Gamcheon Culture Village and the Generational Gap in Korea

Last week, I went to Busan and I visited a very popular tourist site called Gamcheon Culture Village. Gamcheon Village was originally a slum town on a hill that grew during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Many of the houses there are very, very small and the members of this town had little money and lived very difficult lives.

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In the early twenty-first century, many people living in the town started leaving because of poverty and poor living conditions. With support from the government, artists used the empty houses and the village in general as an exhibition for their artwork. This drew tourists in flocks to see the newly beautified town. Coffee shops and restaurants sit invitingly at the front of the town and some novelty shops dot the landscape. Everywhere you look, there is a clever art piece, some of them big and attention-grabbing, others quietly hidden in corners like easter eggs. I had a lot of fun looking around the village with my friends and taking pictures of and with the beautiful art installations.

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However, this gentrified town is not without disadvantages. My friends and I took a taxi to and from Gamcheon Culture Village, and both taxi drivers were interested in where we had come from and where we were going. When we mentioned the village, the drivers didn’t necessarily sound angry, but they expressed some dissatisfaction about the village. They felt that turning the village into a tourist spot was not respectful to its painful past, nor its present in which most of the villagers are elderly and have been living in the villages since it was still just a slum. They said that many of the people there are still poor and living in bad conditions, and the money made from the businesses there are not going towards the villagers, as they are owned by outsiders. Tourists are often loud and disruptive despite the village still being a place where people live, just like any other neighborhood. Although the village is now beautifully decorated and has greatly benefited financially from tourism, the complaints of the residents are still something to be acknowledged.

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This experience made me feel the wide generation gap in Korea. Koreans my age generally acknowledge that they sometimes have difficulty connecting with their parents’ and grandparents’ generations because they are so different. This isn’t all that surprising: the political, economic, and social atmospheres that these generations grew up in are very different. Generational differences in their mindsets can be seen in situations like that of Gamcheon Cultural Village, where younger Koreans enjoy touring around and takes selfies with the artwork, while older Koreans express discomfort and unhappiness and feel that this kind of behavior is disrespectful and making light of the hardships experienced during the Korean War. There is no easy solution to disagreements like this, and I’ll be honest, I still shamelessly enjoyed taking photos and admiring the artwork with my friends at the village. I’m not sure whether that was the wrong thing to do, but there is no denying that the art scattered around the area is captivating. Now that Korea is a somewhat more stable and developed country, it will be interesting to see if future generations have a smaller gap than the current ones do.

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Korean Cafes

I think I have mentioned this briefly in a previous post, but I love Korean cafe culture. Korea is full of cafes, some chains and others local. There are so many cafes surrounding my campus I would have to spend months going to a different cafe every day to visit them all. Even then, it would probably be a never-ending process because there’s always a new cafe opening up. It seems to be almost mandatory to go to a cafe for coffee or tea and maybe a dessert after having a meal with friends. A hobby for some of my Korean friends is using Instagram, Facebook, or Naver (basically Korean Google) to find the newest “hot place” (yes, they use the English term) around town. Usually, the hotter the place, the more expensive the beverages, but most of the time it is worth it for the taste and the experience.

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Since there are so many cafes, businesses have to work hard to pull in customers. Of course, the coffee has to taste good. Often, cafes will have some kind of “signature drink” or a drink that is very pretty. The prettier the drink, the more likely the customer will take a photo of it and upload it onto their social media, essentially doing your advertising for you. The interior has to be nicely decorated and usually goes with some kind of theme: sleek and modern, cozy and warm, vintage and nostalgic, etc. Again, the interior or at least certain parts of it are often designed with the intention of making a like-worthy Instagram photo.

 IMG_0624    IMG_0675Although some may find this culture shallow, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Yes, you may pay  extra for a fairly normal latte because it has fancy decorations, or because the cafe interior is nice. If you are willing to pay that extra amount, that’s just fine with me. There are also plenty of cafes in Korea with low price point instead of Instagram-worthy drinks as their selling point. In other words, there’s a cafe for everyone.

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Finally, another great aspect of Korean cafe culture is specialized cafes. Of course, many people have heard about cat cafes (and dog cafes, sheep cafes, raccoon cafes, etc.) in Korea. Those are fun as well, but there are also some less-famous themed cafes in Korea. Study cafes or book cafes are particularly nice for students looking for a quiet place to study. A book cafe near my school will serve your coffee together with a book on a tray. There are also cartoon cafes that have many different manga and manhwa (Korean manga) books. There are also hanok cafes, where the building the cafe is in is a traditional Korean house (hanok). Now that summer is fast approaching, rooftop cafes are growing increasingly popular as great places to enjoy a drink with a nice view in the open air.

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Although Korea is full of chain cafes, I personally think that, just like anywhere else, the local shops are more charming. If you come to Korea, make sure to try a signature drink at a local cafe nearby.

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Flower Power

Just like Koreans have 단풍놀이 (dan-poong nor-i) or going on an excursion to see and take pictures with the colorful autumn leaves in the fall, they also have 꽃놀이 (kkot nor-i or flower play) in the spring. As the flowers begin to bloom, couples, friends, and families venture out to the best spots to see the flowers and take photos. Certain areas are even specially designated for this activity, like 하중도 (Hajungdo) in Daegu which is a tiny little island in the middle of a river with a huge field of canola flowers in spring and cosmos flowers in the fall. There’s not much else on the island, so people come solely to see the flowers and of course, take countless photos.

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The first flowers to bloom were the cherry blossoms, which seem to be the favorite of many. They bloomed all across KNU, and when the wind blew the petals off the branches, it looked as if white-pink snow was covering the campus. I even traveled to a city called 진해 (Jinhae) an hour or so away to go to the Jinhae Cherry Blossom festival where there were events, performances, activities, and fair food, but most importantly, plenty of good spots to take pictures with the flowers. The city was full of people who came for flower play, so sometimes it was impossible to take photos without other people in the background. Many people bring huge, professional cameras to take the best photos they can. This spring was the first time that I saw cherry blossoms in person, and I took many pictures with friends under the cherry blossom trees to capture this beautiful memory.

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After the cherry blossoms came and went, the azaleas and the king cherry blossoms bloomed. The azaleas also bloomed as red and purple blossoms across the campus, and there was an azalea festival on a mountain near Daegu called 비슬산 (Biseulsan) that I was unfortunately unable to attend. To see the king cherry blossoms with lovely pink layered petals, I had to travel to a small park far from campus. Although it was a bit far and the park was smaller than I thought, it was worth it to see the beautiful flowers and to take pictures with my friends.

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Observing and participating in danpoong play and flower play has given me the impression that Koreans appreciate the beauty of nature around them. Of course in the U.S. there are people who love flowers and we have many impressive national parks, but often people are not willing to travel far to see them. Our appreciation for nature does not manifest itself as activities with special names in which nearly the entire nation takes part. I admire Koreans’ love for nature and the beauty it offers.

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Protests in Korea

Now that we are approaching the elections for the new South Korea president, this post may be a little late coming. Still, I thought it would be worth it to write a bit about the protests that went on in Korea before Park Geun Hye was impeached. 

As you may know, the most recent South Korean president was impeached due to a corruption scandal involving her relationship with Choi Soon Sil, the daughter of a shamanistic cult leader. Park is essentially considered to have been acting as the puppet of Choi Soon Sil. When this controversy came out, millions of Koreans took to the streets to protest and to demand Park’s impeachment. These protests received international attention for not only their size, but also for the peaceful nature in which they were conducted. The Korean population showed an incredibly united front across the nation with huge masses of people marching through cities, yet no violence broke out.

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Protests for Park Geun Hye’s Impeachment in Seoul

 

 

I saw a protest in Gwanghamun Square in Seoul, and although this was a little bit after some of the largest protests that went on, it was still fascinating and full of people. The protest was completely peaceful, but what was even more surprising was that the atmosphere was quite positive. Yes, there were some people with serious faces, chanting and carrying around signs that said “Impeach Park Geun Hye,” but there were also people smiling while chanting, there were children running around happily, and there were even many people taking advantage of the crowds and setting up various food carts and selling snacks. I almost felt as if I was at a fair instead of a protest. I also witnessed a small protest in Daegu that was actually in support of President Park (before the Constitutional Court had upheld her impeachment.) All of the people there were older, the only young people I saw were just casual on-lookers. This protest, too, was made up of smiling people cheering and singing and looking quite positive overall. The overall feeling was quite the opposite of what I might expect from a protest in the U.S., where protests seem to be more solemn, serious, and at times, aggressive and violent.

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Protest in support of Park Geun Hye in Daegu

 

I admire the Korean people for their admirable approach to protest. Peaceful protest is an important political tool. It allows the demonstrators to maintain their dignity, and more importantly, they avoid serious violence that can bring harm to the demonstrators and others. Furthermore, the unity of these protests and the percentage of the Korean population that participated in them was impressive. Of course, I would love it if I could see more protests like that in the United States, but I question whether that is truly possible any time soon. In general, the U.S. is much more divided in terms of political opinion, and great tension exists between differing parties. It is difficult to find an issues that most Americans agree on, and it is often difficult to keep people from lashing out at one another violently when their opinions greatly differ. Police violence has also played a role in worsening the violent nature of many U.S. protests. On top of that, the U.S. is physically much larger. Having that large a percentage of the U.S. population in one place, rooting for the same cause is no easy feat.

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Protests for Park Geun Hye’s Impeachment in Seoul

 

Although it may be difficult, the U.S. needs to work towards holding protests that are as peaceful as the Korean protests have been. Peaceful protest can help U.S. citizens make their voices heard in politics while retaining their dignity and avoiding harm. They may also be able to garner support and admiration from other countries, as the Koreans have been able to do, by showing such an incredible act of unity. During this important time when the United States political realm has become so strongly divided, we must remember this is not an excuse to turn to violence or blind hatred.

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Taiwan

The spring semester has finally started in Daegu! The weather is warming up, trees are just starting to sprout buds and I am excited for the quickly approaching cherry blossom season. In January, however, it was much colder so I hopped on a plane to Taiwan where the weather is much warmer all year round. I was in Taipei for a little over a week, and I explored the beautiful city and visited many of its interesting tourist spots.

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I knew I would make a blog post about visiting Taiwan, but at first I wasn’t sure about what exactly I was going to write. I could talk about the great food I had and the tourist destinations I visited, but to be honest I’m definitely not an expert on any of the stuff I tried or saw, and I find it a little boring to just list the places I visited. Reading about traveling is never quite the same as actually experiencing it yourself. Instead, I would like to talk about my experience in Taiwan in comparison to my experience in Korea.

I am having a long term experience abroad in Korea. I have had many months to get accustomed to the culture and the area I am living in. I have been studying Korean for a few years now and while I am not fluent, I know enough to navigate daily life fairly easily. I have had time to learn from mistakes I made when I first arrived here. I familiarized myself with the culture before I came here and while I have done my fair share of tourism here, I am also experiencing daily life as a university student.

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In Taiwan, I could not speak the language nor was I especially knowledgable about the culture. Sure, I looked up some information so as not to make any huge cultural faux pas but I am not familiar with Taiwanese culture the way I am with Korean culture. I was only in Taiwan for a short time and my experience there was mostly limited to the experience of a tourist. I had a lot of fun in Taiwan, but I was limited by my inability to speak Mandarin. Speaking English was sufficient to get to tourist destinations and eat at some common franchise restaurants, but I was not able to “go off the beaten track” and have a less touristy experience. If you know me, you know that I like to experience the daily life of a place just as much as I like to visit museums and historical sites. At times, I felt very frustrated and like an “ignorant American” being unable to speak the language. I felt like I was expecting others to speak English if they needed to communicate with me.

Luckily, I have made a couple Taiwanese friends who are exchange students at Kyungpook National University here in Daegu and I met them on a couple different days in Taipei. One of my friends lives in Taoyuan, which is right next to Taipei and where the airport is, and she was kind enough to pick me up from the airport and she let me stay at her apartment for my first night. Her family was so kind, taking me to dinner, giving me gifts, and welcoming me into their home. The next day she took me around Taipei and I had so much fun. I feel so grateful to her, I felt like a little baby that she was taking around. Having friends who are locals is one of the most helpful things when you are traveling somewhere new. This is just one more reason why studying abroad is so beneficial: you can meet people from all over the world, so you will have a whole host of new friends that you can visit if you travel to their home countries. Thanks to my friends, I was able to get a small peek into the daily life of a Taiwanese person, eating Taiwanese-style breakfast, visiting a special Chinese New Year market, etc.

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Just because I had a very touristy experience, doesn’t mean I didn’t have an amazing time in Taiwan. A tourist’s experience is still an enjoyable one. I saw fascinating museums and beautiful landscapes and architecture. I ate delicious food in fancy restaurants, fast food places, and night markets. I drank my weight in Taiwan’s famous bubble tea. That being said, I certainly wouldn’t claim I got more than just a small taste of Taiwan and its vivacious culture. My trip was fun and educational, but it only reinforced my belief that to develop a deeper understanding of a country, you must spend time experiencing the daily life and you should make efforts to learn the language. Language is deeply tied with other elements of culture, and without it you will most likely struggle to break barriers and communicate well with people. My trip to Taiwan was exciting and unforgettable, but it was not as rewarding and fulfilling as my time in Korea has been.

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Things Korea has figured out

In my last blog post, I talked about some Korean things that weren’t my favorite. This time, I am going to talk about Korea in a much more positive light. You may have already heard about some of the things South Korea does well. They have the fastest internet in the world (although not in my dorm, that’s for sure). Korean fashion and makeup products are growing increasingly popular around the world. Their pop music, TV shows, and movies have countless fans around the world. In this blog post, I’m going to tell you about some of the other things Korea has figured out of which you may not already be aware.

  1. Bidets
    I was scared to try a bidet at first, but now there’s no going back. It’s amazing. I don’t really want to get into details with this one, because that would really be TMI, but I suggest that we make bidets a common thing in the U.S. You just feel so much cleaner when you use them.
  2. Floor heating
    Korean floor heating is called ondol (온돌) and it makes so much more sense than Western style heating systems. Korean floor heating takes advantage of the fact that heat rises, as the heated floor warms the whole room. This is especially effective if you sleep in the traditional Korean way, which is on a mat on the floor. Although I sleep in a bed in my dorm room, the ondol is still great since it heats the whole room from the bottom up.

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    Ondol system

  3. Street food and “fast food” options
    Where I live, there is little to no street food culture and fast food options are almost all greasy and horrible for your health. Korean street food culture, however, is alive and well. Around 6 or 7 PM, the street food carts come out next to my school, selling spicy rice cakes (ddeokbokki or 떡볶이), fish cakes, meat skewers, fried dumplings, fried chicken, etc. This food is cheap and delicious, although I will admit I have begun to avoid it because it is extremely greasy and usually gives me a stomachache. However, you can also find other types of street food like waffles, red bean-filled pastries, Japanese takoyaki, and others. The other part of this point is Korean “fast food.” Just like the U.S., Korea also has greasy, unhealthy fast food like McDonalds and other burgers-and-fries or fried chicken places like Lotteria and Mom’s Touch. However, Korea has a certain type of restaurant that we don’t really have in the U.S., and I will call it “fast food” for a lack of a better word. These restaurants serve “fast food” because they are cheap, convenient, and usually open 24 hours, and some of their options aren’t that healthy. But these restaurants also serve many other things, some of which are quite healthy and all the dishes cost about $5 or less. You can get ramen, fried pork cutlet, kimbap, dumplings, different kinds of noodles, kimchi stew and doenjang stew, bibimbap, and many other items at these restaurants. I really hope some restaurants like these open in the U.S., because then I might make some healthier eating choices when I get hungry in the middle of the night or am too lazy to cook.
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  4. Wine
    I like Western-style grape wine, but I think makgeolli (막걸리), or Korean rice wine, is much better. It is sweeter than a lot of wine, so it is easier to drink for those who don’t like the dry taste of wine. Plus, nowadays Korean pubs and bars are mixing makgeolli with other things to make it taste even better. Honey makgeolli is delicious, and cream milk makgeolli, although it might sound quite strange, is delicious. You can’t even taste the flavor of alcohol; it tastes like you are drinking a sweet, frothy smoothie. Of course, this means you need to be careful not to overdrink, because any Korean will tell you if don’t drink responsibly, makgeolli will give you a horrible hangover.
  5. Cafés
    Where I live, the most convenient cafe to go to is always a Starbucks. There are a few good local cafes around my house and my school, but they are few and far between. Starbucks is essentially the only chain coffeeshop in the area. As a coffee lover and someone who loves to try new things, going to Starbucks gets pretty stale after a while. In Korea, it is quite the opposite. There are many chain coffee shops that you can find everywhere with ranging prices (Bom Bom, Angel-in-us, Twosome Place, Cafe Pascucci, Cafe Bene, Tom N Toms, the list goes on) as well as countless local cafes everywhere you go. If I went to a new cafe near my university everyday, it would probably take me a month or two to try them all. Since I love coffee, this is probably one of my favorite things about Korea.
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  6. Rest stops
    Korean rest stops are also a world better than the ones I’ve visited in the U.S. The rest stops I’ve seen in the U.S. are usually rather small, mostly filled with a bunch of pamphlets and some vending machines. Korean rest stops include cafes, a convenience store, snack stands, and restaurants all within the same building. You can get a drink, snacks, or eat a whole meal if you want. Unfortunately, I’ve only had 15 minute breaks at rest stops since I can’t drive here and use buses to travel between cities, but if you ever get the chance to take your time at a Korean rest stop, I can guarantee you will leave full and satisfied.
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  7. Public transportation
    In Oklahoma, public transportation is almost nonexistent. Our state is too spread out and you need to have a car if you want to get anywhere with any sort of efficiency at all. My friend from New York City that I met here in Korea tells me that NYC’s public transportation system is incredibly confusing and if she hadn’t grown up there, she would constantly be getting lost. In Korea, however, the subway system and other public transportation is clear and easy to use, even for a first-timer. Public transportation is ubiquitous, and although having a car may be convenient at times, it is certainly not necessary and you can depend on public transport to get you anywhere you need to go in Korea.
  8. Delivery
    Just about the only things you can get delivered where I live in the U.S. is pizza and Chinese takeout. Perhaps there are some other restaurants that will deliver, but it probably won’t be cheap. In Korea, they have delivery figured out. Like we have American-style Chinese food in the U.S., Korea has it’s own Korean-style Chinese food that is commonly delivered. Fried chicken is also a common delivery food, and McDonald’s also delivers in Korea. I have a friend in the U.S. who would be in heaven if McDonald’s delivered in the U.S. (hi Lily!) and I think it’s a business strategy that American McDonald’s should consider.

Of course there are many other things that Korea does well, but I will stop here for today. Some other countries might already have some of the things that I listed here, but none of the items from my list are things that the United States really has figured out. I recommend that the U.S. learn a thing or to from Korea and start adopting some of these, and then maybe I won’t be quite as depressed when I have to go home at the end of my year here.

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Things my parents need to know before coming to Korea

My parents are coming to visit me in Korea in February! I’m incredibly excited to see them and that they will have the opportunity to experience Korea for themselves. I’ve already raved about many of Korea’s good points to them, but I am getting a little nervous about some of the parts of Korea that might give them a little more culture shock. So, I’ve compiled this list of things I want to warn them about before they arrive. As a forewarning, this post may come across as quite negative because it is a list of phenomena in Korea that Westerners may be uncomfortable with or dislike, but I just wanted to put all of these things in one place for my parents and for anyone else that may find this information useful. Don’t worry, my next post will be about some of the things I love about Korea.

Food

  1. Restaurants
    There are few things to know about restaurants in Korea before walking into one. The first is that you shouldn’t try to change any menu items. Don’t ask to leave anything out, or to substitute anything. I suppose it’s possible that the restaurant might accommodate your requests, but as a general rule people just don’t do this in Korea. You are probably going to confuse your server and they will likely say that you can’t do that. Second, don’t expect a huge glass of water with your food like you get in restaurants in the US. Koreans drink a lot less water than Americans with their meals, and the cups are almost always very small. You will often get a jug of water to refill your cups, but not always. Finally, taking your leftovers with you is not common in Korea. If you don’t finish your food, you leave it behind. The only place I’ve seen that packed up uneaten food was a fried chicken place. In general, it’s best to just not ask.
  2. Korea’s idea of Western food
    Korea has a lot of Western-style restaurants and snacks. Some of it is amazing: I’ve had some of the best Italian pasta in my life in Korea. Some of it is just…a little off. Although it is “Western” food in the sense that it is based on the foods of Western countries, Koreans have their own take on Western foods that seem to be based on their perception of Western tastes. Firstly, Koreans seem to think most Western food is sweet; as a result, many Westerns would find a lot of Western-style foods in Korea to be strangely sweet. Breads are often covered in some kind of sugary buttery spread, salad dressings are sweet and fruity, corn dogs are often coated in sugar. A sandwich with meat, cheese, and vegetables will have a sweet sauce spread on it. Finally, even if your Korean Western-style food isn’t strangely sweet, it will probably have way too much mayonnaise slathered on it. Koreans seem to love their ketchup and mayo a little too much, and since it’s uncommon to ask for menu items to be altered, you’re going to have to scrape it off your burger yourself if you don’t want it.
  3. Coffee
    There are cafes on every street corner in Korea, and you will never have trouble ordering an americano or a cafe latte, but my mom drinks a cup of plain ol’ joe every morning. Unfortunately, most Korean cafes only have espresso beverages and do not sell plain coffee. I have seen a couple of cafes that do have plain coffee, but it seems to be marketed here as more of a luxury, instead of being the cheapest drink on the menu like it is in the U.S. The cafes where it is sold allow the customer to pick the type of beans they want (as in, based on the location where they were grown) and the prices are higher than an americano and sometimes even more expensive than the lattes. So Mom, get ready to be drinking a lot of espresso when you get here.
  4. Chocolate, bread, and cheese
    I will admit, the U.S. is not known for its chocolate, bread, or cheese. That would be Europe, of course. But both of my parents are a little snobbish when it comes to these foods, and they are willing to pay the price for European imports from time to time. In Korea, European imports are harder to find and more expensive than in the U.S. and I’m sorry, but most Korean chocolate has been a disappointment for a chocoholic like me. The chocolate flavor is not strong and chocolate desserts usually just taste overwhelmingly sweet. The sweet breads are often decent, but more yeasty breads and cakes are usually lacking. Korean cheese is usually of the fake, Kraft cheese singles variety, which I will admit is often more satisfying than I would like to admit. Just don’t expect to find a good Brie or Camembert here.

Public spaces and interacting with others

  1. Public transportation
    Korea has some extremely efficient public transportation. As a result, a lot of people use it every day, and as a result of that, it is often quite crowded. When it gets crowded, Koreans do not want to wait for the next bus or train. They will force as many people onto the vehicle as possible, so my parents need to be prepared for this. If you ride the subway or bus during a busy time, you will probably not be able to sit and you will be packed in like a sardine without any respect for your personal space. You will be expected to push back and make as much room as you can for the people getting on after you. It’s gonna get pretty toasty.
  2. Pushing
    I’m not exactly sure if this is a Korean thing or a city thing, but in all of the cities I have been to in Korea, people push. Do not stand in anybody’s way, because they will just push past you. If they are young, they are less likely to be aggressive, muttering an “excuse me” as they move by without too much force, but you need to watch out for the middle-aged women, referred to as ahjummas (아줌마). In short, they just do not care. I am always surprised by the strength that these women have in their shoulders and elbows as they shove you aside when trying to get past you on the street or the bus. Maybe they would have a little more consideration for other adults like my parents, but if my friends and I are in their way we are going down.
  3. Staring
    I’m not sure how much of an issue this will be. In the area around my university and downtown, two places filled with young people, I don’t get stared at much. Koreans my age who live in bigger cities are usually more used to seeing foreigners around and more embarrassed (or at least more covert) about staring. The people who usually stare the most are young children and older people. I am curious to see if my parents will be stared at more than I have been. I fall into the most common age group of foreigners in Korea: around 20-40 years old, as most foreigners are students or in the army. There are not many foreigners in Korea younger than 20 or older than 40, and my parents fall into that older bracket (sorry Mom and Dad). I wonder if this extra factor that makes my parents more unique in Korea will cause them to get stared at more. In any case, it’s not too hard to get used to staring; most of the time, people are clearly just looking out of pure curiosity and do not appear mean-spirited.
  4. Coughing, sneezing, spitting, and smoking
    These are probably the four things I just can’t get used to in Korea. I don’t know if I would ever really get used to them, no matter how long I lived here. First of all, a lot of Koreans do not cover their mouths or noses when they cough and sneeze. I’m sorry, I know this may sound narrow-minded or culturally insensitive, but….that’s nasty. It’s just a hygiene thing. I don’t want to get sick from your germs, people. My mom is a germaphobe and I know she will have trouble with this too, so I am giving her fair warning. It is also considered acceptable to spit and smoke in the street. Although I have seen a few women do this, it is mostly men who have these unfortunate habits. Men smoke everywhere, and sometimes you have to watch out while you are walking outside to avoid stepping in spit. Just to be clear, many Koreans also think these habits are gross, but it is still extremely common.

Miscellaneous 

  1. Bathrooms
    The main thing I want to warn my parents about Korean bathrooms is the size. They are used to the U.S., where everything is built big, and Oklahoma, where everything is built bigger. Korea is small and they need to conserve space. As a result, a lot of their bathrooms are tiny. I have been in bathrooms where my knees almost touched the stall door, and I have very short legs. Be ready to squeeze yourself into the bathroom and when you get in there, be ready for it to be a little dirty. Of course, not all Korean bathrooms are dirty, but it seems that the standards for bathroom cleanliness in restaurants, cafes, etc. are more lax than in the U.S. The last thing is that from what I’ve heard, Korean toilet paper is not made to dissolve in water (and apparently American toilet paper does?) I’m not really sure about this, but the point is that many businesses in Korea ask that you throw toilet paper in the trash can, not the toilet. If you see a sign in Korean on the inside of the stall door and a trash can full of toilet paper, you should probably not put your toilet paper in the toilet in case it clogs. Was this TMI for my blog? Too late, I already wrote it. Plus, it’s important to know.
  2. Cars and motorcycles
    The last thing I want to warn my parents about before they come to Korea is Korean driving. Driving is relatively calm in Oklahoma, although it is slowly getting worse. My mom nearly has an aneurysm every time she has to drive in Dallas or some other big city. Although my parents won’t be driving themselves in Korea, they need to be prepared for how others drive. It doesn’t matter whether they take the bus or a taxi, everyone in Korea drives crazy. Drivers blatantly ignore traffic rules, constantly cut each other off, and park wherever they feel like. I’ve been in a taxi where the brake light was on and the driver was using his emergency break to stop, and I’ve been in a taxi that ran red lights if it was clear (again, sorry Mom and Dad.) I regularly fear for the lives of old ladies crossing the street who look like they are about to be run over by the bus I am riding. Finally, motorcycles. Delivery motorcyclists drive wherever they want, however they want. You will need to pay attention at all times and frequently move out of the way of motorcyclists who are driving on the sidewalk, weaving through the crowds of pedestrians. Mom and Dad, when you come, just pay attention and try not to have a heart attack.

That’s all for now, folks. Mom and Dad, I’m so excited for you to visit me in Korea, and I know you will love it here. These are just some things I want you to be aware of beforehand so you can enjoy the good parts of Korea even more. Now that I’ve made it seem like I hate Korea, in the next post I will talk about some of the things that Korea does better than the US.

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Korean Age

I am currently taking a course on modern Korean society. I recently completed an assignment for this class in which the task was to write a paragraph describing in detail how “Korean age” differs from “western” age. I was to complete this assignment as if I was explaining “Korean age” to someone who does not know about it. I thought this assignment might be nice to share on this blog, because some of my readers may not know how Korean age is calculated. Korean age can be very confusing; you may have heard that a Korean baby born on December 31st would be considered two years old the next day, on January 1st. Below is my answer to this assignment, with some additional information added for clarity. Please keep in mind that this was a short assignment, so there will be some broad generalizations made. Furthermore, this is Korean age as told by a non-Korean; I may have made some mistakes or overlooked something, so take what I say with a grain of salt. I apologize in advance for any mistakes and encourage you to do your own research if this is something you are interested in learning more about.

In Korean culture, one’s age is much more important than it is in Western cultures. This is because your age is used to rank you and place you in a social hierarchy. In contrast to Westerns who like to feel that they are equal with others, Koreans feel comfortable being placed in a hierarchy and knowing who ranks above and below them. This emphasis on hierarchy comes from Confucianism and its strong influence on Korean society– Korea is the most strongly Confucian modern society. The influence of Confucianism is felt even more strongly in Korea than in China, where it originated. Confucianism dictates that superiors must be respected and also that people must aim for social harmony. Social harmony can be achieved when people know their place in the social hierarchy and fulfill their role as prescribed by their hierarchical rank. Thus, age is used as one way to determine rank and superiority in Korean society. As a result, age has become an extremely significant part of Korean culture. “How old are you?” is often one of the first questions asked upon meeting someone new in Korea, so that the speaker can determine your relationship and whether you rank above or below them in the hierarchy.

The first thing that is necessary to know about Korean age is that the Korean perspective on age and time is different from the Western perspective. In Western culture, one’s age is on a time continuum with each individual having their own spot on the timeline depending on the year, month, and day they were born. In Korean culture, a year is like a box. The year you were born in is the box you belong in, but you do not have your own individual spot inside the box. Everyone who was born in a certain year (box) is considered to be on the same level with others who were born in the same year (box). Following this perspective, Koreans are not considered to be a year older on their birthday, but rather, they all turn a year older on January 1st, the new year. Everyone in the same box turns a year older at the same time.

To make this more complicated, however, Koreans used to be considered a year older depending on when they began school, because all children who started school together were considered to be the same age. This, again, follows the idea that everyone belongs in a particular box (school year), and they have the same rank as everyone else in that box. Since the Korean school year begins in March, children born in January or February can start school a year earlier than others born in the same year and are said to be a year older than those others, despite being born in the same year. Although this practice ended in the 21st century, those who began school while it was still in place still base their age on this system.

The last thing you need to know is that Koreans are considered a year old when they are born. If you think about it, this again matches the Korean perspective of age and time. The birth year was traditionally important to Koreans, rather than the number of months the baby has been alive, but it does not make sense to say a child is 0 years old. Again, a year is like a box, so when a baby is born, it is not actually that they are considered 1 year old. Rather, they are considered to be in the “Year 1 box”, or “in Year 1.” Thus, a baby who is born December 31st is not actually considered to be 2 years old the next day on the New Year, but “in Year 2.” Koreans are born in one year and their age changes as the year changes.

The confusion that Westerners feel upon learning about Korean age stems mainly from a difference in linguistic expression and what is lost in translation from one language to another. Although Koreans do not literally say “I am in Year 25″, “I am 25 years old” means something different in Korean than it does in English because of the different perceptions of age and time. The Korean perception of age seems to follow the collectivist and Confucian nature of the culture, as individual birthdays are not important and everyone born in the same year turns a year older at the same time. Meanwhile, individualistic Western societies view everyone as having their own special spot on a continuous timeline that marks their own age. It makes sense.

I tried to make this post as concise as possible, but somehow it became quite long. I’m not sure I’ve done a great job explaining this topic, but I did my best. It’s still pretty confusing to me, and in fact I had to leave a couple things out because I myself still don’t fully understand them. If you are curious about my age, I am 20 in international age and 22 in Korea. I was born in February 1996, so I am considered to be one of those children who got to go to school a year early. As a result, my Korean age is 2 years older than my international age. Unfortunately, I don’t think that means I look young for my age here.

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Haeinsa Temple

Two days ago I traveled with a group of friends to Haeinsa (해인사) Temple in Gayasan (가야산) Mountain. It is about two hours east of Daegu by bus, and an intercity bus from West Daegu Bus Station will take you directly to the temple. Haeinsa is one of the Three Jewel Temples of Korea, which are the three main temples in Korea that represents the three jewels of Buddhism. These three jewels are the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings), and the Sangha (the monastic community of monks and nuns). Haeinsa represents the Dharma, and its important position among Korea’s temples is evidenced by its popularity. When we arrived, we were surrounded by many other tourists. Interestingly, we saw very few other foreigners there. Most of the tourists were Koreans, and most of the Koreans there were older couples or families. Although there were some other visitors who were closer to our age, they seemed to be arriving as we were leaving around four in the afternoon.

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Part of the reason why the temple and its surrounding area was so busy was probably the season. Oklahoma’s autumn is a little disappointing, if I’m being honest. For the most part, the leaves don’t really change colors so much as they just immediately turn brown and die. In Korea, however, the leaves turn beautiful shades of red, orange, and yellow, and going to see this natural phenomenon is a very popular activity here. In fact, the Korean language equivalent for the English phrase “(the process of) the leaves changing color” is just one word: danpoong (단풍). In English you might also call danpoong “fall foliage” or “autumn color”, but we do not have just one word for it. Fall foliage is so significant in Korea that it got its own word, and for good reason. Korea’s autumn color is gorgeous and many people travel to the mountains to hike, get a good view of the leaves, and take photos. Going on an excursion to see the fall foliage is called danpoong nori (단풍놀이), or more literally, “danpoong play.” At the temple, we saw many families taking pictures in front of trees with vivid scarlet or bright orange leaves.

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After admiring the danpoong around Haeinsa, we entered the main area of the temple and looked around. It was beautiful, but its buildings and structure looked quite similar to the other temples I have visited. Perhaps what was most memorable about this temple for me was how its status as a popular tourist site had affected it and made it different from other, less popular temples. One building held a small art exhibition, and another had been converted into a bookstore café. Directly outside the temple, there is a café and a stand selling snacks and souvenirs. A little farther down, there are stands set up with old women selling various mushrooms, grains, wild roots, apples, dried sweet potatoes and persimmons, and more. Across from these stands is a building with several businesses, including a convenience store and a restaurant. I ate lunch at this restaurant and I absolutely recommend it if you have a chance to visit Haeinsa. First of all, you have to walk quite a bit farther down the mountain to find any other restaurants, so ten points for convenience. Secondly, the food was delicious. My friend and I ate mountain vegetable dolsot (hot stone bowl) bibimbap (산채 돌솥 비빔밥) and it was served with many side dishes and a bowl of fermented bean paste stew (된장찌개). You can order bibimbap anywhere in Korea, but getting it in the mountains gives you a new and delicious variety of vegetables. The name of the restaurant is Gayasan Restaurant/Shikdang (가야산 식당).

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One of the stands selling various food items

 

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Lunch from Gayasan Restaurant

 

As usual, I have been sidetracked by food. Let me get back to my main point, which is the tourist elements of Haeinsa. Perhaps the most interesting tourist element is what Haeinsa is most famous for. Inside Haeinsa, you can find the Tripitaka Koreana, which are 81,350 wood blocks into which have been printed the entirety of the Buddhist scriptures. It is known for having no errors, and it is the most complete and oldest version of the Buddhist scriptures written in Chinese characters that remains intact. These wooden blocks were carved in the 1200s, and have been kept at Haeinsa since 1398. Only a decade or two ago, visitors were able to look at the Tripitaka Koreana up close, but unfortunately that is no longer possible. I was only able to get a small look at the sides of some of the blocks through a window of the building in which they are kept. Instead, visitors can buy $5 paper prints of one of the blocks right next to the building, or take photos in front of a large poster with an image of the inside of the building, doing their best to make it look as if they were actually standing in front of the wood blocks. Personally, I found the poster a little silly. I wondered why the tourists were so determined to get a photo of themselves in front of fake Tripitaka, and if they were going to try to tell their friends they saw the wood blocks up close. I don’t really understand the point of taking a photo in front of another photo, but it was interesting to see how important historical and religious sites like temples adapt to modern tourism.

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The Tripitaka Koreana poster – does it look convincing?

 

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Introducing the US…to Korean high school boys

On October 26th, I had the opportunity to participate in a cultural exchange between Kyungpook National University and a nearby high school. I gave a presentation about the United States and my home state of Oklahoma to a group of Korean high school students. This was an exciting chance to introduce my state to some Koreans, since they are relatively unfamiliar with Oklahoma. Quite a few people here who I have introduced myself to have heard of my home state, but most of them do not know where in the US it is located or anything else about it.

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Of course, with exciting things like this one, there is always a catch. In fact, there were two catches. The first: I had to give my whole presentation in Korean. Furthermore, after my presentation I had to talk with the students and answer their questions in Korean for half an hour as well. Oh boy.

Wondering what the second catch was? I didn’t know either, until the moment I walked into the room in which I would give my presentation. The students came from an all boys school. I was presenting in front of about forty rowdy, smart-alecky high school boys. I’m not all that adept at handling high schoolers in general, and rambunctious high school boys are an exceptionally daunting challenge.

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Nevertheless, I accepted the challenge and I spent several weeks preparing a PowerPoint and an accompanying script that briefly introduced the United States and Oklahoma. The size of the United States is too large and its cultures too varied to cover it all in one presentation, so after giving some brief demographics about the country as a whole, I focused entirely on Oklahoma. I talked about our traditional dishes (fried, fried, and more fried foods), and after that I gave a very surface-level presentation on Oklahoma’s culture through its tourist attractions. For example, I told them about the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and also briefly explained the cowboy lifestyle and the plight of the Native Americans who were forced to move into Indian Territory from all over the country. I showed pictures of the Philbrook Museum of Art and the Marland Estate Mansion and explained how oil barons became wealthy and built these huge estates. I also touched on Oklahoma’s landscape, indigenous wildlife, and weather. Tornadoes have to be brought up if you are explaining Oklahoma, after all. If I had known I would be faced with all high school boys, I might have talked more about sports and OU football, but alas, I have absolutely no interest in the subject and wouldn’t know what I was talking about.

After the presentations, the high schoolers split into groups and one international student sat with each group. This section was designated as time for “free talking” between the Korean and foreign students, giving the Koreans a chance to ask the foreigners any questions they had about their countries. I won’t lie; this part was incredibly awkward. I am bad enough at small talk when I can speak my own language, so trying to small talk in Korean was a struggle. Some of the high school students looked anywhere but at me and had trouble thinking of questions to ask. My Korean is not good enough to hold a full conversation and my attempts to ask the students questions were only minimally successful. Nevertheless, with the help of the students’ teachers, we managed a bit of back-and-forth dialogue. Most of it was trivial small talk, like recommending places to visit in Daegu and in the US. The most memorable question was when one of the boys asked me if I had a boyfriend, and when I answered no, he then asked what I thought of his (male, single) teacher, to which I responded “He’s too old.” Also, on a side note, Korean high school boys really love listening to Adele.

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I survived my presentation. To be honest, I read off of my script that I did not have sufficient time to memorize instead of truly presenting, but I survived. The other international students who presented were much, much better at Korean than I was (and I’m not being modest here), but still, I survived. This experience helped me to empathize with the Korean students and exchange students from non-English speaking countries who bravely gave presentations entirely in English in my classes here. It was also an interesting look into how foreigners are perceived in South Korea. Despite my poor Korean, the organizers of this events really wanted me to participate because I was American and White with a capital W. Most of the foreigners who speak Korean well are from other Asian countries and don’t look as “exotic” as I do here. One of the organizers told me that one year all of the international participants came from Asian countries like China, Japan, Thailand, etc. and when people looked at photos of the event they asked which people were the foreigners. Essentially, I was there to make the photos look good. But most of all, it was an amazing experience that pushed me to use my Korean to the best of my ability despite my reservations and feelings of embarrassment. Although it was a lot of work and extremely nerve-wracking, I would do this again in a heartbeat if I got the offer, because I know I would regret it if I passed up the opportunity.

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