First Impressions

It is March 11th, 2011. I have now been in Korea for 21 days (unless my math is wrong – which is likely). It is therefore time for me to share some of my preliminary impressions of the country and culture. Please be aware that these are early impressions of the country; not fact but rather gut feelings. Most likely not accurate:

The first thing I’ve noticed is that, while Koreans pride themselves on being hard workers (and statistics gathered on average hours spent working back up this assertion), they in fact do not work all that hard. I mean, there is no doubt that they put in the hours: Everything is open nearly all hours of the day (Yes please, I would like to stop and browse cellphones at 4 am on the way home from the bar). But it doesn’t take more than a day or two of wandering through the streets before you start to notice that they aren’t really working all that hard. They are behind the counter, talking to their friends or family. They sit in their shops watching T.V. They chat or play games on their cellphones. Once I was walking home around 10pm and saw a little old man, under a blanket, sleeping on a cot in the back corner of his convenience store while an ‘Open’ sign clearly flashed in the window. Hey, give the guy a break; It was a quiet street and if someone came in he would have jumped out of bed to serve them. But I bet when filling out the questionaire about how many hours he works a week he was counting the 2 hour nap he took that Tuesday evening.

Is it a conspiracy to make western countries look bad? Probably.

I’m just telling it like I see it – my views on this matter are not set in stone: In fact they are very likely to change over the course of the year. I should also point out that this observation only applies to small shops, market stalls and some smaller restaurants. I have yet to see the inner workings of office buildings or the major corporations like LG or Samsung, and I know for a fact the elementary teachers are worked like dogs….   😉

Here is another interesting little cultural tidbit: Divorce and separation in Korea is kind of a touchy subject. I first heard about this during orientation and again ran into it while preparing an ‘About Me’ powerpoint to show my students the first week of classes. My co-teacher saw that I had included my Step-Mom, Step-Sisters and Step-Dad in the section of the presentation about my family. She seemed a little concerned about this and I remembered what I learned during orientation and promptly removed them from the slideshow (sorry guys).

“Tom, stop dancing around it and tell us! Why is divorce and separation a touchy subject?!”

Hold your horses, I’m getting there. See in Korea, especially for children (like the ones I am teaching), divorce is a sensitive subject because when parents separate the kids are sometimes sent to an orphanage. Why? Because having kids makes it harder to re-marry so, on occasion, neither parent wants them. This makes an already stressful time for any child into a very, very difficult situation for some kids whose parents are going through a divorce. I should point out that this IS NOT a blanket statement; but it is known to happen. Why am I including this in my blog? Mostly because it is a really interesting cultural tidbit that you would not be likely to hear about except from someone who has been here.

Whats that? You want another? Okay: Not only do I now only have a Mom, Dad and Sister so I can be more ‘normal’ here, but I’m also a year older! Thats right; on top of losing a day from the time change when I came here, I also skipped my 23rd year of life. The reason is that in Korea everyone is born already 1 year old. So the day you are born, your literal birth-day, you are already 1 year old. To further complicate matters no one has a unique birthday – everyone grows one year older on New Years day. Hard to believe? Its true. For people with a late birthday it gets even crazier! Say you are born on December 31st. You are now 1 year old. The VERY NEXT DAY is New Years, you are now 2 days out of the womb, but technically 2 years old. In Korea this is considered the “Jackpot” because age is everything here. If I’m older than you, even by a year, I am allowed to be rude to you. Age and social status are deeply entwined in this country. Elders must be respected and young people have all sorts of extra duties and expectations amongst their friends and the general public. This is why I accept my new age of 24 years old whole heartedly – I’ll take any advantage I can get in navigating this alien culture.

Shifting gears, I think I should mention that my co-teacher is getting married at the end of the month and I have been invited to her wedding! Holy cow am I excited! How many people get to say they have been to a Korean wedding?! (Yes, besides the millions of Koreans each year – smartasses).

I’m gonna wrap up this entry with a new BNBnow tradition that will start with this entry:

Everyday at work I receive 4-10 memos. “Wow! You must be really well informed about the goings on in your school Tom!”

Actually no. The memos are exclusively in Korean. On the first day my co-teacher told me to ignore them and that if there was anything important that I needed to know she would let me know. Fair enough says I. It wasn’t long, however, before another EPIK teacher (via our Facebook group) points out that Google translator could be used to decipher the cryptic memos. Awesome says I. A constructive way to spend some of my 4 hours (on average) of downtime per day.

Either Google translator is not 100% accurate, or there is some seriously f——ed up sh-t going on at my school.

Here is the first message I ‘translated’:

“One week to check things a times a

4 gyosijjeum three grade girls in the bathroom around the toilet paper on fire do not have prints on the widening did not smell so the result was a lot of Sears Name
Adult children know it was unknown …whether eoteuna belongings in the classroom, do you check the map and gave those that smoke, please smoke only in designated areas

2. Do not run in the hallway and yelled, please map

3. Time of work 8:00 30 teachers are open
Please make sure to thoroughly to serve”

Yeah. I was a little confused. Then concerned. Then I shrugged and said “Dynamic Korea!” and felt better.

I think I’ll post the best one of these ‘translations’ for you at the end of each new post. Sound good? Good.

Check out my video of Igidae Park and two Korean restaurants at:

Thats all for now BNBers!


About bnbnower

A recent graduate of Carleton University, set adrift into the real world with no tangible goals or properly defined aspirations, I decided to set off for South Korea where I am teaching English as a second language. In my spare time I read, rock-climb, play frisbee and watch movies and television.
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2 Responses to First Impressions

  1. Tyler Kempt says:

    Keep up with the fascinating factoids, I wasn’t aware of some of the Korean cultural craziness. Awesome views of Busan and Igidae – or dare I say EPIK? Speaking of which, Google Translator entries sounds like a fantastic idea, and if you’d like further entertainment look no further:

    Did you feel anything of the seismic activity on Friday?

    Stay safe and stay classy,

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