Things that locals can do but foreigners can’t

It’s not weird when Koreans stare. It doesn’t bother me.

Koreans stare because we’re foreigners. The same thing happens in other countries, too. Local people stare.

But why do some foreigners stare?

There’s no friendly smile and nod, or greeting wave. That would be fine. A common sense of foreign-ness draws people together.

And it’s not just a slightly elongated glance, either. It’s a full on turn-the-upper-half-of-my-body-so-that-I-don’t-strain-my-neck stare.

What’s up with that?

新年快乐!Reflecting on the Year of the Snake

It’s quiet as it slithers closer, tongue darting out to test the air. Cautious. It stays low to the ground, the grass barely stirring as it moves. The sibilant noises it makes are easily mistaken for the wind, and quickly drowned out by your recent resolutions so desperately chanted. Though dying in intensity, it is still enough to mask the soft hissing.

It’s so quick to sneak up that you don’t even notice it until you turn around, and find it gazing contemplatively at you. You stare back, willing your legs not to tremble. Would it attack? Strike at you? Would it bite you and leave you to slowly succumb to its poison?

It approaches a little bit faster this time. It’s audible now, though just barely. You want to take a step backwards, but you’re frozen. You begin to sweat, just a little bit. Your palms are clammy. Your lips are cracked and dry. You suddenly notice that your hair is too long. It’s falling into your eyes, making you blink rapidly. Your clothes now feel too tight, too restrictive. You should have worn a looser shirt. Not that you can even move at the moment.

Somewhere in your mouth, a tooth is throbbing. One of your muscles spasms slightly, twitching an odd beat against your skin. Your throat itches. You remember that you haven’t had enough water to drink today. It has also been a while since your last meal. Was it really that long ago? It felt like only a couple of hours… but it has been almost half a day. You scold yourself for losing track of time.

And then before you can blink, it’s in front of you, slowly rising up, swaying, staring you in the eye. Its tongue flicks out, breathing you in, and you can’t escape.

Slowly it winds its way around you, securing you in its cool, smooth embrace. You tense up, unsure, scared. But it does not squeeze, nor does it bite. It hisses soothingly in your ear. Murmurs of things to come. Of changes, of success, of new opportunities. And around your shoulder it settles down, a constant companion, until the next one comes trotting in.


How do you feel when a new year approaches you, catches you by surprise? What things come to mind? On what do you reflect? What does the new year look like as it comes ever closer?

My reflections on the new year.

Happy New Year!

You’re miserably sick? Excellent, please pass it on.

Koreans don’t seem to believe in sick days. My Korean coworker cracked a rib and still came in to work the very next day, and every day after that. Amazing.

As a foreign teacher here, I get three ‘sick’ days. Sick as in I’m dying in the hospital and can’t make it to work, sorry.

So basically every day I get a bunch of students who, being very young, have no sense of hygiene. They cough and sneeze and wipe their snotty hands all over me. They’re my precious students, but I don’t like how they come to school no matter how sick they are. I don’t believe that kindergarten students should be at school when they have fevers or can’t stop coughing long enough to say a full sentence.

Now I know the particular Hagwon where I teach is quite expensive, and the parents have to pay a lot of money for each class, but sometimes it still seems very unreasonable.

Today two of my students had fevers and were very sick, but had to go to class anyway. One was in Kindergarten, and the other was in grade 4.

When I had a fever growing up, I didn’t go to school. There are a few reasons for this.

1) Stress on the body, aka school, is not going to help you get better. Sleep will help you get better.

2) Nobody wants to get your germs. If you go to school sick, then it’s easy for most of the people around you to get sick too. Teacher included.

I can’t even count the number of times I wash my hands every day. It’s futile. I cannot evade the voracious appetite of vulturous viruses that circle the hallways and classrooms.

This is written as I am hacking out a lung and sniffing a black hole into existence.

The high cost of classes is not the only reason the parents may send their sick children to school (coupled with the intense desire to see their children succeed in English).

Maybe both parents work and there is no one at home during the day.

Maybe both parents happened to be busy that day with other plans that they could not cancel.

Maybe they couldn’t find a babysitter on such short notice.

Who knows.

But the fact that this is such a common occurence makes me wonder.

I know I wasn’t supposed to, but I let both of my sick students rest in class today. The fourth grade student, especially, is one of the best in the class. She was so obviously miserable that I walked to her desk, closed her book, and told her to just sleep.

I don’t understand the point of sending your child to school, when she can barely keep her eyes open and focus. It makes much more sense, to me, to let her stay home and rest, so that she can recover, and be fully able to catch up much sooner than she would if she strained her body by going to school.

I guess my views on this are very Westernized.

My students have my utmost sympathy.

I don’t think I did…

I didn’t really have any culture shock when I moved to Korea. I think.

It’s a very different place from Canada, obviously, and it’s very unique.

It is not the first time I have been to a new country, or a country where I can’t speak the language. (more on that later)

I’ve used squatting toilets before (I’ve even used holes in the floor), I’ve used full-bathroom showers before, I knew I wouldn’t have an oven, and I’ve heard lots about plastic surgery from my Korean students in Canada.

I’ve heard people complain that Korean people are rude, but I don’t really find that to be the case. I’d say they’re more brutally honest. If someone bumps into me and doesn’t care, they won’t say anything. Most of them don’t do that, of course, and are quite polite.

In fact, if you go into a store, or accept something from somebody, you normally use two hands, and often accompany the action with a bow. If that’s not formal and polite, I don’t know what is. And then there are drinking formalities… but maybe for another time.

What does frustrate me is that there is no order on the escalator or stairs. People walk all over the place, and stand all over the place too. There’s no such thing as standing on the right of an escalator, and walking on the left. I often end up just taking the stairs because it’s too annoying. I get more exercise this way though, so I guess it’s not too bad.

People do tend to stare here, especially ajussis and ajummas, but I get stared at all the time in Europe too, so I wouldn’t say that’s anything unusual.

Ajummas are all-powerful here. You listen to them, and obey them. They’ll shove you out of the way to get that seat, or to get on first. Luckily I was told about this beforehand, so I knew what to expect. I’m quite sure this has to do with respecting your elders, which is a very important part of Korean culture.

I’m not sure if it’s because I have traveled before or because I’ve known many Korean people, but while I noticed many things that were very different, nothing really came as a shock. Either that or I’m still numb and it hasn’t sunk in yet.