So long, Korea! is a series of posts dedicated to the two years that we are wrapping up in South Korea. These posts are a little bit of a departure from the normal food and travel type posts, but I feel like it’s important to reflect on the past couple of years and all of the changes we’ve been through since then. Don’t worry, this series will come to a swift end before March 1st, when we’ll be back to food and travel in Tokyo, Japan.
As with any place on the planet, there’s lots of good stuff (at least 10 things) and not so great stuff (keep reading) about life in Korea.I figure a rant is always kind of a fun thing to read, and certainly a fun thing to write, so keep that in mind as you read this. Over the past 730 days there hasn’t been one where I’ve woken up and been like “aw crap, I’m still in Korea.” Okay. Maybe one. Or two. The fact of the matter is, Korea is kind of a distinctive place to live, and there are plenty of environmental cues that remind you pleasantly (or not) of exactly where you are. Let me just repeat one more time, this is a tongue-in-cheek rant intended for humor. Korea is a nice place and you wouldn’t hate yourself for visiting. Koreans are largely very nice people. Let’s have a look at a few, shall we?
Walk down this street, any time, any day, and get shoved, bumped, and bounced like a pinball.
1. Pushing, shoving, and bad use of space. Seriously, this is my number one gripe about life in Korea. If Carolyn and I are on a sidewalk walking together with four feet of open space on either side of us it’s not uncommon for someone to try to push between us. I’ve read online that this is a “microaggression” caused by the elders trying to assert their dominance on the youngs or whatever. I find it somewhat comical because usually they’re much shorter than me and bounce off. Now, imagine the same situation (sidewalk is the key word), and someone trying to get between us with a cart, motorbike, stroller, or car. Yes. A car. This happens frequently each time we venture out onto the streets, and it’s my number one gripe.
2. If I’m trying to speak your language, don’t laugh in my face. Seriously. When we first moved to Korea I really wanted to learn Korean and pick up a language and blah blah blah. Was my pronunciation perfect? No. For example, I asked where the rice was in the grocery store one day. Easy enough, I mean I think that’s a sentence of about three words. The lady at the store looked at me as if an anaconda was wriggling out of my butt. When she figured out what I was saying she laughed out loud. That was the day I quit trying to learn the language, as it was painfully obvious that even if I knew it I couldn’t use it in a conversation (because the thought of a big goofy tall American speaking Korean is…hilarious?).
3. Don’t try to practice your English with me unless you’re really being friendly. Seriously. How often in your life do you have this conversation? “Hello. How are you? I’m fine-thank-you-and-you? *giggle*” This isn’t a meaningful attempt at communication. Neither is letting your 10 year old yell “hello” at me from 50 meters away uncontrollably. Actually that’s bad, because it draws attention to me and I don’t like that. Don’t be surprised if I turn around and glare at you. If you want to talk to me, fine. I’m cool with that, but let’s make it something interesting that I don’t hear a thousand times a day.
4. I realize that I’m good looking and all (ha), but don’t look at me that long. And please don’t even think about taking a picture of me with your phone. That’s creepy. This is usually older people, usually on the subway. They stare, mouth agape, as if I’m another species. This happens a lot in the bathroom too. At the urinal. And they’re not looking at my face. Jeez.
5. Texting/facebooking/watching TV on your gigantic smart phone while walking. This causes lots of collisions. Collisions betwixt humans. Collisions between humans and bicycles. Bicycles and street signs. Humans and old ladies pulling carts of cardboard. All sorts of collisions.
6. The social acceptability of not using earbuds. Want to hear some music on your hike? I mean, the sounds of nature are too much for you, right? Might as well just blast it out of your phone or boombox so that everyone can enjoy it together! Why stay home to watch a baseball game on your TV when you can watch it on your phone in a beautiful alpine forest? See what I’m getting at? You can’t escape the hustle and bustle of the city in the countryside, because invariably someone will be watching their stories or listening to some really great music on their phone. Meh.
7.The supreme overarching fear of causing confrontation that keeps public settings pretty drama-free. I told you this would come back. Have you ever made that call to a customer service line, and realized the person on the other end was having a terrible day where they’ve been yelled at a lot, probably called a liar, and verbally beaten into a bag of broken jelly beans and shattered dreams? Shoot, I’ve been that guy. That’s when they’ll put you on hold to try and get your problem resolved without talking to you because they’re afraid that you will also yell at them. Well, Korea is like that all the time. Trying to buy the stickers for your compost bin? Wait please while we find someone that speaks English, they’re on their lunch break so just stand here for the next twenty seven minutes. BUT I ASKED IN KOREAN. See what I’m saying?
8. The nationalism grates on me as if I’m a block of cheddar. Typically, I don’t have any problem with someone being proud of their country. I do roll my eyes when you tell me I should have purchased a Samsung camera instead of the Canon one around my neck. I mean, c’mon.
We were at the Sejong museum thing in Seoul yesterday, and the way the translation of the exhibit said King Sejong invented: the sun-dial, the astronomical calendar, the telescope, and a plethora of other things that were invented much earlier in China, Rome, and Greece. I mean. For real?
9. Look, your history with Japan is ugly and all, but I’m not Korean and you’re not going to convince me that Japan is “bad.” I know what the Empire of Japan did here during their occupation. I know that they are claiming ownership of two rocks (with good fishing and potential energy resources) that you’ve had two police officers settled on for years. The fact of the matter is, this isn’t my issue on which to have an opinion, and it makes me uncomfortable to talk about it with you. Here’s a sample conversation I had with a student recently:
Primate: Do you like Japanese or Korean ramen better?
Student: Korean ramen, because I hate Japan.
Primate: Do you hate it because it’s not as spicy?
Student: I hate Japan because Japan is bad.
Primate: Have you been to Japan?
Primate: I know history with Japan is ugly, but you should go meet the people. They are very friendly and nice now.
For the record, I think Japanese ramen is far superior. The Japanese do seasonings like Van Gogh did fine art, ya know? The Koreans go all Jackson Pollock with the red pepper flakes.
10. What the heck is with the pickles? I understand the traditional Korean pickling of stuff, in fact it’s one of the cool things about the cuisine. I don’t understand all of the sweet pickles served with everything though. Order a pizza? Pickles. Go to an Italian place? Pickles. I’d like to point out that they’re always sweet pickles too. I’d be way more open to the idea if they were dill pickles, I guess. Nevermind, this might be a blessing in disguise because I’ve often chopped those pickles later and added them to tuna salad for lunch.