Reflections on the Korean Condition

Busan Harbor ViewThe school year is drawing to a close. Books are being checked for completion, students are practicing dances to inappropriate American pop songs they will perform at graduation (Gimme gimme gimme a man after midnight), and the gray in everyone’s hair is starting to show. The students have none of the ‘school’s out for summer’ attitude popular in American high school movies, instead they know that they will leave Friday with one set of classes and Monday they will resume with another. How I just want to steal them away to an outdoor park for an hour. Teach them what ‘feeding the birds’ is like. They were confused by the idea when I mentioned it in class. I figure my dad will forgive me—he always said it trains them to expect food from people. Maybe they, like these kids, could use a little help.

The Korean condition. The more time I spend here, the more I discuss with colleagues and Korean acquaintances (and students), the more the culture shock becomes apparent. Surviving in a big city is a skill you acquire quickly—dodging old man loogies and standing your ground as the subway doors open become second nature pretty quickly. The little things take more time, and burrow in deeper. Granted, with two months under my belt I have barely scratched the surface and my opinions are primarily based on observation. As I make more Korean friends and push past the cultural boundaries, I’m faced with as many questions about my surroundings as answers.

Last weekend I spent time with two native Seoulites who did their best to appease my stored-up slew of inquiries. I met Hyunjoon at a dinner party and we immediately hit it off, talking about his time spent in the States and his interest in American culture. Often I find Korean interest in my culture as strong as mine in theirs, making for an excellent start of a friendship. He found it hilarious that he had visited more American landmarks. I admit that the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty are on the list, but I’ve always assumed that they’ll still be there when national adventure takes priority.

Hyunjoon is a graduate student in Economics and about to start at Korea University, one of the largest post-secondary schools in Seoul. His attitude is laid back but still very Korean, rigid social conformity showing around the edges of his converse and NorthFace jacket. When I saw his Facebook post re: contemplating eating live octopus again, I jumped at the chance to go back to the Noryangjin Fish Market with a native speaker. We never made it there, but our Saturday did consist of various local sightseeing. From walking through an extensive outdoor market (ginseng! Dog!) to exploring the Children’s Grand Park Zoo, it was a day filled with good conversation and interesting cultural discussion. He even stopped into a few mobile phone shops to help me figure out a phone plan. So much easier when you speak the language. We ended our time by meeting up with some American and Korean friends, having a rigorous debate over the meaningful classification of languages, and playing King’s Cup in a hof until the language barriers had completely dissolved. (Hyunjoon remarked at some point that King’s Cup is like all of the complicated Korean drinking games rolled into one).

On Sunday, I meet with Eun-mee. She is a 27 year-old graduate student studying Lifelong Learning (adult education), and a friend of a friend of a friend in Seattle. I really like her. Quiet and patient, we sit down over coffee and just talk, haltingly at first. Her English is good, but we both have our smartphones out on the table with translators ready. We discuss Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, and the cultural differences that are most apparent to me. The concept of Jeong immediately strikes me as the word for what I’ve been experiencing, the air of collectivism and conformity interlaced with support for your fellow man. While there doesn’t seem to be an English equivalent, the closest definition I’ve found online is “affection”, the “feeling or connection that you feel toward something or someone.” Broadly, “a culture-bound Korean concept of love.”

There are two kinds of jung, goeun-jeong and mieun-jeong. Goeun-jung is a love-love affection, like a husband and wife relation, or just simply, love. Mieun-jeong is a love-hate affection, like you’d have towards a best friend you’d give your life for, but occasionally want to punch in the face for being so annoying. You can also feel jeong  for things, for instance a ring that your grandmother wore at her wedding then gave to you. She dies, and you feel jeong for this ring like you would for a person. It’s complicated. Eun-mee also describes jeong as the communal commitment to one another, like the ‘ship’ in friendship or kinship. It makes people care for eachother, whether on the street or at home. And it’s very apparent here—never mind the elbowy old Korean woman pushing past you, there is another in the jjimjilbang who will come over and just start scrubbing your back (with painful vigor) if there is no one else there to do it for you. Based in Confucian principles, jeong is both a working concept seemingly not found in general Western society and what seems to hold Korean culture together. When you tap into it, it’s beautiful.

Hierarchy, and the acceptance of your role in society, is another Confucian principle predominantly displayed in Korean culture. Most westerners I’ve talked to have a problem with the concept of being born into a certain role in life. Our cultural history of ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘the pursuit of happiness’ make us want to know that there is no limit to our social ladder, that we can rise from rags to riches or flip burgers if that’s what our calling is. Koreans see hierarchy differently. You know your place, and you must work the system in order to move up. At work, you are completely subservient to those above you. Never contradict or criticize, what your boss says goes. What his boss says he does without question, and you support him. Both in the office and out, you are required to be present for every social function, to keep up with your boss’s drinking habits, to never leave before a supervisor does. To be sober when your boss was drunk would be shaming him. To leave early would be incredibly rude. Two examples:

A friend told me he was on his lunch break at work when a supervisor called, saying he needed some numbers crunched and rushed over in a hurry. In a flurry, he dove into the paperwork until a second supervisor showed up at his desk and asked him to come out for lunch. Unable to say ‘’no” to either, he went to lunch and came back to slew of demoralizing and angry emails from boss No.1. My immediate reaction was Well, why didn’t you tell boss No. 2 about the first request, crunch the numbers, and meet up with him? Seems legitimate. Impossible, was his answer. If a supervisor asks you to do anything, anything, you do it. Caught between two impossible situations, he chose the one that was standing in the door. His other boss now won’t speak to him at work, and makes snide comments when he walks by.

Example two, same person. At six o’clock one evening, he started packing up to go home when his boss came in and told (not asked) him he needed to stay until nine. Unpack, sit back down. At nine, the same boss appeared and said there was a corporate dinner he was needed for. Off to dinner, then drinks, back home around two AM, to be up and at work again at six. The next night, the same thing happened. With less than nine hours of sleep in a 48-hour period, he was exhausted but uncomplaining. You just have to do it.


Capitalism has blurred some of the financial strata, but there is still the familial expectation to know your place. Those millions you make with your innovative business will more than likely go to your parents, to care for them, to repay them for when they cared for you. Expectations and hierarchy play an enormous role in the family dynamic. Most women live at home until they are married, which by that time is both a blessing and a curse. The subservient role you play towards your parents for the first third of your life is then transferred to your husband for the rest. Korean women are seemingly vicious creatures because of this, in my outsider opinion, yet some of the most beautiful women on the planet. The control they may lack in their destiny they make up for on the street, which is where I encounter them. Fierce, ruthless, determined, these women would be the last you’d want to meet at a free-for-all clothing sale. Yeeowch.

I’m reading a wonderful book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a story about raising children the Chinese way in America. In short, Chua discusses the differences between Chinese and Western parenting. While Western parents give their children the ability to choose for themselves, Chinese parents decide what is best for their children. What instrument to play, whether they can go to sleepovers, that they can never be in a school play… these all fall under the jurisdiction of the parent. The child’s desires are not part of the discussion. The child will grow up talented, skilled, ripe with knowledge, and will be expected to make his parents proud.

I do hope I have made my parents proud, but sadly I know it would be my strength of character rather than my achievements that would cause such an emotion. True to Western style, my parents have always been incredibly supportive. Allowed to make my own important decisions, be they class subjects or who to be friends with, I was given (comparatively) a lot of control over my young life. In my mid-twenties, when the really hard decisions begin to present themselves, my parents continue to be supportive and kind. Sometimes—only sometimes, mind you—I wish they had made more decisions for me. It would be great to be able to play the piano now, even though practicing made my mom and I scream at each other. It would be great to have a business degree instead of one in Art History. Instead, my parents relied on my ability to make my own choices, chose to support me instead of control me, and ultimately produced a soft-around-the-edges but generally well-read, well-mannered, capable and accepting human being. I can handle that.

My time in Korea is teaching me (schoolin’ me is probably more accurate) many things. My life has been easy so far. If you want the reward, do the work. Shut up and put on a sweater. The West Coast is where I’ll end up. I saved way too many things when I packed up my house; I can live on much less. My parents are wonderful, supportive, curious and remarkably individual people. Putting on make-up and heels to go to the corner store still feels like overkill, but how you present yourself does make a statement on your opinion of yourself and those around you. Teaching is a job I enjoy, but I’m not convinced it is what I want to do with my life. Cooking is a job I really enjoy, but I’m not convinced it’s what I want to do with the rest of my life. Loving and being loved by someone you respect, learn from and are supported by makes you capable of just about anything. Peet’s coffee and dark chocolate are amazing, and worth having imported. Being absent for the death of a family member is complicated. I’m really all I have when it comes right down to it. While I’m not convinced that everything happens for a reason, my life being what it is makes me confident in my decisions and my future. Despite a large part of my heart still residing on the West Coast, I know I’m where I need to be.





Just Another Day in the Life

After what I consider to be way too long, Alec and I had a Skype session this morning. A Friday, I wake up an hour early and rush to make coffee as I sign in. I admit it has been a little rough lately. Definitely time for a chat with my BFFL. IMG_3804

That’s Best Friend For Life, if you don’t know.

She is baby- free for the moment, eight-month-old Soleile is napping, and we chit chat about life, homesickness, adaptation, care packages, my experiences as a teacher, various ways I kill small children in my dreams. Not exactly the best thing for a new mother to hear, but as my friend she makes it constructive and by the end of the call I know I will survive another day. She is very good at this. I am glad she is a mother.

To better my health, and my mood, Alec has me on a new exercise regimen. Together we position our computers and she leads us in a twenty minute workout. Ok, fine, it was fifteen minutes. Maybe ten. Soleile audibly wakes up and crawls into the room. Wondering what the heck is going on, she sees her mom talking to a computer with a face and adopts the confusion-to-acceptance face I know I’ll continue to love her for as she gets older. No big deal, Mom’s talking to Auntie Em on another continent and they are doing kickboxing kicks and lying on their backs making pedaling movements. Cool.  What’s for lunch? HEY! I said what’s for lunch?!

Psyched for the day by fresh endorphins, I head off for school. Did I mention it’s Friday? Working odd days in a kitchen where your weekend falls mid-week, you dont quite appreciate the communal nature of TGIF… But let me tell ya, the learning curve was quick. Thank friggen AthiestBuddhaGod it’s Friday.

Today I kind of ‘wing it’. I have a long break around lunch and I have to head to the bank to open an account. Banks in the United States are often intimidating, at least for me, a poor person with no money. I always feel like I am underdressed, or that I should have brushed my hair. Wells Fargo is not the kind grandfather institution who wants to hold my money gratefully and give me interest, no, he is the evil uncle trying to swindle my poor self out of my last dime with overdraft fees, checking account costs and, what’s this? I transferred from my savings account one too many times in a time of need? Well, here’s another $35 for you. Anything else I can get you? Coffee? Footrub? Firstborn? IMG_3860

Korean banks are intimidating, but in a different way. It makes me a little nervous just walking in without knowing if they speak English, or how to say what I want in Korean. Like the rest of the day, though, I wing it. Winging it gets me pretty far.  Luckily Korean banks, surprise!, treat you like the customer you are. You walk in, there is a friendly desk agent who you can ask where to go or what the protocol is, and then you take a number and sit on comfy benches until it is called. No waiting in line, no high-eyebrowed glances at the tag on your jacket to see if you are actually worth helping. As a foreigner, I waited for someone who spoke English, was taken into another room, and have two people helping me. Nice.

From what I can tell, Korean bank accounts are more similar to American savings accounts. You do have a check card, which works like debit and at an ATM; it can also serve as your loadable subway card if you choose. Singular, fast, efficient. And rainbow colored! I get to choose my maximum withdrawal limit per transaction and per day, unlike Uncle Wells who decides everything for me. I leave the bank with my new card in hand, a bank book, and an account with zero dollars in it. I get paid in eleven days.


On the way back to work I realized I have missed the lunch service so I pop into a convenience store for some gimbap (think Korean sushi roll). I eat hurriedly at my desk before the next class period starts, and then we all head up to the Playroom (not that Korean children ever actually get to play) where there will be an assembly to award prizes and talk about the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.

Cate, the head foreign teacher, has prepared a PowerPoint presentation and somehow I find myself volunteering to demonstrate a traditional Korean game without quite knowing what it is. When I’m up in front of the class I’m handed a stick with ribbon tied around it, and instructed to try and throw it into a bucket across the room. It reminds me of horseshoes. I realize that in this moment I could go down in ECC history: if I make this shot I will be applauded by halfpints for days! Do I? No, silly, Laura would readily tell you that naturally my aim makes the stick land about two feet wide of the bucket, and I try to play it cool. There goes my opportunity to gain the admiration of a roomful of children. Alas.

After the assembly, I whiz through my last classes, eager for the freedom of Friday afternoon. At 5:55pm the bell rings and that’s it! I’m a free woman.

The weekend is always so full of possibilities. For the past three I have been lying low after the stress of the workweek, hanging out most of the day Saturday at a jimjilbang (Korean spa/bath house) and spending Sunday doing pretty much nothing. It’s strange… Making this huge leap and moving to a foreign country feels like it should be an entirely new experience. What will I encounter daily that I’ve never done before? What will I see and smell and hear and do? The promises of an exotic lifestyle make the harsh reality that much more sobering. In truth, my day to day life hasn’t changed that much. I go to work five days a week, and work much longer hours than I did in Seattle. I’m in earlier, out later, and unlike working in a kitchen my work now often comes home with me. Papers to grade, lessons to prepare… About 80 percent of my weekdays revolve around education. When I’m finally off work, all I want to do is relax and rest, watch downloaded TV shows, read a book, go to bed early. It’s lame, but the paycheck (so I’ve heard) and lack of rent makes up for it. I’m paying my dues. And learning a lot about myself in the process:

1. I need sleep. I’m not someone who can get six hours and be totally normal the next day.

2. Getting up early is great. Alec and I have been ‘Skypersizing’ in the mornings and it is fantastic. Mostly just to start my day by seeing one of my favorite people.

3. The best moments here are ones when I do something completely new. I climbed a mountain on Saturday! Amazing. Restored my faith in this decision.

4. I have nightmares about small children. I wake up frustrated, and instead of going to work and taking it out on a pile of uncut vegetables or a thirty-pound halibut with a knife I grind to a razor finish, I get to work and PTNSD (Post Traumatic Nightmare Disorder) kicks in. Keep your cool, woman. Just keep it cool. That kid isn’t out to get you.

5. As it has always been, my sense of homesickness is primarily for people, not places. I do desperately miss the Northwest, however. Strange that my sense of belonging is tied there; I wasn’t sure a few months ago.

6. Every time I try a new Korean dish this wave of euphoria overwhelms me. I still really want to cook. Markets have been some of my favorite places I’ve visited.

7. Speaking of which, I have been cooking for myself almost every night. If you know me well, this is unheard of. It’s nice, to know exactly what I’m eating. Hopefully more vegetables will become available come springtime.


For now, that’s basically my weekday. Get up, work, go home, cook dinner, read/ relax/ zone out, fall asleep. Seattle minus intoxicants and plus more work. I guess I’m glad I didn’t realize this reality until I was about a month in. Still waiting for the culture shock. Of course, what makes every day worthwhile is actually the kids, as much as they drive me crazy. No polite hand-covering-mouth cute Asian giggle for me, this stuff gets a full on belly laugh. Hey, I’m around kids all day. My sense of humor isn’t exactly getting more sophisticated.

Planning a temple stay for the first weekend in March. Let the Wow Moments live on.