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.


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.

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?