Saturday, July 28, 2012

Korean Family 'Pension' Outing

As well as the more controversial article I wrote the other week, I also posted a piece to another website, which was an adaptation of my blog post on my Korean family.  I again received praise but also some quite fierce criticism.  Most of the criticism was based around the argument that I was not trying hard enough with my Korean family.  To summarise what was said I essentially needed to learn more Korean, stop being so selfish, not be so tight, and generally pull my finger out.

On the other hand it was interesting to see where most of the praise and sympathy for my article came from. Almost every time I have had positive comments from readers of my blogs or articles (from articles to do with my Korean family) they have come from Koreans.  I think this is because many Koreans have the same frustrations as I do with their in-laws.  I think most of the negative comments come from Westerners who have a highly politically correct and idealistic attitude towards life, after all I would not be the first to be uncomfortable with their in-laws, regardless of culture.  A few came from Western men married to Korean women in the same position as me, but many came from people who could not really understand my position.

It is important, however, when one receives criticism to analyse it to see if it is justified.  My critics for this piece were not calling me names or building up straw men.  These people had read the article and they disagreed with my attitude and behaviour towards my Korean family.  Did they have a point?  I think it would be very unwise of me to dismiss what they said, they did have a good point although without really understanding my own family background may be they could not know if I was being genuinely lazy or whether these sorts of situations are, frankly, more difficult for me than most people.

With all this in mind it was quite a coincidence that last week my wife, her family, and I were due to go away for the weekend for a family trip to a valley in the mountains.  I had accepted some of the criticism and was set on trying harder and trying to fit in and enjoy myself more in their company.  We had a 'pension' booked in the mountains.  This is a small house that you can hire for a day or so, this is what the word 'pension' means.  The origins of the word appear to be from English, but I have never heard of it meaning a house for hire in the countryside.

The first day was actually rather nice, we found a spot on the river, had a barbecue with lots of food and then cooled off for a swim.  After this we checked into our accommodation for the rest of the day and night.  It was very pleasant, crucially with air conditioning but as always no chairs, just the floor.  We ate more food, then some more, everyone had a afternoon nap and was then ready for even more food; a second barbecue of the day.  It is quite extraordinary how much food my Korean family gets through, they always seem to be eating, they are grazing all day.  None of them are fat, however, and my guess as to why they aren't is that they only really eat meat and vegetables, hardly any carbohydrates except for the odd small bowl of rice and never any junk food.

My wife had a bad stomach so for most of the night I was having to hold conversation with her family by myself, which went quite well.  I think I gave the false impression from my article that I speak very little Korean, from my perspective of having a Korean wife and family, I think I do not speak that much, but from a foreigner in Korea standpoint I am probably rather good at speaking Korean.  With my family I feel especially inadequate, though.  Because we are always in such a large group it can be difficult to get in on conversations and concentrate hard enough about what is going on.  Hours of listening to 6 or 7 plus people speaking Korean very fast with some slang thrown in can be very tiring, trying to listen is the only way you can get a foothold in the conversation and speak yourself.  One on one conversations are always much easier, but I rarely get the chance of these when I am with my wife's family.

My wife's uncle was trying to encourage me to go for a walk in the morning to a temple about 5 or 6 Km away.  I was at least partially interested, except he wanted to leave at 4am in the morning, so I said I would think about it and see how I felt.  When the morning came he tried to wake me up at 4am and there was no chance I was going to go.

Whenever I have spent a weekend with my in-laws or spent back to back days with them, my struggles have often been most apparent.  I think there are a few reasons for this; a) after a long day of sitting uncomfortably on the floor and sleeping on the floor my body is usually a little achy the following day, b) I feel mentally drained from listening to so much Korean and speaking it, c) I never know where or what we are doing next, and d) I have eaten so much protein and not enough carbs that I feel tired.  On the Sunday, therefore, I realised that my patience might be tested, however I was ready to work hard at not get too fed up and take it all in my stride having accepted the critics viewpoint.  It was to prove to be a really frustrating day.

The rough plan was that we would be leaving the pension at 11am and may visit a couple of areas, but be home by about 1 or 2 o'clock.  After some general wondering around going back and forth and not really doing anything, it seemed like it was about time to go home, but the head of the family had other ideas.  The father in-law wanted to go to a near-by town (Damyang) specifically to eat in one famous restaurant.  When I say near-by, it was actually an hour and a half drive away, just to eat lunch remember.  I was slightly irritated but tried to check my frustrations remembering the criticism I had received.  On arrival at the town we could not find the restaurant and were stuck in traffic by a popular noodle-eating spot with lots of restaurants where we sat and ate.  Still determined to find the restaurant, however, my father in-law asked around, got a little more lost and eventually, about 2 and a half hours after we had set off to find it we arrived.

The next problem was because of the restaurant's notoriety, it was heaving with people.  We asked at the desk and the waiting time was about one hour.  We were ordered to sit it out by my wife's father.  With a calm outward appearance, except for the odd twitch starting to develop in my left eye, I asked my wife just why we had taken a now 3 and a half hour detour just when we were supposed to be arriving home merely to eat in a restaurant.  She said that there are different specialty foods all over Korea that towns and provinces are famous for and many Koreans like to visit and sample it for themselves.  Apparently it simply can't be imitated with the same quality, even if other towns or cities are only a matter of tens of miles away.  I was sceptical.  There is a Korean type of logic and reasoning present in many situations that is quite lost on me, I suspect most foreign teachers living in Korea will know what I am talking about.

The situation was being made worse by the searing heat, over thirty degrees and humid.  I hate Korean summer and for the first 20 minutes or so we all had to wait outside as there were so many people waiting inside already.  The owners of the restaurant had some rabbits outside, maybe to amuse the people who had to wait and a few people were going over to feed them, so I had a look.  I have never been overly satisfied with the treatment of pets in Korea and this was no exception; 3 rabbits in a tiny cage, no bedding, dirty, and in the middle of summer with no water either.  One rabbit looked as if it might drop dead right in front of us, so hot it was unable to move.  I asked around for some water for the rabbit, but was looked at rather strangely and then thought the rabbit would probably be better off if it died sooner rather than later anyway and stopped trying.  It was turning into 'one of those Korean days'.

Despite all this, I put myself into a frame of mind where I was not going to be too bothered by it all.  My brother in-law had actually been complaining for about 2 hours that he needed to get back home and meet a friend and was looking thoroughly unamused with it all.  This didn't go down at all well with the rest of the family but I had some sympathy for him, whilst at the same time being rather proud of myself for lasting for so long and not breaking before him.

We eventually sat down and the food came and it was alright, nothing overly special.  The food was tteokgalbi, which I thought I had before but was something rather different, basically it was posh hamburgers with the usual side dishes.  None of us were that hungry as we had eaten noodles a couple of hours previously, so it was all rather a strange exercise to go to so much trouble to eat a restaurant when none of us actually wanted to eat anything.

After another couple of hours in the car driving home, we eventually arrived 5 hours later than planned.  I was exhausted and hot (I slept with an ice cold bottle of water under my shirt most of the way back) but the wife was very happy with me, so I guess I performed well over the weekend.  My attitude was probably a little better but I still view these outings as a bit of a trial.  It is difficult not to when you are not in the loop, and this has nothing to do with the language barrier either as my brother in-law and my wife are not in the loop either.  Decisions are made completely on the whim of the older men, my uncle and father in-law and we all have to follow.  I can improve my attitude and try harder but I find it hard to believe that I will ever be entirely comfortable with that situation.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Rather Enlightening Reaction to my First Article

As a test of my writing ability and see if what I have to say about certain issues interests anyone I decided to post a couple of articles recently on two different websites; and both of which are based in Korea and maintained by Westerners living in Korea.  Both kindly agreed to run them, but the reaction to them was nothing I had ever bargained for.

I love to argue, I guess you could say it is a hobby, but there is a way of doing it and it must follow reasoned position, and most importantly really listening to a different opinion and learning from what is said to refine your own arguments.  One should also always be open to changing their opinions if they can be proved wrong.  I am used to debates in person, however, which is an entirely different matter than in writing.  I am also used to debating with good people and therefore the discussion never get too heated and there is no name throwing or childishness.

In writing it is incredible what people will read into what you have wrote, you have to be crystal clear and even then people will misquote you, smear you, and even blatantly lie in order to give themselves the pleasure of winning an argument.

I had read books and articles before that were controversial and had upset many people and I had read how these authors received hate mail, death threats, and were victims of smear campaigns.  When you read the comments directed at these authors they are all over the place and clearly misquote and misunderstand the point they are trying to make.  These people clearly have a view before commenting that is never going to change and they are not worth the time of day.

What was interesting was to experience this myself.  This week I have been watching the comments roll in about an article I did on drunken Westerners and their sometimes bad behaviour in South Korea.  It spread from one site to many and now it has received hundreds of comments and thousands have read it.  Some argree with me, some don't, and there is a surprisingly large amount that do not seem to care about any reasoned argument at all and are hell-bent just on discrediting me with a mind-boggling array of misrepresentations, obvious lies, and it would seem a complete lack of reading of the actual article itself at all.

At first I was keen to read all comments and reply to some, particularly those that were obvious smears.  I have since realised that it was a mistake to bother, no amount of logic or common sense is ever going to change these people's minds only fuel the fire.

I had heard of many writers, music artists, and film makers saying that they never read what any of the critics said about them but never understood why, surely this would just rob them of the opportunity to learn more about how to improve their work.  I now understand completely.

You see, however thick skinned you are or truly understand how unbelievably stupid some people can be, it is almost impossible not to take comments about your character or personal attacks to heart.  To give an example of this, I follow Ben Fogle, a British adventurer and TV presenter on Twitter.  Recently his trusted companion for many years, his dog died, he always talked about his love for his dog and posted a RIP saying he was heartbroken.  He received kind words from most people but there were a few who sent messages of abuse about his dead dog.  These people have FOLLOWED HIM on Twitter and then made fun of the topic of his dog dying.  How could that not be upsetting?  Unbelievable.  These are the sorts of people I have had to deal with this week. (Note: I would exclude any person who made a comment disagreeing with my point and giving a good reason, my attack is directed only towards those who chose to smear my character in order to discredit the article and avoid the true argument).

It has been a real eye-opener for me at just how ridiculous people can be, I think maybe it is time to stop looking at these comments if I want to continue writing.  You can visit the comments page for my article on the threewisemonkeys website looking for "Drunk and stupid: How debauched foreigners fuel Korean prejudices" and see for yourself, some of the worst comments were on here.

I found a few comments especially amusing.  I had one that described me as a typical foreigner who had lived in Korea too long and saw everything in Korea as pure and clean when compared to the West.  I found that statement highly ironic considering how much Korean culture bashing I have done on my blog.  It seems that as long as you are criticizing Korean culture you are merely telling the truth in the foreigner community here, but if you have any doubts about Western culture you are somehow a traitor whose opinion is fit for immediate ridicule.  I thought it was the Koreans that were supposed to be the xenophobic ones?  The paranoia and general reaction that my article received tells me that there is a fair bit of prejudice in our culture too, except ours is lurking around in dark corners hidden under facade of fairness and political correctness.

I was well aware of this fact before the article.  Back in the UK, when I walked around with my wife during the day there was no visible prejudice, we seemed to fit in like any normal British couple.  Nothing like a few drinks to reveal what some people really think, however, and when we walked around on a Friday or Saturday night it was a very different story.  I was regularly shouted at by groups of people for having a 'Thai bride' and had a few comments about watching my wallet insinuating she was with me for my money (again how little these people know about me, my friends will understand this joke).  There were also quite a number of 'Ching, Chong, Chang' comments and laughter coming from other morons who thought she was Chinese.

A few special little comments were aimed at suggesting the story of drunkenness I talked about never actually happened, that I dreamed it up out of some internet rumour and even that I had admitted that I didn't know when it took place (it was on on the 12th and 13th of May 2012 by the way).  I was invited to it but declined to go, so I knew exactly when it was, I just didn't realise I was under an interrogation at the time, the exact date was not important to the article.  In case you would like any other details 219 people were confirmed as going on the Facebook page and probably more did go.  That is a hell of a lot of people drinking on a small town beach in Korea, the organisers were asking for trouble and they got it.

An official complaint was made about their behaviour to the Jeollanamdo office of education.  The regional coordinator then forwarded what was said (translated obviously) to all of the public school teachers under his charge and was furious about it (note he was obviously not furious at all teachers as every teacher did not go and there were many responsible party-goers of course).  There were one or two who apparently denied some of the accusations but the vast majority accepted responsibility and even admitted more bad behaviour than the original complaint.  Some were upset with themselves and set up a facebook group with the intention of restoring some faith in the local community.  They gave up quickly, however, as I think they were encouraged not to bother and just to let things simmer down a little (see 'Wando Reparations Committee' on facebook).

Maybe some of my critics would like to do some work of the own accord and take a trip to Wando (after all it is a very nice beach and it is summer) with a Korean speaking friend and find out for themselves.  But I suspect the only real reason for bringing the story's authenticity up at all is so they don't have to answer or are uncomfortable with the main point of the article.  Some also said that the Koreans most probably lied about it, again I find this highly ironic that these are the same people who say the way Koreans look at foreigners with suspicion is only because of xenophobia and has nothing to do with our own doing.  People who say such things are guilty of the same prejudice they are accusing Koreans of.

Any regular readers of my blogs can surely see that I don't consider Korean people as blameless innocents in the debate I caused.  In the disagreements between any groups of cultures there are always two sides to any story, however, I gave the other side in this debate and the reaction only confirms what I already know that some in our culture have exactly the same prejudices as some Koreans have.  Perhaps Korean people's xenophobia is worn more on their sleeves with greater conviction (having an ugly colonisation of your country in quite recent history will do that), but we have it too.  Western culture hasn't overcome prejudice and tribalism just yet and our behaviour in our own countries and especially other people's countries could do with some improvement regardless of how other cultures behave.  We still have work to do and it is time to start admitting it.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What is Good About Korea?

Recently, I have posted some negative blogs about Korea, complaining on an array of subjects such as family, morals, Korean men, the treatment of animals, etc.  It is therefore possible that I am leaving some of my readers with the impression that it is all bad and I would rather be back in my own country and as quickly as possible.  This is not the case and I hope I am generally quite balanced with my judgments about Korea because the truth is when weighing up a life in England with a life in Korea the scales are quite evenly balanced.

The truth is that it is much easier to write negatively, maybe this shows me up to be a half-empty kind of guy, but I am sure I am not.  I think there are simply more things to moan about whether you are moaning about England or moaning about Korea.  It is easier to see problems that need to be corrected rather than comment on when things go smoothly, that's all.  After all, when things are going smoothly it is difficult to notice it.  Also, I have noticed that people tend to prefer the negative articles that I write, so maybe the world is a half-empty sort of place.

What is nice about living in Korea is hard to put into words, it is subtle, multi-faceted, and sometimes quite personal.  Much of life is a whole lot less stressful than in England, there is so much convenience here and any problem or errand that needs doing is always taken care of quickly and efficiently.  It also seems as if you are only a very a short walk away from anything you might need; whether it be a gym, a convenience store, a supermarket, or a restaurant.  The food is probably the most convenient thing about Korea; cheap, tasty, and quickly served in an incredible number of restaurants.

There is also something subtly less cynical, more honest, and more innocent about everyday life.  Crime is lower, children are more respectful, there are less alcohol related anti-social behaviour problems, and people trust each other not to steal their property and not to abduct their children.  Because of this, bureacracy is lower causing much less stress and there is simply a nicer feeling generally as there is less suspicion floating around about everyone. 

Maybe part of the reason for a better social atmosphere is that Korea comes across as a classless society.  Apart from the poor old pensioners I see sometimes collected waste cardboard and lugging it around on the street, I genuinely cannot tell the difference between a person on the street with low income and living in the cheapest part of town with someone in the highest paid bracket living in luxury and changing their cars every year, whether it be by appearance or behaviour.  Everyone behaves in the same socially acceptable way and class, income, and the area someone is brought up in have very little effect on this.

Finally, blame culture (apart from traffic accidents) appears to be almost non-existent.  I witnessed a young boy slip on a recently mopped toilet room in a supermarket the other day, where a sign warning about the slippery surface was not erected, and his father just picked him up and walked on with no fuss.  I wondered what would have happened in my country had the same thing occurred in Asda, Sainsburys, or Tescos.  I think pure outrage would have been the answer with a possible threat of compensation and someone would have been in a lot of trouble about it.

In a personal respect I love the terrain of South Korea; very rugged and mountainous.  As an outdoor type of person, never being that far from a mountain and a good hike, bike, or run suits me fine.  My apartment building actually stands right next to a mountain with a hiking course that overlooks the city.  Once out of the building it is literally about 10 metres away.  I always miss the mountains of Korea when I return home. 

Not only is there outdoor adventure on the doorstep I also miss the fact that most of my days in Korea have something new and interesting in them; in a way a cultural adventure.  Sometimes these interesting things are annoying, frustrating, and sometimes even offensive but the cultural differences and challenges keep life interesting and have definitely provided a huge education for me.

Despite my negativity sometimes, coming to Korea for a multitude of reasons (as well as meeting my wife here) has been possibly the greatest decision of my life thus far.  It regularly takes me out of my comfort zone and intrigues me with cultural challenges while at the same time providing a great job, a stress free life, and a chance to meet new and interesting people from all over the English speaking world as well as the Koreans themselves.

So next time you are wondering why I am here if I seem to be whinging like an old man all the time, just know that actually I am in good spirits and very much enjoying the great and fortunate benefits merely being an English speaker gives me.  Coming to Korea is something I would recommend to anyone, it has been a fantastic experience.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Death Anniversaries in Korea - 기제

This month I had the pleasure (or the misfortune) of experiencing a traditional death anniversary with my wife's family here in Korea.  Basically what happens is this: every year on the death of a close family member the family comes together to remember them and make offerings to their spirit in the form of lots of food and drink.

Usually, the women do all the preparing of food, set it up, and clean everything up at the end while the men just sit around eating the food and drinking alcohol around one table.  On another table, food and drink is presented artistically around a picture of the dead family member, or if there is no picture a possession of theirs or a note.  Once everything is in place, relatives of the deceased then take turns in bowing three times at regular intervals to the table, alcohol is poured into a bowl and spoons are placed inside bowls of rice and other dishes so that the spirit can eat if they choose to.

These are the sorts of occasions that some might say I am privileged to be a part of as I receive a true window into Korean culture, and most visitors to Korea would be excited by the thought of sitting in on all this 'culture'.  It is great that I am seen as part of the family and expected to be at these occasions, but I have to say I do not really share the enthusiasm of many for such things and, in fact, it is these occasions that I really dread with my Korean family.

I feel (and must sound) very selfish when I write and say such things and after all I actually do nothing at these gatherings except sit and eat lots of delicious food and do the occasional bit of bowing.  These are also important days for my Korean family so I should just stop complaining and get on with it, right?  Well, here is my problem; there do seem to be a lot of important family days in Korea, with Korean New Year (설날) and Korean Thanksgiving (추석) each lasting three days each and most bank holidays demanding that families spend time together.  On top of this there are the funeral days, wedding anniversaries, and birthdays.  

My problem with it all is the demand, indeed, the command to be present and be present until the oldest in the family think it is alright for you to leave.  This is where my culture's important value of freedom and Korean culture's value of duty clash head on.  Even though I am essentially not doing anything but consuming food that has been made for me while everyone around me is being almost overly kind and courteous to me, I am anything but comfortable.  The care everyone else is showing to me is actually making me doubly uncomfortable with each comment about how I'm feeling, if I am comfortable, if I'd like to stretch my legs, if I would like to eat anymore, if I want water, do I want a lie down, etc.  I feel like they are poking me with a stick, cajoling me into an ever smaller cage as they are asking these questions with an air of advice giving, in effect saying that I should do this and I should eat or drink that.

I want the freedom to choose; a) whether to go in the first place, b) how long I will be staying, c) to be able to make myself comfortable with out being told what position I should sit in or where I should sit, d) to decide what to eat without being told that I should eat this because it is 'good for a man' or whatever other quality the food has or its importance or history in Korea, e) to be able to get my own glass of water, and f) to generally have some control over the situation I find myself in.  The reality is that when it comes to 'f)' I have absolutely no control whatsoever, despite all the pleasantries all I am is a lowly private being ordered to peel potatoes by his superior.  Why?  Because he said so, and I don't have any choice in the matter unless I want to get in big trouble.

It is the benign nature of the situation that makes the time pass even more slowly and also makes me at the same time feel ungrateful for the care and concern that everyone is showing.  They are, almost literally, killing me with kindness, or at least killing my spirit anyway.  Added to this is the inability to relax at any time as I am constantly harassed about how I am feeling or ordered to bow or something else.  It really is the strangest feeling to have to be completely compliant to a group of people while at the same time have them being relentlessly caring about you.  I can assure everyone that in my case, it is not the wonderful experience of genuine culture that it might look like from the outside.  Genuine culture it certainly is, wonderful is certainly is not.

As I mentioned above, it is the killing of the spirit, the feeling that my mind, my freedom, and resistance are being broken that most troubles me about such meetings with my Korean family.  My brother in-law's spirit does seem almost completely broken when he is with his family, which is pretty much the only time I ever see him.  He does not appear to enjoy the company of his family, but he is always there for them.  It is an admirable but ultimately sad feeling I have for him as he is so duty-bound to his parents at all times.  I am gradually learning that what is valued by much of the older generation in Korea generally, is compliance and doing what you are told and/or expected seems never more important when you are with family.

For a good example of this, I shall retell what happened in my second death anniversary gathering just a few weeks ago.  My wife, who is a surgery room nurse, was on emergency surgery all week and she had to stay late at the hospital on the same day as the anniversary of her grandfather's death. This was good news for me as come nearly 9 o'clock she was still working and it looked like I would not have to go.  But, despite my wife having worked for over 12 hours solid that day without a lunchtime they still wanted her to take the 30 minute drive to her uncle's house and stay there for a couple of hours to do the usual things they do.  I was tired too and a little annoyed to be going out at 9pm on a weekday when I usually go to bed at 10pm anyway.  

I was not happy and to cap things off as well as placing food and drink for an offering to her grandfather her family also lit a cigarette for him and place it at the table.  Having a severe hatred for the smell of smoke and already tired and a bit irked at being ordered out at this time, I decided to move to another room and just sleep on the floor.  Being very unsocial I layed there for about two hours not talking to anyone.  I thought I had been quite rude, but when it was time for me to leave they could not have been more thankful to me for just showing up.  I was being part of the family and doing what they had told me to do and they were happy with that all they expected of me was to be there.

This compulsory element to family life leaves me a bit cold and blurs the line of what is genuine kindness and love and what is merely duty.  I have no doubt that there is genuine love and kindness present in my Korean family but what I find difficult to see is exactly when it is showing.  Why are they looking out for me, is it out of genuine worry and love or out of duty?  This leaves me terribly confused sometimes and maybe I regularly mistake kindness for lecturing and family duties and vice-versa. 

The really frustrating element to it all is that I cannot be honest with my parents in law.  Because of this they will never truly understand me and my culture and who I really am.  I think they love and accept me as part of their family and I think I understand them.  However, the truth of the matter is that, in all honesty, I do not love them and they absolutely do not and will not ever understand me as a person.  To love them as family I require them to listen to my honest opinions about matters and respect my freedom and this, quite simply, is not going to happen. 

Due to the respect culture of Korea and the Far East in general a have the strong feeling that parents would prefer to be lied to by their children and be denial about problems or issues but still have the outward show of compliance, respect, and obedience from them.  This is certainly the relationship I see between my brother in-law and his parents and he and I are a mirror of each other when family meets up.  We are both fairly quiet, after all we really have nothing to say, we are just compliant.  This also does nothing to help my Korean speaking.  The problem is I have nothing to say to my in-laws; I have never been one for small talk and like to get quite deep in conversation and this I cannot do.

Sadly, the way I see my Korean family is like a benign dictatorship.  When they want to see me, I have to go, when there are special days I have to be there and for a length of time that they decide, and they are the ones whose advice I should be following.  I can get out of these obligations but I have to lie, or my wife lies for me.  As much as I understand their culture and the reasons they are this way, I value my freedom far too much and for this reason I cannot love them and as time goes by I am increasingly left frustrated by their company.  For this reason, despite the fact that I like them as people, I could not live in Korea for much longer.  One more year is enough.