Category Archives: Culture

I’m also really good at giving directions to taxi drivers

Barely glancing the take out menu in my hand, I automatically dial the number I have so often dialed before.

This time it’s a man’s voice on the line. Sometimes a woman picks up, but today it’s some guy whose voice I also recognize.

Without my even saying anything he recites the address I am currently at.

Without my even thinking I say “재육덮밥 하나 주세요”

Without any response the man on the other end hangs up. I don’t mind. I know that soon someone will bring food directly to my office and I will pay him and he will leave and I will eat and place the dishes outside of my building and in an hour or so he, or someone else will come get them. The circle of lunch.

A Korean co-worker overhears my order and remarks “your Korean is improving”

“Well, it’s just my lunch order”

“Yes, but I can tell your intonation is very good”

This makes me laugh, “well, I order the same 3 or 4 things every day so I hope I’m good at it by now”

“So many foreigners don’t know how to order their own food, but you are very good”

“Thanks” I say, and we part ways to our respective work spaces.

In about 10 or 15 minutes someone will bring me food. He probably thinks I am fluent in Korean.

In the land of foreigners who often refuse to learn basic language skills to get by the foreigner who can order lunch is king.

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Filed under city life, Culture, Narratives, The foreigner experience, Uncategorized

Expectations

Not that anybody would have, but if you would have asked me 10 years ago to name the least likely things I would expect to be up my rear I might have listed ‘the fingers of a Korean child’ somewhere near the top of my list.

Yet, here we are.

 
(If you don’t get this, read the description of the ddong chim game played in Korea, or for the urban dictionary definition click here.)

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Freedom

Just above my apartment, for the past few months, lives an elderly gentleman. Every time I am sitting outside my apartment, he seems to come outside at the same time. I have never spoken to him and he has never spoken to me. We always glance at each other, never acknowledge each other in any way, and eventually we both go back inside.

I sometimes wonder if that is my future, and does he conversely consider me as his past.

On the walkway next to my building there is a structure of garbage, and an elderly Korean man who continuously sorts it. Occasionally he takes a large bundle away, leaving the walkway to my house clear for a moment. He wears green camouflage cargo pants, a red t-shirt, and a black baseball cap…everyday. On cold days he wears a jacket, and occasionally he is a drinking. During the previous winter I considered bringing him one of my extra jackets that I no longer wear but didn’t. He might have felt obliged to speak to me the next time we see each other, and we see each other almost every day.

Across the slender alley from my apartment there is a pretty girl, seemingly in her mid-20s, who lives on the ground floor. I often see her enter her apartment later at night, around 12. Sometimes she is alone, sometimes she is accompanied by what I assume is her boyfriend. I’ve never really looked at him, but I think it’s the same guy.

Sometimes on the weekend there are children playing in front of my apartment in the alley way. They have taken the liberty of becoming my sporadic Saturday alarm clock; and if I hear them playing I can assume it is a nice day outside. One time I helped one of the smaller boys carry his bike up the stairs leading to his apartment. Mostly though I try to avoid the children on my way out.

Civility in a city is allowing people to live their lives without recognition, and without forcing upon them the requirement of having to recognize others.

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The Last Shot

For the final discussion I’d ever have with my co-teacher we decided to drink a little bit. Obviously. Already a few bottles of Cass littered the table and steam rose off the grill as we placed another slice of meat on the kalbi grill. She was telling me I did a good job.

“Foreign teachers need to be excited and happy to teach, you did that very much this year,” she told me.

I wonder, what sorts of teachers aren’t excited to teach? Teaching isn’t a profession that lends itself to large sums of money so it seems that the people who would do it would do it out of love. When I first decided to be a teacher, I told myself that if I ever felt bored with teaching that I should quit. Students deserve teachers who care.

“Yes, but I felt like I should have done more. I’m not sure the students learned that much from me.”

“No, you can not do more. Hey, you only have very little time to teach students and you have over 1000. You can not teach them everything. We need foreign teachers so students feel excited about English and so that they can get used to being around foreigners. You did this, even when you were tired you still acted excited”

“But couldn’t you hire any foreigner for that? Who cares if they’re qualified teachers?” I queried.

I was beginning to feel that my college degree was going to waste. You don’t need to be a real teacher to do this job. In fact, that’s one of the education systems favorite marketing points ‘Teach English in Korea! Travel the World! You don’t need a teaching degree!’ The only qualification we need is to be born in an English speaking country. I guess I’m qualified then, congratulations to me. I took another sip of the Cass and felt just a little bit more numb.

“Yes, but that is a difficult job. Hey, there are not many teachers who can keep attention of students for forty minutes.”

She was trying to make me feel better. I didn’t really need it, but I guess it was appreciated. Nickelodeon programming also does a decent job keeping a child’s attention for forty minutes to an hour.

She continued “The students liked you and I could see that they became very comfortable with you. Two years ago when we have no foreign teacher the students were very scared to speak English. Now they speak lots.”

“Yah, but only really easy sentences, and most of the time they don’t even do it correctly.”

For example, ‘hello, nice to meet you,’ when I’ve met them twenty times before. Another bottle of Cass down.

“But we are very poor school. Students are excited to have foreign teacher. Especially guy teacher, it makes us think we are very special. The students are more prideful of themselves and think English is fun.”

Some people talk about fighting the good fight. Sticking it out when times are tough. But if I wanted to fight the good fight I’d move to Africa, or New Orleans. Besides, the kids who are smart learn English by studying themselves and by attending hogwans and the lower level students don’t care…who exactly am I teaching then?

“The students are sad that you are leaving,” she said as she tried to grab one of the waitresses as she ran by. I guess she had a point. Maybe I was just trying to convince myself to the contrary.

“I still don’t think I did anything that special.”

And with that we ordered one last bottle of soju.

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Looking Past Korea: Series Wrap Up

Well, it’s time to wrap up the “Looking Past Korea” series. If you want to check out all the posts I did for the series, simply click the link on the top of the page. During this series I wrote about things that, although superficial, I thought were important; I wrote about things that I thought were overrated by foreigners living in Korea; I wrote about things that I thought were truly important cultural differences. I made lots of generalizations.

The one thing we have to remember is that, while I write about my time in Korea and about my observations of the culture, the people who live here are still people. As a whole they make up the culture, but as individuals they have hopes and dreams and love and hate just like any other person and they are uniquely themselves within their own cultural setting. This was the main purpose of the series. I wanted to finalize what I thought were differences so that I could finally begin to focus on what really matters, our similarities.

With that said, I have one more sweeping generalization of Korea. Korea is the middle brother of Eastern Asia. It is stuck between the power of older brother China and the baby brother celebrity of Japan. These other two countries are so powerful and noticeable that Korea, many times, is caught between them when it may be the most successful of them all given the circumstances. I’m not entirely sure.

Through this series, and this blog in general, I have tried to avoid telling people what to think with my writing. Instead of being a guide I have instead attempted to be a lamp. Hopefully I was able to shed enough light that you were able to find your own way.

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The Gum Lady

If you don’t concentrate enough the monotonous clunk of the tracks harmonizes with the sighs of the weary worker after a long day at work, melodies with the hum of the fluorescent lights, and is occasionally supplemented by the percussion of a door opening and closing as an elderly woman walks from car to car singing and selling gum.

A fluorescent light vibrates at a frequency that would make a hummingbird’s wings jealous. Their light reflected off of her and back into my eyes where my brain processed the primary colors. So it was that I saw her just an instant before I heard her off key wailing as she trudged through my subway car. She did not hear me, but she saw me.

Her eyes locked on me and I tried to look away. Her Medusa gaze was too powerful and I couldn’t help but look on, curiously stoned. The woman moved through the subway car the way a cherry rolls through honey. When she walked by me she stopped. She turned. She threw a pack of gum at me and stretched out her hand. Did I have bad breath?

She would not leave till I gave her money, even after I tried to give her back her gum she just sang louder and started to poke me.

This was my first experience with the Gum Lady of Line 1.

Since that first experience I am afraid to look at her, lest she notice me. My only hope is that she turns her attention towards some other unsuspecting bad breathed soul, because once she notices you, you will buy some gum. She usually only stops at one person per subway car. Sometimes I point to people who I think she should try to sell gum to, and sometimes she takes my advice.

Despite my fear of looking at her I’ve caught enough glimpses. Her face is weathered and tanned the way only fluorescent lighting can do. Her back is bent and arched from too many days of carrying bags of rice on her head to and from various locations before the creation of the subway. She may have been beautiful once. Can beauty ever die? Also, I’m pretty sure she wears the same thing every day.

The Gum Lady is always there, haunting the passengers of line 1. Always staring at you, singing off key, forcing you to buy her gum. Her life is intrinsically linked to the subway and the subway to her. It would not surprise me to discover she secretly lived there.

She is not a beggar. Beggars offer you nothing for your money besides a guilty shot at redemption. She offers you that and then some gum. I wonder how much money she makes in a day. Hopefully more than the cost of a train ticket.

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Deciphering Korean T-Shirts

We’ve all had a good chuckle at them walking down the street. Those seemingly crazy Korean t-shirts written in English that seem to not make too much sense to us not accustomed to the Korean way of thinking.

But I’ve had a recent revelation. The t-shirts do make sense. Of course Koreans know exactly what English words they are putting on their body. What kind of people would honestly cover their body with sayings they didn’t understand? However, we as foreigners are too close minded to the cleverness and sublime wit of the Korean/English t-shirt market.

So I’ve decided to help you decipher some of the phrases I’ve seen around town so that you too can be as enlightened as me. Slogans in bold, descriptions under them.

Die or surf

In the context of English conversation two options can be given in either order. For example the sentences “we could die or surf, it’s up to you,” and “we could surf or die, it’s up to you,” have very little intrinsic difference. However, when the phrase surf or die is taken out of conversational context the order of words takes on a new meaning. The specific implication being that the first option of the two is preferable and even desired, while the second is not just a secondary option but wholly unwanted. Based on this description we can determine that the wearer must enjoy dying, and consequently sees surfing as its despicable counterpart, brimming with existential and spiritual quandaries.

He Loves the Dick/ She Loves the Dick (couple t-shirt)

Pish posh on your initial middle schoolish laughter at the homosexual implications of these t – shirts. Sexual innuendo is often brushed off as taboo in Korean culture. These t-shirts are testaments to youthful rebellious masturbation. We should all be so bold to shrug off social taboos that hold society back and create stereotypes.

Remember the sisties

The Sisties were an underground popular punk rock group that toured around the greater Mason area during the late 90’s. Damn straight I remember them.

We hookied and had lunchboxes for lunch

Poetry, sheer poetry. If you can not feel the words then you do not deserve to understand their meaning.

Peasants.

Pee all that you can pee in the army

Trusty health advice for our soldiers on duty. I imagine that spending all day sitting in bushes with sniper rifles and exploring exotic world locations on an aircraft carrier can be difficult work that would afford few opportunities for bathroom breaks. It’s important to stay hydrated and go regularly. How many more kidney failures can we endure?

I love alcohol (my fifth grade student) –

No explanation needed. Drinking culture is strong in Korea. Who cares if they start a little earlier than kids in other cultures? We should learn to never question Korean culture in any way shape or form. As foreigners, we don’t understand anything.

Want to take pictures I’m a true modek

A clever play on words for those who design modeks for a living. A walking modek? How silly and clever.

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