Back in October, I presented the first edition of “What’s Better/What’s Worse.” Now, with 3 more months of experience, and a sardonic attitude, I present you with “What’s Better/What’s Worse – The Ironic Edition!” This is a list of things that have improved my life since coming to Korea with an ironic downside! Yes!
WHAT’S BETTER: The floor in my apartment is heated!
It’s funny how a country’s ancient history can shape its modern lifestyle. During the period of dynasty rule, Koreans used a system of heating called ondol. Basically, there was room under the house, or in the kitchen, to light a fire, and the fire would heat the floor of the entire house. Today, they still call it “ondol”, but it’s electrical. This is the type of heating system that is in my apartment. What a glorious invention! When I wake up in the morning, there’s no need for burdensome socks when the floor is heated! So toasty and warm for the feetses. Sometimes, when the ondol is on full blast, I just lie on the floor and soak in the heat. There’s a hotspot near the TV that can fry up a nice slab of bacon, too.
WHAT’S WORSE: Oh, the floor in my apartment is heated.
Yes, ONLY the floor is heated, which means on really cold days, anything above the soles of my feet is freezing. And that’s basically my whole body. Also, let’s not forget my bed is in a loft, a tragic 10 feet above the heated floor. Hey, whose idea was this ondol anyway? During the first part of the winter, when it wasn’t that cold yet, the heat from the floor was enough. Now, though, in the depths of January, I am realizing the downside of ondol. Also, when you turn it on after it has cooled down completely, it takes longer to warm up than Hugh Hefner.
WHAT’S BETTER: I’m learning Korean.
5 months since my plane touched down at Incheon International Airport, and I can proudly say my Korean is progressing nicely. I’ve mastered the writing system, know a fair amount of vocabulary, and can conjugate verbs and make (very) simple sentences. One Korean friend generously told me I’m at a Kindergarten level. That might not sound like much (and I’m not sure I agree with it), but consider that Kindergartners can communicate fully with adults. Also consider that I studied both French and Spanish for 3 years each, and I have probably learned as much Korean in only 5 months. The difference, of course, has been living in the country while learning the language. I’m practicing every time I walk out the door and read a sign or hear Koreans speaking. I know now why Koreans send their children to the United States to study English. That being said, the language often humbles me, and I’m often reminded of how little I know when a Korean tries to speak full speed to me.
WHAT’S WORSE: Me English less good has become.
Okay, so during the course of a week, how many native English speakers do I talk to? Monday thru Friday, not many at all. During the weekends, I see my English speaking friends I guess, but it’s a lot different than living in the United States where everyone speaks English. Consequently, I don’t often use the full range of my English. When I am speaking to Koreans, I have learned to speak very slowly and to use simple words. I’ve learned to speak in code, in a way, meaning that I know which words Koreans will understand in a certain situation. For instance, at McDonalds, you order “set” number 2, not “value meal” number 2. Once I realized they, for some ridiculous reason, use the word “set” for any all-inclusive meal, I just started using that word at restaurants. Like I said, you learn to speak in code. All of this means there has been a noticeable drop in my English skill. I’ve also found myself picking up some English habits that Koreans have, like using “just” awkwardly at the beginning of sentences. Now, don’t get me wrong, I won’t be forgetting the language anytime soon. But words are now often at the back of my tongue, as opposed to the tip.
WHAT’S BETTER: No one bothers me!
Look, Koreans are afraid to speak English. Confidence levels are low. So when I’m riding the escalator, stretched out so no one can get by me, no one has the temerity to say, “Uh, hey pal, move.” I can go anywhere and do anything because people either can not or do not want to get in my way. It’s also an excuse to avoid responsibility! At teachers’ meetings at school, for instance, I can sit delightfully unaware of anything being said, and afterword, if anything that concerned me was said, my co teacher tells me. It’s like I have a personal helper going to meetings for me, listening intently, and reporting the important stuff to me. No one asks me for directions. No one asks me dumb questions.
WHAT’S WORSE: Oh, no one talks to me.
Oh, wait, sometimes human contact is a good thing. This always strikes me when I see another foreigner walking alone in a crowded area. It’s always the same thought pattern. 1) “Wow, he stands out like a sore thumb.” 2) “Oh, that makes him seem sort of lonely. That’s sad.” 3) “Wait, I’M EXACTLY LIKE HIM.” 4)
Well, it’s not that dramatic, and I get by easily by myself. But sometimes, I do want people to ask me dumb questions.
WHAT’S BETTER: These Korean people sure are nice.
It’s true, Korean people go out of their way to help you. I mean WAY out of their way. Once, I asked directions to a subway station. I wasn’t really lost, and I knew I would find it eventually, but I was tired and wanted to find the place. So after asking in broken Korean, I found a man to help me. He could have just pointed. That would have worked. Instead, he decided to stop what he was doing and walk me to the subway station. It was a good ten minute walk away in the opposite direction of the way he was going. I mean, how many of us can say we would do that for someone? And I’ve heard loads of other stories of Koreans taking hours of their time to help a foreigner.
WHAT’S WORSE: Oh, they don’t speak my language.
For every good experience I’ve had with a stranger helping me, there are 10 more instances of me asking for help and receiving a, “No English! No English!” It’s like being in a pet store and seeing lots of nice puppies, and you just want to pet the puppies and sing karaoke with them, but the puppies are behind a glass wall having fun with all their puppy friends. And they’re afraid of non-puppies. This metaphor applies to all aspects of interacting with Koreans. I never thought that “Being able to use the definite and indefinite articles correctly,” would be a quality I was looking for in a girl. Turns out, that’s a very important characteristic in Korea.
I was also going to mention the fact that Chicago/Illinois sports teams not named the Cubs are awesome right now, and of course, that would happen when I’m not there. However, there hasn’t yet been a championship since I’ve been gone, and I didn’t want to jinx them. Or wait…did I just do that anyway?