Monday, January 30, 2012

The Power of Han

I just started re-reading Etiquette Guide to Korea, which I bought in the US right before my departure and read on the plane. While describing the character and personality of Koreans, the author described an element to their culture known as Han. I don’t remember being very interested in this concept the first time I read this book, but his time it caught my attention. Now that I’ve been here for almost six months, this phenomenon seems to explain some of my observations of Korean culture.
The direct translation of han is “unrequited resentments,” but there is much more to it that that. “Han can be understood to encompass all of the ambitions, emotions, desires, spirit, and intellectual impulses that were prohibited and oppressed from the beginning of the Chosun Dynasty in 1392 until the 1950s. When South Koreans were freed from political oppression, all of these repressed things were released and provided the energy, power, and passion they devoted to creating a modern economy. The power of han has not yet expended itself, and the ferocity, dedication, and diligence with which the people work must be seen to be believed” (De Mente, Etiquette Guide to Korea, p.24-25).
Han is attributed as being the driving force behind South Korea’s incredibly rapid advancement over the past 50 years. It is a powerful part of South Korean culture, resulting from the domination and suppression that they’ve been subjected to throughout their history. Koreans are known for their work ethic, and this work ethic can at least partially be attributed for their economic miracle. Living and working in South Korea, I witness the diligence and the dedication of South Koreans on a daily basis, and it is indeed astounding.
For example, while the native teachers at my school often times stay at work until 7pm, after starting a little after 9am, the Korean teachers almost always stay longer, and come in on Saturdays. My Kindergarteners, who just turned Korean eight, making them six or seven in “international” age, study English for four or five hours a day, five days a week. In addition, some of them have private tutors that come to their house, and many play an instrument or a sport.
While for the children this is, of course, not a voluntary lifestyle, it reflects the work ethic that is expected of them in this culture.  While perhaps not innate, it seems to become ingrained.  This is a work ethic that they must learn to adopt, especially in a collectivist society where your successes and failures are a reflection not only of you, but the people you are interconnected with; your family, friends, and country. A work ethic that could be a result of a sudden freedom, or release, after so many years of suppression, a result of han.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Other Side of the Rainbow

A couple weeks ago some friends and I discovered a one-of-a-kind hookah-lounge in Gagnam, Seoul called Rainbow (Rainbow Facebook page). It’s a dimly lit room filled with low tables, floor-cushions, a bar, and a DJ booth. If you get there early enough, you can sit in a nest-like loft against the wall. Shoes are removed at the door and placed in a bag, which you bring with you to your table. There are also small, worn lap-blankets available in case you need some extra warmth. Signs on the wall invite you to relax, but warn against getting so deeply relaxed that you fall asleep, which is not allowed.
I would describe the d├ęcor as Rasta-theme, but it is also a bit opium-den-like. One of my favorite paintings on the wall (there are many) is an alternative version of the Korean flag; the middle is a peace sign and it’s red, yellow, and green, in true Rasta fashion. There are many marijuana-leaves decorating the walls (and floor), but no marijuana to be smoked, obviously, because we are in Korea. Instead, there are many flavors of hookah, and buckets of alcohol. Well, they are called “buckets,” but they are more like square, glass vases, filled with various cocktail mixtures, and consumed with a straw. There is also a decent selection of wine, and you can get 10% off on Sundays. Needless to say (in true California fashion), this place is awesome!
A glimpse of Rainbow (these pictures are from my camera phone and don’t do it justice):

Madeline, Jacqueline, Rum Bucket

Good Band (forget the name)


Towards the end of night on weekends, the music at Rainbow tends to get louder and clubbier, so the vibe becomes less relaxed. However, not to worry, for across the street, only a few steps away, there is another great bar, Woodstock. Woodstock, as the name suggests, is another foreigner-friendly gem in Seoul with good music, a laid-back atmosphere, and reasonably priced drinks. Hooray!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Daddy PTA

I’m behind on blogging, as usual. Time for a recap. Let’s start with Christmas…
My Christmas cheer was dampened by an event that we had at school the week before: Christmas PTA (also known as Daddy PTA). This is basically a Christmas-themed open house for the Kindergarten kids and their dads. Mommy PTA is held over summer. Why is it called PTA? Good question…it isn’t named after the school’s “Parent-Teacher Association,” because there is none…Parent-Teacher Activities? Adventure? Amusement?
We spent weeks leading up to the event teaching the kids Christmas songs and dances to be performed for their daddies. My class did “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and “Feliz Navidad.” There were to be two different nights (Wednesday and Thursday), for different classes.
On the nights of the event, the dads showed up with their kids, decked out in adorable Christmas outfits, around 7pm. In the classroom we made wreaths, shared food, and the kids gave their song and dance performances. There was also dancing and games in the auditorium (led by Gym Teacher), and the kids received presents from Santa (an American friend of one of the Native Teachers).
At these sorts of events, I always feel quite prop-like. We native teachers are told what to where (red or green with Santa hats, and antlers and a Rudolph nose to pose with the kids’ and Santa), where to stand, what to say (“introduce yourself…talk about the program for the evening…then talk about the meaning behind wreath-making” “um…which is…?”), and when to get up on stage and dance (yes, this happened).
Korean dads are for the most part quite shy and don’t speak a lot English. We mainly just tried to make everyone feel comfortable and force as much English out of the kids as possible, to prove to the dads that their money is being put to good use. “Daniel, what are you eating? Is it delicious? Julia, what color glitter would you like? How many beads?”
The event went until 10:30 both nights, and was quite exhausting, but went better than expected. Granted, my co-teacher and I weren’t expecting very good things from Salmon Class, since they tend to be a little crazed, to say the least. But they stayed under control, completed their songs, and spoke some English, so I was pleased.
My favorite part of the night was when Santa asked one of the boys, Eddie, “have you been a good boy this year?” We had practiced responding “Yes, I have been a good boy,” for about thirty minutes in class that morning. However, after thinking it over a bit, her responded “mmm…so-so.” You have to appreciate his honesty, and he still got the top (all the rage in Japan) that he’d been wanting.