It’s been eight months since I first touched down in South Korea in February. Living in an Asian country will give a Westerner a few rude awakenings – pun intended (see #2). Here is a list of my first impressions of Korea.
1. The Mountains. I live in Daegu, the third largest metropolitan city of South Korea. Daegu is surrounded by mountains, and almost anywhere you go in the city there’s a gorgeous view of those natural, majestic mounds of earth stretching towards heaven. Daegu, formally known as Taegu, literally means “large hills,” according to Colorful Daegu’s website.
2. Koreans are Rude. Koreans do not speak to, make intentional eye contact with, or hold doors open for people they do not know. This can make them seem cold or unfriendly. They also push and shove their way through you, and will nonchalantly step right in front of you while waiting in (practically any) line, if there is enough room for them to fit. To an American, and some other Westerners, this may be considered rude. Scratch that– it most definitely is rude, in my opinion. I’m still getting used to it eight months later. But, I learn quickly, and by the end of March, I was shoving and side-stepping along with the locals. I have concluded that this is an every-man-woman-for-themselves type of culture. Get in where you fit in, or get left behind. Nevertheless, this way of ‘getting by’ is not to be taken personally, and if one was to respond negatively by yelling obscenities or pushing back, Koreans might look at you as if you’ve offended them, or as if they have no idea what your problem is. So although they may seem rude, it would be a bad idea to return the gesture.
3. OK, OK. Koreans Aren’t (that) Rude. Or, rather, they make up for it in other ways. Koreans are usually very helpful to foreigners. Other Koreans will tell you, however, Koreans are not so helpful to each other. This is because they know how hard it is for foreigners adapting to a country that is homogeneous, and where you don’t speak the language. In these ways, Koreans are kind and helpful. Our trainers during the EPIK orientation told us to smile while out and about. I guess this lets them know we, the foreigners, are also kind – and not all drunken, violent, gun-toting trouble-makers. Yes, this is the negative image of foreigners in South Korea.
4. It Gets Thick in the ROK. The Republic of Korea (ROK), as South Korea is
officially known, is a small country (38,000 square miles), just slightly smaller than my home state, Wisconsin (65,000 square miles), yet Korea has about 45 million more people than the cheese state. Daegu is actually a comfortably populated city, whereas Seoul (the capitol) can get a little beastly. In Seoul, there are people everywhere, all the time. The subways there are packed, yet run like well oiled machines with few incidents of theft, sexual harassment or other crimes (that I’m aware of, and it seems Travel.State.Gov agrees). When using public transportation in Daegu, the crowdedness becomes clearer. Buses are built with seats, but more so to accommodate standing room during busy times of the day. Folks are so used to standing that when a seat does become available, some opt out of resting their feet and continue to stand. Well, not I, said the lazy American! (*Disclaimer: The notion that Americans are lazy is a false statement and stereotype that I have chosen to abuse and misuse for a cheap laugh. *head down in shame*) If you do choose to sit during these busy times of day, be prepared for crotch-in-the-face. You heard right. I told you it gets thick. People will be bumper to bumper on buses and subways: holding big bags with pointy edges; talking and giggling annoyingly with their friends; giving you undesired skin-on-skin contact; and, once again, pushing and shoving, which leads me to my next observation…
5. Personal Space? Faggidabahdit. New York is probably the first place Americans immediately think of when speaking about crowded cities. Ironically, I cannot recall having my personal space invaded as much as I have since I’ve been here in Korea. On the bus. On the streets. In the teacher’s office. At restaurants. Pretty much wherever you go, your personal space is not your own. It’s difficult trying to understand how one can stand so close to another person you can feel their body heat, and yet, the thought of, “I’m too close” doesn’t occur them. Even when there’s plenty of space… but it happens all the time in the ROK. Sometimes, I remain standing there, burning a hole in the back of the perpetrator’s head waiting for him to feel my flaming indignation for his personal-space invasion… but my disapproval goes unnoticed, and he continues standing, clueless and careless.
6. Their Eyes Were Watching Kenya. They stare… a lot! I don’t believe I’m stared at as much as some foreign teachers, but their eyes definitely linger. They try to inspect you as thoroughly as possible before you pass out of view. And remember, they don’t speak to strangers, so don’t expect them to say “hello” while passing as they swallow you whole with their eyeballs. It’s also not a good idea to react. Bulging your eyes back and cocking your head to the side at them in a suggestive way that asks, “what are you looking at?” could come off as rude, and, quite frankly, is pointless because it won’t break their stare. Remember, you’re in a homogeneous society where the majority of the people the locals encounter look like them. Sooner or later, as frustrating as it may be, you will have to accept that you are like a mythical creature they’ve stumbled upon in the wild: they heard you existed, but could not believe their eyes when seeing it – you – for themselves.
7. Konglish is a Way of Life. You speak the language from your country, and couldn’t, or simply didn’t, learn the language before coming to Korea, right? Well, while English is the country’s official second language, you will find very few Koreans who speak conversational English. Those who speak it fluently are rare – in my encounters of meeting people by happenstance or out and about. Therefore, being misunderstood becomes a way of life, and so does speaking in one-word sentences, drawing pictures (you know, of a cow when you are trying ask if the meat is pork or beef), and making elaborate hand gestures… and, sometimes, you still don’t get your point across. I’ve noticed that many of the other Korean English teachers at my school really only understand me to an extent, and because I don’t speak Korean, simple questions or statements are often delayed with repetition, rephrasing and tangents caused by mispronunciations that eventually do a 360 back to the original conversation. So have your translator set and saved to your smart phones.
8. Because EVERYBODY has Smart Phones. South Korea boasts about its advanced technology. With leading Korean technology companies like Samsung and LG, I guess they have earned that right. I’ve seen anyone from elementary school students to elders attached to their smart phones – not just cell phones. Their busy watching movies, talking or texting. And yes, generally, the phones are the size of a small note pad. Wi-Fi is just about everywhere in Korea, even in the rural areas. More than 20 million people in Korea, about 40 percent of the population, are wireless subscribers according to Techno Buffalo.
As more memories of taking in Korea from my first month here comes bubbling to the surface, I could go on about my discoveries, but I won’t. Korea has proven to be a modern society full of as many pleasant surprises as baffling nuances. All in all, the culture shock wasn’t as shocking as I had braced myself for it to be.