An Introduction to Spain in Barcelona

As “well traveled” as my relatives like to say I am, let’s be clear that I didn’t know very much about Spain before arriving in Barcelona. I didn’t even realize until about two weeks ago that Barcelona doesn’t speak Spanish as much as it does Catalan, a Spanish-y French-y language of its own. Thankfully most people are bilingual (if not trilingual) and can communicate in Spanish quite easily, but my “remember and practice Spanish in Spain” plan got off to a rocky, this-isn’t-Spanish-is-it start. So I’m not exaggerating when I say I didn’t know anything about Spain before arriving. During my five days in the city, Barcelona (and my Italian Couchsurfing hosts) taught me quite a few lessons.

Lesson 1: Spain is really, really old.

I can't tell you exactly what this is, but it is realllllllllly old.
I can’t tell you exactly what this is, but I can tell you that for once, this tree is the younger subject of a photograph.

Germany was impressive with its 15th century towers, but Barcelona blew those timelines out of the water. They have sections of an old Roman wall dating back to the 4th century, for example. Just try to even imagine life in the 4th century… because I can’t. That’s so old, it’s abstract. And there’s even remains of a temple dating from the first century BC, which is even more difficult to imagine. All I know about BC is… togas, right?

Lesson 2: What is a “Tapa”?

These are several tapas. All on one plate.
These are several tapas. All on one plate.

You might be like me in the sense that you understand that Spain has something you eat called Tapas and they are famous, but you have no clue what the hell that even means. Well, folks, the truth is a little anticlimactic. Tapas can literally be anything. It just means a small portion of food to be eaten with your beer (or other alcoholic drink of choice), like cheese, olives or ham.

Lesson 3: Tomatoes are for spreading.

tomato

Tomatoes are not to be cut and consumed in slices, tomatoes are not to be squished into a paste and become part of a pizza (at least not all the time). No, tomatoes are to be cut in half and then the insides are to be dragged across pieces of toasted bread until it’s pink and delicious. Olive oil and salt as desired. (If you get the chance, try this. Simple genius.)

Lesson 4: Dancing is for everyone.

WHY ARE STOCK PHOTOGRAPHS SO WEIRD. This came up when I searched for "dance". I have so many questions.
WHY ARE STOCK PHOTOGRAPHS SO WEIRD. This came up when I searched for “dance”. I have so many questions.

I don’t really do nightlife. I definitely don’t do strobe lights, and I prefer my beers with laughter and for the grocery store price. Still, I took it upon myself to do research into Barcelona’s nightclub scene for the blog. Or maybe my Italian friend just invited me out and I said “Sure, why not!” When in Barcelona. In any case, first, the club we went to lacked strobe lights, which was a huge plus. Second, I was astonished by the variety of people in the place. Not just young high school and college-aged folks, but older twenties. And also some people in their forties, some married people, some single people, some dating people, some guy in a wheelchair, also a giant group of 50+ year old lesbians. Everyone came to the club, bought their overpriced drinks and then got down to the business of dancing, laughing, and generally just having a great time.

Lesson 5: It’s impossible to sleep early (unless you know magic).

Cooking dinner well after 8pm with my couchsurfing hosts.
Cooking dinner well after 8pm with my Couchsurfing hosts.

This was the case in Argentina as well, but people in Spain don’t eat dinner until it’s late; most restaurants are open and ready at 8 and people will eat as late as 11 at night. This means that even if you don’t go out on the town until 3am (see above), it’s still pretty tough to get back home, stop talking to whomever you’re with and catch some shut-eye before the next day rolls in. I love sleeping early and I adore waking up with the sun to enjoy the quiet morning hours, but in Barcelona, it just wasn’t possible.

I’ve only been in Spain for about a week now, so if I say anymore, it’ll become borderline presumptuous and pretentious, two things I’d really prefer not to be. I really enjoyed Barcelona, the balconies all over the city were breathtaking and I found the streets surprisingly easy to navigate, despite the insanity of several large roundabouts with ~8 streets coming out of it, all at different angles. I’m really curious to see whether I’ll like Barcelona more or less so be after seeing several Spanish cities; it’s hard to pick your favorite cereal when you’ve never tasted more than one kind. But regardless of what opinions I form later, I left Barcelona behind with quite a few fond memories, and not only of the tapas.

At the end of the day, Barcelona was the perfect introduction. Spain, it’s very nice to meet you.

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Your Crash Course in K-Pop

If you’re anything like me before I came to Korea, you figure that Korea probably makes its own music, but you know nothing about it. This is your crash course in Korean Pop music, or K-Pop. It’s weird, it’s wonderful, it’s sung in both English and Korean and it’s kind of a big deal. Dive in. Your life may never be the same.

Image is Everything

This isn’t surprising in Korea, where image is already important. In music videos, it’s ten times more important. Everything you can imagine is done to the maximum: hair, makeup, set and backgrounds and more than anything, fashion.  This is pretty similar to any culture, but this is Korean style. Dialed up, it can look crazy. Oh and most of the artists have huge budgets… so it just gets insane.

Example: Hyuna – Ice Cream

Coordinated Dancing Rules

Remember Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” and N*Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye”? How awesome were those dance moves? If you’re a fan of coordinated dance, then you’re already a fan of K-Pop and you don’t even know it yet. While the USA music video industry grew out of their coordinated dances phase, the K-Pop world just made them bigger and badder than ever.

Example: Girls’ Generation – I Got a Boy

Boy/Girl Bands

Did you notice how many girls were dancing in the last video? They weren’t all back up dancers… that was the actual group. Girls’ Generation is one of the most famous artists with a million people in it (okay, so there are nine) and the boy band EXO, between their Korean and Chinese members has 12 people. INSANE! Most groups are less, and the magic number seems to be about 6. And if you haven’t guessed this yet, yes, the Boy/Girl Bands and coordinated dancing pretty much go hand in hand.

Example: BEAST – Bad Girl

Single Girl Singers

The alternative to the groups, are the solo singers, which are almost entirely women, with few exceptions. They sing plenty of sad ballads about being heartbroken or lonely, but there’s always the occasional single girl mantra or happy song. These tend to come and go in fame, one hit wonder kind of artists, sadly. Some of them are extremely talented (even if their choice of ballad is not).

Example: Lee Hi – It’s Over

K-Pop Fans

I’m going to put this simply: K-Pop fans can be obsessed and insane. More than you’ve ever seen. Belieber fans on cocaine. It’s a little bit cult-like and people all over the world go crazy for K-pop. If you’re not 300% in love with an artist’s music, it may be more stressful than fun to go to a concert, since K-pop obsessed teenage girls are known to scream, push, kick and let nothing get in their way of a potential sighting of their idol. God help you if you’re accidentally in a public space when a K-Pop band shows up to do a signing and fan meet… you will not be able to move and your ears might break open.

Example: A news story about international K-Pop Fans, one of which shows off her tattoos of the group ‘Super Junior”

It’s a Machine

Here’s a fun fact: K-Pop celebrities are fully manufactured. Scouted out in elementary or middle school school, the label takes them under their wing and makes them “trainees”. For years. Rigorous singing, dancing, music, English, everything under the sun lessons and a full-time life dedication are required. For years. And then when the label decides you’re ready, you pop out into the popular music scene like an egg freshly hatched. Awww, so cute. Except kind of torturous…

Example: This guy that was a trainee explains his daily schedule (in English, don’t worry!).

G-Dragon

Yeah, you’ve heard of PSY and that’s great, but in order to know anything about K-Pop, you NEED to understand who G-Dragon is. He is the biggest deal, biggest name, most famous, most insane and most arrogant, with a lot of reason. He’s legend. In his earlier videos, he’s androgynous as all hell, why does he look like a woman now? A man? Who knows. He doesn’t care. Basically G-Dragon doesn’t care about anything, except for his music, which he makes incredible. I could keep explaining, or I could just make you watch this music video.

Example: G-Dragon – “미치Go” (or “Go Crazy”)

Because he’s G-Dragon, here’s a second video: G-Dragon – One of a Kind

Congratulations, you’ve just graduated from your crash course in Korean pop music! YouTube can provide all advanced lessons on the subject.

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What do you think of K-Pop, do you like it? Is it insane? Do you want to sign up to be a trainee and slave away for years, too?

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Foreign Movie Pick: “Friend” (2001)

Recently, I’ve been trying to watch some Korean movies. Mostly they’ve been okay, maybe a little too bloody (cough, cough, Tazza) or a little unrealistic, but enjoyable none-the-less. But this most recent movie really surprised me. Not only was it not way too bloody (just a little bit), but the story was pretty fascinating. Somehow, I actually enjoyed a movie about Korean gangsters, with little to no love story involved. Miracle.

The movie follows four friends as they grow up in Korea, and what they do with their lives (and how they diverge). Which is why the film is called “Friend” (or in Korean, 친구 / Chin-goo), of course. An obvious title for a not so obviously awesome movie.

Friendposter

So, I’m passing this movie on to you. Why would you watch it? Well…

Gangsters

I don’t know if you’re into gangsters or not, I’m not really, but Korean gangsters are interesting. When you think of seedy organized underground crime, you don’t really think about coordinated bowing and respect, but it’s actually a huge part of the gangster culture. At the same time that they bow to leaders, they also terrify me poopless. Impressive.

Historical References

You know how Korea went through that huge economic boom in like 50 years and it was crazy? Well you can watch a little bit of that transformation and really see the implications of it in the film. It chronicles friends growing up together, so you see bits of the 70s, 80s, 90s and a little of the new millennium. Maybe it’s just the nerd in me, but that’s COOL.

A Cool Girl Band Named ‘Rainbow’

Okay, so the scene is less than five minutes, but girl bands are freaking awesome. That’s all.

It’ll Make You Cry

I know, there’s no love story, so how will it make you cry? The movie is still fully based in relationships, but they’re just between friends. It gets deep. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, so I will say no more.

It’s Based On A True Story

The director wrote the film about his own friendships growing up, which sounds plausible now that you haven’t seen the film. But once you watch the movie, your mind will be blown that it really happened. Blown!

So, if you’ve never seen a Korean movie, then check this one out. It’s a little bloody, but still gets my vote, especially because it doesn’t revolve around a love plot. A breath of fresh movie air, yes? And to top it all off, you get a nice, interesting slice of Korean culture with it. Done deal.

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You Know You’ve Been in Korea Too Long When…

As an expat, Korea is a great country to live in. As an ESL teacher, it’s even better. Free housing, excellent pay, a low cost of living, a job that isn’t completely time consuming, other foreigners that you can relate to. The list could go on for ages. But it’s also a country that vastly different than the West, and if you don’t go home frequently enough, then it becomes easy to lose track of social norms and the correct spellings of complicated words. The slope gets even more slippery when you notice how easy it is to sign for a second year, or skip that visit home in exchange for a cheaper, more adventurous and booze-filled vacation in SE Asia.

So yeah, a lot of us (myself included) find ourselves in Korea maybe just a tad bit too long. Here are some tell-tale signs that you need to fly home and reacquaint yourself with Western culture, before it’s too late.

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You give your expat friends money with both hands.

Once you get into this habit, it’s hard to get out. I guess it can’t hurt to be extra respectful to your friends, even though you just look weird. Thank goodness your friends are expats and understand your struggles; you won’t find the same understanding at home.

You take “selcas” in public and send them to your Western friends. (And you call them “selcas”, not “selfies”.)

Everybody and their grandmother takes selfies in Korea, sometimes people take selfies with their grandmother. After a while you stop watching marathon selca sessions and start to just accept it. Then you try it out yourself. Then you like it. Then it becomes a problem because you don’t have anyone around you who’ll give you weird looks or just tell you to stop being so obsessed with yourself and put your damn phone away, you’re at the gym.

I can't be entirely sure, but I think that selfies with your dog are still culturally acceptable, though.
I can’t be entirely sure, but I think that selfies with your dog are still culturally acceptable. Right?

Excluding sleep, you haven’t spent more than an hour of the last day not looking at some kind of screen.

Good morning, check your phone. Open the computer with breakfast. Walk to work, or commute to work with your phone. Get to work, use the computer for things. Take a break and read a little on your Kindle. Remember that you haven’t played that cell phone dragon game in two days. Answer messages from a friend. Write a blog post. Go home and edit some photographs. Relax before bed with a Kindle. Oh my gosh, I need to get out of Korea before my brain turns to mush and my eyeballs stop working!

You become passionate about Dokdo.

I’ve read about the historical nuances of the territory dispute, and I get that it’s just a giant rock but in a strategic location. And I agree that based on the history, Dokdo should probably belong to Korea. But if you are not from Korea and feel really passionate about this subject, then you probably need to take a breather from propaganda and read about mass murders by drones or something. It’s still just a rock. And if you’re a foreigner, it’s not even yours.

You use the world “delicious” (or, worse, “deliciously”) without irony.

The word “delicious” used to sound kind of creepy, when not used in the correct context. Now I don’t even know what that context would be. I can’t even think of an alternate way to describe food, except for “good”. Last week, I wrote the word “deliciously” in one of my updates and I’m wondering if I should be ashamed about that, too.

Also unacceptable, the word "yammy".
Also unacceptable, the word “yammy”.

You not only drink the instant coffee, you like it.

If you were trained as a barista at some point, then this one applies doubly to you. There should be no circumstances in which sugary, milky, chemically not-coffee is drinkable. Unfortunately, us expats in Korea know that indeed, such circumstances exist and they no longer feel shameful.

You’re no longer upset that beef at the grocery store costs $10-15.

It’s outrageous. And if you’re not upset about it anymore, then you need a vacation. It’s outrageous, I say!

You group text your friends about grammar, because you can’t tell if a sentence is wrong or just awkward sounding.

You know it’s bad when you’ve been out of an English-speaking environment so long that your internal mother-tongue radar needs a recharge.

You stop giving warning to friends about upcoming events.

Everyone knows about Korean propensity to tell you ten minutes in advance about extra classes, cancelled classes or huge life changing events that are about to take place. When it’s rubbed off on you, that’s when you know you have a problem. Your friends back home will not appreciate this new trait if you don’t get it together and fight your urge to notify people of things at the last second.

"Hey guys, I'm going to Germany tomorrow, so can someone take care of Mary for the next two weeks?"
“Hey guys, I’m going to Germany tomorrow, so can someone take care of Mary for the next two weeks?”

You never type “haha”, only ㅋㅋㅋ.

Especially if you’re typing in English… you have to actually switch keyboards on your phone to do this. If this is you, please schedule your visit immediately.

When you want to search for something, you use Naver.

I rest my case.

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By virtue of even being able to make this list, I think I qualify as having been in Korea too long. Time to go home.

[In July 2014, did. It’s been hard.]

What kinds of weird quirks have you picked up that make you realize it may be time to get out of Korea? Do you disagree with any of these? Let me know in the comments!

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The Characters of Sambong

In a small town, it’s a given that you’ll see some people more than a few times and learn their face, even if you don’t know their name. In a teeny tiny rural Korean town with three roads, it’s even worse (or better?). There are some people that I see every single day, doing the same things, while I do the same things. Sometimes they talk to me, sometimes we just pass each other by with a head-nod of acknowledgement and sometimes it’s a new face, doing the same things the other old, similar face was doing. It’s kind of a weird way of life, but the people that live in my town are the pillars of my existence, in a sense. They make Sambong, my little town, what it is. They color my experience with entertainment and wonderment, causing me to simultaneously scratch my head and laugh hysterically in public.

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the characters, the faces, the Korean people of Sambong.

The Exercising Ajumma

Every morning I wake up earlier than the crack of dawn to run with my puppy. I walk to the school track and in the dark morning, through the darkness I always look for the moving shadow. The exercising ajumma is often the same woman, but sometimes a new face appears to do the exact same thing. She does a brisk walk for about 30 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes, and then does strange stretches for another five minutes before disappearing into the new daylight. Her signature stretch is arms raised in a V-shape above her head, holding a scarf taught between them, and twisting to either side. Another favorite is what I like to call the almost-falling-backward-onto-the-bed stretch, where she leans backwards, arms stretched out, as far as she can without falling over and holds the position. Do these stretches actually stretch? I’m not sure. But I would never question her.

The Avid Golfer

About ten minutes into my morning exercise routine, the avid golfer usually arrives. In his mid forties, he comes to the track in his running gear and with a golf club in hand. (I’m totally serious, this guy is real.) He does the same series of exercises: alternating between a brisk walk with the golf club, a (very) short jog with the golf club, some stretching with the golf club and then actually using the golf club for its intended purposes, by doing swinging practice in the nearby sand pit. His reasons for exercising at all are crystal clear.

This is what you've been missing in your exercise routine.
This is what you’ve been missing in your exercise routine.

The Gung-ho Crossing Guard

On one of the three roads in town sits my school and while there is some traffic in the morning, I’m not entirely convinced of the need for a crossing guard. Regardless, he is there every morning, bright and early, in his neon vest and military-style hat. He takes his job extremely seriously, swinging his stiff arms in quick succession; signifying to cars that yes, they may pass, even if no students are in sight, let along trying to cross the road. He reminds me of a robot, on occasion. As I walk closer to him on my way to work each morning, he swings his arm sharply up to his forehead into a salute, and yells “Good morning!”

The Farming Neighbor

This elderly man was clearly hot stuff back in the day, based on his charming smile and confident swag. I don’t see him everyday, but on the stretch of road between home and school, he sometimes walks around his fields or checks on piles of garlic (or potatoes or cabbage) that need to be sorted out for selling. When I see him, he smiles that devious old man smile, waves hello, asks about a random work in English (“pumpkin!”) or just gives up the facade and makes arm hearts at me.

The Sober Laborer

Korea has a bit of a social epidemic on their hands: all the women move to the city and all the men working menial jobs are left in the country, wife-less and bored. I live in a building of one-room apartments, which I’m sure you can imagine attracts exactly this kind of 40-year-old man. The sober laborer is many people who all do the same thing; they smoke, they wear their construction vest, and they stand outside between 6:10-6:25am waiting for the bus to work. All of them say hello to me, as if we’ve talked, because hey… there’s only one foreign girl with a dog in the area. They adore Mary, and frequently use her as an in to ask me weird questions that I don’t understand.

The laborers in the morning club, as seen from the roof.
The laborers in the morning club, as seen from the roof.

The Drunk Laborer

The drunk laborer usually appears outside of restaurants on Saturday and Sunday mornings, though occasionally he appears outside my apartment having a Saturday/Sunday picnic on the rolling table. He says things like “beautiful!” “pretty!” or the classic, “foreigner!” He adores my dog even more than usual. Last week the drunk laborer even gave me arm hearts, although usually he just slurs his words or stumbles down the road, going nowhere with a lit cigarette in hand. By evening, he’s ironically nowhere to be seen.

The Student Terrified of Dogs

Some students like puppies, but other students have this deep seeded, unexplainable terror for animals in general. As I approach, the student terrified of dogs will give Mary a wary eye, and as I get closer they’ll shy a little behind their friend, towards the street, away from me. When I get close and I let Mary sniff their feet (because I’m a jerk!), the student terrified of dogs inevitably lets out a high pitched scream, runs sideways or backwards off the sidewalk and never takes (usually) her eyes off of the scary, biting and drooling, flesh ripping thing that is my ten month old, ten pound puppy.

TERRIFYING.
TERRIFYING.

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White & Pretty in South Korea

A complete stranger: “Hello!”
Me: “안녕하세요.” (Hello.)
Stranger: “오! 한국어 잘 하시네요!” (Wow, you speak Korean very well!)

White, pretty, female privilege. What does it look like?

Two laborers, doing construction work: “Would you like some Makgeolli?” (Korean rice wine)
Me, walking past them on my way home: “No, I have to drive later. Thanks!”

How much of it is privilege and how much is simply a welcoming, kind culture?

Me, at the local coffee shop: “One waffle and one Americano.
Owner: “One thousand Won, please.” (About 95¢)

Are discounts because I’m foreign? Are they because I’m pretty? Are they because I’m white? Are they because I’m a “guest” in Korea, expected to leave within a year or so? Are they because I’m a girl? Is it simply because the shop is new and it’s my first time coming here?

A coworker’s mother-in-law’s funeral. As my coworkers each put money into an envelope for the family of the deceased, I realize I don’t have any cash.
My coworkers: “Oh no, you don’t need to give any money.”
Me: “Are you sure?”
Coworkers: “No, no, no. It’s fine.”

Should I feel grateful or ostracized, knowing that others likely won’t get the same treatment?

Walking around with my Korean boyfriend in Seoul. No one spits at, grimaces or insults us. No one assaults us. We are served a free soft drink at dinner, just because.

Which part of my foreign, female, and pretty identity exempts me from the idea that foreigners “dirty” the Korean race? Why do Western men and Korean women get treated differently, disdained while I walk around, unscathed?

An acquaintance of my boyfriend sees us together. Behind my back, he gives my boyfriend a thumbs up.

What part of my identity makes me a plus as opposed to a negative? If I was fatter, would the reaction be the same? If I was skinnier and less pretty, what then? What does it take to flip the scales and push me into “unwanted foreigner” territory? What if I was really from Russia, but looked the same? Would anyone notice?

My coworker: “Oh my gosh! I forgot to tell you about the staff picture! You aren’t in it!”

When should I insist on being treated the same, when it affects me negatively or when I’m served free food and drinks for my skin color? (Or is it my long eyelashes?) When I’m forgotten in the staff photograph or forgiven for missing the school assembly? If I put my foot down on special treatment, will that offend the Koreans I work with? The Koreans I meet? Would they listen?

I don’t take put any kimchi on my plate during lunch. No one says anything.

Can I ever be anything other than just an “other”, even with my culturally desirable white skin, skinny body, pretty face and fluency in English? I spend time understanding Korean culture and learning Korean, but is it enough to be accepted? If I speak fluent Korean, will that be enough?

I fear not.

Should I be upset about it?

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Those that came before me:

Understanding Racism in Korean on Seoulistic

A Huge Cloud of Shiny Whiteness: On Being White and Privileged in South Korea on The Unlikely Expat

“Because you’re foreign…” Western, White and English privilege in Korea by Sarah Shaw

“Be White” on Scribblings by The Metropolitician

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You can find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page, on Twitter & Instagram or you can subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

Conversations With Firat: Turkish in Germany

We sat ourselves down at a sushi restaurant in the nice part of Berlin. The waiter came out, speaking in his unmistakably accented German, and gave us the typical welcome and a few menus. The avenues of Charlottenburg are well kept and built to impress, and I eyed the well-dressed Germans as they walked down the street, scouting out a table of their own.

Next to me sat Claudia, a native Austrian and across from me was Firat. He’s a third generation Turk who’s lived in Berlin for his entire life. His parents grew up in Germany, as well. We met each other years ago, when he was a foreign exchange student at my high school in the United States. When I booked my plane ticket to Berlin, he was one of the first people I contacted: “Guess where I’m going on vacation, let’s meet up!” So after a many-years-long hiatus, we resumed a friendship certainly not where it had ended, but somewhere new. And on that day, we resumed with Japanese sushi.

Yum. Sushi.
Yum. Sushi.

The waiter, certainly foreign himself, began a friendly conversation and asking those basic questions. He started with me, as my accent was the most noticeable and asked where I was from, what I was doing in Berlin, how long I planned to stay, etc. Next was Claudia, who has an easy to mark Austrian accent. The way we’d pick someone out from the South in Philadelphia, he picked up on her twang right away and inquired about her situation in Berlin. When he got to asking Firat, the native Berliner, he asked a simple “So how do you know them? You are all friends from before?” before dropping a small, but significant question.

“So, where are you from?”
“I’m from Germany.”
*pause* “Germany?”
“Yes. I’m from Germany.”

“Firat, do you hear the question all the time?”
“Always. And I always say I’m from Germany. Because I am.”

That conversation got me thinking about identity and immigration and foreign countries, which are things that I often think about because I’m that kind of nerd. The Turkish/German situation has been a running affair for years, and while there are certainly some underlying opinions that some Germans hold dear, it’s not the kind of issue you notice while walking down the street. What you do notice, though, is when you’ve entered a “foreign” district. There are certain neighborhoods in Berlin (and I’m sure in most major cities of Germany), that house most of the foreigners, many of whom are Turkish. Suddenly every second person on the sidewalk is dark skinned and definitely non-Aryan. And this bothers some Germans, who avoid these areas like a ghetto. They are disturbed that there’s suddenly a mosque and five Turkish grocery stores in the same block.

But what I’ve learned from Firat is that Turkish immigrants often can’t get housing anywhere else. They apply for an apartment and are turned down, because of their immigrant status. They don’t have much of a choice except to live in these foreigner districts. Which would obviously make it much more difficult to practice/learn German, which is a common complaint of Germans who like to complain about immigrants. You can see the cycle here; it doesn’t take a genius.

German and Turkish.
Firat speaks German and Turkish fluently, as well as his parents.

I saw a lot of foreigners, particularly people who looked to be of Turkish descent, everywhere. The subway, the train station, restaurants, you name it. But what I didn’t see was even more remarkable: Turkish people speaking Turkish with each other. I can name only one instance in my eight days in Berlin, during which I heard Turkish people speaking a language other than German with each other. I expected something different, of course. When I see my foreign friends in Korea, even if we are both practicing and learning Korean, we speak English. Yet these Turkish-Germans spoke (accented) German with each other in nearly every single situation I was able to witness, despite the fact that they could just as easily speak their mother tongue, gain some lingual privacy and possibly convey their feelings more accurately. To put it lightly, I was surprised. Very surprised.

And so (from my admittedly limited experience), I have to say that I can’t really see what some Germans are complaining about, at least not in Berlin. I’ve never been so surprised by a population of immigrants and their attempt to fit in, just from what I’ve witnessed in my short time. It seems as though the Turkish people I witnessed knew that learning German was important to the culture they were in, and did something about it. As for the mosques, Turkish grocers and restaurants, those are all commonplace for any immigrant population. (And do Germans really want all the delicious Turkish food to disappear? What are they going to do without their doner kababs if they force Turkish people out, who don’t speak good enough German and haven’t “properly” assimilated? Tragedy!)

No one should ever have to give this up. Source
No one should ever have to give this up. Source

I don’t even want to get started on Germans in Argentina, or Germans in the USA, or Germans in Brazil or any of the countless other places where Germans have been the ones clinging onto their culture in a foreign land: German villages, newspapers, restaurants and neighborhoods. I’ll just mention that it happened multiple times in the past. In the end, every country is just a bunch of foreigners to someone else and we’ve all moved into other people’s territory at one point or another throughout history and attempted to make it feel a little bit more like home.

After all, Firat, Claudia and I were sitting around in a sushi restaurant in the middle of Charlottenburg, the uppity neighborhood of Berlin. Imagine the hole it would leave, if Turkish people were to disappear and immigration had been tightened up all along to keep that population more Aryan. To preserve Germany, as some might argue.

I, for one, would be sitting at a table eating who-knows-what and looking at an empty seat. There would be a good friend missing from the situation (and I’m not talking about my good friend sushi, though that would also be a tragedy). My German friend from high school would be lacking. My German friend, Firat.

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Marriage: the Solution to Everything

“Teacher, where is Mary?”
“At home.”
“Alone?”
“Yes, everyday, sadly. I have to work.”
“Teacher, you should get married quickly.”
“Why?”
“So you can be with Mary.”

This conversation caught me by surprise, the way every conversation that unexpectedly segues into marriage does. It seems to happen to me much more often than you think. For some reason, my students are constantly reminding me that 1) I’m not married and 2) I should be married, and soon. I’m not surprised by the sentiment among young kids; in a family-centered culture that also celebrates 12 informal couples holidays throughout the year, it should be anticipated that 13-year-olds are spewing everything out of their mouth that they’ve ever heard, without thinking about what it is they’re actually saying. Middle school is interesting in that aspect: they’ve absorbed nearly everything they’ve been told to do, memorized the reasons why, but haven’t quite hit the point where they reason through it all and decide for themselves. They’re, in a weird way, robots of Korean culture.

So throughout my past year, I’ve begun a number of conversations just to find myself assaulted, once again, with the m-word.

“Teacher, you should get married very soon!”
“Why?”
“So you can have a happy life!”

The interesting thing about many of these conversations is that I constantly have to ask, “Why?” My students always assume that I agree with the sentiment. They’re usually taken aback when I ask for their reasoning and then when I explain why I disagree with getting married so I can get a puppysitter (or puppysit myself), for example, it never quite registers with them.

“But I already live a very happy life, I’m very happy.”
“But if you get married, you could be more happy!”

They can’t possible wrap their heads around the idea that getting married isn’t on my immediate to do list. They’re oblivious to the fact that marriage isn’t always rainbows and butterflies and I love yous and cooing your baby to sleep. They assume that alone means unhappy, and no one could possible want that. That’s just absurd. But beyond this, they see marriage as this set of positives that magically fall upon your life as soon as you say “I do” and pop out a child.

This is what your faces will look like forever, after our wedding!
This is what our faces will look like forever, after our wedding!

Some of these include: staying home and being supported financially (and blissfully) by your husband (or supporting your wife so she can stay home and cook/clean), unconditional everlasting love, happiness at all times, and general fulfillment as a person. I could stay home with my puppy, not have to work, live in a big house he pays for, have time to fly home and see my family, make my husband plan and buy everything for me, have him drive me everywhere, and be happier than I am. These expectations are simply farce.

There’s not a hint of reality in their ideas, and it concerns me. Why is marriage a solution to a myriad of “problems” that may or may not need “solved”? When I think about how to take care of my dog and what I could do to spend more time with her, marriage isn’t one of the options I contemplate. The jump of logic is frightening to me. I worry that my students will grow up, oblivious to the reality of getting married (compromise, commitment, bad days and good) and be disappointed with their life when the truth slaps them in the face.

South Korea isn’t the only country in the world that emphasizes marriage. In the USA, I wouldn’t be surprised if little boys and girls also dream of having an engagement ring and walking down the aisle into the arms of someone they love. However, I don’t think that US culture focuses so much on the same benefits, such as the staying at home, the financial support, the stuff he buys. I think the US concept is based a little more heavily on the wedding itself: looking beautiful, wearing the dress and the rings, announcing to the world that you’re in love forever, never having to look again.

Here's a closeup, so you can count the diamonds.
Here’s a closeup, so you can count the diamonds.

Maybe it’s even worse to focus on the material part of a single day of your life, and it’s certainly just as disillusioned about the realities of being married, but I am still more horrified by the concept in South Korea. The things my kids describe feel more like I should apply and try to get accepted for a credit card.

  • If you shop at these stores (husband approved), your purchase will be free
  • 2x the happiness for every hour spent
  • 0.0% chance of infidelity for your first year
  • If you have a baby within three months, earn a 4x happiness bonus

I suppose what I’m trying to say is this: marriage isn’t a solution to anyone’s problems, and certainly not mine. Marriage isn’t going to automatically make my life easier or better or happier. And frankly I’m just exhausted by answering my students’ inquiries on the subject, which are often for trivial reasons or none at all. I sincerely hope that a Korean drama comes out soon that doesn’t end in a proposal, or focuses on a challenging but happy marriage, or otherwise gives my students something other than the cookie-cutter glittery “marriage! yay! happiness!” image. I hope, I hope and I hope that they can get a realistic view on weddings and lifelong promises, and before it’s too late.

“Teacher, you should get married soon.”
“Why?”
“Because.”

“Alright, I’ll work on that.”

Are you a teacher in South Korea? Do your students constantly tell you to get married too? How do you respond?

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iPhone Photoessay: Cats of Istanbul

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Istanbul is huge: it covers three separate land masses and is filled with a seriously diverse bunch of people. Each neighborhood has a distinct feel and you could easily stay for a lifetime and keep it interesting. But there’s one thing that all areas have in common: street cats. A lot of them.

They are well fed by restaurant and store owners that set out food and take care of them. Many are friendly. Most just want to sit near the heat lamps you have set up near your table and eat the scraps that fall off your plate. Some are particularly adorable and many can be found in the most surprising of places. Enjoy the photographs.

Continue reading iPhone Photoessay: Cats of Istanbul

Reflections on One Year in Korea

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The country I knew nothing about before arriving on an airplane, one day in June: South Korea.

Before I left for Korea, I had little idea what I was getting myself into; actually, let’s be honest, I had none. I thought that by learning Hangeul ahead of time (the Korean writing system) and just being a flexible person would get me through whatever I needed to handle. I even read a book about Korean culture, which turned out to be barely helpful. While I’ve survived, clearly, a lot of those assumptions that I’d have an easy adjustment were oh so wrong. Korea is a roller coaster that’s been rocking my world for the past year… and will be for another six months, at least.

Continue reading Reflections on One Year in Korea