Every time I go abroad I see things and think, ‘I like how they did that’ or ‘You know… that’s a really good idea.’ Here’s a list of those things that have won me over in Korea.
Elevators- if you accidentally hit the wrong floor, just push the button again. It will not go there. HALLELUJAH! (I always wanted this in the US)
Cheap street food everywhere. Usually under $2.
3. Affordable, quality beauty products. It’s like a Crabtree & Evelyn is a stone’s throw away from wherever you are, and you can buy almost anything for under $10.
4. Gel as a moisturizer. It’s really light, not sticky, and my skin soaks it up instantly. This is really great when it’s warm and even lotion can feel heavy.
5. Cheap, well run, public transportation. I spend about $1 to ride the subway in Seoul.
6. General feeling of safety.
7. Cheap haircuts with good service. The most I’ve spent for a haircut here was $27, and that was with the top stylist at a high end salon. Most women’s haircuts are $20 or less. In the US I was spending $80-$90. The stylist also has assistants who will attend to your every need. This means 2 people will blow dry your hair and massage your scalp at once. It also means a lady will stand there with a giant cotton ball dusting little hairs off your face as your hair is being cut.
8. You can use toilet paper for anything. No need to buy tissues, napkins, paper towels. Everyone’s perfectly happy using toilet paper.
9. Heated floors
10. Heated subway seats
11. Heated toilet seats
12. Free samples- at the grocery store, at the beauty stores, people in general being generous
13. Q-tips are sold in reasonable quantities. Gone are the days of buying 800 q-tips at once. Now you can buy 30.
14. Buttons on the table to call a waiter or waitress. They generally don’t bother you unless you push the button. Push it and they come right over. Good system.
15. Metal door handles are covered with fabric like felt or velvet in the winter. This is so you don’t have to touch a cold handle. Nice touch.
Since it’s Thanksgiving, I figured I’d tell you about a kid named Turkey.
Turkey is one of my 5th graders. The first time I met his class I had the students make name tags with their English names on one side and their Korean names on the back. Most kids didn’t have English names, so I put last year’s 100 most popular American boy and girl names in a bag and had them draw one. Whatever they pulled was their name.
I kept the name tags in the classroom. Students would pick up their name tag at the beginning of class and drop it off at the end. For most kids this process worked fine, but this one kid ate his name tag. And since he’s the kind of kid who eats name tags, he’s also the kind of kid who doesn’t remember his English name. After a couple of weeks I got sick of referring to him as “No Name Kid” and thought, ‘Fuck it. Your name’s Turkey.’ So we made a new name tag for him and he’s been Turkey ever since.
I know you might be thinking, ‘that’s a shitty thing to do to a kid’. And you’d be right, if we were in the US or another Western country. But before I left for Korea, I talked with several people who had taught here. One guy said he gave all his students animal names and they loved it. It seemed bizarre to me, but at the same time delightful. What kind of kids love being called animal names? But I figured if it worked for him, it could work for me. It still felt a little wrong, but I went with it.
So back to the kid- he had no idea what “turkey” meant. No one in his class knew what “turkey” meant either. Except one girl who giggles everytime I call on him.
“Turkey! Sit down!”
“Turkey! Stop talking!”
“Don’t do that Turkey!”
Are you listening Turkey?”
The first month of school he was so annoying- always finding some reason to get into trouble. He was one of those kids you just want to kick in the face, but you don’t because, unlike him, you have self control.
Henry, trying to hold down a rambunctious Turkey.
But then he started to calm down, actually take an interest in class, and he even started to feel pride for his name. “I TURKEY!” he’d say beaming. I would feel a little bad that I had given him such a stupid name, but then I’d have to remember it was probably okay here.
The thing with kids like Turkey is they are never truly reformed. Their good days never last that long. Within a few weeks Turkey was back to his old self and he was a mixed bag. One minute he’d be calmly doing his work, the next he’d be screaming about something. Then he’d beg for you to call on him, followed by chasing someone in the back of the room for 10 seconds, then back to his desk to rip paper. When he wanted someone’s attention, instead of calling their name he’d bob his head forward and make a spitting/farting noise.
Sometimes I pull up videos of wild turkeys attacking people. I watch, then look up at him, then look at the video, then look at him, and I think, ‘Turkey is the perfect name for this kid.’
A few weeks ago Turkey started to catch on that something was off about his name. He asked my co-teacher, “Is Turkey a real name? For humans?” She covered for me and said, “Oh yes. There are some people with the name Turkey.” Apparently he didn’t fully believe her, but he accepted it.
Then the other day I was making a PowerPoint presentation about Thanksgiving. Several of his classmates crowded around my desk to see what I was doing, and of course they said “turkey?” when I was making the slide about food. As soon as he heard his name he excitedly ran over because he thought we were talking about him. “I TURKEY!” I said, “Yes, you are” as I shut the presentation. I couldn’t let the cat of the bag just yet.
Today was finally the day he’d find out what his name means. I was apprehensive to tell him. What if he got angry and became more aggressive in class because he didn’t like his name? Or me for giving him that name? But I figured I’d just do it and cross that bridge if and when I came to it.
Turns out Turkey fucking loves his name, especially now that he knows what it means. Every time I said his name during my presentation he got excited. I even used him as a model turkey to explain how to prepare one. “You cut off the head. A lot of blood squirts out and the body keeps moving like it’s still alive.” His natural body movements fit the description perfectly.
The last thing we did was make Thanksgiving cards saying what we were thankful for. His said, “I’m thankful for Turkey!” (And then he made a second saying he’s thankful for his mom.) He also begged his class to please not kill turkeys “because they should not die.”
Turkey while he makes his card.
Turkey’s finished card. It matches his coat.
So this Thanksgiving I’m thankful that my 10-year-old-boy sense of humor was favorably received.
This week is Thanksgiving week, and as I’ve been preparing teaching materials on Thanksgiving focused on what America is all about, I’ve been wondering- what is Korea all about?
I’ve been here for 3 months now and as someone who studied Anthropology I feel like I should be able to answer this question easily. For a lot of other countries I’ve visited it has been pretty straightforward. But this place, I’m not so sure.
Why is it so hard? I have a few theories:
1) Korea is fucking old. The US- not even 300 years old. Latin American countries- same boat. The Americas are also heavily populated by people who wanted something / wanted to get away from something. Their desires are fresh in our memories, and that recent history is still part of our collective psyche. Also, Europe, while old, has traditions that are familiar to us in the West. I grew up learning about European history. Korea though- who knows anything about Korea in the US? Plus it’s 5,000 years old. So where would you even begin if you wanted to study the history and make a fair amount of sense out of it? I’ll try though…
2) A lot of their history, including recent history, has involved being invaded/occupied by other countries, like China and Japan. Whenever that happens, your collective identity will be affected. In some ways you may want to be more Korean to assert yourself, in others you’ll change either by force or because you just like something your occupiers introduced (like spas from Japan). So I don’t yet know what is Korean and what is now Korean because the Chinese or the Japanese made them do it (or American soldiers…). And to take that a step further, of those things they’ve kept, I don’t know how much they see them as “Korean” or “Japanese/Chinese/American things we also do.”
3) Super-rapid development is giving me the impression Koreans wish they were someone else. I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out on this. In this country right now, you have old people who, in their youth, had to dig through trash to find something to eat, and young people who curse their parents out for not giving them literally everything they want. In many ways, this is a completely different country than the one it was 50 years ago. So many young people seem to quietly reject the values of their parents and grandparents. This creates tension, and their way of dealing with it is to escape it, either by moving abroad or dreaming about it. Either way, the desire shows a lack of attachment to Korea. It’s like being a young person in Korea today means you wish you were someone else, somewhere else.
So what is Korean identity? It must run deeper than eating the same food at every meal and hiking on the weekend. And I want to believe it’s more than simply wishing you were American. But I haven’t fully wrapped my head around it yet.
As soon as you arrive in a new country you begin to notice differences. Some of these are really interesting and you like them, while others make you uncomfortable or think, ‘WTF?!’.
This post is about the initial, surface-level cultural differences I’ve noticed between the US and South Korea. These are things a tourist here for a week would likely notice.
*Please note this is meant to document and share the experience, not judge the culture.
1- Lots of spicy, smelly food. Lots of dishes include red chili peppers. I’ve seen people eat whole garlic cloves raw. You’ll smell it on people’s breath. As you’re walking down the street you’ll randomly smell raw fish.
2- Everyone eats from the same pot. Usually the food will be cooking in the middle of the table and people will spoon it into their own bowls/tong it onto their own plates. Sometimes people will go right in with chopsticks they’ve already used to eat.
3- No personal space. You notice this right away on the subway. A subway car will look totally full to me and 20 more people will cram in at the next stop. You will be full on pressed up against other people. They will inevitably be breathing and sneezing on you and you’ll be doing the same to them.
4- People get super drunk often. Americans and Europeans both like to boast about how much they drink. Koreans beat them by a long shot. They drink soju which makes them black out and pass out.
5- People sleep in public. Everyday I see several people asleep in public places. Always on the subway, often on benches, typically in bars.
6- Most people are really thin. It’s unusual to see someone larger than a size 6 US.
7- People are really into cosmetics and fashion. Someone’s daily skin routine will involve 8+ steps, using various creams, toners, and who knows what else. They will include ingredients you’ve never heard of. There will be lots of snail in them.
8- Kids don’t seem to have a bedtime. You’ll see kids out at all hours. Last night I heard little kids playing outside my building at 1am.
9- People are impressed if you can say anything in Korean. They’ll tell you your Korean is really good even if you have a vocabulary of 3 words.
10- People are incredibly shy. They don’t like to be put on the spot or highlighted in a group.
11- Obsession with anything to do with children and babies. Adults may dress, speak, and behave like children to appear cute. Couples may even treat their partners like children as a sign of affection.
12- Coupling is huge. Obsession with a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse or love interest. Lots of couple-focused cafes. Don’t be surprised if you see couples wearing the same or coordinated outfits.
13- Lots of toy dogs (meaning very tiny real dogs), often with their hair done up (dyed and braided) to make them even cuter.
14- Masculinity can be expressed through high fashion. It’s beyond metrosexual. Many dye and perm their hair and wear some makeup. Their primping could stand up against any girl in LA.
15- Chivalry never existed here. Never expect a man to hold a door open for you unless he’s trying to impress you.
16- Everyone’s doing their own thing in public spaces. People will walk as fast or as slow as they want and bump into you if you’re in their way (more common with older people, especially women). Sometimes you’ll feel like someone nearly pushed you over. There could be lots of open space, but they won’t move even slightly to one side. So, if you happen to be in their line of movement, you’ll get pushed. Cars drive and people walk on small streets together.
17- Different rules apply to foreigners. I find I get away with things Koreans don’t. For example, I’ve asked for refills for tea in cafes and they just give it to me. I’m not asking to take advantage; I honestly didn’t realize that wasn’t a thing. Koreans wouldn’t ask because they know the answer is no. When I’m out with one they’re shocked that I ask and even more shocked that the cafe gives it to me.
I teach English in an elementary school. My students are in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade. They live in a really poor part of Seoul. Only a few have exposure to English outside of my class, so most of them have really bad English. It’s an unusual scenario in this country (from what I’m told), but it’s what I got. So whenever a kid uses any English I’m impressed.
The other day the 4th graders were on the lesson “Don’t Enter, Please.” It’s got several expressions that start with “Don’t”, like push, shout, run- you get the idea. And thank god they’re learning this because I have to say it a lot.
Every chapter includes a song. Every song has a music video. Every music video has 2 girls and one guy. Every girl has pigtails. Every guy is immasculated and doesn’t know it. They’re all dressed in pastels. Their voices are unnaturally chipper. Their dance moves make 4th graders think, ‘wtf?’ It’s as if the Disney Channel lost its mind a bit more.
This section of the chapter is called “Sing! Sing!” I know how cheesy it is, but apparently songs help kids learn so I play the song and try to get them to sing with it.
So I’m playing this song and most kids are staring at the TV like, ‘Dear god…’ And I’m saying through an uncomfortable grin, “Why aren’t you singing?” And they’re looking at me like, ‘You want me to do what?’
Meanwhile my co-teacher, a tiny, middle-aged Korean woman wearing a suit with a skirt just below her knees (who, by the way, is a substitute since my normal co-teacher is on maternity leave), is rocking out to it in the front of the room. So I say, “Come on! Everyone sing it!” One enthusiastic boy, who is made of jello, gets out of his chair and can’t wait to do it. Then 2 other boys get up to, to mock the whole thing (which is fine by me if they’re doing it in English), one of which has cerebral palsy. They are going nuts.
As the class stares at the TV with a ‘kill me’ look on their faces (minus the three boys who are the epitome of ‘dance like no one is watching’) I hear, “TEACHER! Don’t Sing! Sing!, please.”
Whenever you go abroad you will find things that are different from your own culture. Some things you’ll love and something won’t be your cup of tea. The things that don’t work for you add up and what you’re left with is culture shock.
There are 4 stages:
1- Honeymoon: You love the new culture. You are fascinated by all the new things you experience. Lasts less than a month.
2-Negotiation: Cultural differences start to get to you. You become frustrated and anxious. Communicating between languages stops being cute and feels more like an arduous task. You feel lonely. Usually begins around 3 months in.
3-Adjustment: You become used to the differences and can comfortably accept and work with them. You have a routine and a feeling of “normalcy”. Usually happens 6-12 months in.
4-Mastery: You can fully and comfortably participate in the new culture. You will simultaneously embrace the new culture while still retaining elements of your home culture.
Culture shock is completely normal and to be expected. In fact, it would be weird if you didn’t experience culture shock.
What I find is that the other teachers I know here haven’t been writing about their culture shock. My guess is that saving face is HUGE in Korea and no one wants their challenges to be on the record, because who knows what people will think about them? And who knows what may happen to you if people know you’re having a rough week or month? Socially, maybe peers will stop talking to you and inviting you out because they don’t want to hear about your hard time. Professionally, maybe you won’t be offered a contract renewal because your employer will think you can’t handle your job.
I also hear people saying “everything is great”. They post lots of “everything is great” moments on Facebook. But we know most people use Facebook to show the best version of their lives, not the full truth of their experience (and if you don’t believe me, large corporations know this, play on this desire, and make lots of money selling you stuff that you will buy). With the world operating this way, it can easily appear that everyone’s having the most amazing experience except you. And that can leave you feeling very alone.
That said, when you do get to know people, they eventually begin to speak about things that are getting to them. We all have them and it’s totally okay. In fact, airing it out- productively- will help you work through the challenges.
So I’m writing this in hopes that people will feel more comfortable sharing their experiences. And to kick it off, I’ll write about my own personal challenges. I’ll share two posts, one on surface level adjustments and another on deeper topics.
The intent is to create an open dialogue, not to incite a bitch fest. So if you’d like to contribute productively to the conversation, please comment below.
There’s a 3rd grader with ADHD. He’s a really good kid; he just can’t sit for more than 5 minutes.
His go-to moves are walking across the front of the room like a dinosaur, running to the back of the room to get paper and crayons, exploring my desk, and making constant noise with his mouth.
Sometimes when he’s exploring my desk he does interesting things like acting like he’s a wizard cooking up something over my reed diffuser. It’s either really funny, like when there’s time to kill before class, or incredibly annoying, like when you’re in the middle of teaching a lesson.
He had medication but his mother didn’t want him taking it. She thought it was upsetting his stomach. The school’s been trying to tell her all year, “No, your kid really needs it”, but she just won’t give it to him. So since I’ve known him he’s been referred to as, “ADHD Boy”.
But the other day he was really tame. He only got up once to touch the board and sat back down. Huh?
Turns out he was with his mother in church for three hours last Sunday and the priest asked her to control her son. So she tried and realized it was impossible.
Last weekend I headed to Busan to visit my friend Mai from orientation. Even though we were both happy to see each other, we felt like we needed time to unwind. Our time in Korea had been a non-stop spree of doing stuff. Learn a ton about teaching in Korea then immediately start teaching. Every moment you’re not teaching, go do something like visit a tourist attraction or go and learn Korean. After 6 weeks you just want a break.
So we decided to spend our Sunday at Spa Land, Korea’s largest and nicest spa, located in Shinsegae, the world’s largest department store.
The spa is very different from spas in the West, so I should explain how things go. First, you pay for the amount of time you’ll be there. Mai and I each paid about $15 for a 4-hour pass, which was not enough; you can easily spend all day in this place.
They give you a key on a bracelet that has a number on it. This is your number while you’re at the spa. They also give you scrub-like pajamas and 2 towels. You then lock your shoes in a little locker and head to the locker room. This is where you’ll leave all your stuff and get completely naked. There are no underwear or bathing suits allowed. You have to get totally naked.
Most Americans freak out at the thought of this. When I was telling a friend back in Chicago about it she said, “NO! Absolutely not! We are NOT DOING THAT.” She then went on to tell me, “There are only 4 possible ways I would ever see you naked.
1- You’re being raped and I have to rescue you.
2- I’m identifying your dead body.
3- You’re clothes get ripped off in a natural disaster.
4- I accidentally walk in on you in the bathroom.
But you get over it fast when you see everyone else naked and realize no one cares.
You then head into the hot tub area with your towel. The towel is slightly bigger than a hand towel, so if you’re thinking of going you’ll never be able to wrap that thing around you. And the only people holding it front of them were Western people. Seriously- no one cares.
Next you shower. They have soap and shampoo already there for you. They also have towel-sized plastic scrubbers you can scrub yourself down with. After you shower you can get into the hot tubs. They’re all varying degrees of really hot, except one. One is super cold. They all say how hot they are on the side. They ranged from around 82 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit (the cold one was about 68).
So you hop from one hot tub to the next. You can also go into the sauna for a bit to watch tv (yes, there was a tv in it), which was around 162 degrees. There was even an outdoor bath which was nice. The air temperature outside was in the mid-60s and the tub was over 100.
Other things you can do here are watch people scrub themselves and each other with those plastic things, strike up conversation with other naked people, or go into the side room and get a scrub, facial, massage combination thing, which I did.
When you walk in you see six medical exam-like massage tables covered in plastic.
You lie down on one and a Korean lady in her bra and panties puts a cucumber salad on your face. She then takes plastic brillo pad mitts and scrubs your whole body.
Balls of your skin come off and fall all over the table (you feel it when you roll over and realize you’re lying on balls of your dead skin). If you open your eyes and look you’ll see they’re grayish-black. The Korean lady will periodically dump an enormous tub of water on you to rinse it off. She will then squirt oil all over you and massage you with her knuckles. At some point she will take the salad off your face and put on cake icing. When it’s all over she will wipe it off and your skin will be soft EVERYWHERE. Yes, I mean everywhere because they seriously do not care. Your face will be soft. Your arms will be soft. Your back will be soft. The insides of your butt cheeks will be soft.
You’ll then walk out red, and if you’re like me, you’ll want to shower again because you’ll swear you have dead skin balls stuck in your hair. So you’ll do that, towel off, and then head back into the locker room to get ready for phase 2 of your spa day.