Things I dislike, and like, about Korea

There’s a great scene in The Simpsons (Season 2 Episode 11, One Fish Two Fish Blow Fish Blue Fish) when Homer goes through the stages of grief according to Dr. Hibbert’s prompts.

I’m hoping that my adjustment to Korean life is proceeding at a similar pace, because I’ve already had a couple days of the honeymoon, where I thought everything was great, and a few more of culture shock, where everything irritated me. That’s how you do things when you’ve got a PhD: the wrong way, but faster.

If that’s too obscure a Simpsons reference for a public blog post, I apologise, but there will be far more to come: I’ve been offered my first teaching gig. It’s a graduate seminar in Seoul, essentially on a topic of my choosing i.e. there was a choice but all the topics were great. The Simpsons are popular here, so I’ll just spend three hours a week making show references.

This is excellent news, as it allows me to get a visa, but there’s a long way to go yet: there are many, many documents to obtain, and from what I’ve heard, immigration staff don’t necessarily know the rules themselves. I went to the main office today and was fobbed off with a website. I will return with questions tomorrow and see how far I get.

Today, however, I discovered a secret to gaining respect from older Korean men: carry a newspaper. I bought The Korea Herald, an English-language daily to see if it had any jobs ads. It didn’t, so I was standing on the subway, leafing through the recycled right-wing newsfeeds, when an older man said, “Hello! Hello!” and offered me a seat next to a pregnant woman. I thanked him and declined, since my stop was next.

At the Immigration Centre, I sat waiting for the Visa Counselling desk to become free (there were four open Visa Application desks, but of course I’m not applying yet.) One man was having an animated argument with the officer, so I waited and read the newspaper. Soon a man in his 50s came out from behind the desk and asked if he could help me. I explained that I was Dr. G-Star Shazam (I’m open to suggestions for a better pseudonym) and I needed an E1 professor visa. He gave me a print-out in Korean with a website on it. So – not exactly a result, but would he had come over if I didn’t have a newspaper? From what I’ve heard, they’re not there to help.

I spent a fruitless half-hour going to 3 nearby restaurants and, reading in mangled Korean from my phrasebook, asking if they had vegetarian food (they didn’t) and finally collapsed in the subway, my shirt a vast balloon of perspiration. I pulled out my newspaper; an older man sat down next to me and said “Hello! It’s hot.” I agreed with him.

On the blissfully air-conditioned subway car, I found a seat, pulled out my paper and immediately was questioned by the businessman sitting next to me. Unfortunately, within a few minutes he was spouting forth Christian vitriol the likes of which I’ve never heard before. He told me studied comparative religions, asked if I was Jewish, and when like a fool I told him I had Jewish roots, he told me many Jews were converting to see Jesus as the one true Messiah. Here we go, I thought, and he went on to tell me the Jews had constructed Israel in 1948 to fulfill Biblical prophecy. Upon finding out I studied political science, he said the Council on Foreign Relations controlled the world – interestingly, the Jews did too, he told me a minute later. Busy people, those Jews.

I thought, ‘What would my friend P., who works in Palestine and deals with this sort of bullshit all the time, do?’ “Well,” I told him, “It’s too bad all those rich Jews haven’t helped me any!” You could hear the turbulence as it rushed over his head. He continued that North Korea was the major problem in Asia because it has nuclear weapons. Korea was vital to Biblical prophecy, as Israel was at the east of Asia and Korea was in the far west, and they shared the same latitude. Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up… unless you made it up, entirely, from start to finish, which his pastor obviously had.

It was interesting to hear a fanatical Christian displaying Confucian deference to my academic credentials. But only briefly; after a few minutes I was praying to whatever gods I could come up with, mainly the subway engineers, for my stop to come and this to be over. The thing is, he was being friendly and polite like every Korean man I’ve met, and the newspaper seems to be a symbol of intellectual authority – no older men have paid me any attention before. It’s just that his ideology is batshit insane. I understand that fundamentalist Christianity was imported by American missionaries after the Korean civil war. I remember my high school Christian friends telling me that missionaries only wanted to help the locals. Inculcating them with conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism and fascism is a form of help, I guess.

Things I don’t like about Korea:

a) the bathrooms. There are thousands of cafes but bathrooms are the responsibility of the buildings they’re in. So unless you’re in the fanciest of cafes and paid 6,000 won for an espresso, the bathroom probably doesn’t have soap or paper towels or toilet paper, and the tap may just be a tube.

b) the lack of direction on sidewalks. This is the same in Russia, actually. People walk on either side, switch sides randomly or change their minds mid-stride and turn around.

c) the smart-phone walk. If you’ve ever been to York University, you’ll find traffic slowed to a crawl as hundreds of students shuffle through the halls, their faces lit by the cold glow of their smartphones. Imagine a city of millions, young and old, doing the exact same thing, and you get an idea of walking in Seoul.

d) the homogeneity. There are, of course, lots of variations on Korean food and culture. But they’re all Korean. Unless you’re in a foreigner area like Itaewon or Nopsakyeong, other cuisines and cultural goods – like, say, non-Korean beer – are very hard to find.

e) the streets are clean, and no one litters, but there aren’t very many garbage cans. Korea is a country of prepackaged snacks and vending machines; where does all the waste go? I’m getting tired of finding old wrappers in my pockets and bags.

f) to get an apartment here, your security deposit is not last month’s rent, but a ‘key deposit’ of anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000. You get it back, but first you have to get it from somewhere. I’m going to be in hock to the Imperial Bank of Commerce for a long, long time.

g) foreigner creepiness. I haven’t encountered this directly, I’ve just read forums of it online. There are plenty of men who think Korean women embody a special form of femininity which they want to consume. It would be foolish to deny Korea’s formal and blatant patriarchy which shapes most social interactions. For example, a specialty of Gangnam neighbourhood, south of the river, is cosmetic plastic surgery, where I’ve been told Korean and Chinese women go to get their cheeks sawn to a point, their eyelids folded, their noses lowered and their foreheads rounded. I was there yesterday and there are a lot of women who look like they stepped out of an anime. It’s ‘attractive’, but how much social pressure goes into that choice? That’s not something to celebrate. This is from The Korea Herald, on BoA, the “K-pop queen” whose name is an acronym for Beat of Angel:

The 26-year-old star will promote her new album with the lead song “Only One,” which is her first experience in song-writing, S.M. entertainment said. “Not only with her first songwriting experience, the style icon is expected to surprise the audience with her new fashion, hair and make-up style,” it said.

Coz clearly she wouldn’t have anything else going on.

Things I like about Korea:

a) the food. Good restaurants are everywhere, and when I can find one with a vegetarian option – usually bibimbap – I’ve never had a bad meal. Korean dinner costs about $6, tax and tip included.

b) the subway. It’s not only better than Toronto’s (that’s not hard) it’s better than New York, Paris and London. Those who know me will know how hard that is for me to say. It’s clean, extensive and intuitive. I will post more photos later, so here’s something I can’t take a photo of: whenever the subway approaches a  station, a voice tells you in Korean and English what stop is coming up, where you can transfer to and what side to exit from. If it is a transfer station, a tune comes on: a trumpet fanfare, a Chinese string instrument or some Vivaldi. I’m convinced different music plays for different kinds of transfer. Unlike in cafes, the subway bathrooms are clean and well-stocked. Unlike in Toronto, there’s more than two – almost every station has one, and they’re even decorated nicely. One had a Walt Whitman poem above the sink, which I would’ve taken a picture of had Korean men not stared at me lingering by the soap dispenser. Oh yeah, and fares are $1.

c) friendly people. People have been so hospitable towards me. My host tells me that Koreans are sincere, and I don’t deny it. Sure, part of my positive public reception has been due to my skin colour, sex, shape and credentials, not to mention my cool glasses. I’ve heard horror stories of African-Americans facing racism on and off the job. For example, here are some racial categories that a corporate job board listed:








(In the drop-down menu, where you choose your native language,  ‘Elmer Fudd’ was listed between English and Dutch.) Anyhow, not to deny that reality, but I had all the markers of privilege back in Toronto and no one paid the slightest attention. People would go out of their way to avoid eye contact when passing. Here, people here go out of their way to be helpful. I asked a woman for directions to a hotel yesterday, and rather than just telling me she didn’t know and looking evasive like she’d do in Toronto, she looked up the hotel on google maps, then called them to get directions, then walked me back the way she’d came until I could see the way precisely.

d) the fashion. After perusing, I’m getting my first made-to-measure shirt made at a recommended shop. I need it for a public talk I’ll be giving on my research, not to mention soon-to-be numerous encounters with immigration staff. It costs about $15 more than my ill-fitting off-the-rack Ben Sherman, and it comes with mother-of-pearl buttons. Not everyone wears a suit – and older men, in particular, have this obsession with shiny, baggy suits, just like the Russians (and possibly the western world in the early ’80s.) But the overall attention to detail among many Seoul residents is much higher than back in Canada. As one Korean who’d visited Toronto told me, “People there don’t dress very well.” Love that Korean honesty: I told her she was absolutely right.

e) It’s probably not appropriate to write about Korean politics on a public blog, but I will say I’m very, very impressed with the level of organization and dedication here. The Koreans aren’t, but I am.

Note that my likes are largely cultural and interpersonal, while my dislikes are bureaucratic and organizational. That’s a good sign, I think.

Current music: Supertramp, Take The Long Way Home; Public Enemy, Don’t Believe The Hype. Incidentally, while I love PE, I always feel sorry for ‘media assassin’ Harry Allen, who doesn’t get to say very much and, when he does, he sounds slick like a network broadcaster. Plus in Don’t Believe The Hype, he just gets to croak the title once.


2 thoughts on “Things I dislike, and like, about Korea

  1. Thanks! Unfortunately it’s not as simple as I hoped; the visa regulations are arcane, and even though I prepared as much as I could before I left, it’s still not enough. I’ll know by mid-August if I have (poorly) paid work for a few months.

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