I think it is fair to say that for my first 8 or 9 months in Korea I was a bit of a miserable bastard. Not 100% of the the time, obviously, and when I look back on this period I had many great moments, and enjoyed a great deal of it.
My general attitude to Korean culture, however, was one of severe dislike and frustration. How ironic it is then that I am now married to a Korean women and now am very firmly entrenched into the culture that I so vehemently despised.
Perhaps it is because I only really scratched the surface of Korean culture before I met my wife and I didn't really understand those strange and sometimes annoying little things that they do. In the days pre-Eunji (my wife's name), I did have many grievances and bones to pick with Korea.
I first arrived in Korea with absolutely zero information and knowledge about the place. I applied for a job through the Internet with a Hagwon (private school) and I knew no one in the city I was going to and actually no one in the whole of Korea. I had assumed that I would be living with or least near other foreigners, and that they would all help me pick up the swing of things in my new country fairly quickly. I couldn't have been more wrong.
In the original nightmare start to my experience of Korea, I did not see a non-Korean face for a month. These were the days when Suncheon was a less foreigner-populated place than it is now and there were also no reliable places to be found where other English teachers might be. There was one bar in Suncheon where some liked to hang out, but when I went there, there was no one.
My school directors were not that helpful either, and although they were nice people, did keep themselves to themselves. Eventually, I found a yahoo group page that had many people living in Suncheon on it and I sent a few messages. This was a relief as I thought that finally I could meet people.
I posted a message saying that I was new in Suncheon and asked where people were, as I never bumped into anyone, despite walking all over town in my spare time. I received a couple of messages one read;
'Some people go to Elvis bar, but many don't these days and it is hard to say where people will go. Maybe there will be some people about this weekend, but maybe not. Welcome to Korea.'
The other one said;
Bear in mind that at the time there were probably about 100 native English teachers living Suncheon, so I thought that this was a pretty pathetic response. Never mind, I thought, and I gave Elvis a go that weekend.
Again, I saw nobody except for Koreans. I met one Korean that night who I got drunk with, which he made especially easy as he paid for everything. Luckily for him the whole night didn't cost him too much as I am famously lightweight when it comes to alcohol.
Upon returning home early in the morning and still thoroughly inebriated after another unsuccessful expedition to find people, I decided to write an e-mail to those at the Suncheon Yahoo group about my dissatisfaction with them. Unfortunately, I couldn't find my old e-mail, but it read along the lines of this;
'What kind of people do you call yourselves and what sort of welcome is this to someone new to here? You are all useless. Well, sod the lot of you. I will be in Elvis next Saturday for my own welcoming party, and if nobody shows up, it's your loss and I will just get drunk with some random Koreans.'
From memory, I think I might have included a fair bit more bad language and abuse in the actual e-mail.
Meantime, I was having some problems with my stomach with, on increasingly regular occasions, a pulsating and crippling lower abdominal pain and sometimes sickness. I later realised that this may have been due to me eating the bread in Korea. I am lactose intolerant and I learned after about a month that they put milk in their bread here.
Once I cut certain foods out of my diet, my stomach settled. However, I realised this after the date of my own welcoming party. Incapacitated with stomach pains that night, I didn't go out. I later learned that a large number of people showed up to meet me that night as they were amused and quite curious about my message of discontent. Typical, I thought. But I also had a measure of satisfaction that I managed to stand-up so many people that I didn't know and that I wasn't very happy with.
Eventually, I did meet some nice people and was resolved to make sure that no one else had the same experience as me when first arriving in Suncheon, so when I saw that new people were arriving, I showed them around and introduced them to people. All in all though, it wasn't a good start, I was sick and lonely for about a month in a weird new world. This probably didn't help matters with my negative attitude.
After a while, I had a good bunch of friends and I was regularly getting into new adventures and enjoying myself. The negativity still persisted, however, and it hit its peak one night in Busan on one of the few occasions where I was drunk.
My year in Korea was dragging and I had been counting the days until I went home, I still had 3 months left, but I had some nice friends and we decidied on a trip to Busan for the weekend. It probably didn't help that it was in the height of the Korean summer and was horribly hot and humid.
My friends had to apologise for me as I cut a path through offended people. I think this was the peak time for my negativity, but generally it had little to do with being irritated by others, I just missed my life back home.
I have always socialised through sport, but in Korea I was finding that if I didn't go out to a bar or club, I wasn't going to meet people as often as I wished and this does not really suit me, especially in Korea where bars are very smoky (which I hate more than anything). Plus, Korean people were annoying me, really annoying me.
I still have the odd day where every Korean person I bump into makes me feel like I want to punch them in the face (luckily this feeling doesn't seem to occur with my wife).
Because I am a fairly typical Englishman with English cultural values, attitudes over here in Korea, when I am tired or have had a bad day, can throw me into this spiral of irritation.
To give a fairly common example; Korean culture focuses more on group harmony than on individualism. With this is mind they have no real cultural values of respect of individuality and this includes your own personal space. They just invade this space with unerring regularity. They shove past you, never allow you room to get past them, never queue, never hold open doors, and they are generally always in the way!
You can laugh about all this and even find an intriguing fascination with it when all in life is hunky-dory, but when you are in a bad mood this grates like nails on a chalk board.
I can only assume, that the lack of respect for personal space also has a great effect on their driving, which is diabolical. They change lanes with impunity, follow no rules as far as I can see, park their cars incredibly badly and selfishly, they are also unbelievably impatient, and are generally the worst drivers you are ever likely to see in the developed world.
Another charming habit many Korean people have is noisy throat-clearing and spitting. If you think you have seen the odd chav hocking up and spitting out something fairly disgusting on the street, you've seen nothing until you visit here, it is unbelievable. I am sure you can hear a Korean clearing his throat from about a mile away. They just seem to have a total disregard for people around them.
In my first apartment, I even had a phantom whistler. He almost continuously whistled a non-descript tune, all day sometimes. I never found out who it was, but if I had ever got my hands on him, strangulation would have been the most likely outcome.
These are some quite justified reasons for becoming irritated but other situations also occur, that are not matters of bad behaviour but that are just a general wearing down of your patience. I remember when I first came to Korea and still, when I am in a good mood, people saying 'hi' to me on the street is actually quite nice. But after a while, and when in a bad mood, you just want to be able to walk along the street quietly and not have all the attention brought on to you. Sometimes these brief 'hellos' would turn into conversations and these too started to become annoying, as it is like Groundhog day every time. They usually go something like this:
Stranger: Are you American?
Me: No, I'm from England.
Stranger: Oh, wow! English Premier League and Manchester United. Do you know Park Ji Seung?
Me: (sigh) Yes, he is a very good player.
Stranger: Oh, You know!?
It's sounds quite pleasant doesn't it? But imagine having had this conversation hundreds of times, it now saps the life out of my very soul.
So let's begin to build a picture of how things can get to you here in Korea. Picture this:
You are walking down the the street after a hard day, missing home, friends and family and just having normal conversations with people. Two men are standing talking on the pavement while smoking, the pavement is large, yet they are managing to block your path perfectly. As you finally squeeze past them, with smoke blown in your face, they begin to clear their throats with a loud horrible noise and spit on the floor. Then a group of students walk by, and emboldened by their numbers, all say, 'hi, how are you?' and then laugh before you can answer and walk away. As you cross the street, you are nearly the victim of a gruesome road traffic accident as one impatient and recklace driver almost ploughs into you. You are missing home so decide to have a take-away pizza. When you open the door someone pushes by you and then closes the door in your face. Then you wait patiently in the queue, and when it's your turn the phone rings and the lady at the counter answers it. Politely, you wait until she finishes speaking. Not so politely, the person behind you, orders their pizza while she is still on the phone, effectively jumping the queue. Even more annoyingly (as women can multi-task in Asia as well it seems) she takes his order and you have to wait longer. When you finally get to make your order, you give your order in Korean (very clearly) of 'a pepperoni pizza without onions, please', she then replies with, 'peppers X' (meaning no peppers), so you then say 'no, I want peppers'. So she says, 'so peppers no', and you reply that I want peppers, again (this gets really confusing as Koreans respond in the opposite manner to negative questions, so when you say no they hear the meaning as yes and vice versa). You then go through all of this performance with all of the vegetables in the pizza. Bizarrely, when your wife (who is Korean) says exactly the same thing to the woman, she simply does a pepperoni pizza without onions, no questions asked. Having received your gift wrapped pizza, you walk out of the door to what you perceive as disapproving eyes because of the fact you are a typical unhealthy foreigner eating pizza, you receive half a dozen 'hellos' and have two conversations about how you are not American and rate Park Ji Seung very highly. You finally arrive at your apartment, and rush to catch the lift, which is closing. You shout wait but the person in the lift, having looked straight at you, doesn't hold it for you. You have to wait another 5 minutes, as it goes right up to floor 19. You get in the lift and someone has been smoking inside, it stinks. Upon exiting the lift, some people try to get in it before you leave, shoving you in the process. At last, you are home, you sit down ready to tuck into some nice western food. The pizza smells great, you are starving hungry and salivating in expectation. The first bite should settle your frustrations, but the you realise..... there are f*#king onions in your pizza!
As I have mentioned, it is possible to take such frustrations in your stride when everything is fine. But when your mood is already a smidgeon dark, the blood begins to boil.
These are all annoyances brought about by a difference in culture, and it is fair to say that no Korean ever really notices anything wrong with any of this behaviour. I hated it back when I first came to Korea and I still hate it. The difference now is I am generally much happier, so it bothers me less, and most of all I understand why they behave this way, and that the reason is the inevitable consequences of their culture and history. This doesn't mean that they couldn't do with changing their behaviour, however.
What is interesting to note is how I then perceived my own culture on returning back home, and that we are far from perfect ourselves. There are a few things that I found began to rub me up the wrong way in England, too, and they were things not present in Korea.
Korea has an innocent honesty about it sometimes, which we have lost. We have turned into an over-sensitive, libelistic culture, thesedays, plagued by bureacracy and have many people who will steal or step over people quite readily if they can get away with it.
Down the road from where I live in Korea there is a shop that leaves most of its stock out on the street in front of the store under a canopy. Crates of beer, spirits, sweets, and other goods are just sitting out on the street day and night at all times. No one steals anything. I am wondering how a shop with a similar strategy would get on in England.
Firstly, after about two minutes there would be no stock, and secondly, someone would have probably tripped over a crate of beer and sued the shop owner for their twisted ankle and all the damaging effects it has had on their career, mental health, and family life.
Young children are also just wondering around buying things from street stalls at night. In England, everyone would be worried about child abduction and rape. I won't go into all the grievances I have about my home country here, as this is a blog about Korea, but let it be said my irritations are of about equal number and always for different reasons.
Understanding is the key, but what I am not ever in favour of doing is just sitting passively by and saying that this is just their culture and who am I to say whether it is right ot wrong. I am going to call it out when I think someone is wrong, and invoking culture or tradition is not going to get them out of giving me a reasonable answer. If they don't change, then fine, but I am sure as hell going to make my point.
The fact is that most people can't do much about a whole culture's way of behaving and thinking, but subtle protests can make a difference and raise consciousness. For example, some employers in schools in Korea ask unreasonable things of their foreign teachers, like working outside of contract times and doing extra classes without overtime pay. They ask exactly the same of Korean teachers too, they are not being prejudiced and if anything they take far more liberties with Koreans. Korean people can't refuse, however, because they might lose their jobs.
We as foreign teachers can protest, and each time we do, we increase the chances of some Korean people picking up on this idea of contracts, fairness in the workplace, and workers rights, and running with it to improve the work lives of all Koreans in the future.
Of course, our protests usually fall on deaf ears, and a lazy good for nothing foreigner is probably what most will think. You just have to accept this and move on, this is what I have learned, dwelling on this stuff is what causes all the negativity.
In general, you have to just accept the annoying differences in culture, but where I probably differ from most people is that I like to call out things I think are immoral or wrong. Culture should never get in the way of treating people well. If it does get in the way, I say to hell with that part of their (or indeed my own) culture and I will show no respect for it.