Korean Contradictions: Discipline

It’s midway through the week. As I enter our cubicle he’s blasting heartfelt opera and whistling along with the accuracy of a Disney songbird. Standing barely more than 5 feet tall, he pops his head just above the divider with a cheerful “good mawning” and a deep, whimsical laugh. His eyes simultaneously hold the wisdom of an aged wizard and the shiny joy of a youthful sprite. But don’t be fooled, within seconds the stick of order and the booming voice of justice will emerge. Meet Mr. Kim, the disciplinarian.

My desk just happens to be the center stage for all the comings and goings of disciplinary action. On a daily basis I witness my middle school students being punished and scolded in a variety of ways. And each day I am left even more confused. True, the language barrier leaves big gaps in the story, but a slap on the head or whack with the stick needs little to no translation.

To be clear, my school is a somewhat private middle school that has strict dress codes. The students all wear uniforms and the girls cannot have nail polish, make up, or curly hair (what?!), while the boys must maintain a certain bowl cut that is neither too long nor too short. Within the past week alone I witnessed a girl’s face being forcefully scrubbed to rid herself of make up, a boy planking face down on arms and legs in the hall for who knows what, and another girl wiping away tears as her hair was clutched and gestured at.

To my Western teacher trained eyes, where we’re taught to overly pamper and not lay even a finger on students, these scenes are horrifying. But here’s the rub- half of the time the students are laughing. I have witnessed them smiling as they are yelled at, giggling as their hair is balled in a fist, or receiving a slap to the face with a bracing cringe and a knowing laugh. It’s as if they know the error of their ways and accept their punishment. But does that stop them from doing it again? Nine times out of ten, no. Do they actually have respect for the rules and or the teacher? Debatable. They take their beating and go on with their lives, rather than understanding why what they did was wrong. There’s not enough time or space for emotions or feelings talk here, so a slap on the wrist, or head…or face….seems to be the simplest solution.

But as far as middle schools go, I have to say that this one is a fairly well oiled machine. I have yet to witness a fight (although I’m sure it happens), and attendance is high while drama is relatively low. Meanwhile I’m breaking up weekly fights, attempted pencil stabbings, and stopping children from running on tables or jumping out windows at my elementary school…but that’s another story. 

I’ve learned in my time here that Korea (as with many countries in this day and age) is a place full of contradictions. But whacking a laughing, cringing child is a contradiction that continues to confuse me.

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Sometimes I think they treat their dogs better than their students. 

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How K-popped my cherry

The unthinkable has happened. Korea has turned me into…a fangirl. Yes, a fangirl.

Not even in my prepubescent prime did I succumb to such levels of fandom. Sure, I grew up loving N’SYNC and Backstreet Boys, but I didn’t know their birthdays, wait in anticipation for their next song to be released, or scream at their concerts. And while I’m a sucker for dancy pop songs, I never really sustained interest with the world of celebrity. I had never come close to fandom- until K-pop came along. 

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The group:

It started almost as investigative reporting. I’d heard tales of K-pop- the obsession, the wild fan world, the rivalries- so I figured I’d go into the belly of the beast and see what I could uncover. Fortunately my program placement led me to Pohang where my new family consisted of a Kiwi and a Brit equipped with their own heavy arsenal of K-pop intel. The induction was quick. First I needed to choose a group. I’d heard legend of Big Bang from friends who had formerly worked in South Korea, but they were apparently old news. I knew nothing. I then recalled names I’d learned through my students, EXO, Infinite, Got7, B.A.P. and BTS. Redeeming myself with my new family, we started with the best of the best. As I watched music video after video, I got lost in a sea of pyrotechnics, beautiful production quality, neons, complimentary patterns, ever-changing hair colors, and so, much, energetic dancing over wildly catchy beats. Overwhelmed I looked to the Brit for backup and she happily introduced me to BTS.

The concert:

Overly eager, I dove into the underbelly too early. I was still new to this world and when the Brit and Kiwi proposed a concert, I jumped at the opportunity for an introduction to this realm. My eyes widened as we approached the stadium exterior amidst throngs of fans decked out in their appropriate fan colors and band merchandise. I passed stands filled with stacks of pillowcases, t-shirts, bags, and other purchasables all plastered with idol’s faces. The Brit and I adorned ourselves with pink neon BTS crowns and took our seats, to our dismay, amidst throngs of other fans. Fortunately they were older fans there for a reunion tour and didn’t seem to mind our pink in their sea of yellow. We would not have been so lucky had we been amidst rivals.

Feeling like a spectator at a colorful aquarium, I watched the crowds swell with energy as the first act took the stage. When the sea of yellow around us came alive, I couldn’t help but laugh as they pumped their glowing wands in unison. What freaky cult was I witnessing? The screams were deafening and I wondered if I’d ever shown that much enthusiasm for something. Then PSY came out. Suddenly I too joined the ranks of screaming fans, dancing to Gangnam style like a giddy convert. By the time BTS illuminated the stage with fire (both their song and actual flames), I was beside myself. I was no longer a mere spectator. I was excited. Captivated. Possessed by the flashing lights, the neon patterns, their voices, and those perfectly timed dance moves. As we left the stadium I found myself asking my mentors, “What is life after K-pop?”

The bias:

The next step was choosing a bias, or rather letting him choose me. The bias is your favorite member of the group. Once you have chosen, or rather once they have chosen you, there is no turning back. You are theirs and they are yours. You will fight your friends if they try to encroach on your territory, and you will feel guilty if other members of the band make you doubt your choice. But you will never stray. Pictures, memes, and silly videos of your bias will always make your day in a weird teenage-heart-melting kind of way. There are those who take their bias passion too far, entering obsessive stalker territory, referred to as sasaeng fans (but that’s another post).

The concert had hooked me and now it was my turn to make the choice. I did not understand the full power of the bias as I looked between fast cuts of wild dancers. In every video their hair turned a new color and their style changed. The camera lingered mere seconds on their faces as one member after another wowed the audience with their moves or sultry stares. How could I possibly choose? The Brit eyed me with silent expectation, her eyes almost whispering, “Don’t you fuck this up.” I had two allies and a 5 in 7 chance to properly make my selection. “That one?” I said pointing at a lanky rapper who captivated me with his goofy smile and general badassery. The Brit sighed in relief and immediately texted the all clear to the Kiwi, “She’s chosen J-Hope”. Celebrations could commence.

The comeback:

I was fortunate enough to have my introduction coincide with the release of a new song and later a new album, which they refer to as a comeback. Unlike in the U.S., a comeback does not mean they were on hiatus. Rather, it is a process for announcing a new song/album, involving another hair change, teaser pictures and short trailers, and finally the release of the video. Promotions usually last for a month as the artists perform on various shows- that is if they pass the channel screenings. Rival fandoms will go so far as to hack accounts so that a comeback won’t top the charts or break record views with their initial release. There was so much to learn. 

When BTS released their comeback of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, I was once again captivated by the amazing production quality, the rich colors, and powerful dance moves. I even had a bias to focus on and root for. True, I was not aware of the midnight release, nor did I know every member’s name or understand the imagery and theories linked to past videos. I was still fairly fresh on the scene. The Kiwi berated me for being so ill-informed this late in the game, while the Brit took on the challenge in stubborn determination. They saw to it that I was updated, filling my mind with facts, sending me an array of images, and drilling me on each band member’s name and role as I chronologically watched music videos.

By the time of BTS’ next comeback, Not Today, I was pumped. I found myself blasting their song as if it were my anthem, smiling as I visualized the music video shot for shot. I threatened to cut the Brit if she encroached on my J-Hope territory again, and took online quizzes to see who my personality matched.

I was in too deep.

I had activated an inner fangirl I never knew could exist. And while I will always hold a place in my heart for K-pop, ultimately this wasn’t me. True, it is a world filled with immense talent, creative skill, and incredibly catchy music. J-Hope will always be my first and only bias. And I will forever be grateful for the Brit and Kiwi’s guidance on this journey. But the more I learned about K-pop, the more I realized that there is a price that comes with this cheery musical realm. There is a dark side to K-pop and I had to get out while I still could.

More to come…

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But for now I’ll leave you with some of my fangirl favorites: Fire and Not Today

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.