Danielle Solof

Writer / Traveler / Comedian

Tag: cultural differences

Alexandra

piggy2

Alexandra.  The weird girl.

I met Alexandra as a third grader.  She was fat for a Korean kid.  She was also obsessed with pink.  So she was a fat Korean girl who always dressed in pink.  I thought she looked and acted like Miss Piggy.  No one in Korea knew who that was.  But when I showed my co-teacher and her homeroom teacher a video of Miss Piggy they cracked up and agreed, Alexandra was just like Miss Piggy.

In addition to the pink, she also had a pudgy face and pig nose.  Her voice was nasally, like sound originated somewhere between her throat and chest, then traveled up into her nasal passages and out through her nostrils.  It was delightful.

All of the other kids in her grade knew she was weird.  When I first met her she was in class 3-3, class 3 of third grade, which had two bad boys- the worst in her grade.  One kid, Colton, was kind of bad, like you could sometimes bring him to the good side.  But the other kid, Gabriel, was so bad a good day was when no one cried.  

Colton had ADHD.  He had trouble sitting still and focusing on classwork.  Instead he often goofed off for attention, ripped paper and ate it, licked glue sticks, bothered other kids, and ran around the room.  According to his homeroom teacher his mother didn’t know how to mother him, so she’d just let him do whatever he wanted.  So Colton’s issue was a mix of needing a parent who knew how to handle him and getting his ADHD under control.

Gabriel, on the other hand, was a wreck.  He was evil.  He would bother the shit out of other kids.  Not in a lighthearted, silly way like Colton would.  He would torment and bully them until they cried.  I kid you not- almost every single 3-3 English class the first half of my first semester there someone cried.  He had a knack for knowing how to piss off people and get lots of negative attention.  He shredded his English book, the pieces would be on the floor after class, so he couldn’t do any work even if he wanted.

Since Alexandra was weird, these boys loved to pick on her.  They’d run up to her and pull her hair or pinch her, she’d scream, and then my co-teacher would get upset that she was being disruptive.  She didn’t care about the details of what had happened, she just wanted Alexandra quiet.

Alexandra didn’t give up without a fight, though.  Every time one of these boys would torment her she’d try to get my co-teacher’s attention.  First she’d raise her hand.  If that didn’t work, she’d call my co-teacher’s name.  When that didn’t work, she’d get out of her seat, walk right up to her, and explain what was going on.  I had to hand it to her, she was determined to get justice.

Where was I when all of this was happening?  I was in the room, observing, trying to help.  But the thing is, when these kids don’t speak English and you don’t speak their language, there’s a limit to what you can do with classroom management.  You can’t have a discussion with them.  At best you’ll rely on body language and simple common words and hope it works out.  After that, you need to involve the co-teacher, a native speaker, especially when you’re dealing with complex, long term problems.

My co-teacher, though, was apprehensive when it came to discipline.  She didn’t want to fuck them up.  She was afraid that disciplining them would draw more attention to their bad behavior and egg them on further.  She wanted to ignore it, hope they would stop and all the problems would go away.  From my perspective, she was burying her head in the sand.  

My biggest concern with how this class functioned revolved around Alexandra.  She was the sorest subject of these two boys’ negative influence on the classroom environment.  Everyone was victim to these boys, including us teachers, but Alexandra got hit the hardest because she was weird.  

Being weird makes you a target.  I love weird people.  I’m weird myself.  The last thing I’d want to do is encourage a weird kid to stop being weird.  Being weird in Korea just isn’t allowed in most contexts because they value sticking to the straight and narrow path.  This is especially true in school, so if I could offer a kid even a little reprieve from that- a place where they could just be-  I’d feel I was doing something good for them.  So I didn’t want to snap the weird out of Alexandra.  Instead, I wanted to give her a space to be weird in English class, if that’s what she wanted to do.

Working with my co-teacher to pull this off was hard.  She really didn’t want to pull out the big guns in terms of discipline.  It felt too wrong to her.  But she was open to reorganizing the seating.  It was an indirect approach that didn’t call out any one kid- everyone would get a new seat and therefore everyone would be treated the same.  I wanted to give Alexandra some space.  3-3 was a stressful class for her to be in with those boys, and I wanted coming to English class to be 40 minutes of peace from the drama she normally found herself in.  I felt that if I could give Alexandra that, then maybe everyone else in the class could benefit too.

I decided to put Colton in the front of the room in the corner.  That way he could easily pay attention but not be so close to other kids and random shit in the room to mess with.  It also meant that if he ever needed to get up and move around, he had some empty space to do it.  Plus he was right next to the door so he could slip out and make an ass of himself in the hallway, if he so pleased.

I put Alexandra on the opposite side of the room.  She was in the back corner.  She had no one in the seat right next to her, so she could stretch out.  The kids who sat in front of her were mellow.  Helpful if she needed it, but otherwise kept to themselves.  

Gabriel I put in a solo desk, in the back, by himself.  He needed to be away from other students for a while.  He lost the privilege of being near classmates because he just couldn’t play nice.  To bother people, he’d have to make a big, bold effort, which it turned out he wasn’t interested in doing.

It’s amazing what a simple seating arrangement can do.  At first, Alexandra quietly sat back there and observed the room, taking it all in.  She’d put her feet up on the empty seat next to her, sitting sideways, with her right arm over the back of her chair, looking up at the board.  Sometimes she’d play with her pink pig pencil case.  I didn’t care.  She was relaxed, having some fun, and at times focused on class and learning.  Then after a few weeks she started getting into class the full 40 minutes.  She’d pay attention, follow along, write in her book, and she even started raising her hand!  And getting answers right!  She was coming into her own and into class so quickly in her new seat.

As we got into December it was getting cold outside.  We had our first snowfall and the ground was freezing over.  One day as I was walking back to the classroom from lunch, I noticed all the third graders were outside on the playground, playing on the ice.  No adults were around (which is completely normal in South Korea, that kids play on their own, even at school during school hours).  “They don’t bubble wrap their kids,” as one of my British friends put it.

So I’m walking by, kids are running and sliding on ice, giggling, playing, and Alexandra is on her own, sliding in her own weird way towards the edge of a huge patch of ice.  She slips and falls.  I then see Gabriel in the distance immediately yell something, then charge towards her.  A group of boys follows.  They run and slide to her.  They surround her and start kicking her.  Alexandra is on the ground, on the ice, surrounded by the boys of her grade, getting kicked from all sides.  Like some Lord of the Flies shit.

I yell at them.  They all flee and I can see Alexandra laying on the ice, crying.  Gabriel then runs back for a few more kicks.  I yell again and he runs away again.  I go to Alexandra, as do a couple of girls in her class.  We have a hard time getting her to sit up, then stand up.  She wants to be left alone.  I spend at least fifteen minutes trying to help her.  Still no other adults around.  Eventually she gets up and the two girls somehow tell me they will take her inside to their homeroom, I think.  

I should have gone with them, but instead went to my room.  About twenty minutes later the two girls came running to my room, asking if I knew where Alexandra was.  They lost her and didn’t know where she went.  I felt like shit for not sticking around.  I didn’t know what to do or how to explain anything to the other teachers in Korean.

Eventually my co-teacher came back to the room and I told her what had happened.  She called the homeroom teacher and headteacher to explain.  They then held a meeting with Alexandra’s mother and the mothers of all the boys who kicked her.  I wasn’t invited, but this is what was later relayed to me:

Alexandra’s mom spent the meeting apologizing for how weird her daughter is and kept saying she understands why the boys acted that way- because her daughter is strange.  The boys were never punished.  According to the school handbook, whenever there’s any kind of violence the abusers will have a long punishment, like lots of hard labor to do around the school for several weeks or months, depending on the situation.  But nothing happened to these third grade boys because they lied to their mothers about how bad it was, and Alexandra’s mother accepted that her daughter will be tormented sometimes.  

The head teacher told me she wanted to slap Alexandra’s mom across the face for putting her kid down like that and not sticking up for her.  I couldn’t believe her mother’s wishes could override the terms of the school handbook.  It was a disheartening outcome.  That abusers can get away with abuse.  That boys can get away with mistreating girls.  That “normal” kids mean more than “weird” kids.  That the feelings in a discussion weigh more than established protocol.  These were not ways I was raised to think.  These were not norms I was accustomed to living with.  It was a way of thinking and operating I found hard to respect.  It worried me what else Alexandra, and kids like her, endured for being different, and it scared me to think of the long, hard process it would take to truly carve out a free space for them.

 

Winter break rolled around a few weeks later.  Alexandra and all the other kids had five weeks off from school.  They came back to school for two weeks in February and started their new school year in early March.  Alexandra was then in fourth grade and got placed in the best homeroom teacher’s class.  She was still an oddball, but in no way a nuisance or embarrassment to anyone.  If anything, she inadvertently provided comic relief in an otherwise serious, studious class, and we all welcomed her wholeheartedly.

Colton was in her class, too.  He was also a changed kid, for the better.  Apparently his teacher ripped his mom a new one, which improved her parenting.  He was still goofy, but the big difference was that teachers could get through to him.  He was sweet to work with.

Gabriel ended up in a different class.  He remained disengaged, but he kept to himself.  He was still a problem, just a different kind of problem.  I never figured out how to work with him.  He was so broken I don’t know if I ever would have.
It’s been four months since I’ve been in that classroom in Korea.  I’ve had time to reflect on my experiences and what I can say is this: the classroom environment absolutely makes or breaks a student’s ability to learn- to see themselves in the space, to feel a part of the lesson, and to trust it enough to add to it.  It’s the teacher’s responsibility to do everything in their power to create that welcoming environment.  I hope I was able to do that for my students.

Korean Work Culture

Koreans love to work.  They are addicted to work.  Work is their everything.

Sometimes I feel like it’s impossible to make plans with Koreans because they’re always at work.  They never know when they’ll get out so they can’t commit to seeing you.

I know a lot of Americans think that we’re overworked, and we are. But Koreans take it to a whole ‘nother level.

Let me explain.

Most Koreans I know who work for a company work a minimum of 70 hours a week.  Anything less than that would make people think  they’ re just not committed to their job, and that’s a really horrible thing for people to think about you in a country obsessed with work.

So if you’re working 70+ hours a week, you must be getting a lot done, right?  Well, no.  The reason is that while they stay at work a long time, they tend to not have the most productive work habits.  I’m not making this up.  A study found that Koreans were the least productive of all OECD countries.

From how I understand it, a large part of work in Korea is about face.  You have to be there, you have to be available, you have to be a yes-man, you have to stay late, you have to go out with your co-workers- you have to do all these things so people think you care, that you’re dedicated, that you’re loyal, that you’re committed.  What you produce in that time is far less important.  The important thing is that you follow these few specific social norms so everyone believes you’re committed to your job.

Things about Korean work culture that I find peculiar are:

  • You can’t leave until your boss goes home.  Your boss can’t go home until their boss goes home.  Your boss’s boss can’t go home until their boss goes home.  This goes all the way up the the CEO.  So if the CEO stays late, EVERYONE else will be there late.  This keeps lots of lower level employees just hanging around the office trying to look busy until they can leave.
  • If your boss wants to go out drinking, you have to go and you have to drink.  Not attending would be extremely rude and not drinking every drink offered to you would also be extremely rude.  People get pissed drunk with their bosses all the time, even if they don’t want to.
  • Consequently, people are often seriously hungover at work.  No one bats an eyelash at this.  People openly admit to being out late drinking, and being hungover.  People will sleep at their desks.  Obviously, productivity is low when you’re hungover.
  • There’s a strict hierarchy and they value the “yes-man” so much that communication suffers.  People will get assignments and agree to do them without asking questions, including basic clarification questions.  No one ever pushes back.  This can result in poor quality work, unnecessary work, and work that misses the mark entirely.
  • Poor time management skills.  I see this in the schools as well.  Someone with authority will ask someone beneath them to do a project with hardly any notice, so it’s rushed.  This can result in poor time management in two ways: 1- leaders do not consider the needs of their staff to do quality work, so, as I mentioned before, the staff has to rush to get it done, and 2- always getting projects at the last minute does not help employees develop time management skills because the focus is always on hurrying, not on being smart about how to use their time to do the project well.
  • No sick leave.  Officially they have sick leave, but in practice you wouldn’t dare use it unless you were deathly ill.  My co-teachers told me the previous principal at my school would accuse teachers of feigning illness to get out of work.  In my teaching orientation I was advised to not use any of my 14 sick days for the year if I wanted to work a second year, as the school would view my using them as me being lazy.  I did use 3, once because I had a fever, once because I had a migraine, and once to go to the doctor to get more migraine medicine.  In addition to being sick, I was really worried about what would happen to me if I used them.  My principal later approached me each time to ask about my health, which at first I thought was really nice, but I later realized it was because he thought my condition must have been critical to warrant taking a day off.
  • Not surprisingly, all of this leads employees to being stressed, overwhelmed, and burnt out.

That said, Koreans seem to wear hard work as a badge of honor.  They like knowing they’re doing everything they can for their company/place of work.  It’s a huge compliment to tell someone they worked hard, even more so than telling them they did a good job.  They work hard and like knowing their effort is recognized.

So that’s what I’ve gathered after being in Korea for about a year.  What other thoughts and experiences do you have?

10 Korean Talents

When you live in another culture for a while, you notice some things people are really good at doing.  I mean, Americans are good at some things, but we aren’t good at everything.

So here’s a list of things I’ve notice Koreans not only do, but do very well.

10. Wearing long pants and long sleeves in any level of heat, humidity, and activity level.

Koreans love having white skin.  Like so white it’s can look ghastly.  So when summer comes, it’s like the sun is their worst enemy.  They still go out though.  It’s just that they’re often covered up so they don’t tan.

I don’t know how they do it.  I sweat way too much to wear long pants and long sleeves in the middle of summer.  But these people, I have to hand it to them, they do it.

9, Cramming lots of people into tiny spaces, especially public transportation.

I’ve already commented on this a lot, but I can’t stress it enough.  They PACK people into subway cars and buses.  A good day is one when your lungs aren’t pinched.  It’s too much for me.  I think it’s a big part of why I’ve gotten sick here a lot.

8. Drinking heavily, including mixing alcohol.

I don’t drink, but I see it and hear it all night long.  These people love to get drunk.  They go out often and for long.  There’s no shame in going to work hungover the next day.

7. Not being able to speak English or think critically, despite studying for more than 12 hours a day and valuing education.

I don’t get it.  They work so hard at it, but their efforts are for naught.  Too much emphasis is on memorization and going through the motions, versus thinking about how the subject plays out in the real world.

6. Holding a grudge.

You can add jealousy here too.  If you’ve in any way wronged people here, they will never forget it.  Japanese people will never truly be welcome.

5. Eating a lot and not gaining weight.

This is something most foreigners notice immediately when they arrive in Korea.  There’s so much street food, quantities of food in restaurants are large, and there are tons of cafes serving sugary sweets and drinks.  All of it gets consumed, often with some beer and soju along with it.  And yet, most Koreans are very thin.  Their metabolism is the envy of the world.

4. Brushing their teeth.

Koreans brush their teeth after every meal.  This includes the bathrooms at work filling up with employees brushing their teeth. American dentists would rejoice.

3. Falling asleep anywhere.

I’m more used to it now, but it still amazes me.  People will fall asleep anywhere here.  On the subway.  On a park bench.  On the sidewalk.  At a restaurant. At work.   No, these aren’t homeless people.  They’re normal people just taking a nap.  No one bothers them and no one steals their stuff.

2. Getting work done at the last minute.

One thing I’ve had to get used to here is the lack of planning, which results in getting asked to do things at the last minute.  Koreans are so used to this they will drop whatever they’re doing to complete a task at the last possible minute.  This has included my co-teachers having to work on a report instead of helping in class because they were just asked to do it and it was due in an hour.  It stresses people out and no one seems to like it, but it’s the norm so they don’t complain.  I think American corporations would love Koreans.

1. Eating after having just vomited.

This takes true skill and it’s downright disgusting.  But I’ve seen it.  Oh, I’ve seen it.  If you’re out drinking, there’s no giving up.  If you’re sick with a stomach bug, you still go to work and you have lunch with your coworkers.  I physically could not do it.

Still Worrying About MERS

It’s been over a week and a half since people have been in a panic over MERS.  Last week I wrote about how my school has been handling it.  Here’s an update on things I’ve observed, read, and experienced.

The media hype about this is bigger than it feels, to me.  That might be because even though I’m here in Seoul, I mingle with a mix of Koreans and expats.  The expats generally think Koreans are panicking way too much.  As far as I’m concerned, if I take some pretty normal precautions, I should be fine.  But most Koreans I talk to seem to be more worried about it, to the point where they’re only leaving the house when absolutely necessary.

I don’t blame Koreans for being so worried.  From a PR perspective, the whole thing is a mess.  First, any health scare will always get a certain amount of people in a tizzy.  Next, consider the general lack of trust in the government due to the Sewol Ferry accident last year.  It’s natural to expect skepticism.  Then, after being asked repeatedly, the government took over 2 weeks to release a list of hospitals where MERS cases showed up.  And when they finally did release the list, it was wrong.

Then consider how medical treatment works here.  Generally in the US, when you’re sick you see your primary care doctor.  Your treatment is mainly through this one person unless a) they refer you to a specialist or the ER, or b) for whatever reason you feel you need a second opinion and go see someone else.  In almost all cases you’re going to a doctor’s office which is usually a pretty small place.  Most of the time when I go to the doctor in the US there are fewer than 20 people in the office.

In South Korea though, when you aren’t feeling well you go to the hospital.  You sit in the hospital’s waiting room and then you go see a doctor.  When I wanted to get a refill of my migraine medication here, I was at the hospital for about 3 hours and must have passed a couple hundred people in that time.  And next time I need more migraine medicine?  I can go to ANY hospital.  While it can be convenient for me, the patient, it’s scattered and lacks consistency from a treatment perspective.  This hospital doesn’t have my medical history, including where else I’ve been.  It also exposes me to a lot of other sick people, which can be devastating when you have something like MERS going around.

So, the fears and lack of trust among the general population make complete sense to me.

That said, I read Western media and also grew up with doctors for parents, so I’m not on board with all the worrying.  Should there be some cause for concern?  Absolutely.  If you’re stupid and don’t take any precautions you could get sick.  But should I put myself in voluntary quarantine when I feel fine?  I think that’s going too far.

So here’s what I’m doing:

  • I’m living my life as usual.
  • I’m being extra diligent about washing my hands regularly.  This includes bringing my own soap to work since they removed bar soap from the bathrooms and only have liquid soap, and theirs is basically lemon-scented water.
  • I bought a face mask, which I wore once because it felt disgusting always having hot air on my face.
  • I’m not sharing food with anyone.
    • Normally I don’t, but a lot of Korean cuisine involves sharing a large pot of stew, barbecue, and side dishes.  I’m just not going out for those meals.
  • I’m not going to the gym.  But that’s mainly because I’m lazy.

Since I teach at an elementary school, here are more things I’m doing:

  • Any kid who feels sick, at all, gets sent straight to the nurse.
    • While this is standard practice in the US, it doesn’t seem to be normal here. (Your education is too important to miss class!) What tends to happen is the teacher has a long conversation with the kid about how s/he feels, and then maybe after that they go to the bathroom and come back.
  • I spray disinfectant on desks and doorknobs daily.
  • I don’t touch kids.

I should also note that MERS has mostly spread in hospitals and among families of people sick with it.  The ones who’ve died were generally old and already had a severe illness, so their immune systems were weak.  I haven’t been to a hospital since the outbreak, I live alone, and I’m pretty healthy.

That said, I did feel sick last week.  The left side of my throat was swollen.  Normally I’d go to the doctor to get it checked out, but I decided against it.  Since most of the MERS cases spread in hospitals, I figured I’d wait it out rather than expose myself to who knows what.  It passed in two days and I feel fine, for now.

Hey MERS!

It only took the outbreak of a deadly virus, but I did it.  I bought a face mask.

My MERS mask.

My MERS mask.

Many Asians wear these, often out in public, so they don’t get sick.  My school’s now requiring we all wear one if we take public transportation.  I’m actually impressed with all the measures they’ve taken to keep us from catching MERS.

  • Wear a face mask
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • They cancelled our staff dinner (in case anyone was infected they wouldn’t spread it)
  • They cancelled the 6th grade field trip next week
  • They removed all the bar soap from the bathrooms – only liquid soap is left
  • They posted MERS info sheets in every classroom
  • Kids have to go home after school (they can’t hang around the school and play like they normally do)

But what I don’t get is… why isn’t school cancelled?  If someone has MERS and comes to school, won’t they still spread it?

The World Health Organization seems to think it’s coming for us.  Oh joy!

Reflections on Teaching: School Placement

I’ve been in South Korea now for about 5 months.  I came here for a break from American corporate culture and to try something which I thought would be more meaningful, teaching.  While it’s been a break from corporate life, it has definitely been work.  Most people I know here have much to say face-to-face about their teaching experiences, but far less often I see people writing about it.  It probably has to do with saving face, which suppresses any urge to be openly critical of anyone or anything.  But for anyone who knows me, I’ve never been, nor do I think I will ever be, overly concerned with what other people think of me.

I say this because in people’s desire to save face there’s a lack of transparency, and a lack of transparency gives other people false impressions and hopes, which ultimately leads to dissatisfaction and poor results.  In my time here I’ve noticed a lot of absurd, dysfunctional, and at times disturbing ways schools tend to work, so much so that if I had read about these things in blogs, glassdoor.com, etc, my decision-making process to come here would have looked very different.  That’s not to say everything is awful; there are a lot of good things about teaching.  But the writing is disproportionately tilted in the “it’s so amazing!” camp that I feel someone needs to say, “Hold on, let me show you the other side of the coin”.

So this is the stuff I wish I had known before coming.  It’s meant to help people make a well-informed choice to come or not come, and set expectations based in reality so they are adequately prepared.

The first topic I’d like to explore is school placement.

You have very little say in which school you work.  What you do have say over is which province or city you’d like to be placed in.  This is no guarantee that you’ll get it, but you do get to list your preferences.  When you’re given an offer for the job you’ll be told which province you’re in, but you won’t know where exactly you’ll be placed.  For example, I was placed in Seoul.  Where I live and work is basically the edge of the city proper.  So it still looks like a city, but it’s like a busy suburb.  Other people I know are right in the middle of super busy areas while others are so far in the outskirts it’s almost rural or like a small village.  This means that even though they asked to be put in a city, they’re really not living “in the city”.  They’re really in a village 1 hour outside the city.

Your commute may be a short 5 minute walk to school, or you may need to ride public transportation for up to an hour each way.

Your apartment may be brand new, with the latest technology, and be fairly spacious, or you may be in a closet-sized apartment, in an old building with bad plumbing, and a previous tenant who left the place a filthy, stinking mess.

You may work in a wealthy neighborhood, where almost all your students already speak English fluently, or in a poor area where the sight of a Western person startles people, and where “hello”, “goodbye” and the alphabet are the extent of their English vocabulary.

You may work in a school that is well run and the teaching philosophy jives with what you believe, or you may work at a school that’s disorganized and uses teaching methods that make you uncomfortable.

And the thing is, you won’t know any of these details until after you’re already here, after you’ve already signed your contract, and for some, after you’ve been working at the school for some time.  Everything could turn out great- and it does for some people- but many people experience challenges with these things.  And this system of having no say in the matter and just being placed somewhere was very new to me.  Coming from a large internet company and previously being at a progressive non-profit, and all the while working in theater, I can say the topic of recruiting is always hot.  Any good workplace in the West does not take that lightly.  In fact, they pride themselves on taking as long as they need to, even years, to find the right fit for a job.  This is because they know how important it is to the success of the organization to have not just people with the right skills, but also the right personality in the job.  Cultural fit is essential.

But in Korea, at least in the education system, they seem to think anyone who passes a test and an interview at a city, or even a national, level will be a fit at any school.  This is how it works to be a teacher here: you study education, you take an exam, and if you pass the exam, you apply to a province to be a teacher there.  The province then places you at a school somewhere, whenever they get an opening.  Then every five years they move you to a different school, and again, the province chooses where.  So public school teachers here have no say over where they teach.  This is also true for school administration, like principals and vice principals.

Now, to illustrate how this gets even more complicated, let’s say you spend your first five years teaching at a school in the wealthiest part of the city, then for your second five-year stint you’re placed in the city’s poorest area.  It’s like going from teaching New York’s elite in the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the poorest of the poor in the Bronx.  Somehow your skills are supposed to translate even though the demographic is completely different.

Now while you’re halfway through your second year at a school, your principal changes.  Whenever leaders change anywhere- in schools, companies, nations, etc- so does the feeling of being there.  So your first principal may have had a “just keep the peace” way about him/her, and the new principal may be very rigid and strict.  Korea is a very hierarchical society, so you always have to agree and go along with whatever your superiors tell you to do, no questions asked.  So with a principal change like this, you may have to change your teaching personality.

I bring this up because in the US part of why I chose to work where I worked was because the values of the organization and the people I was working with fit well with what I wanted to pursue and how I wanted to work.  There was at least some transparency with cultural fit and an expectation that I would be myself because who I was already fit with the organization’s current culture or what they wanted to evolve into. (That’s not to say it was always great. I did leave places because I had changed or they had changed in a way where it was best to move on.)  The important thing to note here is that both the actual organization I worked for and I had a lot of upfront contact before either of us made a decision to work together.  This does not happen in education in Korea.  Everyone is just expected to mold and fit in together.  So long as people are willingly flexible with their work personalities, this “works”.  But this country has the highest suicide rate of OECD countries, so I’m going say it’s not really working.  (I know a lot of factors contribute to that statistic, not just work culture, but work culture isn’t helping.)

This is not to say you should not be open and try to adapt to your new school environment.  You definitely should do what you can to make this new experience work.  But what it does mean is that things will come up that you are not expecting, and you will have to figure out a way to deal with it.  For example, this could manifest itself as teachers at your school using corporal punishment as discipline, and kids not responding to authority unless they think you may hit them.  I’m guessing most people reading this are against corporal punishment.  If that’s the case, you’ll have to figure out a way to earn your students’ respect without you hitting them.  And the answer is never a simple ‘just don’t hit them and it’ll be fine’, because when they’re used to being hit, you not hitting them is weird, and weird stuff confuses them.  You’ll have to be thoughtful, creative, and well-informed in your approach if you want to succeed.

But back to the original point- you have very little say in which school you work.  When you look more closely at it, all these details about how you work (and this is just scratching the surface) are also part of what you don’t have say over.  So when you sign up for this program, you really have to be totally open to whatever they give you, for better or worse.  And no matter what you do to prepare, things you’d never guess will happen and you just have to go with it.

Simple Pleasures and Nice Touches

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.

  1. 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)
  2. 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.

koreanhaircut

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.

covereddoorhandle

What is Korean Identity?

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.

What are your thoughts?

Culture Shock: 17 Surface-Level Differences

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.

Korean food

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.

Seoul Subway

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.

Passed 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.

Asleep2

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.

Snail Cream

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.

scared-cat

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.

Korean Baby

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.

Couple Outfit

13- Lots of toy dogs (meaning very tiny real dogs), often with their hair done up (dyed and braided) to make them even cuter.

Korean Dogs

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.

Korean Men Hair 2

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.

Car

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.

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