Interlude: The Worst of Korea

Occasionally, though only rarely, traditional practices in India make sense and actually help. Case in point: veiling my head when it’s hot as hell on steroids. It made a difference yesterday at Agra’s Fort. The pictures from the Taj Mahal will come when the stories from India take shape, and they are spectacular.

But for now, back to reminiscing about my time spent in Korea. Here are the worst things about the Korean Adventure.

The Five Worst Parts About Korea

#1 The Food

Yes, yes. It’s somewhat of a contradiction to have the food of Korea as both the #1 best and #1 worst thing about the ROK. Ask anyone who has spent significant time in country and they’ll agree. Think “nachos” with whipped cream AND ketchup, nasty ass tempura concoctions with neon sauces, inedible salads, and top it off with getting a shitload of food poisoning. Literally.

Occasionally it is hard to find food the suits the taste at certain hours, or in certain places. Sometimes the only things availble are disgusting, out of date, or so processed as to be indigestible. Stick to traditional foods, and this is less of a problem. You will undoubtably eat in hole-in-the-wall kimbap joints and they serve amazing and cheap fare, but I often paid for it in less-than-pleasant bowels for a few days afterward. The health codes of Korea are not well enforced, so follow your instincts and steer clear of the gnarly bits.

#2 The Language Barrier

I’ve lived on four continents and I speak as many languages. I travel as a lifestyle and I purposefully seek exposure to new languages. I am, after all, planning to go to graduate school for Linguistics in September.

I have never experienced a language barrier like in Korea.

I took time to study the Hanguel script and the language, and devoted hours to practicing a few key phrases to little avail. This is in contrast to my colloquial fluency in Spanish and Italian mere months after moving to countries that use those languages. I never felt like I could speak Korean. Not even a little. No matter how many times I studied the pronunciation, people could not understand me. Often, they would eventually have a light go on and say the exact phrase I’d been repeating for five minutes, no apparent change in grammar or pronunciation apparent to bewildered me.

Not even in rural India is the barrier so high! The language barrier may be influenced by Korean closed-mindedness to things from outside their own country on the Korean side, and on my side by the sheer difficulty of the grammar and vocabulary (the same word can mean both”goat” and “chlorine” without any change at all). After one year of study and use, I have a pathetic 50 word vocabulary and can order a beer in a rstaurant on a good night. I certainly can’t rap along to Gangnam Style, as much as I’d love that!

#3 The Shitty Beer

Korean beer generally sucks. Hite, OB, Red Rock, Cass, whatever. They just taste like watered down and chemically-laced versions of a shitty lager from the US like Natural Lite. Mostly, they aren’t worth the hangover, although anyone living in Korea is bound to drink copious amounts of them throughout their stay.

I could be biased, being from the microbrew capital of the world (Colorado). At one point, my boyfriend and I put a ban on drinking Korean beers for several months. Like magic, our stomach issues and headaches went away. Mind you, we were still drinking the same amount…just of German, Dutch, and Mexican beer. The regulation of the beer industry in Korea must really be in need of review.

#4 Being A Woman

Despite having a female president, Korea is one of the worst countries in the world in which to have a vagina. In 2012, the Global Gender Gap report ranked South Korea 108 out of 135 countries. To give you an idea how abyssmal that is, the ROK ranks three places below India. This annual report ranks the countries gender equality based on four different indicators:

-Economic Participation and Opportunity
-Education
-Survival and Health
-Political Empowerment

As recently as 2009, Korea ranked 112. How is one of the fastest developing nations ever in the company of almost exclusively Muslim theocratic ones in terms of women’s standing?

Living in Korea as a Western woman, I had less strain than women who live there for their whole lives. Yet overt discrimination was present, even at my job. Women struggle to leave their parents’ homes before marriage (I knew a 28year old with an 11PM curfew), face stigma when talking about sex or relationships, are expected to be homemakers, and have little to no access to abortion. Single mothers are openly shunned even to the point of being insulted by prominent government officials. Divorce is extremely rare. Prostitution is illegal, but omnipresent, and according to the Ministry of Gender and Family up to 20% of Korean women between 15-30 are currently doing sex work. Let me say that again. 1/5 women and girls in some form of prostitution.

Traditional views on women, flavored by Confucian influence, contribute to all of this. It may be the worst of the worst when it comes to Korea.

#5 Goddamn Directions

Don’t ever try to follow directions in Korea. Get the general idea of where something is and wander until you find it, because even The Almighty Google cannot save you here. The address system is based on the random dates of construction for buildings, the streets are confusing, and above all Korea is developing too quickly for directions nd maps to keep up. Not even taxi drivers can get it right.

Be prepared to be lost a lot in Korea, and miss out on things because of it occasionally.

5 Comments

Add yours →

  1. Anne-Marie Colwell 15 April 2013 — 12:38 AM

    Wow

  2. I agree that the beer here sucks. Being from the REAL Microbrew Capital of the World – Portland, Oregon – I sometimes have to indulge and buy a 5000+ won bottle of real beer from time to time.

  3. Haha East Asian languages are hard for speakers of European ones. Of course it’s about ten times harder to learn Korean than Spanish or Italian.

    You think it’s hard to be understood when speaking Korean? Try Chinese then. At least Korean doesn’t have tones. Or thousands of characters (anymore).

    • Actually, I disagree. I currently live in China, and I find the characters very intuitive once you know what to look for. As someone who used to sing, the tones are so very helpful.

      In Korean, one has to guess the meaning of the same word from context alone. This means that one must know a lot of words to know what any particular word in a sentence means.

      My experience of Chinese (of two months) is that the tones actually make it easier to distinguish the words. If ‘ma’ can be said five different ways, and have five different meanings, then the tones really really help me by adding more information to the speech signal.

      But then, mine is a minority opinion.

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