Posts filed under 'Culture'

Three Milestones Reached

The steps to Enlightenment (Haeinsa)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.  Ancient Kaya Clothing and meThe 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!

Professor Hwang and I imitate Korean royaltySo, 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.  Leaving HaeinsaOut 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.

1 comment June 5, 2008

Salernos in South Korea

Mom, Dad and traditional performerAs 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!).  Seoul from the Cable Car

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!”

Traditional House at folk village4)  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.  Soy sauce and soy paste jarsIn 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.

The Korean 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.  American Political Culture Class at Cheong Wa DaeA 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.

1 comment May 24, 2008

“Anti-Americanism” and the University Campus Festival

American Studies Band ChaosFrom 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. 

The Mad American CowAt 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.US Soldiers playing a game  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.

Add comment May 9, 2008

English in Korea

English sign at SungyemunMonths ago, when Tod was here,  we talked a lot about English in Korea.  At first Tod was shocked by how common English is here.  Doors say “Push” or “Pull”.  Menus often have English translations for the entrees.  Subway stations are all labeled in English as well as Korean and most buses, subways and trains announce stops in English as well as Korean. 

Koreans have also adopted many English words particularly in areas of technology.  Computer, printer and adaptor are simply pronounced a little differently but are recognizably English.  This is similar to America’s adoption of foreign words like lieutenant (from the French) and karaoke (from the Japanese).  This intermixing of languages led to a fun discussion one night when a Korean asked me for the American word for norebang (the practice of singing lyrics along with a soundtrack).  I said, “Karaoke”.  My colleague said, “No, the American word.”  I said “Karaoke”.  My colleague then turned to a friend and said in Korean, “Would you please ask her the American word for karaoke?  I don’t think she understands me.”  I explained in more detail and we all had a good laugh.

Scaffolding protecting SungyemunAfter a while though what struck both of us was the regular use of Korean English.  By this I mean words that are clearly English but which are used in a completely Korean context.  For instance, the two bottles of hair product you find in any hotel in America would be shampoo and conditioner.  Here they are shampoo and rinse.  Even written in Korean, if you sound them out, you get “shampu” and “rinsa”.  The words are English, but the idiom or context is Korean.  In America, food which is considered to have fewer calories or sugar or salt is called “health food”.  Here it is “well-being” food.   In America, copying the answers from another person in class is called cheating.  Here it is called “cunning” (the word is used to mean cheating). 

Koreans also have a fascinating habit with English movie titles.  If you sound out the Korean on movie posters, you get “Becoming Jane” “Sweeney Todd” and “American Gangster”.  Oddly, the Korean language has a word for an American - miguk - but they transliterate (sound out) rather than translating the title for American Gangster.  Some movies however get translated.  This makes it fascinating to sound out Korean words - once you get the sound, you have to decide, is that Korean or English?  I get a lot of practice watching movie trailers on the bus.

Memorial for SungyemunThe most interesting aspect of English in Korea however is its potential impact on the culture.  Language gives us a way to express what we think, but also shapes how we think or what we think about.  In Korean, there are words for almost every relationship, including my husband’s younger sister, my husband’s younger sister’s husband, my father’s elder brother, and so on.   This is crucial in a culture that places every individual in a hierarchy, usually by age.  Korean also has at least three types of verb endings to indicate various levels of respect.  Some actions, like to eat, have two separate verbs, one for lower status people and the other for higher status people. 

English has few of these distinctions.  We cannot easily distinguish my brother-in-law (my sister’s husband) from my brother-in-law (my husband’s sister’s husband).  We rarely focus on who is elder or younger, beyond our siblings.   For formality or respect, we might add “sir” or “ma’am” to a sentence or say “You are cordially invited to join us for dinner at 6 pm” rather than “Come on over at 6 for dinner”.   This means that as more Koreans learn and use English, there may be cultural changes created by linguistic habits. I am not suggesting that simply speaking English moves a culture from a focus on hierarchy and relationship to democracy and individuality, but it would be a fascinating topic of study. 

All Koreans now learn at least four years of English and more and more Koreans are learning 6, 8 and 10 years of English.  Almost 20% study overseas.   English is everywhere, and although often it looks “incorrect” to an American eye, many usages such as “rinsa” or “well-being” are standardized, common, and proper in Korea.  Koreans are adapting English to their own purposes, creating a Korean-English idiom (sometimes referred to, disparagingly, as Konglish).  I am deeply curious English may morph from a foreign or “second” language into an agent of change in Korean society.

[I didn’t have time to take pictures of signs for this blog.  Instead I’ve posted an image of one English language sign at Sungyemun or Namdemun gate, plus pictures of the gate and memorial.  This is the 600 year old landmark that was burned down earlier this year.  See related blog at  ).

1 comment May 3, 2008

Waegwan Abbey: Background and Stories

Waegwan ChurchWaegwan is a small but rapidly growing town, about 2 ½ hours southwest of Seoul and one hour north of Busan.  The Abbey backs up against the U.S. military base Camp Carroll, where the few remaining German monks sometimes eat breakfast.  There is a 1909 Catholic church and about 15 other buildings.  There used to be a large, welcoming chapel, but a catastrophic fire on Good Friday last year burned the chapel and half the monastery building.  While no one was hurt, the abbey is scarred and the gardens have given way to ripped earth and twisted concrete.  Daily prayers are sung against the rhythm of a pile driver breaking up concrete foundations. 

When I arrived at Waegwan, I was a bit overwhelmed by my own unconscious assumptions.  Even though I had read about Waegwan’s growth and success, I expected a small place like Saint Anselm.  former Waegwan chapel and gardensPhysically, it is smaller than campus, but its reach is international and its outlook is global.  The monks are part of the Ottilian branch of the Benedictine family (there are 21 branches). The missionary vision of that house infuses life at Waegwan.  Abbot Simon Ri kindly explained the history of the place, mentioning visits with two Popes, annual travels to European conferences, and work with the government in China.  This fall, Waegwan will host the international gathering of Benedictine Catholic abbots.  Even after 8 months in Korea, I had ignorantly assumed a Korean monastery would be somehow “underdeveloped,” regional, limited.  Instead Korean seminaries are packed, graduating 150-180 priests a year, and Waegwan exports gold vessels for mass, stained glass, Catholic publications, and even monks.  In addition, there are more than 500 oblates (lay people pledging a vow to a monastery) at Waegwan with hundreds on a waiting list.

Door to ChapelMy experiences with Benedictines suggest that prayer, food and hospitality, not always in that order, are central aspects of Benedictine life.  Here are three stories about those things at Waegwan:

A petite Korean woman in a polyester warm up suit and purple high top sneakers entered the chapel.  She sat with 20 other women and a few men, all on retreat.  There were 55 monks at the front of the room, in six long lines.  A few were German, white faces amid Koreans. The monks ranged in age from early twenties to late seventies.  Two whole rows of monks looked like a college basketball team. 

Waegwan Chapel from the BackVespers on Friday night, followed by Compline.  Matins Saturday morning.  Midday mass on Saturday, then Vespers Saturday night.  Matins Sunday morning.  We followed the traditional Benedictine rhythms, singing the psalms, hearing Bible readings, standing, bowing, sitting, standing, bowing.  My legs burned from the exercise, but I realized it was keeping me awake and alert despite the earliness or lateness of the hour.  When mass began, the polyester and high-top wearing woman reached into her purse and pulled out a delicate lace “mantilla”.  Carefully she covered her head.  As if snow had started to fall in the chapel, white lace coverings fluttered onto dark heads bowed in prayer.  A few younger women sat uncovered, but even they never crossed their legs.  While the head covering may be an imported western tradition, the other is pure Confucianism.  A respectful Korean never crosses their legs before their elders, or apparently before God.  The prayer began.  “Aboji,…” Aboji means Father.  It is one of the few Korean words that sounds anything like Latin - Abba, Abbot, Father.  I wonder if this is a coincidence.

Waegwan Abbey Guest Dining RoomAfter almost every prayer service there was a meal.  I ate alone or with one monk in the guest house dining room.  My guide and dinner companion was Brother Luke, who also oversees the kitchens.  Fresh-baked white bread, orange slices of cheese in plastic, homemade strawberry jam, and hot frothing milk arrived with every meal.  These seemed to be standard fare, not chosen for the visiting American.  At my first meal enough food arrived to feed 6.  Gradually the portions were scaled back but I still left more food than I ate.  When Korean and Benedictine hospitality meet, it is a formidable event.

Let me stress here, that I still look the way most of you remember me. I am 15 pounds lighter and my hair is longer, but as you can see from the pictures on,  I look like me.  This will be relevant in a minute.

Saint Andrew Kim TaegonAt the last service of my last day, I was the only non-monk in the chapel.  All the retreat participants had gone home.  The only non-monk, the only woman, the only foreigner - I was definitely wondering if I had read the program wrong and broken some rule!  But no one asked me to leave.  After the last prayer finished and all but one monk had left, I headed for the exit.  The last monk asked me to wait.  Each day he had brought me a prayer book, with each song and reading marked with a series of ribbons.  He did not seem to notice that I never turned pages when everyone else did, or that I did not sing.  I was still reading line one when the monks responded to line seven, and it took two days for me to puzzle out the Korean word for “prayer’.  Yet today he had seemed terribly startled when he handed me the prayerbook.  I had worried about it during the entire service.

“Will you be joining us for prayer every day?” he asked in English.  “No I have to leave today,” I answered.  “Thank you for preparing the prayer book for me.”  “Ah,” he said, looking suddenly embarassed, “I thought you were Korean.” 

Welcoming the stranger as Christ and the American as Korean - that is _really_ Benedictine hospitality.

Add comment April 17, 2008

Membership Training (MT)

American Studies Seminar ParticipantsThe first time a student asked if I had heard about “Emtee” I was baffled.  What was this odd sounding Korean word?  But “MT” is a student and corporate employee tradition that mixes bonding exercises, motivational talks and late night drinking.   In some cases the drinking has overshadowed the rest of the point, so much so that Pyeongtaek University actually discontinued MT this year.   So I approached our unofficial “department seminar” this past weekend with excitement and trepidation.

What struck me first and foremost was that this retreat was organized by and for the students.  They chose the date, raised the money, hired the bus, rented the retreat center, organized all the activities, designated leaders for every conceivable purpose, and mostly remembered to keep the faculty informed of the plan.  We were honored guests.

Getting to Know You GroupsSecond, I was struck by the amazing graciousness of the students, because we were guests.  When other students failed to show up on time, at least 20 students apologized to me for our late departure.  When we arrived, a student leader tried to keep everyone on the bus for 10 minutes waiting for a car to come drive me up the steep 300 yards to the retreat center.  (After two hours on the bus, I was grateful to walk, though it took some careful wording to make this clear to the student).  I never lacked for a cup of water or a student willing to translate.  To be fair, I did only get 3 days notice that they needed me to give a 20 minute lecture - and one faculty member got 10 minutes notice! 

Team 7 BannerWhat did we do?  We sat in groups, chose team titles, and created banners.  We drew portraits of people in our group, gave them nicknames (mine was “Grace Woman”), and interviewed them so we could introduce them to others.  The students played bonding games and held competitions.  My favorite was “Guess which student is eating a wasabi sandwich and which is just faking it.”  Late in the evening people floated from group to group, this one playing drinking games, that one debating soccer teams, another talking about their English linguistics homework due tomorrow.  Students cooked ramen noodles, kimchee stew and other traditional student foods at 11 pm and most stayed up until 3.  I conked out at 2.

I did give my lecture.  I used my engagement ring as a material object through which we could study international trade, American culture, migration, oral history, and personal biography.  My point was the interdisciplinary nature of American Studies, and the power of curiosity and background knowledge.  The American Studies program here tries to give students the latter.  If they bring a willingness to ask questions, ordinary objects are windows to the world.

Seniors, Professors and AlumniAt 11 pm, I was suddenly informed it was time for me to sing.  Had anybody mentioned this earlier?  Billy Joel to the rescue!  I belted out his “Uptown Girl,” which amazingly almost every student knew.  Nothing makes you feel like a rock star like 70 screaming, cheering, singing, dancing students egging you on.  I also helped to judge the Miss Santa Maria contest.  By tradition, each group dressed up one freshman male in women’s clothing.  The men then competed in song and dance routines.  You have not lived until you have seen your male students in jury-rigged miniskirts doing a pole dance - with an elderly coat rack.

MT required only two things of me - partial surrender of control and temporary suspension of cultural judgment.  That pretty much defines my experience of Korea.  Taking risks, trying new things, and postponing judgment have given me space to have experiences I never would have thought to try.  Supportive students and colleagues have made that process feel safe.  This weekend, I was surprised to discover I really am a valued “member” of the team.  It is an honor, though it makes the reality of leaving even more bittersweet.         

(There are more pictures in the MT set at[email protected]/sets/72157604409909881/ . I will add more as I get them from the students.  Hopefully no one took any photographs of me singing!)

1 comment April 7, 2008

Democracy in Korea

Democracy in Korea is only 21 years old.    The contrast between a thousand years of monarchy, 40 years of colonial control, 20 years of dictatorship and 20 years of democracy was made vividly real for me this week.

First, I went to a presentation on the Gwangju uprisings in 1980.  In 1979 Korea’s second President and first dictator was assassinated.  Hopes for democratic change swept the country and were rapidly put down by the third President Chun Doo-hwan, a military general.  Students in southern Korea refused to stop protesting for greater democracy and the army massacred an unknown number of people.  Students, women, children, bystanders, the elderly - everyone was a target, and therefore most people joined the protests.  Eventually the town was placed under army rule.  Since all of this was done with the knowledge, if not permission, of American authorities, residents of Gwangju remain actively anti-American.  They had hoped for support for a new democracy and did not receive it.

Gyeongbokgung Royal RoadSecond, I went to one of Seoul’s many palaces.  The English language tour guide regularly reminded us that Korea is now a democracy.  “Here we are walking on the royal road,” she told us.  “In the Joseon dynasty, only the king could walk on the central part.  Commoners had to walk on the sides.  However, we are now a democracy, so you can walk on the central part since in Korea the people are kings.”  Later we came to a doorway called “doorway of prayers for long life.” The guide informed us that “Once this doorway was used only by royalty.  That is why it is so tall, since only royalty did not need to bow before entering.  However, in a democracy no one bows so you can all walk through the tall doorway and pray for your own long life.”  What a vivid reminder of the power of the people in a democracy!

Third, Korea is in the middle of its Parliamentary election campaigning.  The election is April 9.  This is a hotly watched contest since originally the GNP (the President’s party) was expected to win easily, but now the opposition party has a good chance to prevent a sweep.  Yet most of the people I know are remarkably indifferent about the elections.  Voter turnout is expected to hit an all-time low.  A sense that politicians are corrupt, that they do not represent the average voter, that only the wealthy can really run, that candidates are out of touch with daily reality, that there is no “good” candidate to vote for - all of these seem to be depressing voters and voter turnout. 

In thirty years, Korea has gone from literally battling for democracy to being proud of having it to being disillusioned by its less than perfect form.  I have asked dozens of people whether they think President Lee Myung-bak (criticized by some for being too authoritarian) could lead a slide back to dictatorship.  Everyone agrees: “No, democracy is too entrenched here now.”  But democracy requires an active, educated, engaged citizenship, vigilant in keeping an eye on its own best interests.  I am struck by how quickly Korea has reached America’s levels of disenchantment, frustration, and unwillingness to participate.  Perhaps we will be able to learn from however they deal with the isssue. 

Add comment April 3, 2008

Square Dancing in Korea

The Five Point SerenadersAfter Saint Patrick’s Day parades, square dances are the next LEAST likely thing I ever thought I’d see in Korea.  But a Fulbrighter who plays banjo organized an “old time music” (Appalachian fok) concert through the U.S. Embassy and it ended with a square dance.   Since I love to contra dance in New England, I had to go.  Here are my  5 favorite moments:

1)  Listening to a fine guitar player belt out an Appalachian folk tune about drinking too much and living too hard.  I realized if you substitued “soju (rice liquor)” for “whiskey”, most Koreans would absolutely understand the point of the song.

 2)  Having a Korean student ask me if “old-time” music means it is older than Rock & Roll.

Weaving the Basket 3)  Watching the banjo player try to call his first ever square dance and immediately run into a basic problem.  When he said “take hands with the person on your left” he thought he was speaking to the men.  But everybody turned to the person on their left and held hands.  Then he tried, “take her hand in yours”.  Koreans do not use gendered pronouns and often mix them up in English (my nephew she is 8), so this was not much more help.  Plus many couples were same sex! (Koreans prefer to hang out in single sex groups).   So we spent much of the evening with women or men leading depending on who could translate faster!

4)  Realizing that once the music started, we had two dances going.  When the caller said “Alamande left” everyone who spoke English did it.  When the translator raced through “Please extend your left hand toward your partner, on the left for the person being a male, take their hand, and then turn in a circle” all the Koreans did it.   So if you were in a mixed-language square (or a mixed-language pairing) you danced to a very different rhythm than single language squares and pairs. 

Swing Your Partner5)  Curtseying automatically at the end of a dance, as is common in the contra dancing I do, and totally confusing my Korean partner.  At first he bowed stiffly and deeply, Korean style.  Then recognizing his “error,” he put one hand behind his back, used his other to execute a beautiful sweeping flourish, and bowed as if he had just been presented to Queen Elizabeth. 

I had no idea that our embassies across the world have cultural departments that focus solely on deepening foreigners’ knowledge of American culture.  For the Koreans it was a window into….yet more strange things Americans do.  For me, it was a totally unexpected piece of home in a far away place.   

1 comment March 29, 2008


Sharing holidays in Korea has been one of the best parts of my stay here.  You can see previous blogs for discussions of Korean Thanksgiving (Chuseok), Halloween and American Thanksgiving.

This month the students shared a holiday triple-play with me and I shared one with them.

I thought Americans made a huge deal of Valentine’s Day.  Flowers, chocolates, red and pink hearts, candy, music:  February is always a bit overwhelming.  But Koreans have taken the idea of Valentine’s Day to a new level, turning it into THREE separate holidays.  Here’s how it works:

On Valentine’s Day, tradition here says that girls should give their boyfriends chocolate and a gift.  Flowers are way too expensive in February since everyone is already buying them for middle school, high school and college graduations.  But what do guys get girls?


Yep.  Guys get girls nothing for Valentine’s Day.  ( I can hear American guys cheering all the way over here).  But wait.  This is because the true Korean Valentine’s Day is in March - March 14 to be exact.

On “White Day”, guys buy girls flowers or candy and a gift.  While I was surprised the advertising for Valentines’ Day was so ordinary, this is because White Day is the BIG day.  Candy baskets cascade into the street and florists have a waiting line.  In my March 14 class, I was interrupted by the delivery of a dozen red roses and a chocolate cake from one girl’s boyfriend, studying abroad in Australia.  (I didn’t notice but I’m sure the guys in the class just groaned, watching the ante get upped before their eyes).

THEN on April 14, Koreans celebrate “Black Day”.  In America, single people tend to protest the overwhelming “couple” focus of Valentine’s Day by wearing black and hanging out with their single friends.  Here there is a whole day for doing that.  Same-sex friends, whether single or dating, give each other chocolate and flowers and spend the day together, celebrating friendship.

Hallmark has a whole new market to explore here.

In return, I shared American Easter with my students.  It is hard to believe but Korea has no Easter bunny!

Korean Christians celebrate the spiritual holiday of Easter, but the holiday does not seem to have a secular component the way it does in the United States.  No Easter baskets, no pastel-colored malted milk eggs, no towering displays of chocolate bunnies, no Easter egg dying, no Easter egg hunts.  It is as if the Christian holiday arrived in Korea stripped of the pagan celebrations of spring inherent in the eggs, the pastels, the little bunny rabbits.

My husband and parents, guessing I would want to share “American” Easter with my students, sent me plastic Easter eggs, Easter “grass”, and all the traditional candies.  So I began all my classes this week with questions about Easter in Korea, discussions of the Christian holiday, and then explanations of the other ways Americans celebrate Easter in addition to going to church.  The students were a bit baffled; to be fair “secularized” religious holidays are a bit baffling.  But on a warm, sunny day, it was easy to understand celebrating the return of spring, the rising of the world from the death of winter. 

The discussion of holidays pointed out one more interesting piece of culture.  Whenever older Koreans visit each other or give a hoiliday gift, it tends to be food.  Cartons of fresh fruit, decorative boxes of Spam, gift-wrapped containers of hand-made kimchee, even bottles of olive and grapeseed oil.  The younger generation likes any excuse for chocolate.  So how long will it be before foot-high Easter bunnies are all the rage in Korea?

1 comment March 23, 2008

Globalization One Bus Trip At A Time

Arched Bridge at South Sorak MountainWhen I imagined life in Korea, I never imagined a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade with  6,000 people, green rice cakes, Irish bands, step dancing, and Guinness on tap.  I missed out on attending the parade this past weekend, but just knowing it happened gave me a very different sense of Korea!

Foreigners make up 2% of Korea’s population, doubling in number since last year.  Chinese, Southeast Asians and South Asians made up the largest groups, with majorities in unskilled and agricultural labor.  The next biggest group is Americans, with about 30,000 U.S. soldiers and 30,000 U.S. citizens in non-military roles.   While English speaking “expats” (expatriates, or people living outside their country) make up far less than 1% of the population in Korea, they dominate my weekends three or four days a month.  This is due to my travel through the Royal Asiatic Society - Korea Branch (RAS-KB) which organizes English-language trips all over Korea.  The pictures in this blog are from my latest trip to the Inner and South Sorak Mountain areas.  You can see two dozen more by clicking on any of the images and checking out the ”set” they belong to on Flickr.  (The slide show is worth it!). 

Here is a brief list of the types of people I have met on recent trips:Path along the edge of the mountainA woman from Germany who works in an agricultural NGO in North Korea; a protocol officer at the German embassy; the Ambassador from Colombia and his wife; a tour guide from Yemen;  a reporter from Japan learning Korean; an insurance claims adjuster from Australia on his fourth one year tour in Korea; a couple from England teaching elementary school English; a U.S. army captain;  a New Zealander dealing with divorce by teaching English in rural Korea; an adjunct professor of English literature teaching seven year olds English; a Thai woman currently living in Korea after two decades in Singapore, and her mom; an American twenty something giving private English lessons until George Bush leaves office. There are many, many more - each person has a story.  But there are three things about white, western “expats” (the people here most like me) that I find particularly fascinating.

First, the vast majority of them are “migrant labor” (although here in Korea that term always implies a non-white person).  Whether from the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, Canada or the U.S.A., people come to Korea to make money that they can take back home.  Huge numbers come to teach English, since until this year Korea did not require any credentials other than native-speaking ability.  The adjunct professor of English mentioned above had taught in America for three years and could not make enough money to cover her rent.  Here she teaches 6 hours a day to elementary and middle school students, makes 3 times her previous salary, and has sent her first novel off to a publisher.  Many young people are paying off their student loans; a few couples are paying down their mortgages.  There is a whole economic world here I never imagined when I finished college! 

Snow capped mountainsSecond, the Korean language level of most expats is pretty terrible.  I was amazed to discover my seriously limited Korean is better than 80% of the people I have traveled with, despite their sometimes far longer residence.  I had not realized how much of a gift living outside Seoul can be.  In Seoul, a foreigner can find just about everything in English and can live within a foreign enclave that requires little interaction with Koreans.  When you spend all day teaching English and all night with English teachers, when would you speak Korean?

Third, every expat knows a different Korea.  One U.S. army soldier is an unwilling expert on the drug and prostitution culture of northern South Korea due to his required policing of his platoon’s weekend activities.  English teachers who have seriously dated Koreans have learned family hierarchies, dating customs, and the perils of cross-cultural communication.  I’ve met a few scholars of ancient Korea and many students of modern Korean bar culture.  Once again living outside Seoul makes a huge difference - those within Seoul often seem completely unaware of basic customs I have come to take for granted, while those from rural areas tell me customs I thought outdated are still alive near them.

Footbridge to the TempleI did not expect to travel the world while living in Korea.  But long bus rides have turned into explorations of Colombian cities, tours of South Africa’s coasts, descriptions of Pyeongyang now and 10 years ago, comparisons of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, and introductions to Japanese culture.   I’ve heard about little gardens in Berlin, and seen pictures of sand-scrubbed cities in Yemen.

Globalization has taken on new meaning for me here.  We ignore the world to our political peril in the United States.  But we also ignore it to our cultural peril.  What a different person I might have been if I’d known that one could bounce from country to country, teaching English, learning about the best of each culture and bringing back such richness to inform my life.  What a different country we would be if many of our citizens did that, or if we openly welcomed other citizens to bring what they have to us.

Add comment March 22, 2008

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