Six months ago today, I arrived in Korea.
When I move to a new country, there is a familiar roller coaster of adjustment to the new language, culture, and surroundings. Eventually it stabilizes and I begin to feel at home, but each time is different. It takes a combination of adjustment on my part, adjustment of those around me, and even adjustment to the new biological rythyms.
In Korea, the whole process seems to be taking forever! Maybe it’s the language barrier. Maybe it’s the vast cultural divide separating me from some aspects of Korean culture, especially the influence of Confucianism. Maybe it’s that I’m living in my own apartment and not with a host family.
There are still so many things that perplex me about Korea. Six months in, I’m pretty sure that they will continue to confuse me for the remainder of my time here, especially because I keep going further down the rabbit hole and finding myself in new situations (Oh hey, 78 year old woman. We’re going to drink soju together at 8:00AM? Oh, OK.).
Here’s a list of the things that I’ve yet to figure out about Korea.
1. Green Tea Toilet Paper
Why stop at drinking green tea for health when you can wipe your butt with it, too? Surely there must be some healthy effect to introducing antioxidants to anal tissues! The quest for alternative health seems to be the idea behind some of the strangest products I’ve seen in stores here. This includes “100% Silver” (Ahem, 100% toxic if they really are) granules to take for energy, copious amounts of red ginseng, mass quantities of “well-being” products like special ketchups, and the occasional medicinal Chinese facial mask proporting to make your face absorb collagen.
Green tea is healthy. Green (dyed) toilet paper with artificial green tea scent? I’m guessing not.
2. My students’ sense of humor
“Trashie! Bahahahahahaha!” “Uhhhhh dirty!!!”
My students laugh at the most bizarre things. Uncontrollable laughter brought on by the mention of refuse. Shouts of “KILL KILL KILL” to raucous laughter. One group of students absolutely lost it for ten minutes over the mention of blood. They often laugh in ridicule of cultural differences when they come up in the books.
I don’t want to cop out and say that this somewhat twisted sense of humor is something to do with violent video games or desensitization, but it is a bit disturbing that they laugh at death and find killing to be a great joke. Given that Korea has such a closed culture to foreign influence and a tendency toward xenophobia, the laughter in ridicule of other countries and other customs is more understandable.
I’m happy to supply random bits of humor in class, often without even realizing it.
3. Women who manage not to walk into things with their entire faces covered from the sun
Woah, is that an android? THE FUTURE IS NOW!
Nope, just a woman walking down the street so afraid of the sun’s aging and browning rays that she has swathed herself in UV deflecting plastic. One often cannot see any part of the faces of these women, and it is remarkable that they manage not to walk into streetlights and/or oncoming buses. More tricky is the ability to walk with a scarf completely covering the face, eyes and all. This ensemble is often paired with a sequined parasol, just to be extra safe.
Wouldn’t 50+ sunscreen be nearly as effective?
4. Whitening Deodorant
In the same vein as the complete coverage from the sun, Korea offers a plethora of confusing “brightening” products designed to lighten the tone of one’s skin to an almost paper-like pallor. I understand the desire to avoid skin cancer and wrinkles, but sometimes the desire to be pale breaches the realm of normal possibility and leads to sloppy-looking edges around one’s face from brightening masks and a certain cottage-cheese colored quality to one’s arms and legs.
Whenever I buy a beauty product here, I have to check and be sure that it doesn’t include whitening agents. All the way down to deodorant, because you never know who might see your armpit and think, “Wow, I wish that part of her/him was paler.”
5. Mis-sized shoes for walking all over Seoul
I can’t buy shoes in Korea.
Along with clothing, shoes in Korea only come in a few rigid size options. Even as women grow taller and healthier due to increases in healthcare and nutrition, the shoe sizes almost always fall under size eight in the US. I often wondered when I first got here how it could be possible that all the women in Korea have such tiny feet and that the stores would be able to stay in business with such a tiny selection.
Then I noticed it. Women in Korea often wear vastly mis-sized shoes. I regularly see women in five inch heels on the subway, perilously perched on their (aching?) feet. Their shoes look like they are not only a medieval torture device with so many straps cutting into the skin, they are also almost a whole size too small. I see so many women with toes hanging completely out of their shoes, sacrificing comfort (and maybe the health of their feet) for fashion. Then they walk several miles through Seoul to appointments and even their jobs.
Maybe it’s better that I can’t buy shoes here after all.
6. Blue Door “Protectors”
This one is particularly perplexing in its apparent illogic.
“I don’t want to ding my car when I have to park so closely to others in my neighborhood. That would damage the car! I know! I’ll put huge blue foam stickers on the edges of each door! That will stop my car from looking damaged.”
I can only imagine that the goop used to attach these little things never comes off and causes significantly more damage than any tiny and unnoticeable scratch would.
7. Cosmetic Surgery
If you watch enough Korean TV, you’ll begin to notice that all the girls look the same. That’s not due to you being a racist and thinking all Koreans look the same, it’s due to the cosmetic surgery that all of them have undergone. Korea leads the world in cosmetic procedures, and girls as young as twelve are sculpted, scraped, cut and siliconed to perfection (?), often by the very same plastic surgeons. You can therefore be excused for thinking that all the famous women in Korea have the same features.
I know that women and men around the world face societal pressures to look and act certain ways, but I’ve never experienced anything like the pressure in Korea. I can’t even read most of the advertisements, much less communicate with women in Korean, but I couldn’t help feeling big, unfeminine, and unfashionable when I first moved here. In the months since then I’ve come to terms with my (very much non-Korean) femininity and I even like the way I look, but I can definitely understand why so many would want to tweak their look with surgery. Or at least with removal of freckles and other imperfections.
I’m very happy that I grew up in a society that didn’t laser off all my moles at the age of thirteen. I like my “imperfections,” thank you very much!
8. Modesty for Women
The final perplexing frontier: How To Dress As A Woman In Korea.
Since this is a subject best illustrated with visuals, I put together some outfits that are considered modest and immodest. For the sake of clarity, “modest” here means, “acceptable to wear to work as a teacher and not likely to draw incredulous stares on the metro.”. See if you can guess which of these outfits are acceptable and which might draw ire.
#1-Immodest! Cover your shoulders, harlot!
#2-Immodest! Your whole chest is showing! Who do you think you are?
#3-Modest! Your bosom is obscured by miles of fabric and the bagginess of the shirt prevents any silhouette from taking shape. Who cares if no one can tell you have pants on?
#4-Modest! Your butt is covered by your skirt and your shoulders are safely tucked away. Wear as high of heels as possible to show off your pale legs!
Korea is a wonderful place to live, and as my time here makes the shift between an excess of time to a slow winding down I find myself feeling both happy and sad. Six months is a long time for me. With the passage of today, Korea moves into first place as the country I’ve lived in the longest outside of the United States and Asia takes the top rank in my race to live on six continents before I’m thirty. It’s a milestone, and yet today is likely to be nothing special. Write, teach, eat, have a beer, sleep.
That’s just fine. I’m living in Korea, and having a routine is part of the stability that comes from living in a single place for a long time. I have a job, an apartment, a salary, and a boyfriend \(^_^)/ …none of which I had a year ago when I returned from South America. Yes, my six month anniversary with Korea is also my one-year anniversary of the end of my time in South America. Time is an amazing, moveable beast that takes me from one season of life to the next.
I can’t wait to see where else it leads.