Monday, June 15, 2009

Forming views on Korea, Part I : People

Last time I mentioned that I met a couple native Koreans who tried to instigate a fight by asking me how much I liked former President George W. Bush.

Well, now that I think about it. In my short time I was there, I think I met an enormously diverse cross section of Korean society the likes of which just arent possible for even someone growing up in a city as diverse as Los Angeles. If I think back, I would say the bread and butter, of how I ate and lived and the like was of course, knowledge of the English language (I see the irony here after criticizing Korea for teaching English before Hanja. I think there is an expression for this in Korean. I talk as if my stomach is full or 내가 배가 불은 말을 하고 있다).

Socially, I spent my time almost exclusively speaking English. But, most days either through work (really, it should be called work. That's how I ate and paid rent) I met a lot of "native" Koreans. Not speaking of the very diverse Korean-American or English-speaking, bilingual population in Seoul, the native Koreans I met there came from such sheer diversity in backgrounds, it's hard not to hyperbole(verb?). I'd say I worked mostly one-on-one with people the most).

If I think back now, some of them were from very privileged backgrounds as they ended up going to and graduating from some very prestigious universities in the United States. Others were of much more humbler means. I remember one girl that lived off of Hoegidong and she worked nights at some garment/fabric store in Dongdaemun. I also remember this grandmother, who was a retired medical doctor who spoke almost perfect English. She hated Roh Moo Hyun's politics, who she thought was aimed at the rich. She had the same view as this one dentist who told me that he stayed in Los Angeles and hated it, making it a "blockbuster weekend" every weekend and of how Hillary Clinton's healthcare plan back in 1993 was too conservative for Korea. He wasn't a big fan of Roh Moo Hyun either.

Of course, there were others as well. There was this one post doc that was going over to UC Berkeley, who was studying lithium batteries I remember. I wonder if he's still on campus. And, of course, I would say I met many, many college and high school students. And, of course, there were all those "Account Executives" that I met when I worked at English Channel. Or, that retired director? (이사) from Nike Korea, who told me that offshoring hits Korea way before the United States (those Korean-owned factories that produced Nike shoes in Korea are still all Korean owned except none of them are or have been in Korea for a long time now). And, of course there was that one director or executive from Samsung Thales the defense corporation who always walked in with an entourage as he was too important to come in by himself.

I remember going to the stores under the ground level in the Euljiro (을지로) district to make business cards and stickers I could put up to advertisemy services as a 1:1 English Conversational Tutor (By the way, I didn't get one student from the sticker thing. Was a complete waste of money. Try Daum Cafe instead). The Euljiro business card, stickers, and flyers thing was probably thee worst investment I've ever made.

There's countless others I'd say that makes it sound as if I''m straight fibbing if I were to say all this and yet also say that Korea's indeed a homogenous country. After all, I was born and raised in Southern California with its nearly 1 million ethnic Koreans. There's the incredibly diverse English speaking Korean population. There's also the incredibly diverse college and high school Korean students. Of course, there's also the incredibly diverse non-Korean population there as well. When I "lived" at Yonsei University (I lived there for an entire quarter), my roommate was this lPh.d candidate from France studying linguistics. He first showed me the obsolete hangul symbol that's just a dot. It was a book I remember that was published in Japan prior to Japanese colonization. And, of course there's the semester I "lived" at Soonchunhyang University in Chungcheong Province.

Anyways, I'd say none of these people I met had even the slightest interest in politics, history, or even tradition (they were more focused on English), but through conversation I some how came to see that I did. And, I think Koreans studying English believe tutors that talk English a lot or just talk a lot are good tutors. And, ask even more questions. So, even if they didn't care about politics or history, as long as we were speaking English, it didn't matter. So, I think I was able to pick up a lot of anecdotal stories in Korea and this helped form the opinion and views I have of Korea and Koreans that I hold today.

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