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Archive for the 'How Koreans Do It' Category

The Foreigner Card – pros and cons of using it in Korea

Preferential Treatment.

Clearly, I’m not talking about a green card. I’m talking about preferential treatment when faced with an unpleasant situation. It’s a time when cultural or linguistic negotiation has failed (or will fail) and the foreigner makes an ace-in-the-hole plea. Think: Come on buddy cut me some slack, will ya? but in a foreign land.

It’s not just Korea, obviously. Expats in South America and China also have pondered this point (although some literally have a card). Pulling the foreigner card is vital to an expat’s survival but it’s not to be overused. Perhaps it shouldn’t be used at all?

Like any card game, the Foreigner Card has it’s time and place when to use it. You wouldn’t want to use it when the outcome could adversely affect you.

Kc101 Korea Korean foreigner card 외�인

Yeah it gets you out of going to 회식 with coworkers you don’t like. Sure it allows you to leave the lunch table before your boss. It even lets you sit in the senior citizen bench on the subway. Granted you’ll get stared at like no one else before you but at least you’ll be the youngest person sitting. Thanks Foreigner Card!

But do you really want to be that guy? The one who has the rules bent for him? The guy who gets away with murder at the office? The one that has special privileges and less responsibility than the rest of the staff? You actually want to be that guy?

Well, yeah. Sometimes. Sure. It’s nice to be able to do things that other people don’t do. It’s nice to get out of some boring meetings that others have to attend. It’s nice not having to do anything other than smile when asked for a report. But, it excludes one from the group. It further alienates one from one’s coworkers. It darkens the line between ‘외국인’ and ‘one of us’.

Perhaps you were never part of the group in the first place? Perhaps others played the Foreigner Card before you and set you up to be treated differently from the rest. Regardless of the reason, as a foreigner living in Korea, it has it’s ups and downs.

I personally try my best to do whatever is expected of me. Outside of extreme embarrassment, I try not to pull the Card. Not only do I feel that it’s the polite thing to do, I have a particular affinity for Korea so I try to include myself whenever convenient (and frequently, inconvenient). Like everyone else here, I do some things here that I would never do back home. I could get out of them by pulling the Card but many times I choose not to do so.

So when should I? When must someone pull the Foreigner Card? Personal space invasion? Excessive alcohol consumption? Forced solo singing at 노래방? Eating with chopsticks? Not drinking water? Speaking Korean instead of English? Corporal punishment?


Woah woah woah – Personal bubble space and Korea

Bubble space. 개인공간.

To fully appreciate the invasion of personal bubble space, allow me to narrate my first bromance experience. You never forget your first:

Wow what a great party. Good friends, good food, good drinks. Oh hey, there’s one of my new buddies now. Oh he’s coming over here. Cool. Maybe he has something to tell me. Nope. Just standing. Smiling. Oh, standing and smiling a little closer than usual. No problem. Woah. Uh…I hate to pop his bubble but he’s standing too close to me. Seriously. What? You want to hold hands with me? Wait…why are we walking together with our arms around each other. Am I drunk? Am I gay?

Heterosexually unintoxicated, my Korean friend was just being friendly. But who deserves to feel weirded out? Was I the one homophobically over-analyzing the situation or was he just way over the “friend” line? Where exactly do we draw the line at invading personal space? Are Koreans just natural bubble poppers?

Many foreigners find it a little disturbing and even a few Koreans are aware that some foreigners are a little weirded out by it. Most foreigners require a specific amount of space in which to comfortably function. Some of us may wonder if this space has a measurement. What would be an acceptable distance for personal space? Well wouldn’t you know it? Someone figured it out a while back.

Personal bubble space Korea friendship

I would imagine that a standard Korean bubble would be a whole lot more orange and red and less blue and green. As we saw before, Korean friendships can be pretty hardcore. They start early and they start heavy. If a friend is a friend, it starts at kindergarten and lasts a lifetime. So consider that personal space invaded daily. Touchy-feely much?
Korea friendship boys holding hands personal space bubble

I don’t have much to say on the subject of maintaining my own bubble. Like some other foreigners, I have a ‘switch’. When around Koreans, my space shrinks and I’m more comfortable with same-sex friends hanging around my neck. Around other Westerners, I give the ‘back that train up’ look if anyone gets in my bubble. Like other situations, when appropriate I make the switch to whatever is considered normal.

But like AAK pointed out, why isn’t my ‘switch’ always on? Am I that insecure that I can only display affection towards Koreans but not friends from other countries? I mean, even writing that sentence makes me sound a little gay. This is coming from someone who has no personal problem with homosexuality in any way whatsoever but yet I feel bound by my cultural standard that demands that I appear as straight as possible at all times. No need to confuse the masses, it seems.

What about straight Korean men? Aren’t they afraid of looking…you know. Sure it may look a little strange from the Western perspective but then again, we’re talking about a very small aspect of Korean culture. It looks big and scary from a Western perspective but what is transpiring is very natural. What you see is two people of the same sex expressing their affection for each other in a platonic way that can only be described as ‘friendship’. Looking deep into the meaning of why two guys are all over each other would be placing a non-standard cultural judgment on something that already has a judgment. In Korea, it’s fine. So if you find yourself staring and waiting for two Korean guys to kiss, wait a bit longer because it likely won’t happen.
true love KC101 friendship guys

However, the question begs – who determines the normalness if there are members of different cultures present? If one American and one Korean are in a room, whose rules do you follow? Does it matter if you’re in Korea versus America? Is there a spoken arrangement beforehand? Does it matter if you’re speaking English or Korean? What about Korean versus Korean-American?


MT – Korea’s answer to the good old fashioned outing (엠티)

Membership Training. 엠티.

What exactly are you training for? Not sure, but bring an iron stomach because things could get a little drunk crazy.

Essentially, what we have is the time-honored Korean tradition of building strength and unity within a particular group. Typically, a company or university major will go on MTs to become closer and improve relationships within the group.

Keep in mind that Korea, like other parts of Asia, operates by thinking that the group is paramount. Generally speaking, the individual is of lower importance. This isn’t to say that one person is not important; rather one person when viewed outside of a group is of little concern. Suffice it to say that the group is more valued than the member.

Any group looking to have some fun, play some games, escape the city and get completely plastered make some great memories will go on an MT. One or more members within the group plan the event including booking a place to stay, organizing games, purchasing unGodly amounts of alcohol and snacks, and booking travel arrangements. Then, depending on the group’s budget (if there even is one) each member will pay equal amounts of the total bill. Many organizations already have this ‘equal pay’ system long before the MT is planned. The fund is used for any such group outing including MTs.

Typically an MT takes place away from the company or university in place like the mountains or a rural area. The idea is to get away and have some fun. It’s a time to be unplugged from one’s computer, unburdened by the daily minutia of work or study, and just to kick back and relax with coworkers and colleagues. Team building exercises help to further make the group one solid entity. All that from doing a whole lot of nothing in the mountains.

KC101 MT 엠티 relax

Ultimately when it’s all said and done, the group returns to the work place or university with a new common experience in which to feel a warm, fuzzy attachment. The group now has more in common with each other than other departments and majors. This solidarity is not unlike soldiers serving together in the same unit – no matter where they go, they will share the experience and still consider themselves part of that group once upon a time.

Keep in mind that business loyalty is much more pronounced in Korea than in America. To work at one single company throughout one’s career is a sign of devotion and respect in Korea. While it is certainly admirable in the States, it’s not frowned upon if one person has worked for several different companies throughout his or her life. In fact, it’s kind of expected.

Anyways, the whole experience is enjoyable and harkens back to time when companies would spend their own money to develop loyalty within the company. Like a team-building exercise, these outings were not vital to the day-to-day operations but ironed out some wrinkles within the company. It’s kind of hard to complain to HR that you got docked for 3 minutes if they put you up in the mountains for a weekend for fun and food.

Now, if you’re a long-time reader of the KC101 Blog, you already know that our very own Emily (holdfast) has already posted a first-hand account of an MT in America and her post deserves a read. Also, In regards to alcohol consumption, check out why Koreans get crazy drunk on the regular and why you feel left out if you’re sober.


You sure it doesn’t mess up your stomach? (Korean drinking water p.2)

Korean Drinking Water Habits. Part Two.

It is highly recommended to read part one. Even if you already read it, I added a photo and it makes me giggle when I look at it. Just FYI.

It’s been over a year since I wrote about drinking water with a meal in Korea. Since then, I have tried my best to school my friends in the healthy ways of water; “Water is your friend” and such. However, I may be wrong in thinking that water has my best interests in mind. Perhaps water is no friend of mine…

The most recent convincing argument comes from this article. Take a moment, read and come back. What do you think? Still convinced that water should be drunk at the table? I’m not so sure. After all, most of the arguments I hear either sound like infomercials or old wives’ tales instead of science. Articles like this (or this) don’t exactly help the validity of the argument.

But, in their defense…

I have no science to back up my American way of thinking that water is healthy to drink with a meal. Obviously, everyone agrees that water is good for us. Some even suggest drinking water before eating to reduce portion intake. But that’s not the argument. The argument is whether water is advisable to drink during the meal.

Like fan death in Korea, I never really questioned it – I just did it. I just drank water. But what about Koreans? Most would agree that the majority of Koreans drink only a small amount, if any, during a meal. Unsurprisingly, my Korean friends simply don’t drink water at all during meals.

So who has bragging rights? Who has science on their side? Where’s the middle ground? Who’s right?

Here’s the thing. No water at all is just plain silly. Too much water is obviously not a good idea. But, what I believe people misunderstand is what is meant by ‘too much water’. Are we talking about more than 8 ounces of water? More than 20 ounces? Does it matter?

As it seems, drinking water with a meal is not that great of an idea. But don’t freak out – it’s not going to kill you, either.

But what about the people who insist on drinking with their meals? The ones who know the Western way of water? Well, in my school’s cafeteria, one can’t even obtain a cup of water until after the empty tray of food is deposited in the bin. Meaning? Kids are drinking nothing with their meal. Of course, foreigners like myself skip the line altogether and grab a cup anyways. Take that, line.

But I do it not out of rebellion but out of compulsion.

It certainly isn’t just me noticing this aqua-addiction. Ever heard of “Water water everywhere/ so let’s all take a drink”? Not on your life. You’re reading the words of man who now suffers from hydrophobia. Water’s back in town and he’s not playing around. Sure I sneak in some water at lunch, but I’m careful around water now. He’s taking names. He wants blood.
Water drinking Korea during meal health affects

Sidestepping for a bit, this wouldn’t be the first time that water would be the source of misinformation. Still drinking bottled water? Shame on you. You didn’t know? Read up my friend, and do nothing afterwards just drink the tap water. For that matter, here’s a great article I scanned from a few years back on which types of bottles are recommended to use.

Sidestepping further, what about clean water for Korea? Surely it’s readily available? Maybe not as much as you would expect. Water management may not be number one on everyone’s “Interesting Things to Read” list, but it affects everyone. But back on the subject (kind of), here’s a look at the healthy benefits of Korean beverages might be of interest to you, kind reader. Thanks for sticking with my bird walking.

So back on track.

I feel that Americans don’t question drinking water at any point in time – we just believe that if one is thirsty, we should just drink water – eating or not. Like fan death in Korea, it’s something that is believed in for no other reason than just “why not?”. Why question something that seems to make sense?

So where do I stand now? Well, I certainly don’t avoid water altogether. That’s nuts. If I’m thirsty, I’m going to go drink some water. But instead of just the typical Korean one thimble glass after the meal, I’ll drink two – one during and one after. Yeah, I may not be up to my old American standard of hooking up a fire hydrant to my stomach, but I’ve accustomed myself to drinking only a small amount. If for no other reason, the questionable adverse health affects are enough to avoid.

But it makes me wonder: If drinking water with a meal really is a no-no, why haven’t I heard about it more in America? In America’s “Tune into the 6 o’clock news or your son will die” fear-driven media, why isn’t this topic covered more? Why care about the deathly affects of plastic bottles but not something as essential as water?


수능 – the “Korean SAT” that actually matters


A really ridiculous important test is coming up. Mark your calendars kids because the third Thursday of every November is when your life either begins or ends.

Right off the bat, I have to mention that the amount of stress the test must cause…well…it’s insane. This Hub of Sparkle post paints quite a sad picture of the reality the stress this test puts on students. Some kids are smart enough to see past it all although they too are still held accountable to the test.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What we need is perspective. What do we have in America that compares to 수능?

The most common answer is the SAT. Essentially, this monster of a test helps determine the academic ability of hopeful incoming university freshmen. In reality, it is one of several different criteria for some schools’ admissions programs. Other considerations are after school activities, volunteer work, leadership opportunities, written essay and personal interview. But even then, some schools don’t require SAT score submission.

As I mentioned to some LanguageCast friends, I personally didn’t take the SAT or any other standardized test. No TASP. No THEA. No ACT. No nothing. I was admitted into junior college based on a high school test score from eleventh grade. When I graduated junior college with an AA, that allowed me to transfer to a public university without any admissions test. Problem solved. And to think, that’s not the only (or that big of a) loophole. Moreso, I wasn’t trying to avoid the SAT. I would have taken it if I needed to, but in my particular case I simply never needed to take it. To think, plenty of other quality universities base their admissions on something other than a number from a test, too.

Such is not the case in Korea. While 수능 doesn’t determine absolutely everything about one’s future academic and professional career, it does determine a whole lot more than the SAT. A high score on the 수능 is the primary admissions requirements to get into one of the SKY universities (Korea’s answer to an Ivy league school or the Big Three). Wanting to attend SKY is a dream shared many young Korean kids; much more than American kids dreaming of the Big Three. Don’t get me wrong, getting into Harvard would be nice but it doesn’t mean that other universities don’t produce successful people, too. In my case, going to UNT was an awesome experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Even though our education systems are quite different, namely in the level of difficulty in Korean high schools versus American high schools, I’ve heard that the 수능 is quite difficult. I’ve even thought that someone like me could never score high on it. The truth is I don’t care. Not in the dismissive “who cares?” way but in the way that I place very little value in the outcome of such tests. But then again, I’m coming from my perspective that tests aren’t everything.

So what is Korea to do? Improve the test to make it more reflective of real world knowledge? Include other criteria for admissions? Dump the test altogether?

Not sure. I’m certainly not qualified to comment on it seeing as how I’ve never taken it and my career has never been based off of it. Of course it’s easy for me to knock it. It doesn’t affect me. But it does make me wonder: would I want my kids taking the test? Would I grill them about how important it is to get into a good university?

Definitely something to think about.

수능 Korean SAT KC101 korea test standardized

Want to brush up on your 수능 knowledge? Recommended reading material include this short photo essay about 수능 from a Korean high school student. For that matter, SeoulGlow posted a video a few years back that’s pretty interesting to watch (alt link). Of course, KC101’s advanced audio blog has more on the subject. Also, 현우 produced a regular audio blog that covers the same topic from a slightly different angle, too.