The Comfort of Safety in Korea

Night Street Light

Night Street Light (Photo credit: Sheffield Tiger)

I remember several years back, when I was living in the US, walking home one night after university.  I was only walking from the bus stop, which was less than a 10 minute walk.  It was later, maybe 10 or 11pm.  I came to a darker street of the walk and one of the street lamps was out, making it darker.  I stopped, hating the idea of walking down the dark street at night, alone.  I just imagined being one of those news stories you read where the girl gets attacked and everyone asks ‘why was she walking alone at night on a dark street?!’  I looked up at the street lamp and just wished for it to come back on.  Much to my surprise, it did.  It didn’t light the street up very much, but I suppose it was more of a symbol of safety for me.  So I proceeded, walking quickly as I usually did after dark and keeping my eyes alert for any suspicious noises or people.  I made it safely, thankfully, but that night reminds me of the fear that I always felt having to walk alone at night.

I don’t know if others in the US feel this fear as well.  I know that those with OCD like me tend to be on the more paranoid side to begin with.  Some people say the US isn’t as bad as I think it is for crime, but how can I help but think that way when night after night the news stories involve random people being attacked on streets, in parks, in their own homes.  Assaults, robberies, shootings and stabbings of guilty and innocent people alike.  There are also hundreds of stories of people snapping and going on killing sprees.  The fact that ‘going postal‘ is now a well-known phrase in American English vocabulary is an indication of how often this type of thing happens.  Everywhere I went I never felt truly safe.  I hated that feeling.  I live an average life.  I am a good person.  I shouldn’t need to feel like I’m walking on egg shells everywhere I go.   It was stressful.  My body and mind felt tense.  I love to walk at night, but as a woman living alone, I didn’t always have the luxury of someone to go with me, so I felt trapped in my own home when I’d rather be out enjoying the moon and the cool air.

Then, I moved to Korea.

I heard it was safe before I got here, but you never really believe it until you experience it.  It’s funny, you can always tell who the recently arrived Americans are because they are the ones clutching to their bags and wary of those around them.  I was one of them.  Now, two years later, I am noticing the effects that the lack of crime here has on me.

Just the other night I was walking home from dinner, my friends headed in another direction, so I was off to walk home by myself down a few dark, seedy looking streets.  I wasn’t sure exactly which streets to take so there was a chance I’d get lost.  It was about 11pm or so and there weren’t many people around.  I got to a dark part of the street and it reminded me of the night I described above where I felt so much fear.  I kept walking (still alert, but relaxed) and took the time to reflect on what it feels like now to feel the comfort of safety.  My body is so much less tense now.  I am relaxed and can actually enjoy a nightly walk without having to walk fast and hope I don’t run into any unsavory characters.  I passed groups of men and plenty of drunks, none of whom bothered me.  As a woman, I cannot tell you how liberating that feels.

It’s not just walking alone at night.  It’s not just the fears that women normally fear.  This comfort of safety can also be felt in other areas too, such as being able to leave your iPhone or bag on a table, walk away and know it will still be there when you get back.  You can break out every fancy electronic device you own on the subway and not fear getting mugged.

I’m not sure of the exact reason that it’s so much safer here.  Some say it’s the idea of family vs. individual because doing a wrong here affects the family name and the respect of your whole family.  Others say it’s the presence of CCTV and knowing you could easily be caught.  Or perhaps it’s simply the lack of guns and drugs roaming the streets.  And for those in America who blame violent video games for their children’s violent behavior, I say, think again, because Korean children play the same video games with much more intensity than the American children do and I do not see the same types of juvenile crimes here.  My students may be able to draw AK47s with frightening accuracy, but they don’t intend to use them to harm their friends or classmates.

I know that crime still happens here.  I’m not ignorant of that.  I still maintain the level of alertness and ‘street smarts’ I learned throughout my childhood, as should everyone to be on the safe side, but the possibility of experiencing crime first hand is much lower than what I am used to.  So when people ask me why I don’t wish to move back to the US, I tell them the lack of paranoia and stress is worth the small sacrifices I make by living outside of my home country, outside of my supposed ‘comfort zone.’


Evolution of the Penguin

English: I took this photo on Gourdin Island i...

Image via Wikipedia

I get it now. It only took me 31.5 years, but I get it. I finally understand why penguins walk the way they do. Their walk is imitated worldwide. It is famous. And in the “AHA!” moment on my walk home this evening I have figured out why.

Here it is:

The only way to walk on ice is to waddle, feet turned out, weight on the heels.

Were you looking for something more scientific? Not from this gal…my strengths are languages and words, not science and math.

I suppose I should add that I came to this revelation because Korea has horrible sidewalks for a winter-laden country and they are near impossible to really sweep free from snow and therefore are VERY slippery. So I am forced to walk like a penguin from side to side to help me stay upright and keep a good safe grip on my iphone.

I give my thanks to the penguins for teaching me their tricks so that I may walk home, not skate.

I knew there was a reason I loved penguins. I should go watch Happy Feet now…

Dear Korea

(this is my attempt to stay balanced in life by discussing the good and bad evenly via imaginary letters tp various entities.)

Dear Korea,

1. Garlic bread should not be sweet. Neither should pizza sauce. Ever.

2. Wallpaper is not the answer to every interior design question.

3. Your valiant, albeit overly categorized, effort at a recycling system is thwarted on a daily basis by every snack maker who individually packs their snacks, creating more waste…and by Lotteria take out.

4. You embraced Swiffers, now embrace Mr. Clean. Your floors will thank you for it.

1. Thank you on behalf of us women for providing such well dressed young men. We appreciate the eye candy.

2. Thank you for providing what my own government was incapable of – inexpensive medical and dental care.

3. 호두 rocks!!

A Moment of Solitude

In a city of 12 million people, it can be a wee bit difficult to find a place of quiet, a place to truly be alone (outside of your own apartment that is). The sidewalks are lined with an obstacle course of people walking in every which direction. The subway walkways look like a herd of antelope in a canyon, all rushing to the next destination. Coffee shops, which in the US are known for being places to study or relax, are rarely quiet, even at 2 in the morning. Even the hiking paths are crowded with the ajummas and ajosshis of the Korean world, equipped with walking sticks and visors, beating you to the top. Needless to say, a place of tranquilite is a rarity indeed.

However, the other day, I applauded the creativity of one of Seoul’s citizens. In a semi-crowded morning train this young man reached behind me to hit the button that opened the two sets of doors that led to the next train. He stepped inside the first door and stopped. My first thought was ‘he’s going to get stuck in there.’ I watched him with confusion and curiosity, arching my eyebrows and tilting my head, much akin to the way my former whippet would. He waited. The doors closed. He turned sideways. And promptly sat down. I almost laughed out loud. I looked away, but continued to chuckle at him for having such a brilliant idea. The 3 older women I was standing in front of caught a glimpse of him and stared, shock bringing their hands to the mouths.

In a country where not standing out is the norm, having a young Korean man take a stand against the lack of solitude was refreshing at best. I found myself blocking the button as if I could prevent anyone from trying to use that doorway while he enjoyed his moment of silence. I also resisted the urge to knock on the door and give him two thumbs up as a sign of my support. Instead I left him in silence, just him, a backpack and an MP3 player.

He was my hero for the day.


Naejangsa (Temple)(I know you love my make-believe words)…

I had a lot of random thoughts on the walk home from work today and instead of making each one into a separate blog, I decided to post them all here – kinda like mini-blogs!  I wonder if they’ll be as good as mini-Cinnabons.  Umm…maybe not because the cream on Cinnabons is too much to compete with.  I can’t handle that kind of competition.  But these morsels are still good food for thought.

1)  The Right of Way.  I haven’t ever thought much about sidewalk walking habits.  Have you?  Where I come from we mostly walk on the right side of the sidewalk.  I don’t know where this idea comes from.  I once read that it had something to do with British history and passing a gentleman on the sidewalk…related to the different society levels…something akin to that.  But of course now that I need the article, I can’t find it.  Point being – in Korea this sidewalk etiquette does not apply.  I’m not going to get into which culture is more logical when it comes to this (been fighting cultural differences in logic all day at work), but I will say that I’ve been here over a year and my body has still not adjusted to this difference.  Someone comes at me walking in the opposite direction and I automatically move to the right and expect them to do the same so that we can pass each other without breaking a step, but noooooo, more than 50% of the people still manage to get in my way.  Then there are the weavers.  Drunk, old, texting or just plain stroll-challenged.  You go to pass them in a narrow area and they veer to the right.  You try again and they veer to the left.  Egads.  Dude, the quickest way to a destination is in a straight line, so follow it!

2) Fall.  Ok, on to less GRRR-ness.  I LOVE FALL IN KOREA.  Well, to be more clear, I LOVE FALL EVERYWHERE.  Butttt for all intents and purposes, I shall narrow it down to here.  Pretty simple actually.  The weather is great.  It’s cool enough for cute hats and scarves to make me feel all Mary Tyler Moore and ish, but not cold enough to need a bulky jacket.  Plus, there are these dark barked trees here with REALLY yellow leaves on them.  The contrast is stunning against a daytime AND nighttime sky.  Maybe I’ll actually remember to charge my camera battery this weekend so I can get a pic for it.  It makes me want to lay down on the sidewalk and just stare up at the leaves for a few hours.  I assure you though that I do resist that urge – not because people would think I was crazy, but because people here spit all over the sidewalk and I am not about to lay anything more than the bottom of my shoe on Seoul’s sidewalks.  The sidewalks in Salt Lake?  Yeah, I’d lay on those.  (Did you notice?  I love fall SO much I capitalized like 10 words in that tiny paragraph.)

3)  That Girl.  Do I talk too much?  Sometimes I wonder if I do.  I wonder if I’m ‘that girl.’  The one that people see coming and want to turn in the other direction for fear of finding themselves in the throws of a lengthy conversation.  The one that everyone knows talks too much but she just doesn’t realize it?  Maybe I’m just being paranoid.  But didn’t you ever wonder – of all the people and personalities you bitch about to your friends – which one of those people categories you fall into?  In my defense, I have a lot of thoughts running around in my head and they need an outlet and since I don’t exactly have a boyfriend or a cat at home to ramble to, you all are stuck with the brunt of it.  😛  Hehe

Looking back at the number of words in this post, I think I may have just answered my own question about talking too much.  Oops.  I try to keep the conversations balanced in person, I just hope others realize that.

4)  I reealllyyy miss salads.  A lot.  A whole bunch of lotta lot.  So next time you westerners eat a salad, think of me and have another bite on my behalf.  Mmm…Sweet Tomatoes.

5)  Crushes.  I could do an entire blog and a half on different types of crushes and maybe I will someday, but in brief…for those out there who have a crush on someone, or more than one someone, here’s a tip on how to see how serious you are about that person.  Tip #721 – Make yourself uber-busy.  Then, see who you still find yourself thinking about when you barely have time for sleep or a decent meal.  I realized today that I hadn’t thought all week about a minor crush I had on someone, which means that I probably had the minor crush on him because I was bored, not because I really saw it going somewhere.  But the one I have thought about?  That’d be the one that I really think I should be with.  The one who has been on my mind for a loooonnnnggg time.  It just took me having less time to think to, well, think it all out.

So yes, these are all the things that I thought of in the 30 minute walk home.  Actually there were more things than that, much more than that runs through my mind all the time, but these are just a few.

¡May you all have happy weekends!

Updates…and Writing for Your Health?

I know, I know, I haven’t written nearly as much as I used to, but such is my life, creativity and focus comes in waves.  I’ve tried to fight it to maintain consistency and dependability, but alas the waves always win out and I have learned to accept it.

Since we last met, not too much has happened, except that I have FINALLY, finally…did I say FINALLY?…signed up for Korean language classes.  I tried a free class, I tried studying on my own, I tried a language exchange, but none of it really works for me personally, so I had to bite the bullet (err…more like bite a hole in my wallet) and sign up at an academy.  And since I have already put it off for so long, I decided the best way to catch up was with an intensive course.  So I’ll be taking 2 hours of classes, 5 days a week, hopefully until I reach the top level which will be for like the next year-ish.  I’m actually really excited about this because I know I’ll be able to pick it up quickly.  I’ll be starting on the 2nd level since I already know the basics and how to read, so I have until Tuesday to do the lessons they’ve already done in lesson 1 to make sure I’m not behind.  I’ve been doing 1-2 lessons a day for the past week and I love it.  I’m actually glad that I waited this long because now the language and words seem to make more sense because I’ve been here long enough to have heard and read and seen the language everywhere, so it seems somehow easier.

NANOWRIMO starts the same day as my classes so let’s see how well I do while balancing 10 hours of classes, 40 hours of work a week and 1,667 words a day in my life!  HA!  I may have mentioned before that I got my best grades in high school when I was working two jobs, so it may actually work since I am more productive when given limited amounts of time.  Not too sure how well that will bode for my blogging though…argh.

Now, on to something less about me, me me…

I read an article on yahoo about this book called The Secret Life of Pronouns and given that I like analyzing things and I love linguistics, I was instantly interested.  The idea of the book is that the pronouns, articles (a, an, the – for the non-English teachers out there) and prepositions we use say a lot about us and our interactions with others.  So I went to the author’s website and played with his linguistic personality exercises and watched his videos.

One of the videos was not related to pronouns, but was related to writing in general and I thought it would be of interest to you bloggers and fellow writers in the universe.  Here’s what he has to say about it…

What are your thoughts?  Do YOU think writing contributes to your health and well-being?  Do you feel physically better when we get it all down on paper (or monitor)?

Big Meal For ONE Please

The first thing I always ask people when talking about visiting or living abroad is “What are some of the small cultural differences you saw?”  The big cultural differences I usually already know, you know, general Wiki’d knowledge.  So it’s the small things that fascinate me, the cultural trinkets of daily life.  So from time to time I will entertain you with a peek at some of the cultural trinkets I keep tucked up on my Korea shelf.

Today’s tidbit is of a culinary nature.  Today I ordered omurice, one of my favorite inexpensive Korean dishes consisting of rice, egg, ketchup and in this case some sort of gravy (costs less than $4 US).  It comes with a small side of salad, kimchi and other sides per the usual.  Looks like this:


I got it to go.  When I opened the bag in my apartment there were two sets of chopsticks…as if I am not expected to eat such a large portion all by myself.  I appreciate the foresight, but I don’t think they realize how it comes across psychologically.

Some of you might think it was just a simple mix-up, but trust me, this extra silverware/plasticware/woodenware thing is a norm here.  The other day, no lie, I got 2 straws with my Lotteria soda. ???  I remember the first time I noticed this habit.  I was feeling ultra emotional that day, somewhere back in culture shock phase #2 (the irritable phase) and went to Caffe Bene with one of my girls.  I got one of those belgian waffles with the scoop of gelato on top (yes we are still in Korea) to indulge and the waffle is only slightly larger than my palm, so definitely a small dessert size for my American tendencies.  (See below note the size in comparison to the size of a normal coffee mug)

Caffe Bene Gelato and Waffle

I was already thinking I should’ve ordered a side of extra gelato to compensate.  When I went to the counter, vibrating coaster in hand, I was given a prettily arranged plate with TWO forks.  Seriously.  Do I LOOK like I can’t handle this dish alone?  Have you seen these hips??  Curvy is my best asset and I’m not going to stay all curvy if you expect me to share this tea-party-portioned dessert with my girl over there.

I’m not a big fan of sharing food to begin with, let alone desserts.  Ever see that episode with Joey and the sharing food?  JOEY DOESN’T SHARE FOOD!  If not, see below…

I’m a big big (did I mention big?) fan of Friends so expect more clips as they relate to my life…anywho, that’s me, the non-sharer.  Here, there are some foods that must be shared and they are some of my favorite foods here like Korean BBQ and Shabu Shabu, so I share there, but when there are individual menu items involved, they are meant for the individual.

I must also point out that it is a good thing that I’m not one of those girls who is sensitive about my weight because it is hard enough living in a country where pants don’t come in your size, but to then have the 40kg teenager behind the coffee counter hand you two spoons for a small dessert basically insinuating that you’d be a pig to eat it alone…it could be very detrimental to the emotional health of many a young, less secure women I know.

I realize it is just a cultural difference and they do it out of kindness because they are used to people sharing things here (you should see some of the fruit ice cream thingys that come in like fish bowls with 4 spoons!),

Fish bowl sized shareable dessert

but word to the wise dear kind servers, westerners I know are used to asking for a second fork or set of chopsticks if they really need it.  Thanks though!  🙂

Oh and before I go, I wanted to fill you in on Korea Tip #127, when finished eating your take out in your apartment, store the container in the freezer until you are ready to take your trash out.  Any remnants of kimchi will wreak havoc on your apartment’s normal fragrance for days.  Trust me, your date will thank me for it.

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