When you make the decision to live in a foreign country, you will definitely encounter those moments that make you say WTF. If you have, I’m willing to bet my first born child that you know what I mean. I’m even more certain you’re thinking of your own first-hand experiences right now. You know? Those times where you’re just standing there, frozen and like “um, is anyone else seeing this? Am I alone in this? Yes? Ok. Cool, well….byeeee?”
Kind of like the time I went to Home Plus (Korean Wal*Mart) during my first week in Korea. I had no idea how to ask for help, so I pulled up google translate on my phone and typed in “where is the bread?” I held up my phone to the nearest sales associate who immediately laughed in my face. She then looked like she was going to say something helpful; thought about it, but instead ran to get her coworker friend- who also thought it was the most hilarious thing she has ever heard. I stood there awkwardly for a minute waiting to see if they would help me….They didn’t, and I never got any bread. *tiny violin.
Standing there, in the middle of an aisle in a busy foreign supermarket, and the sales associates legit laugh in your face- all you can do is just stand there and helplessly look around for any.one.else. Anyone! Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?
There are times when you’re just minding your own damn business and you see something so bizarre and you’re just like:
Maybe it’s just me…. But I’ve compiled a list of situations where the above is the only appropriate reaction to every.single. item on the list. Let’s be honest: there really isn’t that much you can do except laugh and throw your hand up with a scowl. For the new person in town these things may come as a shock, but once that wears off….unfortunately, you become desensitized liked everyone else. Then one day, you’ll snap out of your stupor and be like (see above).
Koreans are a very blunt kind of people. They are honest and almost to a fault; this applies not only the children- who get a pass just because they’re kids- but adults as well. Koreans have perfected the art of telling you something offensive and judgmental in a factual way. Because they truly don’t mean to offend you. It’s just that every time, I wonder if they actually mean it in a mean way. Especially when my (former) boss refers to the foreign teachers as “foreign beauties” as a collective whole, and the Korean teachers as “teachers.” Things like this you have to just kind of brush off your shoulder. Then there are the times when your boss will walk into the teachers room and compliment your coworker on how good she looks that day….and then hand you a coffee because you “look too tired to stand.” I’ll take your coffee, but I spent time on my makeup today!
Or when your students tell you “Teacher! Today you look here pretty *raises hands above head* but most days teacher just look here pretty *puts hands by waist* To which I always laugh at, and say “being smart and funny are more important than being pretty” and my kids crack up laughing saying ‘teacher!” over and over again. All you can do is say “lets move on.” When really, you’re scowling at the children in front of you in your head. Wishing you could tell them that their shirt is spelled incorrectly. Which is embarrassing for you as their English teacher; and furthermore wishing you could tell them to pay attention in class for once. Because if they had, the student might not have wasted their parents money on it .
#4- En-GA-lish / Eng-lish-y
Korea is a funny place- where school children are forced to go to normal school and then attend any number of hagwons afterwards- which often ends their days around midnight. What makes this funny (to me) are the horribly misspelled words on T-shirts your students wear to class. You know? The ones that literally stop you in your tracks. The ones that really drive home the fact that your job is taken seriously by no one. The shirts that are so ironic it’s poetic genius. But the kid wearing it couldn’t give a crap about your class, that they don’t even see the irony that is literally right under their nose.
You would think a culture which holds speaking English of the utmost importance, that they might be able to have accurate translations printed on clothing. Instead, you often find yourself catching a glimpses of a horrifyingly misspelled word or phrase and contemplating its message for hours- maybe randomly thoughout a day. “But what does it MEAN?!” Coco make me do it.
Continuing on this thought- Korean bosses love to question if your En-GA-lish is right. “Are you *sssure* that is correct?” Actually, no- I’m not sure. Because you don’t learn Eng-lish-y from having grown up in #murica. What the actual F? Is this a real question right now? Obviously what I’m saying to you is correct; you supercilious woman! Korean bosses will disrupt your few moments of silence away from the constant bellowing of “TEA-CHER!!!!” Or better yet, casually poke their head into your classroom to ask a grammar question. The answer is never accepted at face value and always needs a thorough explanation. So by the time you’re done teaching your boss, your children are acting a fool all over the place. I actually have uttered the phrase “ya’ll ‘gon make me lose my mind. Up in here! Up in here!” Which is fitting because Cherry is now on the floor. Austin is eating paper…again, and no one has seen Minnie in 10 minutes.
I don’t think I’m alone in this, either. The fact that you’re a native speaking Eng-lish-y teacher means nothing. You will constantly be questioned about gerunds and the proper usage of “whom.” All while staring- devoid of all feelings and the will to defend your knowledge of Eng-lish-y – at the small human wearing the most nonsensical and grammatically incorrect t-shirt you’ve ever had the confusion of reading. Then, once you get your class in order you are left with this one message:
The link above should be enough explanation in and of itself. However, please continue reading. Once upon a time, in a land far far away there was an interesting land called Korea. It is a peculiar place, indeed. A place where 5 day 40 hour work weeks don’t exist. The people in this foreign land work 14 hour days, 6 days a week. They have basically sold their souls to live and die at work. But once the clock strikes 6pm- on any given day- all the adults turn into alcoholics; and before you know it there is mayhem on the street. Bosses treat their employees to rounds of soju at a norebang (karaoke bar). Sometimes, if they’re lucky enough, to the secret room out back with the shades drawn and the literal “risky business” transactions happen on the reg. “How peculiar!” you say. “But why?” you plead. No one really knows. All that is known for certain, is that if you’re outside after 7:30pm, you will probably find a Korean passed out in an actual trash can. Or maybe you will come across one who has gone to sleep while leaning on a stop sign waiting to cross the street. And if you’re really lucky, I mean really, really lucky- you might seize the opportunity to wake that man when it’s time to cross, and his only logical way of crossing the street? Crawling. The end.
#2- Ddjong Chim
For whatever reason, Koreans have an obsession with poop. They think it’s cute, and even have poop shaped cartoons, dolls, chocolate desserts etc. -all shaped like turds.
Exhibit A: Exhibit B: Exhibit C:
Pooping in Korea is seen as cute and endearing. You take a dump Koreans will say “oh, how nice!” This has tickled down (lol!) to the formation of a children’s game called “ddjong chim” which literally translates to “poop needle.” Here is a tutorial:
As you can imagine, when you’re teaching a group of school children who have a fascination with poop, you have every right to go into panic mode when you hear the fateful cry “ddjong chim!” One of my students caught me off guard, and it hurt….for like, the rest of the day. Nighty night, keep your buttonhole tight!
#1- The epic K-clean
This is simultaneously the most hilarious, and unsettling realization of life in Korea. Being that, nothing is *actually* ever clean, let alone sanitary. I don’t know what it is but Koreans don’t like washing their hands. Maybe it’s because soap in public bathrooms is literally a bar of soap stuck onto a metal rod- making the process of getting any soap at all onto your hands, feel awkwardly reminiscent of something to only be done in private. Sorry mom… and all relatives- but it’s true! If you are going to wash your hands at all, you really need to get in there.
Maybe Koreans don’t like washing their hands because of this reason. Maybe it’s because they’re lazy. All I know is that hagwons make you clean your students’ desks with wet tissues. As if a moist towelette is going to scrub away the germs left behind from the one group of people who are the most disgusting: children. Kids pick their noses, sneeze on everything and commit unspeakable acts to a horrifyingly disgusting extent every day. #MERS. The hilarious thing about it is that the majority of teachers make their students clean their own desks; so your classroom turns into something of a child labor law violation waiting to happen. But when you see those tiny people scrubbing away every surface of their classroom with a moist towelette, suddenly you don’t feel so bad about it. Because you know that they have gone to the bathroom and come back without washing their hands, and then hugged you after. You know *some* of them have been saying mean things about you in Korean all day; and just like that, all your guilt about forcing children to “clean” vanishes. They like it anyway!
To really drive home the idea of the Kclean I’m going to divulge a very true, and hilarious first hand story I will never forget, and love to tell any chance I get. I have a very small class of 3 second grade students. I forget what was so funny, but all four of us were laughing uncontrollably. So much so, that one of the girls peed her pants- and not like, a steady drip I mean, she really peed herself a LOT. She was a really good sport about it and continued laughing, unlike me who probably would have cried in horror. I was horrified, and just remember thinking “hell no.” I legit ran out to the front desk and told my boss that a student had peed her pants. There was just no way I would clean that up. Hagwon teachers are already more like babysitters, but I draw the line at pee puddles.
We walked back together, and I listened to her yell things in Korean. She left for about 5 minutes- in the meantime, we all just kind of stood there awkwardly not knowing what to do. My boss came back with: a roll of toilet paper, febreze, and a cardboard box. She wiped up the puddle with the toilet paper, febrezed the room, put the cardboard on the seat and ordered the girl to sit there for the remainder of the class because we had already wasted time. Awkwardly, she obliged and when my boss left the room she looked up at me, laughing and said “teacher, can I use bathroom?” I had no idea what to do- I normally would’ve said yes, but we are in Korea so I just said “Um, I don’t know hunny, let’s just finish class first.” The poor girl’s parents weren’t even called! Lol I’m a horrible person, but come on- it’s hilarious!
So again, I make this face to every.single item on the list: