Korean Politeness Isn’t Dead

When was the last time you saw peak-hour traffic this well behaved?

This video showing true Korean politeness, has been doing the rounds on social media in South Korea and causing a bit of a sensation. What you’re watching is a very old lady walking slowly across a busy intersection while all the drivers patiently wait for her to finish crossing. It’s these occasional encounters with exemplary kindness and patience that are one of the true pleasures of living in South Korea.

In many older neighbourhoods, especially in smaller cities outside of Seoul, bikes are parked in the street and never locked. Old people sit on doorsteps and chat in the mornings and evenings; neighbours get together to prepare and pickle vegetables in the narrow alleys between houses. And you’ll often see old furniture – computer chairs, vinyl sofas and old dining chairs – parked on street corners, under shady trees and in parks for the elderly to sit on while they hang out.

I love the way everyone just looks out for kids here, even kids they don’t know. There’s a sense of shared responsibility for the weaker people in society – a shared care. It really hit me on one occasion when I first visited South Korea. There were some kids playing ball in a residential street when a car turned and was driving toward them – an old lady passing by gently warned the kids off the road. “Kids! Careful. There’s a car coming.”

When you are a lost tourist in South Korea, the locals consider it a national service to offer you help. The first time we visited Seoul, we became disoriented coming out of a subway station and couldn’t figure out which way needed to go. A middle aged businessman paused to ask if we were okay. We told him where we wanted to go and he spent fifteen minutes walking us to our destination with the quiet dignity of a hotel concierge…. in the opposite direction from which he’d originally been going.

South Korean cities can be a pushy and aggressive places at times. Seoul especially is fast paced and high-pressure. Like big cities the world over, most people seem to be in a hurry most of the time. But you occasionally you get these glimpses of consummate humanity and civility – it’s one of the things that makes living in this country a true pleasure.

Korean ladies making kimchi