Year of the Goat Again

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Kite flying in Suwon

My birth year was a year of the Goat. Sometimes it’s translated as “sheep” or “ram” but this dude said that goat is the most accurate translation. However, since in modern Chinese, the same word is used for sheep and goats, it doesn’t really matter.

Anyway, I can’t help but think about how little I used to think about things like this. January 1st was New Year’s. However, I have often thought the lunar calender with it’s neat 13 months based on the moon rather than arbitrary numbering was far more rational and in tune with nature. So I prefer to think of this week as starting the new year instead.

I’ve gotten some fancy little rice and nut cakes filled with sweet bean and sweet potato from class parents. My boss gave us all a set of soaps and shampoo. Gift giving in Korea is pretty practical. You can usually eat or use it. Some really hip parents chipped in and got me a Starbucks gift card at my old school. The best gift is having a few days off from work without having to arrange a sub or lose pay.

I was planning on heading down to Busan over this long weekend, but that didn’t work out for a number of reasons including poor planning and illness. So I spent a few days having small adventures nearby. It wasn’t a bad weekend in spite of the change in plans.

My roommate forced me to go to Seoul Land, the first amusement park I’ve been to in years. We 2also went out to Suwon to see the Hwaseong Fortress (which will be it’s own post). And I also went to my first Cat Cafe. One of the cats chose me, deciding to come sit in my lap for about an hour (and only left when I had to stand up). This cat had curly woolly fur more like a sheep than a normal cat. I guess this is my year of the goat/sheep cat.

The cats were really chill and very used to people touching them and following them around. It was very endearing to see people who had never interacted with cats before tentatively try to pet and play with them. Cats aren’t a popular pet in Korea and many people are nervous around them or think they are bad luck. There were many local people there, but also many visitors from China. I was able to talk to a few who came over to pet the sheep cat sleeping on my lap.

I guess I looked like the cat whisperer. There were a couple cats sleeping on the pillows next to me and under the table in front of me too. I picked a seat in a quiet corner were the cats would rest more easily. So many of them came over there to do just that. At this cafe you could also purchase little cups of shredded chicken to feed to the cats and bribe them to spend more time with you.

It was really fun and I would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t experienced cats before or is contemplating cat ownership. It was pretty clean and a lot of fun.

Why Don’t Americans Travel As Much?

The statistic’s a few years old, but it stated that only 20% of Americans have a passport. I briefly touched on this statistic in my post about xenophobia. In the introduction of the 2009 edition of The Best American Travel Writing, editor and writer Simon Winchester bemoans the fact that Americans aren’t taught geography and don’t develop their sense of wanderlust the way the British do. Well then. Being someone chronically afflicted by a life ruining case of wanderlust, and having been born in the USA, I would like to examine this.

To be fair, my parents never traveled. My mom drove across the border into Mexico once in 1968 or something. And my dad was stationed in Okinawa during his air force career. Neither of them had a passport until last year when I persuaded my father to visit me in Korea. It was his first time out of the US since that same year my mother had a one day adventure south of the border. I had to wait until I was in university to have the opportunity to study abroad and get out on my own.

I really respect Winchester (and his book about Korea) but I would say the most travel-centric people I’ve met  have been Australians. So comparing the US to both Brits and Australians I suppose that to me a few reasons for this travel gap become clear. Here are my (probably biased) observations.

Vacation Time: Where a thriving “gap year” culture is alive and well in Australia and not uncommon in the UK, it’s unheard of in the US. For the most part, it is expected that you finish high school and immediately launch into college, a job, or work training. And after finishing college you have to immediately leap into any job that will take you because you are smothering in debt and living back with your parents. Although 50 years ago, it was the opposite problem. You immediately leapt into a job because you usually had good offers right away.

Once you start that job, you can expect to have about two weeks of vacation within the whole year. Not usually together. Since you’re paying off crushing debt and distance dictates that an international flight will be expensive, that puts a crimp in traveling for the first few years of your work life.

Education: This refers to both formal education and more to cultural education. The American public school curriculum isn’t… the worst in the world. Nor is it the best. It is lacking in many areas, one of them being foreign languages, and world history and culture.

The only thing about Asia we learned in my high school history was about samurais, the Great Wall of China, and the Japanese involvement in World War Two. World history is skimmed over in 6 months of middle school social studies. And it’s quite Western centric. As are literature and art classes.

Now, culturally, what we are taught is that America is the newest, shiniest world power who has the best and most innovative and civilized government and society. We should appreciate that instead of going to scary places where people might not even have paved roads or indoor toilets for all we know. If you’ve never been anywhere else, it’s easy to believe that everything you grew up with is the best there is. And it’s easy to be afraid of something different if you haven’t had a broad educational base that discusses different cultures. It’s true that America is a melting pot, but gradual assimilation is a big part of that– that’s why it’s more like a fondue than a stew. But if you didn’t grow up in a big city like the majority of Americans, your exposure might be one recently immigrated family and some second or third generation European or Asian Americans that keeps some traditional customs alive at holidays or family gatherings. It’s pretty bland out in the suburbs.

Also, it’s not our priority to spend our money traveling. It’s our priority to live the American dream. As soon as you get that crushing college debt paid off, you better get married, start a family, and buy your own home so that you are stuck under a mortgage for the next thirty years. When you finally are around 60 and your children have left home and that mortgage is getting paid off, then you’re supposed to do your traveling. Of course, you are generally expected to do it in a sanitized, controlled way like on a cruise or at a resort.

Geography: Let’s get real guys. America is huge. And yes, Australia is big too, but pretty much everything is along the edges. the center is a big desert where they once did some nuclear testing and no one realized it until years later (well except the native people who started dying of the radiation poisoning). It’s that empty. So if you want to see anything else, you’ve got to go. And you typically have the time to do it. And a really decent minimum wage to spend on it.

There are many different landscapes within America. Some incredible forests. Flat and fertile plains. Huge mountain ranges. Miles of coastline. And of course, some impressive cities. So, when calculating expense and crippling fear of the unknown, many people would rather explore in their own backyard. The Great America Road Trip is highly romanticized in film and literature, and I would like to take it some day. There is a lot to see.

Besides that, if you live in the midwest of the USA, even to get to our landlocked neighbors, you are looking at about 20 hours of driving to get to another country. The driving time from Kansas City to Calgary is approximately 24 hours for example. And the railroads, though once great in the US have completely deteriorated. Once highways became dominant for shipping, rail travel tapered off. Taking a train from Boston to LA would be great way to see the country and less stressful than having to drive the whole way. Quicker too since the driver wouldn’t have to take breaks to sleep. But it’s pretty impossible. You have to make that sort of journey on a series of uncomfortable long distance buses that can be quite expensive.

It’s not like the European rail system where you can navigate the entire continent fairly easily in a matter of days. Nor is it like the bullet trains of Asia where a 6-10 hour drive between cities is cut to a 3-4 hour train ride.

So I guess to sum up, it’s not entirely surprising that Americans are less noted for their wanderlust than the citizens of some other countries. There are many reasons why. However, I’ve been meeting a lot of Americans abroad in these past few years of wandering. As the economy and future seems less stable, more young Americans want to do their traveling now. Not waiting until they need a wheel chair to do it. I sincerely encourage any nervous Americans to take the plunge. But be aware that you might just find yourself infecedt with incurable wanderlust afterwards.

Flirting in Korea… Does it Exist?

Dating and marriage in Korea is a little bit different than I’ve grown up thinking about it in the States. I’ve briefly skimmed some of this topic in my post about sexuality in Korean culture, but I wanted to talk a little more about the day to day. For foreigners who come from countries where flirting is one of the main ways to initiate dating, it can seem like there is no flirting in Korea. Especially when it comes to the guys. So here are my observations about how flirting and dating work in Korea.

There’s a Korean expression that roughly means to run over, poke something, then run back and see what the thing you poked does. In my experience, this pretty much sums up the way Korean men flirt. Outside of childhood sweethearts and youthful flings, Korean society is really geared toward getting married and starting a family. Many Korean guys won’t flirt with you, so much as prod you a little but to see if you’re marriage material before actually getting in a relationship with you.

Sometimes that prodding can seem very much like dating which leads to the confusion and annoyance of foreigners. Like: he asked me for dinner and then a few days later we had coffee; weren’t those dates? Apparently not always, that was the interview stage. You haven’t necessarily got the job of girlfriend/potential-wife-and-baby-mamma yet. But couple culture is very strong in Korea. If you have passed the prodding stage to actual dating, expect a Korean man to be texting and calling you frequently and to take the lead at setting up dates.

In Korea, if you haven’t managed to get married by the time you’re around 30, that’s often when you or your family steps in and through a matchmaker of some sort (who may or may not come along on the first date with you) will arrange blind dates with suitable candidates for you. This system us called 소개팅(sokaeting). If the date goes well and you agree to keep seeing each other, expectations are high on both sides that you will get married, probably within the next six months. I know couples who did it in three.

Blind dates really are like job interviews in that way and there is definitely little room for flirting. They get down to business right away. People going on blind dates are actively looking for someone to marry. In some ways, I guess it’s good to know the intention going in. In other ways, it puts a lot of pressure on first impressions and doesn’t leave a lot of room for chemistry to develop naturally.

But since since blind dates are no place for flirting, I’ll leave that subject for another day….

Korean women are famous (infamous?) for a style of flirting known as “aegyo.” It’s a cutesy, whining way of speaking that is supposed to make them seem childlike and sweet. Perhaps it’s supposed to stir their “oppa” to want to care for them? It also involves a style of cute gestures and expressions (like the two finger peace sign in photos). Sometimes even young men, especially k-pop idols use aegyo. I don’t think I could ever date a man who used aegyo to be honest. It would creep me out.

Eat Your Kimchi did a great video about aegyo which I will link here:

Any sort of shyness or innocence can be viewed as aegyo. Though, that would be more the natural aegyo, versus the cultivated fake aegyo. Some of my Korean friends tell me I have aegyo because I’m naturally a blusher and I make weird faces if I’m surprised and such. To be honest, being in Korea has encouraged me to not hold back with that because, I get such a positive response. I’ve realized that’s why so many Korean people tell me that I’m cute– I’m a effusive. And then I worry about whether Korea is ruining me for life outside of Korea. Like maybe I should rein in the nose-scrunching thing. But I don’t do the whining. I swear. Anyway….

So use of aegyo, especially intentional aegyo is a big flirting style of Korean women. Though, as they say in the video– not as extreme as you may see in dramas.

Touching is also a delicate aspect of flirting. Because touching someone of the opposite gender is not something people typically do, couples are really announcing their couplehood by holding hands and other forms of contact. As your passing from the “being prodded” stage of courtship to the “actually dating” stage, your boyfriend or girlfriend may introduce “skinship.”

While kissing on the lips is still not commonly seen in public, couples are still very demonstrative in public. They’ll fix each other’s hair. They’ll rest a hand on the other’s arm or knee. Girls will often lean on their boyfriend’s shoulder. Holding hands in very common. All of these are signs that you are a couple and everyone around you sees that very clear message. Since your wouldn’t do these things with anyone you’re not dating, this is like a public announcement in Korea. No room for misinterpretation.

The best way to find someone to date in Korea is to make friends and meet people. If you meet people at clubs and such, they’re most likely looking for a fling. So if you’re not, I don’t recommend that method. However, meeting through friends gives Koreans the chance to sort of taking you through the vetting process to see if there is real relationship potential. Then you can start practicing your aegyo.

What are your experiences with cross-cultural flirting?

Going to the Doctor in Korea

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2 days worth of medicine for a bad chest cold

Most doctors in Korea speak some English which is great because I know a limited range of vocabulary related to illness. I know some body parts, how to talk about something hurting, and how to talk about tiredness. But knowing the proper Korean expression for “throbbing lymph nodes” is a little bit beyond me. So even if you’re only here on a short trip, but feel at all sick, don’t be afraid to pop into the nearest clinic.

Doctors in Korea are much cheaper and so is medication. Even without insurance, most visits are under $40 and most medicine will be less than $10 total. The basic procedure for the doctor is a bit different too. I have been to two different clinics in my time in Korea and I will explain in awkward detail for your knowledge and entertainment.

It’s important to know that because medical care is so cheap and Koreans so health conscious, people will pop by the hospital or clinic for colds, headaches, just about anything. And because of the quick, convenient nature of it, a lot the medical records procedure goes out the window. You don’t have one GP you go to once or twice a year. You drop in wherever you can and are often seeing different doctors. It’s up to you to alert them to family history, allergies, etc. They might not have any records about you.

If you have any cold or flu like symptoms, you’re probably going to have to drop trousers. To give you a boost, doctors often give you a shot in your bum. For like, anything that’s wrong with you. It’s been much speculated on about what exactly is in that shot. It might depend what your problem is. Some research I’ve done has said it’s a vitamin shot. B vitamins and such to help your body feel better. Some people say it’s an anti-histamine or cold medicine. I don’t really know. Just be ready to take your pants off and be spanked by a nurse.

Honestly, I wish all injections were given in the bum. It’s really fast and painless. Sometimes I wonder if the nurse really gave me and injections or if she just wiped on some alcohol and smacked me to psyche me out.

Then you are prescribed a huge pile of pills. Korean doctors tend to favor a cocktail of mild drugs combined and taken multiple times a day instead of one miracle pill in a big dose once a day. You might only get 2-3 days worth of drugs. If you aren’t clearing up in those 2-3 days, then you have to return to the doctor and have your treatment reevaluated to see if you need more of the same or something different.

In some ways, I really do see the logic in this method. In other ways, I don’t want to come back in two days. I’m busy and you already saw my butt. Our relationship should end in you giving me all the drugs and then me forgetting it ever happened. But because I prefer to fight things with as little pharmaceutical as possible anyway, a few days of decongestants and antihistamines are usually enough to get me over the worst of it and I let my body take care of the rest.

Also, medicine is prepacked in doses. So you get a little envelope of all the pills you need to take together instead of having to count it out from separate containers. It’s really nice for taking your medicine with you to work so you can take your doses on the go. If you’re taking three doses a day, portability is really important.

My experiences have been pretty positive, but there are always weird and questionable things that happen. A former coworker of mine went to the doctor with a skin rash and the doctor proceeded to bring up Wed MD and read to him from the computer. Then gave him a prescription. Now whether it was a language barrier or a lack of experience, I’m not sure. But come one, at least use the Mayo Clinic website. Even the best online hypochondriacs know that.