Monday, 7 November 2011

More Cultural Reflections from South Korea

Much like living and working anywhere in the world, living and working here in Korea brings with it some problems, some twists and turns, if you will. Sometimes these are minor issues that may well be situation specific and other times they can be larger problems or issues that you find from town to town and from school to school.

Let me give you an example. This is an issue that is both a large problem and situation specific depending on your situation you may be able to deal with it in easy or hard ways, for me this is a defining annoyance of living in Korea. Every month I get four bills. They are cheap bills. Much like anyone living in Korea per month your electricity bill will be no more than about 20,000 (10 pounds), your water will be about 30,000 (15 pounds), my internet is 19,000 (about 10 pounds) and your gas can be anywhere from 40,000 (20 pounds) to 100,000 (50 pounds) depending on how much heating you have used. This is cheap and cost effective living so what’s the problem? The problem is paying the bills. Banks are open from 9 – 5 Monday to Friday. The only way you can pay your bills here is to take your bills to the bank and have them process them for you. I work from 9 – 5 Monday to Friday, and my school is nowhere near a bank. Issue. How do I pay my bills? Well, you can also use a special ATM to pay your bills at the bank between 8 and 10 everyday. However, the machine that allows you to do this in our town is broken or just not switched on. This makes for heavy annoyance. I’m going to have to ask my school if I can leave early tomorrow so I can get these bills paid as it’s been plaguing me. That’s not however the point. The point is, things shouldn’t be that awkward and difficult. That is a common trait within this culture and the‘zeitgeist’ is definitely to blame.

This brings me to the ‘everything is last minute’ cultural trait. Sometimes I prepare a class. I go to class. The students don’t turn up. I wait for around 10 minutes and my co-teacher will come in and tell me ‘this class is cancelled today’, sometimes I don’t get told at all. There was a music festival at my school this weekend that I wasn’t told about until 2 days before, when I was asked to attend. I had already made plans so couldn’t, mainly because that’s not enough notice, right? There was once a school meal in the evening after work that I was asked to attend, I found out about the meal at about 3 o clock the day of the meal. Too late. Have plans. I’m planning to go to Japan for my three week winter vacation. So booking flights and a little forward planning is imperative, right? Wrong. I might not find out when my vacation will be until the very last minute. So why is everything so very last minute? The main reason is probably hierarchy.

Culturally it would be rude to ask a superior (who is older than you) about when something is happening. It is up to them to tell you. If they don’t tell you. Which is often the case. There’s not much you can do about it. There is no questioning of authority here. If an elder says something. What they say goes. This creates all kinds of issues and makes for a sometimes tough existence. You learn to live with it. I still feel a bit like a child in totally new surroundings. Testing things out. Learning how things work. It’s a very surreal experience.

Don’t get the wrong end of the very long stick though my sometime friends. I enjoy my job immensely and living here is a big adventure. The best times on the job are of course the times spent with the kids in the classroom. This is a great place to be and it's a lot of fun teaching here. But the but is that there are a lot of cultural and language barriers to overcome outside of the classroom that can make things difficult. The best way to cope. The best thing to do. Is roll with it. Go with the flow. I-Ching. Adapt. It’s the only way. Otherwise you’ll spend all your time worrying.

Other things can be easy though. I’ve had a bad cough this last week and by Wednesday I had, had enough of it. So I went to the pharmacy, pointed to my throat and coughed and for 5000 won (about 2 pounds 50) I was given 2 lots of tablets and a cough drink and was feeling better in days. Magic. So Korean medicine gets a thumbs up.

We had a quiet weekend this weekend. We went shopping in Chuncheon to the big E-Mart superstore. Oh, that reminds me. Koreans are still the slowest moving, slowest doing humans on the planet. At one point I turned to my friends and said (about a man walking in front) “he’s not even walking, he standing still quickly”. It’s ridiculous. Everything else is done slowly as well which probably stems from the Confucius history of the place. Be at peace. Take it easy. But really, is there any need to walk THAT slowly?

Sunday was spent mostly in Sachang-ri and me, Natalie and Nathanael had a game of Scrabble whilst listening to some Bon Iver. Which was nice. Felt like a Sunday. It was gloomy outside, we had a walk around town. Relaxing.

So on with the week, about to go to lunch and grill my co-teacher about winter vacation and paying bills. Wish me luck. You never know, she might not understand a word I’m saying.

It’s all fun and games.

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