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3 June

It’s just a word, right? – Last night my wife and I watched “The Shawshank Redemption” (which, incidentally, is titled “Escape from Shawshank” in Korean—kind of gives it away, doesn’t it?). I’ve already seen the movie a number of times, but I’ve always liked it, and I’m never averse to watching it again. Red has to be one of my favorite Morgan Freeman characters of all time (right up there with Hoke from “Driving Miss Daisy”).

“I miss being able to call people my friends.”

Anyway, all of the movies on cable here have Korean subtitles, and I like to read the subtitles as I watch movies so I can point out mistakes (although I must admit the translators generally do a good job). Toward the end of the movie, after Andy escapes, there is a word used three separate times by three separate characters to describe the relationship between Red and Andy, and that word is “friend.” When Andy first disappears, the warden orders the guards to question Red, referring to him as “that friend of his.” Later on, while working outside, Red says, “I guess I just miss my friend.” And when Red reads the letter Andy left for him, it is signed, “Your friend, Andy.”

Like I said, I’ve seen the movie a number of times, but that part never hit me like it did last night—Red and Andy are friends. But that’s kind of the point of the whole move, you say. Yes, it is, and that’s what blew me away. I think it was seeing the Korean word for friend, chingu, continuously appear on the screen that made it sink in. You see, Red and Andy could never be friends in Korea. No, it has nothing to do with race—it has everything to do with age.

I suppose it’s going to take a bit of backtracking to explain this, and to explain why this simple word had such an impact on me. Even with the following explanation, I realize it may not make complete sense to some, but this is just something that I need to write.

Korea is a Confucian society, which means that social relationships are of the utmost importance. This may not sound too bad at first, but what it really means is that Korean society is very rigid and status-oriented. During the Joseon period (1392-1910), social structure took the shape of a rigid class system. Social status determined whether one was the superior or inferior in any relationship.

With the collapse of the monarchy and the aristocratic yangban class when Japan annexed Korea as a colony, status lost some of its importance as a social determiner. After liberation in 1945 the trend continued, and it is continuing today. Of course, social status has not ceased to exist. It has simply taken different forms. Now, the president of a company holds the superior position, while his employees are his inferiors. Teachers still hold a very respected position in Korea, as they always have. But a new social determiner has come to the fore, and that determiner is age (or, alternatively, seniority—the two do not generally conflict, but they tend to cause discomfort for Koreans when they do). Age has always been important in Korea, and respect for one’s elders has always been a key concept, but with the decline of other determiners age has been highlighted.

The Korean language reflects the importance placed on social relationships. Loosely speaking, there can be said to be two different types of speech: honorific and familiar. Honorific speech is used when speaking to someone higher (older, etc.) than you or to someone you do not know. Familiar speech (literally, “half speech”) is used when speaking to those lower (younger, etc.) than or equal to you. There are times when things aren’t so cut and dried, of course, and both parties use honorific speech out of deference for each other. This often happens in large organizations such as companies.

Just as there is honorific and familiar speech, there are also a myriad of relationship terms in Korean. For example, at school people are divided into two basic groups: I refer to those who began university before me as my “seniors” (seonbae) and those who began university after me as my “juniors” (hubae) when talking about them to a third party. These terms are very common and are used in other organizational situations as well.

When talking directly to people who are older than you (but not that much older) and with whom you are on familiar terms, it is common to call them “elder brother” (hyeong if you are male, or obba if you are female) or “elder sister” (nuna for males and eonni for females). This is what I call my seniors at school when addressing them, and what my juniors call me. It is actually a relatively recent phenomenon in Korea—my mother-in-law tells me that these terms were reserved for blood relations when she was young.

So what does all this have to do with friends? Well, of all the people I am close to in my department, I cannot call a single one of them my friend. None of them are my age, and thus they are all either my juniors or my seniors. Actually, there is one girl in my major who is my age, but she began graduate school before me (not to mention the fact that we weren’t that close to begin with), and this makes our relationship slightly awkward—we use honorific speech when speaking to each other. No, I’m afraid I cannot say that I have any friends at school.

Ah, but it is all semantics, you say—same thing, different terminology, no? There was a time when I thought so. But then I went out for a drink with one of my seniors from school. After we had consumed a few liters of beer, he started talking about things that he wouldn’t normally talk about when sober. This is very typical behavior in Korea (and in Japan as well), since the strict social relationships often prevent people on different levels from being too open with each other, and alcohol provides a good excuse to talk about what’s really on your mind.

Interestingly enough, our conversation began with me asking him to use familiar speech with me rather than honorific. I know this might seem contradictory, given that the ultimate purpose of this entry is to lament the lack of equal footing in Korea, but I have become so used to the way things are here that it makes me uncomfortable when someone does not use the proper speech. This senior of mine is three years older than I, but he has always insisted on using honorific speech with me, and in the beginning I often felt uncomfortable with this.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time (in fact, I didn’t realize it until I started writing this sentence), his defense of this practice amounted to a series of reasons why he was not in a superior position and thus could not use familiar speech. First he claimed that I had married several years before him, and this gave me seniority. As time went on, though (and as the beer kept coming), he revealed to me the real reason. The way he saw it, in the greater scheme of things I would be able to help him far more than he would be able to help me. I disagreed with him (and still do), but the point he was making is that he didn’t feel he would be able to do what a senior is supposed to do, and thus felt that we were on relatively equal footing. It would be absurd for us to both use familiar speech with each other (something I would never agree to anyway), so his solution was to use honorific speech with me.

Just because he felt this way, though, did not mean he thought we were friends. He was talking about how he would be indebted to me later on in life, but I assured him that there would be no debt. “After all,” I said, “that’s what friends do. They help each other.” But when I said the word “friends,” he looked up at me with an astonished expression on his face. “Friends?” he said. “Do you think we are friends?” I realized my mistake, and I didn’t know what to say. The moment passed, and that was the last we ever discussed our relationship.

I went home that night crushed. Here was a guy I considered to be my friend—possibly my best friend in Korea—and he had just denied it. It wasn’t his fault, of course, and it wasn’t mine, either. It was a cultural misunderstanding. Fifty years from now, should we still be alive and in touch, we would still not be able to call each other friend. He will always be my senior, and I will always be his junior. It’s not just a matter of semantics—it’s the very nature of the relationship. I didn’t understand that then, but I do now.

This is why Red and Andy’s relationship blew me away last night. It is obvious that Red is older than Andy, yet the two refer to each other as friends, and even the hated warden acknowledges this. As I watched the movie I was moved, and I realized that I miss being able to call people my friends.

I like it here in Korea—if I didn’t I never would have stayed. I think I’ve adjusted fairly well, and I feel I have a pretty good understanding of Korean culture. But that doesn’t mean that I like everything the way it is. I go to school, and I talk with my juniors and seniors, and I follow protocol. But deep down inside my heart is just screaming to call them my friends, to open up to them like I used to with my friends at university in the States.

I don’t know if I will ever get used to this. I don’t think I want to. I think that, as convenient as it would be to let go of these things and try to adapt to the Korean way of thinking, I am deliberately, stubbornly holding on to these little pieces of myself that make me who I am. No, I’ll never be able to let go. In the hidden places of my heart there will always be a place where no one is a junior or a senior—where everyone is just a friend.

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