Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why I Love Korea



Lately, I've been writing very wintry posts.  They're sort of sluggish and uninspired and slightly petulant - sort of like me right now - probably because I've been spending a lot of time indoors, cooking food that's just bursting with fat and calories hearty warming sorts of meals for my family, staring gloomily out the window at the bleak Seoul skyline, and appreciating the under-floor heating system.  I don't think it would take a whole lot of insight for anyone reading my last few posts to figure out very quickly that I am not a Fan Of Winter or that I don't find all this gloomy grey and freezing crisp and brisk Seoul weather to be in the least bit invigorating.

However, while it's true I do not like Winter in Korea, make no mistake:  I still like Korea  (well, what I've seen in Seoul, at least;  I'm not very well informed about the rest of it yet.) I thought - after all the whining I've been doing - I should provide equal time for some of the things I love about living here. I realize you can't generalize about an entire country based on interacting with a small group of its citizens, but, after 8 months, I think I've collected a large enough sample to make some well-informed generalizations, so here they are.  It's worth noting that these are just my own impressions and that other people may have a very different take on things.  I may also end up with a completely different outlook after I've been here for another 8 months, but so far, here are a few of the

Things I Love About Korea and the Koreans  

The Way People Take Care of You:  Korean people really want to help you.  Some people may find this well-intended advice-giving to be interfering or bossy, but I think it's lovely when complete strangers come up to me to let me know that my purse is unzipped and my wallet's about to fall out; or when the lady at the market stall at Namdemun tells me to put my earmuffs back on or my ears will freeze (she was right, although I had taken them off so I could hear her, so I wasn't as careless as it seemed.) People who see me staring at the subway map (and who assume I'm a tourist) will come up to me and give me directions (whether I need them or not- usually not, but I never tell them that.) Last week, an ajumma (general term for any married woman, but usually reserved for a feisty sort of middle-aged (or older) lady most often seen wearing an enormous sun visor and a certain kind of track suit) practically threw me into an empty seat on the train (despite my protestations that I would be happy to stand) and stood over me to make sure I stayed put.

The Relationships:  Koreans place a high premium on relationships, whether they are from school, business, or work.  Once a relationship is formed - no matter when - that's that; relationships are valued in a way that I wish I saw more of in American culture.    It is very common, for example, for people who were in the same elementary school class to keep in touch and to maintain strong ties with their classmates for life, with frequent and regular reunions.  In fact, we were in a restaurant last night with a very loud and boisterous group which we assumed were a bunch of co-workers.  After going through countless bottles of soju and numerous enthusiastic (if off-key) songs and choruses, the party broke up.  As they were filing out past our table, one of the gentlemen stopped to apologize for their loud and rowdy behavior, explaining that this had been a reunion of his elementary school class from 40 years ago which still met regularly.   Which leads me to my next observation:

The Manners:  While I'll probably never get used to being pushed out of the way on the sidewalk, for the most part, I love Korean manners.  I like the respectful bowing (even in the elevator when you've just ridden up a couple floors with strangers;  love this), the greetings everywhere (everyone, from the lobby attendant in my apartment building to the bus driver greets me with a nod and a pleasant 'Anyonghaseyo') and the (mostly) thoughtful treatment of children and the elderly.

The Little 'Extras':  I've mentioned this before, but - going back to the concept of 'relationships' - Korean merchants often throw in little extras for their customers- either as a sign of appreciation for their custom, or as a sign of appreciation for loyalty. I know I have already mentioned the free juice boxes MrL and I were given the last time we bought something at the electronics market; this inclusion of little a little 'something extra' really does seem to be everywhere. For example:  I have been buying my bojagi from the same lady (stall #98) in the flower market building in Namdemun since I discovered her back in October, and she recognizes me now.  Every time I buy bojagi from her, she throws in a little goodie - a few beautifully knotted ties, some extra rubber bands for doing more elaborate folds, an elegant little card.  When L and I went to lunch at a little pizzeria we found last week (creatively named, 'Pizzeria') the proprietor popped out from behind the counter with complimentary steaming mugs of honey citron tea for us when we finished our lunch - just because he was nice and it was cold outside.

The Public Transportation:  I'm sure this isn't the case in more rural parts of Korea, but here in Seoul, I love that I can get just about anywhere I want to go quickly, easily, cheaply, and - most of all - safely without a car.  (Especially since the automobile traffic is not on my 'things I love about Korea' list.)

The Restaurants:  No, not just the food (although that's an obvious one).  I love the restaurant culture in Korea.  I love that they bring you a pitcher of water and glasses when you sit down - no waiting around to ask for it.  I love that there's no tipping - the bill is all you pay.  I love that many restaurants have a buzzer on the corner of the table for you to summon a waiter/waitress and that no one is offended if you use it or just call to your waiter ('yeogioh') to get his/her attention. (In the US, wait staff are supposed to be aware of you at all times, magically sense when you need something, and appear before they are needed.  If you have to summon your waiter, it's often because you've been sitting around and fuming, wondering why they haven't already been over to your table by now.) This 'holler-when-you-need-me' attitude seems much more reasonable to me, as well as more efficient, although most of the time I have found Korean wait staff to be more than attentive, since - at least at Korean bbq places - they are both cooking your food at the table for you as well as serving it to you! Best of all, I love that the bill is put down on your table once your order's completed and you simply get up and pay at the register on your way out - no waiting around at the table for your waiter to bring the check and then waiting around some more until (s)he returns with your change or credit card slip.

The Human Touch:  This may not be a popular one with many Westerners, but it's something I love.  Korean culture is more physical than in many Western cultures:  we tend to have a much bigger 'personal envelope' and touch is usually limited to close family members or between friends making greetings and farewells. In Korean culture, it's very common to see friends - both males(!) and females - holding hands or walking arm-in-arm on the street.  As well, there is more casual 'hands-on' contact between people of both genders (occasionally a bit alarming for Western males) during the course of conversation than most Westerners are used to. My Korean friends, for example, will put their hands on my arms or hold my hand while we're talking. Shivering on the way home after a choir performance one night it seemed  the most natural - as well as practical - thing in the world for my Korean friend to tuck my arm in hers as we made our way down into the chilly subway. I don't know if it's due to my childhood years in Asia, or if it's something in my personality, but I like the way people touch each other in this culture - it seems like such a nice way of connecting, especially in all of the anonymous hustle and bustle in this ultra-modern, ultra-technological metropolis.


There you are:  a few of the reasons I love Korea.  Not to say that there aren't drawbacks, too, but  I'm glad I took the time to think about the good things; it's given my day a little glow that I really hadn't expected to find.

15 comments:

Circles in the Sand said...

Fascinating post! I think you should write a book about being an expat in Korea, I really do! I love your writing!

elizabethm said...

That was really interesting. I have never been to Korea and indeed don't know the far east at all although my son in law is a fluent Japanese speaker and is doing a PhD in Japanese Studies at Oxford so I wouldn't be surprised if at some time my daughter and her family spent some time in Japan. Isn't the world a huge place, even with all this technology and talk of globalisation!

Marianne said...

Have to admit that the personal touch thing would be hard for me to get use to but I love the idea of it. Thanks for sharing your life and your journey. It makes me not feel so far away from you!

Trish @ Mums Gone To... said...

I must tell my husband about the restaurant culture, particularly the ease of bill-paying. Trying to catch a waiter's attention when we want to pay up and leave is always so frustrating.
And love the pitchers of water too!

SixinSeoul said...

Only four more months till I am back in the Land of the Morning Calm! This post has made me even more homesick for Korea that I was before. I love all the things you touched on and something else I love about Korea is the slower pace of living I experienced while living there! I can't wait to get back to a calmer, more family oriented environment.

MsCaroline said...

Circles - thank you so much, but I think I have quite a few years to go before I'm ready to tackle something that ambitious!

Elizabeth - - what a wonderful opportunity for your daughter and her family, if they do go to Japan. It's funny how we always talk about travel being so enlightening, broadening, etc., but it still manages to surprise us when it happens! I am constantly realizing how little I really know...

Marianne - It can definitely be disconcerting, but you do get used to it - and it's not alarming or frightening, just a bit different. This is what we kept harping on about to all of our students when we tried to explain to them about cultures being different!

Trish - we love the no-waiting aspect of it, too, and have fully embraced it. We actually embarrassed ourselves a few months ago when we went to an Outback Steak House in Seoul - got up and left our table, expecting to pay at the door and they shooed us back to our table and told us to pay our waitress! I don't know if they thought we were really going to leave without paying, but we had no idea that it was such a Western restaurant that even the payment style was Western...definitely don't like that part!

Trish - yes, I'm sure you miss all of these things and many more I may not have discovered yet! I have to say I haven't found the pace of life to be much slower here, but maybe that's because I'm working now. I do absolutely love the emphasis on family, though!

Frances said...

A very interesting post.....I now know a lot more about Korea than I did and it sounds like a lovely place to be in many aspects of life.

MsCaroline said...

Frances - One of the strange things about living here is that you stop noticing the differences because you take them for granted. I had to really think about this post for a while - I'm glad I was able to provide a little insight!

nappy valley girl said...

Lots of things here that I never knew about Korea, thank you for enlightening us! I love the idea of the restaurant buzzer - and it's always nice when people give you 'something extra'. That's something very rare in the UK, although it does sometimes happen in New York (especially in ethnic shops/restaurants).

MsCaroline said...

NVG- we love the buzzers. Definitely something we'll miss when we return home!

BavarianSojourn said...

It sounds absolutely fabulous and I can't wait to visit! I am planning on accompanying my other half on a work visit at some point - I can't wait to eat my own bodyweight in bibimbab, kimchi and padjeon!

Wish we had table buzzers in Munich too. They make so much sense, although the last time i visited a Korean restaurant, a very cute little boy on the next table kept pressing our buzzer and there wasn't much we could do but apologise to the waitress. I think she thought we were mad!

Emma :)

Karen said...

I'm finally getting to comment on this post, Carolyne. We are starting a week long break for the kids and a long President's Day weekend for Neil and me. My students are also off next week but we have to report for a week of professional development...yipeee! I'm hoping for some time to work on IEP's and other paperwork, since I am inundated next month.
For now, I have a long weekend and a slower week (no kids to forcibly eject from bed in the AM, no homework police work, fewer after school activities, no students at work to exhaust me)to look forward to.
Loved your post, as always. Having done very little traveling outside the US, I find the quirks of other cultures fascinating. I've gotta say, as a typical "leave me alone" aloof New Englander I felt a bit intimidated by your description of friendly people "helping" and giving gifts and just in general interacting with strangers in public. Along with my geographical "aloofness" I also get tense when strangers interact with me because I usually have to ask them to repeat themselves and because I generally process what someone says to me "out of the blue" somewhat slowly since I am concentrating so hard on just hearing them. It is so much easier just to not interact beyond smiles and nods with strangers. I think that aspect of Korean culture might stress me out! I remember when my kids were small, and very social little beings, I had to deal with them striking up a conversation with everybody and anybody. At the time I decided it was probably good for me to be forced to reach out more. I was younger then!
The relationships, the manners and the little extras would please me mightily, though. Except maybe for being pushed on the street. Restaurants and public transportation sound like the places to be. Love the buzzer! I'd probably be OK with the touch thing, too. I come from a pretty "huggy and kissy" family.
Anyway, just my random thoughts...and a bit of a ramble, I'm afraid. Enjoy your weekend!

MsCaroline said...

Emma - We had a similar buzzer incident, except it really was our fault: one of the first times we went out for dinner here in Seoul, one of my sons didn't realize what the buzzer was and kept accidentally leaning his elbow on it. After the 3rd or 4th trip, the waiter saw what was happening and explained it to us...embarrassing...

MsCaroline said...

Karen - one good thing about Korea is that no one really expects you to understand what's being said, so everyone does a lot of gesturing and hand-waving. The pushing - you really do get used to, or else you'd end up with a constant low-level rage! Funny about New Englanders - I know they (we?) have a reputation for being aloof, but my family and I concur that you will never meet kinder, friendlier, or more helpful people anywhere you go...even though Southerners are the ones with the traditionally friendly reputation. Of course, we may be just a bit prejudiced...or maybe they're extra nice to us when we run into them because they know we're 'in the club' so to speak... Hope you enjoyed your mini-vacation and got a little down time!

Mitzie Mee said...

The buzzer on the table is really convenient. Wonder why it hasn't spread outside Asia. I've also noticed how attentive the restaurant staff usually is, e.g. how they offer to cut your noodles in smaller pieces..