Today marks 10 months living abroad in South Korea.
Google tells me that it takes at least 21 days to form a new habit. I’ve been here for 307. Being that I’m a math wizard after studying finance for four years in university, my calculator tells me that I should have developed 14.62 habits by now. Well, I guess I’m an outlier, according to Google. Although I’ve definitely picked up new Korean habits, I don’t think I’ve changed that much… have I?
Here are six habits I’ve picked up in Korea.
1. Replacing English With Konglish
During the work week, my English conversations with coworkers and students are very basic and limited.
These are the main topics of conversation I have with my coworkers:
The lunch menu. A topic of conversation that used to make my heart flutter with excitement has become repetitive and disenchanting. I never thought this could be possible. I’m always eager to talk about food. But, after having this same conversation week after week, I’m sad to say I’ve lost my appetite for food talk.
Coworker: Do you know what kimchi is?
Me: Yes, I’ve been eating it for 10 months now.
Coworker: Is kimchi not too spicy for you?
Me: No, I’ve been eating it for 10 months now.
Alexa, you look sick – for the 43rd week in a row. My response, “yes,” always. I’ve been permanently sick for the last 43 weeks. This could be because Koreans don’t believe in sick days. It shows a lack of work ethic and initiative! Suffering from the common cold? Go to school. Suffering from a terrible flu? Go to school. Get sent to the doctor. Get a shot in the butt. Then, go back to school. I wish I was joking.
Baseball. Koreans love baseball. Once a week, one of my coworkers will ask me if I know who the Toronto Blue Jays are, knowing very well I come from Toronto. I give the same response, “yes” every time. He nods in approval and the conversation ends. This exact same interaction is repeated the following week.
These are the main topics of conversation I have with my students:
My love life. A controversial subject. I’m 25 years old and not married?! My students have lost all hope for me. This is an exact interaction I had while teaching my grade 6 class a month ago.
Student: Teacher, do you have a boyfriend yet? (The “yet” made me feel like a spinster hoarding seventeen cats in my apartment).
Student: Oh, that’s too bad. (At least they used one of the key response expressions from their English textbooks. Well done! Here’s a sticker for you).
Appearance. Four words: beautiful, handsome, pretty, ugly. There is no in-between. When students tell me they think someone is ugly, I try to spark a healthy debate and ask them why. This always fails. I always get the same answer. “Just because.” Well, that’s justifiable enough! Debate finished.
Student: Teacher, make up?
Me: Yes. (Once a week I will grace my students with a fresh face full of make up).
Student: Today, you are beautiful. (Only today though.)
Here, beauty is not so skin-deep.
I’ve found that it is much easier to communicate with Koreans when I replace English with Konglish. It’s pretty remarkable actually, that with a slight change in pronunciation, a person’s face can go from total confusion to complete understanding. The key to Konglish? Saying the word twice or adding an “eu” or “ee” sound to the end of the word.
Is something the same as something else? No, it’s the same same.
Can I have an orange, blueberry, and peach smoothie? No, but you can have an orangee, beleubelly, and-eu peachy smoodee.
So, to say that my English conversations are lacking is an understatement. The result? I’m forgetting how to speak the language that I came here to teach. What an ironic twist! The native English teacher can no longer speak her own native tongue and goes back to Canada speaking only a strange dialect called Konglish!
All jokes aside, it’s alarming when I’m having a Skype conversation with a friend back at home and forget a basic English word and respond by word-vomiting a bunch of inaudible sounds. This almost happens weekly. If you were to look through my recent Google searches, you would cringe at how many times I’ve typed, “what’s the word for [insert strange description of a basic English word]”?
Thank goodness for spell check. Or, this blog would be a mess.
2. Throwing Up A V-Sign For Pictures
I remember the days I would turn my head away in disappointment whenever I would see someone throw up a V-sign, formed by their index and middle finger, for a photo. Before moving to Korea, I vowed I would never be one of those people.
But, that promise didn’t last long. Even before leaving the Toronto airport, I forced my parents (albeit, jokingly) to throw up a V-sign with me for a farewell photo. People walking by didn’t seem tickled by my joke.
Fast forward 10 months later. I am now doing this act non-jokingly and intuitively. I have more pictures of me throwing up a V-sign than without. I’m sad to admit, I don’t know how to take a “normal” picture anymore.
3. Throwing Up An X-Sign Instead Of Saying No
When saying “no” in Korea, it is absolutely essential to accompany it with a firm X-sign. Koreans throw up their arms and form an X shape with their hands when responding no or when explaining to me that I can’t order a Big Mac at McDonald’s during breakfast hours. Ugh.
But, I too now respond with no in the same (same same) highly expressive way. Will I be able to stop this when I go back to Canada? X. Probably not.
I can’t remember the last time I shook someone’s hand when meeting them for the first time. This once-familiar greeting has become such a foreign concept for me.
But, didn’t you know? Bowing is the new handshaking! I bow all the time. Literally, dozens upon dozens of times a day. It has become so second nature, that I catch myself bowing to my foreign friends when meeting up with them for drinks. At least we all do it now, so it’s not that weird anymore.
I’m just worried for the day I set foot back in Canada and accidentally bow to the person taking my order at the Tim Horton’s drive-through. Can I get a Double Double and a concerned stare, please?
5. Not Apologizing
In the famous words of Justin Bieber, is it too late to say sorry now? Like my fellow Canadian, I never used to think so. Before Korea, if someone had stepped on my foot, I would apologize to them. If someone bumped into me and my coffee spilled all over my freshly washed white shirt and gave me third-degree burns, I would apologize to them. Eh! That’s Canadians for you!
But, Korea is different.
Koreans don’t apologize for anything and to nobody. This took me a while to get used to. For the first few months I lived here, I constantly felt offended. If someone bumped into me and didn’t turn around to apologize, even to give me an apologetic look, I would repeat the incident in my head for days and agonize over it. How could they?
What I’ve realized: Koreans aren’t rude or mean-spirited. Canadians are just weirdly and overly nice. It’s all culturally relative.
Now, after being pushed and shoved hundreds of times, without an apology, I’ve learned to do the same. They say, if you can’t beat them, join them!
I’ll have to fix this habit when I go back to Canada – or, I’ll be sorry.
6. Obsessive Dental Hygiene
Koreans are neurotic about their teeth. Koreans bring a toothbrush wherever they go and brush their teeth after every meal.
When I first started teaching, I thought it was strangely amusing that right after lunch, all the teachers and the students race to the washrooms, toothbrush in hand. I would be questioned by my coworkers why I wasn’t doing the same. So, submitting to peer pressure, I started doing the same. At least this habit will prevent me from getting gingivitis and cavities.
Well, I still have 77 days left in South Korea. This means that there is potential for me to develop at least three new habits before I head back to Canada. I just hope they’re not too extreme. I’m going to have enough trouble when I get back home shaking hands instead of bowing, taping twitching fingers together before taking a picture, and saying saying words words once once – yeesh!