As an American expat in Korea, some things, like eating piles of meat from a grill, are pretty easy to get used to. Other things, like sitting on the floor for the hour it takes to eat it, are quite a bit harder. My American education prepared me for a lot of things, but spending scads of time on the floor was not one of them.
Some of this difficulty is perhaps cultural, but some is certainly my own. I’ve been culturally flexible for many years, but physically I remain as stiff as I’ve always been. 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 to get a measurement of my flexibility. I couldn’t touch the knob. Even as a slim, athletic kid, sitting “Indian style” was never comfortable and the Lotus position would have required me to have two broken legs. Yoga for me is out of the question. Apparently I was born to plank.
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, which has been in use for at least 3,000 years. For millennia, the floor was the warmest part of any Korean home, so daily life seems to have naturally gravitated toward the warmth.
Though there are exceptions, the average Korean today appears equally at home on the floor as were his remote ancestors, even though Western-style furniture is ubiquitous and ondol is no longer a common feature of Korean homes. Koreans still sit on the floor, eat on the floor, play on the floor, and sleep on the floor. On weekends, my wife and millions of other Koreans migrate to the saunas, lay their heads on a small wooden block, and bask in the simple and ancient pleasure of lying on a warm floor. After an hour or two of this, my wife is ready to take on the world. I’m ready for a chiropractor.
Our kids are OK on the floor too. They use the sofa a lot, but I’m just as likely to find them plunked down on the tiles in front of the tv, sprawled out with their laptops and iPads, or crashed out with only a blanket.
Our youngest daughter has an exceptional talent for sleeping on the floor. Ever since she was small, I’ve found her crashed in various parts of the house: in the middle of rooms, wedged under furniture, blocking doorways, etc. For years I’ve been documenting her remarkable sleeping habits in a photo album which is large and still growing.
How does my lack of floor-living skills affect our family? Not much. Occasionally we’ll pass on the odd restaurant that has no chairs, which today seem to be fewer and fewer anyway. Our home is furnished with chairs and a sofa, and my wife and I sleep on a bed – a bed with a mattress, I should say, not one of those luxury stone beds, which is basically an expensive piece of floor on legs. Recently I’ve learned to appreciate the flexibility of the coffee table, which is just high enough to use with a chair and just low enough to accommodate floor-sitters. Who’d have thought that the humble coffee table could have become an important setting for cultural compromise? And don’t get me started on the coffee.