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My German-American son has lived in Korea permanently for the past five years. Before that, he lived there off and on for more than ten years. If you add all the time he has lived in or stayed in the US, it would probably amount to no more than about a year and a half total. He told me recently after a business trip to the US, “Americans are easier for me to communicate with than Koreans. It’s so hard for me to pick up on their cues.” If it’s hard for him, who has had daily contact with Koreans for years, how must it be for me?  Communication with Koreans in a way that is satisfying to me feels like a practically insurmountable challenge.

One of the issues I find perplexing is not knowing how direct I can be with a Korean. I love clarity.  One of my ingrained beliefs is that we humans need clarity for our very survival!  One example of this is in driving a car.  In order to be allowed to drive, every driver needs to know and obey the rules of the road.  Without clear rules everyone follows, there will be accidents, some of them even fatal. 

Not only do I believe in clarity – I crave it.  In my Western culture, people tell me that one of my finest qualities is my ability to be direct.  Normally, in my culture, I have the ability to open people up.  Somehow, people talking with me are able to converse about even difficult emotional subjects.  But with Koreans, my foot keeps getting caught in my mouth!  I feel like my verbal hands are tied.  I am tongue-tied.  I am not allowed to speak in a way that comes naturally for me.  In other words, in Korea I am verbally impaired!

One day my Korean teacher and I were talking about a Korean drama she had watched, and she quoted a line from it. It went something like this: “You need to be careful about the methods you choose, because they might not always have the desired outcome.” Is there a saying like this in English?” she asked me. At first I had no idea what she was getting at. Finally, I surmised that she meant that we can miss our goals by using unhelpful methods. “Do you know the saying, ‘The end justifies the means?’” I asked. No, she had never heard it. So I explained the saying in its political context.  Politicians like Lenin, I said, believed that if the goal was good, it didn’t matter how you got there.  Even killing people could be justified in this philosophy, if the end is good.  But the saying has also been reversed, I said, and goes, “The means justify the end.”  That means we shouldn’t hurt someone in the process of trying to achieve our worthy goal.   It felt good to be explaining these expressions so clearly. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of it.  But then came her response, throwing me off balance, as so often happens to me with Koreans.

“Those sayings are too direct for Koreans,” she said. “We speak with a mere picture, and everyone knows what we mean.” I have no idea what she meant, even by this sentence.  A picture?  How does one speak in pictures?

My teacher is university-educated, trained in the sciences, and yet prefers to relate to people in pictures and metaphors rather than direct, plain speech!  I am also university-educated, a trained social worker and also a language teacher, trained in teaching intercultural communication.  I have been trained to be direct, to speak my mind, to be as clear and precise as possible.  But it seems I have to drop all this training by the wayside when dealing with Koreans.  Direct communication in this country, it seems, can be lead to road crashes!

The first time I blew it was during my first visit to Seoul, when I met one of the Buddhist nuns at the temple Dahae’s (my daughter-in-law) mother is affiliated with. She came specifically to visit me, bearing a gift. Just a few weeks before in Germany, when Dahae and my son Jayden had their German wedding, Dahae and her parents brought gifts from the nuns at the temple. I had no gift for them, and now here was one of the nuns with yet another gift! It was a hand-made little bag, a sort of pouch like those women carry when out for an evening. There was some Korean money inside the pouch. Dahae explained to me that this was how Koreans gave gifts when the gifts was a bag of some kind. A bag always has to contain something of value, and bags of this size always contain money, she said. I thanked her, admired the pouch, and tried to show delight about receiving this gift of money. “Oh, no, it’s not really much money,” she protested. “It’s mostly just symbolic.”

Even though I was already in a somewhat embarrassing situation, I was happy to be having a nearly private audience with this nun, whom I was curious about. I decided this was my chance to ask about her spiritual journey. “Why did you decide to become a nun?” I asked, in all innocence. Her eyes widened a little in surprise.  Why did my question surprise her?  I asked myself briefly, then going on to listen for her answer.  She paused, and then answered. She wanted to bring good Karma to her family and thought this was the best way to do it, she said. I was happy with our conversation and felt that I had drawn a little closer to her, and had come to understand a bit more about the Korean culture. Later, after she had left, Dahae told me that the fact that I had no present for the monk was no problem. I was the guest and people bring guests presents. However, she said, my question had been much too personal. “But we ask questions like this all the time in the West!” I protested. “This is how we get to know people! This is how we try to understand them!”

“But not by asking personal questions like this one,” she answered. Luckily, this nun and I are still on good terms with each other, but I still don’t understand why my question was too personal. My lesson in this? I just try not to ask questions that are too personal. This saddens me, because I like to hear from people what they think, believe and feel, in their own words.  I don’t like guessing about what makes people who they are.  Nevertheless, on these terms that were set out for me, I am now “friends” with both her and the head nun, even though I know nothing about how they think and feel.  I cook meals for them when I’m in Korea, and we enjoy being together. They love the experience of eating Western food, and I think they feel pampered when I cook for them. We laugh a lot, but I refrain now from any questions. I wish we could have these conversations.  From my point of view, if this is the way you have relationships in Korea, they must be destined to be shallow.  For the sake of “harmony”, true understanding seems to get sacrificed.  But I know so little about this culture.  Perhaps it’s really a  matter of gaining trust.  Perhaps when there is more trust, people can open up and go deeper.  Perhaps the lesson in this is that sometimes curious people like me are not entitled to certain information until we have gained the trust of the other.

Even though I try not to ask questions that are too personal, I find myself perplexed by all the questions Koreans ask me that I would regard as very personal. I have been asked my age several times by Koreans who are strangers to me. This is something we in the West regard as much too intrusive! But, there is a reason for this.  Koreans need to know one’s age so that they know which level of formality they need to use in talking to their counterpart.  Older people must be treated with more respect, and this is reflected in the grammar of their language. 

But some questions in Korea are so different, they are hard to accept.  There are more personal questions people ask of others they have barely met, questions about their personal lives.  Are they married or single?  Are there children?  If so, do they plan to have more?  In job interviews, employers have been known to ask how much alcohol a person can handle.  Or what the parents do for a living, or whether a woman is dating anyone.  Times are changing, though, and employers, especially those in large corporations, are also learning that there are some questions people cannot ask.  Laws are also changing, providing people with more privacy. 

I am beginning to see for myself, however, that sometimes my directness gets in the way of relationship.  I tend to speak my opinion without reflecting about how my statement might affect the other person.  One time this happened was when I told my son and daughter-in-law that I would like to try the Korean-Chinese restaurant version of sweet and sour pork.  So, in order to give me a pleasurable Chinese meal, they searched online for the restaurant with the highest reviews for sweet and sour pork and ordered a delivery of this for our dinner.  “But this is nothing new,” was my first comment after taking one bite. “This tastes just the same as sweet and sour pork in Germany,” I said.  “I don’t understand all the hype about this dish. It’s not any better than the dish I’ve eaten in Germany many times.”

My son later told me when we were alone together that this was a faux pas.  I had not shown any appreciation for the effort they had made to find the best possible restaurant with sweet and sour pork.  I had valued neither the food nor their effort.  I should show gratitude and appreciation for their kindness, he said.  Koreans need to hear that they and their work are appreciated. 

I have learned that Koreans often hold back their true opinions about things Westerners are open about. The reason for this is so that they don’t offend the other person.  They would rather maintain harmony than exchange opinions when their opinion may hurt the feelings of another. 

I have read that harmony is one of the chief goals of Koreans when dealing with one another. Families should be harmonious. There should be harmony at the workplace. Relations with neighbors should be harmonious. Yes, I am beginning to see that first-hand. Harmony has a higher value in Korea than clarity. In order for me to have good relationships with Koreans, it seems I also need to place harmony above clarity. This is very difficult for me, who deep down believes that through only through clarity can we achieve true harmony. But I need to understand that others do not see life through my eyes.

I keep making mistakes.  I still find myself speaking my mind too freely, but I have been trying to watch my tongue more closely.  I think I am slowly learning not to utter everything that crosses my mind.

My daughter-in-law, my son and my Korean teacher have become a sort of human GPS for me, guiding me through some of the mysteries of the Korean mentality. Through their help, I am learning how to anticipate and avoid a few of the roadblocks, traffic jams and potential accidents that come along the way. Yes, there will be the occasional traffic jam.  But I’ll keep coming back, despite traffic jams and road blocks.  This country is wonderful, and has much to teach me.