There were a lot of things that I had to get used to about Korean culture.
After two years, most of those things don’t seem weird anymore. I can get behind the bowing as a form of greeting. I’ve found ways to avoid the terrible local beer. These days, it doesn’t even faze me when the kids beat the crap out of each other during class.
But there are a small list of things that I can’t get behind. No matter what, you cannot make me see the sense in these cultural quirks.
Now that the humid summer is creeping up on us, I’ve started wearing my hair curly again. Ever since then, I’ve been getting one question from the kids:
“Pah-ma, teacher? Pah-ma?”
No, I did not get a perm.
“Natural,” I say. “Original.”
This blows their mind. The kids that aren’t so hot at English give up, unable to figure out why I would lie about getting a perm.
Because, despite the fact that this is 2012 and ‘Saved By the Bell’ is a (cherished) thing of the past, perms are alive and well in Korea. Every other day a new kid pops up with a mass of unnatural curls flopping over his eye.
Yeah. I said ‘his.’ Pah-mas are unisex.
I choose to believe that it’s their mothers who make these things happen. My co-teacher, for instance, regularly takes her 6 and 9 year old daughters along when she gets her own hair permed.
“They need perms,” she explained.
Who needs a perm at six years old?
I can’t cope.
There’s a disturbing trend, at least in our town, to keep your dog chained up or caged. From what I can tell, the sole purpose of having the animal is so that it barks uncontrollably every time someone walks past.
Not that it could do anything to stop an intruder, because how would it ever get out?
Chains are far more popular, and they rarely extend beyond two feet. There’s one puppy in particular who I pass on one of my running trails. Over the past year, he has been attached to his chain every single time. His legs are stubby and he looks depressed. Along a different trail, there’s a house with three animals on chains: two small dogs and a cat.
Besides all of the terrible effects this has on an animal, it also makes them aggressive. I’ve been chased three times by barking dogs who managed to escape their chains. The first two times, I was terrified. On the third, I realized that the dog was just excited and wanted to play.
Ugh. It breaks my heart.
I don’t mean to condemn all Koreans for their pet care, because that’s not fair. One of my students has a little lap dog named Oo-yoo, (‘Milk’ in Korean), and she treats him royally. As does my other student with her hamsters, O-baek won & Cheon won (‘500 won’ and ‘1,000 won’, named after how much they cost.)
But the people who don’t…it burns me.
How Old Are You?
The first time I asked a class full of first-graders how old they were, every single one of them said ‘eight.’
“Weird,” I thought.
Then I found out why they were all eight, and it got even weirder.
In Korea, when you’re born, you’re one year old.
On New Year’s Day, you gain another year. On your actual day of birth, your age does not change.
Take the case of my student Nam-ho, who was born on December 31st.
On his day of birth, he was one year old. The next day, he turned two years old.
This, despite the fact that in reality, he was barely 24 hours old.
I can’t back this system of counting, not least of all because by the time I turned 30 last September, I was already 31 in Korean age. Then I became 32 a few months later.
It’s messed up.
Here’s a tip: do not be deceived by bread products in this country. Although they may look savory, they are nearly always sweet.
Sausage wrapped in a bun? It’s probably laced with sugar.
Herb and cheese bread? You fool. It’s also got jam in it.
Innocuous loaf of wheat bread from the bakery? Tastes like cake.
I’m a big fan of sweet food, but when it comes to bread for my sandwich, I do not want it to be sugary. And when you’re not ready for your brown bread to taste like a doughnut, it can come as a revolting surprise.
When I carry my own toilet paper through Mongolia or Southeast Asia, it’s because I’m not brave enough to use the bucket (and definitely not ready to use my hand).
In Korea, I carry my own toilet paper because that’s the done thing.
There are toilet roll holders in the stalls at school, as well as an industrial-sized one at the front of the bathroom. However, they are always empty.
Our office has a communal roll of paper sitting on top of a bookcase. When you need to use the bathroom, just estimate how many squares you need, tear them off, and you’re all set. The classrooms are the same, except instead of a shared roll, some of the teachers require their students to keep their own roll at their desk.
It gets annoying pretty damn fast, because you can’t just duck into the bathroom. You need to be prepared. And people always seem to move the roll in the office, so I am forever hunting for it. Besides that, I can never remember the Korean word for toilet paper.
And don’t even get me started on the fact that we can’t flush the paper, but have to throw it into separate buckets instead.
Well. Now that I’ve complained at length about my first world problems, I feel a lot better!
Kind of judgmental, but better.
What did I miss? Please tell me I’m not the only one that gets riled up about the little things…