Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Redressing the balance

While looking for something non-work related to read this evening, I stumbled across a blog written by a Daegu expat who I met a few weeks ago. The blog is extremely vitriolic, and while the views expressed have clearly been thought through, it didn't sit well with me. Put simply, there were lengthy discussions of racism in Korea, and the general bad treatment foreigners receive here. I'm not going to wade in on any big debates because I've only been here a short time, but it made me want to share my own very positive experiences of Korea, just to set the balance right in my own little corner of the universe. So here's my top five moments in no particular order:

The moment my rowdiest middle school boys looked up the word 'cheeky' in their electronic dictionary. They could not have been more entertained that a teacher would call them 'impertinent'. These are the same kids who named 'Jen Monster' as the most scary Halloween character. They are probably my most fun group to teach, though I doubt much learning goes on in that classroom.

Having my bag pulled out of my hands on the subway, and then being pulled into a seat next to an ajumma. This one requires some explanation: the red line subway in Daegu has a high proportion of older passengers. They are of course more traditional, and they don't like to see a person standing up and holding a heavy bag. So having got up to allow an older lady to sit down, a gentleman across the way promptly grabbed my bag from me and perched it on his lap. Once he'd left, the lady next to him pulled on my jacket to make me sit next to her. She then smiled at me and looked generally pleased until we left.

Being given a Korean name. Having learned that some expats are given a Korean name, I was very keen to have one. So I asked our favourite barmen at Go Go Vinyl to name me. They said they would think about it, and when we wobbled past later that night, they said they'd come up with one: 최 미 나 (Che Mi Na). I know I'm easily pleased, but it definitely made me smile.

How are you today? Every day I ask my students how they are, and they have to give me a reason why. The little ones often say something like 'I'm really really very very always always much-i much-i... terrible... becau-juh... many school homework-uh.' Last week it rained pretty heavily, which doesn't happen much at this time of year. So when I asked one of my favourite elementary students 'How are you today, Sally?' she answered 'Today teacher, I am dirty.' Turns out rain is dirty. Who knew?

The moment an ajumma apologised to me. I have been shushed on the KTX (high speed) trains more times than I can count. They like trains to be quiet here, and my voice just carries. On an early morning train back to Daegu from Busan, an older lady shushed me after I'd spoken on the phone for only a few moments in my best 'indoor voice'. I then grumbled to my friend that it was completely ridiculous when I really hadn't been noisy. A few moments later she stood up, looked me square in the eye and said 'I'm sorry sister'. Oh my. I said it was ok of course, and made sure to smile and bow politely when I got off the train, but I was really confused by this whole encounter. I asked a friend about it and she said that using family terms to address strangers is common in Korea, but usually it corresponds to the relative age, so an older person wouldn't normally call me 'sister'. Maybe it was a mistranslation, but it definitely didn't feel like the disrespect we foreigners are supposed to get all the time. It felt like a genuine apology for overstepping the mark. Wherever you are in the world, that's a nice thing.

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