I’m living and working in Seoul for four weeks – two-ish down, two to go. (Dear Readers: I hesitated to say I’m away, because I’m afraid some of you might try to break into my house. Please don’t!) My life so far is a series of contradictions. Not in the bad sense. Maybe in the sense of yin and yang?
Or maybe in the sense of what I heard as a child: that everything in China is upside-down. If we take China as used metonymically for Asia, and if we see the claim as a metaphor, then I think I agree – at least as applied to my own experience.
Night and Day: I live in two time zones. Seoul is 13 hours ahead of where my wife and most of my friends and colleagues live (no offense to anyone outside of EST). 13 hours – almost an exact mirror, with often mirror-opposite activities occurring simultaneously (breakfast-dinner, sleep-work … If I sleep super late, which the jetlag has made me do (not the soju, of which I’ve had very little) , then it’s breakfast-midnight snack).
Expertise and Ignorance: I’m teaching law in an accelerated program for outstanding Korean law students. Most of my time is spent teaching and preparing to teach Civil Procedure and, soon, Evidence, subjects I know well. The rest of the time, I’m illiterate. Most of the signage here is in the Korean script, Hangul. Ditto for operating switches and buttons on machines, such as my washer-dryer and some ATMs. I’m working on my Korean language skills when I can, which means not very often, because my law teaching takes priority. I’m getting comfortable with ignorance.
Admiration and Condescension: A big difference between Koreans and Americans is that Koreans widely hold teachers in high esteem. The attacks on teachers that pervaded the U.S. media a few months ago would probably be unthinkable in Korea. Here, there is gratitude and respect for people who share what they know and who make great efforts to do so. Obviously, I like that. Perhaps this respect is one reason Korea is on its way up, and the U.S. seems locked in a downward spiral? A culture can’t get very far if its people despise and devalue learning and education.
Don’t say I’m conflating our public school system and teachers’ unions with teachers of all kinds and learning in general. I’m not. For example, I’ve stopped counting how many times I’ve had people ask me, dumbfounded, why I’d rather be a law professor than practice law. (Though practicing lawyers rarely ask me that.)
Big Eaters Who Aren’t Big: There are very few fat Koreans. It’s not for lack of eating: I see thin, fit people eat great, hearty meals. (I’m not saying they eat too much or overindulge.) Is it because they workout all the time? Something in the food? Some other secret? Stay tuned for my next post.
Kimchi With a Fork? My first taste in Korea of one of my longtime favorite foods, Kimchi, was in an American restaurant. (link: http://www.lifeinkorea.com/culture/kimchi/kimchi.cfm) On one of my first nights here, my wonderful host took me out to dinner on the U.S. Amry base. Now I have a big bucket of Kimchi at my apartment
Hang in There: No wonder yesterday I felt strangely comfortable on the hang-from-your-ankles-machine that generally goes unused in the gym in my building. Well, comfortable after I was pretty sure I’d found the switch that would bring me back to feet-first.
Na-jung-e bwae-yo! 나중에 봬요! (See you later!)