I was walking around Jungwon today, taking pictures with two of my friends, when we saw a Korean woman and her three children playing on the steps of the university. As the three of us walked past, we smiled and waved at the young family. The woman smiled back, inclined her head, and called out, “Hello!” She nudged one of her sons and said what sounded like, “Say hello!” The three children smiled and waved back, the son calling an enthusiastic, “Annyeong!” (“Hi!”). When I responded with “Annyeonghaseyo!”, the mother suddenly grabbed the child’s hair and pushed his head down into a full 90 degree bow. His siblings followed suit.
One of the first things I learned in the last few days is that greetings in Korea are much more formal than greetings in America. While in America, I might wave to a friend or smile and say hello to a stranger, the Korean hierarchy dictates that a younger person must always initiate the greeting with a bow. This greeting, or insa, calls for the younger person to bow either 45 degrees or 90 degrees, depending on the elder’s station and age, and say “Annyeonghaseyo” (polite) or “Annyeong hashimnikka” (formal). For example, when I arrive at my school, I will greet my principal and co-teachers with a 90 degree bow and “Annyeong hashimnikka,” unless they tell me to do otherwise. As a young adult and a foreigner, I came to Korea expecting to bow often and deeply to my co-workers, family, and strangers I meet. I did not expect a child to bow to me in greeting!
Seeing the mother’s displeasure at her son’s lack of formality has made me more aware of the social expectations and consequences of giving and receiving insa. No one will push my head down to give insa, but I must always show respect and err on the side of caution when I am not sure how formal I have to be.