But What about Me?
By Matt Smith
This week marks month twenty for me in the Republic of Korea. My initial goal upon setting foot in this country had been twelve. Somewhere in between the recession and falling in love, I was persuaded to hold down the fort for another year. Life in South Korea is easy, comfortable and mostly stress-free. I’m paid a healthy sum to teach fifth and sixth grade pipsqueaks the English language. The profession requires a minimal amount of work due to the highly structured format of the government’s textbook. I’m given a healthy amount of time to write pieces such as this. It’s only at the end of the week when I teach evenings that I find myself furiously clicking keys, putting away a handful of lesson plans. And I like my busy Thursday and Fridays.
Honestly, there’s little to gripe about but this hasn’t stopped me. It’s the cultural differences that stick out the most and I don’t mean the pop-culture. By now I’ve become accustomed to the invasion of pulsing dance tunes, into every space imaginable. I even hear K-Pop in the urinal. No, it goes much deeper than that. Past the flashing neon lights, high fashion styles and space-age electronics. It has to do with the core of how Koreans see themselves, which is undoubtedly, part of a group. They view their race and nation as part of a bigger whole with a common destiny.
It was not long after arriving here that I noticed the signs though it would be awhile before I understood them. Walk around the downtown of any South Korean city and you’re liable to run into couples wearing the same outfits. Four to five women walking arm in arm, some with their heads on each other’s shoulders. In class my students refer to each other as big or little brother/sister. I fondly remember my first meeting with the principal of my school, when I was instructed to develop a friendly rapport with my students. “Think of them as little brothers and sisters or cousins,” I was told. Applying the correct title is Key in Korea and does not stop with the young ones. The men and women of my office refer to each other in the same fashion. Age is a big factor and often one of the first inquiries a Korean will make of you. Lighthearted envy has been expressed to me on more than one occasion that with English, no matter who’s the other, all that’s needed for a greeting is “Hello.”
It went further when dating rituals were explained to me by my former co-teacher. The ‘blind date’ is not how an American might think of it. Should you choose to be set up and there are many who do, you are paired with a stranger just like a date back home. The catch is that your date is not so much private as it is public. Whether you’re male or female, you’re invited out in a large group setting, most likely with a number of your friends as well as some of his or hers. Dinner is consumed, drinks drunk and everyone is generally merry. Why? Because they’re all rooting for you. Everyone knows the sole purpose of the evening is for you forge some kind of bond with the total stranger you’ve just met. That’s a lot of pressure. I barely have the balls to buy a girl a drink, much less talk her up in with our best friends watching.
This sense of togetherness has led to hyper nationalistic tendencies. Some of this was demonstrated last summer during the 2010 World Cup. During preliminary matches with Japan, a country that’s long been Korea’s rival and part oppressor, nationalism flared, with Korea feeling it had much more to prove. True, most nations with the exception the United States get pretty revved up for international sporting competitions. My Welsh girlfriend has shared with me rowdy pub stories from now memorable football matches and even she was surprised to witness such fervor at the start of the Cup. The day of the first match, we arrived to school to find a sea of red. The countries slogan being, “All the Reds!” like 2006’s “Reds Go Together!” and 2002’s “Be the Reds!” All slogans I found to be ironic on account of their on going conflict with communist brother and neighbor, North Korea. At school both students and teachers were decked from head to toe in vibrant red. Some had the flag painted upon their cheek while others wore blue and red headbands.
This wasn’t unlike Kim Yu-Na gold metal victory, three months prior in the Winter Olympics. For seven days, all news stations and some of the cable networks played a seemingly endless repetition of her winning performance. It was admittedly, quite amazing to watch. Day and night, the three minute James Bond themed dance was shown in cabs, restaurants, bars and on my co-workers computer screens. Not only had she put the spotlight on Korea, she’d defeated Mao Asada and Miki Ando, two Japanese powerhouses.
Old rivalries aside, my main beef with Korean culture, is its refusal of that which is different. To be different whether physically or in personality traits is a negative thing and the culture makes no bones about politeness or subtlety. Those in my office frequently comment on the weight and jaw lines of certain students. They’ve also spend the better part of afternoons debating which of the Girls Generation members are the most beautiful. No joke. This standard surprisingly doesn’t apply to me, for here there are two categories, Korean and Non-Korean. I being of mixed race and American am the same as Liz, my blond haired, green-eyed Welsh lady. In fact in Korea I’d say I’ve experienced a new breath of freedom, so distant from the often racial expectations of the States. Here, I’m not black, I’m different. True, there is at times a certain privilege gifted to foreigners of fair skin but this is few and far between.