Happy Birthday Buddha!

Hello everyone,

Today is Buddha’s Birthday – May 10th, 2011 – a national holiday here in Korea. I’m celebrating by enjoying my second cup of coffee in my favorite coffee shop during a lazy Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately I’ve been in a bit of a  foul mood the last few days for a couple of reasons. The first is that I have a five day long weekend – and while usually this would be a cause for celebration – I’m a little angry at myself for not making plans. A bunch of my friends have headed off to Seoul, or even China and Japan. Not only did I fail to capitalize on a golden opportunity to travel outside of Korea, but the weather for the majority of this long weekend has been humid and rainy (proof that some things here in Korea, such as the weather on long weekends, are exactly the same as in Canada) so I haven’t gotten out to do any hiking or as much frisbee as I would have liked.

Anyway I didn’t come to my favorite coffee shop to write a blog about my mood – and you certainly didn’t come to your computer to read about it.

Let me get into some of the good aspects of life here in Korea. First of all my last few weeks here have been blissful – Thursday last week was Children’s Day (another holiday). I celebrated by going to the beach and playing hours of frisbee in the sun under clear blue skies. It was an idyllic day and if frisbee and beer on the beach weren’t enough I capped it off with a game of tennis with my buddy – a sport that I am slowly improving at as I make my way through it’s challenging and frustrating learning curve. I also played a round of squash with another friend, and have more sessions on the books with him in the near future. Squash is a great game and I really enjoyed playing it again. I’m eager to improve my game because when I get back to Canada I’ll be seeking out a friend of mine for a re-match (a blond girl, about 5’3″ – you know who you are) who beat me handily last time we played.

On top of tennis and squash I am also planning on expanding my rock climbing experiences here in Busan – I’ve found a partner who is interested in trying climbing, and I just found out another player on the Busan frisbee team is a climber, so I’ll be seeking him out at our next pickup game to see if he can show me some good spots in the area.

As I get more settled in here in my new country I have begun to peak a little deeper behind the curtain into the cultural practices and sub-culture of the native Koreans. Still barely scratching the surface, of course, but I thought I might share a few experience I’ve had that illustrate a bit about the day to day life here, and how Korean culture influences things around me. Any reliable source about Korean culture will probably tell you that they are a collectivist society (quite contrary to Western cultures, which tend to be individualist). It’s hard to explain this collectivist cultural mindset – a western thinker might say it means that everyone is a conformist – everyone dresses and behaves in a similar way. This is (in some cases) accurate; people are expected to  generally follow the norm and dress/behave in certain ways, but no more here than in any other country. The problem is that thinking about a collectivist culture in a way that emphasizes the individual’s need to conform is exactly the reasoning of someone from an individualistic society.

Okay, I realize I’m on a wild tangent at the moment – I’m gonna try and reel myself in and just give you an example of the ‘collectivist’ nature of Korea. As mentioned previously, Thursday was Children’s Day. It was a beautiful day; sunny, dry, hot (but not too hot) with just enough breeze to keep you cool, but not enough to make you hold onto your hat or anything like that. It was also a national holiday. Yet the beach was almost empty. There was easily enough room for us to cordon off a large area for a frisbee game, even at the busiest part of the day, 2-4pm. Yet in about 1 month you could go to the same beach on a day half as nice and it will be packed – people will be shoulder to shoulder, beach unbrellas will cover every square inch of sand. Some beaches boast numbers in the millions at one time (I’m not exagerating). So why was the beach not busy on Thursday?

The reason: It’s not beach season. Beach season doesn’t start for another month or so. In Korea everything is a production. If you go hiking its all or nothing. You either get decked out in full hiking gear and equipment (backpacks, plastic and metal extendable walking sticks, boots, color co-ordinated hiking jackets and pants) or you don’t hike at all. Same goes for the beach, you either get totally decked out in whatever Koreans wear to the beach, grab your blankets (probably fashionable and color-coordinated to match your beach umbrella – which of course you’ll bring as well), and rally the whole family for a trip to the beach, or you don’t go at all. Outside of beach season, it seems, the beach may as well not exist. This is probably the best example of Korean collectivist culture as I can give you – I wish I could explain it better, but in order to fully understand you’d have to come to Korea and go hiking, or go to the beach, or go to a similar public event and see it for yourself.

Anyway as I spend more time here some of the sublter cultural nuance are becoming more and more pronounced to me. I think this is because I am finally making my way out of the ‘honeymoon’ stage of culture shock. The next stage: Rejection. In this stage I can expect myself to:

 Find the behaviour of the people unusual and unpredictable
 Begin to dislike the culture and react negatively to the behaviour 
 Feel anxious
 Start to withdraw
 Begin to criticize, mock or show animosity to the people

Rejection doesn’t sound like a pretty stage, but odds are I will go through it, and soon. The question is what the intensity and duration it will be.

I don’t think I’ve started this stage yet, but golly just the thought of this stage makes me feel anxious. I think I will withdraw back to my apartment, I hope I don’t get hit by one of the ridiculously unpredictable drivers on my way home. Ugh, but before I go home I have to pay for my coffee – which means I’ll have to use some of this wonky Korean money that makes no sense haha. The worst part is that when I leave everyone working here will say ‘annyong haseyo’ as I head for the door – I’ve heard that so many times I’m about ready to shout at the next cashier that says it!!!

Anyway I’ll wrap this up now – I’ll try and let you know if I ever get into the ‘rejection’ phase.

Check out my youtube.com channel for videos of my school’s Sports Day last friday, and many more: http://www.youtube.com/user/Tiddlywinkers88?feature=mhum


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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3 Responses to Happy Birthday Buddha!

  1. Jim Kingdon says:

    Tom, in watching the video, it appears you are ruling the school yard with an iron hand. The Korean kids seem to be keeping in line pretty well. I imagine this discipline must come from your experience at Edmison Heights where the field days were just as organized, I’m sure…..

  2. Aura says:

    Hey Tom!
    I wish my ‘sports days’ had been that much fun in elementary school. The big white ball looked like so much fun. Getting the parents to participate was great, even though they kept wiping out..lol. The dance routines were super cute! Looks like a great school and great bunch of kids you work with 🙂

  3. Tyler says:

    Remember Jim, that iron hand is actually a fist – you can’t rule the schoolyard effectively without beating children into submission (hey, it’s tough love, right Tom?)

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