First Impressions

29 Oct 2008
Posted by Marisa
Marisa's picture

We've been here for a few days now and these are the things that have impressed me the most:
I cannot believe this country exists. On one hand they are totally developed and part of the modern, western world. You can clearly see the western influence in the way they dress, the entertainment they watch, and even in some of the food they eat. However, they are often in complete shock to see an actual western person walking around. And it's not just the kids who act like crazy people when we're around, but the adults too. They will say hi to me and the run off giggling back to their friends, people who are older than I am! I don't know how they can be so westernized, yet completely unaware that we actually exist.

Everyone is very friendly, even if they may stop, point, stare and laugh at us as we walk by. Everyone tries whatever English they may know, and then talks away in Korean in hopes that we'll understand. Bus drivers have helped me to get on and off at the right place, customers have motioned us from inside the restaurant inviting us in and then helped us to get seated. Our landlord invited us over for dinner. Our co-teachers have driven us all over the city helping us to find the things we need.

First Day 01

Our apartment reminds me of Ma Hang, a big government subsidized housing complex near our home in Hong Kong. Despite having a relative large amount of space, all the Koreans still prefer to live on top of each other in giant high rise apartment buildings. Luckily, it's easy to find your way home because the only tall buildings are the apartments. So you can just look up and find your number. Just like Ma Hang, all the apartments are the same ugly, cement housing blocks that are definitely uninviting. But once you're inside it is very pleasant. I could not believe how large our apartment was. After living in Hong Kong and having a bedroom the size of a closet, I was prepared to have very little space. But we have enough room that we could play hide and seek (if we had some furniture, that is).

There are bakeries. I have never moved anywhere outside the States that has had tasty bakeries. I had determined from this that I would never move anywhere where there were tasty bakeries. Even when we went to North Carolina I was disappointed. To me there is nothing like a doughnut from Cub. In fact the Cub bakery is the standard that I hold all bakeries to. And few have compared. Here in Korea, while they don't perhaps have the same selection as Cub, I think the bakeries may still stand a chance in competing with Cub. (And despite my desire to move away from doughnuts, there is a dunkin' doughnuts right around the corner from our apartment).

There is no McDonalds. I thought all Asians loved McDonalds. I guess I will have to change this assumption to all Chinese love McDonalds. You couldn't go half a block in Hong Kong without coming upon McDonalds. And it was so good too, much better than any McDonalds in the States. Here we have Lotteria, the McDonalds stand in. But they don't have the popularity of McDonalds in China.
My parents would love it here. As I sit here writing, it's "cleaning time." There is a twenty minute break during which all the students get brooms and mops and things and clean the school. I'm not sure what the point of this is, since I think we still have janitors. I guess it's to instill good cleaning skills in the students. Some of them use it as an excuse though to come say hi to me (and tell me I'm pretty, which I guess is just as good a way to spend your time as cleaning).

Bowing has already become ingrained in my very being. It was practically instantaneous upon landing in Korea. I think there was one awkward time when I tried to shake someone's hand (thank goodness I didn't try to kiss them), but otherwise bowing seems to me to be perfectly natural. I don't know how I'll ever stop.
They have the perfect recycling method here. They have free recycling and really expensive garbage bags you have to buy for your garbage. Anyone with a brain then will recycle as much as possible. Now that I've experienced it, it seems like the perfect method for encouraging recycling.


Bakeries & etc.

Blast your luck, there's only one good bakery in Chungju and it's on the other side of town from me. There are about a million "Paris Baguette"s (which I'm sure you have as well), but the ones in my area never seem to have anything in stock except for huge cakes and packs of milk bread buns.

...Can I admit that I like Lotteria considerably better than McDonald's? Especially their bulgagi burgers, they taste like the East and West are meeting in your mouth and peacably celebrating their union by eating Lotteria bulgagi burgers, which taste like... you get the picture.

"Cleaning time" is only a small part of your students' ridiculously uncool schedule, which I'll talk about when I see you tomorrow. Suffice it to say that they spend well over twice as much time at school and doing school-related activities as their American counterparts. Did you know that they all come in on Saturday?

And yes, many people here have truly never seen a real live foreigner before. The biggest problem with the English educational system---which of course we are here to help correct---is that it's very difficult for students to feel motivated when chances are that they'll hardly ever travel outside their hometowns. Why learn English when you only need to know Korean? But by our mere presence, we inspire an "a-ha!" moment in which Koreans realize that people really, honestly use English to communicate and not just as a particularly nasty test topic. This is definitely my favorite part of being in Korea. Take every chance you have to interact with the locals, even if their English is very poor or nonexistent; I guarantee that you will not regret it.


environmentally savvy

I like your descriptions, Marisa, and your incredible cultural insight and logic. You are very anthropological, which is the highest praise. :-) No wonder Korea is getting ahead in the world, with insights like the (free) recycling vs. (expensive) garbage choice. Maybe we should write-in vote for the Korean president.


Korea's President

Actually, could we please vote to have Lee Myung-bak removed from power? I defy you to find a single Korean who likes the man. No one really seems to understand how he got to be president, but if he continues with his semi-delusional policies he's going to start undoing Korea's coolness. He hasn't even been in power for a year and the teachers at both of my schools are holding weekly emergency meetings to discuss how they're going to cope with his latest arbitrary change to the educational system. (There's no denying that the Korean educational system---like any other in the world---could use a little bit of improvement, but deciding to award bonuses to teachers who are "more effective" and asking the other teachers at the school to "rate" their co-workers as a 1, 2, or 3 -level "effective" teacher is an absurdly, stupendously bad way to go about it.) Immediately after he was elected, he actually tried to force all of the schools to teach every subject in English. My co-teacher told me that Math, Science, and Korean teachers could be spotted weeping in the hallways. It took a week of this insanity to convince him that the new rule maybe wasn't the greatest idea ever.

Never trust a president whose Wikipedia bio contains the phrase, "escaped the two-year prison sentence sought by prosecutors." Or the sentence, "Lee has proposed a number of changes to the country's education system, reportedly with the aim of making education more appealing to the upper class."

On the bright side, every one of his policies appears to have changed since the last time I checked, so maybe it'll all be OK.