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A Canadian in Korea.
April 6, 2001.
Hi! It's John here trying to find interesting items to write about like Mike did. It's not easy -- I have lots of ideas, but I am not really a writer, and for Craig and I to produce something new every week is just too time-consuming a task to take on considering our existing commitments. However, with a little help from friends and a monthly schedule, we think we can do it. Our writer this month has become a solid supporter of FactsCanada.ca and has contributed to our newsletters several times already. Cathy currently resides and teaches English in Seoul, South Korea, although she seems to get to most parts of the planet if you lose track of her for a moment, and has a Web site just full of information about her travels and life as a Canadian living overseas. She has kindly allowed us to republish two articles from her site, and we present them to you below. I encourage you to view the rest of her site by seeing today's resources link at the bottom of the page. Be prepared to stay a while.
A Canadian in Korea
By Cathy Bates
What I Don't Like About Korea
No country is perfect, but there are a few things about Korea I don't like and will not miss when I leave. Sure, there are things I don't like about Canada, but some things that happen here rarely do in Canada. Most of these experiences are cultural, so we don't have much exposure to them at home and they can be frustrating when encountered here.
PUSHING, SHOVING, RUDENESS: Without a doubt, this is one of the things that bothers me most about Korea. I understand it is mostly due to overpopulation, however, I have to wonder where common sense and manners come into the picture.
It is a common occurrence for a Korean to butt into line, to barge into an elevator, bus or subway before you have a chance to get off. I frequently come face to face with a Korean when getting off an elevator who literally bumps into me as I try to exit. What is even more annoying is when several Koreans are waiting for the elevator and they're all in a line not moving, leaving no room for anyone to get off. A condescending "Excuse me" seems to do the trick.
This lack of movement or consideration for other people stems from a cultural belief that if someone is not part of their circle of family or friends, then you do not exist. Their actions prove that point. It's as if they don't see you when they try to get on buses, subways or elevators. Although it is part of their culture and the fact this country is grossly overpopulated, foreigners frequently have the same complaint and just view it as rudeness plain and simple. However, it is not considered rude to Koreans.
Recently, as I waited for the bus, I noticed two Koreans bump into each other. Neither acknowledged it. The "bumper" did not apologize and the "bumpee" did not seem to mind. In fact, I don't think he even noticed! I guess they tolerate it whereas it is frustrating for a foreigner. I have to remember that and consider that to a Korean it's no big deal. It may bother me, but it is perfectly normal and acceptable to them. Remembering that will hopefully help me and other foreigners realize it is not intentional.
Another thing I find absolutely annoying is going up and down the stairs in the subway stations. Many of the subway stations in downtown Seoul are huge and thousands of people are trying to get on and off platforms at the same time. In Calgary LRT stations people go up the stairs on one side and down the other to give room to everyone going up and down. Not so in Korea. There have been numerous times where I have tried to go down when thousands of Koreans are going up. No-one ever moves over to make room for someone to get down. This not only happens when there is a large crowd, but when there are just a few people as well. It's just plain annoying. There is an inherent lack of consideration for other people in this country where the "cultural" or "overpopulation" excuse does not wash with me. It's rude.
I know Korea is not Calgary and I'm in a totally different world, so this helps me to understand why Asians living in Canada and other Western countries come across as pushy. It's because that's the way it is in their country.
TREATMENT OF WOMEN: I suppose this should be my number-one annoyance about this country, because the way that women are viewed and treated is so damn archaic. I try to remember their culture and history is the reason for it, however, in my opinion, there's no excuse.
Women are treated as servants to their husbands and parents-in-law, especially if married to the eldest son. It is unthinkable for a man to change diapers, to cook, clean or care for the children.
When a woman gives birth, she is "blamed" if she does not give birth to a son. The pressure to have a son in this country is so great, and women are denigrated if they don't. What is ignored is that it is actually the man that determines the sex of the child, *and* that women are needed in order to procreate. They conveniently forget that without women, babies would not be born.
It is a woman's job to care for the children. The husband is viewed as the breadwinner and relaxes when he gets home from work. His workday is done when he walks in the door, while she still has many hours to go. Her job is 24 hours, his about ten.
Divorce in this country is viewed very negatively. It's fine for a man to be divorced. However, a divorced woman is viewed as "loose" and "easy". A divorced woman is a more likely target of sexual harassment by a Korean man. This is not a stereotype or generalization. I have seen it first-hand.
CRUELTY TO ANIMALS: Anyone who knows me knows that I am an animal lover and have a soft heart when it comes to lost or injured animals. The fact that dog meat is viewed as a delicacy here turns my stomach. Dogs for eating are bred, raised and butchered on special farms. The breed raised is a dog native to Korea that I am told resembles a Doberman in size. Little poodles or any other type of dogs are not bred for eating purposes.
What makes me downright sick is how dogs are killed for their meat. When a dog is raised to be a meal, the method used to kill them is so inhumane that I am having a hard time thinking about it as I type this. Dogs are hanged in a way that they do not die instantly. Instead they die a very long and painful death. Koreans believe a slow death will provide better quality and more tender dog meat. While hanging and dying very slowly, the dog's fur is torched as it is thought to speed up the butchering process once the dog is dead.
That's all I can write. I think you get the message.
DRIVERS: Drivers are maniacs whether they drive a car, cab, bus or motorcycle. My life is in jeopardy anytime I attempt to cross the street. Motorists frequently ignore pedestrian walk signals and continue to barrel through an intersection against the light. I am in the habit of slowly proceeding into the intersection, hesitating until I see all cars stopping and that they have seen me. I don't understand why they're such terrible and impatient drivers.
Those with motorcycles frequently ride on the sidewalks with no consideration for those walking on them. On several occasions I have witnessed a motorcyclist driving and taking corners on a sidewalk so fast that no one would have a chance if they were hit. I don't understand the mentality. Bus and cab drivers are not any different. In fact, they are most lethal on the roads. A cab ride home from Seoul one night at speeds up to 150 kilometres per hour sticks in my memory. As an aside, many cabs disable seat belts in the back seat for reasons unbeknownst to me.
The boss of a friend of mine killed a young boy turning a corner. The boy, aged six, crossed the road on a walk light. The driver, who I am told is a very impatient driver, ignored the walk light and slammed into the boy. He eventually died in hospital. What causes me great wonder is if anyone kills someone in a car accident, whether it is their fault or not, they are almost immediately taken to jail and are required to pay the family financial damages. My friend's boss has gone to jail for several months and has to pay money to the family. There's no court, no trial, no legal technicalities to get someone off the charges. If you kill someone while driving, you are guilty and must pay the consequences. This is something I actually like about Korea -- I wish our legal system would learn something from it.
Given the consequences for injuring or killing someone while driving, I don't understand why Koreans are so dangerous on the road.
POLLUTION: Smog fills the sky in Korea -- at least, in my location it does. I'm told other areas of the country have much cleaner air. There have been days where the air is so hazy, I can't see the building across the road from my apartment window. This is no exaggeration. Foreigners especially are more prone to respiratory problems while in Korea. Although there is not a specific odour, I noticed a considerable difference in air quality when I was in Australia. It was a "breath of fresh air" (pun intended) to breathe clean air. The pollution coupled with summer humidity makes the air feel very heavy.
What I Like About Korea
Believe it or not, there are more things I like about Korea than there are that I dislike. I can honestly say that. Sure, adjusting to a culture and lifestyle completely foreign to what I have ever known is difficult, but it is also enlightening to see and experience how people live in another part of the world.
KIMCHI (also known as fermented cabbage): Yes, you read right. Nothing is more Korean than Kimchi. Well... except for Koreans. Kimchi is to Korea what refried beans are to Mexico. It is served with everything: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Although I don't eat it for breakfast (I just can't bring myself to do it), I eat it almost daily.
You're probably asking how anyone could eat fermented cabbage. Actually, you would think fermented cabbage would be mushy and slimy. Quite the contrary. It is crispy, like a salad with a very spicy red sauce on it. I recently read an article that claimed eating fermented vegetables is very good for digestion and overall health. I actually find myself craving it sometimes. When I leave Korea I'm sure I will visit the Korean stores in Calgary to get my fill.
KOREAN PEOPLE: I am actually listing the people on both my like and dislike lists. Overall, Korean people are very kind and accommodating. They are a product of their upbringing in an overpopulated nation with very little space. I explain that more on my list of dislikes.
The Koreans I know and with whom I have become friends are wonderful people. They really would do anything to help. From the restaurant owner to convenience-store clerks, they are always very curious about you -- especially if you frequent their establishment.
The owner of the Kalbi restaurant in my building knows me very well. I just walk in and he automatically orders "nang myeon" (1) for me. I pay for it, go back upstairs and wait for it to be delivered.
The lady at my favourite "nang myeon" restaurant knows me well too. She always remembers I like extra hot sauce and mustard with my order. I only asked once with lots of charades and pointing and I've never had to ask again.
The clerk in the convenience store downstairs, to whom I gave the English name "Mike", eagerly takes my free English lessons. At first I spoke Korean to him (well, "hello", "goodbye" and "thank-you"), but then started to speak to him in English. He knows more than he originally let on when I first moved into the building. I try to teach him something new every day and then test him the next time I go into the store. He is catching on very quickly.
Recently I went out with some foreigners I met. There was a couple and another guy from New Zealand, a guy from North Carolina, USA, a girl I work with from Indonesia and a guy from Washington State, USA. A couple of them brought Korean friends with them, so we had quite a group at the bar. We went out for food after leaving the bar -- something new I hadn't tried before. Sam, Tony and Su Jin were impressed with how I could name many Korean dishes and that I like Kimchi. We made fast friends, so much so that Sam paid our cab fare home. Like I said before, once a Korean becomes friends with you and they see you making an effort to understand their culture, they will do anything for you
QUA IL PA PINSU: This is a dessert that I had never tasted before and I don't think I have ever seen in Canada. I frequently eat it as it is light and refreshing. It is available at any cafe and, no matter where you go, it is always prepared differently. I have tried many as I attempt to find the best one. So far I have found a really good one at a cafe by my apartment. However, the guy in the morning makes it better and differently than the girls on evenings and weekends. I bet you can guess when I go to that cafe!
It is served in a big sundae dish with crushed ice on the bottom, red beans, fresh fruit and sometimes a scoop of ice cream in the middle. Some places put chewy candies in it or flavouring in the ice. Others put a few frosted cornflakes in it to give it a bit of crunch. Yet others put peach melba cookies in as a garnish. It looks huge when it is served, but the crushed ice makes it look that way. It is so awesome! Considering I don't have a super sweet tooth, it is the perfect dessert for me. In fact, I frequently have it for lunch or dinner because it is refreshing, but not too filling. The fruit and beans are healthy and a little ice cream won't hurt as it's a great way to get calcium since they don't have one percent milk here. (What they consider to be low fat milk is thick two percent to us in Canada. Too much coating for my throat!)
I introduced my North Carolina friend to it and he loved it too -- so much so that he paid for mine in appreciation of me introducing him to it.
ADJUMMAS (literally "old lady"): It is perfectly acceptable to call or refer to an elderly woman as "adjumma". We frequently see them squatting outside the subway station at their produce stands. They have a culture all their own. I call the old lady in the elevator with bow legs "adjumma" as she grins at me with her rotten teeth. She blabs to me in Korean, waves her hands and pats me on the shoulder when she leaves. I haven't a clue what she says, but it seems she's pretty happy. If I come face to face with an adjumma, I bow. That earns major brownie points since I'm living in a society where the foundation is respect for elders.
Speaking of squatting, it is common to see Koreans -- male and female -- squatting at bus stops, subway stations or outside a convenience store having a smoke. There will be a group of several men squatting in the street having a grand conversation. Maybe that's why there's so many "squat pots" (2) in this country. They all seem very comfortable and well balanced when they squat. I'm not going to try it because I don't want to even tempt myself to try it on a "squat pot"! No matter the age -- young or old -- adjummas and everyone else squat anywhere and everywhere.
Adjummas are quite funny. Even though this is a male-dominated society, some of the adjummas wear the pants in the family. They are a force to be reckoned with. That reminds me of a joke I heard: What is blinder than a bat and more dangerous than a cruise missile? An adjumma with a cell phone and an umbrella.
Let me explain. Remember when I said adjummas are a force to be reckoned with? These old ladies plough their way through subway doors, buses and busy streets with umbrella in tow and ready to use it as a weapon to get through the crowds! If I see an adjumma coming with an umbrella, I walk on the other side of the street! I will do anything to get on a adjumma's good side -- bowing, whatever it takes. I certainly don't want to be in her bad books!
RESPECT SYSTEM: I really like this one and I was so shocked when my students told me this. I was aware of the high respect shown to elders, parents and royalty in Korea. What I didn't know is that teachers are viewed in the same light. My students told me that teachers are on equal footing respect-wise as parents, elders and kings.
There's a saying here: "Never step in your teacher's shadow." I never noticed it before, but since I found out about this cultural trait, I watched for it. Lo and behold, while outside with students they deliberately did not step in my shadow.
I have always known students have a high regard for their teachers, but I never knew it was so high. I am treated very well by my students. Just recently one of my classes of housewives brought a potluck meal to class because Chusok (3) was the weekend before. They went to such great lengths, bringing home-made food for me to try and it was all great. My other class of housewives took me out for Chinese food the next week. Going out for Chinese food is a special occasion to a Korean, and Chinese restaurants here are not anything like the mom-and-pop, holes-in-the-wall at home. Especially considering I am younger than these women, they have shown me nothing but the utmost respect.
1. Nang myeon: (Wrongly spelled, but that's how it's pronounced. I only know it in Korean characters.) This is my favourite soup. It is Korean noodles with Korean chili paste, a hard-boiled egg, pear and some vegetables in a cold, slushy broth. It sounds absolutely disgusting, but it's my favourite. I like to add hot mustard to it as well. The Koreans look at me as if I'm crazy and they all say, "Hot!" I say, "I know! I know!" They are forever surprised I like spicy food. I'm also getting the hang of drinking soup straight from the bowl, although I still feel guilty when I do it.
2. Squat pot: My term for most of the toilets here. Rather than explain, see today's resources at the end of the page for a link to a picture of one. As they say, "A picture is worth a thousand words."
3. Chusok: A big Korean holiday much like our Thanksgiving, except it is to pay homage to their ancestors. It is celebrated in the middle of September. Koreans spend three days at their parents' home or the home of the family's eldest brother. Actually, that's not exactly true. They spend one full day with family and the other two travelling in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Trips that normally take three hours can take as many as 20. They eat, drink, play games and bow to ancestors' graves while the wives, mothers and daughters wait on the men hand and foot.
== PREVIEW ==
On Sunday I profile Jacques Villeneuve and Dave Barr, list the number-one hits from 1981 and the top ten albums sold in Canada in the 1980s (and go into some depth about the albums), tell you about Lake Superior Provincial Park in Ontario, give you some of the history of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and list the top ten communities in British Columbia ranked by population.
As usual, I hope that you have enjoyed what you have received from us. If you have suggestions for future Friday Features, please let me know by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org . I look forward to hearing from you.
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