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#15 - It’s just the way things are done

Just like most mornings, this morning was nothing too different.  I woke up, pushed the button on the heating console to turn the water heater on, slid open the large door that separates my bedroom from my kitchen, took a shower in my all-in-one bathroom/shower combo, exited my key-less front door and listened to the jingle it plays as it automatically locked itself behind me, stumbled through the park to the chilly bus stop, and held on tight as the ever crazed bus driver drove me to school.

Korea, unlike the United States, begins it school year in March and today is the beginning of two weeks of spring break.  I’m deskwarming for these two weeks (see post #13).  To pass some of the soul-crushing boredom associated with deskwarming I decided to watch Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.  

The images of Bill Murray first arriving in Japan and being shocked by a combination of bright lights, Japanese culture, and a foreign language made me think back to my first experiences in Korea and how after being here for almost a year I am so desensitized to the things around me that I once found so interesting and yet so strange; the key-less front door, the all-in-one bathroom/shower, and the floor heater being just a few things that exist in my miniature apartment alone.

Elaborating on desensitization, I began to think about customs that used to feel odd but now don’t even catch my attention.  From standards at the workplace all the way down to the correct way to eat your food and drink your soju, there is a certain way that many things are done here.  Korean culture, as I have said before, is very rigid at times, there is little room for things that exist outside the box.  This can be infuriating.  Friends and I often discuss the lack of open-minded thinking here and the frustrations that come with having to always do things a certain way.  For example, the first time I went out with a few of my co-workers, I was quickly corrected with regards to my own eating style.  

Probably the most popular meal to eat here is Korean BBQ.  You go to a restaurant, sit down at table that has a small grill built into it, and you order your meat of choice from any one of the restaurant employees.  They bring you side dishes of things like sliced raw garlic, lettuce leafs, bean sprouts, kimchi, and onions along with your meat, which is served also served raw.  You grill your meat on the little grill and once it’s cooked, you wrap it in a lettuce leaf, add some of the available side dishes, a little sauce, and eat.  It’s good and fun.  But once you put the meat on the lettuce, add the sides, and wrap it up, it’s quite a mouthful; not the most elegant way to dine and certainly not recommended for a first date.  

During my first experience eating Korean BBQ I did what I’m sure many foreigners have done.  I made my lettuce wrap and at first glance of the size of the thing I decided to tackle it with two or three bites as opposed to just ramming the entire thing in my mouth like a fat ass.  So I take one bite and immediately I hear this angry Korean voice coming from the P.E. teacher who is sitting across from me; shaking his hand as if to say “NO NO NO!”  In his best dramatization, he then acted out that taking bites was not the correct way and that the only way to eat Korean BBQ was to ram the entire thing into my mouth like a fat ass. 

So… that’s what I did.  Although it felt strange at first, I am now desensitized and I unconsciously and happily stuff my face with meat filled lettuce leafs.  I must say that it is a more convenient way to eat that dish.  We all know how a lettuce wrap can just fall apart.

Also, at dinner that night, I learned about the correct way to partake in the act of drinking alcohol.  Rule #1 - Drinks must never be poured for oneself.  Rule #2 - If you see an empty glass (especially of an older person) you should grab the nearest bottle of beer, soju, etc. and quickly replenish the liquid.  Rule #3 - If you are pouring for someone who is older than you, you should pour with one hand and with your free hand, place it on the other forearm or chest.  This is a sign of respect.  Rule #4 - Also with relation to older people.  When you drink you should turn your head away from them.  This is also a sign of respect.

Don’t ask.  I don’t make the rules, I just abide by them.  

These kinds of customs are simply the way things are done and there isn’t much room for error.  When I’m out with other foreign friends of course we don’t go by the Korean rules.  This is our time to act like real rebels.  We take bites and pour our own drinks all night.  But when the principal is around it’s no time for foolin’.

I sometimes wonder if when I get home I will forget that I am not in Korea anymore and continue to leave my keys in my apartment, continue to walk around in slippers, and bow to everyone I see.  I know I will miss the little things about Korea even though at times, living in a foreign country, especially this one, can be difficult.  Regardless of the little things, good or bad, experiences abroad are good for the mind and soul.  They remind us that there is so much that exists outside of our bubble.  The result is we become more accepting to that which is unfamiliar, strange, and scary.  And that is a good thing.