After several months of living in South Korea and experiencing a little bit of what this foreign culture has to offer I think it only right to share some of my findings and experiences. These notes will be accompanied by photographs that may or may not pertain to the words.
Firsts: I accidentally ordered deep fried animal organs from a street vendor. I swear to God I may have eaten a sheep lung.
Things I have noticed about Korean culture: There is exercise equipment outside almost everywhere (so far observed in parks, schools, shanty towns, under bridges, and the woods).
If you like upper thigh then go to Gangnam. Korea is a serious leg culture and many people do not seem terribly interested in breasts. Frequently I see women wearing clothing that goes all the way up to their mid neck but ends midway passed the panties. Do not look for cleavage in the East Asian world. Coming from America, predominantly a boob culture, it is very noticeable.
Views of nudity are very prude in North America so naturally I am always struck by a country that’s not ashamed of a naked body. Interestingly enough the nudity is only permitted in public bathhouses and god forbid a girl show a smidgen of cleavage or a bare shoulder on the street.
One of the biggest differences between South Korea and the United States, as it occurs to me, is the level of trust. Koreans seem to be more trusting of their neighbors and perhaps deservedly so. Koreans seem less erratic and untrustworthy as a whole. You can leave your place unlocked or even leave your stuff outside for a few days. Nobody will mess with it. The restaurants that leave their fish tanks outside would never catch on in most American neighborhoods. Some dumb kid would surely put bleach in the water because he believed it to be funny.
Even more, safety. This might be the safest country I’ve ever been in. Korea is not terribly handicap accessible and not as strictly guarded for general safety. Kids run around all over with little or no supervision. Two things at work here: trust that the kids will be safe and lack of fear of being sued by sue-happy parents. America loves to go to court over just about anything. Maybe it just hasn’t caught on as much here…yet. Often times I’ll see students show up with casts from nasty falls on the playground and they act like it was nothing. ‘It’s the risk you take when you have fun,’ their eyes seem to say.
Human waste management is interesting. It is not terribly uncommon to witness children pooping outdoors. In addition, bathrooms frequently will not have toilet paper and when they do you are not obliged to flush said toilet paper. Instead you should bunch it up and place it in the waste basket adjacent to you.
Fan death is a legitimate fear. Not legitimate in the sense that you can really die from it, but intelligent people legitimately believe there is grave danger in sleeping with a fan on.
Don’t throw around words like “drugs” or “lesbian” unless you really know who you are talking to.
In addition to ample military personnel there is also at least one family of goats guarding the DMZ. We fed the mommy goat some crackers.
That thing that looks like a swastika that you see everywhere does not mean what you think it does. But they do express laughter via text like this: KKK.
Men have purses, dress extremely metrosexually, and occasionally even wear makeup yet there seems to be at least a mild persisting homophobia among some.
The place is largely clean and tidy yet easy access and ready availability of public trashcans eludes the peninsula.
Hiking is taken very seriously. I and others have been “corrected” for not wearing the correct footwear while going for a rugged uphill stroll.
Pretty much every single person in Korea who is not Korean is looking for a Korean to bang.
Things like fatness and baldness are very rare.
Surreal experiences: As a cartoonist I enjoy drawing comics for my classes. They make fun projects and the kids really seem to enjoy them. They challenge their creativity for, you see, the speech bubbles are empty. The students must use the phrases from the previous lessons and their own cunning to make a clever and coherent story out of the bizarre series of pictures I have given them. Correcting cartoons you yourself drew is weird enough, but reading the broken English captions penned by 500 Korean children is pretty interesting. Their captions and story arcs range from the hilarious to the bizarre to the morbid and shocking.
The Seoul Zoo may be the most depressing zoo I’ve ever been to. It ranks alongside the Utica Zoo circa. 20 years ago. Admittedly I went on a bad day. It was dark and rainy and almost empty but I doubt the gray concrete slabs behind cold iron bars that house both a small pile of hay and a defeated looking exotic animal would ever appear inviting on even the best of days. When I say it was almost empty I don’t just mean there were no patrons. I mean there were no staff people. We got to explore darkened buildings that were obviously not for public viewing because no one was there to stop us (also Korea doesn’t lock up). At one point we sat in a parked zebra car and took pictures. The whole zoo scene felt like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. It was kinda cool.
Ironically, the EverLand amusement park zoo is pretty good.
The first snow was the other day. After 5 years in Los Angeles I had all but forgotten about the resplendent transformative powers of a freshly fallen snow. The cold white blanket covered the earth and made it all beautiful and clean. As I walked home in the snow I saw that the whole town had come to life. Everyone was outside either shoveling, building snowmen, sledding, making snow angels, or having snowball fights. Every corner and alley way I passed I saw life and joy. On the way to work the next day I could hear the snow crunch beneath my shoes with a sound not wholly unlike your sister stepping on your space station you made for your guys from the styrofoam packing thing your dad’s printer came in. It was glorious.
At work we were periodically informed we must aid in the shoveling efforts. With more teachers than shovels many of us were reduced to utilizing flimsy dustpans and plastic toy trowels.
My trowel broke.
Things I am proud to have taught my students about in class: Dia de los muertos, the finger, Pablo Picasso as the lost Pokemon, The Headless Horseman, the phrase “no dice,” Tesla’s torrid avian romance, water closet, public exhibitionism, Hannibal Lecter, gat, “I need more cowbell,” Frank Zappa, and cockfighting.