I have recently learned a phrase that will help me communicate to my fellow Koreans (shoot, I am not Korean…) while riding the subway. Last week… around 1 p.m. I was on the subway with about four other friends (and when I say about, I mean exactly four), and we were all chatting away enjoying the afternoon, as were most of the other subway participants (as in almost everyone else was talking). An older man leans over, looks directly at me and says (in very respectable English), “Excuse me, this is a public place so you need to be quiet.”
Now, for most Westerners this statement may seem a little odd. But, to be fair… in Korea they are always advertising that the polite way to travel is to keep your mouth shut during subway rides, even if it is two o’clock in the afternoon. If people actually followed this protocol, I wouldn’t mind being shh’ed in the slightest. Okay, you know what, I might mind it a little. The thing is, every single time I have been told to shut up, I am not the only one talking, sometimes I am not even talking at all, and I am definitely not usually talking in my normal voice (which is, admittedly loud, I know).
A couple of days after the old man told me to be quiet, I was “ssh’ed” again. This time I had my Korean phrase memorized and ready, “This is a public place so I have the right to speak!” (yes, I can now say that in Korean- thanks Elaine!). Only… I didn’t have the guts to say it. This time it was pretty late at night (about 11 p.m.) and the “shh-er” was sitting right next to me. I listened to her and stopped talking. I couldn’t help but look around the crowded subway and see everyone else talking, and I couldn’t help thinking about how my Korean-American friend had just been speaking in English for the past fifteen minutes (and continued to speak after she ‘ssh’ed’ me) and she said nothing to him. And then, as she got off the subway one or two stops later, I couldn’t help thinking, “why did she insist on me being quiet when she isn’t even staying on the subway???” I wasn’t yelling, I wasn’t talking fast or excitedly… and for me… I had been speaking pretty softly.
Today something beautiful happened though. As I sit in a coffee shop working on grad school stuff (as you can see, I am being very productive) an older woman came over and asked (in English!) if she could borrow one of my table’s chairs. She was so nice, and seemed to love speaking in English to me, and made sure to tell me that if I needed it back to just let her know. And the thing is, there were other people with extra chairs, Koreans, that she could have asked… but she asked me! It may seem silly, but I really think it was God’s way of reminding me not to make blanket judgments on a race. No matter how many times I get “shh-ed” just because I am speaking English, it’s not all Koreans. Or how many times people stare at my face, it’s not all Koreans (or just Koreans)… I love living in a culture that is so different from the one I grew up in.
Korea. I like you.