Friday, January 15, 2021

My First Cultural Faux Pas in Korea

Please go easy on us foreigners! Half the time we really have no idea what we're doing. Of course, sometimes visitors to any new place are rude, but most of the time we only mess something up because we're clueless. I've only been in South Korea for a few months and I've already made two cultural faux pas. What can I say? It happens to everyone.

My first cultural faux pas was a simple gesture. I interact with a lot of Embassy customers in a given day in my current job. To keep the line moving, I need to gesture to the next waiting person to come up to my window. (For those who have never done Consular work before, let me tell you: that first day and especially that very first interview are extremely stressful. But they all get better after that, thank goodness.) But as I was trying to get used to the computer systems and interviewing procedures and immigration policy, I fell back on things that were familiar to me. Specifically, the U.S. beckoning gesture for someone to come forward.

For way too many customers, I invited them up with my palm facing up and fingers curling towards me. Apparently (I learned much later than I wished I had) this gesture is deeply offensive in Korean culture. Oops! I'm very sorry for all of those people I unknowingly made a rude gesture to at work! I didn't know any better before, but now I do. I'm so grateful that someone in the office gently corrected me. I later looked it up and to my horror learned what I was doing is known throughout the region as a demeaning gesture more fitting for animals than people. Yikes!

A few months after I learned that first lesson the hard way, I made another cultural error I realized immediately after it happened. I was giving a public diplomacy (PD) presentation to Korean university students over Zoom, and during the question and answer session one student really struggled with my last name. Realizing my surname can be difficult for Americans, let alone Koreans, I said, "You can just call me N." In American culture generally and in the State Department specifically, we are much more casual than our counterparts overseas. It seemed fine to me to ask the student to call me by my first name. I realized my misstep immediately based on the look of shock on the professor's face. She unmuted to clarify to her student: "You will call our guest Vice Consul." Korean culture is much more formal and deferential to authority than American culture, so in that moment I became a little too familiar for the Korean context.

My mistake actually reminded me of a section from Frank Ahrens's book titled Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan. Ahrens worked as the only non-Korean at Hyundai a number of years back and writes with levity about the many cultural blunders he made. One of them, tellingly, was asking people at work to call him "Frank." He later learned that his casual style and distaste for titles actually diminished the relative standing of not only himself but all of his subordinates in the eyes of others. Cultural ignorance can result in all kinds of unintended consequences, but anyone with emotional intelligence and humility who lives abroad knows that well enough.

At the end of the day, don't go too hard on yourself if you're adjusting to a new culture trying to memorize all the new rules of engagement and unlearning your own habits. Nobody is probably as embarrassed or mortified as you are when you commit a cultural faux pas. Just like most foreigners aren't looking to cause offense, most locals aren't looking for reasons to get offended. The kindest, most generous people--like the overwhelming majority of those I've met abroad--are quick to forgive. And we should be, too.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

A Convert's LDS Church History Primer

Happy New Year, all! I think we're all ready to move on to 2021. Now that 2020 is safely behind us, I thought I'd share some religious resources for my LDS readers (especially if you have a faith-related New Year's Resolution or want more context for this years Come, Follow Me lessons on Doctrine and Covenants). I decided 2020 was going to be the year I, a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, learned more about Church history. I was kind of curious about the context of so many things we talked about in Sunday meetings. (Unfortunately, most converts like me never get to enjoy seminary in our Church.) Even some of my ancestors were pioneers (I learned after baptism) and I wanted to learn more about what life and faith was like for them. So I thought I'd write up a post on what I read, heard, and learned as a recommendation list for anyone else looking to expand their Church history horizons a bit. See the list below for the materials I used in the order I came across them:

  • "A Peculiar People": Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America by J. Spencer Fluhman: Okay, so I actually read this book before this year, but it was a great introduction recommended by my non-member friend who is completing her Ph.D in History. The author is an associate professor of history at BYU and is an active member of the Church. This historical context was a critical foundation for me. This was also the first place that I learned that anti-Mormons called Joseph Smith "American Muhammad" because of the many similarities between our religion and Islam. This fact delighted me, as a convert who noted these similarities when I first encountered the Church after studying the Middle East.
  • The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 50 Objects by Joe Hawkins: I discovered this podcast as I was looking for something to listen to on runs. I thought these would be helpful for faithful members seeking non-controversial additional information on some important turning points in Church history. I didn't enjoy the over-the-top apologist tone and choice to gloss over some of the most challenging episodes with justifications, but I did learn some things and get a better sense of the chronological progression of some important developments in Church history. The most edgy this one gets is briefly acknowledging that women used to administer blessings and that a few Black people participated fully in the Church before the Priesthood ban. That being said, it's a light, easy, and faith-promoting introduction to history content.
  • Saints, Volumes 1 and 2: This is a fantastic resource and would also be a great place for anyone to start learning about Church history. (I also used a photo from Saints online for this post.) These are available in podcast or written form (I preferred reading). Critics complain that because they are official Church products that they're biased (and they are biased towards the Church, of course), but I was pleasantly surprised how much controversial but well-researched content was included. (For example, it presents some of the evidence that Joseph deceived Emma in the practice of plural marriage and that women married to "unworthy" men were pressured/forced to leave their husbands and become polygamous wives to "worthy" members. Saints is also clear that there were multiple accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision.) I hope that this important historical work, like the Gospel Topics essays, leads to more deep, necessary conversations about Church history than we get in a typical lesson.
  • Year of Polygamy by Lindsay Hansen Park: So many people I know who are still active members of the Church or who have left the Church all recommended this podcast. The series starts by going one by one through each known plural wife of Joseph Smith and telling that woman's story. It's a beautiful tribute to a frequently ignored part of our history: the experiences, hopes, dreams, fears, faith, and trials of the those too often seen as mere attachments to prominent men. As time goes on, the podcast broadens to encompass plural wives of Brigham Young and others, introduce fundamentalist Mormonism to a general audience, address polygamy's many intersections including with racism, and more. I also appreciate the author's transparency about the perspectives that she and the guests she interviews bring to the table so we can take their own biases into account. Do be aware, though, that the majority of the podcast is a few years out of date so there may be references to events or people that reflect that. I will also say these episodes are significantly longer than the other resources here, so this is a good fit for people who might already be into podcasts or audiobooks. If you prefer to read, the podcast frequently recommends the book In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd M. Compton.

I read every word and listened to every episode of the resources above, so I'm always up for engaging in the content with any friends or readers who are interested. Next on my Church history list is another book that many, many people recommended to me Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman. I think I am definitely taking a break from religious podcasts for a while after the countless hours I put in in 2020, but if you have a book or article recommendation, please drop it below!

Friday, December 25, 2020

Happy Holidays from South Korea!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all from South Korea! Normally we would be traveling this time of year, but we stayed put because of the pandemic.

The lockdown is pretty serious in Seoul right now with rising COVID-19 cases, so we spent our time either inside or walking outside around the city in places where we could stay distant from other people. The air quality has also been up and down lately, so ironically even without the pandemic everyone here would've still been in masks.

On Christmas Eve, we walked along part of the historic fortress walls of Seoul. In preserved parts of the wall, you could see the different styles of stones laid, which improved in efficiency and durability over the centuries. We also got to see a traditional gate, rebuilt by experts and painted with beautiful motifs on the ceiling inside. It was so cool!

In that same area, we dropped by Dongdaemun, known for its markets. There were fabric shops, cafes, street vendors, and a bunch of stores of all kinds (mostly closed). There were seasonal decorations around, as Christmas is a widely celebrated holiday here for both the religious and secular. I even spotted a nativity Christmas scene.

After that, I decided we should try and find some hodugwaja (호두과자), a Korean walnut pastry my friends kept raving about but I hadn't seen yet. It's a delicious, doughy morsel filled with sweet red bean paste (don't knock it 'til you try it) and walnuts. Thankfully, the Kakao Maps app (a Korean alternative to Google Maps) came to the rescue and helped us find a dedicated hodugwaja place where I bought two lovely wrapped boxes for us and to share.

On Christmas Day, we ventured out for a long walk in the park along the Han River. We went out in the late afternoon and enjoyed stunning views of the river. I bet it's even more beautiful in the spring and autumn when the trees and flowers are in bloom. Along the walking path, we also saw multiple sets of free outdoor exercise equipment that mostly older people were using. Some of these Korean senior citizens are so fit! Two gentleman who looked well into their 70s sped past us on our walk, and we saw others jogging and biking.

We got to enjoy the sunset as we walked back, and it got dark just in time for us to take some photos with a few light displays, including the one in the first photo of this post. (I wonder how many couples have proposed there?) I'm not sure if the lights are seasonal or permanent, but I'm glad we were able to enjoy them on our walk.

It wouldn't be a true adventure without a little failure, right? That's what I'm telling myself regarding my mixup at a food truck. Thinking I saw a yakitori food truck, I dragged Marwan over. I explained to him it was definitely skewered meat and he would definitely like it. I confidently brandished my Korean skills and ordered 12 pieces, thrilled to grab a bite after our long, cold walk. When the vendor scooped 12 balls into a tray, I figured I just had my Japanese food mixed up but I was pretty sure by definition yakitori had to be chicken. So I thanked the vendor, took the food, and led Marwan happily to a bench so we could sit and eat. We each popped one in our mouths only to look at each other in dismay. Confused, I explained I had been so sure what yakitori was, and then Marwan points out it was actually a takoyaki food truck! I promised chicken skewers, and I got us octopus balls! And the sprinkling of stuff on top I thought was fried onion in the dim light was shaved fish pieces. I might give takoyaki a try some other time, but let me tell you it does not hit the spot when you're expecting chicken! We gave the whole order away to our friends, thank goodness, who are bigger fans than we are.

It wasn't all outdoor adventuring, though. Inside, we watched the Lindsey Stirling Home for the Holidays Christmas special. If you want just a small taste of the awesomeness of her program, you can check out this video where she plays violin and dances all while hanging by her hair. We also watched a wonderful Christmas movie on Netflix called Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, a great celebration of Black talent and the best steampunk aesthetic I've probably ever seen in film. We also watched the Asia North Christmas devotional broadcast of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which featured music and messages from Japan, Mongolia, South Korea, and more. You can watch the whole thing here.

Christmas looked and felt different this year, but I was glad to be able to spend it in person with M, on video chat with family, and here in this new city. And if you're reading this, I hope your season is merry and bright (or at least safe and peaceful)!