Category Archives: The foreigner experience

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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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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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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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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South Korea Battle Royale: “Red Bean Paste” vs. “Things That Don’t Taste like Adhesives”

The woman handed me a small cake like ball. It was bread on the outside with a bit of cinnamon dashed on the top. Upon receiving it I felt that there was a small hole in the middle, presumably where some cream or custard like substance would be stored, which would provide a savory goodness.

I popped the whole thing in my mouth. But what to my wondering taste buds do appear, but an awful taste and a chewy, gooish mixture.

It’s bad form to spit out food that you were given by somebody in any culture, but I had to know. What the hell was in my mouth?

Upon a quick excusal to the bathroom I found that within my mouth was a reddish substance. I guess it tasted kind of sweet, but the texture was thick and I found it hard to swallow. When I returned I asked the woman what it was. She told me “it is delicious.” I doubted that “delicious” was the name of what I was eating so I set out on a mission. It was not long before I discovered that the reddish substance was “red bean paste.” It is a popular dessert filling, and I can see why kids like it. Children are, after all, the same demographic that enjoys eating glue.

This was 10 months ago.

Fast forward to today and I still have not acquired a taste for the paste. I’m the same person who once referred to kimchi as similar to the seaweed found between the baleen plates of blue whales, and now I have a tupperware container filled with it in my refrigerator. Red bean paste has yet to find a way to my heart.

So I approach every dessert with a new trepidation. Every time there’s a fifty percent chance that what I will eat will be delicious chocolate or custard filling and a fifty percent chance that I’ll immediately want to remove it from my mouth and throw it at the person who gave it to me.

The astute observer could point out that I could simply open up the confection before eating. That way I’d know what I’m getting into. However, once I have opened up the dessert and put my hands all over it I am left with the three options of either eating it, putting it back, or throwing it out. Two of these three things are not kosher. The third one is simply undesired by me.

So, instead I guess. Four out of five rice cakes that contain something contain red bean paste, which is like injecting rubber cement with red glue. Little bread cakes are a different story. With them I have no idea.

If this is what Russian Roulette feels like

then pass me a glock.

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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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