For the past week-ish, I've been keeping a list of things that I enjoy about Korea. None of them were really long enough to create an entire blog post about, but I think I have enough of them to stick them all back-to-back and pretend they have a unifying thread. Without further ado and in no particular order - things that make me smile in Asia!
1) Automatic lights. In Korea they're really energy-conscious. The first morning YJ picked me up to walk me to work, he pointed at my AC unit and said "off." I instantly pictured myself walking into thick, humid air after work and groaned, but I did as I was told. He must have noticed my displeasure because now he doesn't trust me at all; he'll frequently ask me if I remembered to turn off my air and my hot water. The one benefit I've noticed to the ridiculous levels of energy conservation is that lights turn off when you leave a room, which means they turn on as soon as you step into a room. When I leave my apartment in the morning, there are no fewer than six individual auto-lights that turn on as I walk down the stairs, and every single one makes me feel like a Jedi. It's what I imagine it would be like to have a ninja for a personal assistant - sneaking through the stairwells before I reach them then darting out of sight. Sometimes I chase the imaginary ninja, and by the time I get to the bottom of the stairs, I'm giggling like crazy. My neighbors must think I'm a lunatic.
2) Pringles. I understand very little in the convenience store. I think I've been purchasing milk for the last two and a half weeks, but I can't be sure because "maeil" doesn't produce anything on google translate, and it's the only word in English letters on the carton. I can find the Ramen noodles, but I can't read anything on them, so I'm too nervous to make a purchase lest I end up with spicy anchovies or something. I located Frosted Flakes because Tony the Tiger is apparently a universal character, but other than that, there's not much I can buy. Except Pringles. Pringles are EVERYWHERE. They're on prominent display when I walk past nearly every convenience store, and they line the shelves in the E-mart. They're one of the only American foods I've found that aren't "Korean-ized" (Kit-Kats are "KicKers" here), and I smile every time I see them. Why Pringles, Asia? Why not Doritos or Lay's? Or Tostito's? Or Cheetos? Or any number of other junk foods you could have adopted into your culture?
3) Not smiling in public. I have unreasonably good manners. When I meet new people, I sound like a southern belle desperate to be courted, and I threw a bit of a fit when I discovered there's no direct translation for "please" here. Therefore, when I walk down the street, I tend to smile at everyone, and everything, in every direction. That's completely counter-cultural in Korea; if people even look up from their various electronic whatevers, they almost always have a snarl on their face. (Okay, maybe not a snarl, but a look of indifference, which is as good as a snarl to someone like me). I find this to be ceaselessly amusing, so I grin even more than usual, practically forcing people to notice me. On the other hand, the one night that I was ridiculously pissed off (for unwarranted reasons that I'm now pretty ashamed of), I felt like I fit in perfectly. I didn't feel the normal societal pressures to look like I have everything together when in the presence of others; I stomped and grunted and threw a tantrum the whole way home, and no one regarded me any differently than when I smile.
4) Seeing other foreigners. According to the Korea Times (are you shocked that I read that? Me too, actually), there are 870,000 foreigners in Korea, over a quarter-million in Seoul alone. Yet most days, the only ones I see are the other teachers at my school, so I get embarrassingly excited whenever I cross paths with another non-Asian. I can spot them from blocks away now, and by the time they approach, I've already scripted out a heartwarming reunion between long lost family where we rush into each other's arms and reminisce about how much we miss Wendy's. By the time the person actually reaches me, however, it becomes clear that they have not memorized their lines in my little fantasy play. They trot right on past, leaving me disappointed and grumpy in their wake. If I were in any city in the US, I wouldn't think twice about these strangers. But here I feel like I'm supposed to know them for some reason, like if we don't acknowledge one another, we're breaking some kind of rule about American patriotism.
5) Manners mode. When I put my phone on vibrate, the phrase "entering manners mode" flashes across the screen. I don't have anything clever to say about it; I just really like it.
6) Subway salesmen. I was not excited about public transportation. The only mass transit vehicle I've ever enjoyed spouted out "Por favor, mantenganse alehado de las puertas" at every stop and landed me at the official home of Mickey and the gang. Here, however, I have to take either a bus or the subway if I want to get anywhere outside of Gangnam, and sometimes I do. Tomorrow I'm going to explore Hongdae after work, and Saturday I'm taking a deck of cards and a map and attempting to locate my euchre partner in Anyang. Luckily for me, the subway is far more delightful than I could have imagined. It's way too crowded and I always, always fall down when it takes off, but for some unknown reason, I feel like I'm being treated to some kind of rare field trip every time I step onboard. I stare around at all the walls and pretend I can read the poster that has jumping teenagers on it while I wait for the salesmen. During peak hours, people wander down the subway cars, selling things you never knew you needed but honestly can't remember how you lived without. So far I've only been on the subway less than half a dozen times, and I've already seen flashlight-fans, shopping bags that fold into strawberry-shaped packets, and drain cleaner. I get excited every time I know a subway is in my future, and I've actually considered riding it in circles just to see what kinds of treasures will be offered to me.
7) Couples outfits. It feels like Asia is divided up into pairs. Everywhere I go, people are holding hands or linking arms, and it makes me awfully lonely. I do recognize that my blatant lack of a significant other could be the fuel behind my inability to see anyone else walking alone but me, but unfortunately, it doesn't help me tune out the cute little Asian duos that line the sidewalks. Of course, as with everything here, there is a silver lining: couples outfits. That's precisely what it sounds like: couples who dress completely identically from head to toe for no obvious reason other than to look silly. The only logical conclusion I can come to is that even Asians have a difficult time telling one another apart; therefore, they wear parallel clothing on the off chance they get separated from their significant other and need to locate him or her in a crowd. I can't imagine who decided this phenomenon was a good idea; why on earth did the first boyfriend in this particular fad agree to participate? Is there no Korean equivalent to the phrase "I'd rather not look like a douchebag"? Regardless, it brings me unknowable joy to walk past a couple who matches from top to bottom; I like to imagine my amusement is inversely equal to the boyfriend's misery.
8) Piercings. Korean culture is not very accepting of body piercings or tattoos. When my school sent me my contract, the principal included a little note about the dress code: "Tattoos and piercings are not allowed because in Korea they are the sign of the gangster." I was afraid I'd stumbled into another job where I'd be covering my ichthus with a bandaid every morning, so I was delighted to find that other teachers in my school are equally rebellious. A handful of them have tattoos, and at least three of the teachers have facial piercings. On Tuesday, Kat and I decided to go out for Thai food, and came back with nose rings:
When I came into work yesterday, Hana stared at my face and said, "Oh my! Why would you do that? Now you look cheap!" I tried to convince her that I actually looked quite badass by doing this:
She replied, "No, no, no. You look cheap and easy. Oh dear. Your face has bling bling now." This reaction is actually good news; if this whole teaching thing doesn't work out, clearly my bling bling face has me right in line to become an Asian hooker. I wonder if I need a different Visa for that kind of work?