Spring in Korea is a bit of a sentimental time for me. Recently, I’ve been watching the landscape getting more and more pink every day, reminding me that it’s almost 2 years since I arrived in Korea! I can remember my first day clearly- feeling confused, not having a clue what anyone was saying, sitting on the bus looking out at the pink mountains wondering what my new school, new friends and new life would be like. Was I going to like it? Would I miss my friends and family, and end up pulling a runner after the first week? I couldn’t imagine how the 2 years ahead of me would have panned out. And now, I can hardly imagine how I felt on that day, and how foreign Korea seemed to me.
It’s so mental to think back on that time now. I knew nothing about Korea. I’d soon learn so much about this foreign land, including the fact that those mountains would only be pink for about a week. After a while, I’d start to feel like a local. I’d have a favourite supermarket, a favourite food. I’d learn shortcuts, I’d learn the best times to catch the buses into town. I’d learn so much about Korean customs and I’d even learn a bit of the language. Back then, that seemed like an impossible feat!
Of course, when you immerse yourself into a country, you don’t just learn things. You also change a bit yourself. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But there are some things that I know are ok here, but are going to get me a few strange looks back in Scotland (and elsewhere!) Just like I could never have imagined all the things that I would learn, I also couldn’t have imagined myself acting so habitually like a Korean! And while I have still managed to keep most of my Scottish habits- much to the dismay of the parents of my students, who have started rolling their r’s! (Ooops!) I’ve now got some new Korean habits to go along with them.
My New Habits that I Need to Shake!
I Can’t Speak English Anymore
It’s so ironic that ever since I started teaching English, my own English has started to rapidly decline. I’m the only foreigner at my school, so as you can imagine, most of the conversations I have at work are a bit (how do I say this in a nicer way?) broken. I’ve started picking up a lot of common grammar mistakes that kids make in class and using them when I speak to my friends! This is pretty common among expats in Korea, and my English even declined last year when I had a foreign co-worker. It can be quite comical when I’m out for dinner with my friends (all English teachers) and we are communicating in broken English and forgetting the most basic words! This is ok here, but I really need to buy a dictionary and learn some more words before coming back home. I can’t English anymore, and everyone else can English so much better than me!
The Words that I Use
I have so many words in my vocab that never used to be there before. I teach US English and have started using words like cellphone, apartment and vacation like it’s second nature. This will get me a hard enough time when I go home! But I’ve also started using a lot of standard English words that were never part of my vocab, but which Koreans use a lot in their own language.
Take for example the word, delicious. Of course, I know this word. But I don’t think I have ever used it before in my life. The only instance I could imagine would be pure sarcasm. But Koreans use a word “mashiketa” which translates directly to delicious. If I ever show my students a picture of food in class, they will all shout “aaahhh mashiketa!!!” And now I’ve started doing it too, but in English. If I walk past an advert for fried chicken, which I don’t even really like when I’m sober, I’ll start shouting “aaahhhh, delicious!” Or even if I’m in the supermarket on my own, and I see a new flavor of oreos- “aaaaahhhhhh delicious!!” Why?! What has happened to me!
If you think the word “delicious” is bad, even worse is “so-so.” For some strange reason, Korean kids (and adults) love to use this word. Again, I would never have used the word “so-so” before, but just like “aaaahhhh delicious”, it’s now a fundamental part of my vocabulary! Nicole, how was your weekend? So-so. Nicole, how was your dinner? So-so. Nicole, what did you think of that movie? So-so. Someone, please teach me some other words!
The Signature Asian Peace Sign
I’ve been trying so hard to curb this one recently. The classic Asian “peace sign” in photos…. I was looking through my photos on facebook a while ago, and noticed that in almost every picture I’d been tagged in, I was flashing a big peace sign. This is so common in Korea- kids do it in their school photos, couples do it, older people do it, I could even the big corporate booses at Samsung doing it in their company photos! It doesn’t actually have any “peaceful” connotations here, the same as flicking the vickies isn’t offensive here! It’s just a sign of cuteness, and, regardless of age and gender, Korean’s love cuteness. Since I noticed that I’ve inadvertently joined the Korean cute club, I’ve been trying to stop but I feel so awkward in photos. Where do I put my hands? What do I do? Should I flick the vickies instead? I better not…..
I Have no Selfie Shame!
If I’m on the bus and realise that my makeup is looking on spot, I’ll take a selfie. If I’m trying on funny sunglasses in a shop on my own, I’ll take a selfie. Recently there have been a lot a few cherry blossom selfies. I’ve also started running more so I have been taking running selfies. There is no limit to the amount of shameful selfie taking that has been going on! But it’s ok, because regardless of where I am, there’s probably someone a few metres away also taking a selfie.
Signing Everything I Say
This is a classic English teacher symptom and another thing that I’ve noticed most expats in Korea do. It’s as though we’re all practising sign language when we speak to each other! With my limited Korean, I need to sign out most things I say to people, and with my students limited English skills, I need to sign out most things I say to them too. But it’s stuck and I do it all the time now! I honestly don’t think I could ask someone for scissors without doing a scissors motion. Or tell someone I feel sleepy without doing the classic sleep sign. Or talk about running without starting to jog on the spot. This is so helpful when I’m trying to communicate with non-English speakers, but completely unnecessary around my native speaking friends!
Bowing to Everyone
I actually really like this habit, and I do think it’s nice that, over the past 2 years, it’s become second nature to me. Much like other Asian cultures, bowing is a very important way to show respect in Korea. It’s a bit like saying hello, thank you, or bye! You don’t just do it on formal occasions. I probably bow about 50 times a day! To the check out girl at 7/11, to the lollipop man who helps me cross the road in the morning, to every teacher that I walk past at school and, of course, parents too! While I’m glad that I’ve become so accustomed to this habit, which is so important here, could you imagine me going into a newsagent in Glasgow, and bowing to the owner on the way out!? I would definitely get a few strange looks.
I’m trying hard to identify these things I’m doing as habits, and hopefully, I’ll have shaken them by the time I leave. But if you do see me back in Scotland posing for selfies in the supermarket, and screaming “aaaahhhh delicious” when I see a picture of Irn Bru, just go easy on me, please! I can tell that readjusting to non-Korean life is going to be a bit of a test!
Let me know, do you have any weird habits from overseas that have been hard to shake?