Thursday, October 1, 2009

Japan Trip #2 and More

Because my multiple-entry C-3 Korean visa allows me to stay in Korea for 90 days after each entry, I had to leave for the second time last week. I lined up the 90 days perfectly so I left the day my visa expired and will leave again the day it expires, December 25 Christmas Day. That meant I was in Fukuoka from Tuesday September 22 to Saturday the 26th. The 27th marked exactly 6 months that I've lived in Korea. Half a year!!

Anyway, I didn't have much money, and I went to Japan alone, and I find Japan rather creepy, so I mostly stayed in my room eating convenience store food, reading textbooks, and watching Korean movies on my computer. I also find Japan frustrating because while I can understand more Japanese than I can Korean, I've been in Korea so long that I think in Korean and can't remember Japanese vocabulary when I'm trying to speak. Also, I can't read Japanese well because they use so many kanji, Chinese symbols. In Korea, I can read just fine. I'm a little slow, and I often don't know the meaning, but I can look up the words in my cell phone's English-Korean dictionary. Anyway, I accidentally spoke Korean to a few people, then corrected myself in Japanese, then asked if they could speak English or French.... it was pretty ridiculous.

Just after I checked into my hotel room, I asked the front desk if they had power converters for American or Korean plugs. They didn't. I asked where I could buy them, and was given a map and directions to a store. I went there, but I felt like I had gone too far and was getting lost. It was dark, although not very late, and everything was unfamiliar. All of the people looked different... I'm used to Koreans now, and I'm used to Americans and the American mix of ethnicities, but Japanese people look different and are, on average, significantly shorter. In Korea, I'm still shorter than the average man if I don't wear high heels. In Japan, I think I might be taller than the average man! When I finally got to the store, there were so many signs and arrows and people and everything was Japanese. I was so lost. I asked the information counter, showing my laptop charger and converter for Korean outlets, and used what Japanese I could throw together. She directed me to the second floor, where I found one for my American computer, but not one for my Korean cell phone. So I asked an associate, who walked with me to the third floor and asked someone else, who led us to the right section. Eventually there were three guys who worked there all trying to understand that I wanted a converter for BOTH American AND Korean plugs because I'm from America but I live in Korea so I have something important to plug in from each country. Finally, after about 15 minutes, one of them presented me with a converter for my three-pronged computer plug and my Korean plug- both in one! It's great, because I was expecting to have to buy two different ones. I was very happy that despite the language barrier, I ended up with something better than I expected. As I paid, the cashier apologized profusely and thanked me way too much. I know this is just Japanese culture, but I'm almost offended by the excessive apologetic atmosphere in Japan, as if the people are patronizing and self-depreciating at the same time. If the same situation occurred in Korea, the worker would apologize once- maybe twice- for taking so long, thank me for buying something, and ask me to come again. Same as in America. I guess I have a culture bias that favors Korean culture based on the things I like about American culture.

Let me elaborate on that whole culture bias thing. In America, being white from some unknown mix of European countries and either Native American or gypsy, I always thought I had no culture. My friends whose parents or grandparents came from other countries had culture: Chinese, Egyptian, Korean, German, Italian, etc. My African American friends had culture. My half African American, half German friend hit the culture jackpot (I love you E.B. haha)! So how is it that I can recognize in myself a culture bias when I am devoid of culture? Well, I'm like a goldfish in a tank with many other goldfish and a few different exotic fish. I can see that the exotic fish are different, but I never think about the water I'm in or about the other goldfish as being distinctive. Now I'm the goldfish in a bowl full of one kind of "exotic" fish. Who's exotic now? I'm still figuring out just what it means to me to be a goldfish, and at the same time, I'm changing my scales a bit to adjust to my new surroundings. Why do I like Korean fish better than Japanese fish? That's complicated.

In American culture, people are often very bubbly and friendly to strangers, which sometimes even puts foreigners on edge. Japanese are not at all bubbly and friendly to strangers; instead, they are distant, polite, and cordial. An American will tell you more than you ever need to know about their life if you happen to be sitting next to him/her on a plane. A Japanese person will tell you the basic facts and then get back to his/her book or newspaper. Koreans are in the middle. While Americans can be a little rude, and Japanese cold, Koreans are genuinely kind, or just too shy to say anything at all. Of course, these are generalizations, and therefore only apply to maybe 60-80% of people from each country, and I have by no means met everyone from each country. Even within each country, people vary according to regional culture. San Fransisco, Detroit, New Orleans, and Washington D.C. are all vastly different, for instance.

In American culture, everyone pays equally for everything. If two friends go out together, they either split the check or one person pays and the other person owes him/her the same thing later. In America, I always had to remember how much I owed this friend, how much that friend owed me, etc. It's very confusing and stressful. In Korea, the older person pays. Or, the person with more money. That's it. Now, the younger generation is embracing the idea of "Dutch pay" so groups of friends often split the price to alleviate the burden on one person. Or, one person buys dinner and another pays for drinks at the bar and another pays for a singing room, because you don't just do one thing when you hang out in Korea. I don't know the custom in Japan, but I like the one in Korea. Partly because I'm just about the youngest of my friends, and partly because it just makes sense. Right now, I'm still a college student and can't get my career off the ground until I graduate. Therefore, I don't have the opportunity to make a lot of money. A year or two from now, I'll have a stable job, a stable income, and a home, and I'll have more money to spare to buy dinner for my younger friends. I love when people buy things for me, and I love buying things for people. It's the Christmas effect. I know that when someone pays for me, they enjoy the smile on my face, and when I pay for someone else, I enjoy the smile on his or her face.

In America, we drive on the right side of the road. Korea, too. In Japan, it's the left side. So confusing to me when crossing the street. I guess in that respect, British people would prefer Japan.

In America and Japan, signs, commercials, and other everyday parts of the man-made environment are usually in the no-funny-business style. Simple, block print. Easy to read, mildly eye-catching, professional. Here, "under construction" signs have adorable pictures of construction workers who look like children. Restaurants often have cute illustrations of smiling pigs or fish on their signs. Part-time working girls in cute outfits do silly dances on stages on the sidewalk to attract customers. My boyfriend wars socks with cartoon depictions of G-Dragon (a popular singer), Jack Skeleton, and 윤지후 (Yoon Ji-hoo) from 꽃보다남자 (Boys before Flowers, my favorite popular Korean drama) and that's totally not gay here. T-shirts are cuter, the text on signs is adorable, the commercial jingles are catchier in a cute way, even office supplies and decorations in legitimately professional institutions are often cute. Korea is so cute, it makes me smile every day. Japan and America are mildly depressing in their efforts to look more professional than the competition.

Just a personal preference: I like the voices and melodies of Korean pop better than any other country's pop I've heard. Of course, I love 70% of music, and couldn't live without listening to and playing music on a regular basis, so that's not really a huge factor in why I prefer Korea.

Because of the devastation following the brutal Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910-1946 (Japan was forced to relinquish Korea after being defeated in WWII) and the exhausting Korean war (which never technically ended, resulting in the shaky situation surrounding the DMZ or JSA) from 1950 to the armistice in 1953, almost everything in Korea was built in the past 50ish years. On top of that, Korea has a very trend-based society, valuing the newest and rejecting the oldest (unless it's the historically meaningful brand of old). So, the buildings are quite modern and clean, usually white or light gray or completely walled by windows. The main streets are wide, as well as the newer subway stations. Japan, on the other hand, seems to me to be in the American 70's style of dark colors, although there is an interesting mix of architecture styles because of the naturally occurring replacement of dilapidated buildings with modern ones, and because of the inevitable localization of wealth in certain areas. Because most of the infrastructure was established before the advent of cars, the streets are narrower, and the older subway system has smaller stations because as technology advances, wider holes in the ground are possible. I personally follow in my mother's footsteps in appreciating open spaces and bright colors. Japan just feels ominous and eerie to me.

Actually, when I'm in Japan, I feel just as lost and confused and 답답해 (tapdaphae; no real English translation, but usually translated as 'stuffy' or 'anxious') as I did when I first arrived in Korea over sis months ago. The difference is that I lack passion for Japan, whereas I'm in no short supply of passion for Korea. I can see how another American could easily have the exact opposite opinion of the two countries as I do. Japan has a rich variety of, well, everything. Korea has variety, but has fewer cultural collective outliers than Japan and America do. Most people like the same music, as opposed to the constant battle of the genres in America (I must mention that there are distinctive genres in Korean pop, but most Koreans like all of them that are suitable for their age group). Most people like the same general types of food and can't live without kimchi and rice. Most people follow the same general fashion trends. If you want to stand out in Korea, it's not a hard thing to do. I dare you to go to Harajuku in Tokyo and try to stand out. If you aren't familiar with Harajuku, Google "Harajuku fashion" and click "images" for an idea.

Anyway, aspects of Korean and American culture are the same. Some things I don't like about American culture aren't as pronounced here, like overly aggressive men, lone-wolf valorization, impossibility of bargaining in most circumstances, and P.C. (politically correct) fever. Some things I do like about American culture are stronger here, like friendly customer service (it's also FAST in Korea!), being able to ask any stranger for directions without fear, curiosity, and lenience. If you stay past check-out in a hotel in Korea, they call the room and ask you nicely to leave, but they don't charge you extra.

Of course, there are things I don't like about Korea. Koreans usually don't have ovens or dryers, which are generally assumed indispensable in American homes. The Korean language has three levels of formality, and knowing when in a relationship to switch from the "normal" language to 반말 (banmal; informal language used for close friends and younger people) is confusing, and I don't think I'll ever become comfortable with that. The grammar used in the most formal language is so difficult that I just decide not to use it, but at this point I can understand it as well as the other forms. Considering that I'm a foreigner and have been living here only 6 months, people are satisfied with the level of formality I use in my speech and text messages. I have my whole life to master the language, so I'm not too stressed about that point.

The Korean education system is frustrating and unfair for the children. Because government employees can't be fired, including public school teachers, there is no competition among public schools and they come up short of satisfactory for most Korean parents. Therefore, those who can afford it go to private academies after school and study to exhaustion starting in elementary school. Thus, those who can't afford private academies have an inferior education and are less likely to break out of poverty, much like the issue of inner city school districts vs. suburban school districts in America. In Korea, no child wins. Also, the Korean (generally, the Asian) education system trains people to be machines by testing them all in the same tasks and rewarding empirical excellency. Put in anecdotal simplicity, imagine a 30-student class reads a novel and is assigned a three-page paper. In America, this paper would most likely have a topic including the words "analyze", "think about", "compare", or "draw from your own experiences". The teacher expects 30 completely different papers, and suspects plagiarism if two are too similar. In Korea, the paper assignment may be a summary or a specific research assignment into the history or author of the novel. The teacher expects 30 almost identical papers and punishes papers that are different by subtracting points for incorrectly completing the assignment. This is good and bad. It is the reason for the American stereotype that Asians are human calculators and encyclopedias, like perfect robots with whom nobody can compete. It also robs Korea from out-of-the box innovation. Korean companies have been accused of copying foreign designs and concepts, whereas the companies themselves probably intend to follow the trend and make it empirically better. Nobody can deny the global success of Korean companies like Hyundai, LG, and Kia. Nobody can deny the perfect, even haunting musical technique of many Asian musicians. But, how many Asian composers are praised for their originality? Although, that particular topic is a whole thesis, book, encyclopedia of volumes including the difference in how different cultures perceive intellectual property rights or lack thereof.

In other news, My boyfriend and I are probably moving from Seoul to Andong, a "countryside" city (compared to where I lived in America, every city here is a big city) next weekend. His mother lives there, so he has asked her to let us live with her, and she's thinking about it now. Then, on Christmas, we will fly together to America and stay there for 6 months. Again, this depends on his mother's decision because she would be funding his plane ticket. Assuming we're still together after that (I think so), we'll come back to Korea next summer, perhaps permanently, perhaps not.


  1. Hey Kristin.
    I'm so glad you seem happier in this post then the last one. I mean the trip to Japan didn't sound great but you seem to be really happy about things in Korea and I'm glad. Thanks for the shoutout about my ethnicity(I'm proud of it too). I can't wait till you come home since I'll be in Rochester too!

    Erika B

  2. Erika <3
    I am a lot happier. :) Yeah, I definitely wish I could have skipped that trip, although the deep bathtub was relaxing and a good place to read. LOL
    Hey, no problem~ you are pretty much the coolest thing since sliced bread! You're gonna be in Rochester? Like, just around Christmas, or all Spring? :)

  3. sheesh! i would love to travel to Japan for a couple days! i do find it sort of fascinating how you almost seem to be subjectively biased towards Korea in some ways - like a true native. maybe you were Korean in a past life.

  4. Yeah I was thinking that about myself too. It's really odd because I grew up exposed to Japanese and German cultures a lot as a result of my parents' work, so I originally became absorbed in Japanese culture and sort of rejected German culture. But now, I've completely switched gears and rejected both of the foreign cultures I was familiar with and have embraced one that nobody in my family knows much about. I also lost my passion for France, although I still love reading and writing in the French language. Maybe it's the food....

  5. I'll be home around Christmas. I have to go back to Boston in January for school. If you'll be in Rochester for Christmas then we should totally meet up.