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Wrap Up : One Year Later

June 16, 2009 1 comment

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.

Categories: Wrap Up