Monday, May 27, 2013

Keunyang Culture: 그냥

Actual conversation of this picture:
Me: But whyyyyy?
Them: Okay.
Why do people speak in honorific language?
It is Korean culture.
But why is it Korean culture?
Everyone does this.
But why do they do this?
We were taught by our families?
But why do people teach their children to speak with honor, politely, to people older than them?
Keunyang. “It just is.”

You can feel the frustration rising from both me and my students when this conversation happens. I feel like a four year old, asking the same question over and over again why? why? why? My students, on the other hand, can’t answer and even though they think I’ve contracted some kind of whydisease, never ask my question back at me. “Why, teacher?” never happens.

But my whys never stop. The clever kids come up with, “It is traditional Korean culture” in response to my whys, but eventually, as demonstrated above, we always come back to it: keunyang

Nothing, I lecture my students with an eyeroll, just is. We don’t even have this concept in English because there are reasons for things, but if we did, anyone caught using keunyang would be laughed out of the room. It’s not as though Koreans don’t understand the concept of “because;” on the contrary, they use that expression with ease. The glitch in communication comes when a westerner (me) expects individual thought, individual becauses, and this is where we turn to the dark side of “we Culture.”

If I asked a classroom full of American college students to list “things to do in an elevator,” the whiteboard would be plastered with every student’s efforts to come up with the most novel idea, the clever idea, the one that would set them apart. They would have attacked the question from all sides, imagining the different scenarios in which one was in an elevator. Who with? When? Where? Why? How? to come up with the answer to the what.

Nothing of the sort happened when I gave this assignment to my Korean students as a race. For them it wasn’t a race to be clever; it was a race to delineate all the proper answers they had each been taught before--a race, I might argue, to be the most ordinary. And in doing so they found every single boring answer possible. Some, I think, were so obvious that Americans would have missed them such as “go up” or “breath.”

Korea is an entire nation of unquestioning obedience, accepting cliches and common truths from authority figures as the final arbiter of right action. It all makes an American slightly sick, quite frankly. We learned to criticize our culture from kindergarten, to analyze leaders for their faults and virtues, to evaluate teachers on their technique, to question why why why why why until our parents probably wanted to shut us all in the upstairs closet until we passed that phase, except that curiosity is a good thing that leads to knowledge and then to wisdom.

However, that idea - curiosity=>knowledge=>wisdom - is not necessarily true. It is American. Or, more accurately, a Western thought originating from our Enlightenment period.

I’m not saying I don’t agree with it, nor that it’s useful in a wide variety of circumstances. Questioning authority and individual curiosity is, after all, what gave us the Reformation, rock and roll, and electricity, and I like all of those things (Luther is baller). But the “we culture” and keunyang” brought Korea one of the most impressive economic turnarounds the world has ever seen. Korea perches proudly in the middle of unfriendly giants China and Japan and crazy Kim Jong Un, strong and united the way America never has been or (perceivably) will be.

Moreover, and more applicable, keunyang is how Koreans make it through. Through what, you ask?

Calm down.
Stop asking questions and let things keunyang.

That is my goal for my next few weeks, finishing up my time here in Korea: keunyang-ing it.

Ask the question, search the available database of authoritative answers and, if you come up empty, keunyang.

Why can’t my students understand my directions? Keunyang.
Why do they cut up their faces to look pretty? Keunyang.
Why don’t they read books? Keunyang.
Why don’t they ask questions? Keunyang.
Why did that old lady shove me into the gutter on her way up the bus steps? Keunyang.

Why do all my students dress better than me and have nicer smartphones? Keunyang!

We Can Do It; 우리는 할 수있다!

“Oori,” Jin assured me, “is very important. Americans say “I--na--can do it” but Koreans say “Oori--we--can do it!”

I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a little while now, but for one reason or another (Game of Thrones, Pinterest, killing mosquitoes in my shower) I hadn’t quite gotten to it before now. I don’t remember what Jin and I were talking about when this concept came up because, quite frankly, it relates to most things in Korean society. And then, when I was busy (watching Game of Thrones), Ell wrote this nice little paragraph about “We-Culture” making my own writing obsolete. Observe:

Jjigae, for the uncultured Americans in the crowd, is soup, although Ell could have written this about most foods in Korea. As I've blogged about before and as Ell so aptly alluded to here, food is communal. The MBTI is the Meyers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator test I forced all of my sophomore students to take. Something like 90% of our class were FP (feeling, rather than thinking, and perceiving, rather than judging), a personality type that lends itself well to cooperation and harmony. Sometimes it's enough to make a body think the entire Korean peninsula is full of Hufflepuffs. (There are worse things to fill the peninsula with; mosquitoes, for instance.)

The "We can do it!" mentality is great, sort of. It negates the necessity of thinking for oneself, unfortunately, and allows for a lot of unearned/misplaced trust as well as condemnation if a person doesn't naturally identify with the "we" others expect her to. On the other hand, every day I see my students helping one another, shockingly aware of others around them--and it's not because my students are moral superhumans (they aren't Joffrey, but neither are they Ned Stark). It's because of the "we" mentality.

Next up, the "keunyang" mentality, which is not nearly (I think) so positive.

Stationary, compliments of Thailand.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Make Korea Beautiful

I didn’t recognize my student in the hallway - not an uncommon occurrence for an American living in Korea, even after two years of practice differentiating between shades of brown eyes and black hair. We traded ‘hi’s as we passed, and my brain went into overdrive, flipping through classes and student rosters, semester to semester until it came up with that same pair of eyes. Two steps later I looked back to confirm my conclusion - Alice, Chinese major, Spring 2012 - and saw the girl’s embarrassed smile disappear as she turned away.

The same smile, different eyes, a different chin, a smaller face, paler skin, and longer, darker, straighter hair.

She was prettier, I recognized clinically, but if anything that only increased the eeriness. It was her, but less. A tamped-down version of Sarah, a Sarah with her bones scraped until she resembled hundreds of other young women more than her mother, more than herself. A pale, big-eyed, small-faced, high-nosed Sarah. A perfected Sarah.

My bright student had flung her body, face-first, into the chomping, mashing, stampeding Korean beauty machine. And she had come out beautiful on the other side.

Horrified, I reminded myself of the cultural differences. I reminded myself that I grew up American, fed on a diet of individualism whose main course was pride of self, seasoned with abhorrence of anything artificial or acquiescing. Sarah and the plurality of women here who get plastic surgery grew up Korean, concerned first for social harmony, nurtured by the concept of presentation and the importance of one’s “face,” both literal and metaphorical. Mentally I knew better, but my gut clenched at the image of Sarah cutting herself up to become just one more of the faceless mass emerging from the factory only to blend back into the crowd.

Over the last two years my students have educated me on the why, my first question when I heard the numbers (76% of Korean women get plastic surgery in their 20s and 30s; 25% of mothers with daughters between ages 12 and 16 suggest plastic surgery to them). America has plastic surgery too, of course, but it’s an object of derision in most cases. Plastic surgery is the hallmark of the insecure, the unhealthy, the shallow and bourgeois. Koreans agree it’s for the bourgeois, but for them that’s not a bad thing. Rich is good. As for shallow and insecure, my students use their dictionaries to look up the word “a complex.” People get plastic surgery to take care of inferiority or shyness complexes, they explain, not altogether adequately.

In Korea, plastic surgery is the opposite of inappropriate. There is nothing more appropriate in Korea than seeing a weakness in yourself and shoring it up for the greater societal good (one student defended the practice by saying, “Make Korea beautiful”). Others are only too willing to help. My friend tells me she often is approached by strange older women on the street who tell her to get her teeth fixed. If a girl “needs” to diet, she is told, and more often than not, the girl herself announces it freely.

This commitment to society-rather-than-individual-first makes Koreans far more pragmatic about beauty than I. I’ve watched the Twilight Zone’s “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” music video, so when someone talks to me about improving their beauty - with plastic surgery, diets, creepy pupil-only contacts - I balk at the ideological implications.

It’s obvious such tales have made no impact on Korea when my students defend the pursuit of beauty. They shrug and say, “First impression is important.” Your face is your first impression, they say, and if you want a good job . . . This from students who are willing to forgo reliable sleep for eight years prior to their college entrance exams without the guarantee that all the efforts during these eight years of what they openly denote “torture” will, in the end, pay off and earn them entrance into one of the country’s top three schools. What’s a tiny surgery compared to that?

More later. This is an essay in progress (I hope), but I’m busy writing other things and editing theses and (most prominently) catching up on Game of Thrones, so I haven’t had a chance to post much. Boy I’m getting worse and worse at this blogging thing, huh? :/

Make Korea beautiful (and androgynous!) with snail therapy!
Fujifilm is the way to go for all your photo needs!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Insert Pun About the Beatitudes Here

I’ve been poor of spirit for a few days, and I say that because it is foreshadowing and a biblical allusion (write that down, students; it’ll be on the final exam). Perhaps it has been apparent from my recent blogposts, or lackthereof, but I am down in the proverbial dumps. My isolation has been tough this semester and though my students are unusually excellent, I feel more disconnected than ever as life streams on back home and I stay moored right here on the mountainside teaching students how to write a topic sentence.

The straw that broke this camel’s back most recently was losing my hard drive. I am an idiot when it comes to electronics. Not only can’t I work them, but I’m also a hazard to their health. Two lost cameras, one broken camera, one stepped-on laptop, and one stepped-on kindle speak clearly enough. I also suspect that my college roommate’s ongoing computer problems might have something to do with my bad juju.

But I don’t lose my hard drive. It is everything: pictures, documents, my memory. You know those stupid get-to-know-you games (that I love) that ask things like, “What three things would you rescue if your house is on fire?” My hard drive outguns every other material possession without firing a shot. (You know what thing I wouldn’t take out of my burning apartment? My refrigerator. Which makes more noise than the cats eating each other below my window every night.)

But that last detail, I would tell my sophomore composition students, is extraneous (I wouldn’t use that word). So back to the controlling idea, stated in my winner of a topic sentence: I’m bummed. I’m bummed and I’ve forgotten that I have an appointment with some random student who somehow got my number and texted me yesterday asking for help on something who knows what but I’m late. I ran up the stairs (erm, walked, but at a steady, stomping pace) and found her waiting, smiling.

“Hi!” she said.
I tried not to glower. It was that kind of day. I barreled halfway past her to my office, gestured for her to come along, and managed a bland,  “Hi, what’s your name.”
I’m embarrassed to say that even at my best, Korean names still escape me, so I have no idea what she answered. I think it had an h in it and maybe a y.
“What’s up.”
“Well, I’m teaching English at my church for the children and I don’t English very well and the children English so well and they laugh at my pronunciation.”

Pain is very self-absorbing, you see, so that was the first time that day I really felt something like concern for another human being besides myself.

“Those jerks. Did you smack ‘em?”

I didn’t say that, but I like to think my facial expression did. She went on.

“I saw on your door says “Ask, seek, and knock, so I was so hopeful! I hope for help on pronunciation.”

She obviously hadn’t read the part about “and bring me cookies” that I had added to Matthew 7:7, but I let it slide. She was in earnest.

She handed me a scribbled up paper on which she had printed Matthew 5:1-12 in both English and Korean. Words like “meek” and “mourn” and “righteousness” were underlined and translated in the margins. Diligence was all over that paper in different-colored ink and in the deep crease at the middle of the page. She took out her cell phone and recorded my pronunciation while I read,

“Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said,
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The beatitudes aren’t really a positive thing for me. I’m not meek; I’m not merciful; I’m not pure in heart; I seek arguments rather than peace with ungodly regularity. People don’t usually insult me (to my face at least) because I insult back. Still, I couldn’t help noticing:

Jesus went up on a mountainside and taught. Now, I’m not saying I’m Jesus, but I’m on a mountain and I sat there and taught that girl how to pronounce “inherit” like a boss. But maybe that was simply (as I teach my senior composition students) the “hook” because I read those beatitudes with a lot less attitude than normal.

Be blessed, they said. Be blessed because things aren’t perfect and you aren’t either. Be blessed because there is a time for everything. Stop trying to second-guess me as I turn the world upside down and be. blessed.

The student with possibly a y and an h in her name left my office ten minutes after she’d entered. I wasn’t suddenly energized with happiness and joy and the fruit of the spirit and puppies after her visit. Nor did I find my hard drive. Even now, half a day later, a headache continues to brew behind my eyes. But I was blessed.

Perhaps it was the sign on my door - “Ask, Seek, Knock” - that drew her to me and not my dilapidated spirit, but I’m pretty sure God knew what was up. He saw me go up the mountainside that morning to “teach” and he came too and taught. He smiled at me when I came, red-faced and glowering up the stairs. He beamed. He read my door and sat in my messy office and handed me a creased paper criss-crossed with side-notes and margin translations because he spends his free time tracking down English professors to help him learn how to better pronounce the beatitudes in order to help snotty church-children memorize twelve verses his gospel of Matthew.

Be blessed, you who are poor in spirit, and be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.

Stole this from a student's facebook page. School sports day: most of my students should be in there somewhere proclaiming (in the Latin): Coram Deo - before the face of God.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Dear Korea:

Dear Korea,

A confession: I’m keeping score.

Truly I try not to because I know it’s unwise, unfair and all sorts of other un’s to live with a scale before my eyes, especially when pursuing life away from my home culture. There will always be things I don’t understand, things I prefer simply because I grew up with them. I like sugar and strong women and questioning authority and you don’t. You like uncomplicated enthusiasm and extroversion and acquiescing to a group, and I never will.

We both have to “deal with” the differences and move on with things. That’s the right thing to do, to note the incongruities, accept them and live grace-filled lives within the ambiguity. That’s the lesson we expats are sent overseas to learn, after all, and that’s definitely the Christian thing to do.

Unfortunately, I suck at being a Christian. I always have. I’m probably not a very successful expat, either, considering exactly how racist I think I’m becoming here in my last months in Korea.

So, in case you were wondering, here is where the score stands after this weekend:

In one corner: The stares. The hocking of the many loogies. A drunken indecipherable come-on from old Korean men. The plastic surgery holding everyone’s face together. The enormo-pupil contacts that make women look like hungry Twilight vampires without the sparkle. The money obsession. The hand in my back as you, old lady, push your way onto the bus. The stink of beef jerky from heaven-only-knows who. The rude questions. (“How many times a day do you shower?”) The violent arguments in public. The vomit at the bus station.

In the other corner: two acts of unsought kindness.

On Saturday two rock climbers taught me and my prayer buddy Alison how to boulder. Alison, who knows more than my nothing about rock climbing, found a climbing gym/wall that cost $2, so we decided to have a go. We were making fools of ourselves on the level one bouldering course, until two slender spider-monkey men taught us how to use our legs properly. Learning new things is awesome and even awesomer are the people who gently seek to improve the world.

On Sunday a Korean couple sat behind the foreigner brigade (us) at the Lotte Giants Game. Being more than a little un-crafty, when the promised and long-awaited orange bags were distributed (seriously, I’ve been waiting a year and a half for this), most of us were unable to do proper bag hats. This couple made us not only the bag hat, but also the Minnie-mouse ear-hat and the cute “I’m a Little Monster” ear hat.

In both cases there was no awkward chatter ("It's too bad you have such a red face! Ha!") or ulterior motive (“By the way, now that I’ve helped you, do you want to be my English tutor?”). Both sets of people saw us in “need,” and jumped right in to help.

Thank you for that, Korea. It meant a lot to me, enough that I can pretend I’m not pretty sure how the score still stands.

I’m sorry Korea, that I am and will continue to keep score until I leave. It’s stupid and petty and perhaps I ought to be grateful for my Minnie-Mouse ears and be done with it.  Maybe someday. Someday when I’m a good Christian and a flexible expat. Someday when your people don’t stare at my red face and your women don’t giggle at the thought of doing a push-up and some people choose not to have smartphones just because, but actually they don’t say “just because” but they do have a logical, personal reason for doing so. Until then, you’ve got some serious catching up to do.

Still yours,

(but only for 49 more days)


P.S. I do enjoy your baseball, however. Keep it up. Pics from the game:

Hot dog wrapped in potato and deep-fried.

David and Mary. Actually, Korea, every week they're the ones keeping you in the game. Be proud. Give 'em an MVP some day.

oh the humanity (of brown-haired people)

We sell dried squid here; no peanuts.

Behind us (texting) are our hat-angels.

Once the bags were out the crowd became completely uncontrollable. Also, the giants scored three runs almost immediately after and pulled ahead to win. Bam. Power of the orange bag.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Everyone Has Their Tics

It's not a tic, I promise.

Every time I get on the bus to leave the island, I only sit on the driver's side. Bus 508 (Mondays for tutoring, Wednesdays for Bible study), Bus 7 or 71 (Tuesdays for prayer meeting, Friday for a writing date in the book ally) and even Bus 70 (my mortal enemy): I sit on the driver's side on the way out. On the way back it's the opposite. At Busan Station or the Yeongdo bridge - I only scan the seats on the passenger side, even when it's dark outside, even when it means sitting next to an ahjusshi whose body emanates with kimchi-stink or a woman with a surly slouch taking up more than her share of the seat.

Down the mountain, off the island: driver's side.
Up the mountain, back on the island: passenger's side.

It's not a tic, it's the coast.

Busan is not a beautiful city. Most of my visitors have commented on that. It's colorful (in more ways than one), but it's buildings are not old and its streets are not clean. In gray weather the city embodies grayness.  In the sun it manages a dull smile, but not much more.

Yeongdo, though, is different.

Yeongdo is more colorful than the rest of Busan combined. It baffles the local taxi drivers with its twists and turns. Its ahjummas are louder; its restaurants are smaller, cheaper, and dirtier. Its cockroaches are probably bigger. The literal color of the buildings--odd green and blue roofs, the yellows of signs and the pale oranges of walls--is matched only by their precarious perch hanging off the mountain over the ocean.

The ocean, though, is the best part.

Every day it's different. Today it's an emerald blue. Really. At dusk it's almost pulsing with this blue light foggy and gleaming at the same time. On stormy days the waves add little white caps, little harrumphs of discontent. At night it's an obsidian snake, undulating so smoothly with endless muscle and bright gold where the ship lights illuminate themselves, sentinels over stillness. In the morning it sparkles golden pink or sullen gloom or clouds heavy with righteous anger. It's different every day and I love that I have front-row seats.

Down the mountain, off the island: driver's side.
Up the mountain, back on the island: passenger's side.
Because that's where the coast is.

*Apologies for the substandard posting recently. This semester has been . . . full of things that don't make for good blogposts. I hope to be more posty in the upcoming months.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Unto Us a Blogpost Is Born!

As if we needed more proof to support the idea, “We earn nothing; God provides everything,” today was a fantastic Monday. I say this somewhat hopefully as it’s only 3:00 and plenty more could go wrong from here to lights off, but I’m fairly confident that a day of incidental exploring is hard to sully.

The goodness of today did not start with an hour-long wait at the bank (there’s only two employees who speak English and they were busy). It also did not start when I discovered it cost me $83 to transfer money back home, nor when I barely made it through half a work out since my legs were inexplicably tired from . . . doing nothing except climbing up and down mountains in order to go to the bank.

It was my day off and I was sweaty, red-faced and fresh from a workout, but still I managed to run into bevies of students several of whom wanted to talk and a couple of coworkers including my surrogate grandmother, Annette, and my needy surrogate mother, Nancy, who is a victim of her age and its coinciding with the birth of the USB. Trials.

A little exploring goes a long way.
Maybe that’s when the goodness of this Monday started, because it’s always nice to be able to help the not-so-elderly with computer troubles. On a scale of one to proficient where computers are involved, I am somewhere muddled between two and luddite, so when I am able to be useful, it is cause for great rejoicing.

So I ate egg-on-a-bagel and rejoiced.

After that I spent less than twenty minutes in the national pension office (a chore I had assumed would take several days and many more tons of patience) before being assured I would get about $2000 sometime in September. I can only assume it will cost about $400 to transfer said sum, but that’s still a profit!

With time to spare I checked a map for the nearest library and hopped on a bus which took me wending around the city, up a mountain, and through a picturesque mountainside town. There (or rather here) the library is nestled among the rolling green mountains of Busan, adjacent with Memorial Park and a courtyard in which old men to play checkers.

Unfortunately the library is closed. Fortunately, the weather today is a sunny celebration at 26 C. Mostly I think I’m happy to have had a little adventure today. They seem to come when I least expect it. Even after this past weekend’s puppy café and the excitement of a college acquaintance/buddy visiting, I spent the morning bemoaning the banality of my existence here in Korea to my patient parents.

Lately I’ve been tossing around the idea of writing a memoir of my expat time here in Korea, but I can’t justify the use of paper it would be. It would all boil down to nothing more than a single humbling truth:

I earn nothing; God provides everything.

Even corgis!