Notes from South Korea (part 2)

There is a large gap between males and females in Korea, unless they are a couple. There is certainly much more formality surrounding relationships of any kind, and there are certain rules that have to be followed. There are certain things we consider absolutely normal which a Korean could never do. For example, a woman could never tell a crude joke to a male co-worker, even if they are both young and know each other well. I’m not sure what else Koreans can never do, because obviously I haven’t seen them do those things, but I have a feeling that there is a large number of things that are considered inappropriate. However, there are also things which are considered fine in Korea which would be inappropriate in the West.

One obvious example is public urination. Korea is a very clean country, even by western standards. There is not any garbage flying around, and one does not find plastic bottles and other trash like that in conservation areas. The Korean people are very clean and generally never litter. But they don’t consider urinating in a public place as particularly wrong, especially while intoxicated after drinking Soju. One of the first times I have encountered this phenomenon was while walking to work at 2 PM. A bus driver was urinating behind his bus, parked in front of the school where I teach, pretty much in plain view. I don’t think it really bothered anyone, as nobody was really there to see it. Another time, we were going to a bar and saw a man urinating right on the side of the road, in a much more populated area. It was quite funny when my roommate waved to him and said “Anyonghaseyo!” (hello), to which the man actually replied. I have also seen this phenomenon in various parks, numerous times.

Spitting is another common thing here. You might see a nice girl walking in front of you, and suddenly she would clear her throat and spit a wad of phlegm unto the sidewalk. Then she’ll look around, as an afterthought, and upon seeing you, she’ll get embarrassed (if she’s shy) and probably try to lose you.

One interesting thing I am beginning to notice, which my roommate confirms as true in his experience as well, is that the Korean people have only about a dozen different facial structures, and also very few hairstyles. As a result, many Koreans resemble each other to uncanny degrees. Every single day, we see someone who reminds us of someone else.

Another interesting thing regarding appearances is that there is a definite lack of boundary between masculinity and femininity, especially in the younger generations. Mostly, everyone here is more feminine. Boys look like girls, and often dress like girls. Teenage boys wear pink preppy shirts, and sometimes even wear purses. Teenage girls often dress like tomboys, with their hair in a slick pony tail. They wear plaid loose-fitting shirts, big glasses and loose jeans.

This lack of boundary between the sexes becomes even more pronounced when teens start dating – they become virtual twins. It is extremely common to see both the girl and the guy wear exactly the same clothes – for example, black jeans and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, with matching blue and red Disney caps. They will even wear the same shoes and have the same purse. At least you know that they are a couple! I have often imagined how they call each other up before a date and decide on every detail of what they are going to wear… The planning that must go into this absurd custom is mind boggling.

I’ve noticed in my students that they are more sensitive than the kids in the West. There is always someone crying because somebody has hurt them. They cry over the most insignificant things, like when a classmate calls them “crazy” or something like that. It almost makes me cry sometimes to see these kids crying.

There was a kid who was acting really bad, so I had to drag him out of his seat to get him to participate and get with the program. But then I realized that he was crying. Needless to say, I felt very bad. I had tears in my own eyes! I then took him out to see the Korean teacher at the front desk, so she would talk to him. She did, and when she brought him back, she was almost crying too. It’s really funny to watch this kind of drama.

I have to be extra gentle with everyone, because many of them are so sensitive… I really don’t want to make anyone feel bad or cry. But it also used to get to me when nobody would listen to me, class after class. Going through class after class with all of the kids screaming and not listening drains you of energy, and then you snap at some poor kid.

There was one side dish which I just couldn’t stomach. I’ll give you a hint. This animal is very small, full of protein, and has at least six legs. It’s brown in color, and there could be perhaps 60 specimens of it in a little dish. Yes, it is some kind of a bug! Personally, I find these things nasty, but my roommate has tried them before. He says they are neither tasty nor distasteful, but overall, he prefers not to eat them more than two or three times a day. Just kidding!

Being a curious person, I went as far as to smell the vile looking dish. It was quite repulsive in odor, and I graciously put it on the table behind us. However, I was too rash in my actions, as this was the favorite snack of one of the girls. She crunched them down one after the other and told us that she knows how to cook these guys. My friend found – to his own surprise and mine as well – that the girl looked very cute while crunching down these little protein snacks. There was a lot of peer pressure on me to try one of them, but I flat out refused.

In the meantime, the girl next to me was trying to teach me how to use chopsticks properly. I have been managing just fine using them improperly, but Koreans have to be proper in everything, and that involves how you hold your chopsticks!

After I failed to satisfy the national standard for holding chopsticks correctly, she concluded that I’m stupid and hit me for the 67th time that evening. She was quite a violent personality, possibly the most violent female I have ever known. She had an iron grip and volunteered to give me a bit of a massage. I accepted happily, and she expressed all of her latent anger during the next three or four minutes.

Luckily, I had been strictly disciplining myself for the last month or so – I had been taking cold showers, sweating in saunas, doing sets of 90 pushups, dozens of pull-ups, staying up all night, biking for 5 to 6 hours in a single day, and jogging on mountainous terrain. In other words, I have been conditioning my body and mind so as to transcend the idea of pain and undesirability altogether.

My Korean friend was a little surprised when her massage did not elicit the customary plea for help – as any good Korean massage should. I think she really wanted me to scream in agony or cry out in pain, but I was too well-conditioned to succumb to the temptation that easily. In short, I enjoyed the massage despite its painful nature, and I think it actually made my evening! However, I am almost sure now that all massage therapists are somewhat sadistic. When my best friend gave me a proper massage back in Canada, I was not yet so well-disciplined and stoic. That time, I had to plea for mercy and scream out in pain many times – to his satisfaction I’m sure. I am probably somewhat masochistic in a small way. This would explain my attraction to massages.

While we ate, we saw a fight break out. There was one beautiful girl, and about 6 to 8 guys. They all wanted her. The fight went on for quite some time and we even changed our seating arrangements so that we could get a better view of the action. Actually, the girls we were with thought it was both dangerous and embarrassing, and that was the real reason for our relocation.

We explored humor, and realized that Koreans probably don’t understand western humor at all. There was one exception – gay jokes. They found this type of joke funny. But that’s just slapstick. They didn’t really get real western humor.

Here is a Korean joke:

There are three people – A, B and C

A wants to talk to B but isn’t sure how to approach him.

So he asks C – what do I say?

C tells him – just say “what’s up”

So A goes to B and says “wasabi”


Scenario A – waygooks (foreigners like me) ask the person telling the joke, “it’s over, right?”

She replies, “yes, did you get it?”

Scenario B – a Korean hears the joke and falls over laughing. The waygooks start laughing because it’s incomprehensible how the Korean can find this joke funny.

Overall, I have to say that the people here are more easy going and less obsessed with money than they are back in Canada. I will give a few examples to illustrate the point. Once I was in Seoul and wanted a drink of water. I saw some ladies with bottles of water in a giant cooler. I asked if I could have a drink and they gave me a bottle of water without charging me.

Another time I was eating at my favorite local “gimbap nara” and I was so satisfied with the quality of my food that I decided to tip the lady who owned the place. After all, I had ordered a one-dollar item, because I was in too much of a rush to eat anything bigger. But with my item, I received the customary bowl of soup and some side dishes, which of course made me very grateful, especially since miso soup is my favorite soup in the world. However, the lady not only served me but also refilled my side dishes and gave me an extra bowl of soup. To express my gratitude, I tried to give her more money than just a dollar, however she flatly refused and ushered me out with a big smile.

Cab rides begin from about 2 dollars, which would be sufficient to get from my house to the nearest supermarket. This is helpful in cases when it is necessary to purchase large quantities of food or water. I have not yet drank tap water, nor have I cooked with it. I have heard of other teachers drinking it, but I don’t even trust Canada’s tap water, not to mention this stuff. I once asked a Korean friend about it. “How is the tap water here – is it drinkable?”, to which he replied “I don’t know, I have never tried it. I use a filter.” His reply was satisfactory enough for me to stick to my initial idea of not drinking tap water.

Luckily, bottled water is quite cheap, at about 50 cents for 1.5 litres, and there are many natural springs throughout the city, where one can fill up on natural spring water.

Cigarettes are under 2 dollars a pack here, so many people tend to smoke, although not so much Korean girls. Apparently it is still extremely rude for a girl to smoke, and if her parents caught her, she would be in deep trouble. However, one thing that is not considered rude here is to wear a t-shirt with some weird statement on it. For instance, I was shocked to see our secretary at work in a t-shirt that stated “Sleep with the Best” in gigantic letters. In fact, on my first day of school, my Korean co-teacher John wore a shirt that said “sex without love is just an exercise”. This confused me quite a bit, and I don’t really understand Korean sexuality at all.

It’s not uncommon for boys or men to hold hands in public, nor is it strange for a teacher to slap some boys on their butts. In fact I saw that exact action today. In the saunas, one sees nude men walking around, and it is understandable that some of them are as gay as the men who frequent the so called “saunas” in Canada, but I do not think that gay men in saunas are the norm.

It is said in Korea that a massage is not a good massage unless it hurts. Well, most saunas contain a VIP area where one can get one of these painful massages. The thing that makes it quite funny is that both of the men are naked – the one giving and the other receiving the massage – and periodically the one getting the massage screams out in pain. It’s quite a strange thing to witness.

Getting a job here is easy. You can take my word for it that if you fly over here with a University degree, a number of jobs are definitely guaranteed for you. I personally have met a man who was a fisherman in Canada and is now a University professor here. It is not necessary to get the job online or to go through an agent. The experienced teachers with whom I’ve talked have all said that coming here independently and finding a job thereafter is the best option.

This is a country where some people work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. These are engineers and such, working for large corporations such as Samsung. They would earn 12 000 dollars a month, which is certainly a lot of money, but I don’t think such working conditions would ever be accepted in Canada. These are extremely hard working people, and it is a shame that they are often cheated out of their money by American brand name merchandise which is sold here at highly inflated prices. A lot of that merchandise also looks like its overstock from the 80s.

The presence of the elderly is very much felt in Korea. In general, every inch of empty land is used to cultivate vegetables. Elderly people create gardens next to every house or apartment, next to walking paths or on patches of empty land in the surrounding mountains. These are mostly retired women, probably over 55 or 60, who plant the gardens, water the plants, weed them, and later collect the harvest to sell on a roadside or sidewalk near an apartment complex or a supermarket. Their prices are usually better than in the stores.

Interestingly enough, these gardens are left completely in the open, accessible to all, yet nobody steals food from them. To be precise, if I were to leave my house this very second, I would arrive at one of these gardens the moment I stepped out my front door. If I were to walk for roughly 10 to 20 seconds in any of the four directions, I would likely arrive at another vegetable garden. My school is located approximately 60 seconds away from my apartment, and to get there, I would have to pass about 4 of the above mentioned gardens, all of them in perfect shape, with not a single onion or lettuce bush missing. This is significant because vegetables are for the most part quite expensive here.

I cannot help but feel respect for the elderly when I see them sitting in the markets, selling their garden-grown cucumbers, tomatoes and green peas. I feel like they still are functioning in society and although they work hard, it is probably better than sitting in an old folks home.

On the way to the airport one could see the cars stretching endlessly in four lanes simply standing, not moving at all. On the way back from the airport, there was a similar traffic jam, but we avoided it because the bus was able to drive in the special bus lane. In any case, the air pollution was devastating. I am already experiencing quite noticeable throat pain from breathing the air. Yesterday on the bus, I was actually contemplating leaving. And it was only my first day.

Along the highway stretched complexes of gigantic boring looking apartment buildings sometimes grouped together in blocks of 20 or 30 buildings. One can imagine the view which one could see out the window. Each window simply faced another building, the highway was stretching closely below, and all around them, there were factories, industrial areas from ghetto looking sites under construction, and what looked like the most boring scenery one could ever see.

The sky above was grey, completely filled with pollution. The sun was shining, but the sky wasn’t blue. If I had to live in Seoul, I wouldn’t survive a week. One thing I can’t stand is breathing polluted air, and I have no desire to support the system which has been responsible for creating this problem. My bitterness stayed with me for about 45 minutes, while our bus moved slowly through the traffic.

Thankfully, we soon left the dirty, ugly city, and moved into the next province. Finally, there were some landscapes worth seeing. Mountains stretched around us, and forests could be seen along the highway. The highway itself, comprising of eight lanes, still remained the major element of the landscape, making the mountains and forests surrounding us seem weak and pale, struggling to survive.

In the afternoon we met a strange Australian teacher who is also here to teach students conversational English. The only difference is that he is teaching three-year-olds and I can barely understand a word he says, because his accent is so strong. Meeting him was quite surreal. He talked a lot, but his words had almost no meaning. He took us to some noodle restaurant which smelled awfully like fish. There was a lady sitting on the floor chopping vegetables, and a family with many small children eating. We decided not to go in because the smell was overwhelming.

Nobody in this country can understand a word we are saying. After we left this noodle restaurant we found another noodle restaurant where we tried very hard to order a vegetarian dish. Of course the guy didn’t understand a word I said, and it turned out that the noodles contained not only beef broth but also came with some kind of pastry which contained beef as well. We barely managed to force down the nasty tasting cold noodles, paid 10,000 Korean won, and went to the Internet café.

Last light we took the KTX train to Seoul, the capital city. This train goes about 300 kilometers an hour at it’s best, though most of the trip is slower – 160- 220 kph or so. In Japan they supposedly have a train that goes 500 kph. Seoul is a pretty decent city – we checked out the foreign areas (where westerners hang) and also the big technology mall. Its weird to be in a place where there are 100 000 items and no set prices. You have to bargain, and they will screw you if you’re not careful.

This country is really chilled out… It’s quite surreal. I actually feel like I have been here before. In terms of culture shock, there hasn’t been any shock at all. We hardly noticed that we left Canada. We are not even conscious of any significant differences. Neither myself or Liam have regretted the decision to come here even for a moment so far.

The Koreans are pretty chilled out. Nobody will ever give you any trouble for anything. You can do stupid stuff, yell in the middle of the street or wander around drunk, or say stupid things… You can dress in a weird way… There is this guy Charlie here who’s been drunk for 5 days in a row so far, and everybody loves the guy. He’s got a big beard, wears overalls, and has a tooth missing, yet nobody has been prejudiced against him so far. Hmm.

Yesterday in Seoul I saw a dude with a trumpet, preaching the gospel of Jesus in Russian by reading phonetically from Korean. Wow. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Consider this – Taxi in a capital city – big van for 5 people and a bunch of bags – 3.000 won. Taxi in a smaller town – half the distance – 2 people, no bags, small car – 7000+ won. And he didn’t even drive us in the right direction!

Many teachers say that if you are here and seek some kind of logic, you’re going to be very disappointed. But if you have a sense of humor, then everything is pretty funny.

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