Saturday, April 28, 2012

Korean Couples

Relationships tend to work a little differently in this part of the world, the differences aren't hard to pick up upon, and many people visiting Korea can notice a number of oddities just walking down the street or on special couple days.  I on the other hand have insider information on all that goes on with Korean couples behind the scenes (not in the bedroom, don't be a pervert) as my wife has obviously had previous boyfriends that are Korean and she has friends who are in relationships. Relationships get no less interesting on closer inspection.

The obvious differences first.  Coupling-up seems to be a far more celebrated thing in this country and there are plenty of different days to celebrate a relationship on.  The main days are those that everyone can notice who stays in Korea for any length of time, and there are 4:

Valentines Day
Koreans have gleefully lept on this, rather commercial, tradition in the West, but do things a little differently and slightly more specific.  Valentines day in Korea is actually a day that women give to the men, and it is almost always chocolate.  Shocking, I know, but don't worry girls there are plenty of other, even more commercialised, days left in the calendar.

White Day (March 14th)
This is the day for the men to give to the women, and on this day it is specifically sweets, or candy as Korean people like to say in Americanised English.  Flowers are rarely given, and a decent bunch of flowers is nowhere to be found, trust me I tried to find some for my wife one day in a bid to be a little more original on this day.  Suffice to say, cutely gift wrapped sweets are everywhere, and there are even people standing outside convenience stores trying to sell them to you.

Black Day (April 14th)
This is a day for all those poor single people to sit together, wearing mostly black, and eat Jjajjangmyeon (Black sauce noodles) and feel sorry for themselves.

Peppero Day (November 11th)
A pretty ingenious idea from a company that makes chocolate covered biscuit sticks in Korea, 'Pepperos'.  The sticks resemble the date, 11/11, which is why the day is on the 11th of November, and boy did they have a field day last year, 11/11/11.  On this day men should give a box (or many boxes) of these chocolate sticks to his love interest.  If he is lucky he might even get one back. 

In my first year in Korea I knew nothing about all this and was slightly perplexed as to why my students were all suddenly giving me chocolate sticks and demanding some in return.  Of course, I later realised that they just all loved me so much. 

Last year, one co-worker of mine, who sits opposite me in the office, received a box of Pepperos that was bigger than her with a love note attached.  She was rather sweetly glowing in equal amounts of happiness and embarrassment.  It was called, 'The Millenium Peppero Box' and contained about 100 normal sized boxes, of which I happily received one, as I received none from my students because I work in a all-boys school.  Other fellow English teachers in other schools were bombarded with boxes of Pepperos from their students, and I was very jealous.

There are also slightly lesser Known days, all falling on the 14th of each month:

Diary Day (January 1st- couples share diaries to celebrate the year to come.
Rose Day (May 14th) - couples exchange roses.
Kiss Day (June 14th) - people kiss everyone they meet (very conservatively).
Silver Day (July 14th) - couples exchange silver accessories.
Green Day (August 14th) - couples enjoy a natural place, whilst drinking soju (in a green bottle).
Photo Day (September 14th) - couples take a photo together and put it somewhere nice to look at.
Wine Day (October 14th) - couples enjoy a glass or two of wine together.
Movie Day (November 14th) - couples watch a movie together.
Hug Day (December 14th) - people hug each other to keep warm in the winter.

There is more as well.  Christmas Day is very much considered a couple day and people usually go on little trips with their loved ones and go to coffee shops, which are festively and cheesily decorated to mark this most Western of holidays. 

But just when you thought that you couldn't throw-up even more into your mouth because of such sickly sweet events, Korean couples go even further.  Anniversaries in my country are usually after one year, some silly couples celebrate after each month, but it certainly isn't mandatory.  There is only one date, which you'd better not forget, and that is a year after your first date.  Not so in Korea.

Anniversaries are celebrated after each 100 days.  I know what your thinking, how do they work this all out?  I would find it impossible to remember, but never fear Korean technology is at hand and many mobile phones come equipped with a countdown application specifically designed to calculate what day of the relationship it is.  Of course, as in every country, it is most important that the man remembers these days, and he is expected to spend the most money.  Women too, however, also do their fair share of spending.

Just when the wallet has taken enough of a battering from all these ridiculous days, there is worse to come (and I haven't even mentioned birthdays either!).  These anniversaries, require Korean couples to give extravagant gifts, and not just a bunch of flowers, a card, or a box of chocolates.  Designer labels are the most popular; bags, watches, clothes, shoes, and Jewellery.  These little treats often amount to a spend of over 500 pounds (about $800) each time, indeed this is the expected amount to be spent. 

My wife's friends regularly show off their new Prada bags, Tommy Hilfiger purses, and Gucci watches.  Quite often their boyfriends only work in a bar.  The girls also buy designer labels in return, though, leaving them both flat broke for the next six months, or the at least until the next 100 days when they have to come up with the cash to spend all over again.

Luckily, I have never had to live up to the same expectations.  My wife doesn't really care about all that kind of stuff, although I am sure she wouldn't be upset with me if I produced some Louis Vuiton merchandise on our next anniversary.  I hate to dash her hopes, but this is never going to happen, as I loathe the whole idea of paying over the odds for a name, when a perfectly suitable option at usually more than a tenth of the price is available. 

Before you think of me a too much of a bad husband and skinflint, I should tell you that I purchased a rather expensive electronic piano for her at Christmas, as I knew she enjoyed playing and was in need of a hobby to relax her after her stressful work day had finished.  I like to buy gifts that really matter and are useful or important.

My wife apparently used to have a (supposedly handsome, but I can't believe it) Korean ex-boyfriend that treated her and her mother and family to regular gifts and was very generous generally, even to my wife's cousin.  They all thought he was great, but I am assured that they think I am a marked improvement in quality of man, and I have done it without buying them hardly anything.

Another common sight on the streets of Korea are couples wearing the same clothes.  Not just the same colour and style, but actually clothes sold together, that are exactly the same but in mens and womens sizes. 

It is even possible to get money off a meal in a restaurant if couples are dressed in these clothes.  I am definitely one for a bargain, but I must refuse this little practice of matching dress.  If I ever did it and it leaked out to my friends back home, I would never live it down, and in fact I would be ashamed of myself if I did it. 

Couple rings are also popular and are probably a slightly more aggreeable alternative.  It's all a bit too materialistic for me, I just can't get my head around it all. 

Here are some examples of what can be regularly seen on the streets of Korea.
When things start to get serious between a couple then they have to run the gauntlet of the in-laws, which is intimidating in most countries and tends to depend on the parents' personalities, but in Korea there seems to be set rules to follow and it is somewhat of a lesson in how to completely suck up.

Parents in-law expect a lot from their son in-law, including regular gifts, endless good manners (no matter how badly they are treated), and money to help them in their old age.

Again I have managed to exempt myself from doing pretty much all of this, I have somehow charmed my way out of it all and my wife certainly does not expect this of me.  Her parents see my regular mistakes, which can include things as simple as refusing some food or a glass of soju, as because I am foreigner and I don't understand their culture.  What they don't know is that I understand most Korean etiquette and culture these days and I just choose not to follow it when I don't want to.

Korean men and women can't get off so lightly, however.  My wife, for example is exceptionally fortunate to have English in-laws.  Some Korean mothers in-law expect their daughters in-law to cook and clean when they come to their house, and are ordered around like a private by a drill sergeant.

They often test potential daughters in-law with specific household tasks, a favourite for their first meeting is to ask them to peel and cut fruit.  They then assess how well they complete the task and deduce from this just how well they will look after their beloved son.  Heaven forbid if they do a bad job on this - if my mother was Korean, my wife would have been screwed.

All in all, trips to the in-laws can be a pretty stressful occasion as more little exams are meted out and mothers in-law treat their daughters in-law like slaves.  For the men it is more about money, gifts, and general politeness.  They must show that they can take care of their partner and also their in-laws in old age.  Mediocre job and he's no good, not a good gift buyer, and he's not a keeper.

Relations with the in-laws certainly are a whole lot easier back home, and there is a whole lot less bowing.  Thankfully, things are changing a little and there are a growing number of Korean families that are no so serious about all of the traditional obstacle courses that are frequently put up.

There is another slightly weird component to Korean relationships, and that is the maintenance of the innocence of women.  I have to admit I think I slightly prefer the cultural personna of what is attractive in a woman in Korea.  Most men really rather like very innocent and cute looking women, and tend not to like the slutty, flirty, and sexy women, or at least they don't show that they do. 

This shows in the discussions I have with my class sometimes about which Korean K-Pop stars are the sexiest (yes, we often have these discussions).  I always go for Ji Yeon in a group called T-ara, but they always counter this argument with the fact that she used to do online sex chat rooms when she was younger before she was famous.  They seem to think that this really diminishes her appeal, to me it makes not one jot of difference. 

When some girls mentioned this to me in a Hagwon I used to teach at, I replied with, 'she was probably just poor and desperate at the time, you should feel bad for her and not judge her', their English was great and understood what I said and looked a bit sad and thoughtful about it afterwards.

Anyway, back to my all-boys school, and they mostly choose a K-Pop artist called IU.  She is quite young, probably about 20 years old, and probably the smallest, cutest, and sweetest looking girl you can possibly imagine, picture an Asian Little Bo Peep with a big lollipop and you won't be far off the reality.  This would be a far cry from an English all-boys high school, where I am sure they would trump the sluttiest and dirtiest looking pop star possible with the biggest breasts. 

Consequently, Korean girls have to maintain this outward personna of innocence and sweetness to all around them if the are to be deemed as attractive. 

Being little is also a huge advantage, and absolutely not an ounce of fat is allowed, and girls will hear about their weight problem even if it's non-existent. 

My wife is often called chubby or fat at work.  Any of you reading this who have met my wife might have some difficulty believing this, but it's true.  Korean people are also not in the least bit afraid of mentioning things like this to people.  Any foreign female teachers that have received horrible comments from their co-workers along these lines should realise that this is just a weird quirk of Korean culture and not feel bad about themselves.

This innocence is sometimes demanded by men in all departments, including in the bedroom.  Many men want a woman who is a virgin, this is their ideal. 

Korean people are among the most jealous people I have ever met, and it would be wise for most women to lie about any previous relationships and especially if one of these relationships was with a foreign man as this seems to really get Korean men's goat (I wonder why?). 

If a Korean woman was to be honest and tell people that she went out with a foreign man once, she might as well set her heart on being a spinster for the rest of the her life.  Some women maintain an ultra-conservative manner because of this and will save themselves completely for the man she is going to marry. 

My wife has told me stories of friends that haven't even had a proper kiss after three years of a relationship, let alone gone to bed together.  Only once a couple is married is kissing and sex permitted among these very prudish couples.  Not all couples are like this, but they must at least maintain this illusion to other people.  Public displays of affection are rarely seen in, and if they are there are visible signs of disgust for other people.  You may see some silly childish behaviour on the streets between couples but hardly ever any kissing and cuddling.

Korean men, however, do not have to show anything but a large wallet and a good job, or at least the illusion of a large wallet and a good job (My trick at home was to leave receipts in my wallet, but in reality moths regularly make a home there).

As I have mentioned before Korean men have possibly the worst manners in the world, Korean women on the other hand are well mannered, sweet, and kind (except when they are working).

Women's patience and politeness can be tested to the limit sometimes, and especially when they are deemed to be single.  I can always remember a horrendous old night club in Suncheon that has since closed in which, rather strangely, all the waiters (there was a dancefloor and a seating area) were big, strong guys.  This is because men sitting down would ask a waiter to bring girls to their tables.  They could be any girl in the club that they fancied.  Unless the woman was with a boyfriend, they couldn't refuse this request, and the waiters would sometimes quite forcefully take them by the arm and drag them to the table full of men, where they had to at least be polite and stay there talking for five minutes with spineless and creepy guys slobbering all over them.  My wife did inform me, however, that some girls quite like all the attention of these men.

Once married, women have to maintain strict loyalty to their husband, and any affair would be a very serious matter indeed.  Men on the other hand are on a slightly slacker leash, and the attitude to men having affairs or ordering a prostitute, for example, is not as harsh (as long as they are not found out). 

This is the reason that there are so many 'Love Motels' in almost every city you go to in Korea.  There main purpose is to facilitate seedy undercover affairs and sex without anybody finding out.  This is why the car parks for these places are covered by a plastic screen and are always indoors, and the receptionists are always behinds an opaque window, where only their hands can be seen. 

These places feel so odd and out of character for such a conservative nation when it comes to sex, but to Koreans Love Motels are just a mirage, they don't really exist, and no one talks about them, they might as well be invisible despite their abundence. 

Divorce is completely unacceptable and very few couples, no matter how unhappy they are do it.  Divorce considerably lowers status, and can taint the children of the family with silly superstitions.  For example, my in-laws were quite worried that because my mother and father divorced, I would do the same with their daughter, they thought it might run in the family like some kind of genetic disease.

Below: A typical 'Love Motel' with plastic strips to hide the cars parked in the car park and an entrance area where you don't have to see the receptionist's face, just in case people get recognised and word gets around.

All of this appears to paint Korean women in a very submissive role in relationships, with the men in charge and the women having to put up with disloyalty and mistreatment.  This is sometimes the case, but most Korean women are not at all to be trifled with, they can be a terrifying adversary if you get on the wrong side of them. 

One gets the feeling that the women usually wear the trousers in relationships.  My wife certainly has a little bit of a dragon in her, but fortunately I know how to put out the fire she can blow out from time to time.  We are actually quite opposite in many ways and maybe the fire and water analogy works well, we have a strange way of suiting each other, but it works.

I can't comprehend how the average Korean copes in everyday life in relationships, it is all so complicated and unbelievably expensive.  No wonder they work so hard, have no vacation time, and never travel.  They must need to go to work to have a break from their relationships and to fund them, it all feels like no fun to me.

Thankfully, all my wife demands of me is to love her, treat her well, and see her parents every now and then and be civil to them.  No gifts, no money, and she understands (although can become a little irritated, it has to be said) when I ignore what I know about her culture and refuse the etiquette demanded of the average Korean man and son in-law.

More and more Korean couples and families are losing the traditional nonsense that gives so much stress to everyone involved, but are embracing the modern nonsense instead with the ever increasing amount of couple days and intolerably cute lovey-dovey behaviour.  This is all an improvement, I guess, and at least provides a touch of amusement and is all quite sweet really.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Mr 유

In my blog a couple of weeks ago I showed a certain amount of disdain for Korean men, in a nutshell saying that they were a combination of ignorant, insecure, unfriendly, rude, overly competitive and patriotic.  I made an exception, however, and that was Mr 유 (Yu), a co-teacher of mine at my school.  I have known a few others also that betray their fellow countryman's nature and are genuinely nice, but Mr 유 might be the best of the lot.

When I first came to my current school, I was assigned three co-teachers.  They were not English teachers, as you might expect, but consisted of two Japanese teachers and a music teacher.  The Japanese teachers could not speak a word of English and were worse than useless.  The music teacher was Mr 유 who could speak English pretty well, and proved useful in lessons and was very kind and helpful generally.  Initially, however, a little too kind.

Some foreign teachers in Korea report male co-teachers that they think are a little perverted, creepy,  and maybe closet homosexuals who stroke their inner-thigh too much.  Mr 유 was nothing like that but his kindness worried me in another way.  I've had uncomfortable relationships with Korean men before, where they just kill you with kindness.  They can't seem to find that happy medium between being all the annoying bad things and being overly friendly and generous.

I am quite a self-reliant man and call me cynical but I get uncomfortable when people are constantly doing favours for me, and I start feeling like I owe them something.  I'd rather they just do nothing for me and we find something in common that we can enjoy doing like playing sport, for example.

Sometimes, in the past I would go out with some friends and the odd Korean man would come along, and the Korean would treat us to free drinks, or to dinner, which sounds great, but it was usually done automatically without asking us if it was OK.  I would have been far happier contributing towards the cost, and if I knew they were going to pay for everything, I wouldn't have eaten and I wouldn't have drunk.  I don't want to be in someone's debt all the time.  I am a famous skinflint but I don't let people pay for me all the time, I just don't buy things in the first place.

Mr 유 was perpetrating the same misdemeanour as other Korean men I had known before, and I was becoming uncomfortable.  It all started with him treating me to lunch once a week and refusing to let me pay, ever.  He would request the bill before we ate when I mentioned I was going to pay, he genuinely wouldn't have any of it.

He heard about me enjoying the odd run and wanted to join me in my early morning runs.  We ran once and I was a little too fast for him, but he wanted to run more, but never got round to it.  He took me to play squash twice as he heard that I liked to play, and each time he just sat and watched as I played someone he had organised, who he knew might be of a good enough standard to give me a good game.  After driving sometimes for up to an hour to the squash club after school, he would then treat me for dinner and offer to buy me a drink and he (of course) would never accept money for petrol.

I was invited to his house to meet his family, invited to go with him to a famous historical city in Korea with his family, go out to dinner most weeks, and he gave me his son's bike to use while he was in the military.

My head was spinning, there was no way I could be as kind as him in return, he was killing me with kindness.

The thing that made me feel really horrible, however, is that I powerfully didn't want to spend that much time with him. I mean, I like the guy but he is about 50 years old with a family and I was spending more time with him over a week than I spent with my best friends in England and possibly he did with his own family.  I had to start refusing his kind offers, which was painfully hard as he was such a nice guy and he had already done so much to help me and was generally being so nice to me.

So, I gradually started saying no more and more, to the point that he started looking a bit dejected and disappointed.  He is a genuinely nice guy who doesn't expect anything in return, and I felt pretty guilty.  He stopped asking me to do things, so I took the lead and offered to take him and his wife for dinner sometimes and see if he wanted to go for a run occasionally.  I think he appreciated this and since then the relationship between me and him is a lot more balanced and comfortable, and I think he has realised that I want to contribute towards things too.

Mr 유 is an interesting guy and I sense that his interest in being my friend is completely genuine.  He certainly doesn't need friends as he is a popular, well recognised man around Suncheon, where I live.

He is a Baritone singer and he holds regular concerts, not just in Suncheon, but actually all over Korea.  For this reason he is definitely not short of money and is unusually well traveled for a Korean, and uses most of his holidays from school to go abroad with his family.

This is a common pattern I have discovered with many Korean people that I like, they are almost always well traveled.  Some of them can only speak English as well as I can speak Korean, but there is something different about them, an openness of mind and a comfort with non-Koreans that I don't see in the majority of Korean people that have never really traveled.  

Contrary to the majority of rich Korean people I have met, however, he is not at all arrogant or boastful of his achievements or where he has traveled to.  He has even mentioned to my wife how he has learnt a lot from me from how I teach at the school.  This is one of the greatest compliments from anyone, let alone an older Korean man, and shows a humility that only an educated, wise, confident, and intelligent man can have.

Unlike so many Korean men I have met, he is not out to prove himself to me, he is not threatened by me, and he doesn't demand respect, in fact, he earns the respect he gets from his exemplary manner and his accomplishments in life.  I truly admire and respect the man, and I realise that all the problems I had with him in the beginning was down to a cultural misunderstanding, and he was just trying to be as welcoming and good to me as he could.  Now we understand each other much better.

Mr 유's singing is fantastic and he regularly gives me and my wife tickets to his performances.  The extraordinary thing is he sings in so many different languages.  Because he is a singer of classical music, which is mainly European, he memorizes the words of songs in English, German, Italian, French, and Spanish, and what is truly extraordinary is that the end result is pretty decent.  The only time I didn't quite appreciate his singing is when he sang 'My Way' by Frank Sinatra.  I wasn't quite feeling it and I was noticing the mispronunciation a little too much, but usually his performances are superb.  I don't know how he finds the time to memorize and practice, when he spends so much time at work at the school, he has a fantastic dedication and passion for his music.

He has also got me out of a few sticky situations.  I think every school in Korea has at least one closet homosexual, creepy teacher, and my school is no exception.  I find that he somehow crawls up alongside me like a centipede, and asks me questions in overly complicated English, that most of the time turn out to be incomprehensible.

He tried to ask for my mobile phone number once at lunch, which I didn't know and didn't have my phone with me.  Politely, I said Mr 유 had it, but he then blatantly ignored me and pretended to be busy with someone else.  Strange, I thought, but later Mr 유 informed me that the creepy teacher (Mr 이) was a big drinker and that I wouldn't enjoy his company.  I thanked him, as it was already crystal clear that Mr 이's company was unbearable with him sober, let alone drunk.

Mr 이 (Lee) did collar me for lunch one day, however, and we sat in a local restaurant for nearly 45 minutes in almost complete silence.  I tried to speak Korean to him, but he told me not to, and to speak English only, and then when I spoke English he gave me one word answers.  The only thing he said the whole time was, 'do you like soju?' to which I carefully replied, 'I love Korean food, but I am sorry, I really hate soju'.  After a short pause he then said, 'hmm, we must drink soju together sometime'.  I didn't quite know what to say to him after that.

Another time Mr 유 saved me was at a staff trip.  At the end of term all the staff in the school were required to go on a staff trip to a nearby seaside town.  It was the middle of winter and bitterly cold, not the ideal weather for a excursion to the beach.

The bus journey there was a sign of things to come, as beer and dried squid snacks were roundly distributed, followed by Karaoke on the bus.  After a short, but very steep, walk to a temple near the sea, we arrived at the hotel.  I was to be sleeping in one big room, on the floor, with about ten Korean co-workers, all men of course.  I was dreading the night to come.

At 8 o'clock things were already starting to get a little rowdy at dinner because of excessive soju consumption.  I was sticking to moderate quantities of 복분자 (Bokbunja), which is a delicious raspberry wine that has the reputation for being excellent for men, producing a strong erection, and is also rumoured to make you urinate with such force as to be able to brake toilet bowls.

Anyway, I had heard that the usual plan was for all of the men to drink until the early hours of the morning (until about 7am!), first in the restaurant, then in a local bar, but mostly in our hotel rooms.

This spelled disaster for me, as anyone who knows me will be aware that anything past 11pm is far too late for me and I am looking to go home and go to bed.  Just when I thought that I would have to live through my worst nightmare, Mr 유 came to the rescue.  He had a bit of a cold and had to sing in a concert the next day, so he drove himself to the staff outing with a view to going early.

Understanding that the evening was probably not gong to be my cup of tea, he offered to give me a lift home that night.  Before he was able to finish his sentence, I had my bags packed and was ready to go.

He had saved me a night of unparalleled misery of being up until 7 o'clock in the morning drinking soju, with some very drunk Korean men, followed by sleeping on the floor together with all of them. I suppose the whole thing would have made for an interesting blog, but that's the only good thing that could have come out of it.

So there you have it, Mr 유 is a diamond in the very rough category of Korean men.  There some out there that are secure enough in themselves not to worry about respect, and trying to prove themselves.

Perhaps they all need to travel and/or be genuine friends with the foreigners that visit their country.

Maybe some of you may have noticed that I seem to use the word 'foreigner' quite a lot in my blog writing.  It's strange as I don't think I ever used this word in my own country, it's because this word is used an awful lot here in Korea.  The use of this word has an 'us' and 'them' feel to it.  You can here this word being spoken pretty much every time you pass a crowd of Korean people.

Anyone who is not Korean gets lumped in to this same term, and maybe the first thing that Korean people need to do to limit their habit of discrimination, whether it is positive discrimination, negative or neutral, is to stop using this term.  Those that have participated in genuine travel to other countries and understood cultures different to their own, realise that essentially we are all the same and that genuine friends and at least genuine interactions, are important to everyone.  I get the feeling that many men, in particular, don't understand this in Korea and I firmly appreciate the few that do.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Being Negative in Korea and the Worst of All Beginnings.

Many people come to South Korea to work. and for some. the change of culture can be too great.  It is very easy to fall into a negative frame of mind and wish for a swift end to your stay.  Most foreigners, out of a sense of duty, and also a tidy sum in their back pocket at the end of it all, see out their contracts as teachers.  But a year is a long time and it is almost possible to see some people walking around with a permanent black cloud over their heads.  I should know, I myself was one of them.

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.

After a boozy night of sweaty dancing I was exhausted, smelly (after bringing with me a puzzlingly funky shirt), homesick, hot, and thoroughly pissed off.  Everything was in the line of fire, convenience store clerks, convenience store decorations, Koreans on the street, Koreans in their cars on the street, and an Irish girl accusing me of supporting a country that had oppressed the Irish for so many years. 

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. 

They also smoke everywhere, which is of particular annoyance to me.  In toilets, on the street, in bars and restaurants, in shop door ways, and in their own bathrooms at home, which because people tend to live closely together, inevitably ends up seeping into your own bathroom via the air vent. 

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: Hi.
Me: Hello.
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!?
Me: Yes.
Stranger: Bye.
Me: Bye-bye.

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.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Korean People - The Men

Korea is a place torn between two extremes; on the one side there is a very traditional way of thinking, with a great emphasis placed on respect and social etiquette.  And on the other side is the freer more adventurous way of thinking of the modern world, which has largely been imported from the west.  This divide in their culture is becoming more and more apparent and the partition is usually between men and older people on the conservative and traditional side and women and young people on the more liberal and adventurous side.

Korean men can be a bit of a strange and sometimes intimidating bunch to a foreigner.  They are open-minded when they are young, and teaching high school students is a real joy because of this, but then they seem to reach a certain age and it all goes out of the window.  I reckon it happens when they hit their mid-twenties and my theory is that this is the time when they start demanding respect from those that are younger than them.

They start buying in to the respect culture which they so hated as a young person because they never got it, but now they are a little older, it's their turn.  They turn from these charming, modest young men into jealous, arrogant men that demand the respect of others.  I am sure there are many exceptions to this rule, but I see it happen all too often.

The same phenomenon also occurs with Korean women in their attitude towards other women, as my wife routinely experiences at work in the hospital.  Young Korean nurses are bullied by older nurses frequently, and one would have thought that when these same nurses got older they would be more forgiving on the next crop of young nurses, but it seems like this rarely happens.

From a foreigner's perspective, however, women seem to hold on to the friendliness and open-mindedness they had when they were younger for a much longer period of time.  I find the women in Korea much more approachable, friendly, and talkative than Korean men.  Again there are exceptions and at this point I would like to give a mention to one of my co-teachers, who is nearly 50 years old, and who is all of the good things I mentioned above and a really nice guy.

Too often though, Korean men come across as needing to mark their territory against me, and if they are not doing this sometimes they have a certain creepiness about them, which I am sure many a foreign teacher living in Korea can recognise.  This creepy feeling I get from some Korean men is either from their strange habit of touching your leg or the inner thigh area with gay abandon (pardon the pun) or from a general feeling of distrust, a feeling like they are not telling you something.

This feeling is difficult to describe but it is the feeling that if you walked with them, say to a mountain one day, that they might just shove you over the edge of a cliff when no-one is looking (this is metaphorical, of course).  It is that feeling that we are not one of them, we are not from their tribe, and the kindness they are currently showing is not going to last, especially not when push comes to shove.  I could be wrong about all this, but this is the feeling I get from many of them, and this feeling is backed up but what I see when we as foreigners compete against them, which is usually in a sporting context.

I myself have competed against Koreans in Korea on a number of occasions in running, squash, and boxing, and I have experienced the feeling of overly competitive (to the point of cheating), and jealous behaviour on a number of occasions.  Here are some examples:


When I was younger I was a pretty decent squash player, and have done a fair amount of squash coaching back home in England where the game is very strong and currently boasts the world number 1 squash player.  In Korea the game has only a small following around the country, and therefore the standard is not nearly as high.  In my first year in Korea I turned up to my local squash club in Suncheon, and fortunately, there were two good players playing at the club, one was a talented coach and the other was playing the professional circuit in Korea.

This was brilliant for me because I had a couple high standard players to play, but also remember this should have been a blessing for them too because outside of Seoul, good competition is hard to come by.  I should have been the perfect playing partner, especially for the guy you wanted to play professionally.  I was just a little better than both of them, but they could give me a good game and if I was playing badly they had the ability to upset me.

Trust me when I say, that if you are looking to improve at any sport, you want to be around better players, so you can test yourself and learn from them.  In contrast, however, what I found is that after a few months, they weren't interested in playing and practicing with me.  Now I can't say this for sure, because my Korean was particularly bad at the time, but I am fairly sure this was because they really hated losing matches against me.

This was confirmed a year or so later, when it turned out that one of the players at the squash club was an ex-student of my co-teacher.  We arranged another game and my co-teacher asked him who was the better player.  This is, of course, an awkward question and sporting etiquette usually gives you an answer of, 'well we are about the same, there's not a lot in it', even if you are not and you yourself always win.  Before I could answer with this reply to my co-teacher's question, my opponent quickly answered (translated), 'well I am, I have won the last few times'. Not only is this against the sportsman's code, but it was also a blatant lie.  I had played this man maybe 25 times and he had won only twice, and not in the last 10 attempts.  Bare in mind also that I would play maybe once in two weeks and he was playing everyday.

I was annoyed, and despite the fact I hadn't played in about 8 months set about beating him to get my own back.  The following week he invited me to another squash club where I beat him again, but then he made me play two other good standard players, and then played me again afterwards to try and get the win.  I had played 10 games of squash at this point and I was feeling damn tired and it was also only the second time I had played in 8 months, my body was a mess.  He got his win, and one felt his self-satisfaction that he could claim to have beaten me the last time we played.  I have not yet received another invite to play him again, whereas before he was very keen on phoning my co-teacher, asking me to play.

I did also play one professional tournament in Korea, where I met the Korean number 3 squash player in the third round.  It was quite a tough match and very close, which he won in the deciding game 14-12.  He was a nice guy and a gracious winner, the same could not be said of the crowd and the referee.  Disgrace.  Every decision went in the Korean player's favour and the crowd were raucous in their cheers and applause for every point he won, and no matter how good a shot I played to win a point, I was greeted with complete silence, apart from the odd groan of disappointment.

I took to applauding my own shots, which made them like me even more.  I also used an array of South of England slang words to abuse the referee with to make me feel better and the racket flew across the court on a couple of occasions.  I haven't been invited back to any other tournaments and I don't think I would want to go if this was going to be their attitude anyway.  All eyes were on me, no one was in the least bit interested in the fair contest of the sport, they were just all hoping that the foreigner loses.


I have also had a couple of boxing bouts in Korea, in the early days again.  The first was a rout and can be seen on my facebook page if you fancy having a good chuckle.  I hurt him early on with a body shot and after that he pretty much spent the rest of the fight running away from me, easy win.

The second fight came around and at the last minute my fight was changed to the same fighter as before, and also with an extra stipulation, we had to wear stomach guards.  This was all in the 5 minutes leading up to the fight, I had no choice but to agree.  He was a very tall man, and my tactic in the previous fight was to hit him in the body, this was negated this time as he pressed forward in great confidence that I wasn't going to be able to hurt him to his body.  He won a close fight on a decision.

Even in practice, the same competitive streak against me could be felt.  The first time I sparred, I sparred against a guy who had been kickboxing for 15 years and was coaching at the gym.  I thought he'd go easy on me, I was wrong.  He battered me for 3 rounds.  I was very dazed afterwards, as he had hit me more times than I can remember (it is not surprising I suffered some memory loss) squarely in the head.  The one consolation is that he seemed to be breathing rather heavily at the end, probably from the amount of punches he was throwing.  What was his motivation for blatantly beating up on an absolute novice?  Would he had done the same on a Korean man?  I doubt it.

A fellow waygook (foreigner in Korean) had a similar experience when he decided to take up Taekwondo.  He had practiced the Korean martial art of kicking in the US when he was younger for a brief period of time, but had not done it for about 15 years.  He was immediately thrown in to sparring bouts with the black belts, and after a few bruises the inevitable happened.  One particularly enthusiastic black belt did a spinning back kick which landed perfectly in my friends' face.  After an x-ray it was shown that he had cracked a bone in the back of his eye-socket, which meant no exercise of any kind (as the shock of even jogging could affect it) for about 2 months. Upon hearing this story I was not at all surprised.

I am afraid to say the overwhelming feeling I get when meeting many Korean men is that they feel they have a point to prove against me.  I don't know whether this is because they feel threatened personally or they are taking a kind of patriotic stance on things, and showing that Korea is great, but it doesn't bode well for friendship.  It is a shame because I was keen on making Korean friends and not just to come to Korea to socialize with other foreign teachers.

My task is made more difficult because I am at heart a sportsman and I want to socialize through sport or some form of exercise.  In almost three years I only have one Korean man who I can call my friend, and that is my co-teacher, he is fantastic but he is 50 years old.  It is not like I haven't tried to make Korean friends, this also hasn't aided my ability to speak the Korean language, which I am keen on developing.  Another area that has hamstrung me is my dislike for soju (a cheap Korean spirit) and smoking, which appear to be Korean people's favourite vices.

Korea remains a patriarchal society, in which greater respect is shown to men because of the history of Confucianism.  This is certainly a large part of why Korean men are like the way they are.  But I think there are other factors.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, Korean people have a natural suspicion of foreigners in their country.  This comes from their not too distant history, where they have had to put up with multiple invasions and mistreatment from Japan in particular.  There were attempts from the Japanese to wipe the culture and language of the Koreans off the face of the planet.  South Koreans on the whole have reacted well to this bitter history by proving they can compete in business on the world stage and they should quite rightly be proud of themselves.  They could have so easily gone the other way and ended up like North Korea, whose suspicion of foreigners is legendary.

Nevertheless, South Koreans still have this attitude of nervousness embedded quite deeply in their cultural thinking and as most countries in the world have some degree of tribalism anyway, it is easy to see how they can be pushed over the edge and treat foreigners unfairly.  Of course this doesn't happen with their women, who are mostly very nice, welcoming,  often shy, but curious of people from other cultures, but then again it's the men that fight and men that usually cause all the trouble in the world isn't it?

It is often easy to sound racist sometimes and pigeon hole people, races, and cultures into stereotypes, but some things are just plainly true and there is no getting away from it.  There is another reason that I think Korean men seem defensive and even overly competitive against foreign people in their country, and that it the well known phenomenon of 'small-man syndrome'.

I don't think it is racist to say that generally Korean and Asian people are smaller than white and black people.  You can point to exceptions, of course you can, but I can assure everyone, they are smaller.  Even today, I went out shopping to find some T-shirts and I went to a shop downtown in Suncheon, whose owner is a friend of my wife, I tried on about 3 or 4 T-Shirts and they were all far too small and they had no sizes big enough.  Bear in mind I am not a big man, maybe 5"10 and fairly slim (although with a solid pair of shoulders, arms, and pecs!).

Also, the size issue is also very apparent in penis size, as my students last week confirmed they know all too well about.  Again this is a stereotype, but with a lot of truth.  As a man who has been not particularly short-changed, but also not especially blessed in that department, I can tell you I am slightly emboldened and strut through the changing rooms at my local gym with more confidence than I might back home.

Any women reading this might think I am just being vulgar, and this is a fairly pathetic line of argument, but most men will recognise that this is not irrelevant to explain defensive behaviour.  Most people will obviously (and should be) above this stuff and not care about it all too much, but the fact is that some do and there is no getting away from it, it can be a factor.

On top of this Korean society lusts for a Western look.  Plastic surgery to make the nose higher is popular, and many envy different colour hair and eyes.  It is possible that Korean men may be a bit worried that Korean women find western men more attractive, and this is another reason that some feel that they have something to prove.

One positive reason for competitive behaviour could just be extreme patriotism, which can sometimes be commendable and many Korean people show a great deal of pride in their country, and are justified in many ways as they have been through a lot and have come out shining with one of the most rapidly growing countries ever.  One should always be careful not to be too patriotic, however, and take heed of Oscar Wilde's warnings of patriotism being the 'Virtue of the vicious'.  Too much love for one's country can also come across as being a little desperate to show off and many people outside of the said country can begin to be very skeptical and dismiss legitimate achievements.

The insecurity with regard to foreigners does seem to wear off with the wisdom of age, and I don't see it in those aged over 40 or so.  However, it is replaced by a slightly arrogant and magnanimous aura about them and many seem to walk around with the look of a man that feels the world owes him a great deal of respect, just because he is old.  I think my father in-law is great but he does have this attitude sometimes, the attitude that what he says goes and he can do pretty much whatever he likes because he is the head of the family.

Older people do deserve respect in general, but men and women should be equal, and it is unfortunate that this equality doesn't quite exist yet here in Korea.  The uneven balance of respect between the sexes makes the women charmingly humble and many men annoyingly arrogant.  Again, I should stress that I know of some exceptions to this rule.

This might seem a slightly negative blog post and I guess it is, but it does represent my genuine frustrations with the less fair 50% of the Korean population.  These are attitudes I don't see changing in the near future, unless a genuine equality of the sexes takes hold in this country.  I don't this will be forthcoming, however, as the rules of social harmony laid down in their history have a much stronger hold on the people than in our cultures in the west, where the overriding principles are fairness, freedom, equality, and respect for individuality.

These principles are not so prescient in Eastern culture and so it therefore is harder to see great changes happening in the moral landscape on these issues than we see in Western countries.  Men are always the trouble makers in all countries and we do have our fair share in England too.  Anybody reading this thinking I have given an unfair account, please read my previous blogs and realise that I think the children in Korea are top notch, and generally kids here are much nicer, more respectful, and funnier than in my own country, they are a real joy.  The only problem in Korea is that the boys have to grow up into men, and that is where it all goes wrong.