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Reflections From Korea
Bar: People Around the World

...by Myung J. Yi
Myung J. Yi (Jai) I love many attributes of American culture.
Among them, I especially value Americans' optimistic attitudes, universal love for humor, and more horizontal interpersonal dynamics.

Americans' "we are all equal" interpersonal practices are most commonly observed in the way Americans address people. On most occasions, Americans address others by first names, unlike those in more formal cultures who address others by last names, i.e. "Mr." "Mrs." or "Miss." However, this practice often times has displeased many newcomers to this country, including myself.

Koreans are more formal
I had difficulty dealing with this problem during my first years in America. In general, Koreans are a lot more formal than Americans and do not call others by first names unless they are very close friends or junior members of their own families.

Map of Asia

My pre-immigration life as a young commissioned officer of the strict Korean Army and a teacher at a Korean high school made it more difficult to overcome this kind of cultural shock. At all Korean secondary schools, uniformed students saluted teachers and addressed them "Sir" or "Ma'am." I really disliked being called by my first name by little American kids in my neighborhood.

How did I cope with this uncomfortable situation? Since I knew I could not make kids call me by my last name in lieu of my first name, I devised a way to handle the problem. Whenever kids asked my name, I told them my name was "Pyeha." So, when they called my Pyeha, I did not feel bad at all. As a matter of fact, I felt rather good because in the Korean language, "Pyeha" means "Your Royal Highness."

America influences me
One and a half decades of life in America has loosened me up quite a bit. These days I find myself almost zero male-chauvinistic, more democratic, open minded, and tolerant to differences than when I first came to this country.

I will probably continue to live for the rest of my life under the significant influence of the Korean culture. But I am very grateful that God has endowed me with some willingness to change my perspectives of various things in life.

Nowadays, I feel somewhat uncomfortable or old if anybody (even little kids) calls me "Mr. Yi" or "Sir."

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Updated September 16, 1999