Tuesday, October 25, 2011
When in Rome....
...well, I'm not exactly sure how to finish that. Before we moved here, I thought the new Asia Vu motto would be, 'When in Korea, do as the Koreans do." However, I've found that, while we're certainly not doing things like we would have done back in Suburbia, USA, we are not necessarily doing things like the Koreans do, either. In fact, our whole experience here has been surprising in at least one way that I really hadn't anticipated.
Of course, we've all learned the standard 'Anyonghaseyo/Anyonghikaseyo' greeting/farewell, and how to say 'Kamsahamnida' (thank you.) We know that a bow is always correct in every situation, and that pushing is not hostile and simply to be expected. We don't think twice about taking off our shoes and sitting on the floor in a restaurant while cooking our own meat on a tabletop grill, and we all can eat with chopsticks as a matter of course. We don't touch things when we're out shopping, and we keep our voices low on the subway(or risk being 'shushed' by a glowering Korean co-traveler.) So far, so good.
What has been the biggest surprise (for me at least) is that, while certain aspects of Korean culture have inevitably been absorbed into our everyday lives, there are just as many aspects of other cultures being absorbed at the same time, for better or for worse. Take, for example, Son #2's school. The language of instruction is English, and the school itself is divided (at least in the lower school) into a British and 'Interational' division. In the high school, however, while students can choose to follow the British (iGCSE) track or the 'International' (International Baccalaureate) track, they are all still mixed up in mostly the same classes. Son #2s teachers are mostly from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or the UK, and his classmates are a similiar mix, with some Americans (it seems) thrown in for variety. The language of instruction, while technically English, is certainly different in more than one way from what was used at home. First of all, everything is metric, and, while Americans are taught the metric system, we don't use it unless we're scientists (don't ask me why.) Did Son#2 know how many kilos he weighed? How many centimeters tall he was? What the temperature was in Celcius? Nope. (Thank God for the conversion app on his iPhone.) And there were other subtler things: paper sizes, for example. The whole world (except the US, of course) uses ISO standard sizes for paper, which sent Son#2 home in the first week fretting about finding A3 sized paper (that's sort of standard 8x11, US peeps.) (And, while some of this is fairly insignificant, there are other aspects that may have more far-reaching effects than you'd realize. Be sure to read this post from The Potty Diaries about trying to teach your 7-year-old proper English table manners when he's surrounded on all sides by Americans at his International School.)
On top of these little differences, we then started discovering that there was a bit of an English language issue. The Algebra teacher calls the letter 'zed,' not 'zee!'(finally, proof that it's not just one of his Canadian Nana's quirky eccentricities) Then, he came home grumbling about having 'Maths homework.' That's right, maths, not math. A subtle difference, but one my linguist's ear caught immediately. (non-US readers may or may not know that the American short version of 'mathematics' is 'math,' not 'maths'.) And then there's the word 'revising.' In American English, when someone tells you to 'revise,' they are asking you to take something you already did and re-work it, as in, "Darling, I'd like you to revise your estimate on the amount of money you spent on cycling gear this year (to something more realistic.)" In British English, revising can also mean studying for an exam. (Note: if you are a 14-year-old boy whose teacher tells you to 'revise' and you happily assume that, since you haven't done anything that needs revision, you don't need to do anything at all, this can be a silly - but potentially disastrous - misunderstanding.) And, of course, there's the age-old 'football' vs 'soccer' thing, but that, at least, isn't a problem, since the only football at the school is soccer (no rugby, no American-style) so there's nothing to confuse.
So, what I'm finding is, that, although Son #2 is certainly picking up some Korean phrases, manners, and customs, that's definitely not the only cultural influence he's experiencing. I had a similar experience in Taipei as a child: my best friend was British, and we swapped words as casually as we swapped our dolls. It was only when I moved back to the US and casually referred to an umbrella as a 'brolly' that I realized that not everyone had been exposed to quite the same brand of English as I had.
Live and learn.
Of course, the cultural goulash is by no means limited to English language and customs. I have found myself mixing it up with women from all countries and walks of life, sometimes in a rather unexpected manner. Take, for example, my women's choral group. This group is billed as an 'international' women's choir, and, like everything in the expat community, changes its membership from year to year(or even month to month.) As it so happens, the year that I have joined is the year that the membership is composed of women from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Japan, and Korea. The director (a native Korean) directs in English, and the language of communication for the group is also English. However, during our breaks, you hear only German and Korean as everyone chats with her own group of friends. This is not a problem for me, since I speak German, but at the last rehearsal, I had a sudden start when I realized that, when all of us were communicating in English, I was the only one who spoke it as a first language.
I guess what I'm saying is that, even though we came to Korea expecting to learn about Korean culture, we have found ourselves with people from many other cultures who are also learning about Korean culture, and, at the same time, sharing bits of their own culture with the expat community. I got an invitation just a few days ago to attend a Carnival party "On the Rhine and on the Han" hosted by the 1st Seoul Carnival Club. Invitation in German and Korean.
And then there's Halloween, which in America, is synonymous with costumes, candy, and trick-or-treating. This Saturday night, we're going to a Halloween event that includes - in addition to the typical spooky costume stuff - a bonfire, traditional Korean wishing kites, and African music performed by students from Yonsei University.
It looks like the phrase, then, is: When in Korea, do a little bit of everything from everywhere. Seems to be working for us.