When is it OK to stop respecting old people?

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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.

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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.


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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.



Bjorn Karlman

10 thoughts on “When is it OK to stop respecting old people?”

  1. Trick question. You should always respect everyone. Sometimes you won’t, but there is never a time to stop respecting people. I guess it depends on what one means by “respect”. As for the old man that wouldn’t bow. I think if a foreigner didn’t want to partake in a certain aspect of my culture because it went against their religion, I wouldn’t think twice about it. Understanding is a two way street. I do think, though, that if you are in someone else’s country, you should pretty much do as they do – with maybe a handful of exceptions. I think if it gets to the point where you are unable to adapt, and people are getting annoyed with you and you are annoyed with them, you should go back home.

      1. At the very least, you should respect local customs and do your best to meet the general expectations of the country that is allowing you to immigrate. If, for instance, you move to a country where certain things are illegal, you should not do those things. If you are supposed to learn the language, you should do that. I think this list is shorter than the exceptions list. Generally, I think if it doesn’t cause cultural clashing, it is fine. So art, music, reasonable clothing, food, traditions, most religious practices, etc. are almost always okay to keep in my mind.

  2. Great entry. I felt a bit weird with bowing in Japan at first when I lived there… I have to agree with David that understanding is a two way street. About religion… I guess the more your religion focuses on literal interpretations of things, the more likely you are to get offended by other people’s ways. I read a great MA Dissertation by N Durston (2010) who talked about symbolic versus concrete “this or that” thinking. The first invites different interpretations and dialogue, the second shuts them down. That said, I feel there is definitely a time and place to shut some things down without question, so maybe the key is to evaluate WHY you are offended, and then decide if it’s something to fight to change or just something that you have to go away and think about.

    1. Being open to different interpretations and to dialogue is where it is at for me… the unquestioningly literal approach to religion or culture just seems intellectually cowardly.

  3. Oh, and also, ask WHY the other culture does whatever it is getting your back up. You are both likely to come away richer from the conversation. After all, the same gesture can mean completely different things across borders. E.g. The Northern American gesture for showing the number two is swearing in Britain.

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