Observations in Korea / 03

Korean Observations 3

Once again, I’m amazed that two months have gone by since the last one of these observations posts (you can see my first two here and here). That being said, even though I’m coming up on the end of my fourth month, I feel like I’ve lived in Korea for much longer than that. I think that the stress and slight upheaval that came with the announcement about my school closing down took the wind out of my sails a bit because it brought up a lot of the more frustrating and difficult aspects of life in a foreign country. The dust has settled and I’m back to feeling more balanced and positive about life here, but the experience definitely expanded my sense of how long I’ve been in Korea. Fortunately, I’m still really enjoying myself, and I haven’t stopped making observations about the funny and interesting parts of this culture. Here are some more of them:

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In some bathrooms, instead of liquid soap dispensers they have a bar of soap on a stick. It looks exactly like this.

Every time I’ve taken the inter-city train here, it’s always been totally packed. They sell “standing” tickets for trains, so lots of people stand in the aisles, sit on the stairs between train cars, or sprawl out and sleep literally across the entire floor in the dining car. To me, that last one seems like a fire hazard, but it’s totally normal here.

Koreans make excellent ice cream. At your local convenience store you can choose from a huge variety of individual ice cream bars and cones in the freezer that are very cheap and very good. Some tiny convenience stores also have soft-serve ice cream machines! And my absolute favourite part of the pre-packaged ice cream cones is their packaging ingenuity: they have pre-scored lines at every inch or so, meaning you can easily unwrap the cone strip by strip as you eat. It’s so simple but so smart. You can sort of see an example here.

When I opened a new bank account last week, the woman told me to choose a 4 digit PIN number. A few minutes later, she said I needed to make a 6 digit number as a type of security code, but that the security code needed to be my 4-digit PIN plus two zeroes at the end. This struck me as fairly hilarious and ridiculous, because of course if everyone is told to do the same thing, how is it any more secure than the 4-digit code?

In a lot of bathrooms, there is a little button you can press to make a loud “flushing sound”, presumably so you can do your business more discreetly. In some bathroom stalls I’ve also seen an “emergency call” button.

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Some Korean couples dress exactly alike, and I mean that they literally wear the same things from head to toe: same shirt, same pants, same shoes. Everytime I see it, I do a double take and have to laugh. Yesterday my friends and I spent a good deal of time discussing the mechanics of how the couple makes that decision, since most Koreans live with their parents until they’re married and so the younger couples presumably don’t live together and share a closet. Do they text each other about the outfit? Does the girl pick out his outfit or vice versa? You can see a bounty of examples here.

Cellphones seem to be much more common in the workplace here than they are back home. For instance, in addition to the bank phones on their desk, tellers at the bank will also have their cell phones out right in front of you, will use them to check things, and last week the woman who was helping me took a cell phone call right in the middle of our transaction.

In general I have to say that Korean women seem to care not at all about panty lines. This is not to say that I think they should, but it’s just very different from back home. Even young stylish women wearing pencil skirts or pants usually have visible panty lines.

When you walk into big stores (similar to Wal-Marts back home), there is a designated “bower” on every floor who bows to you as you enter and leave. On trains too, the customer service agents who walk between cars often bow as they enter and leave a train car – and this is even on the very cheapest, most run-down train line!

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Koreans have a hilarious preoccupation with “dong” which is Korean for poop. They have these red bean treats that are shaped like piles of poop, and in Seoul we even went to a café that was, for all intents and purposes poop-themed, but in the most cutesy and least-gross possible way. Picture fairy lights strung around a tree that has cartoon, multicoloured piles of poop hanging off it. It’s equal parts funny and totally baffling.

In Busan, foreigners often get “shushed” or asked to stop talking by Koreans on the subway, even when objectively they’re not speaking very loudly. Granted, the subways are often very quiet (sometimes almost freakily silent, with everyone fully absorbed in their phones and not talking to one another) so speaking even quietly is a disruption, and sure, sometimes we foreigners might deserve it when we get a bit too loud, but usually it’s unfair and unpleasant. Especially considering that in a huge number of circumstances (including on quiet trains), Koreans can be extremely loud, especially when speaking to their families or on the phone. We’ve heard from Korean friends that when it does happen, it’s usually because Koreans find our accents and language deeply annoying, moreso than because of the noise level itself. This is just one of those times when you really feel like a minority in a culture different from your own.

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A lot of people, mostly middle-aged and older women, walk around with umbrellas up when it’s sunny outside so that they don’t get any kind of tan, since Koreans think that tans are not beautiful.

Most stores and jobs seem very overstaffed. Tiny kiosks and totally empty stores usually have at least three employees, I’ve seen 5 people on hand “helping” (watching) one guy change a vending machine, and of course there are the aforementioned bowers.

Once at the local track, my friends were annoyed by a woman walking slowly around the track with a huge antenna sticking up from the tablet she was holding, watching a Korean soap opera on full volume.

Korean Baseball GameAt the baseball stadium, everyone is allowed to bring their own food and drinks (yep, even alcoholic ones) in from outside, and there are convenience stores inside the stadium with the exact same prices as outside. At the end of the game, they pass out bright orange plastic bags which everyone ties into big balloons or bows and loops around their ears. The bags are meant to be used for everyone to clean up their garbage at the end of the game, but they’re used for a bit of fun beforehand, ha.

Take out food culture here is really very excellent – it’s usually free delivery, and the food is brought wrapped in plastic but on real plates with real utensils and often with all the side dishes that Koreans eat with their meals. After your meal, you leave the dirty plates and bowls on the floor outside your apartment or in the corner of your office, and the delivery guy comes back to pick it up later. Yes, really.

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It’s funny: the longer I spend living in Korea, the more funny differences I notice between here and home. I thought that this country’s idiosyncrasies would start to fade as I got used to living here, but actually the opposite has happened. I had to hold back on this post because there are still so many things I could add (for instance: elevators don’t have sensors and sometimes eat you alive; I had to open a new account at a different bank for my new job because my boss (inexplicably) refuses to do a transfer to the bank I am already with; dried sweet potato is a popular snack), but I’ll save a few for the next installment. This is a very different culture than the one I grew up in, and while there are some frustrating parts, mostly the differences are just funny and interesting.

24 Before 24: Go Trampolining

20140618-151809.jpgI’m doing 24 fun or new things before I turn 24. You can see the rest of my list here.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Dylan and I made quite the trek out to one of Busan’s many beaches, Dadaepo. The draw was the Dadaepo Sunset Fountain of Dreams (believe it or not that’s its real, official name), a water fountain show with multicoloured lights and water spray patterns, choreographed to music of all kinds. We’d been excited about theshow, but we hadn’t anticipated just how much we would love the beach itself.

DSC_3167It was absolutely stunning – when we looked to our right, it was all soft sand stretching as far as the eye could see, and on our left, green trees and big rocks curving around the coast. As is typical with these kinds of things, the photos don’t quite do it justice.

DSC_3211We arrived in the late afternoon and did the coastal walk (Korea is home to so many beautiful coastal walks that they’ve become one of our favourite pastimes) to the place where the walkway ended. From there we scampered over some rocks and dodged some creepy insects, ending up on a big rock listening to lovely music and talking as the sun started setting. It was a pretty blissful afternoon. The fountain was just icing on the cake!

DSC_3259But my favourite part of the day had to be the discovery of a free outdoor trampoline and the subsequent jumping around on it like a maniac until I had cramps from laughing so hard and my legs were too weak to catch me on the big bounces (resulting in quite a few painless tumbles & giggles). On the way from the bus stop to the beach, right on the main road, there was a little outdoor arcade, fairly run-down and with no employees. It was just open to the elements and to the public, and when we walked by there were just a few people in the batting cage. Everyone was utterly uninterested in the perfectly decent trampoline sitting unused right alongside them!

TrampolineAfter a brief moment of looking around flabbergasted that it was free and that nobody was going to stop us, we climbed up the little ladder and onto the bouncy castle of our dreams. For me, it was one of those awesome moments in life where you get exactly what you want without having known that it was what you wanted. When I put “go trampolining” on my 24 Before 24 list, I’d pictured visiting one of the indoor trampoline rooms that are so common here in Korea. It never occurred to me that it would end up being an absolutely perfect moment – spontaneous, outdoors, with views of the fountain and the trees, full of giddy joy and hysterical laughter – and one that I was lucky enough to share with such a great friend. I know it sounds so cliché, but it made me feel like a kid again. Free and happy.

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It was also an excellent reminder to stay open to new experiences and to doing things just because they’re insanely fun. If I hadn’t decided (totally arbitrarily) to put trampolining on my list this year, I might have walked right by that arcade without a second thought. I think we all get so used to doing things a certain way and going through the motions of our routines, but I want to remember to keep trying to incorporate joy and fun and impracticality into my life as much as I can. It’s really worth it.

Photo Walk: Pattern

Photo Walk Pattern

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Looking back on the post, it feels like forever ago that I did my first pattern photo walk. But while I was walking around with my eyes peeled for patterns, the process felt very familiar, like I’d done it only last week – in fact, I often notice beautiful patterns on my walks, whether or not I photograph them. There’s something very soothing about having a small, easy task to mindlessly complete. It gives my hands something to do while I listen to a podcast and try and get out of my head for a few minutes. And after the news I got on Monday, my walk today was especially helpful.

Whenever I do photo walks or photo projects (like Steph Loves Today or Project 365, for example) I tend to be hard on myself and get discouraged about each individual photo. It’s only when I see the photos all grouped together that I can fully appreciate them and am reminded that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is a good reminder for life too, I think: individual days might feel underwhelming or stagnant, but when you look at them strung together, it’s easier to see the beauty of all the ordinary moments. Or the days might feel overwhelming and the problems they hold insurmountable, but a few months later they’ll blur together and make more sense. I’m trying to remember that this week.

These photos were taken on an hour-long walk from my apartment to Haeundae beach and back, at around 11AM on a cloudy day. I used my 35mm f1.8 lens and shot in manual mode.

Dealing With Feelings Post-Graduation + An Update On My Life in Korea

DSC_0160Somehow it’s been over a year since I graduated from university and since then I’ve had a roller coaster’s worth of highs and lows. I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the most beautiful places in the world, and to have found opportunities that I didn’t realize would be possible for me. I also spent several months working at a job that required me to serve people through a drive-through window in -25C weather while living back at home after 4 years of living on my own. Needless to say, in the past year I’ve felt on top of the world and I’ve felt totally distraught. I’ve felt hopeful and hopeless. I’ve felt confident and I’ve felt totally unsure of myself. I’ve felt so, so close to my loved ones at times, and at others I’ve felt very distant and lonely.

For me though, the good has far outweighed the bad. Even at my lowest points I still felt generally loved, supported, and grateful. Life has brought me wonderful experiences and opportunities that I never could have predicted or expected and that’s a pretty exciting thing. The past year has taught me so much about choice and acceptance and gratitude and being humble and staying positive and taking care of myself. It’s been difficult at times, but it’s also been so exciting to feel like I’m growing and making progress.

I try to be transparent on this blog and in my life because I think it serves precisely no one to pretend that everything is always great all the time. As you know, for the past three months I’ve been teaching English at a private school in South Korea. Yesterday, my boss told me that our school is closing down at the end of July. Everything is still very uncertain and confusing, but the gist is that I need to find a place to live and get a new job.  Yesterday I was mostly panicking, my brain going a mile a minute trying to figure out what my options were. I also spent quite a while in denial, hoping I’d wake up from a bad dream, and a bunch of time feeling sorry for myself. Today, I’m alternating between feeling totally overwhelmed and feeling like it’s going to be okay.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still upset and I’m still scared. Living in a country where you don’t speak the language is hard at the best of times and this, safe to say, is one of the worst things that can happen for a foreign teacher abroad…and I say that without any self-pity. And I know that it could be worse – some teachers get only a few days notice before their school closes, or turn up to find the school shuttered – in the grand scheme of things, my situation is better than some.

There is a lot I still need to figure out, but: I’m okay. I think I’m going to be okay. I think (I hope) that everything is going to work out. I can’t help but think that if this had happened to me right after graduating university I wouldn’t have been as well equipped to handle it. I’m proud to say that I haven’t completely fallen apart. After a minor panic attack in the bathroom, I reached out to my friends and acquaintances and asked them to put out feelers for me. I’ve been feeling all the crazy feelings I’m having (and I’m having lots of them) and putting them all out into the open where they seem smaller and sillier. I’m trying to square my shoulders and say “abundance abundance abundance” over and over and over to myself. I decided pretty early on that I was going to try to make this work, on my own terms.

I still don’t know how things are going to pan out. Like I said, there are lots of feelers out there, plus I’ve been researching lots of positions on the job boards and I’ve already heard back from one employer. I don’t know what my life is going to look like in two months, but this is a good reminder that nothing is ever certain or guaranteed. One year after graduating, I’m proud that I’ve grown into a person who knows she has a choice to either wallow and wring my hands or to react as gracefully as I can muster and take action.  I know that I can make the choice to be strong and generous instead of indulging the part of me that badly wants to use this as an excuse to be petty and small and selfish and to eat a lot of ice cream – which, let’s be honest, I still might do. I don’t always make the right choice every time, but I’m trying my best.

We recorded this episode of the podcast yesterday morning, before I found out that my school was closing. We talked about handling weird feelings that come up after graduating from university and going out into the “real world”. Little did I know the real world was going to feel so much more real in only a few hours!

The situation is scary and uncertain, but I’m trying to feel confident and to have faith even though I feel pretty overwhelmed. It helps that all my loved ones have nothing but confidence in my ability to handle this and to figure it out. They believe in me more than I believe in me, and while it’s hard to take their word for it, I’m trying. I’m trying to stay calm and fake it til I make it. Stay tuned.