9 Observations After 6 Days in Korea

Michael: I want to tell you everything if… if you’re willing to listen.
Rita: I’m a very good listener.
Michael: Great. Start with the misdemeanors and then, we’re gonna push right on through to the lighter treasons. So, 1983…

Instant coffee.

Everywhere. All the time. Only thing. Coffee snob. Dying inside.

If a café is boasting about their coffee, it’ll be advertised as “drip coffee.” In reference to this. Not this.

Tantalizing.

Not a lot of shoulder-showing

from the female population. I don’t know if it’s a conservative culture, but I do know one thing – it’s fucking hot. Those tank tops took up valuable space in my suitcase (as all space in my suitcase was valuable), and you better believe I’m going to use them.

No one wears sunglasses.

In case you were wondering, it is very sunny here – when it’s not raining. Which brings me to my next observation…

Adults do not wear rain boots.

Did you know I made it to Korea just in time for a typhoon to hit? Probably not. It was a very lack-luster performance anyway, so you guys in the states didn’t miss any enormous world news. Just heavy wind and rain. And silly me, thinking that called for rain boots. Apparently, I’m in the minority and typhoons do not necessitate any kind of water-resistant footwear. It turns out heels and strappy sandals are not only the standard for commuting all over the city, but also in typhoons. However…

Koreans do love their umbrellas.

By Day 4 in Korea (Friday) I had accumulated 3 umbrellas. I didn’t pay for one of them. This is real life. And I have a feeling it’s not just because of the typhoon. This trend is one where if it begins to even sprinkle, everyone on the street puts up an umbrella. And by “everyone,” I don’t mean 10 or so people. I mean 97% of the people on the street whip out their glock-umbrella in some masterful, simultaneous maneuver of untying the safety to let that baby fly in 2 seconds flat.

They even like umbrellas in the sun.

Sunshine is not for Koreans. I have been told freckles are considered dirty. Whitening creams are a huge industry.

You know what that means? No one’s going to fight me for the sunny bench in the park. With this sun-loving face and these bronzed shoulders I’m acquiring through illicit tank tops, I’m really going to stick out. But really, people are staring anyway, because…

People are not used to foreigners.

And I’m in Seoul. Half of the country lives in the Seoul metro area. Can you imagine what it’s like for a foreigner in a small town? People hold their gaze a second or two longer than a glance would be; just long enough for a glance to no longer be subtle. Children and older adults are the worst culprits – the two population groups whose behavior is most easily forgiven in these matters, damnit. Today I just embraced it and wore a long, bright tie-dye dress while walking around the city to Seokchon Lake. It is worth noting, however, that even though people are staring, it’s not necessarily negative, as…

I have never been more beautiful than when in South Korea.

That’s almost a direct quote from a trainer in my company (except he’s male). “Yeah right” I thought, as I fretted about the ratio of instant coffee to the water in my cup.

Well, joke’s on me. I thought I was leaving the United States to get away from a culture that was image-obsessed. Wrong, so wrong. They have weights and aerobic machines in the parks. Making comments about someone’s image is not considered rude (gained/lost weight, acne, freckles, etc.), but rather mere observations. Thoughts and musings, about another person’s appearance, that are said out loud. To their face. As luck would have it, it seems foreigners are semi-automatically placed on the positive side of the appearance scale. I have already been called beautiful, pretty, tall, “like a model,” and compared to some actress.

I mean listen I might never leave.

Either people are wifed up or are loners.

Exaggeration? Absolutely. This last observation is more pondering than tacit observation skills. I’m going to address this two-fold: in regard to expats and Koreans. For the record, not claiming these observations to be correct. They’re generalizations, for sure (and pushing right through to the lighter treasons…).

Expat

In my limited time here, I’ve found that a lot of expats are either seriously with someone or are very comfortable doing their own thing. Almost married or really, crazy and fully into a hobby or activity. Is this a feature that’s unique to the expat community in Korea? In Asia? Compared to the rest of the world? Or maybe I’ve only been here 6 days and there’s a lot more to be said than polarizations.

…or maybe I need to pick up a hobby.

Korean

How old are you and do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend are a couple of the first questions asked by Koreans when meeting someone new. The age thing is easy enough to decipher: age is a massive sign of respect, a generalization I think most Westerners hold about Asia. (i.e., no one eats at a Korean table until the eldest does. If someone your elder pours a drink it is rude to not accept, but you must turn away or cover your glass from the elder as you drink it.).

But the relationship question? Not as translucent a cultural reference. At first, it almost seemed suggestive – as if not having a significant other means you’re doing life very, very wrong. And for someone like me – well, you can imagine holding back an indignant response.

I think a lot can be said about a society by way of their approach to food. For Koreans, eating isn’t really ever a solitary activity; you almost always eat with family or friends. Koreans live with their families until they’re married. That means they eat with their families until they’re married. That means the 25+ crowd you see out at bars and clubs is going home to their parents at the end of the night (apparently this is why a lot of young Korean women go home around 2am). This past week, I was told that to be 30 and unmarried is the worst thing that could happen to a Korean.

Let’s forget about finances and cultural expectations for a hot second – can you imagine having to continually answer to your parents for everything you do well into your late 20s? Going out, the time you get home, where you ate, who with…

In such a context, it’s not as evasive or intrusive a question as a loner (read: someone who left the U.S. to start over on the other side of the world) might first assume.

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