Powering Through the Cold

I realized it’s been a while since I’ve posted an update, so here it is!

January and February have definitely been the two hardest months for me here in Korea. I’ve never been a particular fan of the cold, but to top it off, I had my first major illness since coming to Korea – tonsillitis. It was bad enough that on the day I realized I was sick I began having fevered hallucinations in place of sleep. Needless to say a visit to the hospital was in order. Thankfully that week was a week when we didn’t have students, so I was able to spend that time recovering. I’m quite thankful for the cheap medical care here in Korea, as the illnesses and treatment (I had an IV and it cost me maybe $15 out of pocket) for it would have ruined me in the U.S.

That being said, I think I’ve been thoroughly broken of the honeymoon effect with Korea. I’ve begun to notice some more of the frustrating cultural differences and how they impact my life and do harm to other people here in Korea. East Asian cultures seem to have a bad habit of ignoring problems (I’ve discussed this with some friends of mine and it seems to be region wide) until they become too large to ignore. In September there was something of a minor energy crisis in Korea because 5 of the country’s nuclear power plants were found to have passed their maintenance inspections through bribery (corruption is a problem here), but is has long been known that corruption is a problem and nothing was done to address the impacts it might have on vital sectors of the national infrastructure (like energy). This is but one example of things that get ignored here, though others might be the inefficiencies of certain systems (including educational habits – schooling from dawn until dusk can do more harm than good) and the immense social pressure put on their students to succeed (and the corresponding suicide rate following the national exam time when high school students test for university admission).

Along with the tendency to ignore problems, Korea is rather xenophobic. For as many Koreans as I encounter that are friendly and welcoming, I encounter many that see me as a target that they can rip off or simply as someone who has no place existing in proximity to them. The looks I sometimes get make me feel as though the very space I occupy is being tainted by my existence. It’s been something of an eye-opening experience being in a place and culture where it is impossible for me to blend in with the local population. In Europe, if I altered the way I dressed and my body language, I could be “just another person” when walking along the street. However, here in Asia, it is impossible for me to blend in simply due to the color of my skin. I’m not saying that this is an exact parallel (I was not born in this country, I know I’m a foreigner here), but I have to wonder how much this happens to racial and ethnic groups back in the States. A lot of the reaction I get isn’t overt or explicit, it’s in the brief facial expressions that slip through the mask before being covered up. So many of the expressions say “You don’t belong here” and I think I’m getting an idea of how that must feel for people who get those same reactions from every 5th person they see in a country where they were born, grew up, and see as their own. It’s frustrating to feel like your existence is offensive to someone else, even if it isn’t every single person giving you that look. There’s just so many looks over the course of the day that by the end of the day you just start staring people down to remind them that you see these looks. Eventually you get used to it and learn to drown it out, but every now and again it’s just so obvious you can’t help but see it. So yeah, as wonderful as Korea is, it has its frustrations.

As for the other stuff I’ve been up to, teaching has been fairly usual, though I did get to write some new curricula for a special group of students that had attended our school just a month prior to coming again and that was quite fun. I don’t know what it is, but I find making a well-prepared curriculum for a group of students or series of lessons is very satisfying. I’ve also uncovered a British product that is made entirely of villainy and lies. Introducing caramelized biscuit spread, packaged in creamy and crunchy and made to look entirely like peanut butter:

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Lies… all of it, lies! They place it right next to the peanut butter in the foreign foods section of the grocery store and it has been quite vexing. 

We’ve also had a recent batch of new teachers arrive here in Korea, so it’s been wonderful getting to meet all of these new friends who have arrived from all over the U.S. There are lots of wonderful new people, and a few old ones who I knew from college who are now here teaching with us in Korea.

One of the first things we did with the new people was take them to Seoul and experience our first jimjilbang (bath house). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the jimjilbang, they’re a mix of hostel and bath house, and they are very popular in Korea. You can go just for the hot tubs (some of them have herbs and other stuff mixed in) and sauna, or you can go and stay for the night. You take off your clothes, put them in a locker (you’re given a uniform thing that you can wear around when you aren’t in the baths) and then you shower and hop into the hot tubs. The idea is that they are supposed to help you relax and are good for your muscles and skin and all that. Then you shower again and go upstairs to the sleeping rooms where you can spend the night for fairly cheap. The uncomfortable thing (for most americans) is that while you are in the baths (they are separated by gender) you are completely naked, so you will see lots of naked people. But such is life in Asia, it’s best to just roll with it. Here’s a picture of some of the other stuff we were up to in Seoul (if you want to see the rest of the pictures, go here)

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Finally, I’ve recently become part of a small group/house church started by my fellow English teachers. It has been wonderful, as good English-speaking churches in Cheonan are hard to come by, so finding a Christian-community has been a bit tricky. I’ve been very blessed by this group and am so glad to be a part of it. Of course, I just got back from Thailand, but that will be a blog post all on its own. As it stands now I’m still sorting through pictures and videos (I took over 1,000 pictures… wow…), but that should be coming soon. 

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