As an expat in Korea, I’ve been culturally flexible for many years, but physically I remain as stiff as ever. In college, I took a flexibility test that required me to sit in front of a sliding scale and push the knob as far as I could. I couldn’t reach the knob. Even as a slim, athletic kid, sitting ‘Indian style’ was never comfortable and the Lotus position would have required two broken legs. Yoga is out of the question. Apparently I was born to plank.
Some features of Korean culture, like eating endless piles of meat from a grill, don’t require any special contortions for North Americans to embrace. Other things, like sitting on the floor for the hour it takes to eat that meat, are quite a bit harder. My American upbringing prepared me for a lot of things, but spending scads of time on the floor was not one of them.
As children we’re fine doing most things on the floor, but we are soon prodded through one of the many small passages of adulthood: the ability to sit on a chair. The only adults who spend any serious time on the floor are wobbly drunks, broke college kids and unsupervised octogenarians who’ve fallen and can’t get up.
Traditionally, Koreans did most things close to the floor, perhaps as a consequence of one of the great hallmarks of Korean civilization: the ondol floor-heating system. For millennia the floor has been the warmest part of any Korean home, and daily life has gravitated toward it. As you’d expect, the postures required for that lifestyle have become second nature, and the average Korean today appears equally at home on the floor as were his remote ancestors. Though Western-style furniture is now ubiquitous and ondol is no longer standard, Koreans still sit on the floor, eat on the floor, play on the floor and sleep on the floor.
My lack of floor-living skills hasn’t had any adverse effects on my family life; the only time it seems to come up is when we occasionally visit the odd restaurant with no chairs. Our home has lots of raised seating, and though our kids still prefer to crash on the floor, my wife and I sleep on a bed – a bed with a mattress, I should point out, not one of those luxury ‘stone beds,’ which are really just expensive bits of floor on legs and are not fooling me.
While life in Korea has done little to alter my hard-wired notion of what constitutes a bed, it has however given me a new appreciation for the coffee table. While the designers may have had a clear purpose in mind, one can after all drink only so much coffee, so many Americans effectively repurpose it as what you might call a ‘misfit table’: the place where everything without a place of its own (keys, old magazines, remote controls, parking tickets) ends up.
In Korea, the more salient feature of the coffee table to me is that it is just high enough to use with a chair or sofa, but just low enough to accommodate floor-sitters, which makes it easier for cultural misfits like me to be part of the group. Who would have thought that the humble coffee table, that cluttered afterthought of the American home, would become such a natural setting for cultural exchange and compromise in Korea? We still wrangle over whose cuisine ends up being served on it, but that’s another story.