I’ll never forget it. I was 16, working in a little village in the Cavite province of the Philippines, just outside Manila. On this particular occasion I was at a Korean friend’s house. I was joining about 10 other guys in repeatedly bowing down to a Korean grandmother.
The occasion was Korean New Year (the first day of the lunar calendar). The bowing was part of an ancestral ritual called Sebae and was basically a way to show respect for elders. With the grandma being the eldest person in the room, she was the object of our ceremonial bowing.
The ritual, the traditional hanbok dress that some of the crowd wore, and the absolutely amazing food that lay waiting made for a pretty unforgettable impression.
Little girl dressed in hanbok
After the bowing ceremony I devoured the food. I kept going back to the table over and over again to get more. It was sublime. The only thing that marred the occasion for me was something I just could not let go: the reaction that a Western friend of mine had shown when we were asked to bow to the grandma. “I don’t bow down to anyone but God,” he said. And then he straight refused to take part. Classy.
I was incensed. What was his problem? Was this some kind of narrow religious philosophy that precluded bowing as a sign of respect? If so, what did he do with half of the cultural signs of respect in the Old Testament? Was this some lame form of Western Imperialism? Was he simply hellbent on reinforcing a stereotype of the uncouth Westerner? I could not let it go.
Even now when I think about his refusal I feel my blood pressure rising. It prompts a lot of questions. Where do you draw the line when it comes to showing respect in other cultures? Should you ever? Do you consider your own comfort zone first or do the rites of other cultures take precedence?
I have often seen expats with a superiority complex wave off local customs that they consider beneath them. Even when I was a kid, expats used the word “native” with condescending regularity to discuss locals and their customs. In the case of my clueless Western friend, not even the idea of showing respect for someone of advanced age could persuade him to let go of his preconceived notions regarding the demonstration of respect.
Luckily, old school global hierarchies are fading and dinosaurs that insist on hanging on to an antiquated “my way is better than your way” cultural philosophy will become more and more isolated. There is a brighter day coming. Until then we would all do well to remember to bow to Korean grandmothers.