Adaptation; or, I’ve Been In Korea For Only 3 Weeks?(!)

Oh hey! They named a bike after our mountains! But they didn't use spellcheck (click for larger image if you can't see the misspelling)

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.

Korean Catholic women in Mass

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.

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Posted in Amateur Korean Sociology, Life in Chungju | 6 Comments

Hiking North of Chungju

Apartment buildings on one block, rice paddies and mountains the next.

This is going to be a short but picture-heavy post. I hiked up into the mountains north of Chungju today, and had a great time. As I mentioned in my last post, I absolutely love how close the mountains are; considering their proximity, I hope to hike up into them at least once a week. I got a camera yesterday for 209,000 won ($187 ) and although it’s just a compact digital, I actually managed to capture some great shots with it. This shot to the left is actually of the mountains to the east; I hiked up a ridgeline that’s even closer than the peaks you see here. Seriously, you cross an 8-lane highway and then you walk up a 30 degree inclined dirt road, right up onto the mountain. Oh, and a quick note: if you want higher resolution versions of any of the images, just click on them. 14 megapixels of detail await.

Chungju from the mountains north of it. You can see the big 8-lane highway that rings the city.

I suppose because of the proximity of the mountains to Chungju, the number of people living here, and the popularity of hiking among all ages of Koreans, the trails are actually pretty torn up and muddy. Still totally usable though, and the rougher sections have small log stairs built into them to keep the erosion down. I saw a lot of people out today. I’m used to hiking in Appalachia, where you’re lucky to run across one or two other groups a day. I probably passed a fellow hiker every 5-10 minutes. There were some really beautiful views, and though my little camera did a good job, the photos don’t really do the longer shots justice. With the naked eye you can see beyond to the other side of Chungju and the river there, and even the mountain ranges beyond that. It’s ridiculously beautiful.

(Possibly burial?) mounds up on the mountain.

As I was walking along, I didn’t see or hear many animals, though I did come across a Korean woodpecker (or whatever the regional equivalent is called in Korean). I tried to get a shot of him, but he was super skittish and kept shifting to the other side of his tree. He was big, at least by American woodpecker standards, and bright green. I also came across these odd mounds–lots of them. They’re definitely human-made–I think they may actually be burial mounds (which do exist in Korea for sure, but I don’t know if these specific mounds are–going to ask my Korean coworkers tomorrow).

Looks like a somewhat newer house was built on top of a very old foundation.

On the way back down the mountain, I actually walked through some sort of orchard or farm. Again, the contrast with the city just a few hundred yards away was amazing. Most of the buildings were much older than anything I’ve seen in Chungju (where the Ministry of Education is replacing a building because it’s “old”–it was built in the 70s). The farmers didn’t seem to mind hikers walking right through what I presume was their property, and this again was a big contrast, because hikers and cavers in the States have to ask permission before traipsing through private property. I have to say, the greater communal focus here has a lot of advantages.

Cute! And very friendly.

And, finally: dogs in Korea! All seem to be either a) a stock large terrier breed with short, thick fur and a fox-like face or b) a tiny, tiny lap/purse/pocket dog. Some stores seriously have pet lockers for them to wait in while you shop. Ugh. Anyway, I saw five or six dogs as I came down the mountain, and all but one seemed to be the same basic breed described above. This guy on the right was the last one on my trip down. He was super excited to see me. In short, hiking today was great, and I look forward to more trips up the mountains of Chungju.

Posted in Hiking!, Phototography | 6 Comments

The Intersection of Korean Architecture, Religion, & Economics

I never owned a camera in the US. Never felt a need for one. But here in Korea, everything is different, and interesting, and seems deserving of a photo (or two, or three…). I’ve probably taken 150 photos in the 24 hours I’ve owned this camera.

I walked downtown today and then up into the mountains north of Chungju. It’s amazing how you can be standing next to seven huge, 30-storey apartment blocks one minute and be on the ridge of a tree-covered mountain thirty minutes later. The city is literally ringed with mountains, none of them more than half a mile from the wide avenue that rings the city. You can literally be hiking out in the wild, and still hear cars honking. It’s wonderful! because you can be sitting in your apartment, decide you want to go on a hike, head out, be on top of a mountain, and then be back in time for dinner (or lunch, for that matter).

"And thus God sayeth unto me, 'Jeresalem shallest be spellt S-E-O-U-L'."

Anyway, enough of my extolling the virtues of cities-in-mountain-ranges. One of the things I noticed when I first got to Korea was how diverse–and downright odd, at least to my Western eyes–many of the church steeples here are. It’s rather surprising, but more than a third of Koreans are Christian–more than are Buddhist. I’m really interested in the history of evangelism here, because Christianity is all but non-existent in China and Japan, and yet it’s this huge force here. Current president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, even said that “Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea, is a divine city ruled by God and Seoulites are God’s people.” Which sounds like something that, you know, Isaiah or Jeremiah might say. Anyway, the point is that Christianity is a surprisingly important influence here. But 200 years ago, it was basically absent. So Korea’s ‘Christianization’, as it were, was both recent and rapid. What has that meant for the nature of Christianity here? To what extent was people’s enthusiasm for the Word tied up in their enthusiasm for modernism, or Western culture, or whatever else they may have seen Christianity as tied to?

My totally unsupported theory is that Christianity’s spread here, like the spread of Fundamentalism currently in Africa, has at least as much to do with the desire of many people in developing economies to identify with the material trappings of the West as it does with any deep-seated embrace of the spiritual message they’re receiving. That’s not to say that Korean Christians are inauthentic, or unfaithful, or anything of the sort–but I do think it has likely influenced how the faith is understood and practiced here.

Radio Tower? Church? Post-modern Art?

How does any of this tie into my interest in steeples? I’m so glad you asked! Get ready for more crackpot theories and generalizations! (But seriously, it’s a blog; what did you expect?) While in the West steeples are generally built to look old, traditional, and familiar, here I see  all sorts of odd-looking steeples. And it’s not at all that they look traditionally “Korean” or “Asian”. What’s really struck me about most of the steeples I’ve seen in Korea is how often they seem very modern/post-modern/industrial/commercial in design. There are some more traditional (either after the Western or Eastern example) approaches too, but they really seem to be in the minority. I’ve seen glass and steel steeples, vast concrete steeples that resemble the bridge of a cruise ship, steeples that basically seem to be idealized radio towers, even steeples that seem to have been just built on to the side of existing commercial space.

A great example of traditional(ly western) architecture in Korea

Obviously my thoughts on this didn’t develop in a vacuum–Korea is arguably one of the most consumerist societies in the world today. And I’m really curious how the intense (and even more recent and rapid) commercialization of the country (which was basically an agrarian country at the beginning of the 20th century) interacted, and continues to interact with, the recent and rapid Christianization of the country. I don’t really know much yet, so once I actually get a paycheck I’m going to start scouring the interwebs for books on the history of Christianity in Korea. In the meantime, I’m going to keep taking shots of steeples here. If you have any thoughts on any of this,  please leave comments! I’d love to hear any alternate theories or any suggestions for how to go about the research.

Posted in Amateur Korean Sociology, Steeples! | 8 Comments

Buying a Camera; Jehovah’s Witnesses

Yes, I realize that incongruity of the two items in the title. But those are the two salient events from today: one, I bought a camera(!) and so pictures of Chungju will be forthcoming. Two, a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door a few minutes ago, looking for the woman who lived here last year (whose position I took over at the same school–and who, rather coincidentally, is also a Virginian). This raises a number of questions. First, Korean Jehovah’s Witnesses!? Didn’t see that coming. Secondly, how did they ever get the code to enter the building? Thirdly, I think I’ll be seeing them again. How should I handle that? Should I just accept their literature with a smile, or attempt to engage in a theological debate with them? Questions to ponder…

Anyway, speaking of those pictures:

Looking East from my street in Chungju

A flier near my apartment
Posted in Life in Chungju | Leave a comment

Spending Time

Maybe I can just move in here and make the students walk up the mountain if they want their precious English lessons!

The weekend’s coming up, and although this’ll be only a three-day week, I’m ready. Going to hike up into some of the mountains outside of town and get some reading done. A lot of other folks here in Chungju are planning to head to bigger cities–Cheongju, or the obvious Seoul–and I suppose they’ll be meeting new people, bar-hopping, and seeing the sights. And though I don’t really have any desire to join in the travels, I nonetheless feel like I’m missing out on something–like I should want to go bar-hopping in Seoul. But I don’t.

Of course, people who know me at all won’t be surprised to hear that I’d rather walk up a mountain alone than go out drinking. But I’m interested in the psychological and social dynamics at play here. Granted, people are quite diverse, and of course we all like to do different things. But I wonder if other folks who prefer the outdoors or time to themselves feel, like I do, that they are supposed to want to do other things, like go to parties or bar-hopping

And don’t get me wrong–and especially if any of my fellow English teachers in Chungju are reading this!–I’m not criticizing those who do enjoy the bar-hopping, partying, etc. I just can’t relate to it. And I know that I’m in the minority on this one. And that very well may be exactly why I feel some a pang of missing-out when I opt out of those more standard diversions. We humans are, I think, acutely aware of what is normal and acceptable, and when we deviate, I think we automatically feel a need to check our own desires and plans–because if we are diverging from the normal course, it may well be that there’s Something Wrong With Us. And I can see how that psychological process would be valuable to human evolution, keeping us closer-knit, reducing conflict, helping us to build harmonious groups that would be better prepared in times of danger and opportunity.

Still, the effect on an individual in the modern era is rather odd. I’m very much looking forward to my time alone in the mountains while simultaneously worrying that I’m missing out on something–even though I know I wouldn’t enjoy what I’m missing out on. And all the logical explanations aside, it’s still a strange feeling.

Anyone know what I’m talking about?

Posted in Egregious Existential Musings | Leave a comment

Korean Car Ownership

Chungju is, geographically, a tiny city. I pretty much walked across it, both north-to-south and east-to-west today, and it took me about 3-4 hours. It’s compact, but ‘tall’: most people live in huge 30-storey apartment blocks. 210,000 people are packed into about 5 square miles. I walked from the north end of town, where I live, downtown, which is slightly more densely built–mostly with boutiques and restaurants. I can’t imagine owning a car here, because I can literally walk anywhere in the city in about 40-50 minutes. With a bike, I could get anywhere in under 15. There is, and I mean this literally, a rice paddy-surrounded mountain less than a mile from my apartment. Covered in trees! We’re talking picturesque Chinese painting style mountain here, folks! This city is packed in tight!

Look any direction in Chungju, and you pretty much see this (assuming ther isn't a highrise blocking your view).

And yet, there are cars everywhere! The only reason I couldn’t get across town even faster is because at every major street you have to wait a minute or two to cross, because the traffic is intense. There are cars parked everywhere, and most of the big stores have huge parking decks. There are both intra- and inter-city buses as well as trains, so it’s not like there aren’t public transport options.

So I’m curious as to why most (all?) Koreans seem to think they need a car. Urban planners in the US have talked for decades about how compact cities would solve many logistical problems for us; at the top of their list is limiting or even eliminating traffic congestion. If cities are dense enough and suburbs are non-existent, public transportation and, well, our feet, would be completely sufficient for getting around. In Korea, which has a large population living in a tiny space (48 million people living in a country 1/6 the size of Texas–and note that something like 70% of that land is mountain), you would expect people to rely on public transportation and their own two feet. Yet, at least in my city, that’s not the case.

Why not? Why do people pay big money for cars, and big money for gas (which is comparable in cost to gasoline in Europe) just for the privilege to sit in traffic? It’s something I’m really curious about. My first thought is that owning a car is a form of conspicuous consumption: it proves that you have a good education and a good job. You can separate yourself from the peasants by driving your Kia around. And of course, plenty of Americans buy a car (or two, or three…) for similar reasons. But the major difference is that cars really are useful, and even necessary, through most of the US. Even in Richmond, which is reasonably dense at its center, you need a car to get to the malls or any big stores (Target, Wal-Mart, etc.) And these stores are increasingly the only place to get some stuff (unless you want to pay an extra 100% at a Carytown boutique).

So, this post is really a question: why do Koreans own cars? Beyond the status symbol aspect, are there other driving reasons? Any thoughts, links, or comments appreciated!

Posted in Amateur Korean Sociology, Egregious Existential Musings | Leave a comment

Truth in Advertising

Restaurants in Korea make it really clear what they serve. When a restaurant has pictures of chicken feet and chilies all over its signs and banners–guess what?–they serve hot & spicy chicken feet. At least the beer was pretty good, and not terribly expensive. I filled up on salad. They probably had something vegetarian there, but the menu had no pictures and my Korean isn’t good enough yet to ask what options they may have had. Oddly enough, I think my vegetarianism will be a solid further impetus for me to learn Korean; I’m going to need to speak at least passably to order food here.

So that was Friday night. Monday we went into work, but only for about 2 hours, just to meet all the big-wigs at the Office of Education. Meeting people, especially bosses, is really stressful for me here, because the expectations are so different. The bowing, the formalized greetings. Koreans, at least higher-ups, also seem to think they have to compliment your looks. So when we met the Superintendent for the whole city and then the Director of our Center, they both complimented us all, especially our friend with blue eyes. I can’t imagine anything like that occurring in the States. Today’s Independence (from the hated Japanese) Day, so I’m going to try and get out and explore the city some more.

I’ve already managed to see a bit of it, because Chungju doesn’t sprawl at all. There are literally rice paddies 300 feet from 30-storey apartment blocks. So even though there are more than 200,000 people living here, the city isn’t wider than 4 miles–which is great. I can walk from one end to the other in less than an hour if I don’t get stopped up at the big intersections.

As for the Northern English Center itself, the building is ridiculously well-equipped. It’s only a year old, and there are flat screen TVs in every classroom. And each room has a theme (hospital, restaurant, city hall, etc.) to facilitate teaching English through content. All three of our Korean co-teachers are incredibly nice and seem genuinely excited to meet us. The only downside, really, is that our Center doesn’t operate like a regular school. Students from all over northern Chungbuk come for an intensive one-week  English immersive experience, and then go home to their normal schools. So we won’t get to really build relationships with our students. Additionally, we’ll basically be repeating the same lesson plans over and over every week (though we’ll be switching rooms, and therefore themes and lesson plans, every few months). All in all, though, I’m really happy with my placement, as there are other GETs (Guest English Teachers) at schools where the co-teachers barely speak English and they have classes with over 40 students, many of whom are undisciplined (we heard some horror stories in orientation). So I think I’m actually pretty lucky.

Ok, this is a pathetically short post, but people keep asking for updates from me, so I just wanted to get something down.

Update: For any doubting any of this, here’s a picture:

Posted in Travels, Vegetarianism in Korea | 3 Comments