Things Korea Does Better, A Good Word, And My Daily Routine

Things Korea Does Better Than America—

1) Health Care. Everyone has it. Doctors and medicine are quick and cheap. When I get sick I go to the hospital and get better fairly soon—in America I would probably have to wait most of my illnesses out.

2) Gun Control. There are no guns. Anywhere. Perhaps it’s because of this situation, or because of the homogeneity of Korean culture, but there is also nearly no gun violence. Unlike in America, there aren’t weekly shootings at schools or businesses by disgruntled students or employees. At the same time people who want to let off some steam by firing a gun can do it—or so I’ve heard.

3) Election Day. Everyone gets the day off so they can vote. America needs to do this.

4) Public Transportation. I can get from anywhere to anywhere cheaply and quickly if I don’t have a car. In America that’s definitely not the case at all.

The list of things that America does better than Korea is far longer, and I would say all of the items on that imaginary list boil down to greater freedom, more variety, and more creativity, everywhere you go and everywhere you look—although I haven’t been back to America in about a year, so I suppose the entire country could resemble a post-apocalyptic dystopiascape by now.

Also, a random note: there’s this word, kome-kome, 꼼꼼, and it means fastidious, or “pays attention to detail”, and that is an extremely useful word, being much quicker and easier to say than fastidious or scrupulous. You can use it like this: “This male porn star is not kome-kome!” “The money shot was not kome-kome!” etc.

I wanted to post my daily routine as well. It goes a little something like this:

Wake up early. Try to read and write as much as possible before the baby wakes up. And, if the baby does wake up, let him hang around in his room for a bit until he falls asleep, unless he really yells at me to take him out.

Get ready for work. This can be extremely stressful with a baby running around, and with a spouse who occasionally moves my things to random places and then completely forgets that she has done so. The baby also always wants to join me in the shower, although he’s usually too busy to sit still and take a bath, and if we decide that we don’t want him to get soaking wet that morning he’ll start hammering on the door and screaming at the top of his lungs. Most of the time I can get outside without fighting with anyone, but maybe about once a week one of us yells at the other and everything goes to hell. All of our fights, every single one, are about the baby in some way.

Go to work. If I’ve managed to make up with my wife before leaving, I feel pretty good; if not, I’ll be stewing with remorse all day, until I see her again. I listen to music and enjoy a walk along a bridge, although the cars are loud and my fellow pedestrians can be troublesome. Fairly old people who can barely walk like to wobble on their bikes back and forth on the sidewalks, and college students have a bad habit of focusing so intently on their cellphones that they actually run into you. Yesterday I had to stop in my tracks, twice, because two different people were glaring down into their phones. One of them darted around me, almost ran into the person who was walking behind me, and then continued staring down into her phone as though nothing had happened. On one of my bad days I swear to god I’m going to shout BEEKYALA! GET OUT OF MY WAY! to these troublesome tribbles.

There’s also this thing. This problem. I’ve probably complained about it before. In Korea people walk on the left side, even though there are signs everywhere telling them to keep to the right. Actually, supposedly they walk on the left—that’s what my wife says—but in reality you can’t really predict where a Korean is going to go, if you both happen to be walking toward one another, and there’s a very decent chance that if you attempt to maneuver around the other person, that person will attempt the same move, and you’ll both start sidestepping back and forth while also playing chicken. It seems ridiculous for me to write about this here, but I swear to god, if you don’t pull some tricks out of your sleeve, it can happen every single day, and it doesn’t happen in America because people always keep to the right, and most people seem to acknowledge that it’s better if we all keep an eye on where we’re going and stay out of each other’s way. Not in Korea.

There are two tricks you can pull to get around this problem. One is to do the exact opposite of what you would normally do in America or your Western Nation of Choice. This occasionally works. Another trick, far more effective, is to just stare down at your feet as you approach the other person straight on, at ramming speed, all the while watching him out of the corner of your eye. The oncoming guy or girl, regardless of his age, will move out of your way almost every time, right at the last moment. You have to humble your pride as though bowing before a lion, in order to get the lion to do what you want, because in Korea even walking around brings questions of status up to the forefront of everyone’s consciousness—younger people should make way for older people, etc., just as they should give up their seats on the subway and conjugate their verbs submissively and never disagree or express independent opinions in conversation.

In practice, however, everyone wants to be on the higher end of the Confucian hierarchy. Even people who are clearly younger than you will not get out of your way or make any attempts to move, until the last moment, when they start the sidestepping thing—unlike in America, where people work together to ensure that everyone gets to where they’re going as smoothly as possible.

Yesterday was the first time in a long while this trick didn’t work. One guy just wasn’t in the mood to get out of the way. I was looking straight down, with increasing worry, as he got closer and closer—contact seemed inevitable. There was a barrier not a foot distant on my right to keep people from throwing themselves off the bridge, and at the last moment this fellow threw himself between this barrier and my own person, sideways, grimacing all the while, when he could have just gone around on my left and had plenty of room to himself. But to have done so would have been to acknowledge that the other person is superior, that Western ways trump Korean ones (at least in the case of walking around), and this guy wasn’t in the mood to do such a thing.

I come to work. I spend as little time in the office as possible, terrified that I’m going to offend someone or expose myself as an idiot, even though in reality everyone is very nice, and probably far less judgmental than I am. I teach. I seem to do a decent job of that. I get lunch, surrounded by Koreans. Afterwards I may go to the library and write, where I’m also surrounded by Koreans. If I sit at an empty table, it’s a safe bet that no one will join me there, even if every other seat is taken. Yesterday while I was walking around the campus two very small girls, probably freshman, jumped when they made eye contact with me and then lunged away from me together, laughing, and I’m fairly sure I heard the word for foreigner, waygoogeen. I wasn’t wearing my suit, and I may have resembled a student; Korean women at the university will occasionally say hello to me or pay more attention than they already do if I don’t don my professor’s garb. Walking around with my Korean wife also turns the stares way up to maximum.

The fact that I am not Korean is on every Korean’s mind here, but some are just far better about concealing it than others; it’s strange that those girls freaked out like that, because there’s a fairly decent chance that they’ve been taking English classes taught by foreigners for years now. I expect the xenophobia to come from the old Korean people (one of my tutorees comes to our apartment because his grandparents refuse to have a white person enter their house), not from the young ones or my fellow foreigners, but really it seems to come from every single direction, even myself, on occasion.

I mean, it’s gotten better because I have fairly decent relationships with several Korean people, but there are definitely times when I feel like I have to get the hell out of here, now. Still, generally I’m pretty content, and I think few people can say that about their own situation. I’ve come to love the bars of this cage.

Afternoons go to writing or learning Chinese, although I haven’t been able to meet with my teacher in two weeks. Evenings go to either tutoring or playing with the boy. By eight or nine I’m usually so exhausted that I can’t keep my eyes open for a movie, no matter how good it is, which means that it sometimes takes me two weeks to watch a film, usually in ten minute snatches grabbed here and there.

All in all, a life not without its troubles, but generally okay.

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One thought on “Things Korea Does Better, A Good Word, And My Daily Routine

  1. Jennifer says:

    I laughed and nodded SO MUCH at the bits about walking. If I had my own Korea blog (which I probably would if a) I wasn’t always doing nutsy things like trying to direct and produce plays and b) if I wasn’t really afraid of offending Koreans) I would definitely devote an entire entry to the perils and non-rules of walking over here. I think I’ve mentioned to you before that I tend to devote myself to avoiding walking into anyone and pride myself on being able to glide through the Daehyun Primall in Seomyeon on occasion without so much as touching another human. But sometimes I really do want to ram people who just can’t be bothered to pay attention to people coming. And I do think there is a xenophobia element sometimes – moreso, I’d even say much moreso in Gyeongju. I’ve noticed that I get the “invisible foreigner” effect much more here than I did in Busan. By this I mean people who actually look straight at me and try to walk directly through me when I literally have no other way to walk or place to move and they have chosen (while looking at me) to consciously walk into me rather than walk the other way they could have. This often results in me having to come to a dead stop until they realize that I am not, in fact, a ghost. This also tends to happen more with cars here, much to my dismay, as I was hoping that Gyeongju would at least offer more pedestrian peace. But now that I’ve been going back and forth regularly, I have found (contrary to your finding, I know) that I actually feel at least 5 times more peaceful walking around Busan where there are actually sidewalks on most streets and at least I tend not to be invisible, or, the alternative in Gyeongju, a fascinating zoo animal.

    I’m glad that you have a peace about being here. I’m feeling one again, largely because, you’re right, the job is great, but also because I have good friends in Korea and it’s spring and I like directing and I have sort of a path for the future that I’m working on and I feel like I’m being challenged and making progress in most areas of my life. And because the U.S., while Portland is still bitching as ever, is sort of becoming at least a political dystopia in our absence. Can one really be too excited to go back to the land of the TSA, the detainment without trial, the war on women, Santorum as an actual presidential candidate, Scott Walker, etc. etc.?

    Anyway, just wanted you to know I read the entry with interest and identification.


    p.s. – Real sorry you couldn’t try out for Shakespeare. You have a real talent and I think about it every time I cast and can’t have you in the cast!

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