Yesterday I wrote about the Top 10 Things I’ll Miss About Korea. That post made me a little sad because it made me remember all of the things I love that are soon to be gone. Today I decided to do a companion post that might help me feel a little better about leaving. Here are the Top 10 Things I Won’t Miss About Korea.
- Spitting. The man who lives upstairs from us spends a solid 30 seconds – 1 minute every single morning making horrible retching noises followed by enormous spits. It’s the soundtrack of my morning. Of course, different cultures have different standards for what is polite or rude. Some of the biggest differences between Korean culture and American culture (and generally Western Culture, I think) are these standards for politeness. Koreans, young and old, dainty and gnarly, spit with abandon anywhere and everywhere they want to. First they will hock up a huge loogie, by making retching and gagging noises in the back of their throats and then they will spit phlegm wherever they please and should that be where you are standing, they will not even look sorry.
- Shoving. It is very rare for Koreans to wait in line. When a bus or subway arrives, rather than waiting for the crowd of people exiting, they will all stampede the door, pushing, shoving, and throwing elbows to get themselves inside before anyone else. The elderly people are especially good at this and will intentionally elbow you or shove you out of the way if they think you are going to take their seat. I’ve literally seen old ladies throw an elbow, run to a seat, and then cackle in your face when they get there before you.
- Trash and Trash Smell. The residential streets smell like trash and rotting food all the time because there aren’t dumpsters or trash cans. Instead people set out bags of garbage or small pots with food waste (because all food waste gets composted). These are picked up seemingly at random, so you may put out a bag of trash that doesn’t get picked up for several days. Imagine a whole street with pots full of decomposing food sitting in 100 degree heat for several days and you can imagine the smell I’m talking about.
- Korean Work Culture/Emphasis on Appearance. Emphasis on appearances isn’t unique to Korea, but the importance of things looking good over actually being good is more pronounced in the Korean work environment than anywhere else I’ve seen it. To give one example – teachers in Korea often have to do open classes where the principal, parents, and other teachers can observe. These open classes are nothing like ordinary classes. They are scripted out, sometimes even practiced with the students beforehand. One of my friends said her Korean Coteacher actually drew out blocking for them during the class showing where she had to stand when. Much of Korean work culture is about elaborate performances to make sure things look good with very little emphasis placed on real results. In addition, seniority is valued above all else. If the principal decides to do something, no one can question them or make an alternate suggestion, even if it’s a bad idea. You always do what the authority says. This leads to a lot of abuse of power and also to really bad teachers (cough, my CoT, cough, cough) being virtually un-fireable after they reach a certain level of seniority because nobody under them can complain about them. Appearances also matter tremendously in hiring. For most jobs you have to submit a picture of yourself with your application. It is standard practice for these photos to be so heavily edited that they don’t resemble the applicant at all.And of course, there is the prevalence of plastic surgery here which is so commonplace that the #1 high school graduation gift for teenage girls to receive from their parents is double eyelid surgery.
- Stereotyping/Racism. I’m not even the slightest bit going to suggest that Korea has a larger problem with race than America does. America has serious racism problems. The thing that is more unique to Korea is the cultivated ignorance of the outside world, the fundamental teachings of “us” vs. “them” and the acceptance of speaking negatively about other people’s race or ethnicity. Korea’s population is 98% Korean. Anyone who is not Korean is simply referred to as “waygook” or “foreigner.” I constantly hear teachers and other adults tell children things like, “Foreigners are picky.” and “Foreigners don’t like spicy food.” When I show pictures of black people in lessons, students either say, “Oh, Obama!” regardless of who it is, or they say something along the lines of, ‘Teacher, he’s like monkey!” No, I’m not kidding. There are no real enforced laws against discrimination. A few months ago Korea made international news when a school refused to hire an Irish woman because she was Irish. They sent her a letter that said, “We cannot hire you do to the alcoholic nature of your kind.” Which is shocking on its own, but is ten times more ridiculous if you know anything about Korean drinking culture in which it is standard for businessmen to be passed out drunk together on weeknights. During last year’s ebola outbreak, a bar in Seoul put up a sign that said, “Due to ebola, no Africans are allowed here.” As though you could contract ebola just from being African. All of these things can be frustrating and disheartening as I have seen them being passed onto the next generation.
- Lack of Air Conditioning/Heating. This probably makes me sound like a brat, but it baffles me that Korean schools get away with not using the heat and air conditioning when the school is full of children. The purpose of this is to conserve energy, but it is wickedly hot here and this seems like cruel and unusual punishment for all of us. My school didn’t start using the air conditioning until the end of July, even though temps had been in the 80s and 90s for two months. Nothing better than super sweaty 6th graders in a stuffy room with no air circulation. The same goes for the winter when I wore my coat, scarf, and gloves all day long.
- Being Stared at ALL THE TIME. I know, I know, you’ve never seen anyone with such a “tall nose” and you think my eye color has to be contact lenses. But it’s weird when we are making direct eye contact and you are still staring unabashedly.
- Being Fat Even When You’re Not. I am an average – small sized woman in America. I am 5’3” tall and I wear an American size 4 (when it’s not holiday season). In Korea, I am an XL. Sometimes the salesperson will just look at me, shake her head and say, “Too big. No fit,” and not even let me try it on. This is mostly because Asian people are generally very petite with slim hips and straight legs, so although I’m not that big, I’m built very differently to most Koreans. Even knowing the reasons behind it, I’m still a woman and it’s still disheartening when I can’t squeeze myself into XL pants
- Street Cats. Dogs are popular pets in Korea, but cats not so much. There are feral street cats everywhere. As a cat owner, it breaks my heart to see these nasty, mangy cats all over the place, but the worst is the kittens. Just Sunday on our way home from Busan a little black kitten that couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old came out from under a car and rubbed against my ankles and tried to climb up my leg. It was starved for food and attention and so, so tiny. We brought it a little bit of food but unfortunately there wasn’t much we could do for it besides hope that it found its mother or someone took it in.
- Korean “Modesty.” So this one sounds worse than it is. It’s not that I have a burning passion to wear scandalous clothes. The issue is that what’s considered modest in Korea vs. the West is very different and sometimes very inconvenient. Basically, chests are immodest. Never ever should anything below a woman’s collar bone show. Arms are also pretty sketchy, so sleeveless tops and dresses (even if they come up to the collar bone) are frowned upon. It’s OK if you wear a mini skirt to work or if your shorts are so short that your butt hangs out a little. Just keep your chest covered. Probably best to just wear turtlenecks always. This doesn’t matter much in the winter, but when it’s 100 degrees and there’s no air conditioning and you have to wear sleeves and something up to your neck, things can get a bit toasty.
After making this list I’m feeling slightly better about leaving in two days. I’ll be taking a blogging break while we move and transition to our new life. I will still be trying to upload my weekly adventures since I’ve already made it this far, but otherwise you probably won’t hear from me until September. Thanks so much for all of your encouragement and well wishes. Can’t wait to share life as an ex-expat (just a pat? a re-pat?) with all of you!