South Korea: The Good, the bad and the ugly

Six months. How am I already at the halfway point? There are far too many experiences to recount, so in an effort to reflect upon and consolidate the past few months, I present Korea: The good, the bad and the ugly.

But let’s mix things up and get the bad out of the way first.

The Bad:

Rude after teaching in the land of smiles (Thailand), the levels of rude in Korea shocked my system. True, I’d gotten used to the n’importe quoi rudeness of France, but it was a laissez faire rude of simply not caring. Korean rude, especially Pohang rude, is in your face and impossible to ignore. Some days it is literally in your face as people stare inches from your cheek with a fiery, unmovable gaze. Other days people yell what one can only assume are Korean expletives and spit in your path. The most common rude though is the push. Oh the push. It doesn’t matter where you are or how much room there is, at some point in your day, you will get bumped or pushed past with such force that it makes you question your own existence. Am I really even here? To be fair it’s mostly the ajummas and ajusshis (old people) who barrel through you. And they’ve seen and been through some shit in their lives here in Korea, so I can’t really blame them. Most days.

Staring-  Over the past 5 years, I’ve been an étranger, a farang and now a wagook. You’d think by now I’d get used to the staring that comes with being a foreigner living abroad; it’s part of the territory. But Korea’s staring game is strong. In other countries people usually look away after a while, especially if you make eye contact. Not in Korea. Quite the contrary, people stare for long, intense sessions, as if bigfoot has just stepped onto the bus. And making eye contact only intensifies the stare, transforming it into a glare that grows with increasingly obvious dislike for your face. Word of advice, don’t even try a staring contest. You will always lose.

Crowds-  With over 50 million people living in only 30% of the country (as 70% of it is covered in mountains), it’s no wonder people can be a bit rude. Korea is densely populated and if you live in a city, or even a semblance of one, you’re bound to be packed onto a bus, subway or even sidewalk at some point. If you’re agoraphobic, stick to the countryside.

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To be fair this was Halloween.

Corporal punishment- The first time I heard the tapping sound I thought something had fallen on a desk. The next time I thought surely my eyes were deceiving my ears as the angry flood of fast Korean was interrupted by the whisking sound of wood on skull. Naively, I initially thought that those wooden sticks were used to gesture and aid in my colleague’s’ classroom instruction. Having my desk nestled next to the disciplinarian’s cubicle taught me otherwise. As the months went on I witnessed students being smacked upside the head, slapped in the face, hit with sticks, and forced to sit on their knees with their hands above their heads in the cold hallways. It was shocking. Even worse, it was the norm. Supposedly this is more common in middle schools and private schools, as I have yet to witness this at my elementary school. And while this form of discipline continues to shock me, I must admit that there were almost times when I felt my unruly elementary hellions could’ve benefited from some swift, hard justice. Almost.

But let’s move to The Good:

Healthcare- As an American, it is easy to impress me with healthcare. Americans are so royally screwed when it comes to dealing with, waiting on, and paying for their health. Ask my sister who recently had surgery, to fix a toe tendon severed by a freak knife falling accident, and paid over $5,000- with insurance! Who can afford that?! Cut to Korea where I had my first gynecology, dentist, and eye doctor’s appointments in years and paid under $150 for all three- and that’s including my first cavity filling! Not only are appointments and medicine ridiculously cheap here, but they are fast, efficient and walk-in friendly. I almost never need to make an appointment and I’m usually in and out in under 20 minutes- including my first cavity filling! Sometimes this speed comes with the downside of wondering how in depth your medical provider actually is, but I’ll take $20 over $5,000 any day! 

Transportation- Even in the “boonies” (as I so affectionately refer to my area), there is still usually one local bus that can connect to the terminal within a decent amount of time. Intercity buses are wonderfully cheap and (depending on the destination) run so frequently that you can show up on a whim and hop on the next available bus. I can do roundtrip to Daegu (about an hour away) for under $13. The KTX train is a more expensive, but smooth, clean and fast alternative for further destinations, like Seoul. And then there are the Taxis. Taxis are a double edged sword as they are so, very, cheap. And plentiful. Which means that I’m constantly tempted to take them and that can quickly add up. In my experience taxi drivers range from hating foreigners, to pulling out every semblance of  conversational English they know. Most remain silent and jam their old school tunes, appreciative if you know some basic Korean such as:

hello 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo)

goodbye 안녕히 계세요 (an-nyeong-hi gye-se-yo)

thank you 고맙습니다 (gomabseubnida)

straight 직진 (jigjin)

and here 여기에 (yeogie)

Quirky Korean weirdness Cat cafe? That’s old news. How about a rabbit, raccoon, or goat cafe? Or better yet a poop or princess cafe? Yep. Korea can offer you all of the above. How about a penis park or a love land dedicated to gargantuan sex statues? If you need to escape try one of the many themed escape rooms or belt your heart out under disco lights at one of the always available norebangs (don’t call it karaoke here). Or try a mall with a fantastical playland on the rooftop, a ball pit adorned with giant silverware, and a toy store dedicated entirely to phone service characters. In almost every downtown, you can hop into an arcade, blow of steam in a batting cage, go on a 4D ride, or try your plushie winning luck with the claw. Want zombie or cat eyes? Or want to keep it simple and make them a more natural shade of purple or grey? Step into any lens shop that will fit you within minutes. Even if you want just regular prescription lenses, they’ll throw in a fun pair of socks- just because. Or try a toy store that blasts hip hop and vaguely resembles a taxidermy shop with it’s giant furry friends on display. The list goes on. There is no shortage of colorful, comical, and whimsically weird when it comes to Korea. Quite frankly, I love it.

Community- As a foreigner, I have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Korean community. But in my mere six months, I have been amazed by all that comes with a society operating with the community in mind. That is why Korean crime rate is so low, and I can experience the freedom that comes with feeling safe in the streets at night, or the security of leaving my bag while I grab my order. That is why education is so strongly emphasized, resulting in a 98% national literacy rate. When the country faced a major financial crisis in 1998, Koreans, young and old, formed lines spilling outside of banks to give up their personal gold trinkets, statues, jewelry, and bars to get the country out of deficit. And it worked. That is why Korea became the first country to go from an aid receiving country to an aid donor- the power of community. I have personally experienced the office snacks celebrating a colleague’s new daughter in law, welcome dinners, work retreats, and random trinkets on my desk. My favorite experience has been the communal dining as people dig into the array of 반찬 (banchan, or side dishes), passing around bowls or bottles of alcohol, and digging into big pots with chopsticks. It’s hard not to smile as people sit crossed legged, elbow to elbow, slurping, sharing, passing plates, and laughing with alcohol infused red cheeks.

And finally, The Ugly:

I’ll be blunt, it’s you. It’s always you. If you’re a foreigner, you can expect insults about appearance quite frequently. Sometimes it comes from a more subtle place of, “Oh you look tired”, amps up to a,“Are you sure you’re not sick??”, and gets really obvious with hand-to-chest-clutching, bug- eyed gasps of “Oh my gosh! You look horrible!” To be fair I was really sick that day. My friends have gotten their own charmers such as, “Have you been eating well?”, “You have hollow eyes.” And my personal favorite, “You can take a sick day” (because she wasn’t wearing mascara).  

Let’s face it, if you’re a foreigner, you ugly.

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I need a face filter at all times.

So there you have it, The good, the bad and the ugly. I obviously need to write much more frequently as I haven’t even touched upon a day in the life of teaching, being a woman in a hierarchical society, the culture of alcohol, the pros and cons of EPIK, or my induction into K-pop, but those are future posts to come.

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