Thursday, June 21, 2012

Personal Space

Here in Korea, the concept of personal space is underdeveloped at best when seen from a Westerner's eyes.

I think there are multiple reasons for this:

1. It's crowded. Seriously. No privacy, even in your own home, because almost everything is apartments and often your windows face another apartment.

2. Korean, like other Asian cultures, is traditionally communalistic, which I've  mentioned before I'm sure. Also, right now there are more of us foreigners here in Korea than there have ever been before, and we make up about 2% of the population. That means that in the history of Korea, the population has always been at least 98% Korean. One blood, one race. Many Koreans say this to me when they explain why their country doesn't want to give me a visa, or why people stare at foreigners on the street, or why Koreans get panic attacks when someone asks a question in English. As one race, added to the traditional culture, they feel that everyone is family. You don't feel uncomfortable squishing up against your mother, brother, or cousin if it's crowded, do you?

3. Ajummas. An ajumma is a middle-aged woman who feels entitled to do whatever she pleases no matter whose way she gets in, and often what she pleases is irrational or just downright strange. If I say "Ow!" in a subway station and a friend asks, "what's wrong?" an answer of "ajumma" suffices. What's especially strange about these women is that they act like they're in a hurry and everyone is in their way even when it's not crowded and the bus or subway train is obviously not coming for another 5 minutes. As with many things, our impression of people's manners does not come from the normal people who make at least a slight, if way short of useful, effort not to hit people or be otherwise annoying in public; rather, it comes from the extremists. Ajummas are the Al-Quaida of public places in Korea, the bulk of the population is the peaceful or at least normal majority of Muslim people, and we foreigners are the ones who feel that the rage of the whole nation is directed at us. But if you complain about this to any Korean, he or she will say that everybody gets annoyed about ajummas and that they're just part of life so Koreans just deal with them.

But what I don't understand is that with such a lack of the entire concept of personal space, Koreans are extremely conservative about intentional man-woman closeness and any type of hugging. Women hold hands with their girl friends in public, and men are comfortable with their arms around each other. But there are no hugs. In the US, I hug my female and male friends when I see them and when saying goodbye. I hug my family all the time. Koreans.... not so much. Actually, part of the reason I really enjoy salsa dancing is that it reminds of of that warm feeling I get from a platonic hug. And what we think of as totally harmless couple behavior is considered a grossly rude public display of affection. This can even be hugging each other on a crowded subway, when actually the distance between the boyfriend and girlfriend is the same as the distances between all the other people, but since they have their arms around each other and are smiling and flirting, it's suddenly to be admonished.

I guess Koreans could say the same thing about us. We hug so freely, but why are we so cold when it comes to same-sex friend touching here in Korea? I still think it's weird to hold a girl's hand while walking around, and I get all stiff and take any opportunity to "need" that hand for something else.

So what exactly is personal space and what defines acceptable touching or distance and where is the line?

Every culture defines this for itself, and I think it's constantly changing. Since I came to Korea 3 years ago, I've noticed that people hug slightly more. Maybe as a result of an ever-increasing influx of expats? Maybe because of Western dramas and movies? Maybe it's all in my head?

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