“What’s it to you?”

In The Social Fabric on March 12, 2011 at 4:36 pm

Recently I’ve been meeting new Korean people for the first time in a while, and I’m reminded of a cultural difference which may or may not be an issue for some.  I consider myself to be a fairly open person, and I don’t consider many things to be ‘too personal’ to share.  But for those that feel uncomfortable about sharing too much too soon, they may be confronted by the questions which can seem to come from no-man’s-land.

To clarify, it is quite common in Korean society to ask certain questions when meeting someone for the first time.  Most common in fact, is “How old are you?”.  From a Western perspective (especially if you’re a woman nearing the age where you would prefer to remain at for quite some time) this can be considered rude.  But Korean society is so centered around age and hierarchy, that knowing a person’s age dictates what language and courtesies to use.  Explainable.

This week I encountered a question which I was unaware of as being a common question.  I was chit chatting with a new Korean friend about life and love and a woman’s perspective, when she asked “If you don’t mind me asking, how often do you see your boyfriend in a week?”.  I was curious about this, because funnily enough it has come up in conversation with my boyfriend in the past.  Counting the times in a week people see each other when in a relationship simply had never come to my mind.  I would be lying if I said the first time I heard it I was not thrown, and a little irked.

But this seemingly innocuous question from a woman I had met only a few times before gave me new perspective.  I probed her about it, asking if it was normal to think about such things, and she assured me it was a common question amongst friends.  Having not encountered anything like it before, I asked her what the answers mean.  If I had said once, twice or even every day….what is the purpose?  What impression would my answer give?  Her response was coy, not yielding the truth.  Of course, it left me curious.

Personal questions are the norm in Korean society, and it’s a curiosity which is reflected in many other aspects of life.  Whilst trying to find other accounts of unusual questions asked of the expat community, I stumbled across a discussion thread mostly compiled of ESL teaching experiences and many pearls of wisdom from the mouths of babes.  There I relived more than one of my own experiences such as “Do you have a boyfriend?”, “What’s your blood type?” and “Teacher, why your head so small?”.  And also some others I haven’t encountered, thankfully.  I encourage you to read a few, they are a window into the everyday joys of ESL teaching, and the unabashed nature of Korean children. Questions


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