Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Funny Thing That Happened to Me at Work: Losing Face, Gaining 눈치

So yesterday, I had something of a mental breakdown at work, which I had seen coming the day before. It's pre-vacation time, meaning I am showing movies/Doing Nothing/"desk warming," a very particular South Korean educational ritual, the in-and-outs of which are chronicled extremely hilariously here by my buddy Michael.

Literally hundreds of my relatives are gathering in my adopted hometown of Colorado Springs this weekend...I am imagining gin and tonics being drunken on my back porch, the crisp alpine desert air turning downright cold when the sun sets. My grandfather cracks everyone up, roasting everyone about their terrible golf handicaps. Meanwhile, I am showing Korean high schoolers Pixar movies with subtitles, positively steaming in the humidity and counting down the days until the gloried babysitting is over. Pass the soju.

Or the makgeoli, which I tend to prefer these days

Needless to say, several emotional Skype phone calls home yesterday and I was a complete wreck. I managed to keep my sobbing contained to the quiet of the English room, returning to my desk in the main office only once I was sure my eyes weren't scarlet/my cheeks weren't puffed up like Kirby-sized pink orbs.


I had made my tear-inducing phone calls in the hour before my first class started. Or, was supposed to start. When I got back to the main office, I was informed by my head co-teacher that I would have no classes today, and the poor woman, thinking that this would make me happy, cheerfully smiled and chirped "So you should be happy!" The very suggestion of happiness seemed so, so glib--how could I possibly be happy, without even a regular schedule of the same forty minutes of a Disney movie to keep me away from my desk for eight straight hours??? Hormones raging, I burst into tears yet again, alarming all of the teachers in the office, most of whom tried hard to stare at their hands while I lost a massive amount of "face".

Face is a curious, curious Korean social phenomenon, which I continue to be puzzled by even after almost two years here. I'm No Picasso explains it slightly more eloquently than I am probably capable of here, but perhaps I can give a few more examples of face saving, which is a critical part of Korean social life, especially at work.

You are at a work dinner with your boss and several other co-workers. Your boss is keen on getting everyone wasted and orders bottles after bottles of soju, but the last thing you want to do is be drunk/potentially more loose-lipped at a work function. Your boss offers you shot after shot, but magically, your glass remains full--seeing as you have been covertly filling it up with water while no one is watching. This way, you can participate in the seemingly never-ending series of toasts, while still managing to sit upright at the end of dinner. FACE SAVED.

You have been at school for eight hours and are starving. You are walking by the teacher's room and lo and behold, a gorgeous buffet is being prepared for some kind of end of year party! There are stacks of sweet tteok(떡),juicy bossam hunks (보쌈), and beautifully prepared slices of fruit. Glory be to god, the higher powers seem to have heard the bile in your stomach eating away at your insides!


With no other teachers around to judge the copious amounts to food you take, you load up your plate with enough food fill you up well past dinner time, and sneak off to your office where share you wares with your cubicle mate AND ONLY YOUR CUBICLE MATE. FACE SAVED.

Your co-workers have planned a teacher's trip to a nearby water park and have invited you to go along. You know the whole experience will likely be miserable: not only will it probably rain, but you know that you will have to wear a swimsuit and are likely going to have to shower and be seen IN THE NUDE with your co-workers, some of whom you don't particularly care for. So, you tell them you are sick and can't go. Or, you tell them you can't swim. Or, you tell them you have other long-made plans. Or, you tell them you have a chlorine allergy. FACE SAVED.

So, how exactly did I save my face on Tuesday? I went to the bathroom to get myself together. I took my cell phone with me and locked myself in a stall. I called the international clinic at a nearby hospital and made an appointment for 1:30. And then I went back to the office, told my co-teacher I was feeling extremely sick, and that I needed to go to the doctor, ASAP, so could I please leave school at bit early? I promised I would show her a medical receipt from the hospital if she needed it. Looking relieved, she said OF COURSE I could leave early and hoped that I felt better soon.

I did actually go to the doctor, just to make sure the meds that I am on weren't responsible for me completely losing my mind for a day. But I think if I had just gone home and gone to sleep, nobody at my school would have known and I almost think that's what they were expecting me to do. And it was okay, because I recovered (some) of my face with my appointment.

Linked with "face" is 눈치 (noonchi)--the ability to notice or perceive social situations. A co-teacher recently told me I have good 눈치, and I think it is one of the nicest things a Korean person has ever said to me. But. I still have a long way to go, I think, as I continue to navigate Korealand...


  1. I don't find "face" hard to understand conceptually at all—as someone who probably has some kind of mild social anxiety, it reflects mental heuristics I already use. It's just another way to avoid conflict, which I do at all costs.

    Another example:

    You are late to work; instead of walking, you take the bus. You notice your manager, with whom you have recently had words, also on the bus. Also late. You're pretty sure he saw you. Both parties say nothing. FACE SAVED.

    (This incident happened at Sherlock, if you'll recall—and my instinct to say nothing was at direct odds with Alex's assessment of his behavior as rude.)

    But the heuristics only works in terms of identifying a situation in which I am losing face; I don't know how to regain it. And the finer points I still fail for sure, because it requires social finesse I most definitely lack.

  2. Homesickness sucks and causes me to be emotional at work too. I've lost face several times because of it. But I move on. I explain myself and get the usual pat on the back.

    I suggest getting together with some familiar pals here and having a jolly time.