As I continue to learn about this incredible and often completely impossible country, one thing seems to always hold. It’s so hard to make a Korean stick to a promise. Like I’ve mentioned before, good intentions are everything in Korean culture. Saying you’ll do something, meet someone, help someone, invite someone – all of these are examples of Korean promises. To this day, they are the hardest part of Korean culture for me to navigate, since I never know for certain, if something is truly a promise or just a friendly token of good intentions. I found it frustrating during my first year living here, but actually even more frustrating now, since I feel that surely this should have become easier by the second year. Well, it hasn’t.
I’ve experienced countless disappointments in what I thought were set-in-stone agreements, only to feel stood-up, ignored, ghosted, left out in the rain – you take your pick. If there is something that holds true for most Koreans is that they suffer from chronic fear of commitment and therefore phrases like ‘maybe’, ‘if I find the time’, ‘if nothing else comes up’, ‘if I can make it’ etc. are frequently used. One of the most frequently used sentences can be ‘다른 일이 없으면 조만간 보자’ (if nothing else comes up, let’s get together soon). I don’t know about you, but to me, that is probably the lamest, weakest, least committed attempt at a pseudo-promise ever made.
I’ve learned long ago not to expect anything from anyone, and never to expect anyone to show up before they actually do, but I still can’t help but feel that this is just such an ineffective way to run a society. In other words, it seems completely socially acceptable to just screw each other over again and again. And obviously, the Korean-Confucian social ranking system, which penetrates all interpersonal relationships, makes it even easier to do so without anyone doing anything about it.
This week, I had invited my teaching assistant to lunch as a thank you for all his hard work during the midterm season. While eating, we talked about a variety of topics, including the pros and cons of living in Korea. He is Korean but spent many years studying in Canada, speaks perfect English, and has a profound understanding of both East and West. When he asked what I found hardest about living in Korea, I mentioned this problem to him, and he immediately nodded. “Oh, yes. That’s difficult. I had a hard time with this too, when returning to Korea”. He continued to explain that he had begun to think of this phenomenon as ‘Schrödinger’s cat’, which is a famous thought experiment, where a cat placed in a box with explosives has a 50% chance of surviving. When we open the box, it may be dead or alive, but can’t possibly be both. We can only know with certainty once we open the box. Applied to the Korean culture, this theory suggests that you can only know for sure if someone is serious about their promise if they actually follow up on it. When the promise is first made – it’s merely a Schrödinger’s cat situation.
Well, I never thought that I needed theories from quantum mechanics to understand Koreans’ mindset, but I guess it helped a little bit. And, as always, understanding something is not the same as accepting something. Trust me, it still sucks!