Saturday, December 4, 2010

Friday December 3rd 2010

Don't feel like making my school assignment about 'Sinterklaas', so it's time to post on this forgotten blog.

This blog post is going to be a summary about my day, commenting on unusual behavior compared to the life I was used to in Belgium. This post is mainly directed to all the people out there who have never been in Korea and wonder what life here is like. There are so many things which we take for granted and are considered normal, so I'm going to go into detail. Prepare to be bored.

My day starts as usual by getting annoyed by my alarm clock waking me up at 7.30. Going into the bathroom to take a shower, the first thing I notice is that there is no shower curtain or anything to keep the water away from the rest of the bathroom. In Korea it's not surprising to see a bathroom which is basically a toilet/shower stall/bathroom in 1. So having your entire bathroom soaked after taking a shower isn't an unusual event. Good news for girls: Guys will be motivated more to put the toilet seat down to prevent ending up with a wet behind after taking a dump. Bad news: It's not unlikely to see your toilet paper completely soaked after a shower. So best not to just hang it out there. Also having your socks or pants getting wet after going to the bathroom is quite likely, since the floor is wet most of the times. Especially if 2 or more people are using the same bathroom. Usually there will be some bathroom slippers ready for you. Leaving your clothes somewhere dry and safe is another issue. Usually there are no or is just one hook to hang your clothes on. I never bothered to ask how others solve this problem, so I don't know what the best way is, so I guess you just have to be creative. Click to see Korean bathroom

Coming out the shower it's time to get dressed and leave. Yet another pair of slippers awaits you at the door. In Korean houses/temples/rooms/kiosks/... and even at outside wooden constructions (as you can see, no shoes) to chill, it is the custom to wear slippers inside the house and to leave your outdoors shoes at the door. If winter comes they will get more creative and buy cuter, warmer shoes to wear inside, but as the rule goes outdoor shoes are only to be used outside and inside shoes inside. Which isn't that unusual in even most of the European homes either (as I recall, most of the people I know have the custom of taking of the shoes at the entrance, but we tend to be less strict about it), but what makes it different in Korea is that it is really enforced and we wouldn't usually change our shoes, but just walk around without any. If you make a mistake wearing your shoes passed the place where you should have changed your shoes into more comfortable shoes, which is usually just a 1x1 meter area packed with shoes (See here, here, ...), they will tend to get a bit agitated. That's why usually people have spare slippers at home for guests, so they wouldn't have to walk barefoot or on their socks. This principle is enforced on even the most unusual places, like a changing room at a clothing store, at kiosks, on wooden outdoor constructions, ... and probably more which I haven't encountered yet.

As different shoes have different usage, you can understand that it can be a hassle to bring different pairs of shoes with you for every possible situation you might end up into. I already explained that it is the hosts duty to offer you slippers when you are invited, but it is also not uncommon to leave your shoes at the location of its usage. For example the gym at our school. It has 2 shoe racks for you to put your shoes in to exchange them for your sporting shoes. As people tend to be lazy in this country (who isn't lazy at times), they just leave their sport shoes there and don't even bother to bring them to there room. The first thing that would pop into my mind is 'They do not get stolen?'. As you could expect, the answer is 'No'. Nobody will border stealing them. This is also one of the reasons the rack is filled with shoes, probably even with forgotten, ownerless shoes (same as with the cloth racks). You might think this is just more common here because I'm living in the country side, but even when I was staying in Seoul at my small Goshiwon, we had the same principle. People left their shoes in small boxes or on top of the boxes at the entrance. The boxes had no key, so everybody could just take whichever shoes they would like, but this never happened. Because of this kind of behavior the university sometimes feels like my own big house with hundreds of brothers and sisters. Which Koreans actually call each other when they become friends. Older people are usually referred to as 'big brother' or 'big sister'. Like the woman at the school store is called 'Aunt'. Even in restaurants people tend to call the people working their (usually women) 'aunts'. You should watch out using this custom as a foreigner though. Some people don't like to be called either of these things by a foreigner and are reluctant to call a foreigner by one of these names.

Walking through the hall to the elevator I see the whole hallway completely filled with cloth racks. After doing their laundry people put their laundry to dry in the hallway. The cloth racks used to be owned by the students there, but these days, they are just for everybody to be used as you like, since most of the owners already left the school. I never stayed at a dormitory so I actually have no clue how people dry their clothes there, but I've never seen racks filling up the hallway. Especially since you usually don't want people to see your underwear, which brings me to the fact that in Korea dormitories (I think even all of them?) have genders separated. Boys and girls have their own floor and sometimes even their own building. If you are even spotted at the other gender's dormitory their can be severe consequences. So having your underwear out in the open in the hallway or staircase isn't that much of a problem anymore.

I've finally reached the elevator to go down to the cafeteria. What is the first thing I notice? The handsome guy in the elevator looking at me how I enter the elevator. In most of the Korean elevators there is a mirror to give you the opportunity to check if your hair is as you want it to be, if your makeup is okay, ... Everybody that enters the elevator is forced to check if he looks good enough. Even I start to make a habit out of it. I'm usually to lazy to actually do something about it, but that's not the point. When I turn around to the buttons to press B1 to go down, I notice something strange. There is no '4'? Instead there is an 'F'. This is not uncommon in more Asian countries using Korean characters, since the character used for '4' is the same character (or similar?) to the character for 'Death', so people avoid using it. Some countries even go as far as to rename (eg 3B) or even leave out the 4th floor. For example the famous 63-building in Yoido, Seoul, which hasn't got a 44th floor. More on Korean cultural believes here. For Asian elevator press here, here, ...

For breakfast the cafeteria gives us the choice between some cornflakes, bread or warm rice with kimchi, warm meet and a soup!? Yes, it is not uncommon to have a warm meal for breakfast. In general there is no big difference between breakfast, lunch and dinner at our cafeteria. This is not spread amongst everyone obviously, but I just wanted to point out that it is not uncommon to have a warm breakfast. While this would be uncommon back at home.

While going to class it's hard not to notice all the water distributors standing in every hallway. They do not only contain cold water, but also hot water. Drinking a cup of tea or coffee during your class was never this cheap and easy. You just need to prepare a cup and the needed powder, the water is right there in front of your classroom for you to use without any charge. This habit is not only common in schools, but at offices, restaurants, ... Most public places have this, except for public toilets, which on its own is also something we don't have in Belgium. If you need to go to the bathroom, you are forced to enter a bar or restaurant and most of the times they ask you to buy a drink for using the toilet or the toilet has a lady which will ask you usage fee. This reminds me of the fact that all the dirty jobs in this country are done by older people. I have never seen a garbage collector, cleaner, ... who wasn't a middle aged man or woman, sometimes even older.

During class it is not abnormal to hear the sound of a cellphone. While this isn't that abnormal even back at home, it's usually limited by the students and still only once in a while. While here it is during every single class. And like I indicated it not only happens by the students, our teachers' cellphone usually goes off for up to 5-6 times per class. The only thing she seems to do about it is complain and getting annoyed, but somehow shutting the damn thing off is not an option. She is a good teacher, but at times she tends to say strange and even offensive things. Calling me skinny and giving me the last kimbab piece is one of the things I got used to (not that I really mind, because this means more food for me^^), but calling other people chubby or boring, giving advice on how to put your hair to look more pretty, asking us to ask a question to the person we think is the prettiest in the room, talking down on us (This is actually normal in Korea, but I can get a bit offended by the fact that she's not polite in her speaking towards us, but I guess this is more my own problem), calling one of the guy students 'darling' (오빠) so he would sing a song in class, playing games during class, asking about personal lives (boyfriend/girlfriend stuff mainly) ... One of the other peculiar things that happened during class was the fact that our teacher wanted to have a party to celebrate the ending of the semester. Which in its own isn't that strange, but we are having it the day before our exam. Not that I mind, not at all, just strange and something hard to imagine happen back at home.

After class I planned on going to Daejeon to shop and have some fun. Since we had to go a long way some people took out their cute pillows or sleeping patches. Sleep is important and good for your health ; ) After thanking the driver, we get out of the bus, ready to go to the department store. Greeting bus drivers, cooks at the school restaurant, ... is not that uncommon for the people of our school. We also tend to great everybody we meet in the floor with a friendly anyeonghaseyo + bow/annyeong + wave (depending on how well you know the person). Our university is a bit 'famous' for that, because I never had this experience at any other university. Except maybe at smaller restaurants or bars, people tend to be more familiar at these kind of places too. You don't need to wait for the waiter to come and take your order at smaller places or outside stands. Just shout your order, they will bring it and put it on your bill, which is at your table at all time. You just have to take that to the register and they calculate whatever you owe them.

Going inside the department store, you should see tons of employees waiting to help you with whatever you need. At first I felt really awkward about somebody approaching you or talking to you at every step you take, but you get used to it/get better at ignoring them. While walking through shops it's not uncommon to be yelled at and asked to come inside their shop, because they have new offers or a discount. If this isn't enough, some shops even hire beautiful girls to get you into their shops. The pushiest I have seen so far is one of the promoting girls taking a girls wrist almost pushing her into the shop. Also when a big store is opening its door, they usually hire some beautiful girls to dance in front of the store to get people's attention. Click here, here, ...

When going into a store it's common to be greeted by the employees with a friendly, but sometimes not that friendly and rather forced, 'Welcome, please come in.'. Like it's normal to say/shout something when going outside of restaurants by saying 'Please stay well' or 'Thank you' (In Korean obviously). Although I noticed that in bigger stores, employees tend to just shout this occasionally when they are in the back or follow others shouting it, even if they didn't see anybody enter the store. After choosing everything I might wanted, I went to the changing cabinets. Not knowing, I just walked inside the cabinet with my shoes on, which triggered on of the employees to shout 'Please take off your shoes'. Going inside the cabinet, again the lack of hangers and a sign. The sign said that you could change the length of your pants if it isn't as you expected. If your pants cost more than 30.000won (20 euro), you could ask them to make the pants shorter for you without extra cost. If your pants cost less than 30.000 won, you had to pay 2.000 won (1.33 euro).

Getting quite hungry it was time to eat. My shopping partner wanted to go to Burger King, so no problem. I always fancy a burger. Sitting there talking, I started to notice more of the small details. If we order an ice cream, we get a plastic spoon, but I guess that's just too boring for Koreans (could be American thing too though, since Burgerking came from America obviously, but lets pretend it's Korean, so I can finish my sentence), because now we got this wooden, flat, construction/toy(?), which you had to fold into a spoon to eat with. Looking more around me looking at the smaller details, the first things that came to mind where the fact that you usually see bigger groups of people. Seeing someone eating alone is really uncommon, because they will have the label 'loner' (Same at home, but Koreans just care more about these kind of things, so they prefer to hang out in groups). Usually the groups are unisex or couple hanging out. I'm really generalizing here. Too be honest I never actually payed too much attention to that, but that was the impression I got. Also girls are aggressive ^^. It's not uncommon to see a girl hiss and raise her hand, hitting someone, usually a guy. The idea I have now is that girls are more aggressive towards guys, but again, as I didn't give it too much attention, I'm not sure. Like it is also not a strange thing to see 2 people play rock, paper scissors over the fact who can hit, flick, pinch, ... the other. Too think of it, I was even playing this in the bus to the department store... Uniforms. A lot of jobs require uniforms, much more than in Belgium. Waiters, students (every student up until highschool, which is at the age of 18), at the bookstores, ... Lastly, the fact that you can always refill your drink at eating places. Not only water, but everything. Just order a coke and you get infinite refill. I'm not sure if this is really everywhere, but I experienced this at Mister Pizza, a restaurant, Burgerking. Which is basically every place where I ever bought some drink and didn't just drink water. If only this was possible at bars ; )

Almost time to go back to the bus stop to get the last free school bus. Heading in the direction of the exit, we saw a theatre hall. Department stores in Korea are usually from 7 to 17 and probably more stories high, they are big and coming from a country with less people then the capital here, you can imagine that we don't have big department stores. While Korean department stores have cinema halls, tons of restaurants, karaokes, .... just use your imagination, they will probably have it for sale. And I really mean everything... Having talked about going to an arcade for so long, it was finally our chance to go there. The video games all being super addictive, I was glad that we only had a short time and that the prices were quite cheap (500 won/33 eurocents) per game.

Smoothie Time! Getting kind of hungry again, it was time for a smoothie. Nothing worth mentioning here, except for the fact that my shopping partner gets a textmessage for every time her card gets used. Which is actually really convenient if you ever lose it without knowing it. While drinking the smoothie I was reminded by something that has made me think 'wtf' every time I saw it. It were the 1 meter high doors. Somehow they ran out of door, or people where really short back in the day, but it is not that strange to see a door being only 1 meter high with people almost crawling out of it. Lets hope this is for money purposes and not just a sick prank of the designer.

Since I'm kind of bored of writing and I really should start on that assignment, I will end this post with a remark on 'cuteness'. How this is experienced completely different from back at home. I ended up with 5 definitions for the Korean word for 'cute'. Basically everything that is small or young is cute, which is understandable for us. But it doesn't stop there and I know this clearly doesn't apply to every Korean, but I heard the word 'cute' being used in these kind of situation way too often. Cute is also used for guys looking feminine, guys looking like nerds or for guys without confidence. The last one really surprised me. Even for really ugly and weird object it's possible to see a korean go 'ooh, cute^^', but I guess this is the least common version. To recapitulate; Cute is used on nerdy guys, feminine guys, strange objects, small objects, people looking really young. Since cute is usually a compliment it brings me to another issue. In Belgium it's usually not really a compliment to be called 'cute', because it makes you feel like a small little boy, so this usually isn't a compliment, since girls usually like a boy who looks more mature, rather than a boy/baby-like boy. For the same reason this is a compliment in Korea though. A lot of girls like the cool, strong, mature type, like in every country, but in this country one of the more popular types is the cute guy.

If you have any remarks or think I'm wrong in something I said, please post below.

Peter.

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