Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Ok, I apologize. Obviously I didn't stick to my goal of one entry per week - how long ago did I say that? Well sometimes life gets the better of you, and before you know it months have flown by. No excuses, but lets turn the page. Because my best friend Amber is here to teach with me, and suddenly the sun is shining! We have self-titled this next era of our lives as The Adventures of Kate and Amber, so with that, I sure hope I get my butt in gear and keep writing on my blog.

Let me think...


I have thought of many things worth posting to my blog - namely pictures which I haven't taken yet. Alright, I'll get those done mom. But slowly I have become exposed to deeper aspects of Korean culture that are difficult to absorb entirely. Here's one. Did you know that child abuse, and to a different extent - spousal abuse, is not exactly shunned here? Teachers and parents both hit the children. The most interesting part of learning this is learning more about my own culture, in America. Once this issue was exposed among the teachers (my coworkers), I spoke about it with several of them. The most disturbing thing was that a few of them admitted to being hit as children, and they thought nothing of it. So really, what it did for me, was reveal just how common child abuse is in America. The difference is it is largely kept a secret there. Here in South Korea, the kids go so far as to joke about it. Funny? Not in my book.

Child abuse in Korea touches on a larger issue of expectations. The children here are in school days and nights six days a week for most of the year (I mentioned this in a previous post). When they finish at their regular day schools, they go to two, maybe three academies. This takes them to maybe one o'clock in the morning, and some of them still have homework to do. In Seoul its even worse; the kids sometimes come home at four AM, once they've finished all their studies. So, you think there are expectations? You betcha, and HIGH ones! My boss is preparing his children for studying in the United States because he believes the pressure here is too much. I ask my kids which ones play sports, and I get almost no response. These children are intelligent, sure, and with enough money from their parents, they can be exposed to all kinds of disciplines outside of school, but do YOU believe that education comes strictly from school? I certainly don't. And when they do have a free moment, know what the kids do? They visit dark PC rooms to play computer games that, for the most part, consist of guns and violence. The suicide rate in South Korea is through the roof.

On a lighter note, the days are getting warmer, and as my dad would point out, longer. I can't wait for beach adventures, as I am not too far away from some nice beaches. I learned recently that before Posco (the world's second largest steel manufacturer) was established in Pohang, the city used to be a resort town. How nice. Unfortunately the closest beach is fairly polluted from the industrial residue. But as long as I have sun, I am happy.

Until next time (who knows when that will be?)... tehe. Seriously, I hope to check in soon. Thanks for being patient. I am truly sorry. Really I am!

Love, Kate

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Two Of My Favorite People...

My bosses' children, Ryan and Jason...

I Know Its Been A While...

Maybe some of you thought I fell off the face of the Earth, and for that I have to apologize. We just finished our Winter Intensive session and let me tell you - it was INTENSE (hence the name). Therefore, I completely fell away from writing my blog. Which is why I am now posting this message to you all to tell you that I will get back to it now, so feel free to check back once in a while. My goal is AT LEAST one entry a week. So, wish me luck! And see you soon I hope!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Top Ten Observations of South Korean Culture

10. They love their fur. As most of you may know, they also love their dogs. Dog meat was a traditional delicacy (believed to make men stronger), which more recently has been shunned. While steps are being taken to protect animals, dogs are still treated very differently than they are treated in the United States. Puppies are everywhere. They are sold in the subways, on the streets, and in the thousands of pet stores (seen on just about every other street corner). One could probably assume that, given the huge population of puppies, they are mistreated and inbred. In addition, those dogs that are still produced for meat, though they are more and more rare, are beaten to death. It is believed that the proper way to produce dog meat is to take it from a dog that was terrified before death. On that note, there are fur coats, collars, and other clothing accessories sold in nearly every shop. South Koreans love their fur, and believe me, it is not fake.

9. There are mirrors everywhere. I notice them on the elevators, on the walls of restaurants, and in shops and bathrooms of course. Well, there are many more than in America. It makes checking one's teeth after a meal of green seaweed and rice very easy to do.

8. I have already complained to my parents about this one. No dryers! They have fancy washing machines, pink, and purple, and red ones, with rhinestones, and silly little jingles that play when your load is finished, but not a single dryer (that is, in the city of Po'hang). This means you have to dry your clothes on a rack, and if you are a genius, like I am, use a heating lamp.

7. The city is divided into shopping sections. If you want furniture, go to Jukdo. If you want clothes, go downtown. If you want coffee, go just about anywhere. But really, different shops appear in different sections of the city. So, say I needed some tool one would only find at a hardware store. Turn a corner off of the main shopping mall, and an entire street will be lined with hardware stores. I even saw a block with shops selling primarily fans. While this makes shopping exceptionally easy (if you are looking for a fan, you have a great selection to choose from if you just go to the right part of the city), I can't imagine the competition between individual shops. Do shopowners start grabbing people off the street, in order to promote their store? If your shop is not in plain site, or last in a row of similar stores, how do you make money? I would guess that by the time the shopper gets to your store, s/he has already found what they are looking for. I am not sure how this works, but it is of interest to me.

6. You can always find meat shops because they have a red glow coming from them. I am not kidding. Red, you think blood, right? Well that must be their thought too when they are building these places. The majority of indoor lighting in these buildings comes from red, or pink, bulbs. I don't know if they serve any other purpose than to make the meat appear bloodier than it already is, but it can make me nervous.

5. When you shop, the employees follow you around the store. Coming from America, this feels like they are pressuring you to buy, buy, buy. However, here in South Korea, it is simply how things work. Unfortunately, this means the only thing you can do is pretend they don't exist. At first I felt bad doing this, but you have to ignore their hovering and constant suggestions if you want to escape the store without having spent your life's savings. Needless to say, when you do have a question, they are very helpful and clearly available.

4. You will never go without a cell phone. Cell phone shops are everywhere, and like Starbucks is taking over the world, cell phone stores have taken over South Korea. In Daegu, where my boss and his wife live and where I stayed for the first weekend after training, cell phone stores actually dominate the shopping district. And in case you don't notice them for some unknown reason, each one blasts their own brand of Korean music from speakers actually hanging outside the shop. I am not sure what the connection is between cell phones and loud music, but perhaps this started back in the day as a way of grabbing people's attention.

3. If you have an MCM bag, show it off in South Korea. They love MCM, though it is not nearly as popular in the states. Not sure why?

2. I will take this as an opportunity to share with my readers the strange and amusing story my coworker and friend told me just this week. First, let me say that young Korean girls are not ashamed to express how they feel, which is a very positive and good thing. This means, though, that they are not afraid to obsess over our male teachers. While the same may go for the male students (I haven't heard much), our female students have gushed to my coworker (she is a female too) about one of the men on our staff. Before I arrived, students and teachers were told of my plans to work in Po'hang. This is where her story got interesting. The children interogated my coworker about my looks and what I would be like. When she asked them why they were so interested and concerned, they looked at her sadly and said, "Teacher, we don't want to have to compete for his (meaning the unnamed male staff member they are most interested in) attention. If she is pretty, then she will be competition." I have never been exposed to a culture that is so concerned about looks in this way. In America, while women too are competing for male attention, the pressure to look good is about the second glance, the interest others have in seeing sudden physical beauty. Here, however, it is more than that. It appears that the women are nearly obsessed with snagging the few available foreign men here, and because of the culture difference, this can often times end badly. Many Koreans believe that they should be able to marry a man that they are committed to. I am not saying this is wrong, but American women seem to have become accustomed to having no expectations. In Korea, their expectations are clear sometimes within the first few weeks or months: love, marriage, loyalty, protection, etc. While I learned a lot about these expectations in the first few weeks speaking with friends who have been here a few months already, I was shocked to learn about how the children at our school acted upon hearing of my job acceptance and arrival in Po'hang. They not only spoke with other teachers about their feelings, but actually considered me a threat to their fantasies. Upon hearing this news, I didn't quite know what to say.

1. For my last observation, I have compiled a list of social customs and etiquette that my readers may find interesting.

a. When receiving something from an elder, take it with two hands. The same goes for giving an elder something - give it with two hands.
b. If an elder bumps into you, it is your fault and your responsibility to say "Excuse me."
c. It is illegal to jaywalk in Korea (or at least in Po'hang), but I do it anyways - the police are very lax or nonexistent here.
d. To get the waiters attention at a restaurant, every table has a bell. It is a very excellent system.
e. The male at the restaurant table, if there is one, hands out spoons and chopsticks to all women.
f. Watch out for cars, they will run you over. Pedestrians are second class citizens here. That goes the same for bicycles and scooters - watch out!
g. Signal a taxi with your hand down, not up.
h. As a foreigner, you will be given many gifts. Show your appreciation - I always think this is very kind and flattering. Koreans are very curtious and caring.
i. Don't be a loud American, you will be told to quiet down. It is unfortunate when this happens, because it only spreads stereotypes.
j. Koreans who speak some English will approach you and try to talk with you. Sometimes they just want to practice, other times they want to get a free English lesson out of you. Either way, just smile and nod, and go along with it.
k. People don't always wash their hands upon using the bathroom (some bathrooms don't even have soap or a working faucet). But I suppose no one really knows how many Americans do the same thing.
l. You can buy designer facemasks anywhere. By designer, I mean little panda faces painted on surgeon masks. People use these daily when they go outside to protect themselves from pollution or from dust from the Gobi desert.
m. Everything is sweet here. If you buy garlic bread, it will be sweet. Of course, anything spicy will not be sweet. I miss salt.

I think that is enough, maybe not for you, but certainly for me. I have to think of more observations. I forgot to write many of them down, so these are only the ones off of the top of my head. Goodnight and goodmorning to those of you uncool enough to stay on the other side of the world.

~ Kate

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Where Did All The Culture Go?

After realizing that I have been here almost a month without having started my blog, I finally decided (yes, I'll admit, out of boredom) to sit down and have a go at my keyboard. You must be wondering how boredom could drive me to writing. Well - here is how.

Po'hang is a small city, not quite as large as Boston, but just about the same number of people. The city is primarily dependent on Posco, the world famous steel mill, which can be seen from the hiking trails around the city. If you are wondering if the city is polluted, it is. But not nearly as bad as China is, or other areas of South Korea are. There are many bars here, lots of coffee shops (my favorite is called Hands Coffee, which we decided must come from the idea that coffee is handgrown or handpicked?), and a "pink" light district. We took a stroll through the pink light district before it had opened for business, and really only saw one woman bartering with men for money. She, of course, if you caught on quickly enough, would have had to give sex for money, had the men accepted her offer. The "pink" light district is the red light district of Po'hang.

The pink light district is a strange, uncomfortable place. Woman sit in living rooms, watching television, reading, or snoozing the early evening away. The living rooms, however, are not like ours back home or even those one would find in apartments around Po'hang. They are small, maybe three or four feet wide by nine or ten feet long, and they serve as viewing rooms; the women inside them are "items" on display. Essentially, one can view the "goods" without feeling obligated to buy, as any visitor is protected by a thin wall of glass (the fourth wall of each living room is made entirely of clear glass). If, by some random stroke of fate, you find yourself in the pink light district of Po'hang, you'll walk down a narrow passageway, maybe three feet wide, and on either side of you will be women in lingerie, on display like monkeys in a zoo. It is uncomfortable to see humans behind glass; I could reach out my hand and touch them, were it not for the windows. It reminded me of how insensitive we are for not feeling the same discomfort when animals are trapped in a similar manner.

You may be wondering why I was taken to the pink light district of all places. I am one of only three female teachers at my school. Since we are dominated by men, the topic of sex and prostitution is a hot topic, and so off we went to see prostitutes in person. I have to give the male teachers credit of course - not one of them has claimed to actually have visited the pink light district for the purpose of sex, which I have heard may not be true for some of the American servicemen in town. The Americans have a reputation for finding sex in another part of town, of which I have not yet visited (surprisingly).

On to the topic of food. I am so thankful I grew up with Kimchi (thanks mom). It is served with every meal. Yum, yum, I love it! The other Americans don't understand this, but it is wonderful every single time. However, the Kimchi I do not like (yes there is one I do not fancy) comes in large chunks, not soft cabbage leaves. It is not so good, just crunchy. But, on a better note than crunchy Kimchi, I have found that Korean cow is delicious. For all you steak lovers, come to Korea. It is the most amazing meat I have ever tasted. You most likely haven't had anything like this before in the United States. It is insanely expensive, but so worth it. Korean beef is usually served on Korean BBQs. They also serve pork on BBQs, but it is not so good. Very fatty. Eww.

There are lots of other food choices, not all of which I have tried or which I will talk about in this blog entry. I will tell you that it is difficult to find variety as far as food type goes - I will probably never find Mexican here, Indian is rare to come by, and Italian and American food is most often in the lovely fast food form that one finds everywhere in the United States. There is more coffee here than tea. Dunkin' Donuts is right up the street from where I live and they sell exquisite cakes and delicious Cookies'n'Cream milkshakes. Who woulda thought??

Regarding the servicemen in town, there is a US Naval base in Po'hang. For our Thanksgiving Saturday (we found a single turkey dinner in Po'hang!), we went to a bar frequented by Americans, and were joined by many young men from the nearby Naval base. They seemed perfectly nice, and no judgement, but each one showed up with a Korean girl. American men are highly valued here, and the Korean women go a little crazy. Maybe they consider it their ticket to America or they are attracted to the their looks. Blond hair is rarely seen here and it is highly valued.

On the subject of blond hair, I created quite a stir at Chung Dahm when I arrived. Chung Dahm is my school, and the children were fascinated with my physical features. The other two women I work with are most likely not of European descent, and both have beautiful black hair. The teachers and Korean staff said that I am something of a celebrity at school because of my blond hair, and it seems that many of the Korean children think I am Avril Lavigne. Must be my black eyeliner.

Koreans are very interested in Westerners. Often times they will stop me on the street and say "beautiful," or "pretty." I have learned that these two words are some of the only English they know. So, no offense to anyone, but if you visit here someday and they say that to you, it is because they know you will take it as a compliment and "beautiful" and "pretty" are the very few words they know well.

Despite this, Koreans are more than just polite. They are almost overly generous. I have been given food and even money (not that I wanted to accept or take) by interested and doting Koreans. They are exceptionally kind here and generous. A Westerner worried about moving or visiting here will probably never feel unwelcome. South Korea is also a very safe country. I have heard that the crime rate is very low, although the suicide rate is among the highest in the world.

Which brings me to my next topic - the children. Did you know they go to school six full days a week? After a normal school day, they go to private lessons (at Chung Dahm, for instance) to learn English, or piano, or whatever their parents are paying for. Sometimes they will go to two three hour sessions after school, and then still go to study hall from maybe 10 pm to 2 am, where they will work on their homework. I have heard that some parents won't even let their children through the door until 2 am, to ensure that their kids really do go to study hall and work. Schooling is so important here that I think the meaning of education has been forgotten. In my opinion, children need to learn social skills, and have free time to develop their brains and to play. While the kids have a great sense of humor, they are also frequently joking about killing people, killing themselves, dying, etc. They find this funny, and yet suicide rates are soaring. I believe South Korea is just barely beginning to address this problem. Since I have so much free time here (as I said, the city is small), I keep thinking - "Hmm.. documentary??"

I have found Korean culture very difficult to see or understand. I have not seen anything of traditional or ethnic ties, except for food. Yes, I know my sociology, anthropology, and psychology professors will remind me upon reading this, "But Kate, it is their culture. It is their modern culture." However, in China, I felt that culture (that is, traditions that have survived thousands of years) is celebrated everywhere, in architecture, arts and crafts, food, dance, language, etc. Children in South Korea are practically isolated if they do not go to English lessons (a Western influence), and I have seen nothing of traditional architecture, except for a single temple (which has been modernized) near my home. It is very disappointing to me. While someone made the point to me today that perhaps this is due to how technologically advanced the Koreans are (suggesting that they have moved away from traditional customs, and moved on to more modern ways of doing things), it still makes me wonder where all the culture went. Without the essence of tradition, I fear that all that is left in Korea are cell phones, shopping, and private English schools. In conclusion, I have decided to keep myself open for surprises. Hopefully, lightning will strike.

Goodnight then. Bed time here, while all you American folk are waking up. Have a joyful day!

Love ~ Kate