Under the (Cultural) Influence

t’s inevitable that, after a certain amount of time, a culture will get under your skin. Up until now I haven’t even tried to explain what Korea has done to me, the feelings and attitudes it’s changed and the things that I simply will not buy into. In view of the busy week at work and relative lack of a weekend this week I thought it was about time I tried to lay it all out.

Korean culture is more alien than any other I’ve yet encountered. Considering my experiences in India this may seem like an odd thing to say, but the difference in India is, at least to some extent, you know it is coming. The pace of life here really is stunningly high, and moments of contemplation are few and far between. Koreans work hard and play hard, and when I say work hard I really mean hard. I’ve adapted. 14 hours in the office every day is normal, if I need to rest I sleep on the couch between classes and I fill my time hanging out with colleagues, students and typing incessant amounts of articles. I don’t work harder than the average Korean, less hard than many. I’m really starting to understand why almost all Korean couples can be categorized by how they met: company couples; college couples; blind date couples and met-on-the-bus-on-the-way-to-work couples. That would be most of them… I guess that make Helena and I a ‘Flirting whilst drinking tea with Buddhist monks after lecture and meditation couple’. I’m sure there are plenty out there…

I’ve come round to the point of view that life can revolve around work, providing work provides some pretty special social outlets. Which here, it does, special is an understatement. Drinking with students is a hazardous but necessary evening pastime, and rarely costs a penny. The senior person should always pay; the company should pay them back later. That’s how it’s done here, and it rocks…imagine a British company saying ‘yeah sure, we’ll pay for your 14 bottles of Soju and six plates of BBQ meat, just make sure you get a receipt’. Koreans are so inherently ‘up for it’ in terms of going out and having some fun – many even consider it impolite to refuse – that you can’t help being swept along. And bars here never close, neither do many restaurants. None of that 1am shut down rubbish in Seoul, you can party till the subway opens, get on the first train and go back to the office for another day. Not something I’m in the habit of doing, but it’s not unheard of…

Houses, they’re a waste of space, aren’t they?! No really, as long as I have enough space for my clothes, a bed to lie in and maybe a small area to eat my breakfast, am I ever really there? Precisely, a shoebox will do just fine thank you. Besides, cabin fever means more socialising, and socialising is free in Korea…. Back in England I’d probably have lopped my own hands off in frustration by now, but then I couldn’t afford to be constantly out.

So what don’t I enjoy? Confucianism (read justification for unreasonable Conservative attitudes toward women, strangers and those with a lower social status) sucks. Whilst the Japanese are famous for their incredible politeness, Koreans would rather barge you out of the way then walk around you on the street. I do the same, you soon get used to it. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction to be taken from barging a self-satisfied old Ajumma out of the way (you’d have to be here!). Pretty irritating overall mind. On a more serious note, the sooner this country stops seeing women as inferior and foreign women as prostitutes the better. I have a feeling it may be some time.

As for some of the bizarre things that just make me laugh out loud, here’s some suggestions for Koreans…don’t refuse to eat the very slightly overcooked pieces of BBQ meet. Yes they may give you cancer, care to put down that glass of Soju and cigarette while you explain it further? Context, people!…. Kimchi: is it really any more beneficial to health than yoghurt? Healthy bacteria? Ok, but Korea also has one of the largest number of cases of bowel cancer in the world. It causes disproportional amounts of flatulence and unless fried thoroughly with BBQ meat doesn’t taste so good either. I’d better not fry it though; it might get black edges, which will inevitable cause cancer… (Mind you don’t burn yourself on that cigarette)….Fans. They can’t cause you to die. No not even in a sealed room, not even if the fan is turned on all night and probably not even if you removed the guard, barring a very unfortunate incident. ‘Fan Death’, one for the sci-fi’s, here it’s one for the birth certificates… And yes, I am a foreign man, no; I’m not here to steal your women. Which you should be pleased about, because with my accent I could steal plenty of them :P.

It’s easy to rip it a little bit, but the bits of this culture I love I really love a lot. I’m down with the BBQ’s, the all night lifestyle and the impassioned attempts to make more of yourself. The food is unbelievably good and healthy, the social life is comparable even to Thailand except the locals are as involved as the expats. And there are the opportunities to really make a go of things: my writing’s gone from nothing to being a name a few people even recognise around Seoul. And I kind of enjoy the minor local celeb thing in my neighbourhood.

I’m ignoring the bad thing and lapping up the good: I have no real idea of how long I’ll be in Seoul yet, but I know there are plenty of things about this city I’ll really, truly miss when I do go. Culturally bizarre, for me at least, means culturally interesting, despite its flaws.

That was a change from the usual ‘this is what I did this week’! More oddities to come next time, love to all,

James x

(this didn’t even touch on Noraebang, women’s insistence on being married by 30, living with parents until this point,  plastic surgery, meeting famous singers or avoiding military service with a strategically placed tattoo. Be glad I don’t have more time, it could be dangerous!)

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