up being the lynch pin in my noonchi downfall almost one year later. Before I write anything else. I’ll post the photo here – just to put it all into context:
So… what I see here are two of my favourite teachers having a great time singing-along to a K-pop song. Norae-bang is a favoured pastime among many Koreans – from upper-elementary students, to our own school principals who regularly hog the mic at company functions to blast-out favourites from the old days. Understand also that norae-bangs here in Seoul are as plentiful as bakeries – if you’ve ever spent time in modern Seoul, that means an average of 3 for every five city blocks in a populated area, and that is not an exaggeration. People need them some singing, and it’s usually after some hard drinking. It’s not a stereotype if it’s true, and there's a norae-bang just around your corner.
The problem comes in when a group of students see this photo. How do they see it? - - In my class during a powerpoint presentation. During a simple language lesson for my grade 2 middle school students, I wanted them to guess at some examples of hobbies that some people might have. It’s usually a useful and a fun thing to use photos of people the students will know. I’ve also been encouraged to videotape teachers in the past – answering what they want most for Christmas etc., as well as to involve students in my class in similar ways – through video and photos. Kids LOVE seeing themselves, and they love seeing the staff even more.
In this particular slideshow, there was a photo of myself on a bike by the Han River with the accompanying caption: “He likes riding a bike,” there was one of our PE teachers at a bowling alley – “They like bowling”, and there was the one you see above – “They like singing.” Believe me when I say that EVERYBODY here goes to Norae-bang – it’s essential to my story, like Old Marley being as dead as a doornail.
Anyway, as expected, the students break-up at each picture as it’s unveiled. They love it, and it injects some energy into the class.
The trouble comes a few days later when one of the teachers in the photo suddenly replaces her usual friendly smile greeting with the stink eye. When I asked her what was wrong, she simply said through what seemed to be a joking frown: “The photo of me singing…” I laughed, she frowned. I thought it was a joke.
The week went on, more students attended the lesson, and that was that. Until tonight, when we happened to go to the same restaurant for the first time since our fateful, norae-bang-filled Maekoli Thursday.
It was here that I learned just how big a mistake it had been to use this photo in the slideshow. The teacher in question was now relaying the story to the other teachers present, and she was doing so with a great deal of vinegar, and not a little amount of piss to go along with it.
I know enough Korean and I’m fluent enough in body language to understand when I’m being crapped-on, but it was confirmed when an English teacher told me: “She’s really mad at you.” Ummm… yeah, apparently.
It would be easy to continue this play-by-play, but it would also suffice to say that the evening went successively poorly. For what probably took no more than two minutes though it felt like a lifetime, I was the subject of scorn in another language while seated at a table with co-workers who were all nodding. Apparently, this norae-bang exposure ain’t no laughing matter. The teacher in question was upset because her homeroom students who had seen the photo, had been ribbing her about it. She felt ashamed and that she was starting to lose respect from her students.
I’m sorry, but I’m just going to have to step-in her for a second and call bull-shit. When students get you by the short-and-curlies with something they can leverage against you for a laugh – you have to treat it like Alex Rodriguez on a tip-off concerning steroid use – get in front of it, admit it, and move-on. Seriously, it could have taken a 10 second retort to diffuse the power and then move on to being a hard-ass teacher. Kids this age, contrary to popular belief, aren’t stupid. They are aware that their teachers have a life outside of school, and they are aware that their teachers are likely to do the things their own parents likely do at least once a month – sing their asses off in a norae-bang.
Anyway, the wounded teacher, who had been embarrassed by the photo, and then by her children, was laying it all out on the table before dinner – boom, with the weight of a phonebook. Stupefied, I ended-up apologizing again, this time in front of everyone, all the while knowing that A) none of the other teachers who had photos in the slideshow, and who knew about it, were anything approaching embarrassed (well, they might have just been trying to save face), and B) I was in a difficult spot. As maybe half of the teachers present at dinner had decent English abilities, the other half was only able to hear one wildly emotional and gesticulating side of the story, while I was simply left shocked, red-faced, and apologizing. They must have thought I managed to get a nude shot up on my classroom screen.
The thing that sucks the most is that this public tribunal really took my noonchi away from me. I guess you could argue that it was gone already by the time I first noticed the teacher’s displeasure with my act, or even before that – when the actual posting and showing took place. But what mattered to me tonight is that I sat there, surrounded by a foreign language that was no completely unavailable to me. I was sans noonchi, and for someone who relies on it in my daily life, I was screwed.
Honestly, if the conversation is controlled, and I’m given a 10-15% explanation of what’s going on, I can follow most Korean conversations in context – even if I can’t participate in the conversation in the way I’d like to. Tonight – nothing.
Having his noonchi unceremoniously stripped-away from him so suddenly and publicly can really leave a guy down in the dumps – and that’s where I sat for about an hour and a half while conversations and laughter rolled around me and I was left sitting there feeling exponentially sorry for myself. Being aware of, and internalizing the obvious surface alienation I feel at the best of times here, was really the wrong thing to do. It’s very easy to exile yourself from participation in a foreign culture if you’ve lost your enthusiasm to cross that divide. Lesson learned – or I’d like to say lesson learned, but I don’t know if that’s true. Perhaps it just means asking for permission before I show a photo of a teacher to our school’s students – even if it’s one of a teacher doing something fun, harmless, and of the norm. When noonchi is broken, it’s really tough to make much sense of this situation at all.