“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my [Korean] wife…it’s call call call call.”
That was the excellent advice I received this week from a former co-worker after living in my house for two days and two nights without heat or hot water because my boiler broke and my landlord delayed? forgot? to call the repairman.
Before I came to Korea, I read all of the advice books and sites on adapting to Korean culture. They said that Koreans don’t like direct conflict, so if you have a conflict, you should always deal with the person with a smile. They said in Confucian culture people should not raise their voice or show explicit displeasure. Those resources also admonished foreigners for complaining too much, for expecting too much from their housing, for not wanting to do anything outside of their written contract. Any and all complaints they said, were looked on unfavourably in Korea, especially when they came from foreigners. So the best thing to do, whether it be no heat or no pay or no service, was to deal with the conflict with a smile.
So when my ‘Christian’ hagwan found a room for me above a room salon and smack in the middle of a ‘sexy’ noribang, a ‘barber’ shop, and a love motel, I tried not to complain too strongly to the housing manager of the school. Sure I was asked if I was a prostitute every day. Sure I was a bit off-put by walking home through a path of blow up pictures of surgically enhanced women in string bikinis. Sure I was a little fearful by the presence of gangsters in the area. But I didn’t try to push my case until the 24 hour computer horse racing ‘casino’ below my window started blasting horse racing music 24 hours a day, preventing me from sleeping. And even then, when I complained, I did it with a smile.
Although my smile-complaining didn’t work for years, I kept plugging along, thinking that it was because I was a foreigner that nobody paid any attention to my complaints. Or that I was a woman. Or that I was a young woman. In my mind I would get very angry at things, but I held on to that early advice that polite manners were going to get me somewhere.
But of course, culture is a lot more complicated than one-solution-fits-all-problems. That and those advice guides are bullshit.
It’s true that Confucian cultures rules in many situations. Your boss, no matter how young, believes in Confucianism. And if you are a young woman, and your boss is an older woman…she definitely believes in Confucian deference.
But like all cultures and times and places there are an awful lot of forms of power in Korea. For example, the advice guides never tell you about the power of money. Sure in Canada we have the blue bloods and the nouveau riches, and there’s the expressions ‘money talks’ and ‘the customer is always right.’ But in Korea, where there is a profound lack of educational choice for those who do not have the ability to send their kids abroad, parents have found a dearth of power in the hagwan industry. Money speaks volumes here, and it is often parents’ moods and threats and beliefs, no matter how erroneous, which dictate not only curriculum changes but also the race of the people who are hired to teach their kids. Their money, or threats to remove it, can shut down a school in a panic over a non-existent ‘foreign-flu’ threat.
And then there is han. Some say it comes from years of foreign domination and subjugation while others find the Confucian yangban as the culprit. Han is a Korean word that is almost impossible to translate into English. It is a great longing, an unsettling remorse, an unresolved despair, a lament for the injustice felt in one’s restless soul. It is the stuff of pansori and the spirits that suddenly overtake the shaman. And this han, this overwhelming sense of being wronged with no resolution, is best expressed publically in loud laments. And it is han that will always win over measured reason.
Han is best employed when there is money at stake but the winner and the loser have yet to be decided. It is best used when there is a blip in the Confucian hierarchy, or when the stronger party is momentarily caught off guard.
Recently Mr. Lee has spoken several times about how Koreans love to complain. They love to show their han and they will complain and complain and complain because it is only through their laments that the powerless find power and those that feel injustice, whether it is true or not, find resolution. I have indeed complained often in Korea. I have complained with a smile and I have complained after hours to expat friends and equally powerless Koreans in the corners of dark bars and bustling coffee shops with all the snarkiness and bitterness I could muster. But I had never tried direct and prolonged han with a person in a place of power.
And so, when my boiler broke…and my 50-something male landlord failed to do anything after I used my polite and well measured voice, I tried out a new tactic.
I complained. I complained the way a good ajumma would do. I bemoaned the newly frigid temperatures outside. I lamented the feeling of the cold floor on my feet which was starting to seep into my bones. I eluded ever so slightly to possibility of catching swine flu and thus bringing this feared illness on the whole building. I cried out at the injustice of not being able to take a hot shower and of the possibility that a lack of hot water might result in a truly disastrous flood if the pipes burst. I railed at the situation I was in, and I called and called and called and called.
And then it worked. Then the repairman miraculously appeared within 20 minutes of being called despite being too busy to come for the two days before. Then the heat was fixed without prolonged discomfort. Then the hot water flowed without interruption, and all was fixed in a few minutes.
I am not yet an ajumma. The married woman but also the stereotypically brash and audacious woman full of chutzpah that non-ajummas ridicule and fear. Despite my dear wish to remain outside the Korean hierarchical realm, I will be given that label upon my wedding day by those who know that I have married into the culture. I am quite afraid of being the pushy woman who bangs her shopping cart into others to get through the aisle faster or the woman who stares down a younger woman on the subway through her sun visor in order to terrify the girl into giving up her seat. But now that I’ve had a taste of han-based complaining…now that I’ve had a taste of complaining power I’m intrigued…