Korea: Life as the Other

by Devin Creed

안녕하세요! This standard Korean greeting (pronounced “annyeonghaseyo”) literally translates as “I hope you are well/peaceful.” Though unassuming, this simple word reveals much about Korean society. “세”is an honorific marker which is used to show respect to the person being addressed. “요”is the polite ending for verbs. Whenever Koreans encounter an elder or a stranger, the honorific polite form of the greeting is used, showcasing the respect for authority inherent in this Confucian society. In fact, age is so essential to Korean relationships that the first question posed to a new acquaintance is “How old are you?” In some cases, such as saying goodnight, one would use a completely different sentence if addressing a parent as opposed to a friend. Trying to wrap my mind around the hierarchical nature of the Korean language and society was the first instance of culture shock I experienced.

I have been living in South Korea since August. I teach English at Inje Middle School, which is nestled high in the mountains of the Gangwon province in the northeast corner of the country. Inje County is almost exclusively made up of mountains, a heavy contributor in making it the least densely populated county in the country. Only eight foreigners live in my town of ten thousand, so I have been forced to assimilate or feel isolated. Integrating into Korean society is not easy for foreigners, however. Korea is an extremely insular country with over 99% of residents being of Korean heritage. Foreigners are seen as Other, leaving us in the awkward position of being outsiders in an extremely communal society. Koreans do everything in groups and can hardly fathom someone undertaking a daily activity alone. One time I walked through the festival grounds in our town on the way home from a hike and ran into an official from the office of education. She immediately texted my district coordinator to comment on the fact that I was alone.

Despite a heavy curricular emphasis on English education, most Koreans cannot speak it or feel uncomfortable using it. My fledgling Korean is not yet sufficient to carry on long conversations, so I am often reduced to standing and sitting awkwardly by myself. This sense of awkwardness and helplessness has spurred me to immerse myself in the culture and study the language every day. I have made a habit of attending as many cultural festivals as possible, finding myself catching salmon barehanded, dressing in traditional clothing, drinking rice wine on a river island, and ice fishing in the process. I have learned how to make several Korean dishes, especially the most famous national food, kimchi (cabbage fermented in red pepper and fish sauce.) I bought a car soon after I got here so I could spend my weekends road-tripping and hiking obscure mountains. Because of my proximity to the border (about twenty kilometers) I decided to expand my cultural activities to learn about North Korea. This winter I tutored North Korean refugees in Seoul and this spring I’ll be doing research on Korean unification for a non-profit. Despite all these attempts to insert myself into Korean communities, I am still very much on the outside looking in.

Sometimes being an outsider grants me opportunities, however. Since I am a guest English teacher, my school and my town treat me hospitably, supplying me with a free apartment and free Korean classes. Whenever I walk around town I am loudly greeted by my students who frequent Inje’s numerous coffee shops. They are always happy to chat and very eager to know if I have finally got myself a girlfriend. The mountains afford me with the most unique opportunities, for hikers have purposefully removed themselves from society to seek communion with nature. It is not common to greet a stranger on the street even in my small town, but every hiker greets anyone who passes by. On several hikes on the mountains surrounding Inje I have met Mr. Che, an enigmatic elderly gentleman whose English is better than that of my co-teachers’. He claims to live in town, but I have only ever seen him in the mountains. The second time I met him he stopped and chuckled, “Do you remember me?” leading me to believe him some sort of mountain spirit, jovial, welcoming, elusive. I met a much more solid individual a few weeks ago when hiking Taebaeksan. He runs a a company that exports medicinal ginseng to the United States and he’s invited me to his home for a weekend. These chance encounters are only made possible by my pale skin and bearded face.

Despite these moments of friendship and inclusiveness, I am reminded of my displacement at every major holiday. Chuseok, a fall harvest festival, and Seollal, the lunar new year, are Korea’s largest holidays, and both revolve around homecoming. Everyone travels to their hometown to spend time with their parents and grandparents, and to honor their ancestors. Because of Confucius’ sway, the family still plays an important role in Korean society. Even after children go off to college parents preserve the child’s bedroom so that he or she always has a place to sleep when visiting. Korean parents will do anything to see the children succeed, but this often leads to ridiculous pressure to perform. When talking to my students at the beginning of the year I was shocked to learn that in addition to a full day at school they spend every evening at hagwons, private academies where they usually study math or English. Only when they get home at ten or eleven at night can they start their two sets of homework. What most boggled my mind is that this is the norm even in my tiny town where most students will become farmers or take over the family restaurant. I do not have the heart to wake up my students who fall asleep in class.

My town has been largely unaffected by the economic explosion that has propelled South Korea to first world status. My neighbors are an ancient Korean couple, short and humpbacked. They are always fermenting kimchi or drying fish in their tiny yard. Their lives revolve around the seasons and the preparation of traditional foods. Despite their limited physical condition and their continuous work, they always smile at me when I greet them. They are happy to be living as they have always done. This is the kind of Korea I seek when I venture into the mountains and small villages. Small shrines littered over the mountains speak of an earlier, simpler time, when man was more in tune with nature and less concerned with the newest phone game. My solitary hikes in the misty mountains of Gangwon Province have been the highlights of my stay in Korea. They allow me to leave society for a time while also embracing one of Korea’s favorite past times. Long hikes are ripe for reflection, and they provide me with the opportunity to ponder life in this beautiful and contradictory country.

In only six months South Korea has become my home. When I vacationed in Thailand and Cambodia in January I found myself missing Korea. Living and working in rural Korea has integrated me far more than living in the concrete confines of Seoul ever could. Is it so odd that I found myself missing my temporary home of Korea, rather than my long-term home of America? I still yearn for America, but now I feel a sense of groundedness in the thin alleys of Inje, the cold hallways of Inje Middle School, and the mountains surrounding the town. These have become my haunts, the places I call home. By virtue of being a foreigner trying to glean the utmost from Korea in a year, I occupy this space in a unique way. Being intimately involved in Inje through my formal job as a teacher and my self-imposed task of learning of Korea, I am able to feel a sense of connectedness despite being a mercenary teacher for hire. By experiencing life as the Other, I have come to realize my place in the world and my identity as a millennial American. And when I leave, I will miss my odd little town in the far corner of this far country. For even though I cannot escape the inherently pejorative label of foreigner, by occupying and living in this space I have made it my own, giving me a sense of home though surrounded by unfamiliar faces.

Devin Creed graduated in 2015 with degrees in English and economics.

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