So ever since moving abroad, and consequently into a city that is wealthier and more pretentious than anywhere I'd ever lived before, or will ever live again, I've had an overwhelming sense of embarrassment.
Not because I've done anything particularly embarrassing, per say, though...give it time. I'll eventually trip, or burp, or get caught picking my nose, or use the wrong fork, or whatever. And it will inevitably offend someone, because I always offend someone. But...for the sake of this blog post, I am not talking about embarrassing myself.
I'm talking about the embarrassment and shame I feel when I am served.
You see, in South Korea, everyone pays great attention to honor. They don't accept tips, because it insinuates that they are unable to support themselves or their families. They stay at work later than their bosses, even if it means sitting at their desks playing games on their phones, because it looks good for them to stay at work later than their boss--even if their productivity is nil. Getting not just good, but excellent grades and being accepted into top universities is of the utmost in importance, because it makes the family as a whole, especially the parents, look successful, driven, and ambitious. Never mind if the kid wants to become a mechanic, or if they arrived at work at 7am and worked their freaking AZZ off until 5pm....it's all about honor and respect. And everyone wants to be higher up on the respect ladder.
And that's where my discomfort with all things honor related comes in.
I was raised by a truck driver. He hauled freight all over the inland northwest for the bulk of my childhood, and provided for my family to the best of his abilities. When I was in middle school, my dad put himself back in college, and eventually became a math teacher, which was an equally humble but critical job to fill. My mother was a librarian and a grocery store checker. As an adult, I've worked as a child care provider, a florist, a store clerk, a butcher shop janitor, a house cleaner, a receptionist, a waitress, and an author. Only one of my jobs provoked curiosity and/or admiration in most folks--and that usually wanes when they find out I write romance. (I really hate literary snobs.) I'm not from what most Koreans would consider "good stock." I grew up lower middle class. We ate government cheese, and got free lunches at public school. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs. And when I found myself a single mother of two children, my son's Kindergarten wardrobe came from a clothing bank located above my WIC office. I have never been above breaking a sweat and doing humiliating work
I am not fancy. I am not privileged. I am not part of the elite.
I live in a fancy city filled with wealthy people only because a very well known and wealthy company wanted the specific skill set my husband could provide. When I am invited to cocktail parties and theater outings with friends here, I have lots of fun... but feel like a complete poser. When I carry my Coach purse (that a sweet friend gifted me after deciding the color was just too bold for her--go figure, I loved it!) I always turn it label in, because it feels so weird to have something so fancy, so classy. Fancy? Classy? So not me.
But for the record, I really love my purse.
My point is: "One of these things is not like the others, one of these things is not quite the same."
(please tell me you sang this to the tune from Sesame Street.)
So when I go into a restaurant and a waiter is busting their hump to provide me with excellent service, or when I am at the store, and the clerk is hurriedly cashing out my order, I go out of my way to look them in the eye, and tell them thank you very much. Not because I am polite--though, I like to think I am--but because I want them to know: I am just like you. I am not like everyone else here. I used to sweep floors, too.
Just a few years ago, I was changing diapers for other people's kids, while my own sweet babies were in daycare, so that I would have enough money to get through the month. I was the one hosing the blood and bone chips down the butcher shop drain at the end of a long, crappy day. I was the one putting floral arrangements together for the privileged, while my feet literally throbbed in agony because I'd not sat down in eight hours. I was the one serving filet mignon, while plucking sticky quarters out from under the car seat to afford a value meal from McDeath.
When I see the janitorial staff at my children's school--which is infinitely fancier and more prestigious than my husband and I ever dreamed to be able to send our kids to--my heart pulls. They're busting their humps, cleaning up after children--which is never a gratifying experience, especially when you're from a country that often teaches many (but not all) children not to even acknowledge the janitorial staff. It drives me to look each of them in the eye, to smile, and to bow--lower than usual, a big sign of respect in South Korea--because I am desperate for each of them to know:
I'm like you. I am you. You are me. In America, my husband and I bust our humps, too. We break a sweat, and go home with sore feet. We stay up late to finish the job, and have to rob from Peter to pay Paul. I get you.
It has been the same while on this trip to Guam with my friend. She paid for our trip with airline miles and hotel points. (Expat life affords a few unexpected bonuses: lots of airline miles.) We've only had to pay for food and souvenirs while here, which was proving to be a fairly inexpensive process until I found a Ross Dress For Less. Then crap got real. But that's a blog for another time...
Every person who has brought me a water, or fetched me a towel, or guided me as I snorkeled, or cleaned my hotel room...I have found myself wanting to touch their arm, look them in the eyes, and tell them, "I'm not accustomed to this whole having someone else clean up my mess thing. So thank you. Like seriously. Thank you." I feel compelled to prove to everyone here that my presence at a fancy hotel is as much of an anomaly as spotting a unicorn. I come from working class peeps.
I'm like you.
But for now--for today--I will count my blessings. And they are numerous.