Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why I live here

The past few days have neatly summed up why I like to live in South Korea. Korea is intense, in-your-face, and both unashamed and unaware of its free-wheeling, anything-goes nature. Yes, it's a society where even kids adopt the Confucian idea of using honourifics to refer to elders, but that's not going to attract anyone into moving here.

The other day, I went shopping for contact lenses at the Namdaemun market in central Seoul. Namdaemun is popular with tourists, so I was wary of a ripoff. I spent some time concocting an elaborate story which explained that I was a Pakistani student that only spoke a smattering of Chinese, and therefore prevent me from being ripped off. However, when I finally walked into a store, I was in and out so fast that I didn't even notice what had happened. I asked if I needed a prescription to buy contacts, he replied by asking for my "number", which I told him, and then he asked for $20, which I gave to him.

Canada has rep hockey, Kenya wrenches out the front teeth of children, and my school had a vicious game show-like quiz competition that weeds out about two-thirds of the kids in the first two minutes, continues for a punishing 45 minutes. Punitive would be the best word to describe this if you're a Canadian, but if you consider that elementary schoolchildren have a class on morals once a week and that a day of high school is 15 hours, we were quite kind to them.

In exchange, students rewarded us by making us feel like either rock stars or caged baboons, I haven't decided yet. At a ceremony concluding our month-long English camp, they swamped the stage with cell phone cameras, eventually making it impossible for anyone to speak or walk. They asked for cell phone numbers, home phone numbers, and email addresses. Mothers demanded we pose for pictures and one sincere mother pointed her business-like video camera to me and said "may-see-jee".

"Message? I can give you my [email] if you, uh -- oh, God, you're recording this?"

Still, I got a box of cookies out of it and I met this professional comedian, all part of the charm of life in the swankiest half of the Korean peninsula.

Afterwards, I bought dinner for my friends with a crisp 50,000 won-note from the envelope of 50,000-won notes that was my salary. They rewarded me by driving all the way across the province, a distance of 40 km, to take me home, where my now-former coworkers were deep in the midst of a Korean-style work gathering. These are basically contests of endurance that end when everyone falls asleep at a karaoke bar or fried chicken restaurant sometime around dawn. I didn't quite make it to dawn, but about half of us did.

In the end, I went to see the pompous changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Deoksu Palace in central Seoul. Keeping it all real was an old man in the distance, his beard proving that he certainly had not kept up with the times, who shouted incoherently at the guards.


Jennifer said...

It sounds like S. Korea is your new home.

Seadog said...

Buying dinner for your co-workers, now, huh? Must be nice.

Also, I like the idea of a class on morals. I think they should do that here.

Shan said...

andré said...

How come you never talk about East or West Korea?

(Pause for drum crash, laughter.)

I'll be here all night, folks.

Adeel said...

I usually just say Korea. South Korea is more official, usually something I reserve for not-so-worldly relatives and jittery immigration officials.