Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quirks and Queries

I don't think it would be altogether surprising if I declared that I have loved my time here in Korea. One could probably guess as much from the positive remarks towards Korea from my previous blogs. You may have noticed that I've written quite a few blogs now during my residence here in Korea. This can be attributed to the fact that I've been here almost four months now. It's generally strange to think about how long I've been here. When Christmas rolls around, and Santa comes to town, it will signal the four month mark, but also around one year until I return home. Bri and I have explored a lot of Korea considering the length of our stay. We've been into Seoul many times, and explored Busan, Gyeongju, Daegu, and their surrounding areas. We've also gone to more obscure destinations like Seonyudo Island and Yangdong Village, but these have turned out to be equally, if not more, rewarding. I feel like I've started to amass a fairly good understanding of what daily Korean life consists of. I've always been weary about making sweeping generalizations, but I want to relay a set of observations that I've made over and over throughout Korea. So, without further adieu, here are 5 of those curious, peculiar, bizarre, and (hopefully) intriguing conclusions. I can kindly assure you that these will be part of a running series on this blog:

1) You're on the subway. You look around and you realize that you are the only white person in the section of your train. You look all the way down to the end of the train. Then, you realize that you are the only white person on the entire train. To call Korea homogenous would be like calling Disney World "okay" - it would be a huge understatement. Thus, often times you catch the general Korean populous giving you a peculiar look. I'm not at all implying that it's racist, but many times I have felt like I have something in my teeth, or that I am the most recent exhibit at a museum. The older generation stares for an especially long and penetrating time. However, the children, as children do, take a more blunt approach. I've seen children blatantly point at me, or sometimes whisper to their mother while mimicking the outline of my apparently large nose. Now that I've become accustomed to this, I just stare back, and it ensures that I'm never bored on the subway. It's ironic that interaction with foreigners can be equally awkward at times. You almost feel obligated to give a casual wave, or at least a small nod. Usually it's a sad combination of the two that ends with each individual picking up their walking pace after their encounter.

2) It takes an absolute eternity for the pedestrian lights to change, but try to J-walk and all eyes will fall upon your sorely mistaken shoulders. However, I still do it because I just can't help myself. You will find yourself waiting at the lights with no cars to be seen for a kilometre on either side, and ten people waiting on the respective sides of the street. This is nothing short of an impossibility in Toronto. I remember one instance where I J-walked in what I thought was very safe form. However, a bus driver a little less than a kilometre down the road spotted my discretion and honked like a madman. Don't get me wrong, J-walking exists in Korea, but it's far less frequent than one would imagine. It's so strange considering the rest of Korean society operates on an efficient time-frame with waiting as the ultimate nuisance. I can't possibly describe to you the agony I go through when waiting at a crosswalk long enough to grow a beard (my facial hair isn't great either so that's saying something!). If patience is a virtue, then these law abiding Korean pedestrians are the most virtuous beings on the planet. Patience has, shall we say, never been my a well-honed skill of mine.

3) All discernible weather deserves its own set of specific clothing in Korea. Korean hikers are dressed to impress with vibrant and colourful outfits. From the hiking boots to the walking-sticks, and up to the expensive Tilly hats, they are ready to hike. It is a spectacle to say the least. I also see many hikers with a bag almost equal in size to the one I lived out of in Europe for three months. I can't imagine how one individual could need so many things for just one Saturday on the trails. People seemed to question my hiking prowess when I arrived at Mt.Namsam with only running shoes, a pair of shorts, and a t-shirt. I mean how could a person hike in such inadequate clothing? I find this general production value to be hilarious. I also appreciate that the Koreans are so willing to give 150% to everything they do, and this begins with their appearance. Everyone is on the same page with this year's respective ensemble from hiking, to swimming, to snowboarding. The colourful snowboard gear has begun to grace the shelves in stores near me, so I'm expecting it to flood the streets at any moment. If it lasts longer than a day, you better believe there is an outfit for it. If the world was to put on a play, then they would surely elect Korea for costume design.
"1...2...3...Kimchi," and the photo was taken. Mt. Namsan, Gyeongju, South Korea

4) Oh, the couple outfits. What can I say about the couple outfits? Well, it turns out I can say a lot about the couple outfits. Firstly, I can say that this is the only country in which I have been able to view this phenomenon. Considering I have been to 36 countries, this put's Korea at #1 for me in this category. Judging by the Korean affinity towards competition, I'm sure they'd be delighted to hear as much. I'm not talking about colour coordination, matching mittens, or a similar logo on their hats either. I'm talking about full-fledged matching red lacoste polo shirts, neon green Nike shoes, and big baseball jackets. Talk about announcing your love to the world. It has begun to redefine the notion of "public displays of affection." This is one of the more peculiar quirks of Korean society without a doubt. I've heard rumours that there are couples wear sections in the more affluent department stores. If that's true, then expect Bri and I to arrive back in Toronto wearing the most stylish couple outfits North America has ever seen. Everyone will surely be in awe, or something like that.

5) Either businessmen don't know their limit, or they are incredibly thirsty. Alcoholic bravado swirls around Korean businessmen like a group of first year university students. They always do another shot, and they always do one shot too many. Every night when I finish work around 10pm there are men walking down the street arm and arm mumbling at each other. This tendency to consume alcohol does, however, do wonders for the general male bonding in Korea (also known as "bromance" or "manpanionship"). I've aided several ill businessman outside of bathrooms. I've watched a man so drunk at the front door of his house that he forgot the code to his own apartment. Perhaps greatest of all, I had a man tell me my "English was great" because he was so drunk he did not realize I was white. Empty soju bottles litter the table on the weekends. Oh, and every weekday as well. I must say that it is wonderfully entertaining and I commend their "never say die" attitude. Although, in the morning I have a faint suspicion it's more of a "never know why" attitude. Drinking is honestly a national pastime in Korea. Don't believe me? There is actually a group on Facebook called "Black Out Korea," and around 3,000 people have joined the group. You figure that one out. Just added onto the Korean bucket list: Learn Korean well enough to have a night on the town with some of these fine gentlemen.

These are only a handful of my observations so far. I've begun to fill up a notebook during my breaks at school. I almost feel like I am spy while covertly writing my opinions about Korea in a room full of Korean teachers. Although, however much I wish I was, I'm not a spy in any shape or form. I didn't have to do much detective work to arrive upon the aforementioned conclusions. Making these observations is part of what makes living in another country so enjoyable. I remember often reminiscing about little nuances of Norwegian life during my time there. I love Korea for all its beauty, cuisine, technology, and yes, its peculiarities.


  1. Dear Mitch,
    I stumbled upon your blog via FB. And I have to say, this post is hilarious! When I was in India on exchange last year there were many things about the culture that I found baffling/fascinating/intriguing and so I really relate to this post. I'm also really interested in traveling to Korea. You're teaching English there, ya? Which company are you doing that with? Anyway, I like your writing very much and gee, does it make me want to get back on a plane.... Cheers! Merry Christmas.

  2. Hey Otiena,

    I just saw this comment now, so sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. I'm happy that you enjoyed the blog post. I am indeed teaching English here and, as you can tell, am thoroughly enjoying it. I got my TESOL/TEFL certificate through Oxford Seminars, and I've found myself at a nice little private school in Yongin City, South Korea. I hope all is well!

    Don't fight the urge - hop back on a plane!

  3. No prob! Thanks! Enjoy yourself.

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