As I’m succeeding in getting little else done today, I have decided to throw my two cents in on a topic that I imagine concerns the vast majority of women who make the move to Korea. Probably guys too, but screw it…they can find someone to write their own posts.
As most of you will know, Korea is a pretty much a homogeneous society. Obviously there are significant amount of foreigners here but Western teachers (like myself) number only 20,000 in a country of over 48,000,000 and as I’ve mentioned before, it isn’t unusual for me to go a good few days without seeing another Western face. Usually when I do it’s because I’ve made an effort to meet up with friends after worrying about my waning ability to speak my own language.
Whether you want (or are made) to see it this way or not, we are obvious outsiders in a complex and often closed society. Despite my ability to (slowly) read Korean as it is written, I am still basically illiterate as I hardly ever know the meanings behind the syllables I’m sounding out. I could take Korean lessons, true, and I probably will when I’m not swamped with my actual job. At the moment the idea of studying after a day of teaching and staring at my computer screen all day is simply too much to handle.
I’m not saying that looking noticeably different to everyone around you is without its merits. For one thing, it’s super easy to find your friends in a crowded subway or bar. Also, compliments to the only foreigner in the vicinity often come thick and fast (this year’s ‘Teachers’ Day’ brought at least 5 proposals of dates/marriage from the school’s previous students), although this is often more of a nuisance than the joy it sounds. As I mentioned in a previous post, my having been introduced to the majority of my students and fellow teachers with an irritating (if undeniably well-meaning) “this is Teacher Carrie…she is pretty! Look at her yellow hair!” probably didn’t do anything to make them respect me. I’m not saying I would have preferred “this is Teacher Carrie, FEAR HER PARTICULAR BRAND OF OVERLY VERBOSE ENGLISH WRATH AND FEAR FOR YOUR LIVES!” or anything, but something in the middle would have been pleasant. Hey ho, what’s done is done.
The problem, for me at least, is that it’s difficult not to assume that compliments are not being given purely because of the differences between myself and the person giving them. That’s fine (of course) but it is a little odd to know that you’re being complimented on something that is absolutely non-specific to yourself; having nice eyelids for instance, or a straight-ish nose. As a result, you become completely desensitised to the nice things that people say as you assume they’re just the typical Korean compliments (‘Kompliments’?) that don’t really mean anything. Without trying, I’ve mastered the ‘water off a duck’s back’ technique of hearing nice things without really listening to them. Unfortunately, this is a technique that people advise for insults and so probably isn’t a good thing in the way I’ve learned it.
The result of this is that you become trained in the art of forgetting the good things people say whilst remembering the bad. I heard it said many times before coming here that the Korean people are often very outspoken on personal topics that we would never dream of discussing at home, in particular surrounding a person’s outward appearance. Often this is in a positive sense (a friend of mine received a round of applause from her class for wearing a skirt to school a few weeks ago) but equally often has negative connotations, such as when my students insist on asking whether or not I am pregnant. Which I’m not, for the record.
This has happened to me twice now and, as you can probably imagine, it doesn’t feel great. The first time was during a first-grade class in which everyone was being well-behaved and quiet except for one group of 4 boys who incessantly chattered as I was talking and really, really started to get on my nerves. After shushing them almost constantly for 25 minutes, I finally snapped. This was my first mistake. I silenced the rest of the class and told the ringleader of Team Talky-Talk to stand up and explain what they had been talking about to the rest of us. This, as you may have guessed, was my second mistake. To give credit where it’s due, he did not back down from the challenge. He cleared his throat and loudly replied “we were thinking if Teacher is having a baby?”, at which point 40 mouths (the co-teacher’s included) dropped open whilst they waited for me to answer. When I did the boy sat down, smirking like a git. That was pretty awkward and I can’t say I dealt with it too well…in fact, I’m not sure I’ve worn that particular dress to work again.
The second time was yesterday, during a third-grade class where (in my opinion) the students are older and therefore should know better. Nearing the end of the lesson, a student on the front row quietly asked me the hateful question. In his defense he looked beyond mortified when I told him the truth (that whilst I am without child, I am fond of eating a lot of rice) and had the good grace to not be able to look me in the eye for the remainder of the class. I felt worse for him than I did for me, I truly did. The poor guy will probably be reliving that one until University and perhaps beyond…I still occasionally think of the time I called my Year 5 teacher (the awesome Mr Dodd) ‘Dad’ whilst I was in the queue for him to check my Maths homework. That was 15 years ago.
After the class, my co-teacher for the lesson approached me to ask what he had said that had made me laugh (so awkwardly, I presumed). I told her, laughing again as if it were no big deal. She returned my laugh, delivered a swift “haha! He is right! Maybe you should lose some weight!” like a kick in the chops and left to attend her next class as I stood gobsmacked and (if I’m honest) rather hateful of her and myself. Despite everything I’d read about this being a common theme of Korean conversation, you simply don’t expect it to be such a smack in the face when it happens to you.
A fresh crisis came served with lunch. Should I take the criticism to heart? I struggled with this question for literally 3 painful minutes whilst I waited in line for my food, but then I realised that japchae noodles were on the menu and the crisis evaporated completely from my fickle brain. I realised that letting the words of two kids dictate how I feel about myself is foolish to the point of absurdity and I also realised that if my co-teacher wasn’t just being Korean, she was being a bitch.
In conclusion, I learned two lessons. One of the biggest challenges of living here is learning how to disregard the bad feelings that Korean accidental insults leave you with and remember that whilst every Kompliment may not be 100% genuine, looking different really does come with lots of benefits (free food in restaurants, extra good service, random children wanting to chatter adorably to you, spontaneous skirt applause, etc.) and really shouldn’t be ignored. Obviously there’s a downside to being the village giant, but then there has to be and I’m getting pretty close to being totally OK with that.
The second lesson I learned? Japchae noodles are fucking awesome.