Friday, August 7, 2009

My 10 Least Favorite Things About Living and Teaching in Korea

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?


Jason said...

Mike! This was wonderful to read--I found highly nostalgia-inducing.

Looking forward to having you back

Anjole said...

Almost heaven, west virginia
Blue ridge mountains, shenandoah river
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home
To the place, I be-long
West virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads

All my memories, gather round her,
Miners lady, stranger to blue water
Dark and dusty, painted on the sky
Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye

Country roads, take me home
To the place, I be-long
West virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads

I hear her voice, in the mornin hours she calls to me
The radio reminds me of my home far a-way
And drivin down the road I get a feeling
That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday

Country roads, take me home
To the place, I be-long
West virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads

Chad said...

Anjole's Comment is pretty funny for me... That's the only song that Mr. Hong knows all the words to and he listens to it pretty much everyday in the teachers room. GARGAGRAGRRARAGA!! so that song would be on my list, sadly :(

Anonymous said...

Wow. Yeah, what you said about the Xenophobia is true, but your last comment about having insight now is unjustifiable. Sure you might emphasize, but it will never really be the exact same of what blacks went through in the states, any time during or after slavery. I've been in Korea seven months--and I can emphathize with that insight as a black person myself, but I don't think it's justifiable to say I feel like I know what it's like because I don't...

The stares never get old and everyday it's something to deal with--I've got a love for it and a dislike. But yeah, we can never change the fact that in Korea, if we're foreigner and don't look Korean are different--we stand out that much more. It would too help if Korea was up and up on having seen someone other than their own race in their entire lives..but I think the more foreigners that venture to this part of Asia, the more parents expose their kids to more culture, the less staring and point there'd be (well, a possibility).

But good luck to you in grad school man, I wish you the best. Seems like your time here was well spent.

Anonymous said...

As a Korean American, I have to disagree about the xenophobia thing. I mean, sure, there are Koreans out there who don't like foreigners, but there are plenty of people in the US who are like that as well (the South and the Midwest come to mind). Koreans are particularly proud about their so-called homogeneous society and many want to keep it that way. Japan is like that as well. I don't think it really has to do with xenophobia--they're not exactly afraid of foreigners. I think the people at Gangwondo often stared at you because they're not used to seeing a white person and it's a novelty. I know this happens in Japan too.

With that aside, I know Koreans can certainly be racist (but not all of them, of course). I know that Koreans generally tend to favor light skin over dark skin--the lighter the skin, the more beautiful it is considered to be (I notice India has this sort of attitude as well). I know Koreans sometimes look down on Asians from Southeast Asia and people from other parts of the country where their skin color is dark.

I think what Korean families worry about if their kids marry foreigners is that they might not get along as well or not be able to get as close to the other person because of the difference in culture. It's easier for them to interact with people who share the same culture as they do. They also understand what a risk their child is taking in marrying someone from a different culture because, let's face it, marriage is hard enough as it is--why would you want to make it more complicated by throwing in different cultures and the tons of misunderstandings that could come out of that?

All in all, I think you got a good experience of how millions of immigrants feel that live in the US. It's not easy living as a foreigner in a foreign country. It's hard to adapt and adopt another culture that is wholly different from yours, but you have to do it anyways to survive.

Daughter of God said...

I will be living in Gangwon-do as well...I just found your blog and it popped up 1st in my search...I'm glad I found it. I'm going through the TALK Program in about 2 weeks. I'm going to follow your blog and good luck with the rest of your schooling...btw I'm a vegetarian too :)

Anonymous said...

completely agree with everything you wrote!

Misha said...

Hi Mike! I don't know if you still check your blog or not. I have the opportunity to teach in Gangwon through EPIK this year. If you wouldn't mind answering a few questions, I would really appreciate it.

First of all, would you consider the area relatively safe for a single female to live? I'm the kind of person who likes to wander around a lot, especially a night and sometimes alone. Would that be culturally unacceptable?



Michael Levy said...

Hi Misha,

It's certainly not culturally problematic for women to walk around alone. In general, I think Korea has significantly less crime than the US, and I think it's probably quite a bit safer for women, probably even more so for foreign women. I'd be careful late at night, especially when drinking is involved, but in general, I think there is little to worry about in that regard.

Tae C said...

Mkke,whether you know it or not you are a typical white idiot american who thinks he knows Korea and all its glory or ugliness. Also please don't compare yourself to a bla ck person in america, you naive fool. Whites have always been accepted wherever they go and treated well. When was the last time you were denied entrance at a restaurant because you were white. Also Asian Americans in america still receive so much more racism than a white guy ever would in any foreign country. Stop generalizing Korea just because you lived two yrs in a rural part of Korea. It would be like me describing the united states based on my two year living in Kansas or mississippi. Obviously , if I talked about how racist these xenophobes in these predominantly white states were and how ti s stunk there, or how much racism I encountered at the hands of white guys like you, I would be generalizing about Americans based on my limited experiences wit these mississippians or Kansas folks. How foolish would I be? Well this is how foolish you are. The negative things you state in your blog wreaks of stereotypes and racist generalizations that fit you right into what most ignorant white guys like you do against asians and Asian countries. Like I said your comparison of you to a black persons experiences in rural america ba k in the earlier part of the 20t century is the ultimate joke. Wow, wake up you ignorant naive kid.