Category Archives: Korean culture

Korea First Days, Bread

March 23, 2000

The student who got his head shaved over the weekend tracks me down after my conversation class.

“Professor, do you have class, Professor?”

“No, I just finished.”

“Oh Professor, thank you, Professor.  Later I will bring you bread.  Last night I baked bread.  By the way, Professor, I am hotel baker at my college.  Hotel baker.”  He beams.

“Right, I remember that.”

“Professor, let’s meet at twelve o’clock.  I will give you bread.”

I say okay, but I don’t know if I will eat the bread.  Yesterday when he showed up in my class with his head shaved,  I went to lunch with him because I had promised–even though I was feeling a little sick.  As we left my building to walk to the junior college cafeteria, he obliged me with an explanation of his shaved head:  “Dandruff, Professor.  Berry, berry bad dandruff.”

I ate cautiously, trying not to look at his head and what might be flying off it, into the air, across the table, into my soup.

The cafeteria, almost empty, was clean, each table decorated with an artificial rosebud drenched in dew.  At a nearby table, a sophisticated woman with a cap of dark hair, the signature dark lipstick, wearing a long, straight suit, sat eating alone.  She gave me a quiet smile.

The student did as other students do, served me the food.  Then he dug in himself.  He slurped his soup, and I was glad that I knew, from reading, that this was a common Korean habit.  So it didn’t gross me out as much as it could have.

We ate curried vegetables and rice, zucchini with sort of rubber chicken chunks, and piles of kimchi.  I said it was “delicious,” because it seems like Asians say that rather than just “good.”

“Oh, Professor, I am glad to hear you say ‘delicious.'”

I finally got away and began walking toward my apartment at the bottom of the hill, where I could take cold medicine and a nap, before it was time to return for evening classes.

He came up next to me in his strange, Chinese Communist-style uniform of black cotton shirt and pants.  “Professor, are you going to your home?  How can you get there?  I crave to help you, Professor.”

“Oh no,” I assured him.  “It’s very close, very easy.”

“Oh, Professor.  Well–”  He paused.  “Well, Professor, I would like to attend your class.  I really appreciate your lecture and dialog.”

I wouldn’t call it that, I thought.

“But Professor, tonight I have to bake bread.  I am hotel baker at my college.”

“Okay, well, I’ll see you tomorrow, maybe.”

“Professor!  Do you like bread?”

“Yes.”  I was thinking of dandruff, like gentle rain.  Barely perceptible.  White.  White as flour.

“I will bring you bread, Professor!  Tomorrow!  I will come to your office at twelve o’clock, Professor.”

*        *        *

He didn’t show up at noon the next day.  A relief.  I waited ten minutes, and then I left.  I had to eat lunch.

When I returned to my office, there was a big black plastic bag stuck in the transom above the door.  The bread.  I took it down.  I would take it home, and then I would decide what to do with it.

He was at my afternoon class, apologizing.  He had gotten there late, after his lunch.  Did I find the package?  I said I had.  I thanked him.

The class was terrible.  So big–forty-five students.  One boy talked constantly in Korean.  Three girls were gesturing wildly, saying things I couldn’t understand.  When one finally said, “Toilet!” I understood.  Then all three left together.  The class laughed.  I was embarrassed.

After that, two night classes–pronunciation, in which I boringly had them parrot vowel sounds, and another class called Language Practice, the purpose of which I have yet to discover.  I played a game with them and tried to learn their names.

Dear God, just let me get through this night, so I can go home and sleep.

Finally, the class ended.

“Davis, do you want to go eat something with us?” one of the students asked me.

“Oh, I–”  They were so nice, and cute.  But I was exhausted and wanted my bed, more than anything.

Interpreting my hesitation as lack of comprehension, he made the motion of eating rice from a bowl.  But of course I understood.  This was an advanced class; he was speaking English.

I thanked him, explained my tiredness and declined.

At home, I put the plastic bag on the table, opened it.  There was a plump loaf of fresh bread, and a note, written in pencil:  “Professor, please take a bite!  I am sorry to be late!  Professor, I baked this bread.”

I set it on the cutting board.  Suddenly realizing I was famished, I sliced off a hunk with the very good knife the university had provided me.  I ate one piece, then sliced off another.

Fresh bread.  It was, in fact, delicious.



First Days in Korea–10

March 4, 2000

When you are in a foreign country and you want to learn the language, you have to do things.  I just do little things, though.  Yesterday, I had nothing to do at the office, so I walked around, looking for a post office or mailbox, to mail my letters.  I saw a convenience store behind a classroom building, just perched there behind it, on the hill, along with another small building that looked like apartments.  And it had outdoor tables.  I went in and just looked around at what they were selling–stationery, tea, chips, snacks, soups, noodles, banana milk, some office supplies.  I said to the woman working there, “Eol ma ye yo?” (How much is it?), and she could understand just eol ma (how much).  And I picked up a box that seemed to be tea, so I asked her in Korean, “Cha?”  “Ne.”  (Yes.)  It was.

Just very small things.

Shopping at the grocery store, on the other hand, is a trip, one that I do not like.  I can’t understand the food!  Everything looks different.  They don’t even have normal coffee.  Sorry.  I mean the kind I am used to.

I was waiting to have some apples weighed at the store, when a woman walked up and introduced herself as a Chinese professor at the university.  She helped me, told me the woman wanted me to add one more apple, so I did.  She asked where we were from.  Miguk (the United States) and Chungkuk (China).

The Chinese professor was friendly and nice.  She told me, then, where to pay.  I knew that, though.  I just didn’t know what most of the vegetables were, how to ask for meat, where to find parmesan, how to get coffee for brewing–not instant, and what lots and lots of things were.

Oh well.  I can’t get everything I’d like, but I’ve got food, a roof over my head, and electricity.  I’m going to live another week–and I did get delicious ginger tea, and Diet Coke!  (It’s lighter than ours, but good.)


March 5, 2000

Culture shock is a kind of not finding the usual grooves to slip into, so you feel kind of unclear, ambiguous, floating, hazy.

You really can’t walk into a grocery store expecting to find everything on your list.  You can bring a list, but don’t be set on it.  You will find some of the things, and some things that are similar, but not exactly the same.  In Korea, you can find bread easily.  But sometimes it will have corn in it.  I don’t care for that.  Koreans seem to put corn in strange things.  They love it on pizza.

Some things you won’t find.  Some things will look totally different or have a higher (or lower) price than you are used to.  Many things will be new to you, totally foreign.  But it’s all right.  You don’t have to understand everything now.  You don’t even have to have everything you think you need, not really.  Just make sure you have some things to eat and drink when you leave the store.  And for sure, something you really like, something special for yourself, to cheer you up, even if it costs a little.

I was in a rut.  And now my rut is gone!  I have no ruts to walk in.

Almost every time I ask what time or how much, I can’t understand the answer.  So it’s mostly an exercise.  I have to remember that, an exercise, a learning experience.

March 3, 2000

Yesterday we had to go to the President’s office, to get formal, bound copies of our contracts.  At first it was intimidating, all those men in rows, like government officials.  But then it was funny; instead of standing and waiting our turns, we all scooted along the benches.  When my turn came, the President pointed to my name in English, and smiled at me.  And he read Igor’s (the pianist who will be teaching music) name out loud, because he gets a kick out of those Russian names.

Then he spoke to the faculty, and he spoke warmly, like a father almost.  His voice was soft and very kind.  Once in a while there was, apparently, a little gentle humor.  I understood nothing, of course.  Afterward, I asked Professor Park what he’d said.  He said to be kind to the students, that their parents don’t love them.  Really? I said.  Well, they are a disappointment, because they couldn’t get into the really good universities, in Seoul.  I loved his attitude.

Culture shock list:

  1. In my apartment, there is a drain in the bathroom floor.
  2. In public places, often the toilets are in the floor.  Sometimes both kinds are available, and you can choose.  Also, toilet paper is a rare item in those bathrooms.  On the plus side, stall doors and walls usually go down to the floor, giving more privacy.
  3. Everyone has a cell phone, everywhere.*
  4. Many girls wear fancy shoes with heels, even climbling a mountain.
  5. There are so many outdoor markets, with vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, and various street foods.
  6. Coffee shops with odd English names–“People,” “Coffee and Tomato.”
  7. Driving is crazy, at least in my town.  People drive as if there are no rules.  Stop lights are not necessarily paid attention to.  Pedestrians beware!  If I see a monk crossing the street, I try to walk next to him or her.  Drivers respect monks!
  8. Shoes off indoors, including in restaurants.  People sit on floors, which are often the warmest places, due to ondol, the toasty heating system running under the floor.
  9. No tipping!  This is simply wonderful.  You don’t have to tip at restaurants, in taxis, anywhere.
  10. Newscasters on TV bow at the end of their show.  So do train conductors at the end of the trip, and they wear gloves.


*In 2000, when they were rare in the U.S.

First Days in Korea–7

February 27, 2000, continued

Because of the no-shoes thing, you have to dress in a different order to go out–which feels weird, and really is disconcerting.  You can’t put your shoes on until you’re wearing your coat and hat.  Coming home, you remove your shoes, then take off your coat, then  put away your briefcase and the groceries.

I was doing email in my office for about two hours, and it got cold.  The wind was blowing noisily outside.  Before I left the building, I used one of the “eastern” toilets, in the floor, balancing with one hand on the tile.  I managed okay this time, but I don’t know how it could be done with a dress and pantyhose.  I’m not going to try it.

There was no toilet paper, but I had Kleenex.  And there were no hand towels, but I had my men’s handkerchief, thanks to Janet, who suggested buying a supply of them at Wal Mart before I left.  An excellent suggestion!

I think I am going to like it here–except the young people are so well dressed, sleek, thin, feminine women with beautiful hair and long fitted jackets.  And the ubiquitous cell phones.  Yes, I should have invested in them, as that investment broker at home suggested.

I went to the coffee shop again today.  I love it–a couch to sit on, coffee, nice relaxing atmosphere (except the rock music), people to watch, be with, and a great place to read.

My young waiter spoke English shyly, and it was sweet.  He said, “May I please have your order,” or something; I couldn’t quite hear him.  When I said excuse me, he quickly switched to Korean, something ending in “chuseyo”  (please).  I didn’t understand, so he went back to English.  I said thank you when he brought it.  Smiling, he ventured, “You’re welcome.”

When I left, I decided I had to be brave and try Korean, so  I bought a loaf of bread at the bakery on the corner.  I said “Kamsa hamnida” (thank you) and “Anyong hi keseyo” (goodbye).   This is fun!

I miss my daughter though.


First Days in Korea–4

February 26, 2000

It’s a twelve-minute walk to the building where my office is.  I go out of my apartment and through the parking lot, down a drive and to the right.  On the left, at the side of the road, is an orange tent where people stop.  I’m not sure, but I think someone sells barbecue inside.  I continue past a field, with a court where boys are always playing basketball.  I don’t know who they are.  Far above, you can see university buildings.  I walk about a block, turning left at the corner where there’s a convenience store and some newspaper slots and a few other shops.   I have no idea what these places are, but that’s the benefit of being a worker instead of a tourist, staying in one place; sooner or later, I may find out.

The street slopes uphill for a while, not steeply but steadily, past a little set of stone steps, and some buildings.  One of them contains what’s called the General Affairs Office, and the President’s office.  You get to the top and start down.  My building is in back, with arches at the entrance.

It’s not as I pictured it, before I left home, a scenic jaunt through woods.  It’s streets, and hills.  But what I like is seeing mountains in the distance.  It’s a nice surprise.

I met the president of the university yesterday.  Dr. Park and I went to his office at 10:30, and we were in there until 12:00, talking.  He was charming; I enjoyed our meeting.  Dan had said he was relatively young, around fifty-three.  I thought he seemed younger.  He was worldly and smart, with a sense of humor.  He lived in Germany for eighteen years, so he knows German, and his English is almost perfect.

He has been to the United States, too.  He told a story of driving in some big American city and getting lost, and he was afraid.  He said that a friend had told him to carry a twenty-dollar bill, for giving to someone who wants to hold you up with a gun.

He was kind, asking if I was tired, asking what I’d had for dinner the night before.

In the afternoon I walked almost to downtown, to the post office.  I read signs and I  passed the prison.   It has some painted murals in front that make it look festive.  When I first saw it, I was with Professor Park.  “What’s that?” I asked her, “a resort?”  “No,” she said, “it’s a prison.”

Everything looks thrown together here–unplanned, kind of shabby.  The people are attractive, though.  Young students are well dressed.  Girls hold hands.

It’s a good thing I brought long underwear.  It’s really freezing in this apartment.  I don’t think the heat works.