I’ve finished my first week in South Korea, and I love the adventures I’m facing. There are aspects of the culture that allude me, but there are parts of it that I feel like I fit into comfortably. However, it can be kind of scary only knowing how to say about five phrases, because eventually you’re going to run into a situation where “Thank you” and “Where’s the bathroom” are not helpful, like in my first Korean cab ride as I journeyed from the Daegu airport to the campus where I’m now living. I self-consciously told the driver, “Hanguk-mal-moteyo” (more or less, “I don’t speak Korean.”), and the awkward chuckle we shared was followed by a 20-minute silence, unless you count the sound of me praying that we were headed to the right destination and that I wasn’t going to end up dead somewhere my first time out of the country.
But, I’m alive, and I have no complaints about this beautiful place. Here are some thoughts on how it made an impressive first impression:
Korean society is group-oriented, and so respect for others is essential. For instance, the monorail that runs through Chilgok has Smart windows, meaning they fog over when passing housing districts, allowing privacy for commuters and people in their homes. Additionally, they have special seats reserved for the elderly, the disabled, and those who are pregnant or have children with them. They also expect you to be quiet on the monorail, like it’s a public library, since commuting is often the downtime of people’s busy days. All of this ensures people are given the space they need to function and have some peace. In the U.S., I’ve yet to encounter the same value of public consideration for others.
Korea has its classy down. On the flight from Incheon to Daegu, they played classical music before take off and after we descended, and the overhead lights turned a calming blue. The flight attendants were 1960s well-dressed. They wore kerchiefs around their collars and fancy bows in their perfect hair. They wore classy gray or turquoise (as I’ve seen them) dress suits. American flight attendants are generally very friendly and good at their jobs, but I just can’t emphasize enough how unclassy Americans seem to look compared to Koreans, at least on a general scale. And I know I’m basing this sweeping generalization on very few observations, but I don’t have time or money to conduct proper research, so my conclusions still stand. Korea is just so classy. Deal with it. Please?
“But,” you protest, “what about those horrible squatty potties???” You might not think that squatty potties, essentially porcelain holes in the ground, are all that classy. “We sit on thrones of porcelain glory!” you insist. No no no. Sit down and shut up, dear reader.
I am all about the squatty potties. I’m at the point where I’m actually disappointed if I open a public stall and it’s not a squatty potty. Here’s why: There is research out there that talks about how our bodies are made to excrete at the angle that squatting allows, as evidenced by the colon and other bowel-related ailments that started after the invention of the modern toilet. So, as long as you have legs that bend and you pull your pants down appropriately, it’s so natural. Super natural even. And if you’re a slight germophobe like me, then you don’t enjoy sitting where so many others have sat their butts, anyway. The benefit of squatty potties is that there is no butt-sitting that will ensure the exchange of butt germs. It’s a miracle! The flushing knob is also close to the floor so you can just step on it instead of touching it with your hand, or pushing it with your foot like I do. And, yeah, I know: “But you’ll get pee-pee on your shoes. Ew!” Yes, yes, this is inevitable, especially if the person who squatted before you was drunk, but Koreans also have an etiquette that suggests, if not requires, you to take off your shoes when entering homes or restaurants like the one I went to my first night in Chilgok, where we sat on the floor–the night I stepped in a drunk person’s urine a little bit (with my shoes on, mind you). So there, everyone. Squatty potties for the win!
In addition to my growing love of Korea and squatty potties, I’m proud of myself for taking risks, however small. Five years ago, I would never have imagined myself living in another country on my own. The night of my first full day at DGEV, everyone went out for chicken and beer for a coworker’s birthday. Jet lag hasn’t affected me very much since I’ve gotten here, so even though the other new teachers were not up to going, I hopped on the shuttle and followed my coworkers to Chilgok. If I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have met a young couple who told me they went to church. If I was still the hyper-cautious, shy person that I was five years ago, I wouldn’t have asked them if I could tag a long. So now I have church buddies. This trip off campus was also a good start to getting to know more people I would be working with. As soon as I stepped off the shuttle, a girl put her arm around me and asked me about myself. That meant a lot to me. They welcomed me into their group, and I felt like I belonged, even though I couldn’t read the hangul that faced me in every direction, even though I barely knew these people.
At Chicken Daily, we sat on the floor at a low table in our socks and chopstick-fed ourselves breaded chicken. I had a shot of peach-flavored soju which did not exactly taste like juice as someone had promised me, but it was much, much better than the beer, which was real bad, just as they promised.
I’ve had great food so far. Our cafeteria, unlike most school cafeterias in Korea, is quite good. The rice is sticky and I don’t have to eat tentacles with every meal. There are also always American options, too, even if that just means chicken nuggets or a PB&J sandwich. And, again, I can’t complain. I will take fried, breaded sweet potatoes or kimchi or tentacles over something I would have eaten in America. Because it’s different, and that’s what’s exciting.