Tod and I arrived back home in New Hampshire in the wee hours of June 23. Turbulence over the pacific and thunderstorms over New England made for rough flights and various delays. But we, and now our luggage, are safe at home, and we are re-adapting to life together in the USA.
As I expected, “culture shock” has me quite off-balance. At the airport in Chicago, I automatically used Korean for the basic daily phrases like “Excuse me” and “Thank you”. I also used the hand gestures that are standard politeness in Korea. I was surprised how automatic these had become. Also, many small things simply feel “wrong”. Spoons are too short and narrow; in Korea there are only soup spoons and they have quite long handles. Bathrooms sinks are too high; I had gotten used to them being just above my knees. Today I drove a car for the first time in 10 months. I found I was far more apprehensive than I expected. All of these will pass.
Since I am home and safe, I will post only one more blog entry after this. Thank you to all of you who have read these postings regularly or on occasion. Special thanks to those of you who sent thoughts and encouragement during my time away. I have really appreciated having this space where I could process my experiences, share them with others, and feel part of a community of enthusiastic supporters.
Here is one short story from my last week in Korea. Eight days before I left, Tod and I climbed Baegundae Peak on Mount Bukhansan. I had climbed everything EXCEPT the peak in early October (see blog entry titled “Lessons Learned in Bukhansan National Park”). The peak was too much for me - you pulled yourself up on steel cables, with nothing between you and the ground except a stunning view. I had been, and still am, proud that I managed to get to the mountain and find the peak, with minimal Korean and no map, only one month after I arrived; that I could not climb the peak was not a big deal. But this time, with Tod along to encourage and cajole me, I had the courage to actually scale the peak. The view was spectacular and the sense of accomplishment was even better.
As always, life is easier and better with help along the way.
June 24, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno
My adventure in Korea is almost over. In just over one week I will be back in the U.S. I still have two finals to give and grades to turn in. And my husband is coming, so I will be grading those finals on a tropical beach! But the end is rapidly approaching.
Many travelers suggest that one should prepare to come home much the way one prepares to go away. Beyond buying the tickets and packing, one should think about unpacking and settling back into a place that may not quite feel like home. “Reverse” culture shock is the realization that neither you nor the world are the same as when you left.
That comes as no surprise to me. During my time in Korea, two relatives were diagnosed with cancer, and one broke two bones. Friends got new jobs and colleagues got pregnant. Students graduated, new faculty were hired, staff moved on. Plants in my house and my garden died. My cats have probably forgotten who I am.
Of course I have changed too. What I “usually” do or what is “normal” to eat or what I “expect” to happen is different as well.
So what does all that mean for preparing to come home? And how can you, each of you, help?
1) Please understand that readjusting will take time. I will likely be surprised by things you think are absolutely normal (”Oh, that’s right, we don’t recycle those Styrofoam trays under the steak”). I will not know things you thought everybody knew (”When did that happen? Oh, you had a big meeting about that? Last semester?”). I might seem off balance at strange times (perhaps when I first meet someone and am reminding myself not to bow). While I might seem perfectly settled in week 2 or 3, remember that culture shock and reverse culture shock often hit in week 6, when you realize “this really is my life, this is normal.” Or in month 6, when you think “OK, I’m ready to go back now.”
2) Please understand that talking about something else will take time too. All I have done for the past year is live in Korea. While you talk about your vacation, your kids or your job, I will talk about Korea. Everything will relate to Korea because I do not have much else! I will try not to share every story with everyone, and there may even be a stretch where I am tired of talking about Korea (just as you get tired of talking about a pregnancy or a vacation or an illness). But to ask me not to talk about Korea is to ask me to not talk about a year of my life. And to not ask about it is to ignore a year of my life.
3) Please understand that reconnecting will take time, but is exactly what I need to do. I have been very blessed with friends and family who worked hard to keep up with me while I was gone. But I will have a lot of people to catch up with when I get back, while also trying to settle into old routines, a new semester, and “normal” life. So if you are inclined, please make an effort to reconnect - lunch dates, emails, phone calls, office “drop bys”, dinners - whatever works for you. There will be moments when I just need to hide, when settling back in or readjusting is more work than I can handle. Please understand, and try again.
I learned coming here that no matter how much I prepared, life was not what I had expected. It will not be what I expect at home either. But preparing might just make it a little bit easier - for me and everybody else.
June 11, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno
I am beginning to understand what people meant when they told me “Anti-Americanism can flare up in Korea in a moment.” I am also realizing anew how huge a gap there is our “international” news coverage in the U.S.
Many of you probably know that Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the U.S. in April. It was the first time an American President invited a Korean leader to Camp David. Both President Lee and President Bush would like to see the Korean-US Free Trade Agreement passed and both face an uphill battle in their Legislatures.
You may not know that Korea and the US signed a controversial beef import deal right before that visit. Korea used to be the third largest importer of US beef. Then mad cow disease hit one cow in the Pacific Northwest. Korea limited imports to beef without bones. About a year ago, they stopped imports altogether when they kept finding banned bones in U.S. shipments. The new deal was supposed to reopen the lucrative Korean market and drive down amazingly high beef prices here. I have paid $12 for a small, ordinary steak.
Since then, there have been growing protests. First they were protests against potentially dangerous U.S. beef. I noted in an earlier blog that I had to answer questions from students about whether I ate beef and was it safe. Then some of the protests became anti-American government protests, as people felt the beef deal was a “give-away” by President Lee to the Americans in order to get the Free Trade Agreement passed.
Now the protests are strongly anti-President Lee. The beef deal was one more action by a President apparently deeply out of touch with the people who only 4 months ago voted him into office by a wide margin. His approval ratings are hovering at the 18% mark! Images of black-booted young policemen kicking fallen protestors have only heightened the tension in a nation which still vividly remembers military dictatorships.
Yesterday I was in Seoul to say some goodbyes and passed two separate protest marches. One building had a banner depicting sick cows “Made in USA” and a worried consumer. The subways had advertisements for Australian beef : “Clean & Safe”.
I feel perfectly safe, especially since I do not live in downtown Seoul. No foreigners have been targeted, and the anger is clearly directed at the government - especially the Korean President and the U.S. Ambassador.
This coming Tuesday is the anniversary of massive nation-wide protests against Korean dictatorship and there are expected to be rallies and marches all over the country. I expect people at the University will be mostly apathetic - it is final exam week. But I’ll be avoiding Seoul, just in case.
I will also be curious to see what turns up in the U.S. newspapers. Part of my goal in coming to Asia was to understand how people in other regions viewed the United States. Now I understand a little of that. I am also far more aware how much international news never shows up in the U.S. media, even when it directly relates to U.S. interests. There is only so much bandwidth, and Clinton and Obama take up an awful lot of it. Everyone here knows about Clinton and Obama. How much do people at home know about Lee and U.S. beef?
June 8, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno
In the past two weeks, I reached two major milestones in my Korean life. The vast gap between them tells you a lot about my life abroad.
Milestone #1: For the first time in 9 months, I ordered food over the phone and had it delivered to my apartment. I danced for joy when I hung up the phone. Ordering food by phone is actually pretty complicated. You have to know the words for (and pronunciations of) the food, ordering, delivery, and your address. You have no chance to read body language or hand gestures. You also have to field the unexpected questions: Is a 10 minute delay ok? We are really busy. Do you want our special side order? Such small things are really hard when you only have basic language skills!
Milestone #2: For the first time in Korea, I gave a paper at an international conference without translation. The audience had people from a half dozen countries, but the majority were Korean. All understood English, but about half could not speak comfortably in English. Therefore after taking questions in English, I encouraged the audience to ask questions in Korean. Only then did I have the horrible realization- the bilingual conference organizers had left the room to arrange the next panel and no one was available to translate the questions!
So, for three questions in a row, I drew on my minimal knowledge of Korean, bi-cultural knowledge of gender issues, body language, and wonderfully helpful Korean terms in English (like “golden miss” - the Korean term for single women in their 30s with good jobs and no desire to marry). I could not answer the questions in Korean, but I did my best with slow, clear English. Afterward one Korean graduate student shook my hand and said in utter awe (and rather good English), “No foreigner has ever LET me ask a question in Korean before. And you even UNDERSTOOD me!”
Her comment says volumes about the complicated relationship Koreans have with English. She probably COULD have asked a question in English, but she WOULD NOT have. She was not comfortable enough. Just as I probably could have ordered food delivery a few months ago, but I did not want to get half way through my order and realize I had no idea how to say the word “delivery”! Her distinction between my allowing her to ask a question and my understanding her Korean also shows she recognized that allowing the question was about respect, but understanding and answering it was about skill. Out of sheer stubborn pride, I did not tell her I only understood 6 words in her 8 sentence question and I only knew that much because one of my Pyeongtaek University students had asked a similar question during my Race and Gender class. I take my victories however I can get them!
As I expected, now that I have a clue what I am doing, I am headed home. My third milestone was today - I taught my final class in Korea. I will give final exams next week and I leave the country a little earlier than planned on June 22. With luck I will come back to Korea at some point and get to use all this experience. But if not, the learning process was a reward in itself - now I know I was up to the challenge. Besides, ordering food by phone will never feel this good again.
June 5, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno
This past weekend the 15 year-old daughter of two Korean colleagues and I went to Gangwha and Seongmodo Islands. These are at the mouth of the Han River, an hour west of Seoul. We had many adventures and learned a lot of American History (some of which will appear in the next blog entry). This entry however could have happened anywhere - and according to my family, often does.
We were walking through a glorious patchwork of rice paddies and vegetable gardens, under a bright blue sky, along a swift flowing river. We were talking and wondering how far we had to walk to get where we were going. Over time we noticed thousands of black “beans” on the walkway, which smeared when scuffed by a shoe. We agreed they looked like animal droppings. Soon we saw hoofprints in the mud, and Hee-min tried to describe the animal that made them.
“It’s not this,” she said, miming a large animal with big attachments on its head. “No, it is not a moose” I agreed, “more likely a deer.” “Yes,” she affirmed, “we have deer here like the one in the movie by Disney.” “Bambi?” I asked. “Do you realize Bambi was a baby deer in the beginning? He got a lot bigger.” “Oh,” she replied, “well these deer stay the size of Bambi, they are brown and soft, and they live….”
At that moment we all but walked into a large black thing and we were so startled we were lucky not to fall into the river or the irrigation canal.
“Baaaaa,” it said, staunchly defending the three littler black things prancing about behind it.
“Or,” Hee-min said, “maybe they were made by a goat.”
We gave Billy Goat Gruff a wide berth and hustled by until we were beyond the length of his tether. Then we laughed at our inept mystery-solving skills and continued on through the rice fields, until we met the next adventure.
June 3, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno
During my stay here, I have occasionally tried Korea’s version of western food. It is never quite what I’m expecting. Here are a few brief examples of not quite getting what you expect:
1) Koreans do not usually eat cereal for breakfast so the selections in the local market were limited: Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops, and Bran flakes - in Green Tea flavor.
2) Lotteria is the Korean McDonald’s. Like western “burger and fries” restaurants, it serves a variety of hamburgers, including some very Korean items like bulgogi burger (marinated beef) and hanwoo burger (using Korean beef). But the regular, ordinary hamburger looks just like its U.S. counterpart except for one detail. Unless you specify, it will come with mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise AND steak sauce.
3) Pizza is very popular in Korea, especially with young people. At my local pizza chain, the basic standard pizza is about $5.00 per pie. It comes with a crisp crust, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and…canned corn. At the local Pizza Hut, you can get “Cheese Bite” pizza for about $20. It comes with with spiced chicken and white and brown sauce.
4) Two students thought I might be missing U.S. food so they took me out for spaghetti and sauce. The bowls were huge, the spaghetti perfectly cooked “al dente” and the sauce bright red with chunks of vegetables. It was also achingly sweet and bitingly hot. Clearly sugar and hot pepper paste rivaled the tomatoes as main ingredient!
5) Shaved ice with fruit is a favorite Korean summer treat. Slowly, frozen yogurt is becoming equally popular and one frozen yogurt chain, Red Mango, has now opened branches in California. That chain’s basic “fruit and yogurt” is a mound of frozen yogurt (more tart than in the U.S.) covered with fresh fruit and fruit in syrup. Very much like home. Today I went to a local Pyeongtaek dessert place for “fruit and yogurt”. When my bowl arrived, I so wished I had my camera with me. Picture please: One large bowl with shaved ice, covered in purple syrup. Then a layer of corn flakes and fruit loops. Then three towering twists of vanilla frozen yogurt, studded with banana slices, kiwi, apple and pear. Topped with - cherry tomatoes. It was served with two free slices of white toast - with whipped cream.
After these items, “fusion” restaurants take on a whole new meaning (smile).
June 3, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno
In my American Political Culture class, I have been trying to use lots of examples from Korean politics to help explain America’s politics. This has had mixed success. Like most Americans, most Koreans have limited knowledge of their own political system. But we are learning together. So here is a primer for all of you wanting to know about Korean politics (and possibly needing a reminder about how our U.S. system is supposed to work):
Koreans have direct election of the president. They do not have an Electoral College to moderate the potentially immature and irrational decisions of the voters (at least, that was the original idea of the Electoral College).
In addition, Korean Presidents serve 5 years (not 4) and cannot be reelected. Koreans are even more eager than Americans ever were to avoid a dictatorial (or monarchical) President. They do not, however, have the office of Vice President. If something happens to the President, they have to have a national election to replace him. They also have to have a national referendum to change the Constitution, rather than getting three-quarters of the states to approve the change.
Interestingly, Koreans did not have Presidential primaries until 2004. They are still experimenting with them, combining votes by party members (less than 10% of the population) and cell phone public opinion polls. They have dozens of political parties, which change with every election. The oldest political party was formed in the 1990s.
Koreans have a unicameral, not bicameral legislature. This means they have one National Assembly, not a House of Representatives and a Senate. Everyone serves four years, rather than 2 and 6 respectively in the U.S. Whereas impeachment and trial are completely Legislative rights in the U.S., (The House impeaches and the Senate holds a trial), in Korea the Legislature impeaches, but the Judiciary (Supreme Court) holds a trial.
The Judiciary in Korea works much like that of the U.S. with two huge exceptions. Korea has both a Supreme Court (for appeals) and a Constitutional Court (specifically to examine issues of constitutionality). In addition, Korea does not have trial by jury. As of January 1, 2008, the first ever jury trials were held in Korea, on an advisory basis.
The Korean Constitution is many pages longer than the U.S. and infinitely more specific. (If you would like to read it in English, see http://english.ccourt.go.kr/home/english/welcome/republic.jsp). It lists hundreds of things the government must do, but maintains flexibility by saying the government must do them “according to Act” or in other words, according to current law. Therefore changing the spirit of the constitution can be as easy as changing the law. Thus the amazing rights provided in the Constitution are highly contingent on law, whereas in the U.S. they are far more contingent on judicial interpretations. Still, here are some of the impressive rights listed in the Korean Constitution and not in the U.S.
1) All citizens shall be equal before the law, and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social or cultural life on account of sex, religion or social status.
2) The privacy of no citizen shall be infringed.
3) All citizens shall enjoy freedom of conscience.
4) All citizens shall enjoy freedom of learning and the arts.
5) All citizens shall have an equal right to receive an education corresponding to their abilities.
6) All citizens have the right and the duty to work.
7) All citizens shall be entitled to a life worthy of human beings.
8) All citizens shall have the right to a healthy and pleasant environment.
One passage I find fascinating is directly under the rights of free speech, free press, assembly and petition (mirroring our First Amendment in the Bill of Rights). Our Bill of Rights definitely does not have this clause: “Neither speech nor the press shall violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics. Should speech or the press violate the honor or rights of other persons, claims may be made for the damage resulting therefrom.” While the U.S. criminalizes slander (spoken defamation) and libel (written defamation), we rarely prosecute writers for undermining public morals and social ethics. (Though we have in the past - McCarthyism comes to mind).
For this reason I find the Korean Constitution a fascinating mix of liberal beliefs (their statements about equality and rights far exceed those in America) and a conservative focus on social morality (placing the good of society above the rights of the individual.) It is also, thus far, mostly a piece of paper. The American Constitution has achieved an almost religious status, with politicians constantly referring to it to support their points or challenge their opponents. A “Constitutional Right” is valued above all others. In Korea, the Constitution has been amended a dozen times already, and is seen more as a guideline than an absolute standard. In some ways, the Korean Constitution faces the same challenges the American one did when President Andrew Jackson supposedly said “The Supreme Court has made their decision, now let them enforce it.” History teaches that our Constitution has not always been quite so sacred. This is perhaps the most shocking thing to Korean students - and perhaps the most hopeful.
May 25, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno
As part of their 40th wedding anniversary trip to Hawaii, my parents made a detour to South Korea. As my mom noted, it was not the top of their “foreign destinations” list, but it had me, so that made it pretty attractive. My parents have not left North America in 40 years, but they handled customs and immigration like pros. Here are a few highlights from their trip:
1) A bus tour around Seoul (which meant _I_ finally understood how this city was laid out!).
2)Dinner at a Buddhist restaurant which covered the table in small bowls of tasty vegetables and ended with traditional Korean dancing and drumming. I was really impressed that my parents managed to sit on the floor for over two hours.
3) Shopping in Insadong, a traditional (and touristy) shopping area. My Dad commented that this was what he expected of “the teeming masses of Asia”- densely packed streets, crowded buildings, lots of alleyways crammed with shops, a profusion of brightly colored goods. It contrasted sharply with the skyscrapers, elegant sculpture, large parks, and Rodeo Drives of modern Seoul. There my mom noted “I have never seen this many Louis Vitton advertisements, even in America!”
4) Touring a folk village in Yongin. We saw houses moved from various parts of the country, with rice thatch roofs, rice broom-swept courtyards, hand carved kitchenware. It was hard to believe that my colleague’s grandparents lived in a home similar to these into the 1970s. Change has happened really fast here.
5) Meals with colleagues. Many of my colleagues wanted to meet my parents, and honor them with a meal. So we had lunch at the National Museum with a member of the U.S. Embassy staff, her mother-in-law and her daughter. Another evening we roasted duck over a fire with two colleagues, and then we had lunch at a famous soy sauce making restaurant with another two colleagues. In six days, my parents had six kinds of kimchi and close to 100 different kinds of Korean food. They were great sports, trying everything once, and finding they liked almost all of it.
6) Meeting with students. Due to a scheduling conflict, my parents visited the Korean Presidential Residence (Cheong Wa Dae or the Blue House) along with students from my American Political Culture class. The students were outstanding ambassadors, providing translations of the Korean tour information. My parents also attended my study group where students took full advantage of the chance to talk with foreigners who also happened to be Professor Salerno’s parents. Meeting with English-speaking foreigners is still pretty rare in Pyeongtaek, so having three in a classroom was pretty special.
My parents enjoyed being elders in a country that has traditionally honored age (although that is rapidly and unfortunately changing). I was fascinated to watch people who have always acted the “senior” role with me, suddenly acting the “junior” role with my parents! It affects how people shake hands, pour drinks, drink drinks, and prioritize desires. I think my parents liked best all the children who would come up to them and shyly ask “Where are you from?” and then ask to have a picture taken with the friendly foreigners. Many ran off giggling.
One interaction may serve as a summary for the trip: Walking up the _steep_ hill to Namsan tower, my mom asked four middle-school girls what they were eating. “Ochingo” one said, clearly struggling for the English. “Squid” I translated and they nodded and giggled. A huddled conference followed and the girls then offered their food to my parents. Remembering that it is impolite to reject offerings of food, my mom accepted and everybody smiled - a cultural interaction successfully negotiated. Food, giggles, language, and culture on the way to a scenic view. It was a great trip.
May 24, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno
Monday, May 12th is Buddha’s Birthday. In a country with equal numbers of Christians and Buddhists, it is not surprising that both Buddha’s and Christ’s birthdays are national holidays. Buddha’s birthday is also a major day of prayer, celebration and fundraising for Korean Buddhists. For over a month, temples have been lining their streets, courtyards, and temple interiors with brightly-colored paper lanterns. Each has a tag attached, sending up a prayer for a family member, loved one, or friend. At night, all the lanterns twinkle and shine, lighting the way for souls traveling to heaven (and for believers and tourists wandering to the temple).
For a variety of reasons I missed the famous Lantern parade last weekend in Seoul. But today I walked through the rice fields to the temple in Pyeongtaek and saw the lanterns, the fire-breathing dragon, and the bowing, blow-up monk that greeted the faithful and the curious. I could not take many pictures there, but over the past month I visited a few temples to see the decorations and feel the building excitement. You can see the pictures by clicking on the ones in this blog and then on the “Buddhism” set to the right. The lantern pictures are the first 10 in the set.
May 12, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno
From Tuesday to Thursday this week, Pyeongtaek University students have been partying. Each department had a booth for cooking food, games of chance, tarot card reading or whatever they wanted to do in order to bond together and raise money. I had a ball trying to catch fish with paper nets, tossing coins onto “roulette boards”, eating some quite good Korean food, and laughing with students. Events occurred continuously in the new amphitheate, from student band concerts to plays to the May Queen competition. Most of the bands sang American songs in English (although I’ll have to take their word for it - I can’t understand the English in most rap songs even when the singers are native speakers). In the evening (after sane people went to bed), major Korean singers performed, ensuring students rarely made it to their not yet cancelled morning classes.
At the same time, the front page of every newspaper has been blaring news about protest rallies in Seoul, demonstrations in the street, planned strikes by workers and students, and ministers apologizing. People here are quite worried about the resumption of U.S. beef imports, fearing that insufficient steps have been taken to prevent mad cow disease.
It is easy to see that much of the beef issue has been hijacked by opposition politicians and anti-American demonstrators. I have had students write to me and ask me for a calm explanation of whether it is safe to eat U.S. beef because they do not feel like they can get answers anywhere else. From the newspapers you would think Koreans hated Americans and feared we were specifically trying to kill them with tainted meat.
But the reality was made clear at the University festival. In one corner, the Mad USA Cow. For about $1.00 you could buy three water balloons and pelt your friends, while they pretended to be the cow. In another corner, Korean students cheered wildly while five U.S. soldiers tossed coins onto a board of numbers, sometimes winning coins, more often losing everything they threw. The American Studies department proudly sported their tee-shirts with ”We are different” on the front and the big A for America on the back. Whatever the students’ concerns may have been about U.S. beef, they had no concerns about Americans. One soldier said to me, “I never thought people would be this friendly. They don’t sound friendly on paper.” That contradiction is absolutely crucial to understanding Korea.
May 9, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno