We’ll return to the story of my trip in the next post, but I wanted to take some time to write about the feel and culture of Korea.
Korea itself is a place of contradictions, of opposition and compromise. As a nation, they’re fiercely nationalistic, with good reason. Thousands of years of culture, and occupation by Japanese and Chinese, have left the nation very closed to outsiders. Except for the very rich, everyone drives Korean cars, trucks, and busses. Probably scooters too, but I didn’t catch the manufacturer of any of the numerous scooters around. There’s almost no foreigners around – except for the people I’m travelling with, I could spend a whole day out visiting tourist locations, travelling busses and subway trains, and not see another white person.
Yet this is a country where tens of thousands of US troops have been stationed for decades, where English is taught in school, and speaking English is often a requirement for a job. One would expect the ‘Western influence’ to be quite prevalent. And in some ways it is – misspelt English adorns signs (want some cooffee?) and labels in an attempt to differentiate themselves, English words written phonetically in Korean letters, busses and trains include announcements in American-accented English.
But in many ways Koreans ignore outside cultures. Although English is taught in schools, and required to differentiate oneself from the myriad of other jobseekers, for the most part people lack a sufficient grasp of English to interact in the most basic of conversations. Where American culture is apparent, it’s still heavily influenced by Korean culture. Numerous American restuarants exist, serving foods from an American heritage, albeit with a Korean twist. Steak with a side of Kimchi anyone?
Kids from university that we met at haeundae beach, having spent years learning English, can manage only basic questions – where are you from, how old are you, what’s your name. I’m not sure whether they understood our replies at all.
I find it amusing that one of the questions I was most frequently asked was about my age. Korean culture includes a deeply-ingrained respect for those older than them, typically using completely different words when speaking to someone older. They have difficulty guessing the age of foreigners, hence the question.
I’m sure there are many other examples of Korean culture that strike me as odd, I just can’t think of them right now. Milk comes in cartons of 930ml – just under 1 quart. Why not one litre? Standard international units of measurement are used, but frequently just converted from other forms of measurement.
I’m not sure how much sense this post makes, I’ll probably read it later and be horrified at my grammar and flow of thought.