Posts tagged life in korea
Posts tagged life in korea
How old are you? It’s a very common question in Korea, but one that Westerners might have trouble answering because of the differences in the counting systems.
If you move to Korea one thing you will have to get used to right away is telling people your age. When Koreans meet and greet each other, that’s usually the first thing they ask or share, right after their name. One of the reasons for this is because the Korean language is divided pretty strictly into different levels of politeness, and the level you use depends on the respective positions of the speaker and listener, which often depends on their respective ages. If two people meet for the first time and are just one year apart in age, the younger one has to use formal language, but the older one does not.
So anyways, when I first got here and was meeting a lot of new people, I got asked my age a lot. And many people were surprised to hear I was only 22, possibly because most people working in this industry are a bit older than that, but also possibly because I really do look older. But there’s a third reason why they might be surprised, and that’s because Koreans are used to their own age counting system, which ends up adding a year or two onto American years. So for Koreans, if you say you’re 22 that puts you right in the middle of your college years, which isn’t what they expect of a full time school/office worker.
So how do they figure I’m 24 when I was born less than 23 years ago? Well, first of all, they start counting years from conception instead of from birth. So on the day you’re born they round up and call you one year old. The second thing is that everyone turns one year older, not on their birthday, but on the first day of the year. So on January 1st everyone in Korea bumps their age up by one year. What this means is that babies born late in the year turn two years old very soon after their birth, whereas their American counterparts would have to wait almost a year longer to turn one.
Crazy, huh? No wonder Koreans all look young for their age. They really are!
So despite the Siberian temperatures of Korea in wintertime, scooters remain the delivery vehicle of choice all year round. Most guys have these huge hockey goalie mitts attached to the handlebars, and some even go the extra mile of insulating them with several layers of plastic bags.
But it is finally getting warmer, so yay! Much as I’m looking forward to the spring, however, I’m almost dreading the summer. I think I’d rather have another winter of cozy sweaters and hot coffee than a swelteringly humid summer. Hmmm.
This is just one of those things that I thought was soooo hilarious when I first got here, but have not become so accustomed to that I hardly notice it anymore: the musical appliances.
First you must understand that EVERYTHING is Samsung here. I can’t think of a single other brand I’ve encountered, except for imported goods. They have a huge complex here in Suwon, so most of our students have either a parent or other family member who works for them.
But what really tickled me at first was that all this Samsung crap really likes to sing. I can’t wash my clothes or turn on my tv or cook my rice without being serenaded. Even my front door gets in on the action! (Remember when the batteries died and I was locked out? Well, turns out I should have been alerted to the dying batteries by the fact that the door played a different tune when I opened it - a longer one that is actually a well known children’s song here.)
But it doesn’t stop with home appliances. When I open the door to the corner shop it doesn’t just ring a bell or buzz to alert the clerk. No, then I have to listen to a stirring electronic rendition of “It’s a Small World After All”. I kid you not. Once it was broken and sadly off key, but still recognizable as the only Disney song never to be copyrighted.
When you’re on the subway platform and the train is coming you are regaled with a trumpet fanfare. (Click here to listen.) If you’re on the train and coming to a transfer stop you get a recording of traditional Korean instruments playing a jolly tune. Because why not?
I think when a Korean person travels to the US they must find it all rather dull and unmusical.
When I first realized that many Koreans run to their doctors as soon as they get a cold, I kind of scoffed at what I saw as a silly indulgence. Coming from America, I’ve been inclined to think of a cold as one of the unfortunate facts of life: yeah it sucks, but it happens to everyone and you just gotta deal with it. It’s not a legitimate excuse for missing work or school, and it’s certainly not worth the hassle and expense (both money and time) of a trip to the doctor’s office. Just take a cough drop and quit whining already.
Well, I’ve recently undergone a slight attitude adjustment when I got sick myself. For one thing, I found that being just a little sick is a more serious problem when you’re a teacher (on your feet a lot, using your voice, etc) than when you’re a student. So I was feeling pretty miserable, until people started asking me, “Why haven’t you been to the doctor’s yet?” (I will say that their concern was slightly tempered with reproach, as in why are inflicting your sickness on the rest of us?)
But anyways, to make a long story short (too late), I now understand why Koreans use doctors this way: because the healthcare system makes it So. Ridiculously. Easy. I walked right into the office, no appointment necessary, and walked out again less than ten minutes later with a prescription. Between the doctor and the pharmacy I spent less than five dollars. And most importantly, the medicine really worked! It was like a miracle. For three days I took an assortment of pills thrice daily, and I felt better almost right away. Mind = blown.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that national healthcare is the way to go. America, get on that please.
There’s nothing better than getting back to your desk for a break and finding a steaming box of mandu (Korean dumplings) waiting for you. Our boss likes to surprise us with dinner sometimes. He’s the best.
One thing I do miss here is having a proper Halloween season. Thankfully I can still go to Dunkin’ Donuts…
People have told me that Koreans are more concerned with their looks than any other group, and there does seem to be something to that generalization. Botox and eyelid surgery are common birthday/graduation presents from parents to daughters. I see just as many ads for men’s skin and hair products as I do for women’s. But what’s interesting to me is the very straightforward attitude most people seem to have about this image obsession. Are Koreans really more image conscious, or are they just more upfront about it?
For example, I ride an elevator everyday to get to work. This elevator has mirrors on all sides, and most people take full advantage of the opportunity to fix their hair/makeup/clothes/general appearance as they wait for their stop. I feel like this is something most Americans would not do. Americans might want to check themselves out in the mirror, but they’d try to do it on the sly, casting surreptitious glances at their reflection when they think nobody’s paying attention. A Korean person feels no such scruples, and often puts their face right up to the glass, blatantly turning their back to their elevator companion like it’s perfectly natural. Which I guess who’s to say it’s not?
Koreans also talk about appearances in a way that Americans might find a little strange. They tell each other when they’re looking good, but also when they’re looking bad, even if they don’t know each other very well (or at all). I’ve had people I just met say “Oh, you’re better than your picture” which I’m not sure is a compliment or not. My students comment on my appearance all the time. Sometimes this is nice (“Mary-teacher, today your hair is very beautiful”) and sometimes it’s less nice. Once when I wore my glasses a girl asked me why. I said no particular reason and she told me I shouldn’t because I was “better without”. I asked her if she thought my glasses were ugly, and she said “Yes!” with this happy smile, pleased as punch. You see, she wasn’t being mean, she was just giving me some advice, trying to help me out, providing a little constructive criticism.
So it was shocking at first to hear people talk about each other’s looks as if they were commenting on the weather, but at least you know you won’t hear a lot of false, polite compliments. In Korea, if you ask “does this make me look fat?” you’re likely to get an honest answer.
Ok. Whose brilliant idea was it to have apartment doors be battery operated? As in, when the battery dies there’s no way to get in. I need to know because I’m going to kill the person responsible for my unexpected brush with homelessness. Getting home late finding yourself locked out is one thing. Not being able to call anyone because you don’t have a phone yet because you don’t have an alien registration card yet because Korea is stupid is another matter entirely. So last night I got to get the real jjimjilbang experience. That is to say, I slept at the public bathhouse/sauna with a bunch of ajummas. They were very nice, and I was disposed to like them since they referred to me as agassi (young lady) as opposed to what I usually get, which is waegookin (foreigner). But then they snored with much gusto and creativity all night long, considerably diminishing my enchantment with the whole experience. In the morning I finally found a maintenance guy to open my door for me. It’s sooooo nice to be back in my own room. If only I didn’t have to go to work in a few short hours. This was not exactly the relaxing end to my weekend that I had envisioned.
Ok. Whose brilliant idea was it to have apartment doors be battery operated? As in, when the battery dies there’s no way to get in. I need to know because I’m going to kill the person responsible for my unexpected brush with homelessness.
Getting home late finding yourself locked out is one thing. Not being able to call anyone because you don’t have a phone yet because you don’t have an alien registration card yet because Korea is stupid is another matter entirely.
So last night I got to get the real jjimjilbang experience. That is to say, I slept at the public bathhouse/sauna with a bunch of ajummas. They were very nice, and I was disposed to like them since they referred to me as agassi (young lady) as opposed to what I usually get, which is waegookin (foreigner). But then they snored with much gusto and creativity all night long, considerably diminishing my enchantment with the whole experience.
In the morning I finally found a maintenance guy to open my door for me. It’s sooooo nice to be back in my own room. If only I didn’t have to go to work in a few short hours. This was not exactly the relaxing end to my weekend that I had envisioned.