“What’s the hardest thing about being in America after living in Korea?” one of the members of my admin team asked me.
Without hesitation I said, “Being able to understand every word around me.”
“What’s the hardest thing about being in America after living in Korea?” one of the members of my admin team asked me.
Without hesitation I said, “Being able to understand every word around me.”
Good Man tried the kimchi. “Mmm! Wow, you are Korean!” he yelled, throwing a swear word in there somewhere. “Did you put soy sauce in this?” he asked, pointing to the chapjae.
“Just a little.”
“Oh, good. That is good for health!”
Anyhow, the letter from the bank says that you can call their number and provide the info over the phone. Well…surprise, surprise. Apparently that’s not true. I read the letter to person one over the phone and they transferred me. Person two said that the letter says you have to call only if you’re confused.
Um, no, lady, you’re confused. The letter clearly says you can call to provide the info.
I am getting sick of my bank. They don’t charge me many fees because I don’t bounce, I use their ATMs, etc. But they’re useless on the phone. Nobody seems to know what’s going on and their rates suck. I’m thinking of changing but but I’ve been with them for ten years and don’t even know how many accounts I have linked to them!
Still, I think Good Man and I are going to go to my credit union on Friday to see if they can do better for us. (I belong to two credit unions and four banks across two countries, three states, and the internet world. I really need to consolidate some of these.)
I realized yesterday that I need to do a better job for my students. I am teaching an advanced math class; my students are a year ahead in math. I think I’m doing a fine job with the curriculum. And I’m starting a semester-long class for teachers new to this curriculum next week. That’s not the problem.
Most of my math students are gifted, and I don’t think I’m meeting their needs in that area. Unfortunately, schools tend to concern themselves with the average student first, the special ed students next, and the gifted students last (even though gifted students usually also fall under special ed and there are double-exception students who are sped and gifted). ESL students? That depends on the population of the school.
Last year I taught the on-level, average-speed math class. Every week I gave them a math problem on the week. They worked on it each morning and we went over it on Friday. Unfortunately, it didn’t go as well as I thought it would. The level was slightly too high (it shouldn’t’ve been but I don’t want to go into why that was the case) and they weren’t very excited by it.
But this group of kids? I didn’t hand out a problem last week because the week was short (holiday, training day so I had a sub) and I didn’t hand out one this week because I thought we had too much to do.
Well, one of the students said, “Awww, I want a problem of the week.”
His friend responded, “I know, they’re hard but fun.”
And it hit me. I am treating these students like slightly-smarter-than-average kids. And they’re not.
When I was in seventh grade I was in an “honor” social studies class. The only special, honor-like thing we got was one essay question a week on our quiz and forced participation in the National History Day Project. (I did an awesome project on GPS and GIS and my social studies teacher wouldn’t send it to state because he said GPS would never be of use in any arena other than the military.) I can still tell you exactly what we did depending on the day of the week in that class. It was awful. It wasn’t challenging. It was boring. And the teacher did not care about any of us.
I care about these students and I need to do a better job of meeting their needs. These students are slightly competitive with each other in a good way. They’re excited about math. They compete to be the genius or half-genius of the day. (Yes, there’s a story behind that.) They ask questions. When presented with a question they haven’t “officially” been taught, they don’t say “I don’t know how to do that.” They try. And a lot of them get it right.
I don’t want to destroy that spark. I don’t want to be a mediocre student doing a mediocre job.
When Mark and I were in sixth grade, we were chosen to pilot a seventh grade math program. Our teacher in sixth grade was the math specialist but was really hard to get along with. One of the teachers in middle school was great, and the other was awful. Our ninth grade teacher was sometimes a confusing teacher but obviously cared about us. By 10th grade, when we got the football coach as the honors math teacher—and the stereotypes fit? Well, I think I was over it. I had to drop out of pre-calc my senior/sophomore year of high school/college. It was a professor my mother told me not to take, but it was the only class that fit in my schedule. I had a great professor the second time around and went from a D- to a B+. First semester of Calc, great teacher. Second semester, OK teacher.
My point? I liked math. And I was usually pretty good at it. But the teacher mattered. These students like math. And they’re usually pretty good at it. I want to encourage that and explore it and push it and keep their love for it going.
This morning I was sure to give them a problem of the week. And they all dug into it. And they enjoyed it.
Last night I found some resources for me. Books and the like. And I’ve started to rethink my role in the classroom…
Not-Average Student: Ooooh! Subatomic! Subcutaneous!
Other Students, blank stares…
Another Not-Average Student: Dead meat?
“Because we don’t believe in God,” Good Man answered.
“How can you be unhappy in a country with electric staplers?” Good Man asked me.
I stared at him. “What?”
“America! You have electric staplers! Americans are lazy, and being lazy is good for invention. Because you want what you want, then you imagine, then make reality. Heaven for lazy people, and you want happiness? Then you buy it…”
My jaw dropped. “I don’t want to buy friends.”
“No, but we can make more friends.”
I laughed, “Make more friends and buy electric staplers?”
I looked in the direction Good Man was pointing. “Public Storage? You can—”
“I know, I know. You rent—pay—and put stuff there, right?”
“Right,” I nodded.
“That is so—! Stupid! Americans have huge cars. Huge houses. Huge yards—yards they are never outside in! And then they rent more space to keep stuff! America is so…awkward!”
I had to call HR today. “Hi. I need to make a change to my insurance because I was just married. But my husband doesn’t have a SSN. Do I need a dummy number?”
[Note for non-SSN readers: A Social Security Number is a nine-digit number which was originally supposed to be used for tax purposes only. Over time it’s become this radically abused number and is sort of a national ID number, even though we aren’t supposed to have those in the US.]
“You need to find out his SSN.”
“…” I repeated myself. “He doesn’t have one.”
“How doesn’t he have one?”
I really didn’t want to explain that he isn’t eligible for one. “He doesn’t have a SSN. What should I write?”
“Um, write that he doesn’t have one.”
Like I’m the first person in the entire district to marry a SSN-less foreigner? Doubtful.
Then I asked if I needed to send a certified marriage certificate or if I could send a copy of the commemorative, non-official one they give you.
She said, “You need the license.”
I said, “The license was returned to the state by the officiant. I do not have the license.”
“You have some sort of license.”
It took all of my self-control not to say, “I have a driver’s license.” Instead I explained, very slowly, how it works and that I only had the decorative certificate. The one that reads “this is not a certified certificate.” She told me I could just send a copy of the fake certificate. Fine.
It’s a bit moot now. Monday we sent off for ten legal copies figuring that in our half-SSN-less-Green-Card-and-in-state-tuition-applying-he-is-my-husband-even-though-he’s-not-white-and-this-is-our-proof situation ten copies was a good guess as to how many we’d need. We got the legal copies in the mail today. I will probably send copies of both through interoffice mail. God knows if I send an official copy they might flip out and not know what to do with it.
Then I called Walk All Over Ya, my bank, to try and add Good Man to my account.
I asked how I could add him. They put me on hold for 15 minutes.
And then they hung up on me.
So I called again. And was immediately told it’s impossible to add him without a SSN or TPIN (another tax ID number). I said, “So basically there’s no way for me to add my husband to my bank account?”
“Why are those letters backwards?” Good Man points to an ambulance.
“So you can read the words in your rear view mirror if it’s coming up behind you.”
“That! That is so brilliant! America is brilliant!”
I laugh. Shortly after we arrived in America, some ambulance went speeding past. I did what you’re supposed to do, you know, slow down and pull over? Good Man was so confused. “Why is everyone doing that? Oh my God! In America they stop!”
“왜 야드에 사람 나오지 않아?” Why aren’t people in their yards?
“미국이야. ” It’s America.
Sometimes I feel like those two years in Korea didn’t actually happen. It’s not that life stopped in America. It didn’t. I don’t even live in the same state that I did when I left. But sometimes I have to stop, step back, and ask myself, “Did it really happen?” And then I look at Good Man and realize that, indeed, it happened.
And then there are the reverse moments. Those moments where I am suddenly struck, and I realize that Korea(n(s)) got under my skin.
A few months ago I reached for a new tub of gochujang (spicy red pepper paste) from our pantry. I started chuckling to myself. If anyone had told me five years ago that I’d be cooking Korean food on a weekly basis, I would’ve rolled my eyes. Yet here I am, with a kitchen stocked up with gochujang, dwenjang, and ganjang.
A few weeks ago, I was walking up the steps in a library. I was nearing the top and someone started to come down the steps. She glared at me and I couldn’t understand why until I’d already completed my ascent. Of course. I was walking up the left side of the stairs. I didn’t think anything of it, I was just doing it. I’ve lived here over 8 months now, and I still do it.
I also realized that I keep handing people things with two hands or my left arm tucked under my right. Nobody else cares or notices, but I do.
Last night Diana and I were chatting online and I said that I have very few friends here. But is that true? Last weekend, over dinner, Mark’s Lover asked me when we were going to have an engagement party. I said, “We’re not. Our wedding is tiny and besides, we have no friends here.”
Mark’s Lover gestured to everyone else sitting at the table and said, “What are we then?”
I didn’t really know what to say. Indeed, Mark and his Lover are friends. But their friends aren’t yet our friends, even though we’ve met them several times.
And last night, chatting with Diana, I realized that before Korea, I’d have called these people friends. Not close friends, but friends. After Korea, not so much.
It seems to me that Koreans don’t have friends. They have adjective friends. “This is my seonbae,” “he’s my hubae,” “this is my military friend,” “this is my sixth grade friend…”
Have I picked up the adjective friend thing? Is that why I don’t yet consider my taekwondo studiomates, or the people who go to Korean Meetups my friends? (Maybe “location friend” is a better descriptor than “adjective friend.”)
It’s almost as if there’s a B.K. (Before Korea) Amanda and an A.K. (After Korea) Amanda. How could two years of conditioning overcome 26 years of my natural environment?
I went to taekwondo tonight, with Diana‘s encouragement.
We’re learning some very weird Special Forces-style forms. I asked if these were written down anywhere. We practice them maybe once or twice a month, and that’s not enough to get these into my head.
Special Forces Instructor said that he does have them written down, in Korean. Sure, give them to me in Korean! 화이팅!!
I’m also talking to some 15 year-old kid in class about learning Korean. Some friends of his from school are trying to teach him, but I think if he actually wants to learn, he should learn to read. Next week I’m bringing him a book to get him started on the alphabet.
After class, Special Forces Instructor and I looked at something in an old taekwondo book of mine. I got this book from my studio in Atlanta, and it’s a staple in my bag. I pulled out a piece of paper that Master had given me. I’d written “연습(하다) practice” and “공부(하다) study” on the paper. I remembered writing these things early in my time in Korea, and my elementary Korean handwriting confirmed that.
The paper I’d written my notes on was something from the studio about the benefits of taekwondo. I started reading the sheet and I was shocked by how much I understood.
It was a little surreal. Sitting in a new studio in America, coming across a piece of paper from my studio in Korea, tucked into a book I bought at my studio in Atlanta.
I’m glad I went.
I’m also glad I don’t have to go again for a week.
Last night Good Man and I headed to the local Korean bookstore to browse. I ended up getting a bilingual Korean cookbook and a children’s book. When we went to the register to check out, the woman asked (in Korean), “Do you speak Korean?”
I had greeted her in Korean, but I thought she was talking to me, so I said, “Not well.”
Good Man answered, “Yes, and she does, too.”
Turns out the woman was asking him if he spoke Korean. Then she said she was relieved because she doesn’t like to speak English. Then she went into a spiel about a yearly $5 membership getting you 15% off of books printed in Korea. We got the membership.
We went to the local gimbap place for dinner. I ordered in Korean and when we got the food, it came without kimchi. I yelled, “아줌마!” Ajumma! The three women who worked there looked at me, very surprised, and I wondered if I wasn’t supposed to yell in an American gimbap joint. “김치 있어요?” Do you have kimchi?
“네! 잠깐만요.” Yes, just a moment.
She brought over the kimchi and said, “아, 한국말 잘하네요.” Oh, you speak Korean well.
I shook my head to disagree. When she’d left, Good Man laughed and said, “See, this is Korea. It’s the same!”
For the record, even the gimbap is bigger in America.
(As a side note, I’m not sure that anyone’s ever addressed me with the 하게체 form like she did (하네요). I didn’t even realize she’d addressed me unusually until Good Man and I talked about it today. I’m curious about this form, but Good Man says it’s fairly old-fashioned and I don’t need to worry about it.)
“Oh,” I said yesterday, “tomorrow is your 100 Day Anniversary in America!”
“How do you know that?” Good Man asked.
“Because you got here 2 days before our 400 days, and our 500 days is Wednesday, so tomorrow is your 100 days.”
Good Man laughed, “You are more Korean than me.”
So today is Day 100 for Good Man. I must say, he’s doing better after 100 days in American than I was in Korea. After 100 days in Korea, I was working really hard to get another job.
His culture shock seems fairly minor so far. He doesn’t like checks, carpeting, how infrequently the bus runs, and how you can’t by soju at the Korean grocery store. He likes Americans’ “silliness.” He likes the crazy politics, too.
I think there are some big differences between our adjustments. One, my job was not going well, his classes are.
Two, he had to pass English tests—multiple tests—in Korea before the US gov’t would give him a visa. I didn’t have to even know the Korean alphabet before they let me in. The language difference is huge.
Three, I’ve lived alone before. So while I wasn’t sure how to use a Korean washing machine, I at least knew how to wash clothes. Good Man has learned how to make coffee, use a dishwasher, launder clothes, what can and can’t go down a garbage disposal, how to make and stick to a budget, and so on. (And oh thank kimchi, thank kimchi, he’s learned it all quickly and without any nagging on my part.)
Four, I wasn’t in Korea with a Korean lover, he’s here with me. In many ways, this makes his adjustment easier because I can teach him how to deal with stuff. Like the aforementioned evil checks.
On the other hand, while he gets a buffer person to deal with the culture, he also has the “fun” of making his mistakes in front of someone else.
Once, in Korea, I ended up riding the same section of the subway 3 (4?) times and was 90 mins late in getting home. Nobody had to know about my mistake. A few weeks ago, late at night, Good Man ended up on the wrong bus and had to have me come and pick him up.
I once bought some sort of ice cream that I thought was chocolate filled and faced a red bean paste center. Ick. Somewhat similarly, Friday Good Man went to pick up dish detergent. He bought two bottles of dish soap. Thank goodness I was able to tell him that we couldn’t use that, or we would’ve ended up de-bubbling the dishwasher this weekend…
So now that I’ve vented about my reverse culture shock, next up is Korean.
I don’t know how in the world to study Korean any longer. Further, this weekend I couldn’t really figure out why I wanted to study Korean. When I lived in Korea, the benefits of studying Korean were immediately apparent. Here? Not so much.
But I know why I want to study Korean. I
want to be able to speak to Good Man’s family better,
expect to live in Korea again,
enjoy learning Korean,
like having a secret code to use with Good Man and others,
think it’s freakin’ awesome when I can understand an entire note from Master on my Cyworld page!,
like the coolness factor of learning an Asian language (sad, but true),
want to be bilingual,
think it’s important,
just want to—no explanation needed.
The problem is that my study methods aren’t really working here. In Korea I mostly did the Sogang book and focused on using it and hearing it around me. I did read and write, but it was mostly to reinforce what I’d learned and what I was orally using. I also met with a language exchange partner from time to time.
Since Good Man and I still haven’t managed to get even one day a week down to a Korean Only Day (any advice on this would be appreciated!), and I am now surrounded by English, this emphasis on speaking won’t work. I think I need to transfer to a more reading-based method, at least until I figure out how to get myself into Korean-speaking situations…
Good Man and I have joined a local Meetup group to practice Korean. We’ve gone to two meetings. Unfortunately, the easiest language to default to is English, and that’s what we tend to do so far, even with two or three Koreans in the meetings.
Any advice or thoughts are appreciated.
I am feeling very, very frustrated right now.
My aunt, one of my father’s sisters, moved to Korea in August because her husband got a job with DOD schools. My aunt and uncle are both art teachers, and they have one son. I’ve never been super-close to Aunt Melanie, but that’s mainly because her family lived in Florida while I grew up in Minnesota, and my father lived in Arizona.
Although we weren’t close when I was young, Aunt Mel and I are, in my opinion, fairly similar. It’s surface things—Grandma and Dad both confuse me with her on the phone, we both love photography and do fiber arts, we’re both teachers—but also that deeper wanderlust sort of spirit.
I got to talk to Aunt Mel Thursday night, and last night Good Man and I got to talk to the whole family (using Skype video, which is cool in a freaky sort of way). It was really nice to get to talk to her, though I’m a bit envious (to use a common Korean phrase) that she’s in Korea. My uncle told me a lot about applying to DODS, and I’m filing that info away for future reference.
Mel lived in Germany for five years and I asked her if she had any problems getting used to America. She said she never felt like she fit in after Germany.
That’s what I was expecting.
I am so frustrated living here.
My job is great (though it’s ridiculous the number of meetings I have to attend), we’re comfortable with money, taekwondo (when I can go!) is fine (not like in Korea by any stretch of the imagination, indeed, but it’s going well enough). Living with Good Man is great, we get along well, he’s fantastic to live with.
But I do not like
that I have to drive everywhere,
that Americans currently seem very angry and distrustful of each other,
that I don’t have floor heat,
that when I go out, the streets are empty,
that I can understand what everyone’s saying,
that we need two different cell phone chargers in this house,
that cell phone plans are so expensive and lock you in for so long,
that cell phones are junk here,
that the holidays here are about buying crap,
that I can’t buy soju at a corner store,
that health care is ridiculous here,
that most Americans don’t know where Korea is on a map,
that everything “Asian” is either Japanese or Chinese or some totally oddball Fauxsian thing,
and so on.
On top of it, Good Man has to keep a B average to keep his visa. Do you remember group projects? Do you remember how one or two people were stuck doing all of the work?
One (lazy!) professor has a group project worth 40% of their final grade (lazy!). (This is bad pedagogy, in my opinion, and I ran my opinion by a bunch of teacher friends who pointed out the same thing before I even brought it up.) Which means, as far as I can tell, that the foreign students are stuck doing the project since they’re the ones at risk of losing their status/stay if they don’t get a good grade. Good Man is often at school the nights he’s supposed to be home, or he’s at school for 11 hours on a Sunday (like today). I miss him.
And if I could go to taekwondo, that would at least give me something to do with myself in the evening, but I’ve been out of commission for three weeks and it’s at least another three!
I am, frankly, bored in this country. It’s not a matter of where I live—this area has tons of stuff to do. It’s that whenever I stepped out of my house in Korea I was immediately surrounded by foreign (to me) words, sights, smells, sounds, experiences. Passively, it was interesting. Here, when I leave my house…nothing is unique.
Taxi drivers used to ask me what I thought of Korea, why I came to Korea. I would answer, “미국에서 생활이 쉬웠으니까 재미 없었어요. 한국에서 생활이 어려우니까 재미 있어요.” In America, life was easy, so it was boring. In Korea, life is difficult, so it is interesting. And it’s just as true now that I’m back.
I also know that the most frustrating things in Korea were often the most rewarding. I know that I got homesick in Korea. I know that people will think “the grass is greener/your rice cake looks bigger than mine.” But this isn’t so much about Korea as it is America.
From a young age, I wanted to live abroad. I wasn’t sure how I would do it since nobody in my family had (other than Aunt Mel), but I knew I had to live in another country. I never felt like America would be my home forever. I always felt a bit out of place (and no, this wasn’t limited to the teenage years, when everyone felt out of place).
The thing is, I’m back here now and I feel even more out of place than I did before I left.
I felt out of place, often, in Korea. But I knew that as much as being a foreigner could be frustrating, it gave me a unique place in the culture that worked in my favor in many ways.
But it’s one thing to be out of place in a foreign country. That’s to be expected. It’s quite another thing to be out of place in what should be your “home” country.
When we lived in Korea, when people found out we were leaving together, they’d ask where we were going to live. I always understood that they expected we’d live in one place forever. That’s what many international couples seem to do. I would answer, “저는 미국에서 살고 싶지 않아요. 하지만 [굿맨] 한국에서 살고 싶지 않아요.” I don’t want to live in America. [Good Man] doesn’t want to live in Korea.
I picked Good Man up from school at 9 tonight. He got in the car and immediately asked if I was OK. I started crying and I said, ” 미국에서 영원히 살고 싶지 않아.” I don’t want to live in America forever.
He nodded and said, “나 때문이야?” Is it about me?
I shook my head and told him I was just unhappy here. He said, “I have only been here three months. I wanted to come to America for 14 years, but even then I knew I would not live here forever. We will not live here forever.”
“I know, and I don’t want to take America away from you, believe me. It’s important that we live here, it’s really important that you get a Masters here. I’m just… going through some wicked reverse culture shock.”