Last night, my host dad had some of his juniors over after their baseball game (he's in some sort of adult league. They wear Boston Red Sox hats but swore to me it stands for Blue Sky). I haaaate it when my host family spends time with people I don't know...because then I'm forced to sit with them and get talked about like an exotic pet (but never talked to at all). As usual, everyone was very curious about me (and I can't blame them--I'd certainly feel the same way) and asked a billion questions: What do you feed it? What does it do all the time? It's pretty! Do your sons like it? Does it speak Korean? How did you get it? Which foods does it eat? Do you have to give it pizza every day? It's not fat! Has it lost a lot of weight since coming to Korea? How did you get it? (I always feel like they're referring to me as "it" even though technically they're, well, not). My host mom, proprietorially patting and stroking me the whole time, told them all about my eating habits, my sleeping habits, my excessive bathing habits, my exercise routine, how the boys love me, how I was acquired, and a bunch of stuff I didn't understand but caused everyone to roll around on the floor with laughter.
Still, despite the boring/awkward/endlessness of that nonsense, it was interesting to see my host dad interacting with his juniors. The Korean 선배/후배 (seonbae/hubae, or senior/junior) relationship is an extremely important part of interactions here. The system gets a lot of criticism for cultivating vertical structures of inequality, rigid hierarchies, and nonequivalent exchange--hubae must treat their seonbae with loyalty, respect, and obedience, and must always speak to them in formal language and observe traditional courtesies. But here, in Korea, it's hard to see the relationship as negative. Despite the deferential language, my host dad and his hubae clearly have an extremely close, comfortable and warm relationship. And seonbae do a lot for their hubae--protect them, help them make connections and get jobs, spend lots of money on them, and bail them out of trouble. My host mom recently confided to me that she thinks of me as her hubae, and hearing that made me feel genuinely loved and protected and a welcome part of her family...definitely not marginalized, bottom-of-the-hierarchy type feelings.