There’s no word for hello or goodbye in the Korean language.
Instead of saying hello, the people greet each other with a question: 안녕하세요? (An-young-ha-say-yo?) It means Are you at peace?, and I love that. What a nice way to say “bout ye?”! It took me a while to get the response correct when someone greets me first – having spent all my life saying hello in languages where the greeting is not a question, my instinctive response is just to repeat it back to the speaker. I forget that it’s actually a question, and so I still have to think before I reply “네, 안녕하세요?” (Nay, an-young-ha-say-yo?) – “Yes, are you at peace?”.
Goodbye is not phrased like a question, but like hello, it’s peace-related. I found it very tricky to learn at first, mainly because there are two different ways to say it depending on who’s leaving and who’s staying, and they’re identical apart from one vowel sound. Sigh. So it’s easy to get them mixed up – fortunately, if you forget, you can generally get away with mumbling “an-young-ha-say-yo” if you say it fast enough, as they sound alike enough that no one will notice.
But the correct way to do it is to wish the other person peace as you part ways. If you’re staying and they’re leaving (like if they’ve been visiting your home), or if you’re both leaving (like if you’ve been out for dinner together and are going your separate ways afterwards, you say 안녕히 가세요 (An-young-ee-ka-say-yo): “Go in peace”. If you’re going but the other person is staying put (like the shop assistant, or the person you’re visiting), you say 안녕히 계세요 (An-young-ee-kyay-say-yo): “Stay in peace”.
Isn’t that lovely? It just seems like a beautiful, very gentle and tranquil way of going through each day and all the little encounters it brings. It always makes me think of a poem that’s been a favourite of mine for many years, which I had in a frame on my bedroom wall as a teenager, and can still recite by heart.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
- Max Ehrmann, 1927