29 08 2010

He picked me up in his old, beat up Kia and we headed to The Coffee Bean for 4,000₩ Americanos and language exchange.  He is back in Korea after a year studying abroad in Melbourne, Australia.  The 9AM sunlight was too much for our eyes that morning, though he had a legitimate excuse having had only 3 hours of sleep after a long night of English to Korean translation for the new side job he had picked up, not to supplement income (as it pays shit, apparently) but because he “loves English”.  I tell him of my plans for future travel and other countries I dream to teach in.  My ever-lingering, slight guilt is even more present while I muse of these things to him; how is it fair that my luck of a birthplace in an English speaking country allows me to throw the daily grind to the wind and travel the world, while he wants nothing more than to return to the land of 6PM BBQ’s, beer and relaxation, but is unable?  Instead, he will head to work at his family owned coffee shop for his 11 hour shift, for the 7th day this week.  All of which is endured for a measly 1,000,000₩ per month (half what I make for my 7 hours/5 days per week).   He gets no days off unless he asks his step mother for it, from which he tries to refrain at all costs to avoid creating any tension between her and his sick, aging father.  Naturally, he will take over the shop when his parents retire.

Korean fathers play a role of omnipotence/omniscience in the family that is strongly projected to the children.  One day not too long ago, his father broke down to him, admitting regret for having bought the coffee shop as he is getting old and they are loosing money.  It was the first and only time he had seen his father like this; in that moment he appeared weak and it was too much to bear seeing him like that, so in love and pity he agreed to take over the shop, knowing and accepting the constraints this promise would hold on his life.  His dream of life as a businessman and return to Australia is even further off now.  So he does all he can do, which is go to work everyday and make the best of the situation.  It is his mission to make sure every customer walks out of the shop with a smile on his face as it gives him some purpose there.  He wants everyone around him to be happy.

He has been dating his girlfriend for 5 years, and she speaks of wanting to leave Korea as well, but to much frustration does not know a word of English and has no plans to learn.  He wants to move to Australia and have children there so they can grow up bi-lingual and with better job opportunities than they have in Korea, but this dream will be even more difficult to achieve if his wife doesn’t speak English.

He asks me what my greatest accomplishment is in life, a question to which I had no idea how to answer.  I scanned my brain for any certificates, awards, or the like I may have picked up along the way and tossed in a drawer of the dresser that now collects dust in a $47 a month storage unit in West Valley, Utah, but none came to mind.  I told him this, that I couldn’t give him the answer I was sure he was looking for as I don’t judge my life’s accomplishments by paper certificates, but by my experiences, level of happiness, and relationships.  He said that living in Australia made him agree with me.  He grew up like any other Korean child, working tirelessly to obtain this certificate, that award, the best grades, so one day he could hopefully find a good job where he would be overworked until he could retire at a very old age.  He jumped through those hoops and is now in a situation where he can’t even go out to find his own career.

I am not quite sure how to end this post.  Experiences like this are very humbling/eye-opening and make me appreciate the choices I have in my own life.


Q & A

11 08 2010

I am rapidly approaching the point in my journey in Korea where its novelty is beginning to slip through my fingers like sand; I might actually say I am getting used to life here.  As a result I have been quite dry of new things to write about lately.  Yet after speaking with my family via Skype this evening, I became enlightened of a few tidbits of information that you still might find new/interesting.  Here goes.

What was the thing that most surprised me?

Fresh off the boat:  shoes off at the door, bowing during greetings, sleeping on the floor (in most cases), dining etiquette (eating seated on the floor, sharing many dishes, etc.), no bathtubs, no ovens, no driers (hang dry only), at least half the toilets are hole-in-the-floor squat style, BYO toilet paper everywhere you go, street food everywhere, sea creatures swimming in tanks outside restaurants on every street, everyone is very well-kept in appearance at all times, the prevalence and popularity of public bathhouses, the circa 1950’s gender roles.

Through time here:

1. The only way to offend a Korean when it comes to dining etiquette (including snacks) is to not share what you are eating.

2. Early on during an introductory conversation with someone, you will be asked: “How old do you think she is?” usually in reference to an older woman.  I was dumbfounded at how to respond to such a question, as age (especially among women) is not a topic of friendly conversation in the states.  At first I thought it to be a vanity thing, so I venture a guess of about 8 years younger than I really think, followed by “Oh, how do you all keep your skin so young-looking!”.  Through time I came to realize (or assume, as this has yet to be affirmed for me..) it is likely to establish the hierarchy of this particular social situation, as age determines etiquette for all such social situations.

3. On first glance you could assume everyone here is gay (in reaction to their ever flawless appearance and tendency to link hands/arms with members of the same sex – both male and female), yet society as a whole is very naive on this issue; it’s almost as if “gay” doesn’t exist in Korea.  It certainly does, I must add, but you have to know where to look for it.  It’s not out in the open as it is in the West.

4. The fact that the entire world freaks out about “rising tensions” with North Korea, except South Korea.

What do I miss most about home?

This one is easy, as I have spent ample time reminiscing on the following list since stepping off the plane.  After the first few weeks I began to REALLY miss western breakfast, i.e. greasy hash browns with fried eggs and toast. Though this one did fade within the next month or so as I got used to Korean food and now the memories of home-style sustenance rarely pang my stomach.  With the following exceptions:

1. Good, black coffee.  I can’t handle the creamy, sugary crap that plagues this country.

2. I terribly miss microbrew beer.  The only stuff here that is any step above PBR or Keystone Light is imported Guinness or Hoegarden for about $3-4 per 12 ounce can.  Ouch…

3. Good cheese.  Cheese, in Korea, means American Kraft Singles, which is imported and in turn insanely expensive, not to mention insanely disgusting.  FYI: NEVER order anything here with cheese – the quickest way to ruin a good meal is to smother it with melted Kraft Singles.

What would I bring back home for America to adopt?

1. Their gun laws.  No guns in Korea = no need for me to worry about my classroom getting shot up.  I can listen to my kids joke around about guns in their video games without crediting it as a “warning sign”.

2. The shoes off rule.  I think it is more respectful, and we get to wear these cute little slip on’s inside.  Also, eating dinner at a restaurant in your socks is rather comfortable.

3. Emphasis on learning other languages.  America could stand to be at least a bi-lingual society.

What’s my favorite part about being here?

Favorite part would have to be gaining the realization that life really can be whatever you want it to be.  That the “conventional life” doesn’t necessarily have to trump another one you may have in mind for yourself.

Also the opportunity to learn about a culture in a way I never could in school or online.  Though difficult, frustrating, and unnerving at times, i have been forced innumerably into reconsideration of my own perceptions and ideologies about life.

Any other questions, you know where to find me!

Boseong Green Tea Fields 보성녹차

4 08 2010

The sky was darkening with rain and my skin was instantly wet with humidity and sweat as I hopped off the bus and up the road to the lodge above the Boseong Green Tea Field.  All my senses were awakened – through the thick moisture of the air a strong, fresh minty smell filled my nose, intense lush greenery as far as the eye could see, and a calm stillness surrounding the road.  This place is stunning; I kept thinking this is what it must feel like to overlook a valley in Ireland.  The whole area may as well have been a backdrop at a cheesy photo studio and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

Apparently 40% of Korea’s green tea supply comes from these fields, and Boseong Green Tea passed the strict quality inspection of the Russian Medical Biology Lab, and was officially recognized as a beverage suitable for an astronaut’s special diet.  Slightly interesting, VERY random fact about tea..

There is absolutely no better way to spend a Tuesday, as I peer out the floor to ceiling windows where I sit on the floor consuming my green tea and green tea ice cream fresh from the fields below.

Road to Yulpo

4 08 2010

I left Cherry Love Motel around 11 – my lodging for the night after the long bus ride from Seoul where I got a glimpse of what it must feel like to have a career as a high class escort in Korea.  These ‘Love Motels’ are everywhere; you can rent by the hour or pay for a full night and it is completely anonymous – they take no names or personal information at the counter.  Cases of infidelity aside, the story is that since Koreans live at home with the family until marriage there is no place for such unmentionable activity that was implied by the “gift bag” I received at this particular motel, so they have to take it elsewhere.  Love Motels are a great place to crash for the night while traveling as they are relatively cheap and it’s like that box of chocolates: you never know what you are gonna get!

Arrived at Gwangju Bus Terminal by noon and hopped the next bus to Boseong for my next few days at the tea fields and Yulpo Beach nearby.  This is my first time traveling alone and I am very excited to test the waters for my future travels.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as “downtown Boseong” didn’t return any Google search results, and the reason soon became apparent.  The Boseong Bus Terminal consists of a dirt lot enclosed by cornfields and tractors, leading into a shabby main room with a ticket counter displaying scotch-taped paper schedules on the window.  This place was in major contrast with the huge, beautiful, air conditioned terminals bustling with people in trendy clothes and high heels as in Seoul and Gwangju.

After a bit of exploring the ‘town’, or 2 roads littered with carts selling fruit, vegetables, and random toys and tupperware, I was chased onto the next bus to Yulpo by a group of ravaging missionaries from Seoul.  Or at least I think I’m on a bus to Yulpo…  I paid the ₩1,400 fare and wandered out back to the loading area.  This being such a small town and me being the only foreigner in it, there was no English anywhere, no gate numbers, just a curb alongside the lot in front of endless cornfields.  I decided my best bet at this point was to go wait near the group of younger Koreans with straw hats – they must be going to a beach..

I am now on a bus to somewhere..