Monthly Archives: June 2008

Korea Matters #5: Living with parents

(This post is part of the “Looking Past Korea” Series, my general wrap up on Korean culture.  So far I’ve gone over superficial differences of Korea and cultural aspects that I think are over rated by foreigners.  In this part I talk about the things that I think make Korea unique and different to Western Culture)

Even though I’m just a little over a year removed from a college atmosphere I think it’s safe to say that college was the greatest experience of my life.

I’m not married, I have no kids, and technically I have few responsibilities that go beyond myself, so perhaps there’s something out there that will change all this, but from the beginning of college to the end I have become a completely different person than I was in high school. I doubt such a transformation will ever happen again. And I loved every second of it.

You could blame it on the academic atmosphere and what not, but I blame it on the independence. No longer did I have to hedge myself to my parent’s wishes. No longer did I have to be home on time. No longer did I have to wake up every Sunday morning at 7 o’clock to get ready for Church.

In high school I was my parent’s son. In college I was myself.

In Korea, for the most part, people live with their parents till they are married. You’re 28 and single? You’re probably living with your parents. Imagine the ramifications. When I started college I could hardly wait to get out on my own. Who cares that I was dirt poor for a few years?

What are the ramifications? Let’s just say that the phrase “30 is the new 20” does not apply in Korea. If you’re 30 and unmarried in the United States there’s a 50/50 chance you’re either a loser or a socialite. In Korea, about 95 percent chance of being a loser.

People are eager to get married earlier. People are constantly surrounded by other’s who they have to answer to.

When I was in college I was completely surrounded by people at all times, but I did not have to answer to them. Once my freshman roommate didn’t come home for a week. I took this opportunity to steal all his porn from his computer, change his homepage to hotmale.com (re-read that web address again), eat his ramen noodles and drink his beer. Never once did I wonder if he was ok. I can’t imagine that happening with parents around.

Being on my own made me become my own person. I alone was responsible for myself.

Culturally, this is one thing I don’t think I will ever completely understand about Korean culture.

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been slow lately

Sorry I haven’t been posting lately.  My parents are in Seoul for a week or so and I’ve been showing them around.

One thing I’ve learned about Seoul through all of this is that there’s really not much to do in the city if you don’t drink, which my parents don’t.

I don’t think I’ve ever stepped foot into Itaewon sober

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So this crazy Korean girl is stalking me

(brief edit: when I originally posted this article, I meant it as a joke and didn’t intend it to be an indictment on Korean girls whatsoever. However, I’ve received more feedback regarding this post than any other. The feedback is either A: I’m delusional or B: Korean girls are insane. I think both of these groups missed the point, which was no more than to relate an interesting series of events in my life. I briefly thought about removing this post, but I won’t because it’s part of the history of me. So I’ll just leave you with this: Some people are crazy, some people are not. This craziness has nothing to do with ethnicity and people from every walk of life can be weird…sometimes that can be a good thing. If you think that all people from a specific group are one way because one person acts that way, then you are an idiot, but then you probably didn’t even read this far. Have a nice day those of us who are literate enough to read the whole post.)

I was sitting outside a bar the other weekend when a girl came and sat next to me. At first neither of us recognized each other.

After a moment or so we both looked at each other.

“Cherry?” I said.

“Matt?” she replied.

Let’s forget for a moment that her name fits with the trend followed by many Korean girls I’ve met to name themselves after condiments. Honey, Soy, and Pepper are just a few I’ve run across.

I knew her because a friend of mine who was inside the bar casually dated her. At the moment he was trying to avoid her. I tried to make small talk, all the while trying to ditch her. My relative kindness was mistaken for attraction and next thing I know she is typing her number into my phone and calling it.  She promises to meet up later if I want.  I decide I’d rather have KFC and a 30 dollar cab ride by myself.  She might have stolen the wing piece, and Matthew love wingy.

Long story short, because I’m tired and this is all building up to something, she starts sending me text after text. I usually ignore them. Then Cherry texted me when Rachel was there. Deciding to have some fun, Rachel and one of her friends text her back on my phone.  Probably a bad decision.

In the end, somehow Cherry got my email address and today I got this email from her:

hi matthew how are you , how was your last night
i was sad cuz I didnt see your cute looks. you are t he most cute dancer
I m first time i have seen such cute dancing.
you sent me some text korean language . it s great you know korean speak.most foreigners dont know and dont try to know
because it s difficult.
can I see your dancing again? you are clever and have a art talent

cherry

How the hell she got my email? I have no clue. Apparently I’m an artist now and she has officially become a stalker.

Today she kept sending me texts. I usually immediately delete them, until I read this one:

I had nightmare ghost pressed me last night cuz you ignore me

I am just confused now.

I feel I must point out that while you could argue that Korean girls are crazy, I would argue that most girls in general are crazy.

This girl however is the first to seriously creep me out.  I really hope a nightmare ghost does not press me tonight.

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Overrated Korean Culture

(Part of the “Looking Past Korea” series)

For some reason I can’t shake this feeling that I, at this moment, am like the stoner who looks at a tree and wonders what its metaphorical value is?

Sometimes a tree is just a tree.

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When you get down to it Korea is not that different from everywhere else. People just like to think it is.

It’s the mark of any foreigner in any country who has become so overwhelmed by superficial differences that they begin to think this is what truly epitomizes the culture. I recognize the irony in that I just wrote five posts about how superficiality matters. However, superficiality is the consequence of cultural differences, not the difference itself. It’s easy to get the two confused.

So, here are what I believe to be the 5 most overrated cultural differences, by foreigners, between Korea and other cultures. The key word being “differences.”

One rule before we begin: overrated does not equal not important. Things are noticed for a reason, but it is possible for people to think something is more important than it is just because it’s noticed.

5: Honorifics

I speak differently to my grandma than I do my friends, I imagine most people do the same thing. Korea has simply taken something that happens in any other culture or social setting and institutionalized it.

Additionally, honorifics do not necessarily mean respect. I have seen younger people disrespect older people all while keeping to the highest form of honorifics.

Again, to say it is not important however is just naïve. Trust me, we are not quite done with honorifics.

4: Prejudice towards foreigners

Something that gets talked about lots by foreigners because at one point in every foreigners stay in Korea a drunken old man has told them to “fuck off.”

So some people in Korea are racist pricks, just like anywhere else in the world.

3: Klogic

Korean Logic. It has befuddled us all at one point. Why am I keeping the window open during the winter? Why can’t I have my fan on during the summer? Why can I walk down the street chugging a beer, but I can’t on the subway? Why can Korean-Americans eat American beef but not Koreans?

Societies in general have stupid rules. At some point some stupid person did something stupid and some other stupid person took a stupid response to it. Korea is not unique in this.

To put this in perspective, last year the school I worked at in the states allowed me to see the file on a student who was diagnosed with several learning disabilities and was a huge problem in his classroom. Pretty much any teacher who worked at the school was allowed to see this file if they wanted…except for the boys homeroom teacher. It might have influenced her negatively towards the student.

Whenever we talk to a Korean person I think we naturally assume they represent Korean culture and opinion. But have you ever stopped to think that maybe the person you’re talking to is simply an idiot?

2: Workplace efficiency…lack there of

I get to sit at my desk for a couple hours everyday after I’m done teaching. This seems brutally inefficient.

I used to work at a restaurant back in the states that at one point had fourteen waiters on the floor and three tables with customers. This continued for 3 hours.

1: Obsession with beauty, health and money

I’m constantly surprised how surprised foreigners seem at Korea’s obsession with such things. Have you so quickly forgotten what your own culture is like?

Maybe Korea’s more blatantly honest about it, but is that really a bad thing?

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The point isn’t that these things aren’t important to Korea, it’s that these so called “differences” aren’t really differences at all. In our quest to understand what makes Korea so Korean we need to sift through the busted stones to find the proverbial diamond in the proverbial rough.

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Superficiality Matters #1: Korea is a goth kid

(This post is part of the “Looking Past Korea” series which is a run down of all things I think are superficially important, culturally important, and things foreigners think are important but I think are pretty over rated. This is the 5th of 5 posts about Superficial things that stand out to me.)

Superficiality: Really sad music videos

Why it happens:

After watching countless music videos that involve bright colors, candy, roller blades and Wonder Woman, I have to think that the sad music videos are reactions to the little kid “bubble gum” pop that dominates South Korean pop music.

It’s artists who, believing they have actual talent, want to differentiate themselves from the pre-packaged groups such as Wonder Girls, Jewelry or Super Junior.

In essence, it’s Koreans answer to early 90’s grunge music. Only if instead of not caring about life in general, grunge was really sad because their girlfriend was put in the hospital by a vicious street gang while she was babysitting your mentally challenged friend who you were ashamed to be friends with but finally came around to when you began to get repeated nose bleeds and realized the shortness and importance of life.

What it says about Korea:

The question really goes back to why it happens. There’s the obvious answer I discussed above, but why is sadness necessary at all to show artistic ability?

Supposedly, misery loves company. So I guess happiness loves…not company? I always founds this statement to be odd as happy people tend to have more friends. Maybe it was a Korean who originally coined the phrase.

Korea is a society that, at it’s core, is constantly on the defensive. After a history that has been spent warding off foreign invaders Korea has developed a very “us vs. the world” mentality.

So, just like in middle and high school when you secretly believed the world was out to get you this defensive mindset could make a person, or in this case an entire society, a tad depressing. Korea is a goth kid.

Visual Example:

Monday Kiz

This song gets me pretty excited when I here it while walking down the street. It feels like the video should be pretty happy, but then a little girl dies. Of course…why shouldn’t she?

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Superficiality Matters #2: Jessica Alba

(This post is part of the “Looking Past Korea” series which is a run down of all things I think are superficially important, culturally important, and things foreigners think are important but I think are pretty over rated. This is the 4th of 5 posts about Superficial things that stand out to me.)

Superficiality: Jessica Alba seems like the only American actress Koreans universally find attractive

Why it happens:

Aside from the obvious answer of “because she is attractive,” I think it has more to do with style than anything.

It goes back to the cute Korean girl syndrome that I mentioned in my last post. Despite stereotypes to the contrary Korean girls generally do not fall into the seductive Asian temptress mold. Jessica Alba seems to maintain a little girl cuteness in all of her movies that matches with the Korean ideal of how a girl should act.

Even when she plays a stripper in the blood drenched misogyny that is “Sin City,” she is juxtaposed against her childlike self, both literally and figuratively. You see her one instant grinding a pole in a cowboy outfit, and the next jumping off the stage to bear hug the police officer who saved her life. It’s an endearing quality that either you have or you don’t. This is opposed to someone like Angelina Jolie who fits into the seductress template.

What it says about Korea:

Korea has nothing if not a defined sense of beauty. Since most people are relatively thin, face takes on a new importance. Anybody with a large ass need not even try; Juvenile was never popular here. High nose, big eyes, thin/small face: these are what make a Korean girl stand out against the crowd. No wonder plastic surgery is so popular.

In the end, I think this ends up saying more about Jessica Alba than it does about Korea. I find it interesting none the less.

Koreans think Lucy Liu is hideous.

Visual Example:

Lee Hyori and Jessica Alba sell makeup in Korea. If you want to see the ideal in Korea beauty this is the commercial to see.

Added bonus, Jessica Alba’s Korean voice over.

Also, I thought I’d throw this video in where Lee Hyori decides she is fat and so she should consume nothing besides some black bean drink. I wonder what eating disorders are like in Korea?

I also like this commercial because I can pick out almost half of the words that they are saying.

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Superficiality Matters #3: I’m so sorry, but I can’t sing the rest of the song

(This post is part of the “Looking Past Korea” series which is a run down of all things I think are superficially important, culturally important, and things foreigners think are important but I think are pretty over rated.  This is the 3rd of 5 posts about Superficial things that stand out to me.)

Superficiality: Korean Songs, English Choruses

Why it happens:

I was sent a link the other day talking about how English, as it appears in Korean songs, is without meaning. Instead it is part of the musical backdrop, on par with the piano, guitar or other instrument.

At first I thought this was kind of silly until I remembered how often English songs do this. At this point, I don’t even think Timbaland could make a beat if it didn’t include some Indian girl singing in the background.

I also remember all those cool kids who got Chinese symbols tattooed on their back that they thought said “Unity,” but really said “I have sex with pigeons.” It is at this point I realize how much South Korea would culturally gain from the term “Douchebag.”

Oh well, at least when they wear shirts that say “Spoiled Brat” on them, they’re not purposefully making a statement about themselves.

What it tells us about Korea:

Who the hell knows.

I’m just upset that I can no longer use the phrase “Tell me,” “One more time,” or “Sorry,” in class ever again without starting a medley.

Also, I can’t get the words out of my head and it annoys me when I only know half the words to the songs.

Visual Example:

As if the music videos above weren’t enough. Here’s the infamous camera commercial where the singer sings “Let me taste, your banana.” Followed by her softly singing MMM, MMM, MMM accompanied by slurping sounds.

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