My mother and father-in-law’s (but not my wife or brother-in-law’s) birthdays are calculated based on a lunar calendar. What does that mean? Well, for one thing, their birthdays are on a different day every year. They may be born in the 7th month on the 24th day, for example, but that may be 8/13 on year and 9/2 next year (those dates are not accurate, don’t use them). So, on top of Koreans adding another year, sometimes two, to their ages, they may have variable month birthdays. Confusing? It gets even more confusing when you try to translate the dates from Lunar-to-Gregorian. There are many resources to go the other direction, but apparently very few, very poor resources to go the other way I’d need it. This also brings up an issue when someone asks when my mother-in-law’s birthday is. I don’t know. My WIFE doesn’t know, and my mother-in-law doesn’t know. At least, not in a way that would answer the question.
I blame the Chinese. the whole gunpowder aside, they do a lot to make Korean language and culture more confusing than it needs to be.
This is more a cross-link than anything else, but we have put up a site (in English and Korean!) that deals with what we went through from her student visa through the immigration interview.
Anyone who is interested in the whole green card process can check it out on Foreign-Relations.com.
First, the marriage has been great so far, and it certainly hasn’t been long enough to get out of the honeymoon phase.
I just want to go over a few things that were issues/non-issues in our relationship.
Food was NOT an issue for us. I was raised on spicy food and strange things. In my time in Korea, I tried everything I could: sea cucumbers, dog, boiled silkworm larva and of course all the normal dishes. During our dating we shared many meals. Now we eat about half Korean/Half
American (which includes Mexican, Italian, German and anything else I learn to cook).
She initially didn’t like cheese much. Korean cheese selection was terrible; mostly processed American cheese singles and Mozzarella. Over time her tastes changed and now she likes many types of cheeses. Her parents, however, do not like cheese.
Spicy is a highly relative term, I’ve learned. I rarely felt Korean food was too spicy, but many Koreans felt what I was eating was spicy to them. I’ve also noticed several Koreans feel food that is flavored with, say, Mexican spices, is spicy, but not Korean spices. When we had a Thai foreign exchange student living with my family, she felt Thai food was not too spicy, but Mexican was. I feel it’s highly relative to what you’re used to, not Scoville heat units.
There were really only three issues for me: Heat, Drink and Fish Sauce.
– Koreans like their soups hot. Boiling hot. Surface of the Sun Hot. And they eat it while it is that hot. I usually can’t eat a Korean soup for several minutes, after it has cooled down to what most Americans would consider normal heat for soup.
– Drinking during meals is kept to a minimum. I’m talking about water, not booze. They have tiny metal cups a little bigger than a Dixie cup, and that’s usually all they drink from until the meal is done. I usually drink about 2 large glasses of water or tea with a meal. It’s very much a matter of habit, but during a meal in Korea, I’d drink 4-5 little cups, which usually required a trip to a water cooler or having some poor person pass me the water pitcher repeatedly. In America, this hasn’t been an issue, and she drinks as much as I do.
– Fish Sauce is a key ingredient in some Kimchi. While I love seafood, I think Fish Sauce smells bad. When she makes Kimchi, here in America, she keeps the Fish Sauce to a minimum (much to my and our neighbor’s fortunes). In Korea, some of the Kimchi was just way too fishy for me.
It should also be noted, while on the subject of cooking, that most Korean food takes a huge amount of time and dirty dishes to make. For every 1 pot I’d use to make a dish, it seems like she uses at least 1.5 pots. There is a lot of
Boil this then throw away everything but the water, then boil it again instructions, which are probably present in old cooking methods used in the US.
In closing the food section, I’d just like to say that I like Korean food. She cooks some of the best Korean food I’ve ever had, despite only learning to cook a few years ago (most Korean girls only learn how to cook shortly before marriage). I know how to cook exactly 2 Korean dishes Doenjang jjigae (된장찌개) (Korean Soybean soup, like Miso soup) and Gochujang daejigogi (고추장 돼지고기) (Spicy meat with vegetables). She hasn’t really cooked much American food, either, but I think she could, given motivation.
…and what happened between then and now.
I met Uhni at Sunlin College in Pohang, South Korea in September 2007. The circumstances were not amazing, but they were divinely orchestrated. I firmly believe this.
I went to South Korea primarily because I felt like God had called me there. I know that Uhni was part (but not all) of that calling, and she was definitely worth the leap of faith.
We met at first simply for her to learn English, but we soon struck a deal. Because being alone in Korea is lonely (imagine that), we traded English lessons and activities. She would take me to see a movie, or get new glasses, or something, and I’d teach her English. It was a lot nicer than charging money. Another reason I liked this arrangement is that she was a real friend. In Pohang, there is a fair amount of interest in westerners amongst younger people. While there are many westerners in Seoul, there were relativity few in the smaller cities. This created an environment where people would often come and want to talk with me, but have very little real interest in me, personally.
Uhni was different, and honest, and something not completely normal to me, or to Korea. I knew I liked her after the first meeting, but it was about a month before I knew I wanted to date her. We were at the Kyungju world expo. There wasn’t some golden moment or some key event, though the day did mark my first train trip. Instead it was the cumulation of a great day with a girl I really liked.
Some time later I asked her if she would date me. She didn’t answer immediately, by any definition of the word. For about two months I would occasionally ask, and she would decline to answer (neither “yes” nor “no”). Patience is a virtue.
So she said yes, eventually, but I went back to America a few months later. She was going to come to America to study, if she could get the visa for it, which is no simple thing. We waited 7 months before we could see each other again, which is neither a dramatic, nor inconsequential amount of time. Again, patience was a key theme.
While we were apart, we talked over the Internet. When she arrived in January, the time I had waited suddenly dissolved and things felt like a continuation from before. Of course she had a lot of new problems to deal with. She missed her parents, she hated carpet, she had to deal with roommates and English and classes and new food and a bunch of other problems. The first year was hard on her. I’m proud of how she has adapted.
As I wrote in the entry prior, this Christmas I went back to visit her parents. I’d met them before, but this time I had an agenda. I asked her father for permission to marry her. This is apparently not a Korean custom, as, between my bad Korean, their non-English and confusion about expectations, it was a big mess. She was brought into the situation to translate for me. No surprise engagements here. Her parents didn’t answer yes or no. Instead, we waited about 6 months before they gave our wedding their blessing.
Now, as we near three years of knowing each other, we get ready for the biggest step. Tomorrow afternoon we will be married. We have the blessings of her parents and mine. It’s a small wedding, but a big deal. I’ve known for a long time I wanted to marry her, and now that’s about to happen.
This Christmas I returned to Korea for a month with my girlfriend. As soon as Finals were finished, we rushed to the airport and hopped from Detroit (missing the terrorist scare that happened two days later) to Narita to Busan.
First, the practical: Busan is a much easier-going airport, and it’s so much closer to Pohang. If you need to fly into Pohang, Busan, etc, it’s worth paying a hundred or so more to go to Busan. The bus from Inchon to Pohang was about $70, last time I checked, and took about 5 hours if traffic is good. The car ride from Busan to South Pohang was about an hour and a half. So much nicer. I don’t think Busan had free wifi, though. I didn’t check carefully, though.
I stayed with her parents for the duration of the trip. I’d met them before, when I was a student at Sunlin University, so things were not too awkward. Their apartment was bigger than the one I’d stayed in with my roommate, but still smaller than what I would expect for a small city in America. That said, the use of space was interesting. The water heater was in the living room. There was a piano, but no couches or chairs; we sat on a rug on the floor. The TV was also the computer (which I prefer, anyway). The living room phased seamlessly to a kitchen/dining room.
There were three bedrooms. The one I stayed in was about 5 paces by 7 paces. Small paces. The bed mattress sat directly on the floor (no frame), and off the side there was a closed in porch. There were similar porches on the other side of the apartment and off the kitchen. These porches were storage and closet space, and worked ok, except that they could get bitterly cold in the winter (and presumably hot in the summer, but neither condition is uncommon).
We ate lots of different foods. I got to try Bundaegi: A boiled silk worm larva, which tastes bad. It would be much better fried, in my opinion. I ate more Boshintang (dog soup) and learned that different colored dogs have different qualities. I ate lots of rice, but not an overwhelming amount. We ate a variety of seafood. We also ate some very good Tofu, amongst the best I’ve had.
I met her grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. They were very nice, accepting people. Her uncle tried acupuncture on me. It didn’t hurt, but it also didn’t seem to have an effect. I played games with her cousins, which I lost terribly. I watched her get something called “dum” which the Internet suggests might be called Moxibustion. Basically, the process involved normal acupuncture, followed by placing a small, cylindrical wick over the needle and letting it burn down. The wick worked a lot like a “punk” used on the forth of July, and burned very slowly. It was a charcoal black color and contained an undefined medicine. It was supposed to be a lot more effective, though it didn’t seem to actually work that much, and analytically, I don’t know what it added besides heat.
We went “skating” on a frozen river. Since they don’t get much rainfall in the winter, the river was quite low. And, because their temperatures were more stable, the ice was thick. Tons of people were out walking on the ice. The skating was actually renting little sleds. Even sled seems like a misnomer, as these were small squares of plywood with thin angle-iron screwed to the bottom. Still, it was a lot of fun, and not too cold.
I met some of her former work friends. They talked for five hours in rushed, difficult Korean, and I followed almost none of it. It was boring, after a while, but I survived. I also got to see a Korean health Clinic. A simple examination, with prescription, was only $4 (including the medicine) with insurance. Gas was much more expensive, however.
Christmas was fun, but less eventful. We ate a cake and went to church in the morning. Still, it was nice to do something, as Christmas isn’t really as big a deal to them as it is to us, even among Christians. It was at least as reverent, though. Speaking of reverence, I went to her family’s church. It was a big church downtown I’d been to a few times. The main service was ok, but not really to my liking. The real impression was made after the normal service, when the pastor spent about 45 minutes detailing his 10 year plan, complete with PowerPoint slides. It was very much a business meeting and seemed incredibly too money-and-growth focused. I was disgusted by it, and so was her family. However the next three Sundays the pastor did the same thing. I would have given up and found a new church, personally, but they still go there (eight months later).
Language was difficult. While my listening had improved, my speaking had devolved. I was a lot less confident and simply less practiced. My girlfriend is studying to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) test, so we always spoke in English, and there was little occasion to use more advanced Korean. I did find that I could talk to her brother, easily, if the subject was technical or computer game based. Her dad was also very good at guessing what I meant. Her family was very nice.
Easily the most difficult part was space. There was no time alone. Even in the room, I could hear everything in the living room and the kitchen, and outside and the upstairs neighbors. There was probably not more than 5 hours of alone time in the whole month, and maybe another 5 that I could spend with just my girlfriend. And because she was at home for a month, after being gone a year, she felt obligated to spend every moment with her family.
Still, overall, it was a good trip. I will be posting more, later, about the progress of our relationship, but for now, here are some pictures from that trip:
It’s been a little over a year since I’ve returned from South Korea. In that time, I’ve been able to refine my opinions on my trip and the people I was exposed to.
In some ways, my understanding of Korea has atrophied. Without constant use, I’ve forgotten a lot of the structural Korean I learned. Alternately, I’ve learned a few fun choice phrases from Korean friends back home. It is infinity easier to learn new Korean, now, given a basic understanding of the grammar and pronunciation. However, the chances to use the words are far between and I forget what is not easily memorable.
Fortunately, the cultural learning, the parts I enjoy the most, have stuck with me. This is due in no small part to a secret I kept through much of my time in Korea. My secret girlfriend. It’s not nearly as scandalous as it sounds. In Korea, relationships are often hidden, because the culture is far more gossipy than the one I grew up in. Add to that the stigma that Koreans have about dating outsiders, and there were plenty of good reasons to keep the relationship quiet and downbeat. Luckily, she was able to attend my college in America – one semester so far – to study English.
Having a Korean girlfriend is an entirely different dynamic from simply being in Korea. I could write a blog about dealing with the relationship, and probably have a lot more to say about it than I did about the trip, but such things rarely seem wise to share indiscriminately. Suffice to say that having her here has caused me to realize many differences in our cultures that didn’t come to mind there.
One major problem has been carpet. In Korea, I didn’t see any. Apparently, many Asians feel it’s dirty. It’s hard to clean. Koreans heat their floors, so the cold mornings don’t bother them. They don’t seem to mind children falling on hard floors as opposed to “soft” carpet. Personally, I could live my whole life without carpet, but I didn’t realize that they were so fully opposed to it. I also didn’t realize how common carpet was. In nearly any rental building outside of a dormitory you’ll find carpet here, at the very least in the bedrooms. It’s rather assumed.
That’s just an example, though. There are many things about our food, our housing, our manners and our behavior that I’ve only recently noticed. We say “please”, “thank you” and “I’m sorry” more often, and, at least here, we tend to consider others in public places, more. Not just personal space, but things like blocking traffic ways and shopping aisles are more of a concern here than they are there.
But probably the biggest changes in perspective have come from being around a wider variety of Koreans. When I was in Korea, I traveled quite a bit, but spent most of my time around Koreans from Pohang. This flavored my perceptions a lot. It would be the same as assuming Kansas represented the gamut of Americans (or California or New York, which are oft committed sins by Americans and foreigners). As such, a lot of my ideas applied to that region, but not generally. I’m told that Koreans in my area were more respectful drivers than general, a terrifying prospect. They speak more harshly in Pohang. They are a bit more backwoods and curious about foreigners. They have no Starbucks, but the rest of the country appears to have a fair distribution.
(Edit: I was informed by a friend that, since my departure, Pohang has gotten a Starbucks AND a Burger King, but lost their Subway Sandwich store. It’s more an example of westernization of Korea in general than of Pohang in particular, though. Still, I would have liked a Burger King when I lived there.)
In particular, one woman who interacted closely with me and my American roommate was more extreme than I was lead to believe. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but an observation. What I, and to a degree he, believed was normal behavior was strange, even uncomfortable to other Koreans I talked with. As such, I have found that Koreans are still overly concerned with cleanliness, but less than I expected. I also have found Koreans to be less bossy than I first observed, though that might also simply be the tempering of time and a refining understanding of the way they use language.
Recent news has also flavored my understanding. In the same way that California and New York are used to give America a face, based on population density, Seoul gives Korea its face. Fair enough. And in the same way, politics disseminates, and news professes, along those lines. What this means is that what we as Americans, and sometimes even the Koreans themselves, see as Korean viewpoint isn’t very well rounded. The Koreans responses also seem to be represented by strong reaction by small, extreme groups.
This is only inflamed by the news media, which reports in much the same way as America, but even less rounded and fair. Former Korean president Ro committed suicide recently, sparking apparently huge national outrage, all directed at the current President Lee. Why? Well, it would be comparable to if Clinton committed suicide for being investigated for perjury (Ro was found to have accepted bribes while in office, despite being the reform candidate based on a moral platform) while George W. Bush was in office (Lee supports business growth over public support programs). Most people would be incensed, even if there was no connection between the two, which appears to be the case in Korea. The reasons and facts don’t matter compared to the feelings. But, unlike America, there is no counter culture. During 9/11 we had people saying Bush ran the plans into buildings, or they were blown up. Maybe they were crazy (that’s way out of scope for this post), but at least they were given scope. In Korea, many claimed that the current president had the current killed, despite forensic evidence. When a professor urged otherwise, he received several death threats and almost no coverage. When a pastor decried suicide in a sermon he was wildly attacked for being involved in politics.
And while these problems dominated the headlines in every respect, their decidedly violent neighbors to the north launched nuclear weaponry and threatened nuclear war with South Korea and its allies. Did the Korean news report on this? Not much. Is it because North Korea often threatens but rarely acts? Probably, but not exactly. There have been poorly reported skirmishes between the North and South in recent years. Many of them appear to be covered up until later Presidents expose them and declare those involved patriots.
In this, I find some of my harshest criticisms of Korean’s as a nation. Many complain loudly about American occupation, often based solely on the death of two middle school girls ran over accidentally by a US Army tank (something I can’t fathom, as the tanks which roll through town here are unmistakably loud). Even if that’s true, the South Korean government knows it’s in no position to defend itself. It was related to me, once, as “Korean Democracy” – where Koreans want the good parts of things, without paying the price. This is, as always, true of the vocal few, more than the many. But these vocal few are ALL that gets put on the news, internally and externally, because there is no respect for counter opinions, and little outlet, even online, for it. It’s not so much a matter of censorship by the government as by the people.
But even in those things, I find more love and understanding for Koreans. I miss the sincere worship in church. I don’t miss the idea that Church Attendance = Jesus Points. I miss the food. I don’t miss the non-variety of foods and ingredients available. But I do miss the people, often with warm smiles and bright interest. I miss the way people could operate much more closely, in terms of space and honesty. I miss people telling me when I had stuff on my face, and guys who aren’t afraid to make any kind of physical contact. Those things were truly Korean, and they remain with me as I deal with new Koreans, with old friends, with my girlfriend and her family. It’s my hope that I’ll be able to return to Korea in December for a time, with my girlfriend. I hope I can remember more Korean by that point.
Sorry for not writing sooner. But I’ve been home since early June. Part of the issue has been that I’m lazy. Part has been that I miss Korea and don’t really want to write a wrap up. And part has been adapting to the US.
I’ve got a large, overview style paper in the works, meant to cover my general assessment of my feelings about living in Korea. This will just be a few comments on my trip home, and being back:
- The trip home was painful. It took me about 30 hours of traveling to get home. The plane from Japan to Detroit was the worst offender. I don’t much care for Northwestern Airlines after that. But they are cheap, I suppose that’s a good point. On the flight was an American basketball team (I don’t know if they were professional or college or what). They were much more uncomfortable than me. I talked to the man seated beside me about his stay in Japan. That was interesting. There are many unexpected differences between his stay and mine. I won’t quote them here because I don’t know enough details to support them.
- Time zone changes are killer, but only coming back. I have no problems adapting to Korean time from America. But going to America, it takes about a week just to get used to the time again. It doesn’t help that I can’t sleep on airplanes.
- I catch myself telling people cultural facts about Korea in conversation. A lot. I’m not sure if this makes for good conversation or not. Many of my sentences now start with “In Korea…”.
- I find the prospects of going back to normal studying unfulfilling. Studying in Korea was part of my spiritual and intellectual goal. I don’t consider that part of my life “done”, but I also don’t expect to return to Korea for at least a few years (after graduation). To this, college has become even more a block to get past, rather than an experience to enjoy. I should make efforts to see it otherwise.
- I miss a lot of people in Korea. I have friends, a church, roommates, teachers and a girlfriend over there.
- So far, the plane ride home is the only chance I’ve had to really use my ability to (poorly) speak (limited) Korean. I could translate a bit for the Korean grandmother next to me, who was on her way to LA. Koreans seem fascinated with going to LA, San Fransisco, New York and maybe Texas. I find that sad, as I don’t really want those places to define our culture to theirs.
- On the whole, this was an awesome experience. For any grousing or griping I did, if anyone asks how it was, I’ll always say it was great. It was a growing experience mentally and spiritually. It helped me appreciate other people and cultures more. It gave me a whole mess of new things to have opinions about. I met wonderful new people and saw cool new things. I would suggest Study Abroad or some sort of extended trip to anyone who is of the right mindset to enjoy it. What that mindset might be is debatable.
I’ll try to write more on some later day.