There’s no word for hello or goodbye in the Korean language.

Instead of saying hello, the people greet each other with a question: 안녕하세요? (An-young-ha-say-yo?) It means Are you at peace?, and I love that. What a nice way to say “bout ye?”! It took me a while to get the response correct when someone greets me first – having spent all my life saying hello in languages where the greeting is not a question, my instinctive response is just to repeat it back to the speaker. I forget that it’s actually a question, and so I still have to think before I reply “네, 안녕하세요?” (Nay, an-young-ha-say-yo?) – “Yes, are you at peace?”.

Goodbye is not phrased like a question, but like hello, it’s peace-related. I found it very tricky to learn at first, mainly because there are two different ways to say it depending on who’s leaving and who’s staying, and they’re identical apart from one vowel sound. Sigh. So it’s easy to get them mixed up – fortunately, if you forget, you can generally get away with mumbling “an-young-ha-say-yo” if you say it fast enough, as they sound alike enough that no one will notice. :)

But the correct way to do it is to wish the other person peace as you part ways. If you’re staying and they’re leaving (like if they’ve been visiting your home), or if you’re both leaving (like if you’ve been out for dinner together and are going your separate ways afterwards, you say 안녕히 가세요 (An-young-ee-ka-say-yo): “Go in peace”. If you’re going but the other person is staying put (like the shop assistant, or the person you’re visiting), you say 안녕히 계세요 (An-young-ee-kyay-say-yo): “Stay in peace”.

Isn’t that lovely? It just seems like a beautiful, very gentle and tranquil way of going through each day and all the little encounters it brings. It always makes me think of a poem that’s been a favourite of mine for many years, which I had in a frame on my bedroom wall as a teenager, and can still recite by heart.

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, 1927


The Ajumma is such a common sight to me now that I forget I’d never heard of one until I moved to Korea.

I don’t think there’s a way to translate this word into English – at least, not without using several sentences, so I figured I might as well take a whole blog post to do it!

An ajumma is a woman of a ‘certain age’. Middle aged, I suppose. But it’s not just that. Being an ajumma seems to be more about character than just age alone.

Anyway, these women don’t take any nonsense. They are fierce and fearsome. They’ll usually be grim-faced, have a perm, and be wearing a surgical-style mask and a sun visor. More often than not, an ajumma will be pulling a little shopping trolley full of vegetables, or a cart for a big bag of rice.

This is a fairly typical ajumma, seen at the recent Strawberry Festival in Nonsan:

I see ajummas every day, but it’s difficult to get a photo of one because I worry about getting beaten up with an umbrella or something as a consequence of my actions.

If an ajumma is waiting to get on to the bus or the subway train at the same time as you, it’s best to get out of her way as soon as you see her, because she won’t actually wait for you to politely step aside to let her on first, as you no doubt intend to do. No, ajummas will quite honestly walk into you or over you in their determination to be first on to the vehicle. Not only that, but they are not averse to giving you a sharp elbow in the ribs or a good hard stomp on the foot. Seriously!

The majority of ajummas don’t like foreigners. They will be visibly displeased at the sound of English being spoken, and often stare openly at you with scowls on their faces. A group of us were in a restaurant in Gyeongju the other weekend, and despite the fact that we were speaking no more loudly than the crowds of Korean diners, we were told to keep the noise down because some ajummas had complained about us. We were somewhat annoyed about this, since it wasn’t like we were being rowdy or disruptive – just having a conversation in English. But it’s the English that’s the problem. Anyway, we refused to be bullied into silence, so we continued to talk at a perfectly reasonable volume, until Irish Friend One let out a sudden (admittedly loud this time) yell of disbelief. She – she – she’s only gone and shoved napkins in her ears!! he stuttered, pointing at the offending ajumma. Sure enough, there she sat, napkins in ears like over-sized, over-dramatic earplugs:

(excuse English Friend’s head in the  already not-great shot, but I was trying not to be seen taking a picture. I really am quite scared of these women!)

We couldn’t believe it, and left the restaurant fuming, giving her a mixture of angry glares and incredulous laughs. Yep, that’s the ajumma.

Sometimes, though, ajummas can be very kind. On more than one occasion I have been backing away in fear as an ajumma in the market or in a local grocery shop starts shouting at me for no apparent reason, only to find that she’s actually offering me a gift. It’s the ajummas, too, who are often happy to strike up a conversation with you, and – upon realising that your Korean is terrible – continue to chat away in Korean while you respond in English, neither of you having a clue what the other is saying. It is the ajumma who knocked you over as you got off the bus who will try to help you when she sees you standing there looking lost after the bus pulls away.

Ajummas have a very clear and strict sense of How Things Should Be. If you do something they deem to be inappropriate, you will feel the stare. You really will. It burns into you. Mind you, sometimes the inappropriate thing you’ve done will turn out to be something like “being born” or “moving to Korea”. It’s impossible to avoid the ajumma stare.

The official – but vague – definition of  ajumma is basically a middle-aged woman. It’s not an offensive term – in fact, the children and staff at school call the cooking lady and cleaning staff  “ajumma” when talking to them. If a woman is an ajumma, she’s fine with being addressed as one. The word almost becomes affectionate.

However, if someone isn’t an ajumma but is addressed as one, the word becomes highly offensive. Shouting “ajumma!” to get the attention of the woman who runs the local restaurant is perfectly acceptable, but you run the risk of causing huge offence if she turns out only to be in her 30s or 40s. It’s extremely rude to call a young woman “ajumma” – or a not-so-young woman who just isn’t ready to give up her youth yet! I’m familiar enough with the concept to know that I have a right to be furious if I hear a child refer to me as “ajumma”. It’s happened a couple of times, cheeky retorts from children who assumed I wouldn’t know what they were saying. The expressions of panic on their faces when they realised I understood “ajumma” were priceless, and more than worth being insulted for!

So there you have it: the Ajumma. One more thing you can check off your list of “useless trivia about Korea that I never cared about learning in the first place”!

Bribery: don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

As I mentioned in the comments section of a previous post, I’ve resorted to bribery with my most disruptive student – Adam, the hyperactive but lovable kindergartener who turned into a disruptive and somewhat mean bully within a week of starting elementary school.

He has an excellent understanding of spoken English, so when I took him to the side a few weeks ago to explain my new idea, he quickly understood what I was saying. Each Friday, if he’d been good throughout all three classes of the week, he would get to choose a coin from my collection of UK and Chinese currency. This was a very exciting prospect to an enthusiastic young collector of coins from all over the world. He checked that they would really be his property before he entered into the agreement: I take home and maybe I lose, so teacher can’t have again, it’s OK?

Satisfied that I wouldn’t take a prized coin back to punish a slip in behaviour standards, he nodded excitedly and entered into the most solemn contract of all youngsters here: the pinky promise. And from that moment on, all I’ve had to do is wave my little finger at him if I see him being aggressive  in the corridor, not doing his work, or being loud and disruptive in the classroom. It’s like magic. He’s particularly taken with the fact that I told him that this is just between us, and likes that he’s got this secret that none of his classmates know about.

His behaviour hasn’t magically improved, and I still need to sit next to him, prompting him to do some work as he slips into a daydream every 30 seconds or so, but his attitude is better, and that’s really all I was hoping for. And so far I’m only 21p poorer for it. I’ve now got the other foreigners I know going through their belongings in search of coins from their home countries so that I don’t run out of bribes! The things you find yourself doing for an easier life.

I feel like I should probably spend some more time discussing each coin with Adam, though. This morning, Terri handed me a handful of South African coins for The Cause, saying that she’d been touched when he came to show her the 20p coin he’d earned last week. He was brimming with pride and full of excitement, and wanted to tell her all about his new possession.

Look at UK coin, he said seriously, pointing to Her Majesty’s head. This is Abraham Lincoln.

There’s something down there…

Aren’t these hills a bit strange-looking?

You’ll see them fairly regularly in Korea. These particular ones are in Gyeongju, and they’re really quite impressive to look at – particularly at night, when they’re lit up in a majestic way by floodlights positioned all around them at the base.

Guess what they are. Go on, have a guess. All I could come up with was “some kind of art?”, having had several experiences of weird things passing for “art” over the past couple of years. American Friend One guessed that they were historical lookout points. She, too, was wrong.

These strange, oversized bumps in the grass are, in fact, the final resting places of royalty (and other rich people in general).

Actually, most graves here consist of  “mounds” like this, only on a much smaller scale. In Korea, there isn’t really such a thing as a graveyard. Wealthier families might have a plot of land that serves as the family burial plot, but not everyone can afford this. So what do you do if you have no land on which to bury a deceased family member? You take the body up into the mountains, find a space, and bury it there. If you go hiking in the mountains, you’re certain to come across several graves, usually topped with a small mound of earth and a stone marker of some description. And when you’re driving past some mountains, you can’t help but notice the graves dotted all over them.

It’s a little unsettling at first, when you’re used to the dead being contained to cemeteries and not just randomly strewn about the countryside for you to trip over. But the graves soon become a familiar sight, and I think it’s nice that people can give their loved ones a beautiful final resting place even if they’re poor. A funeral doesn’t have to bankrupt them as it can in the West (an issue that continues to bug me).

And of course, the super-wealthy still have the chance to be superior, with their tombs being these huge, unmissable affairs in much more easily accessible locations, the mounds of earth reinforced by wooden and concrete structures underneath so that they don’t cave in over time. These ones in Gyeongju are some of the oldest and most famous in Korea, built when the city was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla (57 BC – 935 AD).

Be glad that you now know all this, lest you ever come to Korea and innocently think it might be fun to climb these “funny big hills” and then slide down them. Yes, I am mortified to say that I do know someone who did this. No, it wasn’t me! And yes, he was utterly horrified to find out what he’d done – and although no (living) Koreans saw him, he uttered sincere, heartfelt apologies to the occupants of the mounds. You don’t want to be angering those guys, after all…

Telephone Pictionary

The name of this game confused me at first, until I discovered (in another of our multi-cultural group’s enlightening discussions about regional English) that the game we always called “Chinese Whispers” is known as “Telephone” in many other parts of the world. I was very glad to have the company of Irish Friends One and Two when this came up, because we got some amazed, “are you serious?!” looks. None of us had realised that it might be offensive until we thought about it!

So anyway, when you combine “Telephone” (where you pass a message around a circle in whispers and see how the final version differs from what was originally said) with “Pictionary” (where you have to draw what’s written on a card for someone else to guess the meaning), you get “Telephone Pictionary”, which is what I spent last night playing in the pub with my friends. I heartily recommend this game for a bit of laughter and free entertainment!

How to play:

Each person gets as many small cards/pieces of paper as there are people playing the game. It’s best to have an odd number (but even still works), and we were playing with an ideal number of 9. You can play with as few as 5, but it might not be quite as hilarious.

Number your cards from 1 to 9 (or whatever the number happens to be) in the corners, just to save any confusion during gameplay.

On card 1, each player secretly writes a word, phrase, movie quotation, song lyric, even a private joke or something no one will understand. Then each player passes his/her stack of cards – with number 1 still on the top – to the next player. Left or right, either is fine, but all players must pass in the same direction, and this is the direction that all the cards must continue to be passed throughout the game. Oh, and be sure to pass discreetly each time, not letting others see what you’ve written or drawn.

So, let’s say we passed left. You’re now looking at a word or phrase written by the person on your right. Read it. Then put the card to the bottom of the pile, and on card 2 draw a picture that you think illustrates the words you’ve just read.

Now we pass left again. You’re now looking at a picture drawn by the person on your right. What do you think it is? Put it to the bottom of the pile, and on card 3, write what you saw in the picture. Now pass left again.This time, you’ll have some written words to illustrate again.

And so on and so forth, until the cards have gone the whole way around the circle and you are once again looking at your own original phrase.

Honestly, this is one of the most fun games I’ve ever played. We even forgot to drink our beer, so engrossed were we in drawing, thinking, wrinkling our foreheads in confusion, writing, and howling with laughter. The most amusing part is when each person then reads out their cards in sequence, showing the illustrations to the group, and you can see the train of thought leading to each subtle change or gigantic leap.

My favourite story of the night was the one that started with Irish Friend One’s “Let them eat cake!”, and finally ended up as my “Penguins enjoying a Christmas party” via English Friend’s “A perverted elf sexually assaulting a penguin”. I know it’s probably one of those “you had to be there” things, but I laughed till I had tears running down my cheeks.

Who needs video games or TV or expensive gadgets when you’ve got pens and paper and a bit of imagination, eh?!

Bed? What bed?!

I spent last weekend in a traditional Korean-style guest house in Gyeongju, Korea’s “most historic city”.

Because Daejeon is fairly modern and Western in terms of buildings, there were gasps of delight when our bus pulled into the street where we’d be staying. It was real Asia! Not an office block or apartment building in sight – just dusty little streets filled with a mismatched array of beautiful tile roof houses and thatched shacks that looked “very oriental”, as someone remarked.

Now I feel like I’m really in Korea, said South African Friend Two as we strolled along happily in the sunshine. We ate lunch in a small, countryside restaurant which served food that most of us had never even heard of before – my first experience here of ordering something without having any idea at all what was going to be in it. Then we checked out our guest house. The only information we’d had about this from Korean Friend One was that it was a “traditional Korean style house”.

It turns out that this is basically a sort of villa with a small kitchen and bathroom, and several rooms for sleeping in – some of them outside on stilts like little chalets.

Note that I don’t call them bedrooms – this would not be accurate, as I’m fairly sure that one of the defining features of a bedroom is a bed. There was a definite absence of beds.

Instead, there were Ondol floors (which have been around in one form or another in Korea for at least two thousand years, and which are used in their most modern form in all our apartments and workplaces) and a pile of blankets and pillows. No beds, no chairs, no sofas. I was prepared to get no sleep at all, but I have to admit that it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I expected it to be. We just all piled into the rooms, curled up on the heated floor, shared the blankets, and had a fairly restful sleep. I suppose Koreans know what they’re doing.

I’ve heard stories of Koreans travelling West for the first time, and, finding themselves unable to sleep in our soft and snuggly beds, retiring to the floor with a blanket and pillow instead. Many people still don’t have beds, preferring nothing but a thin pad on the floor. That goes some way towards explaining why most foreigners in Korea have had trouble getting used to the mattresses they give us for our beds. To call them “firm” would be less accurate than describing them as slabs of concrete.

We were very amused, then, to see the following exhibit in the museum:

I wasn’t allowed to use a flash, so you can’t really see the label below this brick. It says “pillow”. :)

Bam-gyay-taw! Bam-gyay-taw!

Occasionally, I’ll be sitting in my apartment happily typing away or watching TV with the window open to let in the cool night air, when all the dogs in the neighbourhood will suddenly start barking like it’s the end of the world or something.

Just at the point where I’m noticing it and starting to get irritated and consider closing the window, I’ll hear the reason for the uproar beginning to come within human earshot.

Bam-gyay-taw! Bam-gyay-taw! Bam-gyay-taw!

It’s a man’s voice, shouting in the way that stall owners at markets do. At first, it’s a faint cry in the distance, drowned out by the dogs. Then it gets louder, until he’s just outside and it’s a deafening, very annoying, repetitive roar.

Bam-gyay-taw! Bam-gyay-taw! Bam-gyay-taw!

I have no idea what he’s saying. This always makes loud noises even more annoying for me. In Korea, mobile shops are very popular – sometimes nothing more than a bike with a trailer full of oranges, or a minivan with attached megaphone – and they drive around neighbourhoods shouting out information about their wares. They do so at the loudest possible volume, and often just stop in random places and continue to shout. Places like right below my window. This is obviously very irritating anyway, never mind that I can’t understand anything they’re saying – even if they’re using words I know, I can’t make them out at that volume, all shouty and distorted. All I can ever hear are the verb endings at the end of each sentence: “sum-nee-da”. The rest just sounds like noise. And ear-splitting, jump-out-of-your-skin noise, too.

The Bam-gyay-taw man annoys me even more, because I’m ridiculously curious to discover what it is that he’s selling/doing. At least I know that the other guys are just mobile shop people selling fruit and vegetables. But who walks around at 11 or 12 o’clock at night shouting one word over and over again? I had to at least know if it was an annoying, insensible drunk man or some sort of salesman, so last night I actually climbed up on to the toilet, pulled back the mosquito cover from the tiny window, and poked my head out as far as I could. (The only other window is bigger, but in the kitchenette and would involve actually climbing into the kitchen sink in order to lean out of it. I wasn’t *that* curious.)

I saw him walking along in the street below, yelling that one word and carrying a box with a strap slung over his shoulder. I have no idea what he’s actually shouting – I strained my ears to make it out, but it isn’t a word I know, and it was all echoey. I think if I hadn’t been in my nightie I would’ve nipped downstairs and gone out into the street to ask him what he was doing, so curious am I to know. If any Korean readers would like to venture an educated guess, I’d be very happy to have some light shed on the mystery. Or, of course, any non-Korean readers who just think it’s perfectly obvious what he’s doing and I’m a twit for not realising. :)