first impressions

My First Lessons in Culture Shock

My First Lessons in Culture Shock

I first arrived in Ghana on a Friday. I remember this because I didn’t have any Ghanaian money on me, or even knew what Ghanaian money was called. Did other people come here knowing this kind of information? Then again, I know a number of people who still consider ‘Africa’ to be its own country, so I don’t feel too bad about this. But I did have a collection of American dollar bills. I was ready to go. American dollars: the currency of the world.

I didn’t notice the problem until the next day when I...

Are Asians Bad Drivers? My Thoughts on 10 Asian Stereotypes

After living and travelling around Asia for two years, I have a few things to say about East Asian stereotypes. But before I begin, I need to say that this is meant to be a funny portrait of the wonderful Asian people I've met and the diverse Asian culture I've experienced. I'm fully aware of the sweeping generalizations I'm about to make, and for every one of those generalizations I can think of exceptions. Generalizations, which I believe are a necessary part of the human experience, become stereotypes if they're hold too intentlyand can get one in a lot of trouble. Why am I writing about it when I know it's a dangerous topic that could get me into trouble? Because it's a learning experience. I came to Korea knowing nothing Asian culture and am leaving with a greater knowledge and admiration of the people I've met and places I've seen.

  1. All Asians are skinny. This is a personal stereotype I held before I came. I don't think I had ever seen a fat Asian before I moved here, which probably says more about my hometown (two Asian-looking kids went to my high school, brothers of Korean heritage who were so not Korean that they didn't know how to say hello in Korean) and lack of exposure to Asian culture than Asians themselves. I wish I could say it's true, but it's not. Asians, like everyone else, have the ability to get fatI just don't know where the bigger girls shop, since most clothes here are free size (one size fits all).
  2. Asians are super stylish. Another personal stereotype, one that held for about the first week I was here. I remember watching Sook-Yin Lee on MuchMusic when I was younger and being impressed with her fashion sense; she was able to mix and match things I never would have dreamed about putting together in one outfit. But something's changed: either Korean women aren't as stylish as I imagined Asian women to be, or I don't have the same fashion sense I did when I was growing up in the 90's. The final straw came when my co-teacher (whom I adore) came to school wearing an oversized yellow-and-black plaid shirt, brown vest, and navy blue sparkly leggings. Sigh.
  3. Asians are bad drivers. Nonot unless you consider consistently running red lights, passing buses in intersections, ignoring emergency vehicles, and switching lanes and turning without signalling to be "bad driving." To be fair, I wouldn't say the same thing about all Asians (the Japanese, I noticed, actually do know how to follow the rules of the road), it's just certainly true about Koreans.
  4. Asian men are effeminate and have small, well, "little guys," and Asian women are submissive. Effeminate men? Yes. Evidence: thinner body shapes, lack of body hair, and "pretty" fashion choices (think hot pink cardigans, tight-fitting shirts and pants, and "man purses"). Add to that some cutesy behaviour when in a relationship, like wearing matching "couple wear" and carrying his woman's purse as if it were his own, and yes, I'd say men here are pretty feminine. This is not a judgment call; obviously some women out there love it. Would this country be so overrun with couples if it wasn't a good thing? As for the...other thing about Asian males, I'll just say my research sample size isn't large enough for any conclusive results. I haven't dated any Asian women to get any first-hand stories about their submissiveness, but from what I've heard from my guy friends, it might even be the other way around. After all, purses don't carry themselves, and it's rarely the woman who carries it herself either. And if a guy wants to go on a date with a Korean woman, he should make sure his bank account is ready to take a hit. In all seriousness, though, submissiveness is a trait of Korean culture, where elders are to be respected at all times, no matter what.
  5. Asians are hard workers. I've written about this a lot, but here's my belief: Koreans are inefficient workers, appearing to be harder-working than they are. Or maybe, Koreans are hard workers in an inefficient system. Either way, something's not working.
  6. All Asians look alike. Yes, there's the whole everyone-has-black-hair-and-black-eyes thing. But no, it doesn't mean that everyone looks the same. Sure, I joke that everyone in Super Juniorthat 13-member Korean boy bandlooks the same, but that's because I actually haven't taken a look at their faces. When I see them, it's more of a blob of singing and dancing black-haired boys than individuals. When it comes to real people in real life, there are luckily infinite differences, even without a variety of hair and eye colours.
  7. Asians are good at math, playing musical instruments, and playing computer games. I don't teach math (that's for the benefit of all students everywhere) and I joke that math is not allowed in my classroom whenever I catch students finishing their math homework in my class. What I will say is that Koreans are good at memorizing and terrible at creative thinking, thanks to their education system, and math is one of those subjects that plays to their strengths. I don't know what to say about music and video games, though I would agree both, like in North America, are popular after-school activities.
  8. All Asians can do martial arts. Taekwondo is to Korea as what gymnastics is to North America: it's a popular sport for children. That's it.
  9. Asians can't pose for photos without the peace sign. No. Koreans have an array of poses to choose from, of which the V-sign is just the most popular. There's also hearts, horns, tears, fists, and other options. Or, if it's a professional photo, say for school or work, there's also the popular angry stare. Take your pick!
  10. Asians eat cats. Wrong. I don't know where this comes from, but I'm pretty sure it's a Chinese stereotype. My old university roomies like to ask me, "So have you eaten cat yet?" to which I always reply, "No, come on, they don't eat cat here...Koreans eat dogs." Okay, that's not true either. Dogs are available to be eaten, though many, many Koreans won't eat them, either. And if restaurants do have dog on the menu, it's hidden from foreigners since everyone is well aware about how foreigners view that practice. I, however, think it's fine. It's meat: cat, dog, chicken, beef, fish, duck, pork, pigeonit's all good. Except for that last one. Too boney.

Seoul Opens Subway Line 9

After many delays, Seoul finally opened its newest subway line, Line 9, on Friday. As a big fan of Seoul's subway system, I have been impatiently checking the news in an effort to ride the line on its opening day---heck, I would have been at the opening ceremony if I could!---but sadly, I missed it by two days.

After finally walking down into the station I've walked past (longingly, I might add) for the past several months, I discovered just how nice this new underground tunnel was for myself. It sure is pretty. Everything is grey or silver coloured, even vending machines, despite the "Gold Line" designation it's been given. Everything looks shiny, clean, and new.

seoul subway gold line 9

But there are a few things I noticed were lacking. I was disappointed to see that the trademark coloured stripe on the wall is missing. The station could use a splash of colour---and it would be helpful for the transfer stations on other lines, too. I'll let it pass for now, seeing as it's still a new line, but that gold stripe better get itself on those walls soon. And I also noticed that all subway stations on this line look exactly the same. Something I've loved about other lines is that most stations are uniquely designed---for example, Gangnam Station (Line 2) has its black and white circular tiles; Chungmuro Station (Lines 3 and 4) looks like a cave with its grey, rocky walls; Samgakji Station (Lines 4 and 6) has a war mural---giving each station its own character, and allowing subway users to quickly know what station they're at. Here, they all blend together.

The station also has some amazing map additions (okay, probably something not many people would get excited about, but I love it). Each station in the entire system comes equipped with lots of neighbourhood maps so users can find their way to attractions outside the stations, but at all stations on the gold line, they have two kinds of maps: one regular drawn map and one real-view aerial map. Aerial maps are awesome.

seoul subway station gold line 9

The train cars themselves are different too. First, trains only have four cars---half or less than half of other lines. Inside, the yellow handle bars alternate height for easier access. The seats are very comfortable, I'm told it's because they're a little wider, and the space underneath seats has been left open, which as far as I can remember doesn't happen with other lines. And there are no doors in between the cars, making it easier for users with wheelchairs.

Line 9 has an express line, too, meaning some trains skip stations and only hit the main ones. I thought it might be confusing, but it seems organized and well posted. Lots of volunteers are on hand now to help people figure it all out.

My first ride on the newest subway line was exciting. Now I'm looking for more reasons to go to Gangnam so I can ride it again.

How to Pose for Pictures in Asia

When taking pictures of Koreans, I've found there are two options for poses: 1) grumpy, unsmiling, and serious, or 2) cutey-patootey with curious hand gestures and facial expressions. The former is popular in formal situations, such as school portraits, taxi registration cards, or business photos, while the latter is usually reserved for informal, casual situations, like hanging out with friends, sel-ka (cell phone camera self-portraits, the oh-so-popular Korean hobby), and nights out.

I recently found a website of these so-called "Asian poses" including tears/teasing, horns, heart shape and giant heart, fighting fists, claws, and other favourites. While my students would be horrified (italics and bold necessary) if I ever posted pictures of them here, I can say that photos I've taken in my classroom have a large number of these creative poses.

The V-sign (uncorrectly called the "peace sign" by Westerners, including myself) is by far the most popular of all the poses; it's even one that I've adopted for my own photos. But it's not limited to the static (and dare I say, uncreative) hand-up-beside-you-with-the-V-and-smile; my students can strike a dozen different poses with this simple gesture, including the sideways-V-sign-around-an-eye, the V-sign-around-the-mouth, and the double-V-signs-covering-my-cheeks-to-make-it-look-like-I-have-a-small-face.

Me posing at Gyeongbok Palace

Me posing at Gyeongbok Palace

The desire to have a small face poses (ha!) a problem when taking pictures. Many of my students become shy when I point my camera at them, immediate reacting to over up their face, either entirely or in portions. Another popular pose, which has yet to be included in the website, is the I'm-covering-my-entire-lower-face-with-my-hand-so-that-you-can-only-see-my-eyes-because-I-think-this-makes-me-look-like-I-have-a-small-face. (I personally think it looks like they're being suffocated. Not cute.) Other variations of this pose include using fists to cover the lower half of the face, covering one cheek, or covering both cheeks with the palms in a V to make the face look more heart-shaped.

After reviewing this list of Asian poses, I've realized that I must take boring pictures. I usually like to smile, maybe throw up the V/peace sign, orif I'm feeling boldrest my hand on my hip. I have some work to do if I want to get these poses down before I leave Korea in six weeks.

Note: Updated 15 November 2015 to fix the broken link.

The Star Said...

This is a story written by one of my Grade 1 (Grade 7 in North America) students for our annual English Speech Contest. I have copied it exactly as it was written, all errors included---but, impressively, there are very few. I not only liked the story and its theme of environmentalism, but she also performed it very well.

Have you ever heard a star talking? Well, I did and I want to talk about it. Are you ready? I’ll begin.

When I was six or seven, my family went to a beach for vacation. The beach was beautiful; soft sand, white waves, lovely trees nearby. We played there like anyone else. We swam and made sandcastles during the day. We ate delicious food and slept peacefully at night. It seemed a lovely and ordinary holiday.

However, it was different. My parents woke me up at midnight and piggybacked me to the shore. I didn’t realize anything except they were carrying me to some place until mom said,

“Sumin*, look up!”

Stars embroidered the sky’s black cloth. The lights dancing against the black, coal-like sky. I just stared at them in silence. The only think I could hear was the cool sound of the waves lapping.

We walked by the shore, using the star lights as our lanterns and the waves and background music. That stroll by the clean and silent beach is one of the happiest memories of my life.

After some years, my family and I visited the same beach again. I remembered the bright stars and beautiful beach. But, it had changed. The shore was dirty and even made dangerous by debris of glass bottles, Styrofoam plates and paper cups. People had thrown junk onto the beautiful pristine sand and ruined it! I cursed an hoped those people never come to that beach again.

At that moment, I heard someone say,

“Who did you blame? Look at the sky and see how beautiful it is, just as in the past, But look at that shore, all ruined and dirty. While this shore was getting dirtier, what were you doing? Look. The skies, where human hands can’t reach, are the same as ever but the place where human hands have reached has been ruined.

Who was it that said this? There was no one at the shore except me. There was only a star staring at me. Yes, it was a star that just spoken to me.

“Who did I blame? Is it wrong to blame those people? “I wanted to answer the star’s question, but I couldn’t answer. I had done nothing for the beach. Does this mean that someone who has done nothing is the same as those people who made the Earth dirty?

That was it. I am the same as them. Sometimes I littered anywhere even though there were trashcans nearby. I was a part of the mess, even a small amount on this Earth made me complicit.

Now I realized the true meaning of the star’s words and felt remorse.

I made a promise in my heart, to clean up after the places where I stayed. Even now, when I go back home from institutes late at night, I stare at the star of Seoul in silence and believe it was the star who spoke to me. I try to keep the promise I made long ago with the star.

I hope you try to listen to the stars an promise them,

“I will help too.”

-------------- * Name has been changed

My Good Fortune at Sensoji

I arrived in the land of the rising sun after the sun had set, so I had to wait until morning before I could take a look at the city sights.

scaffolding at Sensoji

scaffolding at Sensoji

My first stop was Sensoji, a famous temple that happened to be a short walk from my hostel. Right away I could see that Japanese temples are much different from those in Korea. The main gate was mostly a red colour, unlike the colourful mix of reds, yellows, greens, blues, yellows and pinks in Korea. Through the gate, the main temple seemed to have been replaced with an arena; it was covered in big, white sheets, making it look like a new hockey rink instead of an ancient place of worship. I went inside anyways, just to make sure that there was, in fact, a temple underneath it all.

Inside was a slow-moving crowd of people, some were peering into a kind of prayer room behind a sheet of glass. I wondered if always looked like that, or if the Buddha statue and prayer area was being protected from construction. After bowing towards the Buddha, visitors tossed coins into a grate placed in front of the screen. I had never seen a grate system quite like this one before. Was it there to prevent theft, or just because the sound of clinging coins falling through the grate and into the waiting treasure box below was just so exciting and fun?


To the left was a stack of thin wooden drawers. I watched as a few people opened a drawer, took out a sheet of paper, and walked away reading it. Overhearing a family say something about a "fortune," I realized that the papers must, in fact, be fortunes.

Even though I had never been interested in fortune-telling, I decided to give it a try anyways. I watched some more visitors. Put a coin in the slot and shake the silver cylindrical container. And then, okay, so a stick comes out of the container after you shake it. Open a drawer and take a paper. Money, shake, stick, fortune. Got it.But wait---what drawer? I decided I'd better ask someone.

I approached a family who I overheard speaking English.

"Excuse me, can you help me? How do I---"

"Put one hundred yen in here," the woman said, "shake, and a stick will come out. Choose a drawer."

"Any drawer?"

"No, the one that matches the stick."

I went to pay my hundred yen, but the woman stopped me. "No, pray first," she said. "Pray first."

So I prayed. "Dear God," I said. "I am very curious to get a fortune. I don't really like praying with my hands together or anything because this is a Buddhist place and it would feel wrong. I just want you to know that I'm curious about this. Please let me get a fortune."

Then I shook and got my stick. I saw there wasn't a number, but a Japanese character. Matching the characters on the stick and drawer was easier than I thought and soon I found my drawer. As I opened it, the woman came over again to inspect my work.

"Nineteen," she said. Oh, so they are numbers, I thought.

I showed her the drawer and she said it was right, then turned and left me alone with my fortune.


Good start, I thought.

So many troubles and problems invade your family business, everything does not go so smoothly. A tiger demonstrates his spirit too much, then you should be more modest defending its dashing, then you will be safe.

Do believe in gods earnestly, do your best, then everything will be fine in the end.

Getting wealth and happiness, you may remain with them.

*Your hopes and desire turn our to be real by half. *Take long time to recover from sickness, but life will be safe. *Most of your lost articles will not be found. *Take long time to show around the man you wait for. *Building and moving your home will be good by half. *There is no problem of travelling. *Marriage will be good by half. *There is no worry about employment.

There were some concerns---my marriage, home, and hopes and desires will be real and good "by half"? What does that mean?---but I decided to focus on the positive predictions. Steady employment is always good. Remaining in wealth and happiness sounds excellent. And problem-less travelling is a plus for a wanderer like myself. I was especially pleased to see my travel/life motto was even represented with a solid "everything will be fine in the end."

With my fortune safe in my pocket, I left the scaffolding-clad temple and hopped on the subway to explore more of the city.

Finding My Way in Tokyo
Saying a Prayer at Meiji Jingu Shrine 
Geeking Out in Tokyo

Malaysia, Truly Asia

There's a place not far away
Different faces yet all the same
With a million dreams in one golden celebration (Malaysia)

Come and spread your wings
There's so much to see
There's a million colours right before your eyes
It's time to celebrate
One golden celebration

Malaysia truly Asia
Malaysia truly Asia

Malaysia celebrated its 50th year of Independence in 2007 and the commemorative tourism TV commercials were still playing in Korea well into 2008. The song from theses ads was quite catchy; it seemed as though no one could say "Malaysia" without adding "truly Asia" afterwards. Emails from friends read, Have fun in Malaysia Truly Asia! or, So how is Malaysia Truly Asia? I never thought of it as more than an ad campaign---until I arrived in Malaysia, that is.

I was picked up from the airport by a new friend who I only recently found out was Malaysian. He took me to a small outdoor restaurant where I met three of his co-workers and enjoyed a snack under the cool midnight moon. Over "pull tea" and crepe-like pancakes, he introduced me to Malaysia's unique and diverse cultures.

There are three major ethnic groups in Malaysia (Indian, Chinese, and Malay) as well as several traditional ethnic groups. It's not easy balancing the needs of all these different cultures in one country. "Malays of Chinese background say they're Chinese, not Malaysian," my friend said. "Malays and Indians are represented in government, but there's not so much Chinese representation, so Chinese-Malays don't feel Malaysian."

Over the next few days, when I was walking and riding though KL, I was impressed by the mixture of people. Unlike Korea, in which everyone has black hair, black or dark brown eyes, and white skin, I was suddenly surrounded by a potporri of people---dark-skinned Indians, Buddhist or Taoist Chinese, scarf-wearing Malays---who not only looked different but also spoke different languages and practiced different religions.

My friend told me that the Indians, Chinese, and Malays were about equal, each taking a third of the population. Travelling around the city, that estimation seemed realistic. But Malays actually form the biggest ethnic groups with about half the population, while the Chinese-Malays account for roughly 25% and Indian-Malays roughly 10%. Malay is the official language, which all students must study in school even if the primary language at the school itself is Chinese or English. Islam is the official and predominate religion, but Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and other religions are also practiced in large numbers.

The diversity couldn't be overlooked; it wasn't long before I realized that "Malaysia Truly Asia" was more than a slogan. No, it's not perfect and the groups don't always get along, but Malaysia, in all its varieties, is Asia---truly.

Me, Myself & Malaysia

I was looking out the plane window when I saw them for the first time. Even thousands of feet below, they still looked tall. They stood there, two silver towers, illuminated in the dark of night with a white glow in a sea of orange street lights. It was my first trip all by myself---something I wouldn't have even considered doing just six months ago.

For years, I've been hearing how travelling alone is one of the greatest experiences. It's the ultimate freedom, they say, of going where you want to go and doing what you want to do, whenever you want to do it. I, however, disagreed. It's just lonely. A few years ago, when I was living in Ghana, I couldn't even last a whole weekend by myself. I remember bolting back to Accra in the middle of the night because I couldn't bear spending another night alone.

Part of me, though, realized at some point I would have to learn how to be comfortable travelling solo. I mean, could I really be considered an adventurer if I've never ventured off alone? I'm not sure what changed in me, but, for whatever reason, when I discovered I was sans travel buddy for my summer vacation, I just shrugged and told myself, well I guess it's time.

And so I found myself looking down at the Petronas Towers from the plane, about to land in Kuala Lumpur for the start of my first solo adventure. Just me, myself, and Malaysia.

Rain & Stephen Colbert

The feud between comedian Stephen Colbert and K-pop legend Rain (or as he's known here in Korea, Bi, pronounced 'bee') continued on The Colbert Report this week. The year-long battle between the boys has been fierce. 

screenshot of Colbert: "Raaaaaaaaiiiiin!"

screenshot of Colbert: "Raaaaaaaaiiiiin!"

Last spring, just as I was applying to teach in Korea, I saw an episode of The Colbert Report in which Colbert talks about his position on Time magazine's online "100 Most Influential People Who Shape Our World" list for 2006. Since any mention of Korea on a North American TV program is quite rare (and so far, for me, had been limited to a documentary on the disastrous 1995 Sampoong Department Store collapse), I took particular notice. I was completely ignorant of all things Korean and excited to learn anything about the country I was preparing to move to.

This episode provided a lot of important Korean "firsts" for me: the first time I heard of Rain (or rather, any Korean artist); the first company, Hyundai, that I learned was actually Korean and not Japanese like I assumed (a list that, after moving here, has extended to include Daewoo, LG, and Samsung); the first time I heard of kimchi (Korea's contribution to Health magazine's World's Top 5 Healthiest Foods list---a list I didn't know existed but Koreans treat as common knowledge); finally, the first time I heard of bibimbap (a mixed rice dish---topped with an egg, as Colbert mentions---that has become my favourite lunchtime meal).

A month later, Colbert updated us on how his music video had been received in South Korea---or at least, how South Koreans possibly, with wacky translations, may have reviewed the clip*. And he even threw in some more Korean vocabulary (bulgogi = beef).

  • 5 June 2007 The Colbert Report video: Rain

Earlier this year, as the competition to top the magazine's latest 100 "Influencial People" list heated up, the fued between Colbert and Rain could only get uglier. As Colbert was attempting to recruit more votes in his favour, Rain fought back with some trash-talking of his own. To settle the score, Colbert finally challenged him to the ultimate show-down: a dance-off (or a cuddle-off or a spoon-off---Rain's choice).

This week, Colbert updated us on the final results of 2007's Top 100 list, Rain finally took Colbert up on his challenge. He wisely chose the dance-off option and showed Colbert why he's one of the most internationally successful Korean entertainers out there today.

For a country that's often overshadowed by China and Japan, I think all this attention is great. Korea's an amazing country that deserves some time in the international spotlight. And if that attention happens to come from an almost-Presidential candidate, all the better.

* * *

* Addendum, 10 May 2008: I asked a couple Korean friends to translate the excerpt Colbert highlighted from the article and they told me it wasn't a word, it didn't make sense. But the headline of the article was something like, "American comedian laughs at Rain." They told me that the Korean music video Colbert made wasn't well received in South Korea because Koreans didn't understand why Colbert was making fun of him.

My friends kept asking me, "Why? Why did he make the video?" They compared the situation to Eminem's video ("Just Lose It") where the rapper dresses up as Michael Jackson and pretends his nose is falling off---a video that offended MJ and MJ's fans. So, I showed them the "Singin' in Korean" clip again, explained the Time magazine list, and also showed them the dance-off. After the explanation of the whole story, they thought it was pretty funny.

Glass Slipper Called Seoul

I’m no stranger to cities. I’ve lived in some, played in others, studied even more. But nothing I’ve come across has compared to the place that is called Seoul. After being here a month, I still cannot quite grasp why it fits me so well. I don’t speak the language. It rains so much I’ve had to buy three umbrellas already. My apartment would be the size of a master bedroom back home. I have to squat at most public toilets.

But there is something about this place that’s like my glass slipper or bowl of porridge. It’s just right.

Maybe it’s the owners of the small grocery store on the corner of my street who smile and bow at me whenever I stop in or even walk by.

Maybe it’s the way the river reflects the orange lights of the city in its smooth waters when I ride the subway over it at night.

Maybe it’s the street shopping that’s open during the night and the way it livens up the city streets after the sun goes down.

Maybe it’s my coworkers who smile and say hello to me every morning, even if that’s the only thing we can say to each other all day.

Maybe it’s the pride that Seoulites present when they talk about their city.

Maybe it’s the many mountains that peek in between the highrises and let me know that nature is just around the corner from the department store or BMW dealership.

Maybe it’s the history in the palaces that dot the landscape.

Whatever it is, I’ll be here for a few years to figure it out.