Many years ago, I took an intensive language course in preparation for a study abroad program. The course was great, in that it tried to prepare us not only for the linguistic challenges that we would face, but also for the cultural issues that would almost certainly arise. Going into the course, I had fancied myself a sophisticated world traveler, and therefore not in need of a lesson on cultural differences, so I wasn't entirely receptive to this message at first. However, I was struck by a metaphor that the instructor used. She described a situation in which you visit a culture in which the standard polite greeting is to spit in your face upon meeting. Since you KNOW this about the culture before you go there, the first time it happens, you're started, and perhaps a little disgusted, but not annoyed. The second time, you're less startled, still disgusted, and moderately amused. After the 10th time, though, it's just about impossible not to become annoyed. The intellect can only overcome one's own cultural baggage to some extent, and beyond that, it's just about impossible not to have an emotional reaction to behavior that is considered unacceptable in your own culture, even when you KNOW that no offense is intended.
I've found that indeed, in every country where I've spent a sufficient period of time, there is some habit or custom that I find difficult to accept. Well, after 11 months in Korea, I am now fairly certain that I have identified my Korea-specific Achilles heel. You see, I don't like to be pushed.
I don't mean metaphorically pushed. I mean physically pushed, either by a hard jostle with the shoulder, or by actually having someone reach out their hand to push me. Koreans are lovely people when you know them, but apparently it is 100% acceptable to push a stranger who is in your way, even if you can see with your own eyes that that person doesn't actually have a choice about being there. Impatient to get off of a crowded train? No worries, just push the person in front of you until they slam into the person in front of them. It won't get you out any faster, but it'll make you feel better. Are you having trouble negotiating your shopping cart through a crowd? Just slam it up against the legs of the person in front of you. Sure, they're stuck too, so the only result is to make them yelp with pain, but hey, wasn't that more amusing than just standing there waiting? What if the person in your way is elderly, disabled, a small child, or a pregnant woman? No worries. This is a democracy. What if they're not in your way at all? Oh heck, push them anyway.
At first, I interpreted the pushing as subtle expressions of anti-foreign sentiment. I do stick out like a sore thumb here, so I assumed that the pushing was related to my appearance. However, the more I looked around, I realized that everybody pushes everyone else, and nobody seems to get mad, or even to notice.
This is hard for me. Americans are particularly orotective of their personal space (ask any European, Asian, or African), and in that way, I'm typically American. I don't even like being crowded, and having a stranger make avoidable physical contact for no reason feels like an act of aggression. I have been particularly sensitive to this since I've been visibly pregnant. It is just very hard for me to understand how someone could really think it's OK to push a pregnant woman when she's not in the line of gunfire or something. I'm trying to learn to cope with it, but it's hard.
Being hugely pregnant actually raises lots of issues about manners and etiquette, no matter where you are in the world. Should people let you ahead in bathroom lines? Should you be annoyed if they don't? Should people give you a seat on the bus/train? Do they? Does it bother you?
Since I've been showing, I've spent time in three countries: Indonesia, Singapore, and Korea. Here is the score:
Long bathroom lines encountered:
Times someone has offered to let me go ahead:
Rides on trains/subways when empty seats were not available:
Times someone offered me their seat:
Indonesia: 1 (an old man who was then immediately given a seat by a young healthy man, who had been ignoring me)
Korea: 4 (but that number includes 2 Americans)
Unimpressive, all around.
In Korea there are specially designated seats on the subway for people who are "elderly, disabled, or pregnant" (that's what the sign says), and generally, people that don't "qualify" don't sit there, even if there are many empty "special" seats, no needy people, and the rest of the train is full. However, people from the "normal" seats pretty much never give up their seats. So, it's all about rules, not about the "honor system". I suppose that's fair enough. However, the "honor system" IS used by people deciding whether they qualify for the "special" seats. When do you become elderly? Well, according to my own observations, some people seem to become elderly at age 50. Then, once sitting, people in the "special" seats don't seem to give them up, even to someone who fairly clearly needs them more. I have actually only seen a sitting passenger get up from a "special" seat once, and that was when I got up from a "special" seat, because there was a very old woman with a cane standing. Apparently this shamed the healthy 50-year-old man next to me to the point at which he then offered me his seat. Does that count? I don't know.
What's it like where you live? Do people give up their seats for pregnant women? Do you?