I arrived in Korea on the 17th of February, exactly 3 weeks ago. 21 days. But being in Korea already feels normal, like I’ve been living here for months. And that’s despite the fact that I still only know about 60 words in the language, and most of those are things like “teacher” and “pharmacy”. Being unable to converse with 98% of the human beings who live near me doesn’t feel odd anymore. That familiarity is itself really odd when I stop to think about it, but I suppose it’s a testament to humans’ capacity for rapid adaptation to new contexts.
But I doubt there is any precedent for this sort of displacement in our evolutionary history. I woke up (at 3:30am, ugh) in Virginia, and 21 hours later I was 7,000 miles west, on a different continent. It’s actually sort of impressive that this sort of thing doesn’t have disastrous psychological consequences on us. And under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that the few dozen English speakers here in Chungju would tend to stick together, an island of English in a sea of Korean. But what’s interesting is how the need to have friends who speak English steamrolls over personality differences and our interests in different hobbies. Basically, when you have only one or two dozen people to choose as friends, you can’t be picky.
That said, some of us are really interested in trying to learn the language so we can actually make Korean friends, while others of us plan to stick with English and depend on that smaller network of folks. It’s an interesting situation. If I were a psychologist I’d apply for a grant to do a study. But I’m not, so I won’t. I myself fall more into that first category, with my desire to meet and befriend Koreans providing a great impetus to study the language. That latter option will be harder here than in a larger city–Seoul has a huge foreigner population, and even whole sections of the city that are known as foreigner districts (see Itaewon). But I’ve met people who have worked in Korea for years who still can’t hold a conversation in Korean, so presumably you can get by that way.
That’s not to say that I’m avoiding my fellow foreigners, and in fact I experienced my first Shrove Tuesday pancakes on Tuesday with about a dozen other teachers. There’s an Irish couple working here and they invited us all over and made us some delicious, thin, crepe-like pancakes. Which they like to cover with lemon juice(?)–or ice-cream. I opted for the latter course, myself. I also attended an Ash Wednesday service at a Catholic Church here (my first Ash Wednesday service, in fact). This was the second Korean church I had visited, and noticed something that really caught me off guard at the first one, which leads me to believe this is a common practice at Korean churches in general: most of the women had a sort of small, white, crocheted shawl over their heads. This sort of thing basically fell out of practice in the West a century or two ago, so I’m really curious what place it has in Korean culture. Is it linked to a similar practice in traditional culture here? Or was it borrowed from the West under the influence of a few Bible passages that mention head-coverings for women?
More interesting questions for me to research once I get a paycheck and can actually get some books on the history of Korean Christianity.