It’s the classic golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. But in the East, it’s more like: treat elders and higher ranking officials the way you’d want to be treated if you were in their position, whatever it takes.
Whether it’s a matter of age or authority, hierarchy is of the utmost importance in Korea. At all times, younger or lower ranking people make concious efforts to show their superiors the proper amount of respect they deserve; from the way they introduce themselves to higher ranking people, to the way they acknowledge or address them, to the way they eat and drink with them–as well as…how they plant trees for them.
Yes, that’s right. Even a landscaping mishap has the potential to cause hierarchical tensions to run high in Korea. Let me explain.
April 22nd, 2015 marked the offical Grand Opening of Ulsan Sports Science Middle and High School, the school where I teach English. The day consisted of an opening ceremony, the premiere of the school’s promotional recruiting video, a ribbon cutting ceremony, a special lunch and an open house of sorts, all attended by proud parents as well as high ranking school officials and donors.
Also among the many grand events scheduled to take place that day was a commemorative tree planting. As you see in the picture above, the school has created a kind of cornerstone monument flanked by two traditional pine trees of roughly equal height. But if you were to look underground, you might find something strange. One of the trees is actually buried a good 3 feet deeper into the ground than it’s counterpart. Why, you ask? Because of these two trees, one was bought in honor of the Metropolitan Office of Education (MOE) and the other, in honor of the Mayor of Ulsan….but the Mayor’s tree turned out to be shorter! Concerned about casting potential disrespect on our fair Mayor, who would be the highest ranking official in attendance that day–not to mention the shame and embarrassment that would rain down on him and our school for not correcting such an egregious violation of the natural Korean order–our principal requested the previous day that the planters dig a deeper hole for the MOE tree so that they appear to be even!
The planters readily complied and so, when it came time for the Mayor and other donors/MOE officials to each shovel a small bit of dirt onto their respective trees, the commemorative planting went off without a hitch. And everyone went home with their dignity and place in the hierarchy still in tact.
On the one hand, this little incident is exremely comical and ridiculous, even to my fellow Korean coworkers. But beneath their stifled chuckles is also a sincere understanding for and agreement with our principal’s request, which just goes to show that the importance of hierarchy and respect cannot be overstated in Korea.
In America, we strive to uphold the golden rule and treat others the way we want to be treated. But in Korea, they take it to a whole new level.