In an effort to bring in the new year on a high note, I’m going to share the struggles I’ve had since being here in a little more depth, and then I’m going to shake them off! Writing is, they say, cathartic, and lucky you – you get to come along for the ride! 🙂 But seriously, there have been some people asking why we’re finding Korea frustrating and not always super awesome. I think I can clarify some of that, share, and also vent and let it go at the same time. So here’s some of the stuff that I personally have had a hard time with, and while I won’t implicate Jon in all of it, I can safely say that some of it is the same for him.
The biggest, possibly most obvious thing, is the language barrier. It’s hard not speaking the language wherever you are. We all know that. It’s harder yet when you’re trying to live there and find work and make friends. Makes sense. What I had never really realized before is how hard it is not being able to look anywhere and see a familiar word, know what some letters might signify, read a number even. Nearly everything here is in characters – including numbers on menus oftentimes! – and it’s immensely draining and disorienting. I was shocked to realize this, dumb as that may sound. I’ve only ever fully lived somewhere that I either spoke the language or spoke a decent amount of the language (English, Spanish) and I frankly did not even know to expect the added stress of not knowing ANYthing. Grocery shopping is a guessing game, eating out nearly impossible unless at an overpriced place with English, and getting around tiresome. The only up side is the little surge of excitement I feel every time I read an English sign somewhere…even (or especially?) when it’s grammatically incorrect; as it is, more often than not.
This language barrier naturally plays into every aspect of life. And while I am working on learning some Korean to offset the stress (and because I like languages), things happen in the meantime. For example, New Years Day was rather hellish. I had not yet found a vet for Daisy (that was bad parenting on my part), and I woke up that morning to Daisy with a swollen, bloody snout. You can well imagine that I panicked. I grabbed Dais and a cab and headed for the only animal hospital I remembered seeing. But they were closed. So I google mapped another one (praise be to the cell phone!), grabbed another cab, and attempted to head for that one. This is where communication started to break down. You see, in Korea, whether you know something or not, you say you know because it’s a matter of losing face. So two cab drivers in a row, after being shown the map on my phone IN KOREAN, told me they could get there. Then proceeded to ask me for directions. IN KOREAN. Meanwhile Pugs is losing her s*it over an itchy and painful face while I struggle with a cell phone and map in a language I don’t speak and two cab drivers in a row that started the meter AFTER I showed them the map and then proceeded to have zero idea where to go (making me pay for the cab starter fare, of course). Talk about infuriating. I, on the verge of hysteria and bawling in the back of the cab, had them take me home so at least I could figure out an address. From there I caught a third cab to another hospital (with Dad in tow so I wasn’t melting down alone this time), and once again, it was closed. Now, were they going to open later? I had no clue. Were they closed for the holiday? No idea. I tried calling the phone numbers, no answers. I couldn’t read the hours of operation, if they had them. I couldn’t ask someone. And I couldn’t find websites (or any English ones). Suffice to say, it was not fun. We had to head home without having seen a vet and doctor up the pug ourselves. Talk about scary and overwhelming.
But something important about Korean culture to note – losing face is a huge deal. That cultural aspect has caused a fair bit of stress on our parts because we struggle with not being able to ask a direct question and get a direct answer. I struggle with it at work a lot, and in cabs often, and just in general asking directions or various other times. I’m not sure how to work around this…I think it will remain one of those things that will always just feel very different but that I need to find some zen about. There’s no need being crazy about something that I can’t alter. I am well aware that even the desire to alter it is simply my culture coming in to play. But it’s an interesting point I thought worth sharing 🙂
Now, you may or may not be familiar with the way hierarchy plays into the culture. It’s ingrained from the days of Confucianism. Everyone has a place and that place should be, and is generally, adhered to strictly. Age bumps you up the chain, as does being male, and of course Korean is a requirement. This permeates every aspect of Korean life. You greet each person in accordance to their station and they to you. Men and the elderly can jump lines, and push and shove younger people out of the way. We are slowly getting used to a lot of that kind of thing. What I think we both struggle with the most is when, for instance, a man jumps the taxi line ahead of a woman with children. This is not hypothetical. And said man was not old. He just could, so he did. In the freezing cold, he jumped a taxi line ahead of many of us, but most importantly, ahead of the lady with three children at the front. I struggle with this. You know I do. There are other ways in which the female role in this country drives me batty and I may just have to save that for another post altogether. Or not bother with one 😉 But I feel there’s no honor jumping in front of a woman and her three kids in the cold simply because you can. Culture or not, saying this with what I know to be my own cultural bias, I struggle with that. ‘nough said.
There’s some other stuff on women’s roles that I won’t go in to right now…partially because I am not informed enough and partially because I don’t have the energy and I don’t care to get all worked up.
So, on top of not being particularly old, and not being male, I am a foreigner. Which plops me solidly at the bottom of the foodchain. Which wouldn’t be so bad, really, accept as it pertains to my life at work. I get information I need at the last possible second, I often have to ask to find out things that I should be told, but anytime I ask for clarification I run the risk of being patronizingly berated for not having just somehow known inherently, and I am always treated as some idiotic child because I am not Korean. Therefore I am stupid and likely lazy and at least not worth putting too much effort into. My temper has reared it’s ugly head more times than I am comfortable admitting in the six short weeks I’ve been teaching here. So, searching for my zen and determined to chalk it up to experience and not let it rattle me…at least not quite so much.
Sooooo my overarching resolution is to ditch the negative, be appreciative that I’m not rotting away and bored somewhere, and use this opportunity of stability and only working one job to take care of myself. To that end, I am making an effort to sleep more, drink way more water and way less coffee, eat well, get more fit than I have ever been (I’m not in school anymore – no more excuses!) and spend more time being the upbeat, loveable girl I want to be (especially for the sake of my patient fiance who seems to love me no matter how cranky I get). To THAT end, I am going to try to laugh every single day and I am going to re-focus on my long-term goal of development – by volunteering, if feasible – and by acquiring French. I need French! But I am also committed to learning Korean and practicing my Spanish.
Seems like a lot, but the reality is that many of these things tend to tie in nicely anyways, so the plan is to be healthier and happier overall by making a few small changes. Oh, and learning two languages. Easy peasy. 😉 Wish me luck!