Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Five ways to survive in Korea

A lesson in keeping up with the Koreans:

1. Eat Kimchi (and enjoy it). Kimchi aka the most famous side dish in Korea. A meal is not a meal, unless it's complete with rice and kimchi. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Let's be honest, kimchi does to Koreans what garlic does to Americans and Italians, seeps through your pores and makes you smell like you just walked out of a kimchi factory.When you first come to Korea, you're like, "YUCK, what is this stuff?" After six months, if you are craving it before lunch, and purchasing it to silently chow down on in your own home... the damage has been done (rightfully so). I would be lying if I said I didn't like kimchi, but surely it was an aquired taste and I did not love it instantly. However, I can attest to the fact that one of my most recent status updates on facebook read, "When one of your Korean friends sends you home with a tub full of kimchi, you're just like... WINNING!" Enough said.

2. Learn to answer four important questions accordingly.  A. How old are you?- This is most always the first question you will be asked in Korea.  It may seem strange at first, as you are used to a friendly, "how are you?" The truth is, that in Korea, hierarchy is super important down to how you greet someone (a formal hello to your elders, and a less formal way for people of the same age or younger). B. Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?- Take it from me, lie. If you don't have a boyfriend/girlfriend, just say you DO. Surely, if you say no, the follow question will be a surprised WHY and as it seems, Koreans (women especially) just cannot understand the logic behind, "I don't want one,"(there MUST be something wrong with you). It's becoming much more common in western culture for women, especially, to focus on themselves and it's truly okay to be happy alone or even to be PICKY about who you want to settle into a relationship with, but in Korea, it seems that it's just merely about not being alone.  It's guaranteed from the day you mention you are single, you will NEED a boyfriend, and they will take it upon theirsevles to remind you of this on a weekly basis.
C. Do you like Korean food/kimchi? It's not surprising that of the first four questions a Korean will ask you, one of the most important involves kimchi. Plan to answer accordingly (and by accordingly I mean, yes, you love kimchi) even if you secretly want to gag when you are in sitting at the same table as someone eating kimchi, you actually "really enjoy" it. They will be so impressed and you are instantly on the waygook A list. If you can eat kimchi and learn to enjoy it you will be just fine in Korea. Which brings me to the next question... D. Can you drink soju?  Koreans ask this question like it's some HUGE accomplishment if you say yes. They will then proceed to ask you HOW MANY BOTTLES you can drink. Soju is not just a drink, it's a part of a lifestyle and that lifestyle is just Korean culture in general.  Soju is rough, I won't lie... nothing worse than a soju hangover.  However, what's surprising to me is how impressed they are if you say yes.  Is it not understood that in America, England, etc we drink other forms of hard liquor that far surpass the toxicity of soju?  Perhaps we should instead challenge them back, "can YOU drink tequilla? Forget drinking soju and passing out on streets, drink tequilla and take off all your clothes. Hell, our country even made a song about it. See- Tequilla makes her clothes fall off. Perhaps Psy's next song should be "Soju makes him sleep on the sidewalk." Just kidding. But, if you can drink soju, you should attempt to (at least at work functions).  Your Korean coworkers will love nothing more than to drink soju with you, even if it's just a bit and you will surely inch your way up on the social ladder.

3. Use Chopsticks. Everyone who lives in Korea should learn to use chopsticks.  If you're not going to give it a go, why move to Korea? If you don't want to partake in the cultural experience and living styles of Koreans, then, go home. [We as foreigners have all been in this situation : You're sitting somewhere, frustrated & irritated while TRYING to master this  art, when suddenly you notice a little 5 year old Korean child. The child is blatantly staring you in the face, wondering, where on earth you come from and why you look so different. You are staring back, shamed by the fact that a five year old's fine motor skills seem to be far superior to yours. They use chopsticks like a champ, while you, once getting the chopsticks close to your face, have actually lost all the food that you were originally gripping. As you look down at the empty chopsticks and back to the child's face... you see them smiling & hear their evil villain voice ringing in your head, "Mwahahaha, stupid waygook."] You know what they say, "Practice makes perfect." Surely you will never forget how to use a fork, however, if you are of any ethnicity other than Korean, and you own one fork, or better, none, you're surely learning the Asian way. My fellow waygookin, we have all had our moment when we realized we had finally mastered the chopsticks. It's like a breath of fresh air... "I CAN DO IT!" Usually when you realize you've become talented in this area, you start challenging yourself and your friends. What can you pick up with your chopsticks? A single grain of rice? GOT IT. A napkin? No problem. Slimey cold soup noodles... well, that's just irritating and difficult. If you can do this, you are half Korean. If you have sat in your apartment and tried to pick up books, papers, laundry, plates, etc with your chopsticks... well, then you're just a foreigner who is entertained by their new talent (me).

4. Embrace the Korean language to the best of your ability: No one is saying that you need to go spend ridiculous amounts of money taking Korean classes in order to effectively communicate with Koreans. In fact, it's not necessary, you WILL find ways to communicate and the majority of Koreans will be able to help you in some way or another even if their English is minimal. However, take advantage of your Korean counterparts... let them teach you here and there. If you are a teacher, learn from your students, keep your ears open, you will pick things up.  Take it upon yourself to learn how to at least read and write hangul... it will make your life here a hell of a lot easier. I taught myself in two days at this website.  Things you should learn to say in Korean- My name is, I'm from, nice to meet you (works wonders when you run into your students' parents on the street), i don't know, be quiet and sit down (if you are a teacher), can i have water (beer/anything else), go straight, turn left, turn right (for taxi purposes), thank you, where is the bathroom (or any other place).  Surprisingly all of these phrases are fairly easy to master and will all go a long way. Surely, it never hurts to pick up a language exchange, however, females beware, usually men around the same age are interested in more than just a language exchange and then you've got a stage 5 clinger on your hands who know no English other than - "so beautiful," BARF.

5.Do not fear the subway: The subway is a beautiful thing, master it. A foreigner could probably write a full on book about adventures on  the subway in South Korea. Hopefully someone has and hopefully the chapters are full of intriguing stories about adjummas racing their carted goods around, hikers in matching outfits, and old men puking up soju remains in the corners.  As a foreigner who never used a subway in her life, the thought of finding my way through these massive subway stations without getting lost, gave me anxiety.  After a while, you realize, that it is literally impossible to get lost using the subway, but sometimes it IS hard to survive. First impressions: it's massive although easily navigable; people are like vultures trying to get seats (in fact, I can attest to the fact that I have seen old ladies sneer and gloat upon winning a two foot dash to an open seat); adjummas (old ladies) and adjushis (old men) literally have no problem throwing some punches or left elbows in order to get you out of their way (no shame); people fall asleep in the most awkward ways; staring contests are frequent and never ending, and there are times when you're literally too close for comfort and filing for harassment would be justified based on the amount of people who are actually touching your ass. Spooning has never been so unpleasant. At first you may feel intimidated. Learn how to push back. Don't take shit. You will probably get pushed around MORE than others because you are a foreigner in their country (this is especially true of the older generation).  However, don't be fooled, occassionally you will see the elderly push around younger Koreans as well, and you will catch their surprising glances of disbelief. This stuff just wouldn't fly in New York City without people throwing punches but for some reason some of these people think they are justified. Just roll your eyes and carry on, there are bigger battles to be fought. Dont' be afraid to fall asleep (all the while, missing your stop) unless you have somewhere important to be. Take advantage of the corner seats. What's worse than being stuffed between one person and a brass bar? Being stuffed between two people in giant winter coats. Stare back in the face of judgement. Some days it will piss you off beyond belief when someone is staring you straight in the face without looking away, but you can stare back, or start waving frantically/pretend to die/do something really studid. Some of my friends and I have taken the opportunity to draw more attention to ourselves, this includes sitting across from each other and making obnoxious gestures before getting off together, riding the subway with vampire fangs in our mouths and smiling at people, or singing Christmas carols aloud. Embrace the attention instead of being anger by it. The subway is an entire obstacle in itself, and although some days it can be irritating, other days you will love the entertainment, and you will always love the convenience.

It took me a year, but I have truly mastered this place.  All humor aside, after all the time I've spent here, I can say that I have really immersed myself in another culture and learned from it. I really made it a point to "keep up" with the Koreans by throwing myself into as many new situations as possible, trying everything, learning the language, and making Korean friends.  Anyone who is considering taking the leap to move to a completely different place, I say, go for it. You will not regret it and the things you learn about yourself and others will stay with you forever. I have a very special appreciation for Korea, Korean culture, and Korean people. Rock on, Korea.

The Holidays in Korea

The holidays have come and gone faster than I could have expected, which is clear based on the tardiness of this update.  Time seems to be getting away from me lately.  It’s now only 36 days until I leave Korea, and although I've come to terms with that, the number is incredibly baffling. I can think back to my very first night in Korea. All the memories of the people, the places, the things, come rushing back to me like photographs in my mind and I feel as though I've blinked and allowed time to pass me by.  Although I will miss this place, I find comfort knowing that I took such a wonderful opportunity, made the best of it, and I have grown as an individual along the way.  For this year, I have been truly blessed.  I cannot begin to explain how grateful I truly am.

The holidays in Korea were not what I expected, although, I can't be sure what I was expecting.  Of course, Christmas is a universal holiday but that surely does not mean it is celebrated in the same way worldwide.  Perhaps I thought it was just going to be another day away from home.  In the beginning of December, with the awakening of Christmas carols, I have to admit, I felt a little bit sad.  I spent a good day or two, listening to carols, crying, and sulking in nostalgic memories of Christmas traditions at home. I missed sitting on the living room couch in my fuzzy socks, with my fuzzy blanket, watching National Lampoon's Christmas vacation with my family, singing "Hardy Candy Christmas," with Mom and Tara, and all the other things that bring Christmas cheer during that time of year.  I gave myself a small window of time to act like a whimp, built myself a bridge, and got over it quickly.  I came to terms with the fact that this Christmas might be different away from home and told myself it would only be as good as I made it. 

Christmas is not really a "big" holiday and is more for couples than anyone else in Korea.  Whereas we get a week off of school and a few days off of work in the states, it's just a one day celebration here. Lucky for me, I have been blessed to be surrounded by some wonderful people in Korea who made it special for me. For the past 5 months, I have been privately tutoring two students, Eun Jung (16) and Hyun Sik (18), who are brother and sister.  I have become very close to both of them, as well as their parents and in a way, I feel as though I am part of a Korean family. The Sunday before Christmas, they planned a big dinner at their father's restaurant for us before tutoring.  When I arrived at the restaurant, the kids were wearing Christmas hats and had put up tinsel around the  table where we would be eating.  There was a camera set up at the end of the table, a Christmas cake in the middle, and the lyrics to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."  Before eating, the  children, myself, and their parents sat around the table singing "We wish You a Merry Christmas." We took a family portrait, and then went to town on the meal.  When they began to sing the English Christmas carol, I felt so special and so incredibly grateful to have these wonderful people to make me feel more at home on the holidays (their Mom doesn't even speak English!).  I have been truly blessed to have them in my life during my time here. 
Christmas collage :)

Hyun Sik and I on celebrating Christmas

Eun Jung and I celebrating Christmas

Celebrating Christmas with Mr. Kim

On Christmas Eve, Kim and I decided to spend the night treating ourselves to a nice dinner in Sinsa (my favorite area of Seoul), we exchanged gifts (I GOT A BB GUN!), shared a bottle of wine, and then decided last minute to go out and meet all of our friends at the bar.  I'm really glad that we decided to go out and meet everyone last minute.  When we arrived, it was just after midnight which made it officially Christmas day and snow had began to pour from the sky.  I have to say, it was a really nice moment being in the bar, surrounded by friends, and watching the snow fall to the ground on Christmas morning in Korea. After that night, I spent Christmas day watching Elf with Kim and Christmas night with Jason.

My BB Gun from Kim & our vino!

On the subway on the way to meet friends on Christmas Eve.

In Sinsa-dong on Christmas Eve.

Our Christmas Eve dinner... seafood pasta & wine :)

Christmas snow in Itaewon! 

White Christmas- 4am Christmas morning in Itaewon :)

On New Year's Eve, I am not regretful to say that I didn't do ANYTHING. December 31st was just "one of those days" for me.  From waking up to a broken cell phone, to falling on ice in the morning and revealing my undergarments in my dress, forgetting my lunch and not eating for 12 hours, to getting lost on the way to the phone repair store, ending up in the car with a stranger, and having a taxi cab driver get lost trying to get me home, by the time my day was winding down, all I wanted to do was cry myself to sleep. So, I spent my New Year's Eve crying in the back of a cab, talking to my mom on the phone, and falling fast asleep early.  I did however, have plans for New Years Day.  At home, I would have normally spent New Years Day with my grandmother and family, eating pork and black eyed peas for good luck, but instead I spent this year celebrating my student Eun Jung's birthday with their family.  We met early in the morning, went to see Life of Pi, ate a delicious lunch at TGI Friday's (yes- they have them here!) and then we went to norebang (karaoke), as it is her favorite.  It was a special day for her and a day well spent for me.  Once again, my Korean family to the rescue- I always enjoy and appreciate my time spent with them!

Eun Jung's birthday dinner

Hyun Sik and I singing "Call Me Maybe," at norebang.

Norebang for Eun Jung's birthday.

After the holidays passed, we began a three week English Winter Camp with some of our kiddos. I have been co-teaching with Eunhee and really loving it.  The students are different than they were for Summer Camp, so I've really enjoyed teaching the third and fourth graders that I don't know. They are absolutely adorable!  Our theme for camp was American School- each day we addressed a different subject (math, p.e., science, art, music) and taught them the material in English. We covered things from sea creatures, to musical instruments, american football, and word families.  This week is the last week of camp, and with that winding down, I will have another week of free time (no classes) and then only three weeks with my fifth and sixth graders before I'm on my way to Bangkok.  I know it is going to be extremely difficult for me to leave my kids but alternatively, I'm really looking forward to meeting the kids at the orphanage in Chaing Rai, and spending a few weeks with them. I will be landing in Bangkok in t-36 days, I will be in South East Asia for one month, and then I will be home to my loved ones thereafter.  I have so many emotions inside me- happiness, excitement, anxiety, worry, etc.  However, mostly... I'm just happy.
Sara & Lisa making their own musical instruments
from recycled materials.

김민서 on math day.

준규 & 동하 

김민서 - We made new years resolutions.
Our third & fourth graders getting ready to play flag football. They made the belts themselves!

준규- Everyone told me to beware
because he is the #1 trouble maker at school,
but... i really loved him!

The girls planning a play during flag football. 
It was ten degrees this day... they were troopers!

민정. She is so cute!

Here's to living the next 36 days to the fullest, cherishing the time I have with my people & students here, and making the most of everything while I still have it. :)

(Also, I'm glad the world didn't end while I was in Korea.)