Thursday, December 13, 2007


We'll be out of touch for a few days with a wild end to the week (holiday concert, staff party, general mayhem) followed by a good 18 hours of getting back to the Burgh. Send us all your good travel vibes. I'm particularly dreading the prospect of getting stuck in Chicago. Anyway, here's hoping we'll be home soon!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Flagrant Generalizations #1

Over the course of the last five months, we've posted a lot about what we're doing in Korea, but not actually an awful lot about Korea itself. I doubt that this has kept anybody up at night, but still, I wanted to say a little bit on the subject of why we haven't said much on the subject.

The first, and most obvious reason is that we don't speak Korean. We can make a lot of observations but we often have no idea if our explanations for what we observe are even close to accurate. It also makes it hard to get to know any Koreans outside of our work bubble who might be able to help us confirm generalizations.

The second reason is that for better or worse, we live here now and probably will for next year, too (we decide whether or not to renew our contract within the next week). Spending time constructing generalizations and fixating on ways in which Korea is different is kind of counterproductive to our eventual goal of feeling comfortable here.

The third reason, of course, is not to trip anybody's racism flags. Sometimes it seems to me like people have nothing better to do than be easily offended.

So having now provided you with three perfectly good reasons not to write about "Koreans," I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway. But here is my Official Flagrant Generalization Posts disclaimer: a) I don't know what I'm talking about, b) I am going to try to keep it positive, and c) if you think my generalization about Korean culture is actually a generalization about the Korean race (ethnicity? Don't know, don't care.) or means I'm assuming it's true for every single Korean who ever lived, well, how dumb are you?

When I first got here, I was surprised that nobody stared at me. In China, it was so common I developed a minor complex about it. People in the internet cafe pointed their webcams at me while chatting with their friends. I sat on a park bench once in Dalian and looked up to find people standing behind my bench so their friends could take pictures with me in it. I started wearing sunglasses and a cap like an incognito movie star. It was kind of ludicrous.

Anyway, not so here. Children shout out "Hello" and "Hi" at us (we call this "Getting Hi'd", as in, "I got hi'd in the park today") and stare in elevators. Teenage girls or boys sometimes, we think, dare each other to speak to us, because we see them giggling in a group and shooting us looks before one intrepid member will dash over, say "Nice to meet you!" and then run back to safety. But for the most part, people do a mild double-take and go about their business.

(As bad as it makes me look, I will admit to being piqued by this. Where was all of my attention? Just because I'm married, nobody wants to stare at me anymore?)

I have a theory, however. Commence flagrant generalizations!

If you recall, a while back, Justin posted about the swearing, flailing man on our bus, the man we tolerantly and politically-correctly refer to as Crazy McNutjob. Reflecting back on it, the strangest part of the whole thing was not actually the swearing and flailing (we lived in New Haven and Washington; we've seen our share of public mental illness) but the part where every single Korean on the bus stared straight ahead and pretended like absolutely nothing was happening. As the man shouts things in Korean that we're pretty sure we didn't need to speak Korean to understand, nobody turns around or reacts. When he slaps the window or kicks the chair in front of him, everybody startles in unison at the sound, flinches, and doesn't turn around. If it weren't for the jump in the chair, you would have thought the whole bus was deaf.

The teenage boy sitting in the chair in front of Crazy, whose backpack actually got slapped a couple of times in the course of the flailing, responded to being hit by - absolutely nothing. Not a "Hey, what the heck?" or a "Dude, stop hitting me," but just a "If I pretend he's not there, maybe he'll go away." He sat forward in his chair at a forty five degree angle to take himself out of range and continued to stare straight ahead. When the flailing got too intense, he finally got out of his chair and walked casually to the front of the bus. He didn't even turn around.

So, in conclusion: the Chinese reaction to weirdness was to stare at it, similar to the American reaction (I will stereotype here; feel free to disagree) to engage with it ("Hey, where y'all from? China? Hey, I have a friend from China. Do you know him?"). The Korean reaction is to ignore it. Perhaps it's just good manners - "You're being very rude not to fit in, but I would be even ruder to point it out." Maybe it's also a Seoul thing, and people would be different in the country. American urban areas are definitely different from American rural areas in this regard, and Seoul is widely considered to be very different from rest of Korea. Maybe it's not even a thing at all, and I'm completely flagrantly generalizing. But hey, you can't say I didn't warn you!

But I, at least, will run with this explanation because it lets me feel better about myself. Just because they're not staring doesn't mean I'm not still awesome! In fact, the fact that people aren't noticing me means that they want to! If they did notice me, it would mean I was not noticeable!

Sometimes, living overseas makes my head hurt.