Today is August 31st, 2011.
Tomorrow the second semester begins at the elementary school I teach at. Looking back, the first semester went by pretty quickly, so I need to make the most of my remaining time here in Korea. In case you are wondering the answer is yes, I will be coming home at the end of the contract. Many other English teachers I know here have decided to stay for a second year, but I am opting to return home – at least temporarily. Korea is an absolutely amazing place – I think I will one day return here for another year or two, but I have things I want to accomplish in Canada.
I know what you are thinking, and you are right. Having goals IS lame. But I can’t help it; I don’t know if its living away from home or just plain old ‘maturity’ but I find myself thinking about the future (beyond what I’m going to have for lunch) and even, gasp!, planning for it as well. I realize that too much talk of planning for the future means I may need to edit the ‘About Me’ portion of this blog page, which is wayyyyy more work than I am willing to undertake at the moment, so instead I’m going to talk a little bit about the differences between China and Korea.
I guess a good way to sum up Korea and China is with another one of my witty analogies. Korea is kind of like Canada –> small, polite, humble, good looking, clean etc… China on the other hand, is kind of like the United States –> big, rude, boastful and, sorry to say, just a little arrogant. Just like America, China is the big guns in Asia, and they know it.
As you know, I talk alot in this blog about culture shock, and my journey through the various stages. I am now in the acceptance stage of culture shock, in which I embrace Korean culture and in some ways even prefer it to my native culture. Since I am so ‘settled’ into Korean culture I actually managed to experience the first stage of culture shock all over again when I arrived in China. The first thing that really threw me is the differences in manners between the two countries. I guess my time in Korea sort of lulled me into a sense of security as far as politeness goes. People in Korea are so polite I began to take it for granted. I earned myself a huge wake up call when we tried to find the right bus at the airport in Beijing. We asked someone working at one of the ticket counters (turns out he just took the tickets for the bus, he didn’t sell them) and asked where we could buy tickets for the bus we needed. He pointed vaguely over his shoulder and when we asked him to clarify he just shook his head, looked away from us (kind of in the same way a child does when they want to ignore you) and put one hand up, as if shielding himself from our bad breath or something. Compared to the bend over backwards politeness of Korea this seemed like a slap in the face to me. It took me a few seconds to remember that I was in a new country and that this was part of the culture.
Once I remembered that I no longer got offended by the brusque mannerisms of the Chinese, and in fact even embraced them when I used the same look-away-hand-in-the-face technique on people trying to sell me watches and magnets later in the trip. The other big difference was the food. Just like how we tend to eat healthier foods in Canada than the United States (not noticeably healthier mind you, but anyone who has been to the States and seen the double gulps and liter of Cola’s will understand), the Chinese tend to eat slightly less healthy food than Koreans. I have to admit, I actually prefer Canadian Chinese food to Chinese Chinese food. The food was served in small portions, so the group you ate with had to decide on a few dishes they wanted and then everyone just shares the food on the table. For the most part the food was delicious, meat and vegetables smothered in delicious sauces. Chineses foods are said to invoke either a ‘hot’ sensation or a ‘cool’ sensation, and a good Chinese meal balances these two types of foods to create harmony in the body. What that means for me, the foreign barbarian who eats the food, is that there is a range of flavours across the table, which ensures an interesting dining experience everytime. My one complaint about Chinese food is that although it is smothered in delicious sauces, it is also smothered in something else; oil. Even when you order a plate of steamed vegetables they must take them out of the steamer and pour oil all over them or something. The oiliness of the food took some getting used to (to be honest, I never did really get used to it).
Another huge difference between China and Korea is the the barter system. In Korea, just like back home, most items you can buy in stores or on the street have a set price. While you can sometimes barter things down in certain places in Korea most of the time bartering is not an option. Then you have China, where everything is marked up to several times higher than its actual value, which means you need to barter in order to avoid getting ripped off. The problem is bartering is a long and (speaking as a polite Canadian) awkward process, and usually I found I didn’t want the item bad enough to warrant going through the whole procedure. I know this is a result of my cultural upbringing, but I also found it just seemed too rude to offer considerably less than what they asked for. For example, I’ve read that a good barterer will offer 10% of the original asking price of the seller, and not go any higher than 25 – 35% of the original asking price, unless they really want the item. This sounds great on paper, but in practice…. well let me give you an example:
I’m in a jade market. I see a cool jade carving I want to buy. I pick it up and ask “How much?” The cute, hunched over old later looks up at me with water eyes, I can see the glimmer of hope that she might have a customer shining there (or maybe thats greed….). “20 yuan.” She replies. I know that 20 yuan is too much, and that I have to bargain. ‘Okay Tom,’ I think to myself, ‘remember what you read about bargaining. Offer her 2 yuan instead.’ I look back at her, my lips part, I’m about to speak – about to say the words – “How about 5 yuan” I say. Dammit, I just can’t bring myself to offer only 2 yuan. My damn Canadian conscience tells me that 2 yuan will be a huge insult to this little old lady who probably hand carved this piece of jade (yeah right, more like bought this piece of plastic for 3 yuan from some company). She actually does look insulted for a moment (though I know its just an act, part of the bargaining process, I still can’t help but feel a tinge of guilt, even though I already caved on my initial offer) but then says thats too low, but she could give it to me for 18. “Ohhhh,” I say, before putting it down and looking at it longingly for a moment. I go to walk away, but then she says “Okay, 15 yuan.” Feigning a sudden revival of interest I pick up the piece again and cluck my teeth. “Ahhh…. the most I can do is ten.” I grab my wallet and take out the note before she can give a counter offer, “Okay” She says, begrudgingly. I got her down to 50% of her original asking price, and I got totally ripped off.
You can see how its an exhausting process and it makes me feel guilty and petty (thanks, Canadian cultural norms). I know some people absolutely love to bargain, and before going to China I was excited to try my hand at it, but when I got there and had to look into the poor shopkeepers eyes I found I lost all my excitement for it.
I don’t want it to sound like I’m complaining about China. Even though I am complaining. I absolutely loved my time there and I think its a fascinating country, but there is no denying that it is very different from Canada and Korea and would take quite a bit of getting used to (I think it would take even more getting used to than Korea did, to be honest). If I had to choose to live in China or Korea, I’d choose Korea 10 times out of 10. The food is tastier, the people are nicer, the air is cleaner etc…
Well that’s about it for this entry, and it also marks the last entry that will focus mainly on China. Get ready for more tales of my Korean exploits shortly.
That’s all for now.