As I mentioned in my last post, there is a lot of pressure around giving gifts here in Korea. It is common for Koreans to give their friends, co-workers and even acquaintances gifts for no particular reason (just being nice perhaps). The interesting thing about this is that there is a very apparent, yet unspoken, obligation to reciprocate. If someone gives you a gift it is polite to get them something back, and that I agree with. A lot of the time it is just something small like fruit or juice or something, and it is always at an unexpected time. The problem for me as a foreigner is that I'm not always sure what to get for people, or how much to spend (especially if they gave me a banana 2 weeks ago).
One time many months ago I had gotten into an argument with Mr. Park (I think the only time ever), and afterwards I decided that I should apologize by buying him a gift. Well I know that he enjoys drinking his tea, so I went to my local mart and bought some very nice/high quality tea that cost the equivalent of about $20. The next day I told him that I was sorry about it all, and that he should accept my gift. He said thank you and everything, but he never used it (I think it is still sitting in our classroom!) Turns out I should have just brought him some apples and called it a day (I think he still really appreciated the gesture though). I think maybe there was some unique method of seeping this tea, and maybe it would have best been used at home with a pot, but I felt like I had failed to successfully give him a proper gift.
Another example of this is with Master Lee. He gives me gifts all of the time! I'm always on my way out and he hands me some kind of drink or snack to take with me (in addition to the awesome belt plaque gift he gave me). I really don't know how to repay him though. I think maybe I will bring him something nice from the States when I visit in 2 months, because I think he would appreciate something that is meaningful/thoughtful much more than a monetary gift bought here in Korea.
The last example I will use actually stems from my last post (with the open class). The one homeroom teacher had to change class times from 1st period to my lunch period, which was quite inconvenient for me. I wasn't gonna raise a fit, or say anything because I know these things happen, but he felt it necessary to give me a gift. At first I didn't even know what was happening (I don't know which teachers have which classes) and this cool teacher I play volleyball with was in my room trying to speak English to me. Eventually Mr. Park told me that he was 3-4's homeroom teacher, and that he was 'bribing' me to make up for changing the class time! I couldn't believe it, but it was this cool little science project thing, so I thanked him and was happy to waste time with it that afternoon :)
2. LAST MINUTE NOTICE
A common gripe from fellow Native English Teachers (NETs) here is the last minute notice for so many things at school. This is something that can vary by school and co-teacher, but I have experienced some inconvenience from this in my time here so far. Common things that receive last minute notice are faculty dinners, canceled or rescheduled classes, school assemblies, and worst of all VACATION TIMES. I know that schools have a lot going on, and back in the States there are 'surprise' assemblies here and there, but it can be very frustrating here. I have been pretty lucky, since Mr. Park is one of the better co-teachers I could have gotten, but I have still had to cancel plans to go to dinner with the teachers a couple times.
When it comes to vacations I have really been lucky. I did have to ask several times to get confirmed dates for things like Thailand, my upcoming summer vacation and for my trip home, but I got them. Some people have had to change their flights, or pay more for a flight because they get their information changed or late. It is one of the famous inconveniences among NETs here though.
3. CORPORAL PUNISHMENT
One of the most shocking things to me (and my generation) here is the use of corporal punishment in schools. Corporal punishment encompasses a lot of different things, including students standing in awkward positions for extended periods of time, different forms of exercise and even hitting the students. I was told when I arrived in Korea that I would probably witness some forms of discipline that I might not be comfortable with, so I wasn't caught off guard by it. In March of 2011 physically punishing students in Korea became against the law, but naturally it still happens (without any concern from parents or teachers even).
Common push-up position which the students have to hold.
Arms being held above head. (both photos from the internet)
4. OH MY GOD.
Here in Korea there are several English phrases that almost everyone knows, and they are usually quite funny (yet in some senses, inappropriate). There are always jokes being made about people/things dying, and a very common phrase is "Oh my God." I hate to admit it, but I have completely conformed to using these kinds of phrases and terms. There are two reasons why this is: (1) many of the teachers talk this way, and it is an easy/good way to bond, and (2) if the students are using English, I don't want to discourage them, even if it would sound a little inappropriate back home. This is Korea, and if they have their own acceptable way to use their English, who am I to tell them that it isn't okay?
An example of joking about 'dying' is as simple and harmless as a girl chasing a boy, and him running to me saying "Teacher! She will kill me!" Or after a hard workout at Taekwondo: "Oh my God, teacher I die." So after a few months I naturally jumped on board. I used to make an effort to say 'oh my gosh,' or at least be careful who I was around if I said 'oh my God.' Here however, I have even said "oh my God" on camera during one of the outtakes of the 6th grade version of Let It Be.
One of the toughest things for me here is the blatant racism and sexism in society. As a white American male I am certain that I am on the top rung of the societal ladder, as far as foreigners go. I am told how handsome I am, and I get respect from a lot of people all the time. So what am I complaining about? Well I'd like to earn my place in society for one, but secondly (and more importantly), what about my friends from India, Africa and South America? And more so what about Chinese and Japanese immigrants? Also the women who are constantly treated as second class citizens?
Now I can't get into specific examples and 'reasons' for each and every subgroup and race in this post alone, but I will try to give a quick overview of the situation, and my feelings about it. I tend to consider Korea to be where the US was in the 60's and 70's as far as the new generation making a progressive effort to level the playing field, however that is gross oversimplification. There is a lot of hate towards the Japanese for their brutal occupation from 1910-1945, and there is a less intense, but still significant feeling towards the Chinese for other historical events. Black people are considered lower class citizens, and are constantly stared at, laughed at, and even touched by Koreans. Every time my students see a video or a picture of a black person, they laugh and say something in Korean. Mr. Park knows how much this upsets me, and he always tells them to knock it off while I have a stern look on my face. I have gotten into a fairly heated argument with a Korean about Latinos, who that person claimed are all inherently lazy, and are just interested in having a good time now. I have several feminist friends here who obviously experience and view Korea differently than me, but they are always complaining about the old fashioned sense of sexism in Korea. (Most women I know here are not that upset by it, as it used to be much worse, but it's still there. Like I said, comparable to the 60's and 70's in the States.)
My students think every black person looks like President Obama by the way.
6. MAN PURSES
I don't have a problem wearing a pink shirt from time to time, or having long hair that I take care of, but one thing I will probably never do is accessorize with a man purse. This is a 'must have' for most Korean men. It is really interesting how fads catch like wild fire here. If there is one style of jacket or shoes that is suddenly popular, it seems that within a week or two EVERYONE in the downtown area has that style. This is part of what happened with the man purse, and it doesn't seem to be going away any time soon.
In Korea, there seems to be a pretty significant sense of homophobia. Over the years I have made fairly good friends with several gay people, and have no sense of homophobia myself. I actually enjoy being around gay people because they usually are not self-conscious, and are in no way fake or 'plastic.' I guess that's a pretty big no-no here, and a couple openly gay people I have met (males and females) have to basically live in the closet due to fear of being deported! I don't have solid proof or evidence that they would be fired and sent home, but we have all heard stories of that happening. Also Koreans seem to get very uneasy when I talk about a friend of mine being gay.
One very interesting thing about this is that you will most likely see men holding hands here. I was shocked when I first saw two old Korean men holding hands, especially since I had heard what I had heard about the homophobic nature of this culture. There is nothing gay about men holding hands in Korea (unlike in the States), as I have held hands with a co-teacher, my vice-principle and Master Lee since I've been here. (I love the irony though; two men with purses holding hands is cool, but don't you dare disclose your sexual orientation if it is different from everyone else).
8. SAVING FACE
One of the most difficult things for Koreans and Westerners to deal with in the work place is this: society demanding that you save face. So many things are 'kicked under the rug' to avoid making anyone look bad. If there is a problem that can be ignored, it will be. For me, I want to recognize, address, and solve any problem that comes along. I think that this is annoying to many Koreans, and they'd really prefer that you pretend that everything is fine.
I'm trying to think of one good specific example, but this occurs all of the time in a school. I might want to talk about something that happened in class that didn't work so well. However I feel like I shouldn't bring it up, even if it will help things run smoother in the future. Let's say that I am leading the class (like in the open class video) and the co-teacher and I have a disagreement on how many times we should show a video. There may be an awkward moment during that class, where I'll reluctantly agree to something that I think is unnecessary. Afterwards I would like to discuss that and make sure that we are on the same page. There have been times where this has happened, and I was basically told to wait one moment, and the topic was never addressed. These kinds of things happen all the time, in all kinds of situations. A little bit frustrating.
In Korea you don't say "God bless you" or "gazoontite" when someone sneezes. It is considered embarrassing to sneeze, and saying something like that is rude because it draws more attention to the person who did it. This is true for coughing as well. If someone that you respect coughs or sneezes, it is polite to fake cough to make their cough less noticeable (this is an unspoken thing that I have picked up on over time). Also blowing your nose is considered extremely rude, especially when eating. This is the one I can't get on board with at all. People will sniffle for the duration of a meal to avoid blowing their nose, and with all of the spicy food here that is quite common. I try to respect the culture and partake in many aspects of it, but to me sniffling for 20 minutes is much ruder than blowing my nose for 1 second.
10. HAND GESTURES
One of the most obvious differences I noticed when I arrived in Korea were the different ways to say 'no' and 'come here.' They are easy to learn and use, and are very second nature now. The hand gesture for 'come here' is similar to ours with the hand motion, but you point your hand at the ground, as to suggest that the person walk towards you. The 'universal' way to say no here is by making an X with your fingers or arms. (An O with your arms means 'yes' or 'true,' but less common to see.)