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
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.