Kade kneels next to a stream formed by the San Francisco Glacier, about two hours outside Santiago, Chile.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Expat Observations

A former colleague of mine in Bangkok - an American from Upstate New York who became a good friend during my stint in the city of Angels - left Thailand for South Korea, before eventually deciding that Thailand was the place for him all along.  He always e-mailed out the most interesting newsletters.  This one about Korea is a great example.

Apr 22, 2005

Dear Friends:
 
I thought I’d write again with more impressions about Korea now that I’ve been here going-on 2 months.  Since I’m on the outside looking in, a certain amount of gross generalizations, stereotyping or even outright lies are possible, but anyway here are some of my impressions so far…
 
It’s easy to like Koreans, but not easy to like Korea, some say, and I am finding that to be true.  There is, first, the sheer busyness and hustle and bustle of Seoul (it is of course somewhat different in the countryside); everyone here seems to be running, oftentimes bumping into unsuspecting passersby.  In stark contrast to Thailand where I was often stared at (in a mostly friendly way, in contrast to India where the stares seem somehow sinister at times), here in Korea I feel almost invisible the way people push into me or past me or bump into me or elbow me in the gut getting onto the subway.  I have finally started to push back, and what a cathartic release it has been (elbowing that rude grandma right between the shoulder blades was somehow immensely satisfying!) 
 
And the subway…although those little chirping bird sounds piped over the loudspeakers on trains have not grown old (they are, in fact, still cute as pie), packing into trains like cattle has grown very old indeed, not to mention the smell…..every culture has its distinct smell (this is one of the least discussed aspects of international travel, perhaps out of some innate human instinct to be decorous) but in Thailand it is fish sauce on people’s breath, in India the cornucopic blending of spices, and here it is the smell of kimchi, the spicy radishy pickled cabbage that is the national dish.  The stench of it oozes out of people’s pores- at times it is almost vomit-inducing for someone not used to it- and it will only get worse in the summer heat when people really sweat.  If you want to challenge yourself, try to imagine what sort of  body odor a Korean might smell when he or she comes to the USA .

Then there is the spitting.  I would go so far as to say it is a cultural phenomenon, not simply isolated events (and this has been confirmed by all the Koreans I’ve been comfortable enough with to speak to about it), but everyone here, especially the men- but also the women- hawk up huge loogies and spit t them all over the sidewalks, on the subway stairs, even on subway trains.  More than once I’ve looked at someone attractive only to have them drool spittle down their chins or spit at my feet.  Americans have some pretty gross habits, but an entire nation of spitting people pretty much takes first prize in the “Just How Repulsive Can People Be” competition.

Koreans work long hours and become identified with their companies in an almost filial way, though not perhaps quite to the extreme of many Japanese.  Partly because of the hard work week, it is a national pastime to binge drink on weekends.  Drinking almost to the point of stupor is expected.  I am living in a neighborhood called Nakseongdae, which means Place of Falling Stars, and though I haven’t seen any falling stars yet, I have seen my fair share of falling men; never in fact have I seen so many drunk people flailing their hands and muttering to themselves staggering aimlessly down the city streets.  Drinking also lubricates all business relationships here; it is not uncommon to bring clients out drinking seoju (the Korean national drink, a rice liquor that tastes, I imagine, not unlike turpentine) until 3AM.

The expectations regarding education here are what we in America might consider extreme.  It is not that unusual for an elementary school student (not to mention middle school and high school students) to attend school, then go to a private educational institute to brush up on math or science or English until late evening (these private institutes exist in their hundreds in Seoul), go home and study until 2AM or so before sleeping 4 hours only to get up to do it all again.  Somehow I just can’t see an American student keeping such a schedule! 

Perhaps also partly due to the excessive (in my eyes anyway) demands made by work and education, along with the temperate climate (think New York winters), public saunas exist in every neighborhood.  One walks in, undresses, and wanders naked between pools of hot water or steaming rooms and resting areas; being often the only white guy in the joint secures me my fair share of ogling eyes, but luckily I’m not bashful.

On the subject of ogling eyes, Seoul is perhaps the least “cruisy” city I have ever been to; there is almost no eye contact, and the sensuality literally in the air in Thailand and the electric buzz of knowing looks and nodding glances in places like New York City or San Francisco is almost completely lacking here. As well Seoul must be one of the most heteronormative cities (to use the new term coming out of Harvard these days) in the world.  Although I sense no overt homophobia, there is no out gay scene- in general being gay is considered a psychological illness, it is rarely discussed, and the few celebrities who have come out have been fired and ostracized.  I have seen not a single gay couple in my 2 months here.  That said, attitudes are changing: most of my students have adopted a live and let live attitude if still professing a certain bewilderment about gay identity, and a greater number of younger men (I suspect the same is not necessarily true for women, unfortunately) are, if not coming out, at least beginning to feel it possible.

Though extremely heteronormative, Korea is extremely homogeneous.  There is one dominant ethnic group, and very few foreigners.  Consider that fully 60% of the population has one of only three surnames: Kim, Park or Lee.  This at least makes names somewhat easier to remember!   

A few other random observations: heat is distributed through a floor system called ondol; this makes every floor warm…even in winter one can walk around barefoot, and a great deal of sleeping is done on a simple mat laid on the floor. The number 4 is unlucky here because its pronunciation in Korean is very much like the word for “death.”  So, you will never see a 4th or 14th floor in any building in Korea : you go right from the 3rd to the 5th.  Much to my dismay, fur is very popular here, especially for decorative trim on jackets.  Koreans are in general much bigger-bodied, stockier and taller than Thais, a direct genetic result of colder northern climes?  Christianity has made more inroads here than in any other Asian country; there are a great number of holy rollers about, distributing Christian literature, singing “Amazing Grace” at the top of their lungs in subway stations, or intoning “Jesus loves you,” as you pass.  Each year in Spring a “yellow dust” descends on the country, thanks to rapid desertification in China ; we are in the midst of such a storm now.  The food is wonderful- if very meat-based- though in my admittedly limited experience I do not find it half as diverse or delicious as Thai food.  [By the way, as per rumor dog is indeed eaten here, though it is neither advertised nor easy to find; it is also quite expensive.  Most Koreans, particularly the young, do not eat dog.  Dog meat is thought to increase male virility, among other purported health benefits-- why oh why is so much of the world ruled by male virility?  Even our weapons- missiles, bullets, spears, clubs- are all shaped like penises!  Can we imagine a 20 megaton placenta?-- On a recent trip to the countryside we stayed at a farmhouse where a litter of pups was being raised for food.  While the more outraged among us tried and failed to buy one of the dogs, it struck me that a similar outrage rarely exists about the eating of pigs, cows, lambs, chickens, and other animals who with only an assigned name and some care might be thought of as every bit as much a pet as dogs…not to thrust any apologetic for vegetarianism upon you!]

Compared to Thailand, for me Korea pales.  While the entire Thai approach to life might be summed up in the words sanuk (fun) and sabai (take it as it comes), producing a somewhat laid-back and certainly fun-loving society that to an American sensibility might be either incredibly refreshing or horribly lazy (I find it extremely refreshing!), the Korean approach, based as it is in Confucian ideals and its concomitant social hierarchies, is much more staid, at least on the surface.  While Thailand is spicy, exotic, and might be exemplified by the famous Thai smile, Korea is much more businesslike and might be exemplified by…well, Hyundai.  Scratch the surface of course, and Thailand reveals its uglier faces- extreme poverty, pollution, the second-class treatment of women in Thai Buddhism, domestic violence, drug addiction- the panoply of problems facing any society- and Korea reveals its more amenable faces- a young man listening to an iPod giving up his seat on the subway to an elderly man, the cherry blossoms, the gray-clad Buddhist monks, the tofu and vegetables bubbling in a steaming clay pot.  Still, I don’t see myself remaining here much longer- walking lemming-like up the subway stairs in the midst of a swarm of business suits is about as far from what I consider health as possible- but for me Korea has been and remains, if a somewhat difficult nut to crack, at least a fascinating place to once again open my eyes to, if not my heart.    

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