Same same but different. I heard this quote while we were in the Philippines this summer. A common phrase in Thai culture, it essentially means, “yeah, I mean, they are kind of the same, but also kind of different.” When comparing the U.S. and Korea, this quote could not be more perfect.
We have only been in Korea for three weeks, but already we are noticing how things are kind of like the U.S. And then the next moment, I find myself thinking, “Wow, I’m DEFINITELY not used to this.” Let me give you some “same same but different” examples.
Education: The first five minutes of the first day of school. Every teacher knows this can be a make or break moment. Well, my first five minutes were CHAOTIC. I’m talking kids running around the room and hitting each other. Immediately, I’m thinking, “What is going on? How am I supposed to survive this?” Okay, I admit, I can be a control freak, and this was a control freak’s worst nightmare. However, after the third week, I now have (almost) complete control. These kids aren’t very different from my students at home – they just need a little motivation to keep them engaged.
Korean students, however, have very high expectations placed on them. Most of them attend evening academies, or hagwans, until late at night. It’s not uncommon to see young students with their backpacks walking home at 10 pm! While my American students were expected to perform well, I have never before seen so many young students dedicate so many hours to their school work.
Driving: So, we caved and bought a car. My commute by bus would’ve taken nearly 2 hours, and it seemed like a sensible option. Admittedly, I was terrified to take the wheel here. As some of my friends here have said, stop lights, and lane dividers are more of a suggestion than a rule. Surprisingly though, driving hasn’t been THAT bad so far (knocking on wood…). Korea is a country that is always rapidly changing, and it’s been said that driving is much saner than ten years ago. And for now, it seems relatively smooth! Except for the occasional car parked perpendicular to a sidewalk or stopped in the middle of a lane with its emergency flashers on.
Food: I feel very grateful. I REALLY like Korean food. Not every expat here can say that. I love the spice and the flavors. I do, however, miss the variety that the U.S. has. I feel lucky to be from a place and also currently live in a place with excellent cuisine (in my opinion, at least!). But the most pleasant surprise so far? How delicious the school lunches are here! Back in the U.S., I would have to be pretty desperate to buy a school lunch. It actually saddens me to see what is served to our children in the USA! In Korea, the students get delicious, well-balanced, home-cooked meals, which is a delightful change.
Food and drink are an essential part of the culture here, just like it is in many countries. I have been very pleasantly caught off guard by the times and places meals are served. Today we had a teacher sports day. This basically means the teachers get to play a variety of games after school. I headed down to the gym to play a game of catch and watch some ping pong (P.S. the kids at my school are really, really, really good at ping pong). A feast in the gym’s lobby immediately followed sports day. Kimbap (Korean sushi), tempura, kimchi stews, fruit, dumpling soup, beer, and soju (a strong Korean liquor) were all being served. At 3 pm. In the school gym. With students wandering around us. Really emphasizing the latter part of “same same but different” here.
The People: Some of the best people I know are Americans. They are generous, kind, and selfless. I am beyond grateful for my family and friends back home. Korea is very similar. The people I have gotten to know here have gone above and beyond. But you want to know the big difference between Americans and Koreans? Korean new acquaintances/strangers will bend over backward to make sure you are taken care of.
A few anecdotal examples: A friend of mine was caught in a rainstorm and then ducked into the nearest Baskin and Robbins to dry off. A complete stranger handed her an umbrella. Her own umbrella. That she would need when she walked back out into the rain. Or how about when Kenny and I were in a cab, trying to unsuccessfully tell the driver how to get back to our orientation site. A lady walking by on the street popped her head into the cab and said, “Here, let me help him (the taxi driver) figure out how to get to where you need to go.” The people here are so generous and don’t even give it a second thought.
One thing remains consistently similar… no matter where I go. We all love to be in the company of natural beauty. In Yeosu, we are surrounded by stunning mountains. You can find multiple trails up each one of them. And on top, there is a guaranteed view of the sea. When it comes down to it, we’re really not all that different.