One of the most interesting parts of being an educator in another country is learning the ins and outs of a new culture while at work. Not only have I had the chance to experience Korean culture, but I’ve also had the opportunity to become a sort of cultural ambassador for my Korean students. Many Koreans haven’t seen any significant foreign population until very recently, so even though Koreans are obsessed with learning English and consuming Western products, us non-Koreans are still somewhat of a question mark in their minds.
Some of the most enlightening and entertaining conversations I’ve had with students regarding Americans and the United States are based largely on what students have seen on the news or on TV, or heard from friends and family:
“Teacher, what is your favorite Korean food?”
“I really like kimchi jjigae.” (Kimchi jjigae is a spicy soup made with a generous helping of kimchi).
“Oh! But I thought foreigners couldn’t eat spicy food.”
“Where are you from?”
“The United States.”
“Oh, I hate American people.”
“Why is that?”
“In America, elementary students bring gun to school and kill.”
“Do you like black color?”
“You always wear black… and your skin is black too.”
“My skin is black?”
“Yeah. A little.”
(I would say my skin is more of an olive tone, but to each their own, I guess.)
Asked on Lunar New Year:
“What is your Korean name?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Why aren’t you wearing a hanbok?” (A hanbok is a traditional Korean dress.)
“I don’t have one of those, either.”
“But why not?”
“Is everyone in America really that fat?”
“You have very many fur.”
(In reference to my arm hair, something Koreans have very little of.)
“America students don’t study as much as in Korea. America students play more. Korea students are smarter.”
“You are America person?”
“America people have yellow hair. You have black hair.”
I didn’t come to Korea to try to drastically change their perceptions of foreigners. I’m not trying to, and I’m not going to. But if I can make a few students realize not all foreigners are stupid, fat, gun-wielding folk who can’t stomach spicy food, then I will be happy.
Amanda Slavinsky currently teaches writing at an English immersion elementary school in Seoul, South Korea. Most of her time is spent searching the capital city, usually with little luck, for the three things she misses most from the USA: avocados, sour cream, and good Italian food. She recounts tales of her travels on her blog, Farsickness.