If a picture is worth a thousand words, my aim is to leave you with at least a million. This is a retrospective look at my time spent in Korea: the culture shock, the resultant highs and lows, the sights and occasionally the sounds of the world that became my home far away from home. Not to mention the inevitable reverse culture shock ...

  1. [North] KPop

    [click title for link]

    Thoughts of KPOP conjure images of bubblegum themed videos, cookie cutter girl groups and anime-esque, buff, BB creamed boy bands.  And maybe even a mother father gentleman named PSY.  Probably because KPOP (Korean Pop) has been synonymous with South Korea.  Rightfully so.  Most of us assume North Korea has always had a plate full of other goals besides breaking into the music industry.  Obviously, just as in the story of ‘The Little Engine That Could’, we’ve underestimated the power of the underdog.

    I first learned of the North Korean ‘girl group’ Moranbong a while ago but not until a friend passed along this video a few days ago did I remember their fascinating existence.  Watching the video, I did spot a parallel between them and their more popular Southern neighbor.  The attention to synchronicity is evident in both even though the choreography in this NoKo video is not as elaborate nor provocative as those by Brown Eyed Girls or SNSD.  Watching KPOP, you get a sense that not a head twirl, knee pop or wink is unrehearsed and having witnessed it live, it is a sight to behold.  

    The other thing which caught my eye was the choice of dress of the lead singers.  Although slightly dated, mini dresses are not unlike those of SoKo pop or even young trot (quirky, ‘Casio keyboard’ style music popular with the older Korean generation).  Was that intentional?  I have no clue.

    Dresses and dance moves aside, the content of the songs could not be more polar.  So-KPOP often sings of the cute, lovey-dovey side of life while this No-KPOP song had one clear, direct message: STUDY! For the sake of our nation’s future!  Konglish, a dear friend of So-KPOP’s music, was not even invited to NoKo’s party as the entire song was sung in Korean — no loan words, no fused words, just straight Korean.

    Now that I think about it, education is a major focal point for both nations. NoKo chooses to sing about it whereas SoKo chooses to spend “1/3 of household income” on it.  At the end of the day, something as trivial as pop music proves that DMZ aside, it really is just ONE Korea.

    1 year ago
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  5. SoKo: A thing of beauty

    [click title for link]

    Beauty, much like fashion, is an issue the world over so again,  I’m not referring to an issue which is unique to SoKo.  I am, however referring to the unique way in which SoKo deals with it.  

    I recently came across these pictures of South Korean women post-plastic surgery by the artist Ji Yeo and it immediately stirred something inside of me.  That ‘something’ can best be described as a mix of bewilderment, sadness and one small part resignation.  Although I was a foreigner and not subjected to the same standards and pressures which the locals were, it didn’t stop me from noticing the scrutiny of the female form: women are simultaneously encouraged to be cute AND sexy.  Those are polar opposites, though.  On top of that, women are often judged first and foremost on the basis of their attractiveness and it’s easy to see where the national plastic surgery craze stems from.

    Speaking with a co-worker, I asked what traits Korean men often looked for in women.  Her response, “How pretty she is.  Her face. Her body.”  To be fair, she was an older woman who was already married and admitted that she loved her husband for his personality and the feeling was mutual.  As someone who is comfortably married, her opinion might simply be her glancing in on youth culture and their apparent motivations.  Nevertheless, when there are ideas such as these floating around coupled with mandatory photos on job applications, it becomes imperative that you nip and tuck away newly discovered imperfections, zap away fat, overhaul your dental state and subject yourself to painful recovery that accompanies these bewildering procedures.

    SoKo is a country where shame over surgical procedures is thrown to the wind and women openly wear bandages over noses and sunglasses in subways to mask freshly operated on eyes.  This brazen display of cosmetic work is almost a badge of honor because it says, “Whatever it takes”.

    Here at home, I’d recently struck up a conversation with a Korean American and before long, we were laughing over all the procedures we knew: the ubiquitous double eyelid surgery, injection of fat under the eye (mimicking the same feature commonly seen on infants in promotion of ‘looking cute’), jaw shaving (to slim down what many Koreans view as faces which are ‘too round’ and ‘too wide’), breast augmentation and calf reduction surgery (slimming athletic calves otherwise viewed as too muscular).  It highlighted issues which in the West, were not even noticeable let alone fixated upon.

    My bewilderment stemmed from so many people casually going under the knife.  I’d met a 15 year old girl in my town who at her mother’s urging, underwent double eyelid surgery and was soon to get her nose done.  Her mother simply felt “it was necessary, her eyes were too small and her nose could be ‘sharper’.”  When I hear surgery, my mind drifts towards emergency circumstances rather than casual affairs done over lunch breaks.

    The sadness comes when I remember how females scrutinize their image and talk of losing just a few pounds when they already live in healthy bodies.  

    Fortunately, I see it for what it is: protection of social capital.  They are judged on the basis of their looks to the point that appearance can be viewed as a kind of currency.  By extension, every adjustment of a loose strand of hair, reapplication of lipstick on the train and cosmetic procedure is merely a necessary form of asset management.

    1 year ago
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  7. Konglish Lesson

    "OK. Call." = Deal

    1 year ago
  8. One of the beauties of living in Korea is the accessibility of nature.  Yes, there are public parks in most parts of the developed world but when you get used to living in the city and have to make plans to go hiking and drive out of the concrete, red brick jungle, into ‘nature’, it may seem not worth it and highly abstract.  Living within close proximity to rivers, hills (often called mountains in SoKo) and valleys, my environment became me and I started to notice a change in my sleeping cycle, eating habits and attitude.
Lest someone think this is limited to the most interior parts of the country, even Seoul, the most populous city in the country, is home to Bukhan Mountain and provides convenient respite from the grind that accompanies one of the largest cities in the world.
Having returned, even though a bike ride through the hills to the next town is out of the picture, I’m grateful for the open spaces and imported, meticulously planted trees. 1 year ago
  9. Three strangers, three very real personifications of exhaustion.
With all the late hours on the job and countless hours spent studying in cram schools known as 학원 (hag-won), sometimes catching a nap on the subway is the only remedy. 1 year ago
  10. Konglish Lesson

    "Remo con" = Remote Control

    1 year ago
  11. It wouldn’t be called culture shock if it weren’t shocking.  The student above was 6 years old when the picture was taken and if this image strikes you as cute, you have every right to feel that way.
The Back-story: he started off with one shaky tooth but somewhere in between two classes on two different days, he’d ‘magically’ (for lack of a better word) lost two teeth.  I asked a co-worker what happened and very casually she told me “oh, he went to the dentist and got them pulled”.
Oh? Just like that?
I was dumbfounded because I was used to a shaky tooth falling out on its own.  I remember eating lunch with a tooth on the cusp of making its grand exit only to discover one bite later, a crunch.  You knew what that meant and you were happy.  Apparently, even teeth are subjected to various cultural practices.  My first concern was why parents would want to subject their children to having not just one tooth but two and sometimes three teeth pulled?  
The Reasoning: these other teeth are slightly loose so let’s just take care of them all at once (maybe there’s a pull one, pull another half off discount?). OK, but what about the trauma?  Has a culture of tooth fairies and coin exchange left me numb to the reality of this experience?
As I waited in a Korean dentist office (with no real partitions) once, I could hear a young child screaming for his life somewhere in ‘the back’.  Even though I shared nervous glances with other adults in the waiting area, I dismissed what I heard as a child with a low pain threshold.   In retrospect, he was probably having his teeth unwittingly pulled.
Am I the only one who finds this peculiar? 1 year ago
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