Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Ajumma Coffee-Sharing Protocol

Less than two weeks left in country and I'm still having confusing cultural experiences. (This is a good thing, btw.) So a couple days ago there I am riding the bus back from Seoul to Andong. How it works when you ride the express bus in Korea, usually, is that you buy your happy little (affordable!) ticket and then ride a decent, clean, comfortable bus to your destination. You get an assigned seat. In this case, I was number 12. The seats are two seats together on the left side of the aisle, and one seat alone on the right side of the aisle by the other window. In other words, the first row is 1-2 together, then seat 3. The second row is 4-5 together, then seat 6. And so on. When you get a multiple of 3, you know you will be in the seat alone on the right side, so I knew in seat 12 I would be in the fourth row in the single seat.

I boarded the bus and noted it wasn't too full. In the fourth row, an elderly couple were sitting together in my row, in seats 10 and 11. There was a suitcase placed in front of seat 12, in the area between the seat and the seat in front - where my legs would be when I sat down. I stopped in the aisle, showed them my ticket, and they hurried to move their small suitcase, wedging it between their legs on the floor of their pair of seats. It would have been nice for them, obviously, to have it in the seat they had thought would be empty, but they quickly moved it when they saw I'd be occupying the seat.

Within a couple minutes, the bus was ready to leave and there were still only seven or so people, total, on board. I thought to myself, "Self, you can move to the seat behind you, the couple can put their suitcase back here, you can have a bit more privacy, and everybody wins." (I hate sitting right next to people in a movie theater, too, when there are other empty rows. Why do people do that? When someone comes and sits right next to me, I totally move.)  And so in this case, as the driver began to reverse, I moved to the seat behind me (15, as you know if you are paying attention) and signalled to the elderly couple that seat 12 would be free after all and they could go ahead and put their suitcase back there. Of course they said thanks and stuff, and I tried to say "It's OK, no problem" although I was worried that the phrase I know for that, "Kwentchanayo" is not formal enough, because it is a polite form but not honorific. So, afraid of having not been respectful enough to my elders with my verb ending, I sat in seat 15 and started reading my book.

A bit later, here came Ms. Elderly Suitcase, to the seat behind her, with their thermos of coffee. It's one of those stainless steel, colored, sturdy thermoses people take on trips, with a lid that doubles as a cup. She sat down and held it out to me, offering me a cup of coffee. I tried to politely decline, once again fretting about my verb endings. I was trying to throw in a sup-ni-da or a su-seyo somewhere to make it all formal and honorific, but still I kept saying "Ah-ni-ye-yo" (No) and "Kwentchanayao" (It's OK). Anyway, I think she thought I was just doing the polite refusal thing, twice, and a third time she insisted, poured the coffee in the cup, and gave it to me. Then she went back to her seat.

So, what on earth is the protocol here? I mean, I had to drink it. (I think?) Would I drink it in the U.S.? No way. I'd think a fellow bus passenger was trying to poison me.So there I am sipping this random coffee and wondering about the etiquette. Do I drink it all? Do I drink a sip and then give it back to her? There's a thing in Korea about not totally emptying the dishes or pots or side dish bowls in restaurants, I heard, because it indicates you want your host to serve you more. I definitely did not want to be served more, as I was overwhelmed even being served the one cup! I drank half of it (tasty! mixed with milk! and apparently not poison) and then really tried to decide what to do with the second half. Meanwhile, Ms Elderly is back in her seat with headphones listening to music and oblivious to me. Finally I was like, whatever! and I drank the whole thing, then went back in the aisle, crouched next to her, got their attention, handed the cup back, thanked them a lot, and went back to my seat.

I mean, there was really no need to thank me for moving my seat. Anyone would have done the same thing, seriously! There were so many empty seats on the bus! And it was better for me anyway! I was so overwhelmed by the coffee thanks.

The funny thing is, I am reading the book Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, in which the new bride is totally out of her etiquette element at Manderley and has no idea what's going on with servants, menus, protocol, wings of the house, and whatnot. I was just reading it and thinking to myself, "Wow, I don't have to worry about fancy rules like that" when Ms Elderly comes and rocks my world with her proffered coffee thanks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, Linda, there still are courteous, considerate, polite people in the world! And two of them interacted on the bus that day!