As the days fly by, I’m loving Korea more and more. There have been very few frustrations (the ones that exist are usually related to the fact that people walk really slowly here…and if that’s my only grumble, you can probably see that it’s an all round decent place to live), I’m getting to grips with the language barrier and am finally able to at least order something in Korean when eating/shopping, and I’m beginning to realise half of the information I read about Korea before coming is really not applicable to my experience here.
I expected people to goggle at me non-stop, but hardly anyone stares. Kids might, but children do that everywhere around the world, so it’s hardly unique. I stressed myself out for days trying to remember exactly how to greet the principal of my school, bogged down in all the information I’d received relating to first-time meetings – make sure you hold your arm whilst shaking their hand (as it’s rude to just extend one), bring gifts, address them with the correct title, bow, and at the company dinner, don’t refuse soju if your life depends on it. So far, when shaking people’s hand, I’ve not seen them touch their other hand to their arm once. Deep bows are for serious formal occasions. My principal is a wonderful human being who couldn’t care less about titles and invited me for tea in her office despite me never uttering 만나서 반갑습니다 (formal – nice to meet you), a sentence drilled into my head over orientation that flew out my head when I had to actually say it. Nobody even cracked open the soju at our school hweshik (company dinner). All the bottles that had been put out were taken back. Only one person drank beer. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different, but I really don’t find Korea to be as uptight and strange as the internet painted it to be.
Cosmetic stores here are on every street corner. Beauty is big business here, and Korea is quite image conscious. You can see girls touching up their make-up on the subway, quite often with a roller still in their hair. Sheet face masks are a big thing, and you can even get ones with animals printed on them, so you can be cute while your face gets the treatment it deserves. Every society is superficial in some way, so I don’t think of it as a bad thing at all. In fact, for a girl like me, who loves her make-up, it’s pretty dangerous. I want to try it all. I spend ludicrous amounts of money on snail slime cosmetic creams (no, really). As I type, I’m sitting with my feet in individual bags, a foot-peel solution working its magic on my poor rugged old tootsies. I’ve tried carbonated bubble masks that make you resemble human moss as they puff up over time, sheet masks with tiger faces printed on them, and am currently in love with Korean lipstick, which tints your lips and lasts for hours. Free samples are a given when buying make-up at most stores, which is an added bonus – except when the samples are skin-whitening cream. Think I’ll pass on that one.
This neatly allows me to move on to something I am not able to take a pass on – the school’s ‘enforced sports’. Participating in school sports is a must, lest the principal passively-aggressively ignore me for weeks. It’s bad enough being the token foreign teacher who doesn’t speak the language; there’s no way I’m ostracising myself by choosing not to take part in the weekly ‘yoga’ classes/hikes/volleyball. The ‘yoga’ deserves its own inverted commas, because it is not like any yoga I have ever seen. I have never seen so many flexible people in a room who weren’t putting on a dance show. The PE teacher moves these teachers-by-day, apparently-contortoinists-by-night, into deep stretches that even my yoga instructor at home wouldn’t do. The principal, a woman I assume to be in her 60s, can get her nose to touch her knees in a sitting position. I can barely touch my own feet. This is then followed by a round of volleyball, where bruises are easily gained due to how seriously the sport is taken. We have a match coming up in May, and as I am tall, I was Nakmin Elementary’s Most Wanted as regards to who would be playing. As you play, you’re met with calls of ‘Ni-suuuuuuh’ (nice) – Koreans are keen to add an extra vowel onto the ends of many English words. It is truly wonderful motivation, and as I understand it, I’ll leave the pronunciation class for now.
In Korea, even something as simple as ‘yes’ can be tricky to understand. Say I know that little Soo Young is sick, so I ask you the question “He isn’t here, is he?” What’s your answer, as an English speaker? I hope it’s a resounding “No”. The children here will do quite the opposite, and answer “Yes.” It was very confusing the first time I heard it, and I had to repeat the question – but was still met with “Yes.”
In Korean, if you make a negative statement, you usually have to answer “Yes” in a situation such as the one above. Imagine the full sentence to be “Yes, you are right. He is not here”, rather than the English “No, he isn’t here” that you don’t repeat back. It actually makes a lot of sense – you’re in agreement with the speaker and are affirming the statement, but it takes some getting used to. I do try to correct the yeses, but it can be really confusing for everybody involved. It may just be easier to ask questions that don’t merit a yes/no response.
Similarly, the signal for ‘come here’ looks rather like the signal you would use to mean ‘go away’. Stretch your hand out in front of you, palm down, and move your fingers in and out. Koreans do this, as it’s rude to do it palm facing upwards. That’s how you’d beckon a dog. On first glance, it can look rather like the gesture you’d make to tell someone to leave, or go. Whilst playing volleyball, I confused the 6th grade teacher rather a lot by backing off every time he beckoned me to come towards him. I finally realised what he was doing, and had to explain to him that I wasn’t stupid (honest), I had just misunderstood the hands. If I can’t even understand Korean hand gestures, I don’t think I have much hope when it comes to speaking the language.
With my skin feeling silkier than it ever has before, a newfound (slight) appreciation for team sports, and a love/hate relationship with soju, Korea is getting better and better as time goes by.
Tomorrow brings my first school trip with the kids from 5th grade. They are my favourites – last week I asked them “How are you?” and one of them responded “I’m angry.” I asked him why, and he responded “Teacher ugly.” Those little rascals. I’m pretty sure it’s because I had a spot on my chin, as it’s the only day they’ve said it to me. 10 year old boys certainly tell it like it is. Imagine what it’ll be like spending an entire day on a bus with them – my next post will probably be titled ‘Why I decided to go under the knife in Korea’. Watch this space.