Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Strange Popularity of SPAM in Korea


This last week was one of the biggest Korean holiday of the year known as 추석 Chuseok.  This is the equivalent of Korea's Thanksgiving in that it originated to celebrate a good harvest.  It is celebrated the same way as American Thanksgiving as well, with large family gatherings and lots and lots of food.  However, substituting green-bean casserole for glass noodles mixed with vegetables (잡채), buttered rolls for kimchi pancakes (김치전), pumpkin pie for sugary rice cakes (송편), and turkey for SPAM.  Yes, that is right, SPAM.  That can of suspicious meat that most often get associated as "trailer park food" in USA.

Not only does SPAM not have the same negative association attached to it in Korea, but it is loved and almost viewed as a luxury. In my first year in Korea, I was shocked when I visited the local grocery store and found an isle of elaborate and fancy SPAM gift sets.  This, of course, got me thinking, "why is this American product which is mostly viewed as 'disgusting' in its home country, so popular in Korea, especially during its biggest traditional holiday?".  And the most logical theory I could come up with has its connections to the Korean War.

See during the Korean War, South Korea was not the developed modern country that it is today.  It was still very agrarian with many people living in poverty.  It used to be that some Koreans would hang outside US Army bases and collect the food that they discarded.  Usually this would be things like simple produce, but occasionally cans of SPAM would be thrown out as well.  Now to a person from a modern, developed, and wealthy nation, where fresh meat is readily available, it is easy to understand why canned preserved ham would not be very appetizing.  However, to a poor farmer, during a time where meat was scarce, SPAM was a delicacy!

So it really comes down to perspective when the food was introduced, but what I find interesting is how that perspective becomes part of the culture even 60 years later when Korea is a modern, developed, and wealthy nation.  Today, meat is readily available and yet Koreans still love their can of blended pig parts and preservatives and it is all due to cultural and historical perspectives.  Fascinating!


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Public Transit

I feel like too many of my posts might be perceived as negative, even though they are intended to be just observations of differences in culture, so I want to talk about some of the good sides of living in Korea.  After all, I do choose to live in Korea so there must be some admirable qualities to life here and I want to show case one of those in this post: public transportation.

I must say not owning a car and not being able to go where you want when you want was definitely an adjustment when moving overseas.  Not only is it more challenging to get places, as you have to walk to a bus or subway station, wait, often make some transfers to other buses or subway lines, but also you are limited by time.  Public transit usually ends around midnight, which means you have to either go home before then, or pay a taxi to take you home, which luckily is not too expensive here in Korea.

However the benefits to not owning a car in a big city far outweigh the inconveniences.  Not having to pay or worry about parking, which is extremely hard to find and is expensive in Korea, is one example.  Another is never having to be stuck in miserable rush hour traffic.  If the bus I am on is stuck in traffic I can get off at almost any stop and still be walking distance to a subway station.  Lastly, I don't have to worry about the extra costs and maintenance of owning a car.

Arrows pointing where to transfer
Aside from the minor challenges mentioned in the second paragraph, South Korea has made living without a car even more convenient with its ultra efficient public transit system.  With almost 300 subway stations (291 to be exact), you are never far away from a subway station.  Once inside a station, it is very easy to find out where to go as each line is number and color coded, there are subway maps as well as that line's map in each station, and signs telling you which way to go depending on which station you are going to.  To transfer at a station is also extremely easy as the screen inside the subway car tells you which stations to transfer at depending on which line you are connecting to, and once off the train you can easily follow arrows and colored path (coordinated to the color of that line) to the next train.  Also the trains run on a consistent schedule everyday, so you can always know exactly when a train will come by learning the schedule and it is always punctual.


Screens tell you the station name, which side to exit, which
lines you can transfer to and even the next few stops

If by chance you are not near a subway, or the place you want to go is not near a subway, then there are always buses.  In many cases a bus can be even more convenient than the subway, even when both choices are available.  For example, I have the option every morning to take a bus or the subway to work, and, unless I am running late, I always choose the bus.  Why? Well I can always get a seat first of all, where on the subway that is rare, and on a bus you can zone out and play on your phone, stare out the window, or do something productive like study Korean without having to miss your stop since you can see where you are.  On the subway you cannot see anything, so you constantly have to keep track of which station you are at in order to not miss your stop, which happens to me way too frequently.  Also, like the subway, they come quite regularly.


One last thing that makes public transit so convenient is technology, specifically in mobile apps.  For the subway there is an app that allows you to search how to go from one station to another.   It will tell you how long the journey will take, when the next trains are coming, the fastest route or the route with fewest stops, how many transfers are made and even which train car to get in to make the fastest transfer at the next station!  They really have it all covered.  Then for the buses there is an app that can tell you which bus to take to go where you want and where that bus is exactly at that moment so that you know when it will arrive.




There are times I still wish I had a car, mostly to travel to other cities, but thanks to Korea's efficient public transit, I am satisfied without one.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Korean Education/Work Culture

Making friends in Korea is not very difficult, as most Koreans are very friendly and fun people.  This is actually one of the main reasons that made me move to Korea after I spent 3 years struggling to integrate myself with many locals in Singapore.  However, I find that my friend list in Korea is a constant revolving door and it is all perpetuated by one common factor; Korea's work culture.

Korea is a very competitive society, and finding a good job is difficult for a lot of Korean graduates.  Because of this, student's education expectations also become exaggerated.  Most High School students do not end their studies until around 10pm and many even study most of their weekends and holidays.  They go to their regular school until about 4pm, and then immediately go to separate academies (called hagwons 학원) to either learn other subjects or to get extra help in subjects they take at school.  They do this all to try and stand out and have a more appealing resume for Korean universities.  However, when just about all students do this, it eventually becomes the norm and the bar keeps getting raised higher and higher.  In universities their studies only intensify to the point where it consumes most of their time.

Upon graduation, most students are again competing for the same few top-end jobs.  Because the supply is so high, companies place unreasonable expectations on their employees that results in many Koreans not finishing work until 9pm and working on weekends.  Not to mention routine work functions called 회식 (hweshik), which is a combination of the Korean words 회사 (company) and 식사 (meal).  At the 회식, which are basically mandatory, employees are often pressured into drinking copious amounts of alcohol, staying out really late, and in some cases going to establishments that they may have a moral objection to.  Then they are expected to wake up and go to work the next day.

As a foreigner and as a teacher, I am not really subjected to this intense work culture, but that doesn't mean it doesn't affect me.  As aforementioned, I am constantly having to make new local friends in Korea all the time as most Koreans eventually get too busy and difficult to meet up with.  My phone becomes an ever growing roll-a-dex when searching for friends to do different activities with.  I never know which friend will be free at what time because neither do they.  It is common for Korean's to tell me they are meeting one of their good friends whom they haven't seen in 6 months or sometimes even over a year, despite living in the same city.

I feel bad for them as it has always been my mentality that I work to live, not live to work.  However, many Koreans are powerless in this regard if they want a decent job in Korea.  This culture has many negative side-effects for Korea.  The first and most serious is the suicide rate among young people.  South Korea has the second highest suicide rate in the world, and first among developed nations (WorldAtlas), with the vast majority of these being students.  The reason is obvious: educational pressures.  A society that views not going to university as a disgrace and such high competition for the limited universities, many students who get lower scores feel that their life is over and not worth living.  Even in discussions with my own Korean students I have heard them vocalize that they don't feel that their life could be a success if they don't go to university.  This perception needs to change.

Another consequence of this culture is Brain Drain and a decreasing population.  I am going to bundle these to problems because the source of the problem is the same.  That is, that many young Koreans who get frustrated at the pressures and the rat race that is Korean work culture simply decide to move abroad where they find life more peaceful and exciting.  This means Korea who spent government money educating these students as a future investment to help develop their country are loosing out on that investment as the students take the fruits of that education to another country and help develop that country.  This phenomenon is known as Brain Drain.  Also, as these professionals develop lives and families in other countries, South Korea's population is decreasing so fast that it is projected to have the oldest average age by 2045!

I know I am a foreigner in this country and have no right to complain and say that their culture is wrong and that many Koreans might be quite angry to hear a foreigner talk like this.  However, this country has treated me really well, I have made many close friends here and I truely do care about this country and the people in it.  Due to this I cannot keep quiet about what is such a self-evident crisis without at least offering my advice.

My advice to Korea would be, "wake up".  Recognize these wounds to your country are self-inflicted.  Educate your citizens about all the opportunities that exist to people with just a high school diploma.  Regulate stricter labor laws that prevent companies from abusing their employees simply because they are expendable.  My advice for Koreans would be "relax".  Lea
rn to prioritize fun.  Your success and your happiness are not determined by the size of bank account.  Your real friends don't care about your GPA or how good your job is.



Friday, April 7, 2017

Korean Professional Volleyball Game: A Story of Foreigner Privilege in Korea

When living in a somewhat homogenous society such as Korea, it is inevitable that I will experience some special treatment.  This treatment is usually unsolicited and innocent in intent.  However, on rare occasions it is nice to be able to use the "foreigner card" to get special treatment.  Whether its getting a little extra food at restaurants (or the occasional free beer), getting out of minor trouble by simply pleading ignorance, avoiding conversations by pretending to not know any Korean or English if that fails, or going onto the court to celebrate the championship of one of Korea's top professional sports with the team that won.  That is what this story is about.

So this Monday, one of my rugby teammates invited me to watch a professional volleyball game with him because he got free tickets.  Apparently the Croatian community in Korea is so small that whenever a new Croatian comes to Korea they instantly bond, because this professionally volleyball team recently got a new Croatian player and my teammate is Croatian and they found each other on Facebook and became friends just because of their shared nationality.  Anyways, he got us free tickets to sit with his wife and child.  Upon arriving at the game I learned that this was the championship finals with the series tied 2-2 in a best of 5 series.  Winner takes all.

The match was pretty intense with each set being very close, but in the end the Croatians team won it.  It was very exciting.  At this point I was ready to pack it in and go home as it was a weekday, I had work the next morning, and still had about an hour long commute to get home.  However, my Croatian friend said, "I want to get on the court and congratulate him."  Speculative in nature, I told him that I don't think we could do that, as it was only for players and families.  This is because I did not yet know the power of the "foreigner card" because I had never tried to use it.  Now I think my "card" will come into play a bit more often, because as we were walked towards the court and were inevitably stopped by security, my friend just simply said, "we are family".  At this, the security stepped aside and we walked past all the adorning fans being blocked off by security right onto the court.  Once on the court we were handed the same championship t-shirts that were passed out to the players.  Being feet away from these professional athletes, dressed in the official championship gear, and being showered in confetti as a part of this championship celebration was a cool experience, and I don't even care about volleyball.





Sunday, March 26, 2017

Familiar Faces: When Students Come to Visit

I learned early on in my career that the rewards from teaching are prospective, meaning that they come much later, usually when you are no longer teaching those students.  I have had students who vocally despise me do a complete 180 and reach out to tell me how much they miss my class.  Perhaps the most humbling reward I have received from my years of teaching are not the occasional lamentation of nostalgia or retroactive compliment, but that ex-students from Singapore still keep in touch and want to spend time with me when they visit Korea.  Almost every winter, summer, and spring vacations I have students from Singapore coming to Korea and reaching out to me to hang out.  Such was the case this last week as my Singapore students were on their Spring Break.  Two students whom I was especially close to came to Korea together and we got to spend some good times experiencing Korea life.  Likewise, over the last Winter vacation, I got to hang out with another student who I was especially close to.  These visits remind me why I got into this profession and I really value these relationships I have built over the years.  It is good to know that they don't go away.

Wonwoo and I

WonWoo and I at the Trick Eye Museum 

Can't visit Korea without some Korean BBQ

Carissa acting like she knows how to use chopsticks

Julie looking "natural"

So many memories with these two

Carissa conquering her fear of dogs

Making friends

*I was told I had to include this picture

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Fashion Comparison

If I asked you to tell the difference between a French, Australian, or American without hearing them talk, could you do it?  Possibly you could, but it wouldn't be based on their looks.  Chances are you would use their fashion and style as your indicators of their nationality.

I sometimes get asked a similar question in Korea, which is if I can tell the difference between Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese.  Sometimes I feel there is a hidden agenda in this question and that they are basically asking, "how racist are you?"  But I tell them that I usually can (not always) based on what they wear.

Despite the world becoming more globalized, there are still some things that are fashionable in one country that are not accepted in the other.  In this post, I will identify some of the fashion trends that are popular in Korea that would get some second, and maybe third, glances in America.

Men's Fashion:

  • Turtle necks:
    • I actually don't know if these are popular or not in the U.S. right now, but when I left America I wouldn't be caught dead wearing one, and many guys wear them here.
  • Dyed hair/Perms:
    • The most noticeable difference in men's fashion is the hairstyles.  It is not uncommon for a guy to sport colorful hair colors, such as green, pink, white, red, even grey!  The strangest style to me though, is the perm!

Woman's Fashion:
  • Curlers in public:
    • These days it is very fashionable for young girls to have bangs, and for these bangs to be curled.  Girl's apparently think this look is so attractive that they are willing to sacrifice looking ridiculous part of the time in order to look good the other part.  I say this because I see many young girls walking around in public with the curler still in their hair.  
  • Tennis shoes with a dress:
    • I have to admit that Koreans, for the most part, out dress Americans by a long shot.  They will dress up nicely just for running errands or grabbing a quick lunch.  However, I have never understood why they would make the effort to make their whole outfit look really nice and then give up when they got to their shoes, but I see it at least once a day.  Some girl wearing really nice clothes, obviously spent a lot of time on her hair and make-up, but then look down and say to myself, "WHAT ARE THOSE!?"  What I see is a pair of off-brand and usually dirty sneakers.

Couples
  • Matching Everything
    • This is a very common and disgusting trend in Korea.  The equivalent of a couple making out in public, these couples feel it necessary to show everyone that they are together by matching their outfits.  Some couples are a subtle in their declaration of love and may only have "couple shoes", while others go all out with "couple tees", "couple hats", "couple pants", "couple shoes", and "couple jackets".  Some stores even sell outfits you can buy as a couple!  Dressed as twins, these couples walk around so proudly, and I will never understand that.  You want people to know you are a couple?  Hold each other's hands; trust me, we will get the picture.
  • Couple Rings
    • Although this sounds a little cheesy, I actually like the idea of this even though I don't think I would ever do it myself.  But in Korea, it is common for dating couples, just as it is with married couples, to exchange rings and wear them.  Now the reason I like this is because it makes it really convenient for single guys like me.  It is easier to spot if a girl has a boyfriend or not.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Profiting from Love

Many of the secular holidays that we celebrate in the US are not celebrated in Korea.  Holidays such as St. Patricks Day, Cinco de Mayo, and other holidays are largely ignored in Korea outside of the international community.  However, one that is not is Valentines Day, but Korea does have a slightly different way to celebrate this holiday.  In fact they found a way to turn this day into three separate holidays: Valentines Day, White Day, and Black Day.  Where as in the USA love is expressed reciprocally with both the man and woman in a relationship buy each other gifts and candies, in Korea everybody gets their own day to feel special.  Here is how it works:

Valentines Day: February 14th
This is the man's special day.  On this day, woman treat the men to dinner and usually buy chocolates for their significant other.

My Valentine's Day Gift


White Day: March 14th
This is the day for the man to payback and show his love to the girl.  As a guy, it is a huge advantage going second in this exchange.  We get to see exactly what we are competing with, know exactly what we have to top, and have an extra month to do it.  I feel this had to be intentional.


Black Day: April 14th
Not wanting to leave out people who are not in a relationship they even created a day for singles.  On Black Day friends who are not in a committed relationship will gather and typically eat 짜장면, which is a noodle dish with a thick black sauce (also one of my favorite dishes in Korea).

짜장면

The motive for this is up for debate.  On one side you could argue that it gives each person their own day to feel special, rather than just blend it all together.  It is also nice as a guy, because you know exactly what you have to top and get a month to plan and prepare for it.  The more skeptical might argue that is only a ploy to spread the wealth out over 3 months and encourage more economic spending.  Whichever is the intended motive for the alteration of this holiday's traditions from its Western origins (perhaps its a combination of the two), it certainly gives more to look forward to.