Everything is…not what it seems

There are many things about Korea that just don’t make sense. In a strange way, I’ve come to expect the unexpected.

When I talked about coffee, I mentioned my surprise that the box marked French press did not in fact contain a French press. Searching for a better coffee maker today in the same store, I saw a coffee maker marked French press and knew to look in the box before getting my hopes up. Not surprisingly, it was the same coffee maker I already have. (A pathetic manual one that is serviceable, but less than ideal.)

I’ve already mentioned my surprise at finding the UN Park. It’s on a map, it has clear road signs and it is still very much under construction. (Despite Twitter comments to the contrary, I’m sure it’s been left unfinished.) In Korea it’s common to only build when there is money and stop when the money runs out which means a number of projects are very stop and go.

Another unexpected surprise is the 24 hour market. There is a corner store near my one bedroom that has a sign saying 24. I was told when I arrived they are open “all the time, 24 hours a day, like 7/11.” I’ve since discovered they are open most of the time. Sometimes they are closed on Saturday, sometimes on Sunday and sometimes after midnight and before 9 a.m. I’ve noticed other 24-hour businesses seem to have the same mysterious closures. I suspect that these small businesses are family owned and thus subjected to being closed whenever the family decides they would like to take a day off. (I can’t say I blame them, I just wonder why they don’t put up some sort of sign or warning beforehand.)

Then there was the corn tea. I know people have found ways to eat most every part of everything edible, but corn tea is inexcusably foul. Why people continue to drink it remains a mystery. I genuinely thought I was drinking a regular iced tea made from tea leaves, the taste and the discovery of the corn in it all was beyond disappointing and certainly unexpected.

Then there was the banana bread. Jennifer eagerly purchased banana bread on a visit to Chungju (at the 24 hour market mentioned above actually). We were both looking forward to the Korean version of banana bread since it did look like a banana. Literal banana bread seemed pretty cool. I noticed the bread looked a little off to be the banana bread I know and dislike. But being in a foreign country has made me more adventurous so when we got back to my apartment, we dug into the banana bread. (I think we were both nervous about the potential for gross, but we bit the banana anyway.) And it was angel cake, yes, angel cake in the shape of a banana. So banana bread is banana bread, it’s just not banana bread.

Where am I going with all these examples of finding things that completely miss my expectations and take me by surprise? Well, to make generalizations about Koreans and sex naturally. Perhaps I’ve been reading too much of The Grand Narrative lately, but I just can’t quite get over how there seems to be so much more to Korea beneath the surface. A surface they are barely willing to let foreigners skim, let alone explore.

I’ve spoken with other foreigners who have noticed this as well. On the outside, it seems Koreans are very sexually conservative. But as you come to familiarize yourself with Korea and Koreans through their cities, advertising and fashion, it seems they are just like the rest of us. Love motels and prostitution are both popular and prevalent. Small towns that shouldn’t be able to support 10 hotels with tourism alone have 20 because of the frequency with which trysts are held. Men business clubs are apparently more similar to strip clubs than country clubs, but it’s expected this will be where business deals happen. (Supposedly there are women business clubs as well, but I have yet to see any.)

What’s stranger still is their unwillingness to discuss sex and sexuality. I was raised Mormon so I know conservative, but the Koreans I’ve met are even more conservative. Homosexuality is only discussed in a joking manner or as a way to demean another male. Mina once looked horrified when she accidentally indicated she and James are living together. I couldn’t figure out why, but then I realized what a social taboo it is for Mina (unmarried, female) to have sex, while for James (unmarried, male and foreigner) it’s more than accepted, it’s expected. I’ve learned that woman are expected to be so innocent and virginal on their wedding night that most woman say safe sex is a man’s responsibility. But no one will talk about why. No one will openly acknowledge the willingness to say one thing and do another or the insane double standards men and women are held to.

Koreans are experts are presenting one image on the surface while something completely different is happening underneath. And this affects everything, not just banana bread and markets. It means they have an education system that doesn’t work to the best of it’s ability, they have ridiculous amounts of consumer spending and debt, they have domestic violence issues as severe as any redneck trailer park, they have ideas about sex that are inaccurate and they have men and women who have come to believe this is the best they can do.

I suppose Koreans may discuss this among themselves. (Although I doubt it given the embarassment with which they mention kissing, dating, marriage and sexuality.) That’s one of the most frustrating aspects to Korean society among foreigners–no matter how well you know a Korean or how long you are here you are never “in” the group–you never know what’s going on. And so we are left to expect the unexpected.

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2 thoughts on “Everything is…not what it seems

  1. wow. very well-written post. i hope you are enjoying everything over there, but i’ll bet you’ll be glad to come back to us good old-fashioned American sluts!

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