It’s been nearly 13 months since we arrived in Korea. I can use chopsticks like a pro (or at least a semi-pro) and kimchi is just another side dish. It’s funny the things you get used to without noticing it.
Traditionally, Koreans don’t wave. They bow. This was not comfortable for me. To see what I mean, try this experiment.
Go to Wal-Mart.
Wait for the greeter to say hello.
Give him a little bow. Your upper body should be at a 45 degree incline from your waist.
I bow at everyone now.
Kids, teachers, neighbors, the shriveled old security guard outside the apartment, the dog that’s chained up next to the restaurant down the road, the cardboard cutout at the train station that looks like a person…you get the idea.
The bow works in two ways: it allows you to show respect to receiver of the bow (the bowee) and it’s a way of showing respect to Korean culture. If you do something often enough, it becomes second nature. The problem is that you can’t stop it.
Like when we went to China and kept bowing at strangers.
“You don’t have to do that here,” my friend said. “Really. You can stop.”
But I couldn’t stop. I’m a bower now.
Literally translated as ‘shit needle,’ the ddong chim is administered to unsuspecting children and adults alike. You don’t have to use your hands; anything long and sharp will do. I was shocked to hear about this little joke when I first got to Korea, but now it’s old news.
Bend over, and some kid will poke you in the butthole. Bet you won’t make that mistake twice.
During the morning break, the 6th graders come into the English room and beat the shit out of each other. We’re talking bruise-inducing punches, ear flicks, headlocks, and full-on WWF wrestling.
My co-teacher, Mrs. G, sits quietly in a bubble at her desk, grading tests.
They get so riled up that a) they sweat and it smells gross, and b) they can’t calm down for class.
The punching usually continues during the class period.
Mrs. G: Won-seop, stand up please. Read the dialogue.
Kid that sits in front of Won-seop: Ha ha ha Won-seop. Throws eraser at Won-seop.
Won-seop: Punches kid vehemently until he cowers in fear and pain.
Mrs. G: Waits placidly for Won-seop to be ready. Won-seop! Shi-jak (‘Start.’ She always says this in Korean, even though she knows how to say ‘start’ in English.)
Won-seop: TomorrowmymotherbirthdayIwanttosingforherandcookforhertoo. Sits down abruptly. Punches kid once more.
Mrs. G gets in on the action, too. She routinely flicks kids on the forehead when they don’t do their homework. It’s so normal that now I do it too. Usually my abuse is restricted to light taps or whacks with a folder, but today I got angry at a kid and tried to write on his head with chalk. It didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but it sure caught him off guard.
Next time I’ll use a pen.
Lack of Logic
Jared’s co-teacher tried to convince him that we should go to an overnight conference on a Friday. The conference was geared towards maximizing after-school programs, so that parents could save money by not sending their kids to private academies. The school board was strongly suggesting that all teachers attend.
The conference was in Korean.
I have a money-saving suggestion for the Gangwon-do Province of Education: don’t send your foreign English teachers to conferences they won’t understand.
We didn’t go.
Stuff like this happens all the time in Korea. I used to get worked up about it, but what can you do?
Nothing. Shrug your shoulders and move on.
There is a ceremony for everything. Usually there are banners, speeches, and certificates given out. Ceremonies aren’t limited to school events, but that’s where I see most of them. The biggest ceremony of all is the annual Sports Day.
The kids practice for weeks so they can do this in front of parents, teachers and local politicians:
I thought it was the most bizarre thing when we started teaching last year. This year, I just filmed the poor kids bouncing around and laughed like everyone else there.
The Yeogiyo Button
If you want something in a Korean restaurant, you have to call the waiter over to your table. A loud ‘yeogiyo!’ (over here!) will usually suffice, but most restaurants have something better – the yeogiyo button. It’s a plastic button built into the end of your table. Push it and a bell rings, summoning your waiter. It’s just like having a personal servant, which feels kind of awkward if you’re like me and couldn’t even get your sister to bring you more toilet paper when you were waiting in the bathroom.
At first, I was hesitant to use it.
Well, I could use some more water because this dalkgalbi is so hot the skin is peeling off my throat, but I’ll just wait and see if she comes back.
Now I push the button like a power-hungry sheik.
I can’t find the napkins. Yeogiyo!
I want more lettuce. Yeogiyo!
I dropped my chopstick. Yeogiyo!
Off With Your…Shoes?
When I was growing up, we wore our shoes in the house. I’d take them off if they were dirty or dripping with snow, but otherwise – straight across the carpet and up the stairs.
In Korea, you take off your shoes as soon as you enter a house, school, restaurant, or fitting room. Walking through the house with shoes on is like going into someone’s home and slinging handfuls of mud onto their furniture.
It’s just not done.
Instead, you enter a building, put your shoes in a special cupboard or shelf, and put on rubber sandals/slippers instead.
I saw this practice as a hassle when I first got to Korea, especially when I was wearing boots or shoes with laces. I also saw it as pointless, because the kids at school wear their slippers on the playground and in the school.
It pisses Jared off because of how ridiculous everyone looks wearing slippers and suits. It also pisses him off because someone just stole his slippers at school and now he can’t find them.
Now I just take off my shoes and get on with my business.
At the very least, my shoes will last longer. A real bonus in a country that doesn’t stock US size 10 in most shops.
When I’m feeling especially foreign or out of place in Korea, I have to remind myself of how much I’ve already gotten accustomed to. It makes it easier to deal with the things that I’ll never get used to, like bony fish Mondays in the school cafeteria. Even a semi-pro struggles to remove a spinal column with chopsticks.