It was one of the most physically taxing things I’ve done in a while – a mountain hike up one of Daegu’s beautiful peaks, Mt. Apsan. It was also something that I only could have done with the help, encouragement and understanding of my fellow hikers, most of whom barely knew any English.
On a cool, foggy Sunday sometime last month, I met up with a good friend who introduced me to a local activities group. This group, consisting of Koreans from around Daegu, were about three men and one woman, all in their 30s to 40s. I arrived to the hiking site in typical ill-equipped waygook fashion, donning a leather jacket, combat boots with no grip at the bottom, and a heavy DSLR in a backpack. My counterparts were all outfitted with impressive hiking gear – special hiking boots, bright brand-name hiking jackets, and outdoorsman backpacks. Nevertheless, I stayed optimistic as I stared upwards, trying to remember the last time I exercised.
About halfway up, I was about to quit. Winded, lightheaded, and feeling like I was going to toss my breakfast, I sipped some water at the temple spring and gestured to the group to go on without me. I insisted that I could wait at the temple until they all hiked up and came back down. I felt embarrassed at how much I was slowing the group down; the well-prepared, experienced hikers who were probably used to climbing up a lot faster. Instead, they surprised me. My friend translated what they were saying, and they all said the same thing: “We came together, and we will get to the top together.” They could have all agreed that maybe the hike is too difficult, maybe it would be easier for me to stay behind. But they waited. Gathering every bit of willpower I had, I pushed aside my reluctance, and decided to keep going.
There was one man in the group who jokingly complained every few steps, and I revealed that I knew a little Korean, laughing at his antics. It also happened to be the running joke that I needed to sit down at certain intervals on our way up, so every time he whipped out a foam pad for me to sit on! Haha~ One other member of the group even took my backpack from me, offering to take it up. They asked me if I needed water, and looked back to see if I was okay. At one point, to make the climb a little more fun, we played 가위 바위 보 (the equivalent of rock paper scissors) and the winners got to climb a few steps higher. I ended up winning this little game, and simply stated “Lucky!” to my fellow hikers from the spot at the top, causing them all to laugh. I was so grateful for their high spirits and kindness that every so often, looking towards the steps ahead, I found my mentality change to, “I think I can make it.”
And I made it to the top.
I took some of these shots at the observation deck, looking down at the city that I now call home. The contrast between the natural beauty of the mountain and the gridded city below was breathtaking. Although it was a little foggy, the view was mysterious, incredible, and something that I didn’t think I would be able to see. We all ate some kimchi and rice, had a few cups of beer, and relished the moment in the crisp, mountain air. I couldn’t have shared that time with a better group of people.
Now, I’ll try to talk a bit about something that has been on my mind for a long time. Some my good friends and other expats that I know have been very vocal about their discontents with certain aspects of life in Korea, whether sharing it online or over a beer. At times their issues focus around a co-teacher who “doesn’t do their job,” a confusing chain of command, or being all too often lost (subsequently confused, angered) in translation. It is the result of a jarring transition from Western culture to Eastern culture that many are not adequately prepared for.
But is it their fault?
I came to Korea having taken courses in Korean history and culture and Korean language. Prior to that, I was very interested in Korean culture, watching Korean dramas and listening to Korean pop music. It was an interest that I shared with some of my friends in America, and part of the reason why I chose to come to Korea. However, I can’t say that I share this same degree of cultural interest with everyone here.
Some hate the food. Some don’t attempt to speak the language at all. Some don’t understand the whole idea that “you have sick days but you’re not expected to take any.” Some get “shushed” on the bus for talking too loudly, outraged that a disgruntled old man chastised them in Korean. I hear things like, “[My co-teacher] doesn’t even know the difference between the p and the f sound,” and, “I’m glad I’m not Korean.” Misunderstandings and mishaps from a clash between two societies that are proud of their own culture.
It’s disheartening that these things happen, especially since we all have to take a lengthy online course that is supposed to teach us the ins and outs of living and working in Korea. It fails to prepare people for what they’re really expected to undergo: an attitude adjustment. Many are unabashedly Western in the far East, and when the water doesn’t part for them, they lash out. Frustrated, they vent online about a scatterbrained co-teacher and a rude old woman on the subway who nearly ran them over in her rush.
The absurdity of it is that you should let the old woman push her way through.
A cornerstone of Korean culture is deference. It goes beyond merely respecting one’s elders, as it is ingrained into the minutia of day-to-day communication. When meeting someone new, it is common for Koreans to assume the most formal way of speaking to each other only until they have a verbal confirmation that they can talk informally to the other party. Yes, they actually ask each other, “Can I talk to you informally?” In addition, the relationship between the speaker and listener is almost always anchored by age difference. A 50-year-old man will talk “lower” to a 40-year-old man. This is the tradition, and although it is getting more relaxed as the years pass, it exists.
So do the Confucian values that Korean society was founded on; an entire system of deference, ranking one’s obligations to maintain filial piety, marital fidelity, and respect for governing bodies. Remnants of this sociopolitical system are still in tact, and keep the country in its pristine, machine-like order. They are trusted values that have granted Korea its position as a technological and economic force of the East, and the reason why these seemingly “dated” values aren’t completely gone in a modern world.
Thus, when I came here, although I took a course in Korean culture, there was no real way of knowing what I was in for. But I watched carefully. I took in what everyone was doing. I bowed deeply, learned some of the greetings, and smiled no matter how tired I was. I greeted everyone in the morning, sat next to them at lunch and said, ” 맛있게 드세요!” (Please eat deliciously!). I prepared and taught entire lessons (I still do) and tried to be as hardworking and accommodating to my co-teachers as possible. And they noticed. One English teacher in my school who I didn’t know came up to me one day and thanked me for being “such a bright person.” I didn’t think I would be this way either, but in the smile of the gatekeeper 할아버지 as I greet him, I find so much warmth. In all the energetic “Hi!”s from my students, I get a little more strength to get through the day.
If you can give value to all of the little moments that you have here, the difficulties will be few and far apart.
It’s easy to get frustrated in a place where you don’t speak the language, and where the culture is so fundamentally different. But if you can bow and apologize to the woman in a rush, offer your seat to the tough 아줌마 in the subway, or pick up the slack of an overworked co-teacher, the negativity will dissipate, and you’ll find yourself seeing the big picture.
I think back to that hike, and how much I wanted to give up. I was halfway up, and I insisted that I couldn’t make it to the top. Every part of my being was screaming that “I can’t do it.” But everyone encouraged me. People that I had only met earlier that day, that didn’t speak any English, patiently stuck by me, guided me, and made me smile through the challenge.
It is why I hope that some of my friends can see how truly wonderful life is here, and how surprisingly far a little tolerance can take you.