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A comment on my last post, 93 hours and 13 minutes to China . . . yes, I’m counting!, has kind of sparked me up a bit to write about why I feel like I’ve got ‘cultural exhaustion’ due to my experiences in Korea.
The comment begs the question, “What does it take to adapt, survive, and thrive in Korea as a long term expat?” I think it requires several things . . .
One thing it requires is a desire to plug into the Katrix. Expats who don’t plug themselves into the Katrix don’t last past the one or two year mark.
But some ways of plugging into the Katrix are . . . well, this illustrates what I want to say.
Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?
[Takes a bite of steak]
Cypher: Ignorance is bliss.
If you don’t put on blinders and turn a blind eye to many of the things going on around you, I believe that as an expat you cannot maintain any semblance of sanity, or integrity of self, over the long term. Yet you also have to let the Katrix alter your senses, your notions of gravity and time . . . pretty much everything about your reality has to be subjugated to the Katrix.
If you don’t learn to alter your perceptions of ‘good and bad’ and other dichotomies like ‘professional and unprofessional’ you simply cannot engender enough bliss to stay over the long term.
I’ve tried to plug myself into the Katrix but all I often get is a bad case of kognitive dissonance because a lot of the time I just can’t turn off the part of my brain that says “this is WRONG” when it comes to too many of the things I’ve seen in Korea.
Sometimes the blinders are actually part of the ‘uniform’ one must put on for the job. For example, ignoring the fact that ‘nobody fails’ in teacher training programs, and not complaining about that to the administration and attempting to have ethical and professional ESL/EFL testing introduced into these programs.
All too often the blinders are not willingly put on but are forced on teachers because to speak up is to risk one’s existence in the Katrix–your plug will be pulled, and you’ll disappear forever (as in, “you’re fired”).
While some expats focus on becoming fluent in ‘Hangul’ as the best manner in which to survive and thrive within the Katrix, others look deeper into the code and attempt to work with it, manipulate it, and achieve the ability to dodge the bullets that fly when they say ‘no’ to a senior, or rather, an agent. It is not enough to learn the language and culture, and then simply follow the conventions blindly. One must learn to be an actor and not just a mindless puppet. Saying “no,” however, can be fatal . . .
In fact, some expats learn how to read the code and manipulate it to the point where they can create enough status that they can stand and face an agent.
Expats who argue other expats that are critical of Korean culture ‘don’t understand Korea’ and haven’t adjusted properly to Korean culture essentially become ‘Agent Kims’ of the Katrix (most of the time anyways).
The motivations of expats who become Korean culture apologists and defenders of the Katrix need to be considered. They have a vital interest in producing and reproducing a Katrix in which they can live and work. They have a vital interest in maintaining the power dynamics of this Katrix because it gives them status and power that they would not have in their home countries. When an expat threatens the status quo which they have embedded themselves within, or plugged themselves into, they then begin to fire ‘you don’t understand Korean culture’ rounds at those that threaten to create ruptures in the Katrix.
Imagine what would happen if all the native English instructors teaching at national universities of education and other places that train teachers were to blow the whistle on the day to day administrative and education practices they see going on, but do not speak out about because it would result in them being flushed out of the Katrix like they were nothing more than the waste product nobody wants to see or smell. The ‘taint’ of truth contaminates anyone who speaks out . . .
Imagine what would happen if native English teachers organized protests about the still commonly practiced corporal punishment that is ILLEGAL in schools and hogwans . . .
But the odds are stacked against any of this ever happening. The Katrix is a well-oiled machine, and native speakers cannot stand against the Agent Kims of schools/universities/hogwans and especially the agents of the immigration and justice variety.
I think some expats who are plugged into the Katrix are a kind of agent that has yet to be clearly seen because they maintain a high degree of tact and diplomacy all the while working within the system to try and slowly bring about an invisible revolution in the systems of the Katrix. But they know that to speak out publicly and act in a visible manner immediately triggers attacks from the Katrix itself, and so they stay quiet and work towards their silent goals all the while appearing to be harmless.
Other expats have personalities that simply deal with the stresses of the Katrix better than others. They don’t put on the blinders and plug into the Katrix bliss dream, and they do see what is going on around them clearly and know when something is simply wrong, and not something that they need to accept . . . it’s a ‘paradoxical truth’ for them in which they strongly dislike something about the Katrix and yet at the same time can coexist with it while not approving of it.
. . . .
Anyways, I think the point I’m trying to make is that I’ve never been able to completely plug into the Katrix because of my personality, and my philosophy of life and teaching.
The way I see the world, in particular the Katrix, is what makes me unique, and has enabled me to help improve different aspects of ESL/EFL education in the places I’ve worked.
At the end of my time in Korea I know I am leaving behind a small legacy that will continue to produce positive ripples and ruptures in the Katrix.
Scribblings of the Metropolitician articulates a lot of what I’m trying to say in a much more clear manner. What I’ve experienced during my time here PALES in comparison. I strongly encourage you to read his two posts.
Excerpt, “But on a few things, I won’t budge. To some people, me criticizing the mental (and formerly, physical) violence of the school system, or the ubiquitousness of prostitution, turning a blind eye to obvious and clear human rights abuses in the North, or the fact of the massive corruption that continues to eat away at Korea’s own values of equality of opportunity — makes me some kind of cultural imperialist. To me, these are either people who just don’t like me and will attack me anyway, or they assume that I haven’t thought about the fact that these values are shared by many Koreans themselves. The “right thing to do” is often clear and obvious, actually — the only thing that makes certain issues huge contestations is the fact that on one side stand people who want to do what everyone agrees is the right thing, and on the other side stand those who simply stand to use their power to exploit others.
To return to my question — what does living in an environment that forces you to make huge moral concessions do to a person — this society has huge moral and social problems that one either accepts or fights against. . . .” (my bold).
Also, “For all those who sit on the sidelines, criticize those who criticize Korean society — you all have the luxury of truly being outsiders. This is obviously the case. Because my social criticisms aren’t rooted in some abstract, America-based objection to the way things are in Korea because of the ways I think they should be in my own country — I’m not that fucking stupid. But I’ve been here long enough to see bright-eyed, eager children chewed up by the system and become the sad and cynical teachers who abused them; I’ve seen kids beaten within an inch of their lives and known of one who was literally murdered by the teachers who are supposed to love and nurture them; I’ve been forced to sit and accept a policy that would make me an accomplice in such huge corruption that I could scarcely feign moral innocence, even if I didn’t stand to get any of the money; when you’re deep enough within the system, you don’t have the luxury of choosing whether or not to take a position, or to be on one side of the fence or the other. You’re already there, and you make the choice whether you sit on your ass or standing up for what you believe in. For those who think it’s wrong to do anything, you’re deluding yourselves” (my bold).
“The entire point of that post wasn’t really to talk about whistleblowers and grand solutions to corruption; more to the point, it was about the moral/ethical slides one has to make in order to live deeply within a foreign society for an extensive amount of time.
In order to adapt somewhere, one needs to make concessions, to make compromises. I do it all the time, I have for a long time. But you also learn which of those many things one cannot change, nor can be found acceptable” (my bold).
I haven’t been blogging much over the last week or so cause Julianne and I were packing up my apartment and cleaning it, and taking taxis with the stuff I want to take with me to China, and other stuff we still had to sort through at her apartment . . . and so on and so forth.
We’re in the last stretch and the finish line is looming in terms of finally finishing up dealing with my pack rat issues. UPDATE: This is NOT normally how the apartment looks! We’re packing . . . and it’s nutbar!
Looking at all the stuff I’ve accumulated I’d have to say that I truly made Korea my home after arriving here back in March of 2005. Anyone who tries to say all native teachers just come to Korea to take take take needs to take a look at my 3,000,000won teaching library of ESL/EFL books, and all the other things I’ve spent my income on in Korea and shut their ‘cake hole’ as we used to yell at campers when I was a summer camp counselor during high school, lol.
I had been thinking about selling some of my books but I decided to ship them to China after learning that ESL/EFL books are really hard to get over there, and VERY expensive. I may sell some once I’m in China, but Julianne and I are hoping that we’ll like our new jobs and the culture enough to stay for at least two years, maybe three, so keeping these books a little longer is in line with our job plans.
After looking at shipping prices at EMS and FEDEX, I found out that the post office will ship 20kg boxes (it’s less if it’s lighter in weight) for 40,000won each surface mail (by boat). Julianne and I have sent seven boxes so far with books and things like winter clothes that we won’t need till later this fall (apparently the city we’ll be in is colder than native speakers expect).
We also took two full COSTCO bags of novels and what not to What the Book in Itaewon to sell. The original value that I paid was something like 500,000won for the pile of books I was offloading, and all I got was 150,000won in store credit (which is ONLY good for used books!), or 75,000 cash . . . yikes! I took the in-store credit, and Julianne and I grabbed some literature titles (I got a nice volume of 18th century poetry) that we’ll take with us to China to read. I know that used bookstores always give less than the seller wants, but damn . . . oh well, live and learn, eh?
While Julianne and I were in What the Book? two readers of my blog said hi to me. I’m always surprised when I’m recognized because of my blog, lol. I was actually a little ‘bashful’ about it, and laughed at myself later. We chatted for a bit, and then they went off to look at books, and Julianne and I paid for our books and left.
Later, though, we ran into the same two people at a Greek restaurant–what are the odds? Lol . . . of all the restaurants we could have chosen we chose the same one as them, wow.
After eating, Julianne went to the New Balance store to get new running shoes. I’ve read too many stories now on Chinese expat blogs about scams and rip-offs to want to go shopping for anything in China till I’ve been there for a few months and have some sense of how to avoid being punk’d. Plus, imports are more expensive in China, and it’s likely we’re getting better prices on stuff in Korea.
Alright, I’ve pretty much satisfied my urge to blog and updated nearly everything that’s been going on lately. One last story, though, about the as#ho#e taxi driver we had to deal with a couple nights ago . . .
Julianne and I were moving two suitcases, and two large bags of stuff, from my apartment to hers a couple nights ago. It was raining, and we had a hard time getting a taxi. Finally, a taxi pulls over and I open the door and begin lifting an insanely heavy suitcase full of books we hadn’t had a chance yet to sort what we’d be shipping and what we wanted to sell. I get all our stuff in the taxi, and we pull away after telling him where we want to go.
During the entire time I’m putting our stuff into the taxi (at least a minute and a half) the driver says NOTHING. But about a minute after we pull out into traffic he says in perfectly fluent English, “This is not a cargo taxi. You should have called 120 (I think) to book a cargo van.” His tone was very hostile and rude, and I could tell he was pretty peeved off at us.
Now why this yokel didn’t tell me to stop putting our stuff into his taxi and to take another taxi or to call 120 . . . I don’t know. I mean, based on the ajusshi-does-whatever-he-wants-code he could have done this and driven away.
But he didn’t do that.
Instead of getting out and helping me put our stuff into the car (it was really REALLY heavy) he just sat on his ass and watched, and said NOTHING.
Now I know I shouldn’t generalize comments about groups of people, but in Korea there is a sub-group of ajusshi that just crawl under my skin like toxic maggots every time I have any kind of interaction with them–which is far more often than I wish.
There are other sub-groups, or types if you like, of ajusshi who are awesome human beings and share behavior patterns and personality traits that rock. Julianne and I love these guys when we interact with them during taxi rides or wherever we happen to be in Korea. They make us laugh, and we always leave these interactions feeling good about Korea, the culture, and its people.
But the scumbag sub-group of ajusshi . . . they, unfortunately, have left such a bad taste in my memories of Korea that I will forever always have this nasty taint in how I see Korea and its culture and people.
I will not be able to, at least for a long time anyways, leave them out of conversations I have with others who ask me about Korea.
Getting back to the bad ajusshi taxi driver . . . I said nothing in response to his rude and hostile comment. I had PLENTY OF THINGS in my mind that I wanted to say, but I kept quiet.
When we finally turned off the main street and began driving down the tiny side streets towards Julianne’s apartment we had one last dose of rudeness from him. When I asked him to take one last turn up the side street to the apartment he stopped the car, sighed, glared at me viciously, and then made the turn.
Normally, I’d have been really angry about the whole experience due to the cultural exhaustion I’ve been fighting for the last six months or so . . . but I actually just shrugged it off. He’s the one who was damaging his mind and body with anger. He’s the one who was damaging the reputation and image of Korea with foreigners who are leaving and will talk to others outside Korea about the culture and people.
You know what? It’s no skin off my back. We got our stuff safely to Julianne’s place, and that’s what counted.
92 hours and 32 minutes to China–and goodbye Korea!
A while ago, actually, like MONTHS ago, I was thinking about culture shock and writing and ruminating on my own “culture exhaustion” (a term I created (I didn’t see it being used anywhere on Google searches about ‘culture shock’ and ‘culture fatigue’) and wrote about in this post, How do you know when it’s time to leave Korea? — Julianne and Jason are going to China, WOO!) and while surfing the Net I ended up on youtube watching all these videos made by newbie native English teachers about culture shock issues.
There’s really not a lot to say as the videos do a great job of showing a wide range of issues, and a wide range of conditions . . .
Oh, NEWBIE TEACHERS! Don’t think that what you see is what you’ll get in these videos! It’s a lottery–literally–and you might get a palatial apartment, and you might get an insect-infested-shoe-box-apartment . . . okay, that’s extreme but there is a HUGE range of conditions that you may or may not find yourself in–just come prepared to adapt to what you find yourself in.
Oh, and I’ll post a video I saw about a month or two ago of the absolutely unbelievable apartment two native teachers got that is by far the nicest and biggest and LUXURIOUS apartment I’ve ever heard of a native teacher getting in South Korea.
The Korean Shower (typical size and quality)
Culture Shock: The Telephone
Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern / Bizarre Foods – Live Soup In South Korea
My first day in Korea…horrible night before
Korea (and some Tokyo) 1/3 – Travelling Underground
Korea (and some Tokyo) 2/3 – Culture Shock
Episode 13: Fat in Korea
And now for the most luxurious apartment I’ve ever seen a native teacher get in South Korea (again, newbies, you will NOT get this kind of apartment so do NOT expect it! LOL!)
Oh yeah, I forgot that I put a list of culture shock items at the end of this post. I might revisit them in a later post and write more about each–but I think it’s pretty clear what each item is and what it’s about.
When looking for a business think VERTICALLY. Land and space are very expensive in Korea, so Koreans build vertically whereas most North Americans are used to horizontal landscapes.
School lunches . . . rice, soup, kimchi, something spicy, something spicy, and something spicy.
Collective responses from entire classes in 100% sync.
Scooters/mopeds/motorcycles on sidewalks.
Pedestrians do not have the right of way.
Bumping into people and not saying you’re sorry.
Being openly stared at for long periods of time.
‘Squatters’ aka toilets in the floor.
Toilet paper as napkins.
Personal space is defined in an entirely different way, with an entirely different set of rules.
‘Everybody’ orders the same thing in a restaurant.
‘Everybody’ shares food with each other using their personal utensils.
Group culture and collective thinking.
Taking off your shoes when entering someone’s apartment.
Taking off your shoes to eat in a restaurant.
Sitting on the floor on a mat in a restaurant.
Same gender touching.
Not being able to say no to elders and superiors.
Invasion of privacy and personal info.
Typical size of living space is radically smaller than western culture, and the organization of space by function is very different too.
Appearance is everything. Form over function every time.
Health care and treatment–getting your blood pressure and your blood taken in front of a group of waiting Koreans.
Work time and personal time do not have clear boundaries.
Korea is still primarily a cash culture–many places do not accept credit and debit cards.
Korean Internet and websites use Internet Explorer ONLY.
Violence in everyday interactions.
Violence in the schools (i.e. corporal punishment–you WILL see this on a daily basis).
Mountainous landscape over the entire country.
General Korean food culture.
Treatment of dogs.
Volume and proximity in public spaces.
Computer game culture and Internet Cafes.
Chinese Yellow Dust
Rainy season and humidity
Customer (lack of) service
Shopping and getting deals in the markets–not the same as other countries’ market cultures
Mirrors are everywhere
Public self-checking and preening
Portrait pictures MUST be taken with one of a limited number of fixed poses
Openly racist reactions to inter-racial couples
Antipathy towards Japan and America
Upon arrival and settling into apartment (sometimes/a lot of the time) not having access to: Internet, phone, cell phone, cable TV, washing machine, and other basic necessities.
NO DRYERS to dry clothes with.
Population density is very dense.
City design is pretty much haphazard, and can be difficult to navigate (though English signs are now fairly common).
Lack of easy access to things like deodorant, specific brand names of toiletries/shampoos….
Gender and fashion colors–PINK is not ‘gay.’
Touching when talking between same genders…
Rock, Paper, Scissors–decides everything.
Communal dishes–everyone’s chopsticks and spoons can and will go in the same dish, pot, whatever.
Slurping food and talking with your mouth full–somewhat common and not seen as rude but rather as a sign of enjoyment and that the food is delicious.
Radical nationalism in every day conversation. Dokdo, American beef, and H1N1.
“You need to lose your weight.” Telling foreigners they’re fat and need to lose weight is a common thing.
Shopping for clothes and shoes. If you’re bigger than an SMALLISH XL men’s, or size 10 shoes, good luck. If you’re bigger than a woman’s medium or SMALLISH 8-10, or size 7 shoes, good luck. GO TO ITAEWON.
The vast majority of Korean apartments do NOT have stoves with OVENS, usually they have a gas range.
The vast majority of Korean apartments do NOT have bath tubs.
Expect and assume other Koreans will look through your garbage and recycling when you put them in the bins.
Expect Koreans to openly and closely examine everything you have in your shopping cart all the while completely ignoring you.
If a Korean knocks it means they can come into your apartment–even without hearing you say come in or respond in any way. LOCK YOUR DOOR AT ALL TIMES!
An unlocked door is an open invitation to enter your apartment. (Female teachers need to beware of this!)
Every electronic thing in your apartment will be in Korean language. The washing machine and water heater thermostat…
While walking to my classroom this morning to open it up and get it ready for my first class after final exams I saw this poor kid standing in the middle of the path running through a courtyard that is surrounded by four buildings on my high school’s campus . . .
As I got closer I could hear him yelling/chanting what I think was his name, his class number, and something else I couldn’t understand. As I walked past him I looked at his face to see what he was feeling–and saw that he was crying. His tone of voice was quite upset too.
I don’t know why he was crying or what he was upset about but I felt sad for him standing out there all alone . . . I wondered if he was protesting some sort of injustice that had been done to him, or a friend, or what terrible thing had happened that would make him cry openly and stand all alone in one of the most visible spots on the campus where nearly every teacher and student would be able to see and hear him . . .
I hope someone tells him that high school is not forever, and that things have a way of working themselves out (most of the time, anyways).
On another note, just after the class time chimes went off for my first class of the day a Korean English teacher came to the door of my classroom to ask me if she could let students know their English essay test scores. I said yes, of course, and stood back and watched as she let students come up and check their scores.
Regardless of how long I’ve been in Korea it still shocks me every time to see how openly test scores are given to students. The two guys on the right kept hooting and hollering and making comments about every student’s score as each walked up to check . . . and this is normal for public school classroom culture. (Oh yeah, the two guys on the right were also flipping through the test sheets looking at other students’ grades–nice.)
You have to wonder how this contributes to the overall stress of students in Korea, and hope that in the future things change to a more confidentiality-based test culture.
I guess it’s time to tell everyone that Julianne and I have decided to leave Korea at the end of this August when our contracts finish, and try living and teaching in another country: China.
How does a native English teacher know when it’s time to leave Korea? Good question!
Everyone has different reasons for coming to live and teach English in Korea, and everyone has differing ranges of how much they can adapt to the radically different culture of Korea.
Everyone also has different lengths of time they can adapt and thrive within Korea’s living and working environments. For Julianne and I, we’ve reached our limits.
With all this in mind I decided to come up with a list of questions that I think are a kind of ‘litmus test’ for knowing when it’s time to leave Korea . . . and as a way of explaining some of the reasons why I decided it’s time for me to leave.
1. Do you yell and/or curse at Koreans for breaking English/western cultural norms while walking around in public?
This is an interesting question to pose because some long term expats I’ve talked to in Korea don’t think that there’s anything ‘wrong’ with doing this if the situation ‘warrants it,’ but in my mind it’s impolite and wrong to yell at people no matter where you are in the world regardless of whatever ‘transgression’ they have done to you.
Maybe this is just my Canadian cultural DNA talking, or my personality, but for some time now I’ve been alarmed by my diminishing inhibition against saying something, and perhaps even yelling, to Korean people when I’m out in public when they do something rude to me. And when I say ‘rude’ I use that in the Korean socio-cultural sense, and not in an ignorant foreigner imposing his western cultural norms on Korean culture way. I now think that if a Korean person does something to me, that if done by one Korean to another would result in a throw-down yelling and screaming confrontation, that I shouldn’t just ‘take it’ and let it slide like water off a duck’s back. While I know I am a second class citizen at best in some/many Korean peoples’ eyes, and in a small minority’s (I hope) perspective nothing better than a drug-crazed-pedophilic-rapist-foreigner, I am no longer willing to just let rude behaviors go.
Koreans are always telling me to ‘learn Korean culture’ and follow it, fine, but I hope they realize that the extreme attention to social rank respect is something that goes both ways regardless of ethnic identity if I’m to act according to the general rules of Korean culture; unfortunately, I am no longer naive enough to think that all Koreans will interact with me according to Korean cultural norms, and often, in fact, just because I am NOT Korean, they will disrespect me for that alone . . . which makes insisting on being treated with respect according to Korean cultural norms an act of futility more often than not.
Four years ago, when I was still pretty much a newbie in Korea, I remember walking down the street with an expat who had been here for six years. She would sarcastically scream back at children who would point at her and call out ‘waygookin’; she would yell at cars that came too close to her; she would yell at ajusshi who stared at her for too long . . . and the list goes on. I was shocked at these behaviors, and others I won’t mention here, because she was also Canadian (though the connection between one’s nationality and how polite one is has no direct bearing, I did still cling to the notion that Canadians are in general polite). I found myself ruminating on what had happened to that “Good afternoon, it’s a beautiful day, eh?” Canadian spirit in my friend? Where had it gone? How could it have been damaged to such a degree as to vent such antipathy towards the people who surrounded her in the culture she had chosen to live and teach?
Now, after having lived and taught in Korea for more than five years, I think she had an extreme case of ‘cultural exhaustion’ (a variation on culture shock, and culture fatigue). I also have ‘cultural exhaustion’ (though I’m not at the point of yelling at children and other Koreans all the time when they’re rude) and I think that it’s time to move on to new and hopefully better things before I become the crusty burned-out always negative about everything in Korea expat teacher . . . but there are days lately when I think that particular demon jumps on my back and pours toxic thoughts and feelings into my ears to the point that I don’t want to leave my apartment.
That’s a pretty good indication that it’s time to leave.
2. Do you have disproportionate reactions to circumstances that normally wouldn’t spark the average person into a heated rage or tears or negative emotional state?
For a while now I’ve found that my ability to react proportionately to the general circumstances of a situation and person/people involved in a situation has been compromised by stressful events and the cumulative effects of culture fatigue (think culture shock, but long term and in a different sense) that have piled up over the past five years in Korea.
Culture fatigue is a “. . . state [which] could be described as an intermediary state between a new comer and an adapted individual. In the beginning, one doesn’t know what it means to belong to the culture. At the opposite, the adapted have no problems understanding the culture (no questions about the choices he makes in regards to everyday challenges – e.g. pro, contra or neutral to the culture). In between these two states – new or adapted, one goes through a mental and sometimes physical pain trying to understand and control to a certain level what is going around. The end of this state is reached gradually, after one paid a lot of attention to the people and things around, and eventually understood the ranking of values and the ways one can achieve them.” (my italics and bold)
Since ‘culture fatigue’ doesn’t really fit how I feel in general, and why I am leaving Korea, I think perhaps a new term is needed: “culture exhaustion.” I am well and truly exhausted in mind, body, and spirit by the day to day grossly unprofessional aspects of teaching and education culture in Korea. I am also exhausted by the daily situations I experience when I’m out and about doing things on my own free time. These things in and of themselves never used to tire me during my first two years in Korea, but after 2007 and the horrific experiences I had at a foreign language training center something in me radically changed, and while 2008 was a really good year for me (because I went to teach at a national university of education and was treated as a professional educator and colleague by the Korean faculty–thank you!), 2009 was pretty much the straw that broke this camel’s back when a major event happened at the university (the six month teach English in English program was added to the native professors’ workload, ‘voluntarily’, 10 days before the spring/summer semester was to begin).
The cultural fatigue, for myself and Julianne, has gotten to the point where we no longer experience more positives than negatives on a day to day basis. I’ve tried every positive thinking method I know and yet I still cannot reprogram my cognitive filter to interpret and process my day to day in a primarily positive manner. Definitely a sign that it’s time to make some changes.
3. Do you find yourself using negative stress coping mechanisms more than is ‘normal’ (this varies from person to person, and only YOU can figure this out) in order to deal with stress and problems that happen each day?
I think one way many expat teachers deal with the stress of living and teaching in Korea is to hit the bottle–and sometimes really hard. I know for myself what is healthy and acceptable in terms of how I use alcohol, and I know what is unhealthy. I think nearly everyone who drinks in Korea at times crosses the healthy limit line in terms of frequency and quantity because drinking culture in Korea actually encourages and supports using alcohol as a stress release. But when an unhealthy behavior, whatever it is, becomes your primary stress coping mechanism it should be a clear warning signal that some changes are needed.
The bugger is that some sources of stress, and their effects on one’s well-being, simply cannot be managed no matter how much you go to the gym, hike a mountain, do Yoga, connect with your social support network of friends and family, write in a journal, and finger paint naked while listening to “Don’t worry, be happy” full blast on your stereo in your shoe-box apartment (not that, of course, I’ve done that, lol).
When the general conditions of your work environment and living conditions get past the point where healthy coping mechanisms are effective it’s definitely time to start making changes in your work and living experiences–and if you can’t, if the issues or problems are beyond the scope of the very limited control we as native teachers have in Korea . . . then it’s time to consider leaving before things become too stressful and unhealthy.
4. Do you find that a majority of the days in each week are ‘bad days’? Or put another way “I hate Korea days”?
I think that the cumulative effect of the thousand little things that happen each day at work and in the daily living conditions of Korea–each of these little pin pricks by themselves is nothing, but when they all combine together, and day after day after day they strike again and again . . . well, the cumulative effect can wear you down. This is when, I think, one begins to notice that there are more days each week, then not, when the general feeling at the end of the day is bad.
“I hate Korea” is a very extreme statement to make, and one that no matter how bad something is that happens to me I try to avoid like the plague because once you begin saying it you do have ‘the plague.’ Saying this toxic statement makes me think of the cave scene in “The Empire Strikes Back” when Yoda says to Luke,
Yoda: Yes, run! Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.
Luke: Vader… Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.
Luke: But how am I to know the good side from the bad?
Yoda: You will know… when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, NEVER for attack.
Luke: But tell my why I can’t…
Yoda: No, no! There is no “why”.
There is no “why” can’t I say “I hate Korea” because once you do start saying that you have begun moving towards the dark side . . . where crusty burned out expats’ lives lose all positivity and simply become banal exercises in who can show the biggest display of toxicity towards their host country and culture.
That’s not who I am, and that’s not who I want to be. But there have been too many days where my frustrations and stress levels have gotten me close to the edge . . . and it’s time to leave.
5. Do you find that the every day things in Korean culture that used to give you happiness and pleasure have lost their appeal?
Another sign that it’s time for me to leave is that the everyday things I love about Korea have lost their glow, and they no longer are enough in terms of helping me have a happy and positive day.
I love Korean food, and really enjoy going to eat at restaurants . . . but being stared at now taints everything. I tell myself not to care but all too often it gets under my skin.
I love teaching . . . but find that I cannot be patient anymore with some of the problems that occur while co-teaching.
I love the sense of community and close friendships that Koreans have with each other . . . but I have a very strong dislike for the us-them paradigm that excludes foreigners based on the simple fact that I’m not of Korean ethnicity.
I love the healthy lifestyle that many Koreans exhibit with hiking and eating well and taking care of their bodies . . . but I have a very strong dislike for the dark side of this cultural trait where it is used to tell me I need to lose weight to my face (which is rude in Korean culture, not just western English culture).
I think that expats who stay in Korea past the 2 year mark generally have developed strong and positive roots. Expats who have Korean girlfriends/boyfriends or wives/husbands develop roots imbued with love, and love for a Korean extends, I think, to other Koreans and the culture in general. There are other reasons that expats stay in Korea long term and are able to adapt and thrive but I think having a Korean partner is perhaps one of the most powerful aids in discovering ways to deal with the day to day issues, stresses, and problems.
Julianne and I simply do not have those kinds of long-term positive roots within Korea.
6. Do you spend more time in your apartment isolating yourself than you do out of it enjoying activities and socializing with Koreans in their social spaces?
My cultural exhaustion has gotten to the point where I spend more time in my apartment when I’m not teaching and at work than I do outside of it. This is very bad, and I hate it. I love walking around taking pictures, and doing things. But my cultural exhaustion is at the point where the rewards don’t outweigh the costs.
If I’m not outside participating and interacting with Koreans and enjoying the cultural events all around me then why the heck am I living and working overseas in a foreign culture?
I want to travel and experience new cultures and meet new people and have positive cross-cultural exchanges . . . but I cannot do that any longer in Korea due to my cultural exhaustion. Definitely time to move on.
7. Do you find yourself speaking in more and more negative and overly critical ways about every day living and working conditions that you have absolutely no power to change but still on a daily/regular basis talk about?
Perhaps the biggest thing for me is that I’m very unhappy at my job right now. I think going back to teaching in a public high school was a really big mistake. I thought that living in Seoul (I’ve wanted to do that ever since I came to Korea in 2005) would more than make up for my dislike for co-teaching (even though I’m good at it), and that going back to teaching high school wouldn’t be so bad . . . but after having taught in a national university of education where I felt like I was a ‘real teacher’ for the first time in Korea I now realize that going back to teaching in public school is nowhere near as fulfilling and positive.
Anyone who has been a regular reader of my blog knows that I generally haven’t written in critical and/or negative ways about living and teaching in Korea . . . but over the last 9 months (since I returned to teaching in public school) my blog posts have been moving more and more towards the overtly critical and negative in perspective and content. I think that some of this has been perfectly reasonable, and that the writing I’ve done has been objective and fair in relation to the subject matter. But there have been some posts that when I re-read them I think to myself, “Wow, that’s pretty dark and negative. Time to make some changes.”
8. Do you avoid anything and everything Korean after you’re done teaching most days?
This question is pretty similar to #6 but I think it’s worth having on its own in order to illuminate the issue. There are too many days each week now where all I want to do after I’m done teaching is go home and eat dinner within the English-only-no-Korean-language-or-culture space of my apartment.
Anyone who is living and teaching inside Korea who finds themselves thinking and feeling like this on a majority of the days in a week needs to seriously ask themselves why they continue to stay in a culture that they have lost any interest in interacting with. There are days, however, when one is just naturally tired out by Korean culture, and you just need a break to recover and recharge–what I’m talking about is when the desire to avoid anything Korean happens more than a few times each week every week . . . that’s when things are beginning to get serious.
The problem for many people, I think, is that we fall into habits and routines and lose the ability to ‘think outside of Korea’ so to speak. We forget that there are many other countries and cultures around the world that we can travel to, live and work in, and that some countries and their cultures are just not for every0ne–especially to live and work in over long periods of time.
If you get to the point where you don’t want any contact with everything and anything Korean after you’re done work then that’s a pretty clear sign that it’s time to leave.
9. Do you interpret every interaction with a Korean where something goes wrong as ‘anti-foreigner’ motivated?
Something I’ve noticed that I’ve fallen into now a few too many times is the belief that any time a Korean person says or does something to make a situation negative for me I blame it on ‘anti-waygook’ feelings on the part of the Korean.
I know this is not true, and that it is a gross generalization. I try to challenge this thinking, and to come up with as many other possible explanations for what has happened and why . . . but for a while now I’ve found myself struggling really hard to find those other possibilities.
Perhaps a part of this is due to being surrounded by, and saturated with, Korean cultural thinking patterns that unfortunately also tend to use the gross generalization paint brush that paints all foreigners as such and such, and that resisting the temptation to fight ignorance with ignorance, or generalizations with generalizations is really freaking hard when you’re also experiencing cultural fatigue.
10. Are you ‘normally’ a very positive and easygoing person but have noticed that your personality is changing, and becoming more negative in general?
I used to be the kind of guy who would always say “annyeong haseyo” to every Korean I’d see; I used to be the kind of guy who would always try to have a friendly expression on my face . . . but for too long now I’ve found myself not smiling, and not having a friendly look on my face.
Now when I go shopping I don’t smile much when the cashier greets me at the register in Lotte Mart, or when I get into a cab and the taxi driver says a cheerful “Hello!” I don’t meet his eyes in the rear-view mirror and return his greeting with a smile and my own “Hello” back at him. I have disconnected from my naturally friendly and polite self because it requires more energy than I have after teaching all day and striving to maintain a positive teaching energy and the friendliness I know to be so necessary to have a good rapport with my co-teachers and students . . . and this saddens me and worries me because I have to wonder what kind of long term effects my experiences in Korea will have on my personality, and whether I’ve gone past the point of no return in terms of rejuvenating these parts of myself that now lie dormant . . .
Anyways . . .
All of these things I’ve written about, and more, add up to Julianne and I deciding it’s time to leave Korea. We’ve found jobs at a top ranked university in China, and are very excited about starting them in September.
I’ve been doing tons of reading on the Internet about China’s culture and history, and while there are many similarities between China and Korea I think that there are enough differences that the move from Korea to China is going to help me rediscover being happy to live and teach overseas.
I know that I’m still going to be stared at, pointed at, and talked about by people in China because I’m a big chubby shaved head white foreign guy . . . but I’m hoping that with a better teaching and working environment this sort of thing will not bother me as much. Also, Julianne and I have talked about how there are different ways that Koreans stare at us, and when it’s simple curiousity mixed with a friendly spirit there’s no problem. It’s when you get a pervert-ajusshi looking at your girlfriend like she’s a prostitute, or staring at you with a ‘what the hell are you doing in my country?’ aggressive anti-foreigner look . . . those are the kinds of stares that drain the spirit, and poison one’s experiences in Korea. I’m hoping that China won’t be quite as bad in terms of things like that . . . though I could be totally deluding myself and my naivete is probably quite amusing to people who have spent time in China . . . only time will tell.
Well, my hands are tired and I’ve written everything I have to say about Julianne and I leaving Korea for now. I’m sure I’ll write more over the next 71 days as we count down to our departure date.
Wish me luck.
I was surfing my blog roll and came across this 3 part series by Supplanter on what happens when a native teacher’s speaking test design and plan get changed by a Korean supervisor . . . it’s well written, and I could totally relate to everything being described as I’ve been through similar experiences at other places I’ve worked at in Korea.
Some people reading my blog posts about speaking tests may think I’ve been a little paranoid but I was really striving to avoid having to deal with any ‘English test score ajumma fallout.’ Really, who likes to have an ajumma aka Korean supermom appear at your desk to cry, yell, and attempt to browbeat you into quivering submissive goo so that little Subin will get a perfect English test score–not me, that’s for sure.
Anyways, check out Supplanter‘s series cause it’s definitely a wake up call to any native teacher considering asking for permission to start giving speaking tests.
As I’ve mentioned a few times I’m working on a massive post about designing, planning, and giving speaking tests in Korean public schools . . . for now, here are some of the smaller posts I’ve written on the topic.
Time to go get some chow.
Last weekend I chatted with Joe McPherson of Zenkimchi Korean food blog, and Stafford from Chosunbimbo blog, on their Seoul Podcast interview show . . . Seoul Podcast #99: Kimchi Icecream in The Fridge.
We talk about everything from why Julianne and I are leaving Korea to live and teach in China to co-teaching in the public school system to what is in my fridge (nice one, Stafford, lol).
Anyways, if you have two hours to kill check it out.
This morning I jumped into a taxi to get to work and was immediately blasted by music from the ajusshi driver’s stereo playing the soundtrack from a movie he was watching on the dashboard monitor . . .
I tried to tell him where I want to go, and got the typical response I get from most taxi drivers, “Unnnnh?!” You might think this is because I can’t speak Korean, but I’ve been in Korea for over five years, and I’ve mastered how to say different destinations and the common expressions used in Korean for taxi situations.
I said my destination again very loudly, and the driver still said, “Unnnh?!!!” I had to yell at him to turn down the stereo so that he could hear me–this is very poor customer service, and frankly speaking, all too typical of many Korean taxi ajusshi drivers’ attitudes when interacting with foreigners.
After turning down his stereo system, with a great display of disgust towards me for telling him to do so, he finally understood where I wanted him to take me.
While he drove me to my destination he muttered under his breath in Korean and kept glaring at me in the rear view mirror.
Is this the kind of reputation Seoul wants foreigners who live and work here to tell their family and friends about back in their home countries? Is this the kind of reputation Korea wants foreigners to present about the ajusshi of Korea? I don’t think so.
If Korea wants to improve its international brand name as a developed country on the global stage it needs to consider developing an etiquette program for its taxi drivers. These men are on the front lines of customer service and in Seoul have a high degree of visibility and frequency of interacting with foreigners–especially tourists who are only in Korea for a brief stay.
What do you think tourists say about Korean culture if they have to deal with rude and inconsiderate ajusshi taxi drivers when they go home?
An additional question that Korean tourism adminstrators might want to consider is what kind of image and reputation do they think bloggers who live and work in Korea produce when they are treated rudely when all they are trying to do is go to work, and they are paying for a service which supports the Korean economy?
Please consider creating a tourism etiquette program for the ajusshi taxi drivers of Seoul, and if possible across Korea.
A very dissatisfied taxi customer.
The Korea Times had a banner headline that drew my attention a while ago titled, Korea Sees Decreasing Use of Honorific Words. There are several reasons this article motivated me to write about it, but the primary source comes from a shopping trip at Lotte Mart during the week before Chuseok.
UPDATE: A friend of mine sent me the link to this article, Koreans Need to Improve Their Global Image. It’s a good read, and there are points in it that are relevant to this post.
Lotte Mart was pretty busy and many people were out getting things they needed for the weekend. The aisles were very crowded and moving my shopping cart up and down them while looking for the stuff on my list was a big exercise in patience.
At one point I started down an aisle and saw two shopping carts, one on each side of the aisle, in front of me. I began pushing my cart towards the middle to try and squeeze between the two carts when an ajumma (ajumma, “middle aged married woman”) came flying past my cart to stop and stand in between the two carts–thus blocking the entire aisle and making it impossible for me to get past her. Nice.
There were several other Korean shoppers behind me, and on the other side of the ajumma, who all wanted to move up and down the aisle–but this ajumma had decided no one else in the world exists, and that only her shopping needs and wants were important. (As a side note here, it is really amazing when you see nearly every Korean committing “deliberate obliviousness acts” when there are many people all trying to do different things in one social space, like a grocery store, because the number of mild collisions between bodies and shopping carts is astounding.)
All too often in Korea I see this cultural phenomenon of DOA’s, “deliberate obliviousness acts.” It is something that most foreigners when they come to Korea are shocked by, and sometimes outraged by, because we cannot believe that Koreans are TRULY OBLIVIOUS to the degree that they cannot know what is going on around them (though in some instances it actually appears that the Korean is truly DOA). Yet DOA’s happen on a daily basis in my experiences and interactions with Koreans.
When I am teaching and ask a question and gesture towards a student in my class the student will 99.9999999% of the time pretend to not understand that I am looking at him, pointing at him, and directing my attention at him. The student immediately puts on his DOA-face, looks behind him at another student, and then pretends to not understand that I’ve called on him; sometimes even after I’ve walked right up to their desk and pointed at them again, repeated the question, the student will still look back at the other student and then make a ‘who me?’ face, lol. DOA’s occur in the classroom nearly every time a question is asked. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, but the frequency with which this happens is very high.)
Foreigners will also often complain about how a group of Koreans will slowly walk arm in arm spread out across an entire sidewalk thus making it impossible for people behind them to pass. This is something that also frequently happens in shopping malls. COEX mall is the biggest mall in Korea. Its corridors are extremely wide, and yet you will see a group of Korean friends meandering along the corridor and blocking the entire width of one side of the corridor like there is no one else in the mall. This particular group-DOA forces other people to submit to their walking pace and submit to the group-DOA’s dominance of the social space that they occupy–that, or it forces people to take action. This is when, for foreigners, the criticisms of ‘rudeness’ and ‘not understanding Korean culture’ are often made towards us even when we are not the instigators of the DOA.
Yet to foreigners it is the Koreans who are breaking their own ideals of social harmony and paying extreme attention to the relationship dynamics with everyone around you according to Confucian rituals and the social ranks each person has. One might argue that it is difficult to know what the social rank is of each and every person around you when you’re in a social space like a busy shopping mall like COEX–but I don’t think Koreans would suggest that busy social spaces lack Confucian social codes of behavior. I think the problem is that the Koreans are not following their own socio-cultural traditions (as the KT article points out).
If Koreans are not following their own modern Confucian behavior rituals and relationship dynamics where does that leave foreigners when they come to live and work in Korea? If a foreigner coming to live and work in Korea did take the time to study Korean language, culture, and Confucianism in particular, and then came to Korea and tried to follow these things strictly . . . I think KOREANS themselves would think the foreigner is crazy and has no understanding of the current social realities of day to day life in Korea. The reality is that in nearly every situation in Korea there is a battle for power, for domination of the other, and to achieve the needs and wants of the INDIVIDUAL regardless of the group’s gibun–and especially regardless of Confucian rituals that ‘should’ regulate the individual’s behavior. The source of this reality probably comes from the aftermath of the Japanese colonial period in Korea that shattered Korean culture, and attempted to impose Japanese culture on Korea, and after the Japanese left the Americans moved into to fill the power vacuum. The grievous injuries to Korean Confucianism caused by the Japanese, and then the Americans, gave very little chance of this social philosophy having any real chance of positive effects in the day to day realities of the Korean people. To exacerbate the problem even further the absolutely insane levels of competition in the public school and university systems makes polite social etiquette almost obsolete. Everyone is jockeying to push themselves into the lead position in the mad race towards the ever receding finish line so that they can climb just one more position up the social rankings–and all too often I see Koreans willing to do whatever it takes regardless of the cost to themselves and others.
Also, whether or not Koreans will discuss it, RACE plays a huge role in how modern Confucianism functions today in Korea. I have seen a 60 year old foreign male teacher treated with a complete and utter lack of respect by younger Korean teachers and supervisors–where is the basis in Confucianism that justifies this kind of treatment?
There is a kind of cultural anarchy that dominates Korean-foreigner cross-cultural interactions. You would think that Korean culture ideals would be the basis of interactions with foreigners but all too often in my experiences in Korea, and those of many other teachers and foreign visitors I’ve talked to, the KOREAN CULTURAL RULES are discarded and the only ‘guiding’ force behind what is said and done is the individual’s desires. If it is rude in Korean culture to ask another person how much they weigh, and to tell them that they need to lose weight, then why isn’t it rude to say that to a foreigner whether it’s in Korean language or in English? The answer is that when some Koreans speak English they often don’t use their own cultural rules of etiquette let alone try to use English rules–yet when a foreigner is interacting with a Korean we are expected to follow the Korean cultural rules and ideals.
This double-standard is glaringly obvious to the foreigner and when they leave Korea I highly doubt that they have positive things to say about Koreans and Korean culture (which is extremely unfortunate because many Koreans are extremely polite and respectful, and make efforts at cross-cultural communication in a polite and respectful manner). Another facet of this cultural anarchy that occurs when a foreigner and Korean interact is that some Koreans deliberately distort and twist how Korean cultural rules should apply to the situation in favor of what they want to happen. Yet Confucianism says that, “While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe their seniors reverence, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors” (from wikipedia, my bold and italics).
Let me repeat that again, “. . . seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors.” I’ll link this back to the situation I was in with the ajumma who rushed past me to block me and everyone else trying to walk down the aisle, and how she then stood there committing a DOA. Most of the shoppers in front of her, and behind her, were younger and yet there was not an ounce of consideration for their needs in the situation. No body language signals, eye contact, or even a quickly uttered ‘just a moment, I’m sorry’ in Korean.
Perhaps a better example, although very different, of this comes from the Korea Times article I mentioned at the beginning of this post which says,
“This concern was highlighted recently when a 39-year-old judge reprimanded a 69-year-old man during a trial, saying the latter was behaving “rude.”
Many Koreans found the “young” judge’s remark very “inappropriate.” The oldman indeed may have behaved in an ill-mannered way. But in the Korean language, the term “beo reut eop da” (rude) is exclusively used by an older person in rebuking someone who is younger. For many Koreans, the judge’s remark was unacceptable because the role was reversed and he was 20 years junior to the oldman.”
The cultural ‘logic’ at work here is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of my limited understanding with regards to the nuances of Korean Confucianism in modernity. Yet it seems to me that the old man has an obligation to the younger judge with regards to helping him perform his duties–as opposed to hampering them with his rude behavior. Maybe someone who has been in Korea longer than I have, and has studied Confucianism (I’ve only read a little bit about it, and definitely have not made a formal and prolonged study of it), might be able to explain this to me . . . I don’ t know.
But based on what I’ve read in Korean history and culture books, online articles, and discussions with Korean English teachers who also studied Confucianism in university I stand by my criticism.
From wikipedia’s entry on Confucianism and relationships,
“Relationships are central to Confucianism. Particular duties arise from one’s particular situation in relation to others. The individual stands simultaneously in several different relationships with different people: as a junior in relation to parents and elders, and as a senior in relation to younger siblings, students, and others. While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe their seniors reverence, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors. This theme of mutuality is prevalent in East Asian cultures even to this day.
Social harmony—the great goal of Confucianism—therefore results in part from every individual knowing his or her place in the social order, and playing his or her part well” (my bold and italics).
But it seems like this social harmony is now only at play in Korea when it facilitates an individual’s needs and wants, when it helps them compete for the first place ranking in school testing, in getting a job, in getting a promotion, in getting whatever is on the radar screen of that particular person. The rest of the time, when social harmony is NOT in the person’s favor . . . well, the rules get thrown out the window.
Also, “Ritual and filial piety are indeed the ways in which one should act towards others, but from an underlying attitude of humaneness. Confucius’ concept of humaneness (Chinese: 仁; pinyin: rén) is probably best expressed in the Confucian version of the Ethic of reciprocity, or the Golden Rule: “do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.””
Yet all too often in my day to day life in Korea I witness Koreans doing things to other Koreans that they would NOT want done to themselves, and Koreans doing things to me that they would not want done to themselves. The idealized and highly theoretical ideas of Confucianism do not generally exist in the daily reality of modern Korea–especially in interactions with foreigners because of the language and culture barriers.
I realize that at this point I should own up to using an idealized sense of Confucianism in modern Korean society, but I’ve learned this way of seeing things because of the expectations imposed on me frequently as a result of the admonitions and commandments and criticisms that Koreans have made to me about how I speak/act/think/feel while I’m in Korea . . . the double-standard makes me want to say, “LOOK IN THE MIRROR and point that finger at yourself!”
Something else that occurred to me one day while thinking about Korean culture was this: even walking down the sidewalk in Korea is an exercise in the assertion of one’s rank and the relationships one has with the other pedestrians.
Anyways . . .
If someone was to draw up a list of rules for how commit a DOA in Korea, (deliberate obliviousness act), I imagine they might be the following.
1. Only use your peripheral vision when scanning the situation you want to dominate. Direct eye contact is a give away that you know what is going on.
2. Your face must assume a fixed, expressionless mask wherein there is no hint of any type of reaction to elements that exist outside the ‘obliviousness reality bubble‘ you must project all around you.
3. If, by some unforeseen accident or freak of nature, your obliviousness reality bubble is burst you must act extremely shocked and surprised and display that your innocence has been ‘violated.’
4. If you have the higher social rank in relation to the person who has burst your ORB (‘obliviousness reality bubble’) you should immediately find a way to make the problem the other person’s fault, and give them a severe lambasting (ooh! good word, don’t get to use that one often, lol).
I’m sure others will contribute more DOA rules in the comments section of this post, lol.
I’ll close this post with a video to illustrate both a DOA and its ORB in real life.
Seriously . . . oh . . . my . . . god!
Julianne and I went to the wedding of a former co-worker and friend of mine a couple months ago. It was Julianne’s first wedding hall experience (also known as a ‘wedding castle’) in Korea, and also her first exposure to Korean wedding hall culture.
I’ve been to 3 weddings now at Korean wedding halls, and I stand by my characterization of them: Las Vegas meets Disney World.
Let me explain . . . I think my general dislike of Korean wedding hall culture comes from the general lackadaisical treatment of English language and culture and how Korea assimilates aspects of English language and culture/s that it likes in a completely disconnected manner from the culture/s of origin.
Simply put, it’s jarring to see a wedding with isolated cultural elements reconstituted within a Korean context–yet at the same time the wedding has native English participants, especially the bride or groom, their family members and friends.
I think some readers will protest and criticize my point of view. I imagine them saying that English language and culture has stolen, and is stealing, words/ideas/cultural rituals and activities from other languages and cultures all the time. Also, that English language takes these words and mispronounces them, misuses them (at least in contrast with their language and culture of origin), and reconstitutes them according to how English native speakers need, want, and desire to use them. Alright, fair enough and point taken. I’m sure millions of examples can be found of how English culture/s have stolen something from another language and culture, ripped out isolated aspects of the cultural thing, and then produced a horrible version of it. Off the top of my head some examples might be: Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, Christmas, and others.
Even within English there are patterns of cultural and linguistic thefts. Just consider how ‘white’ culture (a problematic term but for the sake of my point one I’ll use here) steals from urban black culture and language. “Wassup?”, “punk,” and “phat” . . . to name a few.
I would respond by saying that there are some cultural institutions, like a wedding for example, that deserve more careful research and consideration before ripping out isolated elements from the, in this case, wedding institution as a whole and then imitating them in a bizarre spectacle that makes a mockery of the original sacred ritual that is so completely disconnected from the original that it becomes something else . . .
All too often in Korea, when an English language and culture thing is integrated, there is a complete and utter disregard for the cultural rituals and taboos of the thing in question. In the case of weddings it seems as though some Koreans who visited Disney World and Las Vegas came back to Korea and decided to re-create their own ideas of what a western wedding is through the Korisney aesthetic. When I say Korisney aesthetic I mean the cultural phenomenon of using Disney narratives, characters, and common scenery.
I should briefly address a major issue underlying this topic: purity. There is no such thing as ‘pure wedding culture.’ And for that matter ‘pure English culture’ and ‘pure English language.’ All too often native speakers of English become engaged in vociferously defending conscious and probably more often unconscious norms and values based on the even more unconscious foundation of ‘pure’ culture which has many different masks: heritage, traditions, nation, and identity.
The problem is there needs to be some degree of continuity and integrity to a language and culture system–otherwise it dissolves into a fractured kaleidoscope of disconnected groups of people who cannot communicate and interact with each other with some degree of understanding based on shared experiences that have a high enough degree of similarity as to allow them to be a part of the same socio-linguistic category–in this case, English.
I imagine that if Canadians decided to bring back to Canada the Korean traditional wedding institution but we failed to learn everything about it, and how to perform it in all its many details, that Koreans would launch a massive protest about the destruction of one of Korean culture’s major institutions.
From wikipedia, “A wedding is the ceremony in which two people are united in marriage or a similar institution. Wedding traditions and customs vary greatly between cultures, ethnic groups, religions, countries, and social classes. Most wedding ceremonies involve an exchange of wedding vows by the couple, presentation of a gift (offering, ring(s), symbolic item, flowers, money), and a public proclamation of marriage by an authority figure or leader. Special wedding garments are often worn, and the ceremony is followed by a wedding reception. Music, poetry, prayers or readings from Scripture or literature also may be incorporated into the ceremony.”
Whether or not a person from Canada or America is religious there is a general sense of formality to a wedding, and usually people ‘go on their best behavior.’
1. Formal dress. Wearing a suit for men, or at minimum a shirt and tie. Women wear a formal dress or business attire.
2. No talking during the wedding ceremony whether it is a religious one or secular.
3. No talking on cell phones during the ceremony.
4. Wandering in and out of the room during the ceremony is generally frowned upon.
5. Do not engage other people in conversations about things unrelated to the wedding ceremony–especially during the ceremony.
6. Do not clap and cheer for the bride and groom during the ceremony . . . maybe a little bit of polite clapping after the announcement that the bride and groom are married is okay, but usually not before.
I’m sure I could think of several more “Do’s and Don’ts” for western cultural weddings but I think the 6 I’ve mentioned are relevant to this post.
At the wedding a couple months ago, most of the attendees were in formal wear, so that’s not something that stuck out for Julianne’s first Korean wedding hall experience. There were, however, other things that shocked her.
The first was probably the architecture of the building–though it’s important to stress that the building in the picture below is not really castle-like compared to the more typical wedding halls you’ll see all over Korea. The giant-sized photo of a bridge and groom is one of the trademark features, though, and the palatial pillars are also a standard stylistic feature.
I don’t have any good quality close-up shots of a wedding castle in Korea, but here’s one I took when Julianne and I were on a train going down to Busan for a vacation. When the word “castle” is used it is NOT an exaggeration, lol.
As wedding halls go this one was pretty high end. I also heard other people commenting on how nice the layout was–but part of me still couldn’t help feeling like I was in a hybrid Las Vegas-Disney stage set on some futuristic movie about wedding culture’s evolution, or something like that . . .
The black shiny pathway, or rather, ‘super model runway’–I refuse to call it an “aisle” because that fails to describe its essence–is what the bride and groom walk down.
This little guy was playing on it before the ceremony began. Oh yeah, you have to love the trees with flower balls and plastic balls with faux gems hanging from them that line the runway!
Flower ball with faux gems.
Back left corner of the hall.
Back right corner standing next to the entrance to the hall.
Here’s a shot of the trees . . . just in case you want to see a close-up, and come on, you know you want to, lol.
Here’s a shot of the podium behind which the ‘official’ stands who is presiding over the ceremony. I’ve never thought to ask a Korean teacher, or other Koreans I know, about what criteria is legally required for the Korean who officiates at weddings. At this wedding, the ‘president’ of the foreign language training center where the groom works, and I used to work, was the person who did the ceremony. This struck me as unusual because in North America it generally has to be a priest/pastor or Justice of the Peace (or some kind of government official) . . . maybe the president of the training center also has other titles or a position with the government that allowed him to do the job–I really don’t know.
If you take another look at the picture (above) you should take special note of the two small hole-shaped things on either side of the black runway on the top step . . . they’re SMOKE MACHINES, lol. Yes, smoke machines . . . like I said, Las Vegas meets Disney World. I’ve heard from other expats in Korea that there are wedding halls that use bubble machines (I guess instead of smoke machines, lol) but I’ve never had the good fortune to see that–yet, lol.
Here are the thrones, err, chairs that the bride and groom’s parents sit in. Depending on how traditional a wedding the foreign person getting married to a Korean wants (or vice versa), a traditional bow is performed during the ceremony where the groom gets down on his knees and bows his head all way to the ground. My friend did this for the bride’s parents, and I was really impressed. I wondered if he would do this for his own parents, lol, but he shook his father’s hand and gave him a hug all the while having a huge happy grin on his face.
The second thing, and probably the biggest shock to most foreigners when they go to their first Korean wedding hall event, was the lack of formality in Korean wedding hall culture. Wikipedia says,
“In busier wedding halls, formality (except for the couple and their families) is typically relaxed compared to Western standards” (from wikipedia’s “marriage in South Korea“).
Basically, people standing at the back of the wedding hall ceremony room talk at almost regular conversation volume to maybe a little quieter than regular, the middle of the hall ranges from whispered conversation to near regular conversation volume, and the people at the front nearest the ceremonial podium (I won’t use the word ‘altar’ because the space is NOT religious in any sense of the word) whisper and occasionally forget and speak loudly enough for others nearby to hear them talking.
The third cultural difference in wedding hall culture relates closely to number two–cell phones. I saw one member of, I won’t say whether it was the bride or groom’s family party, answer her cell phone at her table which was all of 10 feet away from the bride and groom exchanging rings . . . and she had a conversation for about a minute. I happened to be only 2 feet away squatting on the floor trying to keep out of peoples’ sight lines while taking pictures, and when I kind of gave her a ‘look’ for talking too loudly on her cell she had the decency to lower her voice and cover her mouth and cell phone with her hand to try and shield the noise . . . what I don’t get is why she answered her phone at all DURING THE RING EXCHANGE!
The fourth cultural difference revolves around being on time for a wedding ceremony and not walking in and out of the ceremony at any and all times throughout its duration. Yet this is exactly what happens at a wedding hall ceremony. People were wandering in and out through the entire ceremony. The really puzzling thing to me is that no one seemed to be doing the skulking-crouch-low-to-the-ground-looking-embarrassed-that-they’re-late-and-having-an-apologetic-smile-grimace-on-their-face similar to what Korean students do when they walk into class late (that is, if they have good attitudes, the bad attitude kids just waltz in like being late means nothing–but that’s a whole other blog topic).
Since I have a strong dislike of people wandering around, and in and out of the ceremony, a couple days ago I emailed my friend/the groom and I specifically asked if it’d be okay if I took pictures of the wedding–he gave me permission, and I did my best during the ceremony to be as unobtrusive as possible . . .the only thing I can make sense of why people think it’s okay to walk in and out, and be late, is that ‘out of sight out of mind’ excuses their behavior–after all nobody from the wedding party can see what you’re doing at the back of the room, right? Oh, and I imagine the money-gifts that everyone who goes to a wedding gives probably excuses lateness cause you know that the more people who come the more money you’ll be getting later, lol.
The fifth item on my list involves having conversations during the wedding ceremony about things not related to the ceremony.
The shocking thing for me was that two of my former Korean co-workers from the training center I worked at with the groom wanted to have full on conversations with me DURING THE CEREMONY. If they’d wanted to talk quietly about the bride and groom, or the wedding itself in some manner big or small, I MIGHT have been open-minded about whispering with them (since that’s apparently the ‘Korean way’–and if you’re a Korean reader and disagree with me about this, I’d ask you to consider this fact: the MAJORITY of Koreans at weddings do this, and in my mind that makes it fair to describe it as a Korean cultural behavior pattern) . . .
Anyways, getting back to Koreans wanting to chat me up about how I’ve been, where I’m working, and various other banalities while my friend is GETTING MARRIED . . . I tried to politely disengage myself from their insisting on talking and when they missed my polite hint to stop talking I just told them very directly that I’d talk to them AFTER THE CEREMONY. They didn’t like this, but frankly speaking I just didn’t care–I wanted to be respectful to the bride and groom, their families and friends, and to continue participating in the wedding as a friend and witness to the ceremony.
To illuminate, pun intended, my point about the Las Vegas aspects of a Korean wedding hall ceremony I’ll use the following picture,
In the above picture you can see that red and green lasers are used during the ceremony. Some of the pictures I took of my friend had red and green lines on his face, and the bride’s face, and I had to retouch them to erase these odd colors off of their faces.
This next pictures shows you the smoke machines I mentioned earlier. These were used to create a carpet of smoke/fog for the moment when the bride’s father escorts her up to the podium to her waiting groom.
Later in the ceremony the lights were turned down to produce this effect . . . as a lead-in to the next ‘act’ in the ceremony . . .
Wow, somebody has cloned and made a hybrid Elvis-Kenny G! LOL! Oh my god! I really should have gotten a picture of Julianne’s face during this part of the wedding . . . I do have shots of the bride and grooms’ reactions, and let me tell you they’re priceless!
I’ll wrap up with this shot of the wedding cake . . . which was a multi-level affair. The newly wed couple then cut it with a small sword, lol.
It was awesome to see my friend get married to a Korean woman who I know can handle his beer and hockey loving way of life. I was really happy for them, and wish them the best for the future.
Oh, and to the many many MANY Koreans at the wedding who kept asking and then commanding, “Jason, when are you [and Julianne] getting married? You should get married.”
We’ll get married when we want to, and not a day before.