Thursday, August 13, 2009

My 10 Favorite Things About Living and Teaching in Korea

I'm two days away from leaving Korea. In two years of living here, I have developed deeply ambivalent feelings about both my experience here and the society itself. A couple days ago, I was re-reading The Prophet, and I was surprised to find a section that echoed my feelings about leaving Korea:

The hero has been in a strange land for twelve years and upon seeing the ship that will return him to his homeland...

"the gates of his heart were flung open, and his joy flew far over the sea. And he closed his eyes and prayed in the silences of his soul.

But as he descended the hill, a sadness came upon him, and he thought in his heart: How shall I go in peace and without sorrow? Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city.

Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?

Too many fragments of the spirit have I scatterd in these streets, and too many are the children of my longing that walk naked among these hills, and I cannot withdraw from them without a bruden and an ache.

It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin that I tear with my own hands.

Nor is it a thought I leave behind me, but a heart made sweet with hunger and with thirst.

Yet I cannot tarry longer.

The sea that calls all things unto her calls me, and I must embark.

For to stay, though the hours burn in the night, is to freeze and crystallize and be bound in a mould."

A bit dramatic perhaps, but it really nails how I'm feeling. But, moving along... last week I posted my 10 least favorite things about living and teaching here, and here are my 10 favorite things about living and teaching here, plus a few runners-up.

Runners-up

Ice cream bars -- This didn't make the top ten because it has been absolutely disastrous for my fitness. At every convenience store, and they're everywhere, there is a freezer full of delicious ice cream on a stick in every flavor you could imagine and more (one of my favorites is a chocolate bar on a stick, surrounded with "nano-silver vanilla", coated with chocolate and peanuts, another is melon, another still is watermelon flavored and shaped ice cream with hazelnut seeds). A full price bar is 700 won ($.55), and most places sell them at half price. I don't know how that can be profitable (and I probably don't want to), but it sure does make for a delicious, fattening summer.

Elders' robustness -- Before the monsoon came with its endless days of rain, I was playing tennis every morning with a 64 year old man that was in nearly as good of shape as I am. I never saw him eat an ice cream bar. On my way to school, I routinely see 80-something year old men and women hunched over working in the fields, digging up potatoes or planting chili pepper plants. I've never seen them eating ice cream bars either.

Lack of zoning -- Where I come from, an area is either commercial or residential, so people end up driving a lot. Here, everything is mixed together, so people walk. On one level, it's nice to have a convenience store (with ice cream bars) in the same building as my apartment. On another level, it gets people out in the streets and creates a mixing of people and a sense of community involvement that I think we could use more of at home.

Free time -- I am ambivalent about this. Every single day here, I've had hours of free time. I play guitar, watch TV, read, watch movies, cook, paint, play online games, meditate, etc. I have learned a lot from the reading I've done, I'm a better guitarist and singer and cook, and I'm a champion of Settlers of Catan (my online game of choice), but I'm also bored a lot and frequently feel like I'm wasting my life away. It is that feeling that compelled me to take the plunge into grad school at the end of my contract here.

Now, to the top ten....

10. Gardens everywhere --
This province, Gangwon-do, is notorious in Korea for being difficult to grow food. The people respond by growing food absolutely everywhere. Any land that is less than a 15% incline and is not paved over is growing food, without exception. That's true whether it's someone's front yard, a triangle of dirt between a bridge and road, or way up in the valleys that surround the towns. They're not farms, much more like what we think of as gardens. They grow chili peppers, corn, soy beans, onions, garlic, potatoes, greens, grapes and on the occasional flat section of land, rice. This is this old couple's yard. It's worth noting that it's September and they're planting, probably the third crop of the year. I'm certain they would think we are insane for the money, effort, fertilizer and pesticides we put into grass.

9. Jjimjilbang -- These are combination health club, sauna and recreation center. Admission is about $5 and for that you soak in hot tubs infused with jade or eucalyptus or whatever, sweat in the saunas and steam rooms, and get a sports massage or a scrub down from an old Korean man wearing nothing more than briefs. There are restaurants, but for reasons that escape me Koreans seem to prefer to pig out on hard boiled eggs at these places. There are barbers and televisions and computers and massage chairs and cold and hot rooms and salt rooms and charcoal rooms and oxygen rooms. A great place to hang out and warm up in the winter or sweat out in the summer.

8. Outdoorsiness -- Koreans love the outdoors, whether eating squid jerky and drinking rice wine behind an apartment building, or hiking through valleys (which they have done an excellent job of protecting by concentrating in the cities the population of 50 million people in a country the size of Indiana). I love the tendency toward the outdoors, especially in summer, when restaurants pull out their plastic tables and the dining room floors spill out into the streets. The images of dozens of Koreans eating, drinking and laughing in a courtyard on a warm summer night will stay with me for a long time.

7. The sweet kids --
Not all of them were, but the ones that were sweet were the cutest, kindest, funnest kids I've ever known.















6. The restaurants & the food -- A lot of foreigners here complain about the cuisine, and while I admit the flavors can get a bit monotonous (sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic and chilies), I love the food, even though much of it is off limits to me as a vegetarian. Restaurants typically specialize in just a few dishes, are usually owned and run by an old lady who might work with one other old lady to prepare the food, serve the food, clean the place and everything. My favorite restaurant in town is a place where a 4' 6" 60 year old lady serves grilled fish lettuce wraps (I'm a quasi-vegetarian here) and seems to rotate through being amused, confused, appreciative and fed-up with the foreigners that frequent her place. The prices, and there's no tax or tipping, so what you see on the menu on the wall is what you actually pay, for a typically quick meal might be $3, and unless it's a very special dish (or foreign food or drink), meals rarely exceed $10 per person.

Every meal comes with bancheon, side dishes, that always include kimchi and usually other fermented vegetables. In a cheap place, you might just get three little kimchis, in a nicer place, it's not uncommon to get over ten bancheon, and they might include fried fish or raw octopus or other treats that can be even better than the central meal itself. In most cases, everything is shared with everyone at the table. In fact, when eating with Koreans, even glasses are shared -- it's a neat little social device... if you see that someone is bored or if you want to chat with someone that you're not sitting near, you take them your empty glass and a bottle of soju (chemically fermented rice wine) and pour them a shot, and in that manner, over a meal that might last a few hours, people move around (everyone sits on the floor) and everyone talks with everyone, everyone shares germs and everyone gets drunk.

5. Community focus -- This is the highest ranking item that is really about Korean society, as the next four each have to do with my position here. On the whole, I'm not a big fan of Confucianism, at least as it operates in modern Korea. However, the focus on social harmony is really nice, and something that I think we North Americans could learn a lot from. Where I is the dominant pronoun in the US, we is here. Studies have shown that the different mindsets actually affect visual perception, such that Asians are more inclined to view ambiguous situations from a removed, more holistic perspective, whereas Westerners are more inclined to view the same situation from inside it, from a first person perspective. Unfortunately, because of the xenophobia here, foreigners are not always considered part of the community in the same way Koreans are, which I think makes being a foreigner here harder than it would be in a more individualistic society like the US. But, while I'm sure my Korean friends still think I'm terribly obstuse and inconsiderate, this mindset has implanted itself in my head, and I'm glad for it. I hope it stays with me through the years.

4. Income:expenses ratio -- The salary foreigners earn teaching in Korea isn't anything special, except that foreign teachers' apartments are paid for by employers, as are airfare here and home and immigration costs. Food is cheap, entertainment (at least out here in the boonies) is scarce, and buying stuff doesn't usually make sense when you know you have to fit everything you own into two suitcases at the end of the year. Health care is nationalized and very inexpensive and the tax structure is very progressive so even those who aren't exempt pay less than 4% income tax. I have been saving almost 80% of my salary, and on top of that I'll receive about two months' bonus pay at the end of my contract. No one has gotten rich doing it, but especially for folks right out of college or when the job market at home is what it is right now, it can be a very solid financial move.

3. Vacation time & neighboring destinations -- While I've been here, I've spent time in China, Vietnam, Laos, Japan, Thailand, and Thailand again. Spending almost the entire month of February in Thailand is about as good as it gets. And it was a relatively quick flight on a lovely Asian airline to get there.

2. Novelty in everything -- Living here is a bit like being a child. You never really know what's going on, you don't have responsibilities the same way you would at home, you're easily surprised, and routine events are novel and exciting. It's incredibly frustrating, but also really enjoyable.

1. Anonymity & outsiderness -- There is something comforting about knowing that no one knows you, and that no one can. If people are going to stare at me as I walk down the street, I might as well wear shorts and flip-flops and sing as I walk. If my students are going to think I'm a weird foreigner anyway, it's much easier to engage them with silly foolishness that I might hold back at home. At home, as soon as you see someone, you thin-slice their age, sex, body language, clothing, and a thousand other things and make a judgement about who they are and how they relate to you in society. In a culture as foreign as this, that's impossible. Advertising doesn't affect you, because it is designed to take advantage of the human mind's inability to stop thin slicing. And not understanding what that 16 year old girl on the bus won't stop talking about can be really nice.

I couldn't have named this at the time, but this is what brought me back to Korea for a second year. When you remove a person from their native culture, you force them to examine themselves in way that is otherwise impossible. We define ourselves by our relations: to our jobs, our achievements, our friends and family, our hobbies, and the culture we consume (and, less often it seems, create). Take away all those things and one has to look internally for a sense of identity. That transformation started for me in my first year here, but it didn't have time to run to completion. When I got home, I didn't identify in society as I had previously, but I was still looking to things like my friends and my job to define my position in society, my social identity, especially since it had been upended since I had left. I ended up feeling lost and floundering around for quite a while before returning to Korea. I don't know if that transition ever really reaches completion, but I know that I am going home with a much stronger internal compass than I had before I came to Korea, in addition to a much broader perspective on culture, politics and the world.

7 comments:

Lola O. said...

I really enjoyed reading your posts about what your liked and disliked about your time in Korea. It gave me a lot to think about since I am heading to Korea in 8 days.

Good luck with grad school!

DavidSong said...

Hi Michael,

First of all, your description regarding your experiences in korea has provided me considerable value and insight. Thanks.

Getting to the point, my name is David Song and I found you on koreanbloglist. I am currently living in Los Angeles and am emailing you to ask you for some insight, information, and advice regarding your experience in Korea.

I will be moving to Korea at the end of the year and will be launching my business. In order to find the right environment where I could provide the value of my business to the largest group of individuals, I am asking you to point me to the hot spots.

Where do the young generation of people congregate for entertainment? What type of spending habits do they have?

I will be visiting in September to scout some locations and study the market, and would like to have an idea of the various spots that I should take into consideration.

Any information, insights, suggestions, or opinion on anything would be greatly appreciated.

Regards,
David

Andrew said...

I know this is not a very timely post being that you left Korea months ago.

A friend linked me to this blog and after reading a few of your longer posts, I've gained a lot from your insight. I mean this in all of my sincerity when I say that you have shown more insight in a couple of blog posts than I've seen on two dozen different blogs I follow on a regular basis.

I'm leaving for Incheon in just a few days and will be experiencing the bombardment of new culture that you did upon arriving in Korea. While I do speak several languages, I do not speak or understand much, if any Korean, and will greatly enjoy the reflectivity such incomprehension will afford me (at least for a while). While I intend on becoming fluent in Korean, it will take time.

Thanks again for your posts.

Michael Levy said...

Thanks very much for the kind words, Andrew. It's great to know that people find it helpful. Good luck out there!

Michael

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