So, I wanted to write an amazingly positive post about how much Korea and I were becoming good friends, but it seems Korea might not want us to be friends. After the ajumma pushed me, I decided to take cover in my dorm. I finally got hungry enough (and sick enough of instant noodles from 7-Eleven) that I found a kimpab nara restaurant. Thankfully, it was one with little paper menus for you to check what you want (like a sushi bar) so I could take the requisite 7 minutes to read the menu and decide I wanted to eat sogogi kimbap and mandu ramyeon (it tasted delicious-er than I remembered!) I brought an English-printed book to help reinforce that I do not speak hangukuh (spoken Korean). The ladies were kind but curt, yet I was thankful that I had at least learned how to sound out hangul (written Korean) in order to feed myself.
My office space continues to be covered in black, gritty mold. I finally moved at least my computer to another crowded work area so that I don’t have the teary eyed coughing fits (which might be psychosomatic) that seem frequent in my assigned office. AND I do really like, appreciate, and am impressed by my students. At the very least, I can say that my job itself is going to be fun and hopefully beneficial to both me and my students. I find it challenging and rewarding to work with college-aged students and also think that I have something unique to offer – though I constantly fear my much-ingrained American personality may serve as a detriment instead of an asset here.
However, walking home from my office the other night, I was happily eating an Isaac Toast hot chicken sandwich (spicy chicken patty on butter grilled bread with cheese and honey mustard), when suddenly, this huge, ginormously winged butterfly flew into my hair. I batted it away and heard a little screech (which might’ve been me) only to discover the butterfly was a BAT. Yup, a BAT flew into my hair. I was mortified. BUT, it didn’t get my Isaac Toast, so I call that a success =) If I start foaming at the mouth soon, hopefully I won’t get Old Yeller’ed due to bat rabies.
Tonight was another difficult experience in downtown Daejeon. After an evening out with some people I met through one of my Adoptee Family in Gimhae, we decided to relocate. Daejeon is having summer monsoons, and we found ourselves in a warm downpour. We were five foreigners: me, three Canadians, and an African-American male. The boy couldn’t flag us a cab for several minutes, and we watched as at least three cabs turned on their light for Koreans, but refused to pick us up. I had vivid flashbacks f a night in Seoul a decade ago when several cabs refused to pick me and another adoptee up late at night. It was not fun. It’s hard to explain to others the intense resentment I feel as an adoptee in Korea, and less so as an American, but it is part of daily life. I am in the constant process of dual goals: trying to adapt and appreciate a new culture while simultaneously being prepared for rejection and hostility. So, sometimes, my bed calls me more strongly than Daejeon does.
Sigh. I do want to be friends with Korea. I guess sometimes, you just have to try harder. Tomorrow, I must finish my semester overviews, but Sunday I plan to get on a bus – any bus – and figure out Daejeon a little better.
So, it has been a rough start in Daejeon. After locking myself out of Global House more than twice, I finally got a key chain and a laminated card holder to put that little card buzzer thingie into. You’d think this would help with my getting locked out problem, but I also managed to lock myself out of my actual apartment (NOTE: Pick passwords you can actually remember).
The rain picked up as two different typhoons approached Korea (NOTE: just learned from Google that a typhoon is a pacific hurricane), and the wind became dramatic. Most Koreans were unphased, though not many people were just hanging out in the streets like regular. Also, it made doing any laundry impossible.
Anyhow, the area of Daejeon where I am located is pretty isolated (for Korea), so the “walking distance” places to go are much farther walks than when I was in Gimhae. The typhoons didn’t help with the exploring the first few days, and I’ve been hesitant to take cabs or buses, since, to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t really know if I was going the wrong direction to or fro anywhere. If the beautiful weather we’ve had yesterday and today holds out, I will walk to the “walking distance” bus terminal area and probably feel all around more comfortable once I can get my directional bearings.
SIGH. It’s also been rough because there is a lot less English signage and fewer English speakers. Basically anywhere we went in Pusan/Gimhae, we ran into someone who could help us with even SOME broken English. And those that could not speak English just laughed at us, but were generally helpful. This was a happy occurrence since it was not what I remembered from my trip to Seoul in 2002. This has not been my experience in Daejeon.
So, on one of my first days in Daejeon, I ventured out to find some kimbap or something, and wandered around. At some point, I was perusing something outside a daiso and this ajumma (old lady) started asking me something. I smiled and shook my head, but she was insistent. She patted me on the arm and animatedly repeated whatever she had just said. I replied “Meeguk sahrahm imnida.” (I am American). She looked me up and down with furious blinks of her eyes. And then she pushed me. Not hard, but she definitely pushed. And she clicked her tongue and shook her head. Yup, that’s when I decided to eat instant noodlies and spend the rest of the weekend in my dorm.
I’d heard stories from other adoptees or Americans that occasionally, they had encountered some unfriendliness or hostility from Koreans. This is natural, since Americans have an (often deserved) international reputation for being ethnocentric, entitled, and generally rude. But, adoptees have also said they get some bias because Koreans try to shame them for not knowing Korean culture and language. (As a friend says, “Yeah, because as tiny babies we jumped up and said ‘Hey ship me to America where I will never speak Korean and know nothing about Korea!'”) I’ve been warned as a professional to be careful about with whom I share my status as an adoptee because there is a stereotype connected to being a Korean adoptee, and whether or not it’s conscious, many native Koreans will treat me differently. There is also this Korean need to “turn me into a Korean” which I find a bit overbearing, but is nonetheless impossible to avoid. Frequently, I hear “You will find your family and stay in Korea forever!” I think this is the reason why I so consciously resist learning the language (which, yes, I know is dumb of me).
I will never know for sure why this ajumma pushed me. It might’ve been simply because I refused to answer her questions. It might be because I’m American. Maybe, it’s because I’m an adoptee (BTW – it ANNOYS me a lot that “adoptee” isn’t a word according to spell check). What I know is that her push shoved me back 10 years in time to when I was 22 and overwhelmed in Seoul and basically wasted most of my cultural experience hiding in the ESWS guest house holding babies after I had a negative experience on the street.
And that’s essentially what I’ve been doing – hiding. Yesterday, I finally got tired of eating snacks and found a kimbap nara type place that has an entire menu in hangul, but at least gives you a paper ticket to mark what you want. Since I read hangul super slow, I was comfortable to sit with the menu and I managed to order mandu ramyeon and some sogogi kimbap while reading a book in English. Then, right after the Etude House girl had a long conversation with me in Korean, after which she gave me some face whitening cream and said in English “You need!” SIGH.
It is impossible that so much time has flown by! There are still days where it seems surreal to be in Korea. The weather is finally improving, which also improves my mood – although every inch of my body is screaming: “Where is the pool floatie!?” I’m ready to be tan and too warm. Or at least wear sundresses and flip-flops.
After much thought, I’ve decided not to go anywhere for our little Spring Break this coming week; this will help me preserve my budget and enable me to enjoy my remaining 7 weeks in Korea so much more. I hate opting out of an opportunity to see other parts of the country, but I also want to be able to enjoy my daily life as well. I will, however, take a day-trip to Daejeon to visit my colleague from NAPALSA and see the University where he works. It will be strange to see someone from my old life – it feels so far removed from me. I miss my people, but I’m not finding that I miss my actual life… or rather, my life is not that spectacularly different in Korea? Maybe it’s having a daily routine and that my social circle is so much smaller (due to language barriers); maybe it’s that I have no need for constant contact with anyone via telephone. Or maybe, it’s just that from 6000 miles away, it’s easier to see the people who care for you and whom you need. And those relationships don’t really change, even with 6000 miles in between.
I continue to be intrigued by Korean romantic relationships. The “cuteness” factor is a requisite, and is also on overdrive. I’m not sure I would ever be able to successfully transition; I think the last time a boy did something exceptionally “cute” for me was in high school when the Love of My Teenaged Life sent me a Christmas card that said “Have a Meowy Christmas.” Even then, I felt really awkward with the cuteness. Also, I’ve lacked the genetic trigger which seeks approval for some time – even more explicitly – I refuse to seek any feedback at all (from friends and family alike, see “The Syndrome.”) in the context of my romantic relationships. So, when I hear several Koreans tell me that they must regard the thoughts, opinions, and approval/disapproval of their parents in choosing a boyfriend/girlfriend, I am clearly a bit baffled, though I do understand intellectually the cultural context in which these comments are given. Here in Korea, men and women also do not visit each other privately in their homes or show public affection openly, mostly because it’s considered rude, but also because of what other people might think.
The opinions of others is an integral part of decision-making in Korea, including but not limited to to the choice of: spouse, dress, cell phone, make-up/appearance, socialization, etc. More often than not, I hear echoes when asking about things people like. Diversity is a word that seems to mean something subversive in a culture that has truly been homogeneous for centuries. I’m not saying that people here do not have distinct personalities (that would be ridiculous), but the values that are regarded highly here in presenting oneself are nearly opposite to those applauded in the States. Everyone at home is trying to distinguish themselves from the pack of Others; here, it is better to be able to show respectful values, adaptability, and the ability to become part of the fold. I realize how hard it is to be truly different in Korean society… and perhaps I am becoming more grateful for all of those years I was given the luxury of being a misfit. I think often of my LSA Family, and wonder if any of us would have been able to flourish here… Regardless, I take nothing personally, but am intrigued to observe the differences.
I am likewise amazed that in Korean society, a person’s future becomes fixed a such a young age. Upward mobility is difficult, and parents make critical decisions when their children are still very young about the child’s potential, intellectual capabilities, and future employment options. The question is never: “what do you WANT to be when you grow up?” but rather: “What are you CAPABLE of demonstrating success at in the future for the rest of your adult life?” Here, it is rarely about want. I asked several professors and students what happens when a Korean chooses a career, but later is interested in a very different profession. The resounding reply was that Koreans don’t change their careers because their education is fixed. For those individuals without the opportunity, financial resources, or family support to become educated at a university, their opportunities are extremely circumscribed – not only professionally, but also socially. Generally, like-educated people socialize and marry one another (hmmm… I guess this is generally true Stateside too… it’s just a silent rule at home). Three careers in, I’m thankful that I have the ability to change my mind so freely (and much to the dismay of my family and friends and colleagues – frequently); it’s a unique blessing that I will try not to take for granted again.
As the time for the program comes to a midpoint, I am more and more committed to staying in Korea for a full year. There is so much that I have yet to truly experience, and also, I have been slacking when it comes to learning the language. It’s starting to click for me, but knowing how slooooooooo-oooowwww my learning curve generally is, I’m pretty sure I will just be getting the hang of hangukuh and hangul as I am leaving for SFO. To that end, I’m thinking of searching for a hagwan position as soon as my F4 visa comes back… or some kind of job that requires only English-fluency. Save your pennies, people. You’ll have to visit Korea next year. ^-^ (this means =) ).
After two full weeks of classes, I can say with pride and honesty: I know 8 whole words in Korean!
Yes, yes, this is extremely slow, but for whatever unknown reason my memory retention functions are not working in Korea. Wait, the reason is known: Koreans love to drink. And eat. And eat while drinking. And drink while eating. It seems that in Korea, alcohol is a way to form attachments, bond, create new memories and friends, and also have fun. Eating is a way to ensure that you can keep drinking. I tried to limit my alcohol intake, and have definitely avoided liquor much more frequently than my Korean counterparts, but I have been persuaded more than once to indulge in mehk-joo (beer – even though I hate it), soju (Korean pure alcohol shooters), and maekgoli (Korean fermented rice wine mixed with pureed fruit and milk). SIGH. A girl has to try to blend in once in a while…
So, despite my best intentions to be a language student extraordinaire, I have become a regular student, special needs. In order to force myself to focus on language more (and simply because I don’t like it) I’ve decided to drop taekwondo class. Let’s all be honest here because everyone laughed when I said it was a required course. A certain someone said “I give it two weeks before you drop.” Well, Certain Someone, you were wrong: it took only one week. I made a promise to myself before I came to Korea that when in doubt, I would trust my intuition about people, circumstances, and my own discomfort. This may be in complete contradiction with the “Korean way,” which necessitates following along and asking questions… um…. well, sometimes never asking questions. Korean-style also means there is never a prepared agenda, list of any information, premeditated plan of action, or headcount. As a woman who has dedicated her career to organizing other people’s lives, this is extremely (I’d love to say “liberating” here, but no) agonizing. At some point (and I knew it would be sooner, not later), I was sure to be unable to comply with the “go-along” request. So, sorry taekwondo, you are out.
I do really need to work on my language skills. My inability to go-along means I must stubbornly adhere to my process of using ginger-phonetics until I am more comfortable sounding out the characters. I do feel like I should have a better grasp on letter sounds and letter combo sounds by the time I leave here, but I’m not foreseeing any real Korean-language conversations, other than “Hello! How are you!!!???” and being able to read and understand the menus at Korean restaurants stateside.
Socially, my adoptee group grows closer in expected and unexpected ways. I can say with honesty, that I find these people to be remarkable, each in their own distinctive way. I think each of us finds ourselves at different places on the spectrum when it comes to processing Korea, our adoptions, our families, and our perspective of self, but I find these nuanced differences to be interesting to observe and to learn from. We’re in the midst of celebrating birthdays in our group, and I do feel like part of my own transplanted family.
Also – I am charmed by the old school dating process here. And also sort of baffled at the same time. Man/woman relations are limited and very strict. Women and men are very rarely permitted to visit each other’s homes, show romantic affection in public, or engage in any lascivious behaviors. Here, a gentleman will carry your purse, let you dress him in a matching outfit if he’s your serious boyfriend, and get you drunk with absolutely zero intention of anything dangerous except making you sing at noribang (Korean private room karaoke). Of course, the pure fact that I (and hundreds of thousands of other Korean adoptees/orphans) exist sort of throws the monkey wrench in for me…. somewhere and somehow, desire still thrives, even if Korean culture chooses to ignore its presence. I, for one, have developed an insidious crush, which sort of resembles my fanatical celebrity crushes of the law school era: impossible to consummate.
For now, I continue to focus on absorbing as much as I can, trying my best to stay true to myself, remembering the reasons why I made the choice to come here, and reinvest in learning as much vocabulary and language skills as possible.
It’s hard to believe I’m beginning my second week in Korea. Mostly because it feels like I’ve been here for two months (and believe you me, I’ve spent the money I usually spend in two months in 11 days). It might be because the days are sort of routinized or because there are only a few people to interact with or just because for no particular reason at all. I finally feel like my days/nights are on track and I am sleeping reasonable amounts of time during regular sleeping hours.
I wish I could say I was as adjusted to the 1) lack of sunshine/warmth; or 2) lack of COFFEE. Sigh. A Mr. Coffee 4 Cup drip maker was 38,000 KRW (About $36), which I would have gladly spent if I could have found coffee grounds or filters. Buying the really good flat iron (I’d say it is comparable to my FHI Iron) for 18,900 KRW (about $17) did make me feel a little bit better about the coffee maker….
We are taking several courses that are supposed to be designed with KADs in mind. On Mondays, we are taking Korean cooking classes at a private cooking school. Later, I go to kindergarten with Amanda to do a 30 minute English lesson with the kids. I can already tell this will be my favorite part of the program =) Then, some participants attend English conversation class with some journalism students; the rest of us will have conversation class with English students on Thursdays.
We have KAD Discussion group on Tuesday mornings. I’m not really sure how this will go as it’s the first time facilitating this class and I don’t think the University has thought about how to structure it, or why former participants have asked for this type of class. As the guinea pigs, I hope Inje will be open to our suggestions… Then on Tuesday afternoons, we will take taekwondo. I’m super NOT looking forward to it, but I’m sure there are courses each of us could do without. Tuesday nights we will participate in another English conversation group, but this one will be less structured and more social.
Wednesdays we have two different English language classes at a very basic level. Currently, we’re just learning the alphabet and character sounds, plus learning how to write the characters. Just like when I was a little girl, the professors are concerned with my penmanship. Wherever you go, there you are.
Thursdays are the busiest day for me, especially because I have that allergy to morning-time. We have Korean Culture and History class in the morning, then I have Thursday conversation class, then Korean movie class. The culture book is… um… discussion inducing? The way that it’s written is sort of ridiculous, but it does cover many topics and did make me ask my roommate many questions. Maybe that’s the point???
Fridays we have a music class in the morning with the program director. I’m reserving my opinion on this class for now. Then, in the afternoon, we end our week with Korean grammar, which has been reinforcing our alphabet and writing skills. We are getting some vocabulary in this class and I’ve found it pretty useful.
I know I learn a specific way, and I may or may not be able to fully execute my style of learning in such a short time. I’m setting realistic goals based on the time available and my own knowledge of how I learn and acquire new information. My memory is only served by reading written form and by translating everything into my own phonetics. Basically, my professors and tutors are f*%!ed because I’ll smile along but retain nothing. LOL.
NOTES ON OTHER STUFF
The group mentality thing is starting to weigh on me. But not the Korean group mentality, the “let’s do everything as a group!” It’s just a function of being a student (plus Koreans really do things in groups and pairs) but I find myself needing more downtime than I anticipated so that I don’t go ALAG Twinkie on a Soapbox on these people. Thus far, I’ve been able to keep my Late Onset Tourette’s Syndrome in check, but I can’t promise it will stay that way for the next 12 weeks. I mean, clearly I have no control over my anger-based Tourette’s. LOL.
I do have my own voice in my head here and am loving it. I realize that despite the frustration and demoralization of the past few years, my angst is not the result of not knowing who I am, but more about people expecting me to be different and my own expectation that living other people’s expectations would be satisfying. Here, no one expects me to be any way because I’m a stranger, and while I don’t feel the need to change, I’m sure this experience is likely changing me in tiny, greatly significant ways. I love that my immediate gratification triggers cannot always be satisfied. Sometimes, I just have to slow down to a steady pace instead of a delirious rush. Having time where I’m not over-scheduled or constantly seeking the Next Best Thing Ever has actually reinforced in me more than ever that I DO know who I am at my very core.
And that means: constant movement, constant change… I’m on the same trajectory I’ve always been on, just magnified to some degree. This also means that inefficiency continues to annoy me and that I am always looking for ways to streamline things, make things easier for others (and myself), and I make a lot of charts. I will always really like charts =)
Also, my friends from home continue to be AMAZING at keeping in touch, making me laugh, and making sure I feel like things are normal. I love that we still talk about the same topics as always, still gossip about the same people, still fight about the same things. And yes, you can be on my sh*tlist from 6000 miles away. Don’t even think I won’t make you pay later…