Korea’s reasons

I received an interesting comment on my last post, where I had expressed my sadness and frustration at the bitter, highly xenophobic attitude of many people in Korea, particularly towards the Japanese. The comment says:

Hmm… I’m not too up on Japanese-Korean history, but I seem to remember that Koreans were, in fact, seen and treated as sub-humans by the Japanese during WWII. And wasn’t there an outcry not too long ago over the fact that the Japanese to this day refuse to officially recognise the atrocities committed against the Koreans? Doesn’t that indicate that the Japanese rather continue to see Koreans that way? And aren’t there many, many Korean women alive today who had been systematically abused, raped and tortured by the Japanese in WWII? Please correct me if I’ve gotten anything wrong here, as I said, I’m a bit hazy on the details.

And please don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to defend the stomach-turning kind of indoctrination you’ve described, but perhaps you need to give the country a little more time? Plus, you know, look at the bright side: although it’s true that it only takes one really crazy dictator to implement genocide, it’s also true that it only takes a few really committed politicians to melt down rather highly justified barriers of hate – just look at France and Germany today, for example.

As I said in my reply, I know pretty much nothing about the current general attitude in Japan towards Korea and Koreans. I don’t know whether the Japanese continue to view Koreans as inferior people, or whether there is regret or acknowledgement of the appalling treatment the people of Korea suffered under Japanese control. I’m aware that I am very much immersed in Korean society, and being exposed only to what the Koreans say and do, which means that I don’t have a clue about whether or not the Japanese attitude is equally bitter. I would certainly appreciate any insight into this!

I do, however, have a fair amount of understanding of why Korea is so angry and defensive. I might not agree with how the massive injustices of the past are being remembered in the form of worrying indoctrination, racism, xenophobia, and the poisoning of young minds with hatred – but I do understand why. Although I will always preach peace, harmony, and tolerance, that doesn’t mean I have no sympathy for those who have undergone so much suffering.

I wanted to link to a blog post I was sure I had written on this topic, but after searching in vain I realised that I’d simply written a paragraph to accompany pictures I put on Facebook after a visit to Seodaemun Prison in Seoul, quite some time ago. For those who don’t know the background, and for the sake of presenting a slightly more balanced picture of the situation, here are those photos with the accompanying paragraph. Other than that, they pretty much speak for themselves.

This was the largest prison in Korea during the Japanese occupation. Those who resisted Japanese rule were imprisoned here and tortured, then executed. Every effort was made to stamp out Korean culture, language, and national identity. Korea has had a very long history of suffering, and I made some realisations during this visit, which help to explain the often firece nature of Korean patriotism.

Fingernail torture cell.

Message written outside the memorial room filled with photos of the thousands who died fighting for freedom from Japanese rule.

 

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“I want to kill all Japan peoples.” – 김데현, age 6.

During my first year in Korea, I was taken aback by the intensity of the national pride that exists here.

I struggled (and continue to struggle) with being stared at, singled out, and being the centre of attention simply because of my foreign appearance. I experienced (and continue to experience) negative treatment because I am not Korean. I was shocked to discover how little the children (and even many adults) know about other countries and cultures, and how little desire they have to ever leave Korea, even for a holiday. And most of all, I have become more and more uncomfortable with the animosity that exists here towards Korea’s arch enemy, Japan: my boss even implied that the Japanese people deserved what they were going through when the devastating tsunami hit last year, and my colleague told me today that he has been receiving stony silence from every single Korean teacher when he talks excitedly about how much he enjoyed his recent trip there, and what a beautiful country it is (which it is).

Today, we went on a field trip to the National Cemetery in Daejeon, the final resting place of so many South Korean soldiers. It’s a beautiful place, with some pretty impressive memorials and statues, and the poignant sight of hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands, I’m terrible at judging numbers) of graves, many adorned with flowers. The children were given a talk by a soldier before they were taken for a moment of silence and bowing in front of a monument. As far as I could gather, it was a moment of remembrance and a bow of respect and gratitude. Nothing wrong there.

Then, however, they were shown an animated movie which I ignored at first as it was obviously all in Korean, and I was hot and sleepy. My attention was gradually drawn to the screen, though, as the images became more and more disturbing. Crying, wailing, gunfire, bombing, death, fighting. Ghosts of dead soldiers. A battle between good (Korea) and evil (the world). Just because it’s animated doesn’t mean it’s light-hearted! I switched my brain on and listened intently, trying to follow the dialogue… and I can’t be 100% sure, but it seemed awfully like those little 5 and 6 year olds were being bombarded with xenophobic propaganda of the kind you’d be more likely to associate with the North. Foreigners are dangerous. Don’t trust them. We fought hard for this country, and you will do the same. Keep outsiders out. Defend our land. We are the best. No one else compares. They all want to destroy us. 

I chatted to a couple of my brighter kindergarteners on the bus journey, asking them what they thought about their country. Their passion for Korea at such a young age was startling to me, even with my previous experience of Korea’s national pride. David, aged 6, told me that he couldn’t wait to grow up and be a soldier. Not so that he could protect his country from danger, but so that he could kill all the people who’ve been “bad” to Korea. Mainly the Japanese, although he has a few plans up his sleeve for the North Koreans, too. You want to kill people? I asked cautiously. He grinned from ear to ear. Japan peoples is bad, he said, his eyes gleaming. They die! I kill! I get the Japan for Korea!  Helplessly, I turned to sweet little Rachel, who loves hamsters and nursery rhymes and teddy bears. Isn’t David scary?! I asked lightly, nudging her. He wants to kill people! She looked at me in surprise. No, he wants to kill Japan people! she said simply, as if this was completely different. Together, in their innocent, broken, baby English, they explained to me that Japanese people don’t deserve to live, and that a tsunami was sent from God to punish them, and that all Korean people would train to be the best soldiers in the world so that the Japanese would one day be wiped out.

I nearly cried.

Trying to be patient and understanding, I talked to them in the simplest possible terms about tolerance and peace. I asked them what they thought about little Japanese boys and girls, living just like them, with families and friends and toys and schools. Did they deserve to die? Rachel hesitated, and then shook her head. So who, then? Their mothers and fathers? Again, she looked torn, and shook her head, clearly confused by this way of thinking she’d never heard before. David, however, was adamant. All Japan peoples is bad, he insisted, glaring at me. They kill Korea. I kill them. I kill allllllll other countries and then Korea is king! Rachel nodded, relieved. I love Korea. I hate Japan. 

The worst part in all this was catching my director listening to me as I was trying to teach peace and love to these little patriots. In the rearview mirror, I saw the disapproval in her eyes. I even saw her open her mouth to speak at one point, when I was telling them that people from all around the world should be friends and live in peace, whatever has happened in the past.

She wanted to stop me. She was scared I was going to change their minds.

With a sick feeling in my stomach, I went up to my classroom after lunch to prepare my three elementary school lessons, and the first thing I saw was my copy of Dr. Seuss’s “The Sneetches“. If you don’t know this story, by the way, please read it and share it with any children in your life. I’ve used it before in classes on bullying, but the author originally wrote it as a satire of racial and cultural discrimination – in particular, antisemitism. In all honesty, the conversations I’ve had with various children today has put genuine fear into my heart that something like Auschwitz could actually happen over here if xenophobia and intolerance continue to be preached with such intensity.

I found the animated version of The Sneetches on YouTube, and watched it three times in a row with my three classes. Please watch it – it’s cute, funny, and has a great message for kids and adults alike.

We discussed how people are all different, but that in the end, “sneetches are sneetches”. We talked about living in peace. We talked about history, and the causes of war. We talked about humanity, forgiveness, and love for fellow human beings. And you know what?

They did not get it.

They could just about understand the Sneetches’ eventual realisation that they were all the same except for a bunch of meaningless stars painted on their tummies. But Japanese people and Korean people? Absolutely no comparison. My oldest class (aged 11) even went as far to explain to me that foreigners in general pose a threat to Korea, and that Korea needs to stop letting so many of us in. Korea is for Koreans, you see. The rest of the world is dangerous, evil, and corrupt. Korea is beautiful, pure, and innocent.

By the end of the final class, I actually had to turn my back on them for a minute to hide the tears in my eyes. I was absolutely livid with those children for the poisonous words of hatred and bigotry coming out of their mouths, and yet I know that they’re too young to be fully aware of what they’re saying. It’s the older generations I want to scream at for this, for the damage they’re doing to their sweet, bright, intelligent children – and to any hope of a peaceful future. Multiculturalism is a dirty word to them. Foreign = dangerous. Korea is superior to the rest of the world.

As I said at the start of this post, I’ve been aware of and uncomfortable with Korea’s fierce national pride and tendency towards xenophobia since I first arrived here. My unease and concerns have grown over the past few years. Today, however, I left work almost in tears, feeling sick to my stomach. Yes, I may be a John Lennon loving, peace-and-love preaching, war protesting hippie… but this level of hatred and intolerance is dangerous, surely? I feel as if all it would take would be an evil but charismatic nutjob like Hitler or Kim Jong Il to come into power, and South Korea’s carefully indoctrinated, passionate, well-meaning young people would follow him faithfully into whatever atrocities he commanded them to carry out. My students, who I love dearly, truly believe that human life is not as valuable if it’s not Korean.

I am sad, and frustrated, and disgusted.

But mostly, I’m angry.

Who fills kids’ minds with poison like this? What is the future for this country?

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I have tried all night to get the wording of this post right, but I am aware that it could obviously be seen as offensive. I am not passing judgement on all Koreans, but I am drawing conclusions based on what I have seen, heard, and experienced firsthand over the past three years of living here. I am not saying that Koreans are monsters, or worse than all other countries – I come from Northern Ireland, so I am no stranger to prejudice, bitterness, and bigotry. However, this is something about which I care deeply, and which I truly believe is wrong, worrying, and dangerous. I can only write from my heart and apologise for any offence caused. I welcome any feedback, thoughts, or alternative opinions. 

Mandu, I do!

It’s time for another Korean food post, yay!

Mandu (만두) is one of my staple, lazy night, no-food-in-the-house, quick fix dinners. They are dumplings that come in a variety of shapes and sizes, are filled with several kinds of stuffing, and can be prepared in a few different ways.

The most common mandu are small, bite-sized dumplings, and filled with either a mixture of minced meat, glass noodles and vegetables (gogi mandu) or kimchi and vegetables (kimchi mandu). They can be fried (see my earlier post about twigim), boiled (and served in a soup), or steamed. Then there’s wang mandu (literally “king dumpling”!), which is filled similarly to gogi mandu, steamed, and ranges in size from large to freaking ginormous.

Mandu places are a common sight on the streets of Korea, often with a few simple diner-style tables inside the shop, where the mandu is filled and shaped by hand. However, the steamed version is usually cooked outside, for obvious reasons:

That’s one of those sights that I enjoy on a cold winter’s night, but it does make me want to die when I walk through an unexpected cloud of hot steam in the street in the middle of summer.

Inside your typical mandu shop, you will find a menu that looks something like this:

 

They generally sell other things too – the menu is divided into sections, as you can see, all the foods neatly arranged by category. Gimbap, fried rice dishes, soups and stews, ramen… but it’s the mandu that’s the star of the show in these places. And it’s so cheap! You can see the prices there – most items are between 2,500 and 5,000 won. That’s about £1.30 to £2.70. Not bad for a tasty, filling dinner!

This is my local mandu shop, just a short walk down the road from my apartment:

They know me there, and always welcome me with a smile and a cheery greeting, before asking if I want my usual. My favourite mandu is – surprise, surprise – the kimchi version. You know me and my kimchi addiction. These ones are much tastier and spicier than the other kinds, and I can’t get enough of them! However, I also enjoy the wang mandu – my local shop sells a relatively small version, but one portion of 5 is still too much for me. My “usual” is one portion of kimchi mandu, and one of wang mandu, which they always assume is for two people, as they give me two pairs of chopsticks in the bag. ;) Worry not, my diet has not fallen by the wayside! I eat half one night, and then re-steam the rest the following night. Dinner for two nights, about £3.50. You couldn’t beat it with a big stick.

My big tupperware container full of yummy kimchi is not included – that’s courtesy of the lovely cooking lady at school, who never lets my fridge run out of her amazing homemade kimchi!

Kimchi mandu filling: yum, yum!

Wang mandu filling

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

A couple of years ago, I got back in touch with an old acquaintance, through Facebook. We sent a few catch-up messages back and forth, and I told him about what I’d been doing. Travelling in Europe, writing, house-sitting, teaching in Korea, exploring Asia. His response was to ask me when I was going to go home, “settle down, get married, etc.”

This is not new to me. I’ve written before about relationships and how the fact that I don’t want one seems odd to many people. Leaving the marriage issue aside, though: I do struggle to explain to people that what I’m currently doing is not just something I have to get out of my system before I return to the town of my birth and get a mortgage and a desk job.

I understand it, though, coming from people who are ‘home birds’. Travel is something you do with your time off from work. Home is where your possessions are. Life is about putting down roots, climbing up career ladders, establishing yourself as a member of a community. I realise that that makes someone like me seem like a bit of an oddball: of course she must be planning on settling down at some point! That’s what life is.

However, I do not understand it when I encounter the same attitude from fellow ex-pats. Time and time again, I’ve heard other foreigners in Korea speak about this life of ours versus what they call “real life”.

What?!

The more I hear it, the more agitated and frustrated I become. These are people who shouldn’t need me to justify or explain my lifestyle. It’s the one thing all of us have in common. We share that yearning for travel, thirst for adventure, longing for new experiences. We’ve all chosen to leave “home” behind and throw ourselves into a totally different culture by living and working in another country.

Yes, living. LIVING.

When I hear the remarks about returning to “real life”, or how much harder everything will be once we’re back in the “real world”, I almost have to pinch myself to check that I really do exist and have not just been a figment of someone’s imagination since 2008. Has my life not been real?

Let me tell you about my life, the one that may or may not be real.

I fell in love and moved to a tiny little Eastern European country I’d barely even heard of. I worked as a freelance writer to fund my travels, as I ambled through Europe on a shoestring budget at every possible opportunity. I got to live in fabulous houses in Switzerland and Belgium, as a house-sitter. I had my heart broken – which is pain as real as it gets! I moved to Korea and became a teacher. Was all of that a dream?

Let me tell you more.

I work. I work really bloody hard. I teach, I plan, I do paperwork, I make worksheets, and I stay at my desk in the evenings for far longer than I’m getting paid to. I live in an apartment, I cook meals, I pay bills, I read, I write. I wash dishes. I meet my friends in the pub, or go for dinner with them. I take the occasional day trip to another city. I do laundry. I laugh, I cry, I have fun, I occasionally bicker with my friends, I go to the movies, I get crushes on inappropriate people, I buy groceries at the supermarket, I sing karaoke when I have one too many mojitos. I have meaningful friendships. I learn, I grow, I experience.

What is it about all of this that is fake? I’m getting angrier and angrier every time I hear this lifestyle – my life, my actual, real, permanent, full-time life! – dismissed as if it is some kind of temporary hiatus from reality. “Things are different back in the real world.”

If  “real world” actually means something like “home country”, then yes. Yes, things certainly are different there. There are no jobs, for example. People I know and love are unemployed and broke. Shops and restaurants are closing down at an alarming rate. Everything is expensive. In the country I’m currently choosing to live in, I’m pretty well-off. True, my salary is low – but then so is the cost of living. I can dine out every night of the week if I want to, and travel from one end of the country to the other for less than the cost of a few drinks in the pub back in Northern Ireland. Is that it, then? Is that the reason my life is not real? Because it’s not a constant struggle to make ends meet?!

I have no intention of returning to my home country and getting into an office environment. I would suffocate and die. And the more people talk to me about the “real world” as if that should be my ultimate destination, the madder and more offended I get. My life is every bit as real as the life of a sales executive in Belfast or a stockbroker in New York.

No, I don’t have a career.

So? 

Since when does one require a career in order to have a life that qualifies as real? The life of an ex-pat is not a bubble. Although it is pretty fabulous at times, it is not an extended vacation. It is not some kind of easy option – in fact, living abroad brings challenges, emotions, and struggles that can be really, really tough.

What is more real than experiencing more of this world we live in, and adapting to life in a foreign culture? Do  other ex-pats really believe this is all worth nothing – that none of it counts because it’s not happening in their country of birth? That “real life” is somehow paused until they go home?

I am not living a dream, and I’m not putting off some inevitable return to reality. This is it. This is the real life. This is not fantasy. My life is about travel, adventure, learning, growing, adapting, working, moving, experiencing. I am very much out here in the Real World.

This life, this ex-pat life? This is my life, and it is not a bed of roses.

Damn certain it’s real, though.   

Fun with sea creatures

Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit like this.

It’s not that I don’t still enjoy teaching or that I don’t still adore my students. I think I’m just growing weary of my surroundings, of my routines, of the daily annoyances that wind me up and grind me down, and as a result, my enthusiasm and performance at work have taken a dive. It’s been time to move on for quite a while now, and ignoring it and clinging on to my nice, safe, comfortable world was not the right thing to do.

However, as you know, I am now making real plans for my next move, and in the meantime I’m trying to find ways to make things better at work. Today, after a week of boredom, isolation, irritation, frustration, and impatience, I rested my head on my desk in desperate exhaustion at the thought of my last class of the day – my once a week after-school class, which basically amounts to glorified babysitting. Normally, I do worksheets and grammar-related stuff with them, which, after a full day at school, is a total disaster. They’re tired and badly-behaved, I’m tired and irritable, and we all leave the classroom after the longest 40 minutes of the week with angry glares and sulky expressions, hating each other.

I couldn’t face it today, I just couldn’t. Having had a relatively pain-free morning of art classes with the younger kids, I decided to cheat and just do the very same activity with the Nightmare Class. Of course, being a little older and actually able to hold a pair of scissors without assistance, they weren’t going to take as long to complete the simple craft (making a paper octopus), so I did a last-minute Google search for a related time-filler activity. That’s how I ended up dashing to the shop for a packet of spaghetti and some mini hotdog sausages – and how my wearisome week finally became fun!

First, I showed them my “here’s one I made earlier” paper octopus, and we talked about how many legs it has, where it lives, what it does, etc. Then I gave them each half a mini hotdog, and they counted 8 pieces of spaghetti which they carefully stuck into their hotdog.

We each dropped our octopus into a pot of water to “swim” for a while.

While they were cooking – erm, “swimming” – the kids got to work with crayons and scissors and glue to make these cute creations. We listened to “Octopus’s Garden” by the Beatles as we worked, of course!

And by the time they were finished and had (willingly and cheerfully!!) cleared away all the materials, the octopus hotdogs (legs now properly soft and wiggly!) were done swimming and ready to hop on to the waiting plates!

Honestly, I’ve never had that 40 minutes feel more like 10 minutes than 5 hours. The kids spoke English the whole time, and the room was filled with laughter instead of shouting and whining. God bless the internet!

Unfortunately, I can’t do fun stuff like that in every single class I teach – not only would I have complaints from parents about the lack of Good Hard Work, but the planning, preparation, and cleaning involved would lead to me spending even more extra unpaid hours at work than I already do. Once in a while, though, it’s a welcome break. For Hayley Teacher, as well as for the kiddos!

Super happy healthy miracle wonder noodles!

As I was browsing in my local store after work this evening, searching for new ideas for nice, healthy meals, I made the most incredible discovery.

Hiding away amongst the tofu and the ddeok were several little bags of noodles in water. I did a double take as I saw the calorie information at the bottom: 60 calories in 400g of noodles?! That couldn’t be right! A quick Google search directed me to an article about konnyaku – a “miracle” Japanese health food. Almost completely calorie-free, it’s a gelatinous substance commonly sold in slabs or blocks, much like tofu is. It is also, however, available in noodle form. These noodles seem to be a little higher in calories than the “5kcals per 100g” kind I’ve been reading about, but still… compared to spaghetti and noodles, they’re floaty light!

I grabbed a packet of these magical creations, and went home to rustle up some dinner. I stir-fried lots and lots of fresh vegetables, threw in a few chopped crab sticks, and stirred it all together with a packet of powdered clam chowder, water, mixed herbs, and red pepper flakes. Then I just chucked in the noodles and let it all simmer while I suffered some more at the hands of Jillian Michaels. By the time I got out of the shower, I was able to dish up a spicy, tasty noodle dish, and eat my fill of it without feeling guilty.

There’s still well over half of it left for tomorrow’s dinner, and I feel like I’ve just had one of my favourite meals (I reallllly love my spaghetti and noodles!) without it hindering my weight loss efforts. Result!

Gotta love the Japanese…

Big cats and friendly monsters

You know when you’re just hanging out with your friends, chatting and laughing and so on, and a giant blue cat or pair of zombies wearing sandwich boards come wandering past you?

You don’t? Then you probably don’t live in Korea.

They’re very into dressing people up, here,  and sending them out onto the streets to advertise one thing or another. It must be a very demeaning job, if you ask me, as the poor people inside the suits have to do specific dance moves or actions every time they meet a new person – which is every second, basically – and are generally completely ignored by everyone. Never mind the fact that it’s now summer… I can’t imagine how they feel in those huge, heavy costumes, when I’m sweating just from sitting at the table sipping an iced drink under a parasol.

These unfortunate critters came sauntering down the street yesterday as we sat  on the decking outside our usual convenience store, watching the sun set behind the buildings.

Intrigued, we called them over with a hearty “Yogi-yo!”, and unashamedly photographed them from all angles while they tried to explain what the heck they were doing. Some kind of opening night, apparently. None of us really cared, let’s be honest. :)

Just another one of those things you get used to seeing every day in Korea!