Today is Children’s Day here in Korea, which can only mean one thing for me. Despite my recent career change, I had a class of kindergarteners today. Miyoung’s friend Stella is an ajumma who runs an English study group for her daughter and her friends’ children. Two years ago Stella asked my wife if I’d be able to teach a special Childrens’ Day class for the group. Guess what she said.
At that time I was in full-on nest-egg mode and I thought nothing of teaching a class on a holiday. I didn’t even really mind spending an hour or two after class eating a special Childrens’ Day lunch of junk food and bad Korean cake. Hey, free potato pizza is still free pizza, right?
The problem is that now I’m sort of trying to put my past life behind me. I’m cutting out the English teaching because it’s time to move on, plain and simple.
Unfortunately one of the perennial problems that one faces here is sense failure. Koreans often talk about ‘nunchi’ or,as they translate it, ‘sense’. Basically it translates to the ability to sense what other people are feeling. While Koreans like to make a big deal of this and imply that they have some sort of special skill in this area, I chalk this up to what I like to call protest-too-muchity. Since ‘sense’ is particularly lacking in Korea, with people tending to disregard or misread people’s real feelings very often, anybody who exhibits ‘sense’ becomes all the more noteworthy. Compare this to the insistence that seats on buses and subways be given up to the old and infirm. This is often cited as proof of korea’s courtesy, whereas I rather think that the fact that so much is made of it underscores the fact that it is the exception rather than the rule, and that people on the street are in fact often shockingly rude to each other. The rarer the trait, the more noteworthy it is sure to become.
So thanks to sense failure, nobody thinks that perhaps I wouldn’t like to spend my national holiday relaxing instead of doing a job I fought tooth an nail to get out of. And so for the past three years I have spent half of this holiday which occurs at the most beautiful time of the year indoors with children who are salivating in anticipation of cake and fried chicken gone cold. The worst thing about is that Stella’s daughter is that kid, you know the kid who instinctively launches kicks to my groin, rubs grubby hands on my clean shirt, and screams in my ears the whole class. Her mother is, of course, too busy teaching to pay any attention to her, and the level of respect for me as a teacher and as a human being in general is shockingly low, as low as it often is for an English teacher in this country.
I want to talk about two things in this post, and the general failure of adult Koreans to recognize the fact that their children should probably learn to respect foreigners as human beings is not one of those things. The first one is the uncanny Korean desire to give and give. I’ve discussed this with some Koreans who have suggested that perhaps this is more to do with my wife than Korea itself, but I have noticed a genral trend going on for years, and it is definitely somethiing that has even permeated me. Whenever we have any sort of windfall, whether it be found money, a gift, a surprise bonus, or, as in this case, a day off, it may very well be given away. I remember the Chuseok before I met my wife I received a box of seaweed (gim) as a holiday gift. I spent the entire holiday in my apartment eatening seaweed omelettes alone and loving it. Cut to the next Chuseok. I got the same box of seaweed, showed it to my wife and *BAM* it was my gift to my future mother-in-law, simple as that. Slow on the uptake, I figured it was because she likes seaweed more than me, and I failed to realize that was the way it was going to be from now on. Now, years later, I know the drill and have even come to embrace it. When my mom sent a box of Easter candy to us, we divvied it up into piles for her friends, my friends, her students, her family, and finally ourselves. I like it because I’m constantly looking for cultural institutions that make me less of an animal, and I can’t think of any single trait of mine so beastly as my greed for food. Transmuting greed for oneself into a love of sharing (ie a greed on behalf of one’s in-group) is exactly the kind of thing that would appeal to me.
Incidentally, I can’t remember where I read it but I distinctly recall reading a theory that said that one of the reasons that there was very little merchant activity in the Chosun period was that there was little incentive to get rich since family obligations would require you to divide up nearly all your gains among myriad shiftless family members. It certainly makes sense to me. I no longer experience any pleasure when receiving any sort gift, except the pleasure of having something to give.
The other thing I wanted to talk about was the sandwich I had at the after party. It consisted of white bread with the crusts cut off, a sort of mashed potato with diced boiled egg whites, onions, ham, corn, and bell peppers mixed into it on one piece of bread, and blueberry jam on the other. It was so weird that I had to have three just to make sure it was real.