Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ten things to do if you live in Korea

Today I read two lists of ten. One was 10 mistakes that newbies (in Korea) make. Another was 10 things the author insists he will never do while in Korea. I can't resist (and while I was washing my dishes I got an idea...)

Here's my 10:

1) Learn Korean. Don't whine that it's hard (it's harder if you succumb to that mindset) in fact getting survival Korean is not hard and learning to phonetically read takes HALF A DAY. How do I know this? Because I did. Because my mom did it. Because I have taught multiple trainings where I teach people to phonetically read Korean, as long as they can refer to a cheat sheet, in 30 minutes. And for the average person it's going to take another few hours to memorize the letters. There are a lot of places you can learn Korean. Some are free. Some are better than others. I recommend paying (you get what you pay for, most of those free courses are a waste of time), but the best paying courses are pretty intense, so if you're already working full time... I understand. What I don't understand is not trying. I taught Korean to myself. I had Korean friends that helped, but the hard work (the hours of memorizing) was mine. And no, my Korean isn't perfect, but yes, it's fluent according to most definitions of fluent.

Also this will keep you from sounding like a doofus when you say even basic things like "thanks" and "Seoul" and "Taekwondo" wrong. (Seriously, I had a guy tell me in the elevator of my building that to him it would always be Taekwondo (said Tie-kwon-do) because that's how it's said in America.)

2) Make a Korean friend. And I mean a real friend. Not some token guy/gal you always see at work. Or an English-vampire who is using you. Or a boyfriend/girlfriend. Or some weird stratified power differential relationship like being you and your really cool student. I mean someone who really gets you, and you get them. And you can pick up the phone after not talking for two years and just flow right back into the conversation. And then don't think of that friend as a ticket to understanding the country. Just think of them as a friend. Don't always run to them for help translating stuff and sorting things out and everything (obviously sometimes asking for help is wise, but they aren't your friend to lubricate your life anymore than you are theirs because they want to practice English). This is when having friendships with people that are conducted in Korean is pretty awesome. They avoided learning English all these years-- but that doesn't mean they aren't super fun to talk to, once you learn Korean.

3) Read real books about Korea (not just bloggers who may know barely more than you do, or even less). Read a good history book (yes, some of them are shite. Or a lot of them, really). Read up on Korean film. Or literature. Or the performing arts. A good book in English is probably released OUTSIDE Korea and not by Hollym (although Hollym has some good ones, too). University presses tend to be good. But still, check some reviews, and check to see if that author is well regarded. Or read some journals on Korean Studies. It can be pretty heavy going to start with journal articles before you have the background, though.  

4) Never ever ever think that a conversation with a Korean passes for "learning" about Korea. You're learning about what that one person thinks/knows/thinks they know but is totally back-ass wrong about. Would you talk to a buddy in the US over a beer and think "well now that I asked him why Americans won't just pass single-payer health care, I understand."? No, you wouldn't. That Korean co-worker of yours might have just made something up to make you go away. The old guy at the pojangmacha might have just been screwing with you. Unless they are an expert on Korea, they may have thought more about your culture and why you act the way you do than the way they act.

Also, as a side-note-- not all experts on Korea are Korean. Experts on Korean history/culture/film/music are the people who spent a long time learning about it and understanding it. And in case you hadn't noticed, some Koreans aren't that interested in learning about Korea (sort of like you may have no opinion what the greatest American novel of the 20th century was).

Excuse me for being so America-centric. It's easy for me to pick on Americans, because I am American.

5) Don't think Koreans do "it" wrong before you try to understand why they do "it" that way. And be open to the idea that later you might think that your own country does it wrong. I've lived in Korea a long time (and China, and Tibet)... but then I moved to the US to do my doctorate. And even if I hadn't been pretty open to the US not having the monopoly on the right way to do things before, going back to the US sure set me straight. The way we screw everything up is embarrassing. The way our country's government can be completely shackled by people who are neck deep in corporate payouts and denying even basic principles of science and economics is mind-boggling. Not to say that Korean politics isn't it's own inadvertent comedy-show at times, but the point is maybe just let Korea be Korea, and wait to pass judgement.

6) Go to the bathhouse already. Or the new-fangled spa style. Whatever. Get over your body shame or whatever it is that's holding you back. Winter day? Everything feeling cold and tight? Yep. That's where to go. Had a really rough week at work? Yep, go to the bathhouse. Please, oh please, don't forget to shower before you get in the pools, though.

7) Discover something. Try something new. Go somewhere that no one recommended that you go. The way that these days every freaking person seems to need to "get hooked up" by someone and follow in that person's footsteps to the best nightclub, the best burrito restaurant, the best beer, the best vacation spot, the best festival is just guaranteed to limit your experiences. I'm not saying I don't recommend that people go to specific places that I personally loved, I do. But I also recommend that you just go there and explore. Not get all set in advance with all the reservations and all the directions to all the sites. Go. Ask someone on the street. Don't ask someone. Wander. Be spontaneous. Stop eating at the same restaurant. Risk just jumping on the next bus even though you don't know where it goes. Slow down. Poke your head in. Ask what "it" is for. Stop playing it safe. You're in a new country. Explore it without using a guidebook. (And of course, learn some freaking Korean already).

8) Take advantage of the vast numbers of organized activities. I don't mean the ones that are organized for foreigners (like trips to the Mud Fest or booze cruises in Busan). I mean the much vaster number of activities that are organized and open to anyone. There are one day classes in flower arranging. I have a friend who is now learning advanced Korean sign-language (yes, she already learned Korean). There are hiking clubs. Soccer clubs. Hagwon classes in Japanese. Photography workshops. Ballroom dance classes. Wine appreciation classes. Opportunities to volunteer in many ways that have nothing to do with teaching English. I used to volunteer at an orphanage. Four times per month I took any kids that wanted on an outing. I took them to the orchestra. I took them to modern dance. I took them to go hiking, eat kimbap on the mountain, and visit a temple. I got two cameras donated and taught them photography (these were the film camera days, and those were SLR cameras). I taught them taekkyon. Those were some good kids.

The point is there are some things you always meant to learn that are being taught somewhere in Korea. Unless you're in a very small town they might be taught right in your neighborhood. No, it's not easy to find classes in Korean traditional music... for you. But not for me. It's out there.

9) Try not filling up your mental space, even your entire social life with other foreigners. Those people are a barrier between you and actually figuring this place out. You're listening to their interpretations because they've been here six months longer than you? Yes, I did that when I first go here, too. Then I realized that my co-worker had already communicated all sorts of half-truths and misunderstandings to me. I needed a mental enema. And I stopped listening to other people pronounce the truth about Korea.

(I know this is a little ironic since that's sort of what this post is doing to you, but I think I'm telling you to learn things for yourself, aren't I?)

10) And finally, if you still want to hang out with other foreigners... get diverse. Living overseas gives you a chance to meet many different foreigners. I had this amazing Pakistani friend who worked for a factory in Korea for years (his old email isn't working, I keep hoping I'll find him again). He was a ton of fun to hang out with. One of the non-Koreans I call most often is from Lebanon, another is German, the co-workers I enjoy socializing with are from Italy and Bulgaria. My husband (who I met in Korea) is from Tibet. If you teach English (or if you're in the military) and surround yourself just by others who teach English or who are in the military you are limiting yourself and your experiences.


WC said...

I lolled really badly on number 6!

Judith said...

Good list, but your first point is way off the mark. If you are dyslexic or have trouble with reversals - that is, your brain has difficulty interpreting things left of right, up or down - it is the language from hell to learn. All the vowels are reversible. Sanskrit/Hindi was easy to learn to sound out, but learning Korean is the hardest thing I have ever attempted in my learning-disabled life.

CedarBough said...

Hi Judith!
That's a good point, for someone with dyslexia (which although common is not the case for most people) Korean would be quite a pain to learn. I think we can agree, though, that for someone who doesn't have dyslexia these same issues are not present, and so all of those folks do not have a legitimate reason to complain that it's hard.

jinrok said...

I'm not dyslexic and had no trouble learning it, but I do have a lazy eye and get painful eye strain very quickly. Hangeul texts in small print or less than ideal fonts are absolutely brutal compared with alphabets that separate letters. A word like 확률 seems like somebody's cruel joke.

Judith said...

Same here! In addition to the reversals, I have vision issues from migraines that make sustained focus difficult. I supported a kickstarter ( at a level to get me the print book, not caring about the ebook. But when I downloaded the ebook, I made a wonderful discovery - I can blow up the pages large enough to read! Before that I was ding copy/paste of words I couldn't see into Google translate, but that gets old fast. The example you used is great - I couldn't even guess what characters are in that!