Archive for the 'observations' Category

Changing Winds

Yesterday, the winds shifted, and autumn has officially arrived.

At some point in the year, the winds in Korea shift from being from the west, originating in Manchuria, to being from the north, originating in Siberia.  This air, brought in by the Siberian winds from the steppes of Russia, has a very different quality.  Not only is it markedly chilly (duh…), but it is also clearer, cleaner, and very windy.  Usually this shift happens very quickly, but here in Jindo, it took one night.  On Thursday, it was hot.  That night, we had a HUGE windstorm strong enough to knock over several motorcycles (not mine, thankfully), and on Friday morning I woke up to chilly (upper 50s) air that I can only describe as smelling like autumn.  It’s not quite the same smell as New England, but it has similar notes of rotting leaves and turned earth, and it has that crispness that only comes in autumn.  It’s about as close as I can get to being back at home, and I’ll take what I can get.

The quality of the light is also different.  It’s more intense, in a way.  During most of my time here, the light is very diffuse.  It’s sunny, but there’s a lot of haze at high altitude, and so while it is very bright, it is sometimes difficult to even locate the sun in the sky.  As of yesterday, the skies have had distinct clouds, and the sky above them is a deep blue.  The sun that shines gives off an almost white light, except in the evening, when it becomes a deep yellow.  It makes far more of a difference in how Jindo looks than one would think.

I have been really missing New England of late, and I find that this recent shift of weather has helped with that considerably.  The only downside is that it does signal that Korea’s famously bitter winter will begin soon.

“Fan Death”

While he was here, Marc and I came up with a phrase that we say whenever we discover something very odd about Koreans/Korean culture (typically some belief or another, typically an ignorant one):  “Fan Death”

Koreans believe that if you have a fan on and the windows closed, you will die, because fans “steal your air”.  There are even warnings on the boxes, and they all have timers with a maximum of 3 hours.  They also believe that if a pet is left alone with a fan in the room, that it will explode.  Not just suffocate (as they believe humans do), but spontaneously explode.  It’s absolutely absurd, and at the same time rather humorous.  Thus, when something similarly odd about Korea comes up, we both look at eachother and say “Fan Death”.  It’s an inside joke, and one that won’t get much use now that he isn’t here, but it does make me chuckle.

Generally, I am very accepting of odd cultural beliefs, but the Koreans have several (such as the examples I just gave) that just reek of plain old ignorance, and so I can’t help but laugh.


And because I hate making posts that don’t contain a photo, here, have a visual-overload one from Marc and I’s visit to Cheongpyeongsa temple in Gangwondo:

Sometimes I think that monks must be into psychedelics…

Egalitarianism? What’s that?

From Learning to Think Korean: A Guide to Living and Working in Korea by Robert Kohls:

One of the most difficult relationships for Americans to adjust to in Korea is that of master and servant.  Korean servants are unequivocally inferior to their employers, and it is embarrassing to the servants and offensive to Koreans of higher rank to treat them in any way as equal, to introduce servants, for instance, to your higher-ranking guests.  It has been 80 years since servants were common in American middle-class households.  The mere idea of servants is foreign to us, which, combined with our egalitarian impulses, makes it hard for us to order them to do something instead of asking them if they would please do it.  If you speak Korean, the imperative to surmount your egalitarianism is reinforced because the language demands that you talk down to servants as inferiors.

Replace the word “servant” with “teacher”, and you have how I often feel.

One thing that Marc remarked on while he was here is that Koreans don’t really have words for “Please”, “Excuse me”, or “Sorry”.  Technically, they do, but nobody uses them.  My Korean phrase books and cultural etiquette books say that not only should you not bother learning them, but that you will make Koreans feel awkward if you do use them.  Similarly, when asking for something from someone who you can’t immediately and positively identify as more important than you, the Korean phrase to do so (주사ㅛ, I believe) translates pretty much to “Give X to me.”, rather than what we would consider more polite – something along the lines of “I’d like X, please.”.  When I read that excerpt above, my mind went immediately to these two linguistic examples.

Honestly, these linguistic features are very indicative of Korean culture, I feel.  Cultural attitudes can often be found written into languages, and Korean is no exception.  In French, you have the “Tu” and “Vous” forms:  the familiar and the formal.  In Korean, there is a whole different way of talking to someone, and it’s not based on the familiar/formal model, it’s based on “how much higher in status am I than you?”.  A slip up is not merely a grammatical mistake but a potential insult.

I recently found out that one of the reasons that my supervisor has been pissy with me is that I have stopped referring to her as “[Name] Chang-ak San Nim”, which means “[Name] Supervisor” and instead have just been calling her by her last name.  This degree of formality is very alien to us informal Americans, and it has been a major adjustment for me, especially since I am often seen as relatively informal, even insolent, back in the relaxed USA.  I am slowly learning that the way to get things here is not only to stand your ground, as I am very used to doing, but also to be overly, sickeningly sweet, and make it look like you are trying hard to work with them.

I am enjoying this book, and you can likely expect more excerpts from it in the future.


1. I had dinner yesterday with the two expats I get along with most here (A Nova Scotian and a North Dakotan – seen above with her dog) and a Korean co-worker, and they are all really glad that I stood up to my supervisor. They say that I have really done a service for whoever works after me, because everyone before me let the supervisor push me around, and now she knows that she can’t always do that to foreigners. So, maybe she will be less likely to push so much in the future.

One thing that I didn’t talk about here was that when I went in to talk to the supervisor about the housing/etc situation in regards to me quitting, I went in with the phone number of the labor office and an English-speaking employment lawyer (they’re cheap here and often work for ESL teachers who are getting jerked around) on an index card, which I had labled in both Korean and English. When she started to make a fuss, saying that she felt her “alterations” to my contract were within reason, I pointed at the card. She quieted down and grumbled. Then after I said “If you do not follow my contract, I will quit, like I said I would.”. She fussed again, and said that if I quit, she would not write me a letter of release (which they are required to do if I leave after more than a month of employment), and so I pointed to the index card again, and said “If you don’t, I will call.”. She fussed some more in Korean, and I picked up the phone and started to look at the card, and she freaked out and told me to hang up, and then her English mysteriously improved (we had been speaking through a coworker who knew a little more English than usual) and she said she would see what she could do, which is how I got to where I am now. 

That’s definitely the Adams genetics coming through there. I don’t take no for an answer, and I *will* take things to a higher level if I have to (I really was going to call the labor board), and I will not sit down until we have come to some sort of agreement. I am not someone you really want to try to fool, when doing so may piss me off. I generally see right through that sort of thing, and I will have none of it, and if you *really* piss me off, I’ll probably try to take you with me. And apparently, if I were to leave this job, I’d be taking the supervisor with me, especially if I involve the labor board. The Korean at dinner confirmed this.

I swear, I’m not really an automatically contrary person, I just always seem to be underneath someone who thinks they can push me around by lying to me. I get more naturally contrary every time this happens though, and it has happened a lot in my life, so by this point, I have how to deal with these people down *pat*.

Shiro and Erin

2. It looks like Marc will be coming in on the 11th! That’s like, 16 days from now! Today at work I will be writing up a letter confirming the dates they have listed as my vacation, which I am going to make them sign. Basically it will say “Kelsey Freeman’s personal vacation days (days on which she may leave the country) are from July 17th until July 27th.” but in much fancier, more official language. Once they sign that, if they fuss about it, “the index card” will come out of hiding again. I don’t want to use the “I’ll quit!” threat if I don’t have to, but unfortunately it seems to be the only thing they listen to. Hopefully things will quiet down again soonish. Not counting today, I only have 14 teaching days left before my vacation, then I have my vacation, then a camp, then a 2 week workshop, then I start the new semester, and hopefully that after the craziness of all that, things will fall into place a bit more. Well, at least until winter vacation comes around and I get to go through this whole rigamarole again.  

3. Now that I’m almost positive I’m staying here in Jindo (well, somewhere on the island, at least), I’ve started to get a couple more things to make my apartment nicer. I got a second rug, since the first one has been relegated to in front of the sink, and so this one now sits next to my bed. I want to get two to three more, depending on what the new house is like. I want one for my feet to rest on when I’m sitting at my table/desk, and I want one for right outside the bathroom, because I often have to get out of the shower mid-way and turn the water heater back on (it sometimes turns off at random), and the linoleum takes forever to evaporate the water, so sometimes it’s still there when I get back from work! I also need a fan, unless the rumor that the house in Gunnae has AC is true.

4. Koreans are really into acupuncture. The other day, I said my throat was bothering me, and one of them took out this little pen with a tip similar to the metal tip on a high-quality mechanical pencil but with no lead or anything, and then started poking at and pressing on various points on my middle finger with it. It was a very strange sensation. Not sure it did anything, but who knows. My throat *was* better the next day, for what it’s worth.

5. Lisa showed me a restaurant one block from my apartment that serves pizza. It’s pretty good, but they stuff the crust edge with sweet potatoes instead of cheese. It’s weird, but surprisingly good. I actually eat the crust here, instead of putting it aside.

6. It hasn’t rained in a few days, but it hasn’t been sunny either. The clouds are extremely low, covering the tops of the mountains that cover the island, which are generally only about 1000-1500 feet at best. It’s very pretty, and reminiscent of cloudy days in Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland, but it means it’s very damp too.

7. Here in Korea, you are considered to be one year old when you’re born, and you also gain a year at New Years in February, I’m 24 by western standards, but I’m already 25 here, in September after my birthday I will be 26, and in February I will be 27. It’s weird, and I always have to remember to subtract a year or two from someone’s stated age. Until I started stating my “Korean age”, people kept saying “You’re so young!”, and now I know why – they were thinking I was 22 years old! Oops.

8. As much as I rag on the Koreans, most of them are incredibly nice people. The other day, I taught my co-teacher here at Jindo the Americanism “favouritest”, and I used the example “some of my favouritest foods are fried chicken and watermelon” (hellooooo southern upbringing…), and just now they brought me a whole tray of fried chicken and watermelon. This is literally one of the sweetest things anyone has ever done for me, right up there with when Peter broke into my room while I was gone to Boston during Valentines Day to work on my Div III (he was an intern, with access to keys, though entering a student’s room is a huge no-no) and left me a cute handmade valentine on my desk, back when we were dating.

On the effects of humidity in sub-tropical Korea…

Having grown up in Houston, where it’s so humid you can basically feel the atmosphere on your skin, I thought I would be prepared for the humidity here.  I was wrong.  Well, partly, anyway.  I am fine with the humidity itself, especially since the nights are cooler due to the proximity of the town to the ocean.  However, what I was not prepared for was how the Koreans deal with it.  Or rather, how they don’t.

Koreans, as far as I can tell, are not big fans of air conditioning, and they’re not overly fond of oscillating fans either.  The result is that when you walk into a store or restaurant (or, for that matter, my apartment), the air is virtually the same as it is outside, and, in restaurants, frequently slightly warmer.  It is good that I spent three summers living in Boston, where most people don’t have air conditioning either, or this would be an even bigger shock to my system. 
The other side effect of this seeming lack of concern about the humidity is that the town as a whole is very dingy and moldy.  Thankfully it does not appear to be any of the bad kinds of mold, but I will not be surprised if I return to the US with a mold allergy next summer.  They don’t seem to take too much care of their buildings, letting mold grow not only on the outer walls but sometimes the inner walls as well.
When you combine this with their habit of throwing trash on the street (which I find odd, considering this country is generally obsessed with recycling everything) and of urinating on the walls, it means that the town as a whole has quite a distinct smell.  I wouldn’t quite qualify it as a “stench” just yet (we’ll see if I say that when August rolls around), but it is definitely not something I would prefer to be smelling as I wander around getting food from street markets.  Thankfully, I’d estimate that you can’t walk more than two miles in any given direction without hitting a mountain of some sort, so I’m hoping that in the afternoons after school I can go hiking, or take a bus to the pretty beach I keep seeing in pictures.  That way I’ll be able to minimize the amount of time I end up spending in the town itself.   
I had forgotten that rural Asia is not like rural America.  Well, perhaps it is similar to rural West Virginia, or one of the more depressed central-South states, but it is certainly not like rural New England or even rural Louisiana, for that matter.  I think that this strange combination of neon lights and run-down-buildings is probably the biggest piece of culture shock that I have experienced thus far.

I am considering purchasing a moped of some sort, depending on how much they cost, at some point, provided that I can sell it when I leave.  I need to figure out how far away the beach is, but I think that having a moped would allow me a great deal more freedom in moving around the island.  I don’t think I would use it here in town all that much, but I could certainly see it being useful to get around to the other little villages.  I will have to ask around and determine how much they cost.  I may not get one because it will probably take a couple months for me to have enough money saved for it and to pay for my part of Marc’s trip here to Korea, but we shall see.  I think that being able to go somewhere other than the town on my own schedule, even if it’s just to another dingy village, would probably make me feel less claustrophobic.

News and Observations

Positive side of living on the Korean island known for its famous dogs: I never have to worry about eating dog, and there are friendly dogs everywhere that I can pet.

Negative side of living on the Korean island known for its famous dogs: The cacophony of barking at all hours. IT NEVER ENDS.

My apartment is big, but a little on the dingy side. But, that’s not the end of the world. For Hampshire-people, it’s about the level of dinginess of Greenwich. Supposedly they may move me to a newly renovated apartment in 2 months. We’ll see. That would be nice. I’d settle for a smaller place if it was newer. Though, I do have a bathtub, which is pretty awesome. Bathtubs are very rare here, and are considered something of a luxury item.

The weather is nice, though. It’s probably about 65˚F (18˚C) right now, and the mountains are shrouded in mist.


A few observations and notes thus far:



  • People drive like madmen here. It’s insane. I have witnessed SO many near-accidents here, including ones involving the car I’m in! No way in hell will I ever drive here.
  • Korean food is less spicy than I was led to believe (with the exception of kimchi, which I can barely eat two bites of), though virtually everything is spicy to some degree. The upside of this is that I drink water like a fiend here, which I never did in the US.
  • FOOD IS SO CHEAP! Like, a whole watermelon = 4,000won ($4). A can of real, 100% juice from a vending machine = 700won (.70 cents). A Coke from a vending machine = 600won (.60 cents). My co-teacher and supervisor(? – I’m still not quite sure what she is in relation to me) took me out to lunch yesterday, and we had a huge meal for three people, for about $15.
  • The food here is really healthy. Very, very balanced diet. It makes my burps taste funny though.
  • Their milk smells weird. I keep thinking it’s spoiled, when it’s not.
  • My washing machine sings a little song when you start it. I assume it does the same when it’s finished. Drying my laundry here is going to be somewhat of a task, because, being an island, it’s very humid here, and everyone line-dries their laundry. I guess it will keep me from waiting until the last minute to do laundry, though, which has always been a bad habit of mine.
  • I am convinced that Koreans hate air conditioning. I have now driven in three cars, and everyone opens the windows instead of using the (perfectly functional) air conditioner. They don’t use them in their homes either, even when they have them.
  • Koreans hate fans. This, plus the above, means I am always feeling slightly damp and warm, even when it’s in the 60s. Apparently they have some weird superstitious belief that if you have a fan on and the windows closed, you will die. Yeah, I have a really hard time not laughing at that one when they say it. As a result, if they have a fan (or air conditioning, which they consider to be related to a fan) running, they have the window open as well. The same thing goes in winter, apparently – they leave the heat on full blast, but keep the windows open. I had heard that Koreans go through heating oil like crazy, and now I think I know why.
  • Peter, they have those little Japanese chocolate mushroom cookies that you like, here. They’re everywhere, in fact. The boxes cost 500won (.50 cents). Pocky (which I have seen, but not as frequently), is similarly cheap. Man, I had no idea what a premium Americans pay to get it.
  • My mattress is hard as a rock. For now, I have laid down the (rather old and dingy) blankets they gave me on top of the mattress, and then covered them with my sheets, to make something of a really ineffectual featherbed. I need to buy myself a blanket. The ones they gave me push my OCD buttons in the wrong way. Mysterious stains = Kelsey trying to sleep without actually touching the blanket (thank god I brought my own sheets).
  • My apartment needs some serious cheerfulness, and soon. I can deal with lumpy linoleum and random mold spots (not huge, but enough to make it look dingy), so long as I have things around me that make it feel more homey. So, as soon as I figure out what the hell my address is, and how to recieve mail, I would absolutely love to get small mail from you guys. Little things to remind me of home would be awesome. I brought some photos, but that’s about it. In exchange, I would be glad to send things to you guys as well, if you give me requests.
  • The bus station has little computer terminals that you can play Diablo II, City of Heroes, and World of Warcraft on. And yet, I have yet to find open wireless. Bizarre.
  • The govt. is in the process of changing the national standards for romanization of words. This means that I see more than one name for places when I’m looking at signs, documents, etc. Not too bad, but certainly confusing at times. Examples are (old version first): Pusan = Busan, Kwangju = Gwangju, Cheollanamdo = Jeollanamdo. It’s not too hard to figure out, but it means I sometimes have to take a second look at things.
  • Holy crap, so much staring. Little kids point and giggle, and old ladies look at me like I’m some sort of strange animal. I’ve had 4 women tell me (according to my co-teacher, who translates for me) that I’m pretty/beautiful. I’ll have to be careful, or this is going to go to my head. According to my co-teacher and the woman I’m replacing, I will likely be the first blonde-haired person my students have ever seen outside of a movie or TV. This should be…interesting.
  • My supervisor’s daughters think Marc is very handsome and that he looks like a movie star (I was showing them photos of my friends). I agree on the handsome bit, but I still find it really funny. Marc, they also think you’re like, a giant, for being 6 feet tall.
  • They are mindboggled that I speak more than English. I spoke a little bit of French and German for my supervisor’s kids, and they thought it was like, the coolest thing ever.
  • Most people here, despite going through a minimum of 8 years of mandatory English classes, speak next to no English. I knew their language education system was bad, but man, it must truly be terrible. I guess I’ll find out soon enough!



Okay, that’s enough for now. My co-teacher is coming by in a few hours to take me out and show me around. I need to buy some groceries, cleaning supplies (the bathroom, kitchen, and fridge could all use a wipedown), a blanket, and a power strip. Later in the week I need to get a lamp (so my only source of light is not the ugly overhead), some clothes hangers, a rug, and a water purifier (or bottled water). I’m not supposed to drink the water (even restaurants use bottled water), especially here on the island, which is way, way more inconvenient than I had previously realized. I strongly suspect that when at home here in the apartment, I’ll probably drink mostly juice (which is common and cheap here), and save my water for things like brushing my teeth.

After that, I’m going to go to the internet cafe I saw earlier, to see if I can use their wireless. It’ll be a few weeks before I get wireless here at my apartment, because I can’t get it until I get my ARC (alien registration card – the Korean equivalent of a green card), and that may take a couple weeks. Thankfully, internet cafes are like 200won ($2) an hour here, and they give you free food and drinks, so it’s not so bad. I need to figure out what their hours are though. I hope they’re open late, so I can chat with you guys today. I’ll try to get down there tomorrow morning, so I can chat with you all (it’ll be Saturday night for you folks) for sure before I start work on Monday. During the week I’ll probably be harder to get ahold of, due to the time difference and my work schedule, but during the weekends, I should be okay.

I’m mostly over my jetlag, after only two nights and a day. Not bad, for a 14 hour difference.

One more thing: Okay, it’s officially weird that I now qualify as an “expat”. WEIRD. Also, by Korean standards, I’m classified as a Civil Servant. ALSO WEIRD.

December 2019
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