Sunday, October 27, 2013

Korea World

The first questions:

1. How old are you?

2. Are you married?
3. Do you have a boyfriend?

I was prepared for these, but as a twentysomething already dealing mentally with the expectations of age, I really don't care for them. And these initial questions come so abruptly to an expat from America, right after, "What is your name?" Being asked by elementary-aged kids only adds to the awkwardness. What's it to you, ya cute little munchkins? But it's honestly no more comfortable when the president of the school or the other teachers ask me, so meh -- it's a personal thing.

I understand sizing a person up on a first meeting. It's natural, but in Korea, age and marriage status is really important. Superficially, I think the Koreans would like me better if I did have a boyfriend or a husband because it fits into their understandings and expectations of a young woman in her twenties. And I'm not offended nor do I wish the social system was different; my priorities are simply more well-rounded.

Priorities aside, I would gladly say, "Yes!" to having a boyfriend or husband if it were true because that's the answer that makes the most sense in the current culture. I am indeed a yes man in Korea because it comes in handy at school for haggling vacation time; plus, I'm learning and experiencing more new things. It puts me in good situations and in a better position as an expat because in general, the Koreans really like showing and teaching you things. They are proud of Korea and of being Korean and their knowledge of such runs deep.

There is an extra enthusiasm the more "Korean" one is, which I find interesting and a little endearing. One of my friends speaks Korean very well at an intermediate-advanced level. I've witnessed joyous conversations and "service" (or free) food on the discovery that she speaks Korean. She has what sounds like the best talks -- everybody loves her. I admit, I feel a twinge of jealousy. I wish I could interact with the Koreans like that.

On the flip side, I am Korean. I was born in Seoul, but I am also an American that doesn't know a lick of the language beyond the bare basics. It was hugely confusing for the teachers and students at my school when I first started. One the teachers kept saying over and over, "You have a Korean face, you have a Korean face." My adviser back in Wisconsin told me that the Koreans don't openly talk about adoption for personal reasons. Personal reasons being that they would care for and raise their children if they could, and when they know they can't -- it's very personal. It took a couple of days for everyone to understand that I was a new foreigner English teacher, not a new Korean English teacher.

Being Korean is "more Korean." There's no grand special treatment, but it counts towards the Korean pride of all things Korean. For sure, people assume I speak the language, which has made me feel a little guilty. It's just the way it is. Maybe I should've been more interested in learning about my heritage. Truth is, I've always thought it was cool I was born in a different country. But that wasn't part of my life. I am who I am. Pegging a person to know certain things and to be a certain way because of how they look or where they come from maybe proves logical most of the time. But it is not fact.

One night at the bar, this local guy thought it hilarious that I was learning some basic Korean phrases from a friend, who was white. Hilarious in sort of a demeaning way -- I have a hard time in situations like that because I can see why he thought it laughably ironic. It is kind of funny if one starts thinking of "what if." What if I had been raised in Korea; I'd speak Korean and it'd be a silly situation. But that's not how it is. So, come on, guy. My motto: let it go, because the less power to him. The less power to get know someone with an open mind.

Another small detail that's been bothering me: I've said "white people" more times than I have ever cared to. It's strange because it's been slipping out in sort of embarrassingly distasteful ways. I think, it has to do with my confusion on how to label myself. I've never really given my race much thought past the "check your ethnicity" box on surveys and forms, but here in Korea I don't look like a expat; I look like a Korean. Sometimes, I like that. I like disappearing in the crowd; other times, I don't like it, mostly because it requires more talking (explaining). The grass is always greener. Not being fully "white" or fully "Korean" can be befuddling, because, put simply, race does play a factor in everyday life in country as homogeneous as Korea. Ignoring or denying that would be inefficient and untrue. It is an ongoing effort to process everything and it's been more interesting than anything, navigating the fine lines. 

"Korea World" can be very assuming. A term coined by a friend, she works with high schoolers and she tells them, "You know, outside of "Korea World," things are different." Straight up, they know that of course, but being surrounded by people who look the same and have the same palette for food and speak the same language can in ways limit perspective. I've found myself taken aback at the things I do that surprise the teachers at school. I'm also a little bit shocked at how surprised they are when I don't understand something they do. At times, I wish there'd be a little more give. 

It is a different circumstance for both parties. One of my greatest motivations for wanting to teach in Korea for a year was to learn and see new things. However, for the teachers, this is their home - where they grew up and where their families live. There is a different mind-set and with that, a different level of conscious openess. When I see something that seems completely crazy, I swallow it with an understanding that I'm in a different country. Talking about it later with friends always helps decode the situation or at least not feel alone. 

Humor and laughter have been my saving grace on the hard days. Some shit is funny because it's funny. So many good laughs with new friends, my co-teacher, the other teachers at school, and especially my students. Just on Friday, the fifth grade class hamster went missing -- escaped from his cage (UGH, WHY). I think some of the boys sensed my abhorrence for that situation because they started coming up to me with their hands cupped saying, "Hamster, hamster," and then quickly opening them to reveal nothing. It got my heart beat up. Very funny, right? I was finally over that when the last boy came up and said, "Hamster find, hamster find," and no warning, shoved into my face, THE HAMSTER. I may have screamed and I may have tripped over my own feet. It was so funny. 


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