Archive for the ‘Culture Shock’ Category

The Beach

This week we are on school holiday to celebrate Korean Thanksgiving or Chuseok, and Monday I travelled out to the west coast with my friend Susan to visit Eulwangni Beach. It was a perfect blue-sky sunny day and fated to be even better, as by 1pm I already had one man buy me beer & give me chocolates and yet another man feel me up. This is sadly the most action I’ve had in my seven and a half months in Korea. I don’t know about you, but I like my groping a little more romantic, a little less public and perhaps a bit less violating. A few extra teeth would also help.

I am not someone who is typically fucked with, and I like to think this is due to my grave and serious nature; a certain “Do Not Fuck With Me” aura which, much like soju from Koreans, emanates from my pores. I am usually able to rid myself of unwelcome company rather quickly and am not often pinned into a corner. However, this time I was not so lucky, as Crazy was fast, determined and well…he was crazy.

Upon exiting the subway station, we were immediately approached by the gentleman in question, who started prattling away in Korean, smiling. We both assumed he was trying to offer us a taxi, sell us some Jesus, ogle the foreigners…you know, something common and expected. Usually when this happens, a simple “no” is all it takes to relieve oneself of the perp. He was not having this. There was some grabbing of our shoulders, some forceful no’s, some running and some chasing similar to dodging an angry wasp. But there he was at every turn, smiling and eager and grunting in Korean. And then it happened: with one hand firmly on my shoulder, the other came out of nowhere and grabbed my breast.

I have since taken a shower in bleach several times and reviewed the scenario in my mind, trying to determine how it all happened and why my knee was not immediately and violently in contact with his prostrate. All I can assess is that I was in complete shock and froze. I recall actually saying in my head, “Did he just grab my boob?” We somehow escaped and made it to the other side of the street, where it took me several minutes to erase the incident from my mind and successfully resist the urge to start sobbing.

It was so awesome.

Moving on. After a fantastic and brief ferry ride over to Yeongjondo Wharf, I met another potential soulmate at the bus stop. Truth be told, Susan accepted the burden of this one, as I have little patience for people who will. not. stop. asking me questions in Korean for 50 entire minutes. Especially when it’s the same question and the same answer every time. And especially when it is clear to me, the speaker and everyone around us that we didn’t understand it the first time. After about 30 minutes of this, I believe I uttered, “OK, I am officially exhausted.”

When we finally boarded our bus exactly three hundred hours later, our Bus Stop Suitor followed us aboard and approached us with a plastic bag, from which he pulled two cold beers and a bar of chocolate, eagerly handing them to us. A gift. And then I felt bad. Because this is where I am also usually an asshole. He was just trying to help and he wasn’t groping either of us. Even if he was a little insistent that we change our plans and take a different bus to an entirely different beach. And would not stop talking.


We spent the afternoon laying in the sand, enjoying the sun and the water and our cold beers, talking the girl talk. Not one cloud in the cobalt sky. We watched the sun set over what must be China and watched the restaurants opening up for dinner. We ate the best potatoes I think I’ve ever had and watched the carnival rides at Wolmido. We had an incident-free return to Seoul and then I washed myself in bleach.


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February 2007
“Oh my god, it’s ASIA! Everything is so cute! Everything is so Asian! It’s all so fascinating!”

July 2007
“Old woman, seriously, no one can get off the subway if you are pushing to get on. Let’s try this: you wait about 1, maybe 2, seconds and we will all exit. Then you can run, jump, scurry, whatever you want to do to get your seat. Our little stand-off at the door is not going to get you anywhere.

Old man, please stop smoking your cancer outside my window.

To all the trucks that sell things in my neighborhood: Please, please for the love of the lord, turn those damn loudspeakers down. 3000 Won for melons. Gotcha. I can hear you. My intestines can hear you. My mitochondria can hear you.

Ladies, if you are going to smoke, please have the balls to do it in public and not take up every public bathroom stall secretly acquiring lung cancer. Some of us actually have to pee.

Dude, I got it. You speak English. I totally get that. Now please stop following me around the subway to have your marathon loud pretend cell phone conversation in my ear. And please stop calling Canada “The Canada”.

Also, public trash cans would be nice.”

Don’t worry, Korea. I don’t want to break up with you or anything. I’m not that fickle. I know that you don’t like to do the dishes as often as I do. I can see that you like to leave your clothes on the floor. I say tomato, you say…tomato, actually. OK, so you like to take really long showers and I can barely understand a word you say.

But I’m still crazy about your frozen yogurt, your aloe beverages, jim jil bang, $3 dinner, your public transport, beautiful green mountains and impossibly cute bowing children. I’m sure I can learn to overlook the other stuff.

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1) Tonight I threw a student out of class for the first time. He was so resistant to leaving that I actually had to go out to the office, get our school manager, Kelly and ask her to come get him out of the room. She came in and he still would not move. After a few questions and requests to leave (in English), she said ONE word in Korean and he got right up to follow her. Needless to say, the rest of my students were exceptionally attentive for the remainder of the class.

Oh. This disruptive student’s name is Sam. Cute, charming and a complete and utter pain in the ass who needs to be thrown out of class. Again with the irony.

2) Making friends indeed. My fellow teacher Lisa, a Korean-Australian from Sydney, is fast becoming my first girlfriend in Seoul. Even though she is living with her mom and grandmother here, she is still fairly new to Seoul. I have someone to hang out with, commiserate with and someone who will help me buy a cell phone and laundry detergent!

3) On the way home, [here is where the actual giggling starts] there was a woman sitting on the street outside one of the darkened designer men’s wear boutiques on my street. Everything closes at about 10 in my neighborhood, I’m assuming, so the shoppers can get on with their boozing. So it is typical to see street vendors set up with their one cardboard box of wares. This woman had a whole spread of bras and panties.

Problem #1: I do not speak Korean.
Problem #2: I do not speak metric system.

I have no idea what an 85B is because my bra size is in inches, not centimeters. Let me just say that I have absolutely NO idea what possessed me to stop in the dark at a street vendor to look at bras. I had a momentary lapse in judgement, forgetting the language barrier, thinking I’d forge through and go home with a discount bra.

I flipped maniacally through my phrase book looking for ANYTHING about prices or measurements to no avail. (Dear Lonely Planet. Please explain to me how it’s possible to write an entire phrase book for the traveller with chapters on how to have a conversation about politics or religion, but excluding all words needed to buy undergarments.) All this time, the woman gabbered at me non-stop in Korean, showing me the different materials used, the different styles of bras. A full-on sales pitch with Sales Pitch Voice, like an announcer at a carnival. As if at any moment I would suddenly perk right up and come back with a response in perfect, fluent Korean.

I said thank you and went along my way. I giggled the whole way down the street.

4) With phrase book in hand, I stopped at the corner market near my apartment. It is both small all-you-need market and tailor/steam press. The owners are lovely and noticed I had been stopping by frequently for kim, yogurt, beer and Twix bars. The breakfast of champions. They have been friendly, curious and gracious with each visit. We had established last week that I teach English and live nearby. Tonight I wanted to bring my phrase book and see what we could talk about. To say it was great would be an understatement. It made me want to learn Korean more than at any other moment since I’ve been here. We talked about many things, even about altering my pants which are a little too long, and pressing my shirts which are a little too wrinkled. Then she called her daughter who arrived two minutes later from upstairs. She is twelve and speaks English better than some of my students. Her English name is Nancy. They asked me to come back often and practice my Korean, offered me something to drink and chatted with me for an hour. True, the whole conversation would have taken only 5 minutes without the language barrier, but it was worthwhile nonetheless.

In the end, when I was ready to purchase my green tea ice cream and chewing gum before leaving, the woman picked up the ice cream with both hands and said “I present you” and handed it to me with two hands.  I said, “How much?” and her daughter said “gift gift”. They charged me 50¢ for my chewing gum and I was grateful that I knew the one word I needed to say. THANK YOU! thank you thank you thank you.

Lots of bowing and smiling ensued.

More giggling…

5) Only a block from my apartment, I started the short walk home, thinking I was done with the giggling and encounters for the night. A truck came up the hill towards me and as I cleared out of the way, I could hear singing. As it came closer, I could see in the silouhette that the windows were open and the singing was coming from the driver. It was forceful, exuberant, impressive singing with so much joy in each exhale.

My giggling turned into outright laughter, as if in a room filled with my very best friends.

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Three weeks

Three weeks ago at this moment I was just barely off an airplane and sound asleep in the back of a minivan on the way to the countryside in Central Korea. It seems like a century ago, yet it also seems like yesterday Janelle and I were driving in her Ford Focus listening to Brit Pop.

I am fresh from a hot shower after a day of walking around in the rain. Despite the tragic disaster which beset my hair, I have never had more fun out in the rain. Seas of people with colorful umbrellas straight out of a more vibrant & less tragic Merchant Ivory film. I met friends from my training in Sinchon, a University neighborhood on the polar opposite side of the city from where I live, a full hour by subway. We had coffee over our Korean phrasebooks, trying to learn Hangul and expand our Korean vocabulary word by word. Today’s word: hotteok.

{March 4} Hotteok

It is entirely possible that I will leave Korea with language skills only qualifying me to write a cookbook. A cookbook about Korean food. OK, not a cookbook at all. A book about ordering Korean food.

After our coffees and comparing notes on our respective schools, we wandered the neighborhood, explored tiny side streets and shared a delicious lunch of dakgalbi. Our group included two Koreans, which makes eating out so much easier and builds my confidence for future solo outings. One dish at a time, I am able to better navigate the Korean dining experience. All said and done, my day totalled $12 USD, including the very nice grass green umbrella I bought for $3. My latte cost more.

Yes, Liz, yes you can really eat out for $5. And it’s more food than you can possibly eat.

Last night I also ventured out of my neighborhood and went to Hyewha, a “theatre district” of sorts that is buzzing with bright lights, restaurants, clubs, coffeeshops, street vendors and of course, theatres. It was my first glimpse of what I had imagined Seoul to be like…lights and signs that run up the sides of buildings, throngs of people, modern everything. We had galbi at a little Mom and Pop place — marinated pork ribs that are cooked at your table (I’ve not yet had a meal that wasn’t) and is eaten with red chile sauce & rice wrapped in lettuce or sesame leaves. As with all meals out, it’s served with several “banchan” (sidedishes) and everything is typically eaten communally. Even soup is shared which admittedly takes some getting used to. So if you have issues with cooties, you should plan on dining alone when visiting Korea.

This week I began teaching at my school, and I am learning a new kind of tired. I will, I’m told, get used to it and for that I am grateful. My students are bright and have a good working knowledge of English already, so we are not talking alphabets. We are talking subject-verb agreement. I am teaching 5 classes and each class meets twice a week. Unlike most English academies, my school has 3-month terms instead of the standard month-long program. This means a little more time to really develop a relationship with each student, to see progress or problems and address them. It is much easier than I thought. Not to say that it’s easy or without its challenges, but I am discovering the natural teacher within me. I guess all those years of playing school in my parents’ basement paid off. I always thought that was practice for film directing, as I was much more interested in the props, set decoration and character development in my version of “school”. And as you can imagine, I like my version of school much better.

I have some exceptionally cute students and some exceptionally quiet ones, some exceptionally distracted students and some exceptionally zitty ones, as we move from elementary to middle school levels. I have a student who chose Madonna as an English name and another named Stella. While I have a difficult time taking these students seriously with names like that, I thoroughly appreciate this flair for the dramatic. I have a student named Sam with A.D.D. who I’d like to strangle most of the time and no amount of irony has been lost on me. I have a student named Tim who repeats my “Excellent!” every time I shower accolades on another student, making me uncomfortably aware of how often I use the word. But I can’t refuse a man in glasses, even if he is 10. I find it absolutely charming.

The other day when doing a vocabulary lesson on the word “often”, explaining the difference between Always, Often, Sometimes and Never, the students were asked to finish the sentence “I often go to eat at…” Most students said things like “my grandmother’s house” or the generic “a restaurant”. One little boy kept finishing the sentence with something I could not understand “outapuck”. Outapuck. WTF is he talking about? Other kids, sensing my confusion, began enthusiastically helping: Outapuck, Otapuck. I finally got it.

Outback. Outback Steakhouse.

I give a daily lesson on the use of “ph” in the English language, as I prefer not to be called Step-hunny. This begins first as a conversation about the fact that my name is not “Teacher! Teacher!”

ME: Is my name “Teacher”?
CHORUS OF STUDENTS: No! Step hunny! Step-a…ahhhh, a-hunny.
ME: Step? Is that how you say it?
STUDENTS: No, no! Ffffffff. Stepfanie.

The “p” never goes away entirely, but it’s a vast improvement over being likened to a staircase.

More tiny observations:

* Train (and bus) drivers make announcements with a voice that is like they are trying to get the entire train into bed. It is entirely too seductive.

* My favorite thing so far is seeing friends and families all linked up arm in arm on the streets. Whether a mother & daughter out shopping, a bunch of old men walking home from a bar, two young boys or a pack of high school girls, it is quite common to walk down the street arm in arm, arms draped over shoulders or holding hands. I love love love it and wish we did that more often at home.

* Lining up for subways is so insanely orderly and efficient. There are footprints imbedded in the platform floor which tell you where to stand and people form lines to wait for the train. By the time the train arrives, two straight lines have formed to either side of each door. The people get off the train straight through the middle and then the two lines file on after. Quite remarkable.

* I read a website before coming to Korea that described it as “a nation of boozers”. I have to say I did not expect this of Korea. In so many other ways it can be very conservative. But I am here to say yes, indeed they are a nation of boozers. Soju is passed like water at meals. While Parisian subways smell of body odor and New York subways smell of piss, to ride Seoul’s subway is to smell what everyone did last night. It emanates from the pores of every man I pass on the street like teenage boys reeked of Polo in the 80’s. Everyone I know who’s been here for some time tells me of seeing 60-year old men barfing on the streets at 2 in the morning. And for being a nation of boozers, they’ve got some pretty crappy options for getting hammered. Bad beer or bad soju…your choice.

* Seoul is unbelievably & absolutely friggin ginormous.

Last week, I took a two-day trip to Fukuoka, Japan to obtain my work visa. It was magical. I will write more later about the trip, but for now you can see the photos here.

More about Japan, more about my love for Korean Air, more about my school in the coming days.

For now, sleep trumps just about everything.

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For being the self-proclaimed “most wired country in the world”, it sure is a pain in the ass to get a wifi signal in Seoul. I had better access last week in the middle of nowhere. At least the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World” not only lives up to its name, it could kick Korea’s ass in a free wifi competition. Even Yawnsville, USA has two coffeeshops with free wireless. There are internet cafes every hundred feet in my Seoul neighborhood and they are filled with cigarette smoke, zitty teenagers playing videogames and no wifi. I can use a computer for approximately $1 per hour, but I cannot skype, I cannot load photos and I cannot access anything from my own computer.

Throw me a bone, Korea. I’m in the isolation/need-contact-with-the-English-speaking-world phase of my acclimatization. I thought you were “wired”, dude. I feel so duped. I trusted you.

But the worst part is that I can’t get in touch with anyone I know in Seoul…none of us have cell phones yet and are all dependent upon skype. And we are all crawling around our apartments with our laptops to find the one corner on the floor with one bar of a wireless signal. Email is the only way anyone has of contacting me at the moment aside from showing up at my front door. I like to be alone, but this is ridiculous. The plus side is that I am reading a lot of books.

On a jollier note, I jumped two hurdles today. First, I purchased tampons. That should help explain my rosy demeanor. This was harder than one would expect. I mean, really, how do you even know that you are buying tampons, let alone the right kind? The biggest problem I am finding with trying to read & learn Hangul is that it’s like I am totally distracted with how pretty it is that I am making no effort to actually try and read it. It’s one of those moments I wish Janelle was here to catch me in the act and smack me. “You’re just staring at the pretty pictures again, aren’t you?” Guilty as charged.

Second, I opened a bank account through broken English and lots of hand gestures. Good thing I have lots of practice with hand gestures. This means I can get paid, reimbursed airfare, etc. It also means that I signed a form I cannot read. That is an exceptionally comforting feeling especially when it involves one’s money.

This whole living in a foreign land thing is a giant exercise in faith and trust. I trust that I will not die. I will not die from the overstimulation of my brain in doing the smallest of tasks. That opening a bank account will, in fact, not kill me. That I will not die from malnutrition because I cannot identify anything at the market other than the noodles that Mary’s mom always packed in her bag on trips to Massachusetts. That I will not die if I get on the subway and get off at the wrong stop. That I will not die if I have to wait a few more days for reliable internet at home.

I do want to share some tiny observations I’ve made since my arrival.

* Koreans drive on the right-hand side of the road just like we do in North America, however all foot traffic is opposite. I noticed quickly that I was fighting the flow of traffic as I walked down the steps into the subway and people seemed irritated that I was on the wrong side. Same goes for walking on sidewalks, through subway tunnels, grocery store aisles. It is a difficult habit to break and I keep finding myself bouncing all over the sidewalk, naturally gravitating back to the right side.

* There are so many people wearing face masks when out walking in public you’d think we were still in the middle of the SARS epidemic.

* It seems the form of exercise most favored by the older set in Korea is walking backwards. During training we saw a man across the river walking backwards slowly down the hill; twenty minutes later we saw him walking back up the hill backwards. I have seen this nearly every day since arriving in Seoul; in the public parks and on small side streets there is always someone walking backwards.

Tomorrow I am off to Japan for two days to retrieve my work visa. There is apparently excellent shopping near the consulate. I am praying for wifi.

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