As someone young, foreign, male, unmarried, and unsupervised, many Koreans I encounter assume that I am utterly helpless. How do you continue to not be dead? they seem to wonder. By all logic, I should have curled up in a husk in my officetel apartment, weak from lack of food or potable water, my lonely corpse to be discovered by my building manager, should he ever get around to fixing my window. That I am able to maintain my own vital signs seems, to many, something to be congratulated for. Everything I do is lauded, and sometimes I feel as though I am a Korean Kindergartener.
It makes some sense, in a cultural relativism sort of way. Most of the younger Korean guys I’ve met, ranging from my own age up to about thirty, live at home with their parents. They are taken care of to a certain degree, and thus many are unfamiliar with the operation of a frying pan or a washing machine. Your mom will take care of things, and eventually, when you marry and move out, your wife will. And while I did not do much of the cooking and cleaning living back in Canada, I tried to pick up the skills, vaguely aware as I was that at some point in my life I’d be on my own.
This confuses some of my Korean co-teachers and friends. You cook by yourself? they ask frequently. They are impressed by the fact that I manage to eat breakfast, and yet more astounded that I sometimes cook and eat dinner on my own. Then again, many of them are also astounded that I can enter a restaurant other than McDonald’s and not end up being driven out by fear and panic. Whenever I mention that my friends and I went to dinner the night before, my co-teachers nod appreciatively, happy for me that I am capable of engaging in dining.
Not that my home culinary creations are particularly elegant or flavourful: the western ingredients and cookware I’m familiar with are obscenely expensive in Korea, and I’m not yet confident in my ability to generate a palatable Korean dish simulation. When in doubt, I keep it simple. But the very act of putting a pan on my stove is viewed, by many of the Koreans I know, as something of an accomplishment that I should take a pride in managing.
Home care is also something I can manage that surprises my Korean acquaintances. I clean, and I do my own laundry. I have not yet managed to charm an ajumma into coming over and scouring my pots for me. That I try not to live in absolute squalour and am mostly able to achieve it, such that I do not come in to work in moth-eaten clothing or stinking from being unable to bathe, awes many.
At lunchtime in school, my achievements are ballyhooed once more. I can use chopsticks (though without the panache of the Koreans, because metallic chopsticks are hard, you guys)! I manage to put the rice on the left, and the soup on the right! I eat pretty much everything on the plate! On that last, it’s mainly because the lunch is cheap and I don’t have to make it, and I don’t recognize about half of the food items on my tray. It’s probably better that way, as I’m more likely to eat it if the food remains fun Korean mystery.
Every lunch time, there are at least one set of Korean eyes watching how I handle things. My skill at the utensils, my expressions at what things look like, whether I am properly savouring the dishes. Each of my coteachers has asked me separately: do you like the food? Is it too spicy? What do you think of kimchi? Koreans are intensely proud of their country, and kimchi is near synonymous with Korean food, so your opinion on fermented cabbage is actually quite critical to how they think you can manage in their country. You must be firm and adamant if you are a fan, otherwise they will think you are trying to demur with faint praise, and that you secretly hate it but don’t want to hurt Korea’s feelings.
Whenever I manage to down a dish that seems distinctly Korean, or particularly spicy or hot, the other teachers smile and nod. The principal seems pleased, in his indecipherable, kooky way. My coteachers tell me they heard that other westerners can’t handle the spice, the kimchi, the flavour. But Michael Teacher is different, he shuts up and stuffs his face with aplomb!
While lunch is usually a place where I score points with my meagre eating skills, occasionally it is fraught with failure. Behold: how I once held a spoon in front of the Koreans, like the foreign Neanderthal I am.
And now, how I hold it after a teacher physically corrected me, so that I might better achieve Asian spoonhandling:
And then there’s the language. While the Koreans will practically prostrate themselves upon the altar of my honkiness, constantly apologizing for their frankly superb English, they overzealously praise every Korean utterance I decide to bestow upon them. They report that my pronunciation is perfect (it is not), that my grammar is correct (it is not), that I have said just the right thing (I never do).
A couple of things are at play here, I think. On the English speaking side, there is a perfect storm of Korean humility and shyness. In Korea, you never accept a compliment head-on, rather you deny it vehemently and only accept it reluctantly if the flatterer is relentless. Koreans are also quite shy, and especially do not want to lose face, and so they try to smooth the conversation by pre-emptively apologizing for what usually turns out to be fluent English.
And on the other side, Koreans take extreme pride in their culture and their language, and are highly curious as to whether outsiders can appreciate it. Korean, also, is not a language taking the world by storm. So when someone makes an attempt, even the pitiful, meagre attempts I have generated thus far, people tend to go over the moon. You are making an actual effort, and they want you to know they appreciate it, and so they praise your scattered, broken Hangul like you just managed to translate one of Shakespeare’s sonnets from English to Korean.
Simply managing to exist in Korea for even a brief period of time as a foreigner strikes awe in the hearts of Koreans. When I told my coteacher that I went to Bupyeong (major centre in Incheon with bars, malls, restaurants) for the first time to meet the other English teachers for drinks, she beamed with pride. Her hand rushed to her chest. “Bupyeong?!” she cried. It was as though I was her toddler, taking my first steps right in front of her eyes. I told her I already had a T money card (think Oyster Card, but for Seoul and Incheon), she nearly swooned.
I suppose it strikes me as especially strange, because my internal Western markers for independence have been taken over by my Korean handlers. Where in Canada, I associated doing your own banking, setting up your accounts and getting your own cell phone to be real strides towards adulthood, here I am at the mercy of whichever Korean takes the most pity on me. If I want something done with my apartment (broken window!) information must sluice through half a dozen shadowy Korean hands, with me on the sidelines, cheering them on in thanks.
But the simple stuff? When I manage it, the Koreans I know could not be more impressed. During a coffee break with the principal, some of the teachers, and some administrators, I looked at a nearby flyer for a Korean shrimp restaurant. My coteacher egged me on, and I haltingly read the Hangul syllables there, stuttering out some Korean phrase about seafood. The people in the room very nearly applauded. I am like a big, drunk preschooler.