Bowing and a Birthday wish
Bowing is a lot of fun and I highly recommend it, even if I don’t always understand some of the finer points of bowing etiquette. My technique is a little off, too. My bows are abrupt and spastic where they should be dignified and graceful, and I have the unfortunate habit of kicking my left leg in when I dip my head, so that the whole thing turns into a kind of involuntary curtsey. But I’m working on it, and I feel that I can only get better with more time and practice.
I also need to learn when it is and is not appropriate to bow. At the most basic level, the bow is a sign of respect towards an elder or a superior. And no matter how many grade-school teachers insist otherwise, respect rarely ever goes both ways, and so bows are not—and should not—always be reciprocated. I have a difficult time with this. When someone bows to me, I feel compelled to return the gesture, almost as a corrective, as if to say, “no, no, no, I think there’s been a mistake. If you really knew me, you’d see that I am not, in fact, bow-worthy. Here, have it back.” And then I return the bow. I am fine with that though. Even if other people, other expats even, can stand there with grace, dignity and poise while receiving a bow from a waiter or cashier or someone, I can’t.
My problem probably has something to do with a lack of familiarity. America, as you may have noticed, suffers from a severe dearth of bowing. Besides eight-year-olds taking strip mall karate classes and gymnasts just finishing their floor exercises, there is very little bowing in the USA (maybe also ballroom dancing? Is there bowing in ballroom dancing? It seems like there might be bowing). Korea, in contrast, is saturated with bows, teeming with them. So to an American in Korea, making the transition from one extreme to the other, bowing can seem more meaningful than it actually is. Every time I bow, I still feel like I am taking part in a solemn exchange, a grave and serious transaction—whether of material goods or simply psychic energy—even if I am only grabbing a beer from the corner store. Koreans, on the other hand, who have built up a tolerance for the innate solemnity of the gesture, are able to bow—or not to bow—without so much as a second thought. They make it look easy, too, without any of the tics or hiccups that characterize my awkward efforts.
I need to learn to emulate this attitude, to take my bowing in stride, to do it with a casual, even perfunctory air. I want to be able to perform a bow as if it is just one of two dozen or so bows I will mete out that day, which, after all, it is. Until then, I think I will be cursed to a life filled with over-bowing and quasi-curtseys, closer to jerky head nods than anything else. Still, as I said before, it is really a lot of fun.
Also, I want to wish a very happy (late) birthday to my little brother ben and my little sister Katie.
Ben—even though you have blonde hair and blue eyes, for 18 years you have stubbornly refused to be anything other than the perfect little brother. You are the best of all of us, and never let that change.
Katie—I’d call you beautiful, but I don’t think you need any encouragement on that front. I’d call you brilliant, but I don’t want to lend credibility to that malicious rumor going around that says you’re smarter than me. So I’ll just say I love you (both), and Happy 18th Birthday.