Okay. I can admit it. I don't get it. I don't get it and it frustrates me.

South Korea -- what is with the total fucking chaos anytime anything needs to get done?

I have tried and tried to bear with it, to keep in mind that I'm a foreigner, I'm not from this culture and there are things that I don't understand.

There are things that I don't understand, alright. Like why, at the end of the year, all of the teachers need to change offices in a seemingly completely random pattern, and in order to do so, everything must disintegrate into total hysteria.

Like why every time I'm given even minor information about anything, I can automatically disregard it, because the first time I'm told something, it's almost guaranteed to be inaccurate.

Like why everyone has to act awkward, distant and, frankly, bizarre, until enough soju has been poured.

I wish Koreans were drunk all the time. Not all Koreans, obviously, but the ones I work with, anyway.

It was a really, really rough day at work. I was about to lose it, when suddenly the pandemonium broke off, as everyone put on their coats and started to leave.

Great. I'll just continue to sit here reading my book and pretending I don't actually need to know what the fuck is going on.

Finally, someone came to fetch me. Teachers' lunch, off campus. Someone will stuff me in their car.

It was awful at first, but then Cute Coteacher showed up to save the day. Turns out, she's getting sent to Wyoming (??) so we spent most of the meal talking about that, her asking questions, me answering to the best of my ability, although I've never been to Wyoming. She's worried, and nervous, and understandably so. I spoke to her half out of my own experience as a foreigner in South Korea, and half out of the experience passed onto me by my Korean students living as foreigners in New York. I told her the best thing was to keep a sense of humor -- not let the one million tiny things you just don't understand, that seem stupid, backwards and frustrating get to her. And most importantly, to do her best to disregard it when people treat her like a total fucking idiot just for being a foreigner.

At which point another teacher chimed in to ask, "Why do Americans treat foreigners like that?"

Uh. Because Koreans do to.

Never mind. We're having a lovely meal. We don't need to get into that right now. Or indeed ever. I'll try to be subtle about this...

"Well, I think it's sort of natural thing all people have, when anyone has a different way of speaking, or their language is somehow impeded, to assume a lack of intelligence....."

Like, for example, me not speaking Korean.


Cute Coteacher shot me a look that suggested she understood exactly what I was getting at, and that was good enough for me. Even if the other teachers at the table remained mystified by this explanation.

Like I said, it was a really rough day. But I genuinely enjoyed my talk with Cute Coteacher, and it was nice to be helpful again, for once, instead of the one who is being helped.

Then here comes Mr. Kim. I've grown to like that man, in spite of myself, once I've gotten more accustomed to adjosshi and their rough-and-tumble behavior. In true adjosshi style, he sat on my foot. I left it there. Whatever.

We talked for a bit, until we were interrupted by the married PE teacher and a couple of other male teachers, who saw the gender segregation of the tables had finally been broken. The PE teacher rushed over with a bottle of cider and a soju glass once he saw his opportunity for translation, finally. I knew I liked that man. He poured me a little glass of cider, and I turned away to drink it, not sure if this custom still applies if the drink technically isn't alcohol. As I turned back to pour his drink, he began speaking to Mr. Kim, addressing me.

"He say he will leave school now too. He say he will miss you."

"Ah, Jesus..." I muttered. "I'll miss you too."

Translation. PE Teacher slaps his hand over his heart to indicate its rapid beating. More Korean.

"He say he come visit [school's name] often and you with him he hope will eat kimbap and ramyeon."

I laughed and moved to grab the PE teacher's arm, but stopped myself, remembering it may not be a kosher thing to do. He smiles his huge smile and repeats, "RAM-YEON and KIM-BAP."

More Korean.

"He say he eat ramyeon and kimbap with you, was most delicious ever, because he eat with you."

Now I place my hand over my heart.

More Korean.

"Uh... do you have phone?"

Mwa? Uh... yeah? I pull out my phone and place my number on the screen. Three teachers who don't speak English, and Mr. Kim all take the number, as the female teachers started craning their necks and making little sighing noises they usually reserve for the students.

I shrug at them.

My phone starts to ring with a chorus of numbers I didn't manage to sort out and match to names at all. Until I speak about five times the Korean I currently do, those phone numbers are of no use anyway.

Well. My coworkers. What can I say. In the end, they always manage to save the day, somehow.

It's exactly why I love South Korea, on the whole: just at the last minute, when you don't think you can take one more fucking absurd, unnecessarily chaotic situation, somehow something lovely breaks through. There are fucking layers to this shit. You just gotta keep peeling them back.


Mr Nameless said...

I work in a job that involves a lot of contact with foreigners via the phone, and it never ceases to amaze me how people think that by shouting slowly in English at a person, who has no English, they will somehow understand. I don't know if Koreans do that to you, but it seems to be an English-speaking thing. The Brits do it, the Americans do it, and the Australians do it. But in all honesty, whenever I get someone whose only English is 'Do you speak Bengali?' they never try and shout at me in Bengali forcing me to magically learn their language!

Or another example, in our office, is when an educationally challenged member of staff doesn't realise that the reason the foreigner isn't understanding them is because they're speaking in local the Glaswegian dialect, and instead of speaking in 'proper' English, they start to speak louder and slower, but usuing the exact same expressions as before!

However, if I was going to live abroad, I'd definitely do what you're doing and try and learn the lingo and customs. I'm sure it makes it all easier if you meet them half way!

I'm no Picasso said...

Yeah, Koreans on the whole don't tend to do the shouting thing. They do drop polite endings, thinking it will help you understand more easily, as I think many have heard that the polite endings are confusing to foreigners. They are, but not in the sense that they're hard literally to understand -- it's hard to grasp when you should use what ending, is all. Unforunately, many foreigners tend to take the lack of polite endings as disrespect, instead of as merely an attempt to be helpful.

They do slow down, which is immensely helpful, and tend to speak in single words, which is also good, because there's a lot of junk that goes in between the operative words (although not as much as in English) that can get confusing when you're just looking for syllables you recognize.

I do feel bad about how long it's taken me to learn the language, even on a basic level. Can't unring a bell, though, right? But every new word I learn increases the possibility for conversation, even if it's immensely broken and I sound like a retard.

The customs are much easier for me, because I've been able to pick A LOT of that up simply by paying attention. And Koreans seem to really, really appreciate it when you take the trouble to do something the "Korean" way. Changes the perception of you, almost immediately. And I find a lot of the little things Koreans do to be quite nice, in sentiment. Mike and I still pour drinks like Koreans when we're out, even if it's just us.

Tuttle said...

Yeah, I do the pouring thing too with my Western friends, even though they laugh, but I don't go so far as to pay the whole since I'm most always the oldest--hell wi' dat.

It seems your Korean is coming right along, I'll bet it's better than mine (not that that means anything) even though I've been here a tich longer.

I'm no Picasso said...

Yeah, the paying thing's got me quite nervous actually. I've heard it's an insult to offer to pay, but ... well, I'm very American in that way. I feel uncomfortable with everyone else footing the bill all the time, although (in my case) I'm almost always the youngest.