Fast Forward


…the students I have now, by maybe six years, and there you have my new language exchange partner.  24 and a university student, he lives about 15 minutes walk from me, and his best friends went to the high school I’m teaching at.

Oh yeah, I used to talk and sleep in classes all the time.  everybody does that.  But now I have to study seven days a week.

He looks a lot like the guy from “A Moment to Remember” (Korean K drama) actually.  His photos must have been a few years old, because he looked younger and skinnier in them.  I was pleased he was all about business  and immediately went about assessing the materials I had for their value.   It became clear that I need to work on my hangul (the Korean alphabet) more, and that there’s nobody who can really help me with that but me.  But I told him about the upcoming privates, and I asked him to help me with more survival phrases and cultural things like honorifics and politeness.

While I did go over some phonics with him, he actually was pretty advanced in his English, and he’d spent some time in Kansas City.  So for most of the next two hours we talked about economics, our two different societies, education and media.

His take on all those topics that have been weighing me down  (overworking the kids, lack of creativity, pressure to succeed, etc. ) since I’ve been here is:

  • Sixteen hours at school didn’t seem that awful to him – that’s just life how is here, and he didn’t think it was so bad.
  • No, they don’t see their families all week, but on the weekends they always went fishing or did something together.
  • He kept talking about “the downturn” and I told him I didn’t see any evidence of it.  (there are no going out of business signs, no day laborers lined up, and all the stores are open and full every night.)  but he said that everyone’s budgets had tightened, and that he blames the president for being so aligned with the Bush administration.  He was saying there has been a huge difference in the past few years, and that competition for jobs has become fierce, so there is a lot of under-employment here.
  • He’s majoring in economics, but he hates economics.  I ask him why he’s majoring in it, and he says that’s because he HAS to.  That was the only major he could get into with his test scores.
  • He’s currently unemployed, this time on purpose because he’s a senior and he needs to focus more, but that he’s worked his entire college career.  Surprisingly to me, he says 1/3 rd of all college students have to work to get through school.  This surprises me because I know that most students live at home – they can’t afford the key money (deposit – i guess it’s almost equivalent to a year’s rent) to get their own apartments, and tuition is relatively iexpensive here.  (I know the key money thing is huge, and another teacher told me that couples hold off their weddings for years and continue to live at home, simply because it takes that long for them to save up the key money)  He says it is not practical to get your own place:  Korea is a small country, and even if you try to live separately, you will never be far from home.  I have heard this “Korea is a small country” so many times during my stay here.  It is a hard concept to wrap your head around when you’re living in a high tech. metropolis of over 24 million and everyone is packed together like sardines.  In this sense, it is a little like Seattle – overly preoccupied and aware of its image with respect to the rest of the world.
  • I asked how western media and the freedom kids exercise in the west has affected Korean youth. He thinks the violence in American movies is terrible, and was sickened by it when he first saw it.  This surprised me, as some of THE GORIEST stuff I’ve ever seen is on Korean t.v. – you know, Yakuza gangster stuff (I’ve never seen people die in so many horrible bloody ways)  He also didn’t like the way Korea is represented in Korean movies.  I told him I thought Korean movies revealed a sweet and tender side to a people that seem at first harsh, and he was surprised.  “What kind of Korean movies have you watched?”  Maybe he is referring to movies like Old Boy.  I mentioned Joint Security Area to him, and he agreed that movie painted a better picture of Koreans.  The Kdramas might just be a girl thing, as he didn’t acknowledge their existence at all.
  • I asked him how many times a day he hears the pop song blaring on the radio, and he says never – he doesn’t pay attention or listen to it.  He mostly listens to American rock and old British music, like the Beatles.   (God, I wish I could tune out the Kpop)
  • I asked him what he thought of his stay in America, and he said he likes Americans better than Koreans.  This also surprised me.  He thought Americans were not as shallow as portrayed in the movies, and he never met an American who was like that.  He thought they were better people than Koreans, because he’s met many Koreans who will try to cheat you.  I’d heard of this characterization before, but it was always from foreigners, so I was surprised to hear this from a Korean.  It doesn’t seem to me like Koreans cut any corners in regards to jobs/life/crafts, etc.  But maybe this does not apply to business ethics.  This is, without a doubt, THE most competitive society I have ever encountered.

At ten p.m., we called it a day, and I requested we try and find someplace less expensive to meet next time.  6,000 won for a coffee seems kind of criminal when I can get a meal or two large snacks for that price.  I really don’t understand how all these boutique coffee places can stay in business if there is truly an economic crisis here.  But from what I gather on the news, the situation is far behind what was taking place in the states when I left.  It has yet to be painted as doomsday.  Adnauseum.  Unrelentingly.  Here, it creates more of a competative frenzy and resolve to be better, stronger, faster.  I think Korea is resilient and unsinkable.  I think the only thing that will kill Korea is the marriage of their status consciousness with western consumerism.

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