Thursday, April 28, 2011

Adjustments After Korea

I've been home from Korea for almost 4 weeks now so I've had some time to reflect back on my time there, the good, the bad, and the in-between. It feels normal to be back in the United States, so often it's not until I'm talking about a specific subject that I realize how different some of my experiences in Korea were. I was buying new running shoes the other day, something that was impossible for me in Korea between the limited brands, models, and lack of communication. I started talking to the salesguy about the running culture in Korea and realized I had a lot to say between running clothes, routes, gender observations, race etiquette, post-race food, etc... things I just got used to while I was there.

First of all, what I miss:
* Reading Korean. I didn't learn as much Korean as I wanted, but I can read hangul and it is sort of a fun puzzle to always read things in a different alphabet. My vocabulary was pretty limited, but by the end of the year I could read a typical kimbap menu like this one like a pro.

* Korean food. While I was there, I missed Western breakfasts and the multitude of ethnic foods that I'm used to as an American, but now I miss Korean food. I miss kimchi and eating meals with a million tasty, pickled, spicy side dishes (called banchan). This picture if from a staff dinner at a duck restaurant... you can see meat grilling, meat waiting to be cooked, salad, dipping sauces, and several side dishes.

* Noraebang. This is Korean karaoke, where you have your own room with your friends to sing. They have an amazing English song selection, completely on par with anything you would find in the US. I wasn't a die-hard noraebanger, but it was a fun thing to do at the end of a night should you ever want to.

* My students. Like 6th graders anywhere, they could be funny or smart or apathetic or infuriating. But for the most part they were incredibly sweet and earnest. I miss working with kids and seeing what they come up with, like this student who made his cookie house with a waterwheel. The side-ways oreo was positioned over a chocolatey waterway. Seriously, how does a kid his age even know what a waterwheel is, much less how to engineer a candy one?

* Ingrish/Ridiculous English signage. This is one of the best parts about living in a non-English-speaking country in my opinion. I was constantly amused by inaccurate or simply bizzare English word choices, whether for stores...

(The first store is selling "lingelie" and the other specializes in "Performance Feminism Fashion" and is relevantly called "Soup".)

... or menu translations...

... like this one at an Italian restaurant, where for about $20 you too can get a calzone that is "derived form Italian, trousers, topped with ham and like a dumping". Sounds delicious!

Things I don't know if I miss or not, it's just different:

* Fashion. On one hand, I'm ecstatic to be out of a country where every one dresses exactly the same. For women, men, kids, athletic wear, hiking, business, etc. there is ONE set style and every one adheres to it for better or worse. For example, standard office wear always made me think that my Korean coworkers were ready to go from the office to a cocktail party. Here is one of my coworkers on a typical day, wearing a cute party dress, heels, and a pearl bracelet to teach elementary school. I mean, they always looked great, but it made the foreign teachers in our slacks and sweaters look pretty frumpy by comparison.

Here are women wearing normal "workout" clothes. Seriously, why not wear a short short floral tennis skirt, spaghetti strapped tank top, and white (only white this season people!) leg warmers to take a leisurely stroll on the treadmill??

So I appreciate the fashion freedom here, to not have to wear one set thing in any given situation. You can have a head of dreadlocks the size of Texas, or wear a blanket like a sweater, or tight orange leopard-print pants, and not one bats an eyelash. On the other, after a year in Korea, Washington feels ridiculously underdressed to me now. I was downtown the other day and saw buisnessmen in trousers and briefcases wearing fleece jackets. I know that's normal here, but after the impeccable formalwear of this past year, it made me do a double-take. Later I went out to a nice dinner and half the people were wearing jeans. I sort of miss being around a more well-dressed public, but I will take a wee bit of sloppiness over being stared at any day.

* Using two hands. In Korea, when you give or receive anything, you should use two hands, or at least hold the item in your right hand while placing your left hand at some point along your right arm. It shows respect and your full attention to the person and the item. For example, here you can see my friend Greg pouring me a drink, in which we are both giving and receiving with two hands. It became so ingrained over the past year, that I still catch myself doing it.

* Wearing shoes in the house. In Korea, you NEVER wear shoes in a home or temple. Even at my school, we removed our shoes at the door everyday, and changed into slippers. I taught everyday in slippers! When I was moving into my apartment, the movers would slip off their shoes before coming in, even while carrying a desk or mattress. Now it feels a bit strange and slightly dirty to wear shoes inside all the time.

Things I don't miss:
* The pollution. Here is a picture of the window screen in my apartment after living there only a few weeks... and this was a brand new building. It was an industrial city, but I couldn't believe how visibly dirty it was compared to home. Many Koreans wear face masks with good reason. I had to dust my apartment like 10 times more often than I have ever had to living anywhere else.

* Hiking. Okay, Koreans love their mountains and going hiking, but I just couldn't get as excited about it as I am at home. I climbed the 3 tallest mountains in South Korea, as well as all the peaks in the provincial parks in my state of Jeollabukdo. I tried to be a good sport, but let's face it, by west coast standards, Korean hiking is a joke. The summer is extremely humid, so between the pollution and the moisture in the air, you never have good visibility. And there are so many people that the trail is often a traffic jam, and the peak a pushy madhouse to find a place to sit and take a picture. This is at the top of Mt. Halla on Jeju Island, the tallest mountain in Korea, in September. I can't wait for some solid time in the North Cascades where there is solitude and crisp sweeping views.

* Not knowing what was going on most of the time. Living in a foreign country is a linguistic adventure, but it is incredibly tiring and frustrating not speaking the language. You end up sacrificing a lot of small needs and wants when you can't be understood. It made me so thankful for Korean friends who would translate when we went out. Here I am with my friend Jason, trying desperately to decode a menu via the phone dictionary... and we still ended up with squid somehow.


ElizaBeth said...

I definitely hear you on the last item... there really is something about living in another country with a different language and culture. I appreciate that experience because now I know how much I can live without; it taught me to be flexible and patient - for the first time in my life I was able to just go with the flow, because it was so much easier. I love how many random, unexpected things I ate as a result, too!

Katherine Jenkins said...

Hi Amber-I remember all of those things..seems like it's been so long ago. But don't despair about the things you miss cause there's bibimbap in Shoreline AND guess what..we know of a Norebang not far away. Let me know when you are free, but no hurry!