What It Means To Kneel, an essay by Yumi Wada at Spillwords.com

What It Means To Kneel

What It Means To Kneel

written by: Yumi Wada


Once, I visited a local sauna in Seoul with my grandmother. As a child, downright determined to be independent, I had made it my mission to shower on my own. Naturally, I adjusted all the shampoo bottles and conditioners by size — before squeezing them out tub by tub until they were all emptied. My grandmother was horrified. She came lunging towards me; the next thing I knew, I was on the ground kneeling. I poked my head down as locals stared, wondering what the commotion was all about.

I realized soon that kneeling was a form of punishment ingrained into Korean culture. For my Korean grandmother, kneeling was an emblem of repentance, a natural form of submission from an inexperienced younger to an insightful elder. A representation of a nationwide hierarchy tree, sprung from centuries of Korea’s emphasis on age differences.

Kneeling is a suggestive symbol; it emphasizes that one is superior to another only due to their age. The tradition persists today as a symbolic representation of Korea’s stereotype on age: that the older will have more insight than the younger, regardless of the topic at hand.

However, these age stereotypes simultaneously indicate that respect in Korean culture flows only in one direction, from the younger to the older. It is not mutual. We very often see how the elders try to largely intervene in the lives of youth, limiting their voices; my very own grandmother insists that my dream of becoming a mechanical technician is not valid because I am not male. Age stereotypes force the younger, blooming youth of society to relinquish their goals for the sake of satisfying the older generations.

Such age stereotypes only so persistently remained in Korean society throughout the years due to a corresponding symbol of action: kneeling. Visualization is a powerful conservation tool, and kneeling has served exactly that purpose – acting as a remnant of past culture. However, this remnant now suppresses individuals, implementing a ceiling above them in the form of age differences. For the youth to fully express themselves, to become the motors of an economy that the elders expect them to be, age stereotypes should no longer act as a brake.

That being said, we did recently head down the first step in the right direction. Starting this June, South Korea is abandoning its long-lasting tradition of using its “Korean age system,” one where everyone ages on January 1st of each year and not on their birthdays. It has acted to categorize the population into yearly age groups, emphasizing age differences through age-based titles such as “Unnie” or “Hyung.” The adoption of the international age system indicates that we are now through one significant linguistic barrier that has strengthened Korean age stereotypes for decades.

However, to fully overcome these stereotypes, we also need to dismantle the physical building blocks: kneeling. Only by heeding our actions, only by eliminating the strong visualization of misused symbols, would society truly be able to eliminate stereotypes, rid unnatural power inequalities, and acknowledge every member of society deserving of mutual respect.

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