Sunday, January 10, 2010
Greeting People in Korea
Leaving a hospital after treatment an essayist expressed his shock at being addressed as 'abeonim' (the word father) by one of the nurses. The salutation of the nurse made him feel sad, although he new it was done with respect. I found the response strange but it does show how important titles are in Korean society. He was in his forties and a father but to be addressed as such was unsettling to him.
He mentions that he was in an office working as a civil servant for many years and addressed in a way befitting his position as an official of his grade; with the arrival of new staff those in the office found it difficult to address him in the same way they addressed the new arrivals, so called him doctor. It was difficult for the office people to address one who worked for 18 years in the office with the same title as those who were just recently joining the staff.
He mentioned being addressed as 'wonjang' (director, the head of a school). He was in a position that entitled him to the name but as he said, it is attributed to all kinds of people in Korea. He uses the example of going to a baduk club where he gave his skill level and was told to play with the 'wonjang'; the man who came was not older than twenty, he asked the writer to start with 3 pieces on the board. The writer did not think he was entitled to the title he had given himself and a little bit put out that he was asked to start with a handicap of 3.
In Korea you can address a person you meet for the first time with the title teacher, brother, sister, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, or these days: Mr., Mrs. Ms and Miss-- Koreans have descended from one ancestor so all are related. However, in giving one of these titles you have to be careful that it fits the situation and the person.
In the extended family the names are complicated and many of the Koreans would not be familiar with all of them. He mentions even after marriage, before they had the first child, they addressed each other rather evasively. He never used the frequent 'Yobo', translated freely meaning 'dear' but literally 'look here'. After the first child they used the name of the child to address each other--the mother of so and so. This sounds strange to foreigners, but probably the sacredness of the name is implied, using the name may have overtones of possessing the person. This is a conjecture on my part and mentioned with little evidence.
I have always had difficulty with using titles. As a foreigner and a priest I do use the baptismal names of those I know. I have rarely added the honorific to the name as a Korean would. They would say Maria Ssi or use another honorific. Many years ago I asked the sisters in the parish whether what I was doing was permissible, and was told the parishioners will have little difficulty accepting it from a missioner. Even those with big positions in society I can address with their baptismal names. This has made life very easy, it is convenient, with little stress and apparently no problem for those addressed.(Being a foreigner they make the necessary allowances).