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[Kim Seong-kon] Courtesy, common sense and humanity among us

By Korea Herald

Published : April 11, 2023 - 17:30

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The other day, I was playing music for my granddaughter when the old nursery rhyme “Apples and Bananas” came on. It suddenly occurred to me that the lyrics of this song are an excellent metaphor for the generation gap.

“Apples and Bananas” is a song designed for children to practice pronouncing vowels. Therefore, the song switches the spellings and pronunciations continuously. It goes like this: “I like to eat, eat, eat/ Apples and bananas/ Oh I like to ate, ate, ate/ Aaples and bananays/ I like to eat, eat, eat/ Eaples and beneneys/ Oh, I like to ite, ite, ite/ Iples and bininis/ I like to ote, ote, ote/ Oaples and bononos/ I like to ute, ute, ute/ Uuples and bununus.”

But there is a kind of joke in the song, too. Part of what makes the song fun for kids is the idea that adults do not understand the song because the spellings and pronunciations are all wrong.

The song on the CD I was playing features the voices of two adults, an old man and an old woman, who can be heard constantly complaining while the children are singing: “What is bininis?” “What’s going on here?” “Somebody, tell me what this is all about?”

It implies that the older generation should try to understand the younger generation even though they seem to say strange things and act in an unusual manner.

However, this does not mean that young people can do whatever they want or say and act waywardly, mistaking the novelty of their behavior as a privilege of the younger generation. Instead, they should act reasonably and discreetly according to common sense. If they behave badly and argue that older people cannot understand due to the generation gap, they are wrong.

Recently, I met a retired Korean professor who is now temporarily staying in the US. He told me he had sent a New Year’s greetings email on Jan. 1 to one of his former students who was a professor in Seoul, but had not heard back from her.

“How could someone not write back to her former professor,” he uttered disappointingly. “Especially when she received the greetings email on New Year’s Day?”

“I don’t understand, either,” I replied. “You must have been very disappointed. These days, young people are radically different from our generation.”

Then, the retired professor cynically told me, “I don’t think it has anything to do with the generation gap. Rather, I think it has something to do with common courtesy and common sense.”

He continued, “Furthermore, it has something to do with humanity and personality, as well. If you do not have the courtesy or appreciation for someone who taught you, you have a problem with your personality. Even animals show gratitude to someone who did a favor for them.”

Indeed, a person should never forget the favor he has received from others. Moreover, he should try to return it, at least by writing back.

In order to gain respect from the older generation, therefore, young people should be courteous. In the eyes of young people, old people may look hopelessly stubborn. Still, the young should show respect for the old and act accordingly with common courtesy, common sense and humanity.

In contemporary Korean society, old people are often the object of derision and mockery. However, in many other countries, young people respect older people. In the US, for example, Americans call older people “senior citizens,” which is a respectful term.

In American society, older people enjoy many special treats and privileges. Whenever the flu shot season comes, for example, American senior citizens have the privilege of getting an upgraded flu shot manufactured especially for older people.

During the pandemic, American supermarkets and discount stores, such as BJ’s and Costco, set aside a senior citizens’ shopping hour for their safety. Indeed, American society seems to care for older people in every possible way.

In Korea, however, younger people seem to perceive older people as useless, surplus beings. They are even trying to revoke the senior citizens’ privilege of free travel on the subway. Young people seem to think that they will never grow old. However, they, too, will get old soon, and will then belatedly regret what they did to older people when they were young.

At the same time, older people should not be overbearing or authoritative simply because they are older. Only when and if they exhibit humility and gentility will young people respect them. Older people will fade away, and younger people will replace them. That means everybody will grow old inevitably. That is life.

The blade of the generation gap cuts both ways. Therefore, both the young and the old should try to understand and embrace each other. Otherwise, the conflict between the two generations will hurt everyone in the end. In order to avoid this, we should recover our long lost courtesy, common sense and humanity.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.