note: not sure if the videos are working on Facebook's new code, because I directly linked them. You might be able to right click save as an .SWF file, but I'm too lazy to change this.
So I've been in Seoul, South Korea for 3 months-or-so right now, and most people haven't heard so much as a word from me yet. I guess I'll try to recap these times as well as justify my absence. Hopefully, writing and documenting snippets of my life will become more of an ongoing trend; and I think it will be--moving from 0 to 1 is much harder than 1 to 2, and I'm getting 0 out of the way now.
Anywho, I live in the south west region of Seoul. Purists, Elitists, uber-Korean Koreans, etc. will all tell you that this isn't the "prime" area, but it depends on your view. Seoul's suburbs are generalized by their location in context to the Han River that flows through the lower half of it.
The Pacific is to California real-estate prices as the Han is to Seoul key-money (apartment entry) prices.
I live south of the Han (+5 KP points (Korean Pride (g0t r1c3!?^^) ) ) and am not terribly far from it's acid-trash waters. Most people would say that I'm in the boonies, but I hardly am. I'm 15 minutes from the most hectic location in the entire country, Hongdae. I'm also in a residential area where the average life-expectancy was yesterday. So if we do some quick math: quiet living + access to chaos = complete choice of lifestyle. Not too shabby. I'll be honest and say though that Gangnam (south of the river, east Seoul) is far better than this area, and I am a bit removed from certain landmark areas like Myeongdong, Dongdaemun, etc. But, to complain would be worthless. I'd say that 70% of the time I wouldn't trade living positions with people that I speak with. I'd say that 100% of the time, I wouldn't trade anything with them after that ...but I'll get to that in a moment.
Here's my Google Maps coordinates: 37.52566,126.883295
Korea is one of the most interesting places on Earth, to me at least. However, I don't believe that somebody could actually enjoy or learn to enjoy it without understanding its culture as a prerequisite. I've gotten a significant head-start in that regard by making friends with the few Korean kids I met at a private Christian middle school in Colorado. Our school had an ESL class, and back in 2001, Koreans were starting to exponentially flood to the US for their kids to learn native English. I didn't know anything about these kids, but somehow the game of Starcraft came up in conversation. I knew that Asians were typically better at, well, everything, so I had to test my hand at a battle with them. Surprisingly, I won more than I lost. I also won friendship, because apparently Starcraft skill is synonymous with worth as a human being. We used to bet each other stupid loot over after-school matches or start trading lunches because we had such different meals. I began to learn all the Korean words that I wasn't supposed to know and found out that cross-dressing guys in space suits put to hip-pop K-metal ballads were big business. I learned that their ramen was really spicy and that I sucked at math. All of these small epiphanies were mutually shared, though. They were curious about my culture, my style, why I didn't play Starcraft 7 hours-a-day, and how to meet girls without black hair. These stupid subtleties became something that I secretly enjoyed. Juxtaposed with my eccentric and over-zealous personality, I found the extreme nature of these kids to be something that I could simultaneously compete with, yet relate to.
From then until finishing university, I continued to meet more Koreans from abroad. It became easier and easier to make friends with them as I knew more about their culture. It became so easy after a while that I knew if I threw out "World Cup 2002", "Starcraft", "Nong Shim ramen", "H.O.T.", or said "바보" (Korean for "stupid"), I could make any Korean friend within 60 seconds or less. Later, I'd be the only non-Korean at parties full of students who were in America trying to learn English. I always laughed that I was the only American many of them knew. I also enjoyed being the one American that they all felt safe hanging out with. I knew them, so they didn't have to hide. If you know me well, you also know that I'm not one to hold anything back, so my willingness to be myself with them was also a welcomed surprise. Needless to say, when it came time to decide whether or not I could handle a job and live in Korea, it was not a big decision in terms of fear.
Unfortunately, I am a severe minority of people who migrated here under those conditions. Most teachers here do not seem like they want to be here at all. They do not care whether their teaching job was here, or Japan, or China, or Uzbekistan for that matter. Many of them have a brooding, negative attitude about the culture here, and especially about everyone at their job ...yet they stay. If the students aren't annoying, then the staff is. Native Koreans aren't interested in making peace, and everyone is out to get them? Let me just definitively say here that they can shut the hell up, forever. Not only do they tarnish the reputation of foreigners on the daily, they make everybody around them absolutely miserable. I really dislike travelling to an area in Seoul called Itaewon. It's known as the foreigner district, and many ignorant teachers go there to co-mingle (get drunk) with other mindless Canadians or American GI's, who are pissed that they are in the army, alive, or some other emo logic. It really does bother me that the majority of people are like that here. I sincerely believe that it's their loss and nobody else's, especially not the Korean's. I came here not believing that foreigner mindset to be the truth, even though I had heard it said on the internet many times before when I was researching the experience here. It's all true. I know this because I have worked/work with some presently and see them in the street. Most foreigners won't even look up at you, and if they do, it's out of sheer terror because they can't even read Hangul and are completely lost. Luckily, my work situation is morphing. People who have a positive outlook on life always win, even though uphill battles are never fun. We will win though, I'm sure of it.
I'm not exactly sure why (or how) Korea drinks more than most countries could with double the amount of time provided. The drink of choice? Soju. Originally, it's a carefully-made, distilled rice wine that was produced in the rural areas of South Korea with an ABV around 40%. Just out of respect, one of these days I'll find a traditional ajashi somewhere in the boonies to show me how it's really done. Today, soju is mass-produced, mass-marketed, available for about $2/bottle, ranges between 16%-22% ABV, and is essentially an un-distilled mess of corn syrup and ethanol found in literately every store imaginable. No specific age-group or target-market is singled out for soju, literately the entire country consumes it. To be honest, I know that nobody actually likes it. Certain occasions actually warrant a few bottles of soju legitmately, for example Korean barbecue or a night with close friends and food--any other setting is just an excuse to drink. That mindset is definitely a con for a budding beer elitist like myself. I didn't even realize how good I had it back in sunny southern California with all the microbreweries and imports. You could drink some of the top 10 beers in the world for $6/tulip glass. I can't even drink one in the top 500 here for anything less than $0 because it's impossible to find. Think Bud Light, but worse, and then make it cool and convince everybody that it's high quality. Fail. Anyway, I can't say I've ever been to a place where your pride can be measured in how many bottles you can keep down ...until Korea. Yeah, every place has their drinkers, but it's more than a past-time here, it's downright acceptable.
See exhibit A: here
Notice his shirt neatly folded next to him. You can't see it, but his shoes were also pristinely set net to him in a pair. I wouldn't be surprised if a passer-by did it for him. I promise he awoke with both his cellphone and wallet still in his pockets. Oh, and definitely don't miss where his right hand is.
Yeah, the video is funny, but that's not even the point. Nobody was paying attention to him or bothering him: a prime example of how anything-goes with Korean nightlife being acceptable and expected. I guess such a low crime-rate makes the even public cement look safe and comfortable.
Okay, so I'm making this place look bad. It's not. It's just extreme. Everything that Koreans do, they do it 100%, no matter what it is. They will do ______ harder than you, with guarantee, but only if they care. What Koreans do not know about, they do not care about. Take a K-Pop show for example, it can draw 10,000+ fans to a show every single time, but a rock show could draw 1/20th that if they were lucky. Certain things are acceptable, and certain things are weird. I was in Hongdae a week ago where a dance flash-mob broke out right in front of me.
Flash-mobs are supposed to be surprising and out-of-place, but my reaction was more like, "Oh, there's a bunch of Korean's in hipster high school clothing dancing in unison in the street...
I went to the MBC Gaming Starleage Grand Finals last week, a Starcraft tournament where the final two players (ages 17 and 20) competed in a 12-year old computer game in sound-proof booths in front of 10,000 people. There were pyrotechnics, confetti, commentators, screaming and crying girls, and lots of rabid males in attendance. Another instance of Korean obsession and passion.
Pre-game show with K-pop singer IU
Commentators introducing the matches
Oh yeah, and just in case you get the craving to drink coffee with sheep like I do, you can always go to Nature Cafe in Hongdae: video
Now putting the oddities of this place aside, education is all something that we go through growing up. But in typical Korean fashion, it's nothing like normal. I currently teach kindergarten and elementary students. They go to school from 9:30AM-2:40PM and usually go to some sort of extra-curricular programs after that. Again, I said kindergarten. Once they reach 1st grade, they go to public school from 9:00AM-2:30PM and then typically to an after-school academy (called a "학원", or "hagwon") from 3:00PM-Whenever. By the time they reach middle school, their hagwon stays usually end around 7:00PM-10:00PM, and by high school, it never ends earlier than 11:00PM, daily. Most students have additional classes on Saturdays and complete homework on Sundays. The end result is that South Korea has the top scores in the world on their academics, but if a social-skill or self-confidence SAT were to be created, I'm sure that they would be ranked on one of the lower hanging rungs.
The pressure here is so great to perform that the suicide rate spikes immediately after entrance exam testing.
This doesn't only apply to academics, aesthetics are included. If you know where to look, you can find a plastic surgery clinic on every corner of Gangnam or Apgujeong, i.e. the Beverly Hills of Seoul. I spoke to a very beautiful girl who is an internet model for Korean boutique clothing stores. She told me (without me asking) that she recently had surgery, and explained to me that she didn't think she was beautiful. I was pretty confused by this. I mean, I think I have decent eyesight... Maybe not. But even if I don't, then apparently 4,000+ people that visit her Cyworld page every single day must not be able to see correctly either. Needless to say, vanity wins here. The staff at my school crumble at will when a mother calls up with an illogical and fickle complaint about something that cannot be fixed, but her husband is a rich and successful lawyer; therefore, it must be fixed. Abandon all protocol, this one is serious! ....yeah right. This place has some things going wrong for it, but it has some things that are seriously going right.
Korea knows how to work. They know how to work hard and they know the value of a job done well. When a no-name country bounces from bitter poverty to becoming a fierce economic superpower within 30-years, they are doing something right. They know how to study as well. Boasting the top scores in the world make me wonder how long lazy students back at home in the USA can prop up the country. Korea knows how to have relationships. There are a million restaurants to eat at and never will you see somebody by themselves. Friends call each other, invite each other, check up on each other... It's something that I feel like my home country has fallen out of touch with. Korea knows how to dress. I commonly feel underdressed unless I go out on a limb that teeters between metrosexuality and straight-up gay. When guys can wear bleached-out, torn-up skinny jeans, have huge and long hair, manbags, cardigans, vests, scarves, rings, earrings, etc. every day is like watching some Vogue runway show; except that I'm in a subway.
I don't even know where I'm going with this, but welcome to my world. I'll be posting positive things, negative things, weird things, beautiful things and writing about all the same categories as well. I try to record things or remember them as they happen, but the biggest things I see and feel I can't always write. When you live somewhere this different but do it through their eyes, you learn things that are difficult to re-type. You gain friends that you can't even explain why you are close, but you know you are. You eat dog, drink soju with eel bile, wash it down with fried eel spine bone, then look down the street for another restaurant as soon as you walk out. You check your watch, see that it says 1AM and sigh with relief because it's early. You mention Starcraft as a joke to any Korean male and you'll have a phone number within 10 seconds.
It's quite the place. If you know a Korean, ask them to take you to a legitimate Korean barbeque and just go for it. Eat everything you can, drink everything you can, and ask every question that you want to. If you don't know a Korean, just wear an H.O.T. shirt, because it's totally worth finding at least one. This place is commonly overlooked by China and Japan, but it absolutely shouldn't be. I can't say that I've felt that people are as genuine as they are here once you get past that outer shell, or defense. I grew up in a place where everyone asks about us and wants to be us. I'm an American and won't ever love a place more than that, but I've certainly lost interest in making disregard of other cultures a lifestyle. That choice began long before migrating here, but I think the move put the nail in the coffin for that type of thinking--it's too ignorant and selfish to be worth having pride in.
I was a finance major and I did it in 3 years so I could get out of the gate running. I've been out for a while, but I'm still running. I'm obviously not an English scholar or even a trained teacher, but this place is treating me very well as a guest while I figure these things out and give back whatever I can to them. Many a mother has a "smart daughter" that I should "really meet", and many a girl "wants to learn English" from only me, but we'll see if I can make it back alone, or at least in one piece.