I've got a week left here in Korea before I go home to start grad school and say goodbye to the Sparkling Hermit Kingdom of Morning Calm for good. I've lived and taught here for two years, and it has been wonderful and terrible, glorious and excruciating, boring and exciting, eye opening and let-me-just-tune-out-the-world-and-watch-television-for-weeks-on-end.
I thought I'd finish out the year with two last posts: my ten favorite things about living here and my ten least favorite things. So that we end on a positive note, here are ten things that I have found consistently, repeatedly, powerfully annoying.
10. "Hello! Howareyou! Whereareyoufrom!" This is at the bottom of the list because in slightly modified form, it can actually be nice. When I pass an ajuma and her 4 year old granddaughter and the ajuma smiles and tells her granddaughter to say hello, it's really sweet. When I'm in the right mood, it can make me smile for a bunch of middle school girls to get over themselves and say hello and then giggle for fifteen seconds. But when I pass a group of college aged boys (or grown men!) across the street and one yells out "whereareyoufrom!" and the others start laughing uproariously, that's annoying.
9. Auto exhaust. I like to run and I walk everywhere, so I spend a lot of time "with" cars, trucks and scooters. I don't know what it is that our exhaust tests in the states get off the road, but the majority of autos here put out a foul, noxious gas that I'm sure is just destroying my lungs. Of course the tractors and scooters are even worse.
8. Sewers rising. Again, I don't know what they've done in the US to prevent the smells of sewers from rising into the streets, but they certainly haven't figured it out here. The national dish is kimchi -- rotting (er, sorry, fermenting) cabbage with garlic, fish sauce, shrimp paste and chilies. Unfortunately, that's what everyone shits and it smells even worse than you would imagine.
7. Fan death and other insanity. A lot of Koreans (maybe a majority. really. even doctors.) think that if you sleep with a fan on in your room you will die. A lot of Koreans also think that Korea is the pinnacle of culture and accomplishment. Logic here is... to be culturally sensitive, I'll say different, though having studied symbolic logic, I feel pretty comfortable saying it's just either missing or gets beat out by antiquated cultural beliefs. Ignorance and delusion are everywhere.
6. Logistical challenges. A lot of things are a lot harder in a foreign country. Often to buy something, I have to ask a Korean friend for help. I'm not going to miss feeling like a retarded four year old.
5. Volume and style of speech. Korean men are much worse than the women on this, though plenty of women are plenty annoying as well. Fresh from the west, you would honestly think a discussion on where to go to lunch was a boiling blood feud. Koreans love to eat and drink outside (which I love), and there's a nice spot just below my apartment window (which I don't love). For hours on end two women will sit pouring soju (the Korean version of sake, except it's vile) for men talking and yelling and interrupting and gesticulating at volumes I thought impossible. No time of day or location is off limits for this manner of communication.
4. Confucianism. Confucius mapped out social relationships to try to produce social harmony (the ultimate goal of Confucianism) in any situation. According to Confucianism, the younger, female or lower status should be deferential and obedient, which often seems more like meek and unquestioning. I think social harmony is an admiral goal, and I think deference and humility are lacking in westerners, but the rigid way Confucianism operates in modern Korea creates manifold problems. As my coteacher (a 31 year old woman) said when she learned we wouldn't be having a retirement party for our principal (a 64 year old man) because the government found out he has been stealing money from the school, "Why does he still have job? If I am stealing, I don't have job one more day!"
3. The staring. Maybe now I know what it's like to be a gorgeous woman. No, not the same. I am stared at constantly. This was less true (though still common) in the big city, but in this rural little town, I'd say around half of the people I see on the streets just fix their gaze on me. I almost always look back, try to summon compassion and acknowledge them. Maybe one in ten gives me a nice smile and bows back (usually the older women), the rest look away until I've stopped looking at them, and then fix their stare right back on me. What really makes this hard is what's behind the stare:
2. Xenophobia. Korea has long been called the Hermit Kingdom and with good reason. Throughout its existence, Korea has had to fight off domination from China and empires of the Japanese, Mongolians and others. Even in modern times, Korea has remained remarkably isolated. Besides the utter unfamiliarity with anything not-Korean, there is also a deep (and historically valid) antipathy toward foreigners. I once asked three wealthy, cosmopolitan middle school students from Busan if they would allow their children to marry foreigners and all three said absolutely not. I have received a tremendous amount of kindness and welcome from Koreans, but with a few notable exceptions, there is always an element of my being not quite the same, not quite human. What I'm about to write is completely unfair -- there are so many differences and what I have faced here doesn't even enter into the same arena -- but living here has given me emotional insight into what it must have been (and be) like to be black in many times and places in the United States.
1. Missing events and holidays at home. All of the above end when I leave in a week. But one of my best friends got married this summer, and I missed two Christmases with my family, and those are gone forever. I wouldn't trade the experiences I've had for those that I missed, but without exception, the hardest days here have been the days I have most wanted to be home.
What do you think waegookin seonsaengnim... what would you have included that I've left out?