“That’s Just Asia”

Well ya’ll, I might’ve spoken prematurely when I said I couldn’t have asked for a better housemate. In my defense, she did come bearing gifts and she DID offer to handle the cooking for the household and she DID buy me bingsu for my birthday, so I might’ve been a little biased when I spoke. One thing that happens when you meet someone decent in a foreign country is that the pace of your friendship is accelerated– the honeymoon phase of friendship hits you fast and hard, you open up to each other too fast too soon to imitate the intimacy of (real, stable) friendships back home, and just as quickly, you’ll hit the sink-or-swim part of the friendship, in which flaws are exposed, you find out you have opposing values, and you might even start arguing. The reality of spending the rest of the semester with this person looms large…and I’m looking for a life vest so I can jump ship.

We don’t have any problems when it comes to day-to-day living. She’s very clean. She’s not loud. We have opposite schedules– I wake up at 7:30 everyday and (ideally) go to bed around midnight and she wakes up at noon and goes to bed some time between 3-5am. It’s not our opposing schedules that create a problem, it’s her habit of blaming every difference we have on the fact that I’m American and she’s Singaporean. For example, this girl loves shopping, like big brand names. When she comes back from shopping, eager to tell me all the name brand bags or shoes she’s bought, I just nod and smile. I think she’s almost offended by how little I care about a bag or shoes; several times I’ve said to her, “I just never thought things like brand were very important; I just buy what I like.” To which she replies, “Well, I guess it’s just because you’re American, but welcome to Asia–bags and brands are important here. So, get used to it.”

She also loves taking pictures….of everything. We can’t get on the subway or the bus without her whipping out the camera. You might think, “Well, Carmen, maybe she’s just excited…it’s her first time in Korea, after all.” Well…it’s not. She’s been to Seoul 7-8 times, so none of these common city views are new and yet, snapshots of everything, all the time. She’s even taken several photos of me without my permission and sent them to some other friends in Korea and at home. I’ll let the manic tourist picture-taking slide, but when I confronted her about taking pictures of me and sending it to people I don’t know without my permission, she said, “Oh, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal….it’s very normal in Asia.”

(That gives me flashbacks to that time a group of Chinese tourists chased me around Gyeongbokgung to take creeper pics of me, but whatever….)

Once, she promised to take me to a store in Hongdae that I was having trouble finding online. Halfway there, it started to drizzle a bit and she insisted we go home right then because she didn’t want to get sick. “You said the store is like….5 minutes away from here. Can’t we just run there and take a quick peek, so I know where it is at least?” I asked.

“No,” she insisted, covering her head with her hands and turning towards the station, “If a drop of rain touches my head, I’ll have a fever by tomorrow. I’m not getting sick for this.”

“I don’t think you’ll get sick if we just run there now….”

“I guess you don’t understand because it’s an Asian thing, but in Asia people get sick from the rain.”

I wanted to say, “Oh really, because YOU are the only person on this entire street freaking out about a little drizzle. Every other ASIAN person here is completely fine.”

It’s not that I have a problem with her wanting to stay out of the rain. I don’t have a problem with her liking brand names, or liking photography. The problem is that every time we disagree about something, she’s quick to blame it on “cultural differences” when it’s really just her own personality quirk. Yes, I know that in Korea and Japan (maybe less so in Japan…?) brand-names, how you dress, what car you drive is extremely crucial to how other people see you. In America, though, there are also tons of people who also think brand names are very important and will judge you (perhaps less overtly) on what bag you’re carrying, or your shoes. I can easily run off a list of friends who care deeply about brand names. She had an equal chance of meeting an American who REALLY cares about brands.

Similarly, people who live their entire lives through instagram, snapchat, etc, are all over the freaking world, so the obsession with taking pictures isn’t an “Asian” thing. I wish she would just own up to it and say, “Yes, I am one of those people who will never put down the freaking camera (phone).” Instead of speaking for the entire Eastern Hemisphere.  I’m very sure there are people living in Asia who don’t feel this compulsive need to record every single moment of their lives on camera.

Most of all, I’m reluctant to categorize “Asia” as one big culture. When she says “That’s just Asia or it’s an Asian thing,” I think she’s speaking from her experience of Singapore, China, Malaysia, and maybe even Korea, and other countries I know she’s lived in or visited very frequently. But these aren’t the only countries that make up Asia. What about Japan? Countries in Southeast Asia? What about India? After being exposed to its diversity, it’s hard to think of Asia as this one big homogeneous blob. I’m not saying that these countries don’t have anything at all in common, but it irks me when she uses such a broad brush. There’s no way I’m going to travel to Indonesia or Nepal expecting it to be like Japan. Korea and Japan, though often lumped together, are radically different. Hell, even Okinawa, Japan, and Tokyo, Japan are worlds apart.

At the same time,  her experiences growing up and traveling in Asia as an Asian (Chinese-Singaporean, to be specific) person are valid. Clearly the culture she was raised in values things like brand names and photos and being terrified of the rain, and she has incorporated those values into how she lives. How can I respect that while also telling her, “No, that’s not all of Asia, sometimes, it might be Singapore, or it might be just YOU”?




Well Butter My Butt and Call Me a Level 3 학생

If you recall, last time I studied in Korea, I was in Level 2 at Sogang. As much as I loved the conversation-focused instruction at that school (read my semester report here: https://thecarmensutra.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/so-long-sogang/ ) I wanted more balanced instruction this time– listening, speaking, writing, reading, with vocabulary quizzes and cultural excursions, the whole nine yards.  The language school that best fit the bill happened to be Ewha, a women’s university famous for the sprawl of cheap clothing and accessory shops right before the main entrance (that had nothing to do with my decision….)

I’ll spare you the gory details of my placement test and the bit of placement drama afterwards and just tell you that I’m taking Level 3 this quarter. I was disappointed to say the least. The Level 3 teachers teach the class in slow, dumbed-down Korean, and my classmates speak in very slow, broken Korean, if they speak in class at all. Not to shade anyone’s speaking abilities, of course; my speaking is less than stellar, but my classmates in Level 2 at Sogang could talk circles around my current Ewha Level 3 classmates, so it’s hard to feel like I haven’t gone backwards.  Additionally, when I flipped through Ewha’s textbooks, I knew most if not all of the Level 3 grammar already. “What good is Level 3, then?” I thought.

The short answer is: Level 3 at Ewha is good for vocabulary and reading comprehension. Within the first 3 weeks of class, we had completed 4 chapters of the 3-1 textbook and learned approximately 400 new vocabulary words. (And they are very useful words. I’m surprised I’ve been bebopping around Korea without knowing them….)I can skim Korean websites about food, health, and travel, and usually understand at least half of what I’m reading. I’ve had the chance to write about the benefits of yoga and meditation and how to ease symptoms of insomnia (Things I’m actually interested in….!) I definitely see why the professors thought it would be best for my to stay in Level 3. There’s a lot to learn here. (Whaddaya know, Level 3 has MERIT!)

Though Ewha’s program is technically very “balanced”– as in, we don’t spend any more time reading/writing than we do listening/speaking– the methods for teaching reading/writing just produce rapid results. When we do the speaking portion of the chapter, it’s usually a very practiced conversation with set phrases that you have to use; there’s really no opportunity to express your own feelings or opinions, or talk about your own experiences. The professors will usually ask for people to share their own feelings after you practice the set conversation, but by then, I guess everyone is tired of talking and doesn’t want to say anything else…

It’s easy to follow my classmates and stay silent, but I know if I get into the habit of not talking in class, my speaking will never improve (and this is a crucial skill if you’re LIVING IN KOREA, y’know…?). So, I try to talk more in class, even if I don’t feel like it or don’t really have anything enlightening to say. Still, I can’t help but feel like it’s not enough speaking practice. Because I’m not living with a Korean family this time around, I really only speak Korean in school, or if I’m with my classmates, or if I go shopping or something (…..it’s for the language practice, okay?) If I really want my speaking to improve I know that I’ll inevitably have to find a language partner or a language exchange group or something….




I Ain’t Your Personal Movie Star

If you’re my friend on any social media outlet, you’ve probably noticed the sudden influx of high-quality (non-selfie) pictures of me and two other lovely ladies. Here’s the long, grueling tale of how those pictures came to be.

One morning I was asked by the property owner to play a role in the property’s new promotional video. I took a quick look at the script, which only had me saying 8-ish lines, and thought, “eh, what the heck, why not? It looks pretty painless. I’ll do it.” Because going abroad is all about ADVENTURE, right? And trying new things, right? Right? Hoo boy, am I an idiot…

Guess what? the filming was scheduled for 2 days AFTER they asked me to be in it. So, as soon as I agreed, my Kakao inbox was flooded with messages from the director and the property manager about where to meet, what time to meet, what to wear. I had to send several photos of different outfits to the director for her approval. Specifically, she wanted me to dress in a simple, casual clothes, like a student would. I’m thinking, “Well, I AM  a student, so wouldn’t anything I wear on a normal day would make me LOOK like a student?” Apparently not. Since my small summer wardrobe I brought with me to Korea mainly consists of neutrals, I sent her pictures of me wearing combinations like a black shirt and jeans, a white shirt and jean skirt, simple, but very American style things (V-NECK. PLUNGING NECKLINE). Each picture was met responses like “No, no, no, don’t you have anything brighter?”  “Is there something with a pattern?” “Do you have anything other than black?” If they were going to be so picky about what I’m wearing, they could’ve had a freaking wardrobe ready for me or bought me new clothes, but I digress… (Strike one.)

Eventually, I just decided to wear whatever I wanted, as long as it had some color in it and didn’t make me look like a sack of potatoes. White shirt, jeans, red headscarf from The Wrap Life. Turns out, this was a good idea because the director LOVED it. The other two girls who were asked to be in the video were very pretty and dressed in the casual Korean style (WHITE SHOES). Most of the morning was spent taking individual and group photos (which no one told me we would be doing….) After that, we were taken to different parts of Ewha’s campus to shoot our parts in the video. Luckily, we didn’t actually have to say any lines on camera, we just had to act out our parts and then record the voice-over later. This was a huge relief because it was difficult enough to take stage directions in Korean; I couldn’t imagine having to memorize and deliver lines perfectly too. I already found her directions difficult to follow. Sometimes it was because of the language barrier, and other times it was just because I found her directions nonsensical. She told me, for example, “look lonely without looking sad.” I have yet to figure out that the heck that means, but I just kept making faces until she was satisfied or gave up.


(Real talk, we were pretty cute though…)

After lunch, we were taken to another location– the cafe in one of the new apartment buildings the property owner just had built– and were told to “eat, drink, and chat comfortably.” Mighty difficult to do when you’re being told when to take a bite of food, when to sip the coffee and which way to angle your chin, but there it is. Finally, after we shot all the scenes scheduled for that day, they let me do my voice-over and go home.

The second day of filming was pretty similar to the first, except I grew increasingly irritated when the director kept asking me to stare in the direction of THE SUN for a long period of time (Do I look like Trump during the eclipse to you, lady?) and she wouldn’t let me stop until I had a “thoughful, hopeful about the future” look on my face.

And I was even more irritated when I was asked (read: told) to edit the English version of the script, to write in natural English and match the Korean script. Like, at that point, I feel like they were just exploiting my native English speaker status. I was asked to be in a video, not be a translator and editor, but I digress…. (Strike two.) If I was more mean spirited, I totally would’ve just mucked the whole thing up on purpose. After that whole thing, I had to sit pretty and smile throughout this welcome party thing the property owner was hosting in the cafe. I couldn’t even relax and enjoy the food, or the traditional Korean music, or the company of my housemate  because there was a camera being shoved into my face (on ZOOM) every few minutes. I’m not very good at hiding my feelings, so I had a feeling the irritation was showing on my face. After seeing the pictures from the shoot, that’s CONFIRMED.


(My face in all its shady glory)

Hate to be the one to ruin the mood of the party with my sour face but I was sick and tired of the whole thing by then. No one told me the filming would take two whole days, or that I would get stuck editing the crappy English translation of a Korean script that Google translate spat out. (No shade, Google translate; you’re definitely improving.) Plus, this was just three days after I’d arrived in Korea, so I was still jetlagged. I learned (again) that I should be turn into a PI and ask HELLA questions before I agree to ANYTHING. But I got through it. I got paid.  I thought it was all over when I left the party. Hoo boy, am I a BIG idiot…

About a week later, I get another message from the property manager asking me to come back to the cafe to take some more photos. I thought my face at the party had ruined the first batch of pictures completely and we had to redo them or something, so I had to live up to it and just go retake them. Nope. It was something different entirely. The manager met me in a suit and asked me to pretend to sit down and chat with him in the cafe. The same director from the PR shoot just starts taking a billion pictures of us. No instructions, no nothing. It was somehow even more awkward than the PR shoot. This didn’t take as long though; only 10 minutes. It was after this 10 minutes that the manager said, “If you’re in my new profile picture, it’ll get a lot of likes, don’t you think?”



Was this whole thing for a PERSONAL picture? Not something for promotional purposes? (Strike three….!)

You know, someone I met at Sogang two years ago told me that this kind of thing happens to foreigners in Korea all the time, but I didn’t want to believe her. Hoo boy, am I an idiot.



All Aboard the Housing Struggle Bus

Finding suitable (student) housing anywhere already comes with its own drama, but it’s compounded if you’re searching in a foreign country. If you come to South Korea to study Korean for the first time, chances are you don’t know anything past the basics, and usually, the basics don’t include questions like, “Are all utilities included? If not, which ones do I have to pay separately?” “Is there a curfew?” etc. Then, even after you move in, there might be something about the place that’s still not quite right. Maybe there’s a cloud of funk that permeates the room every evening, maybe there are roaches or water bugs, etc. A lot of students who come here play musical chairs with apartments and dorms for the first two weeks or so, trying to find the right place for them.

Honestly, I have no idea how people do it. Long flights already leave me tense, tired, and weary; searching for housing as soon as I arrive would just compound that stress. To make my move to Seoul a bit smoother, I decided to take a room in an “international dorm” in Sinchon, which had been recommended to me by several past Light Fellows. This “international dorm” is more like an apartment, and from the pictures online it seemed like a clean, convenient place to stay. I know this sounds ominous, like I’m about to tell you all the pictures are a lie, and there were bugs and roaches, and my next door neighbor is a screeching banshee, but no, it’s actually okay! Even though the room I reserved looked bigger online and the place wasn’t spotless when I arrived, I don’t think the apartment was severely misrepresented on the website. HowEVER, I did have a bit of a heart attack when the landlord demanded I pay 6 months worth of rent as soon as I arrived. Mind you, he never told me how I should go about paying, even though we spent at least a week or two talking about the moving-in procedure and the content of the housing contract. So, for him to blindside me like that was just rude, in my opinion. I only has one month’s rent on me. I don’t carry $3,500+ with my while travelling, and there’s no way I could have a Korean bank account after being in the country for a few hours. And he did not seem keen on waiting for my to get my life together. Long story short, I told him I would only be staying for 3 months; I took as much as I could from an international ATM for several days until I had enough.

Meanwhile, there was a game of musical chairs happening with the other bedroom in the 2-bedroom apartment. The Indonesian girl who was supposed to occupy the other room of the 2 bedroom apartment copped out at the last minute and decided to stay in her school’s dorm. The next day, a French girl moved in to take her place. She seemed nice, but our conversation was limited because her English wasn’t that great, and she had no interest in learning Korean…? Even though she’s in Korea….? I offered to teach her how to read hangul and say basic greetings, but she turned the offer down, insisting that she didn’t need it. So, what is she going to do for communication, you might ask. Well, her solution was to talk to everyone in LOUD, BAD, SLOW ENGLISH. (Head, meet desk….repeatedly). After suffering through a couple of hours of her complaining about why Koreans don’t speak better English (omigodomigodomigod learn Korean) and about the spicy food (WHY ARE YOU HERE?) I wondered how I was going to make it through the rest of the semester with her.

Good news is, I didn’t have to. The next day, I came home in the early afternoon and all her stuff was gone. After confirming that we had not been robbed, I messaged her asking what was up. Turns out, she had a family emergency and might have to go back to France but she needed to hear more from the doctor first. When she told the landlord this, he told her to just move out. ASAP. Pronto. Immediately. And he kept her deposit.

Needless to say, I didn’t want to get attached to the next person who moved in because there would be no guarantee that they would stay for the whole semester. But 3 really must be the charm. The 3rd girl moved in the night the French girl was (viciously) kicked out. She’s from Singapore (so she speaks perfect English!) She warmly greeted me at the door, brought be souvenirs from her home country, and even offered to buy odds and ends for the house that night. Since she arrived, we’ve had great adventures at the grocery store, local market, and Daiso. She can even cook, y’all! I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better housemate. As long as we’re together, maybe we can survive this crazy roller-coaster that is 유학생 생활.