Currently, I’m working in an English cafe in Busan, South Korea. If you aren’t sure what a job like that entails, the main idea is pretty simple: people come to the cafe to have conversations in English with foreign volunteers (who are fluent English speakers from a variety of different countries).
The ages of those that attend the cafe can range from middle, high school, or university students, graduates, and adults looking to either relocate for work or to simply raise their English language level in order to have access to better opportunities later on ~ either way, everyone is there to better their conversational English. They sign up, from what I understand, for a “course” that can range from a different number of weeks depending on how much they wish to improve. I’ve had people who come everyday Monday thru Friday, or people who simply come on the weekends when they have free time away from their jobs. I’ve talked to many students who have taken time off school just to go to an academy to study English, while also attending the cafe regularly.
Sessions are split into ninety minutes, with a fifteen minute break in between each session. Normally, the first session is dedicated to covering topics that fall under the branch of “small talk,” (work, hobbies, school, traveling, etc.) while the second and third sessions can be structured by questions given to all the volunteers on a sheet of paper (though, most people don’t even bother to look at them). Topic sheets range in subjects from religion to clothing to animals, meaning that there are some question sheets that easily triumph others.
It’s my second week at the cafe (right? I don’t know, time works differently for me here – I have trouble telling how long I’ve been anywhere because the days feel so much longer, though I’m never bored), and I’ve discussed similar subjects with a lot of different people. Now, it is at the point where I’ve either confirmed things I already knew (about either America or Korea), or I’ve managed to pinpoint a particular pattern of thinking that I previously wouldn’t have guessed.
Here are a few statements/observations I’ve taken since I started working (and please note that these statements are still generalizations of the types of conversations I’ve had and in no way am I stating these are beliefs shared by all Koreans):
- Texas = Texas Chainsaw Massacre. At this point, I make a point of asking everybody I talk to what they know about Texas purely because I’m on a roll when it comes to receiving this answer. If they don’t immediately bring up that horror movie, they ask if I, A) know the Texas Rangers, or B) if I know the player Shin-Soo Choo who plays for the Texas Rangers. The answer to both of those questions initially was a resounding “No.”
- America is not safe. Guns have been brought up a lot in conversation, mostly by those who have never traveled to America and want to do so at some point in their lives. Based on the news, I guess the thinking here is that everyone in America either has a gun, or is in danger of being shot by anyone at any given time. I understand this to an extent, especially because South Korea is ranked the #1 Safest Country in the World (at least based on some websites that a student and I sifted through), so the safety level of any other country would seem questionable – especially America. On a different note though, I have to agree with how safe Korea is. I have not once ever questioned my actions when I either go somewhere alone, or walk around at night by myself. When I wandered down to the Minimart around the corner from the house to grab a late night snack, I never once thought of how unsafe it might be for me to walk alone at night. I actually ran into another girl walking back home during my trek to find ice cream. I haven’t been as on guard while I’ve been here, and I don’t know if that’s at all symptom to comfortability in the environment I’ve ended up in, or if it’s because I’m naive (though I don’t think it’s the latter). When I explained to two Korean women that in America you can’t walk around at night alone, they nodded gravely, but nodded in a way as if to say “that’s too bad.” I walked them through the process of what it’s like to be a woman day to day: don’t walk in parking lots late at night, have your phone in hand just in case, hold your keys like this if you feel at all uncomfortable by your surroundings…the list goes on and on. The two women laughed, and asked if it was because of all the guns that women had to be careful in public. It was so strange to explain because most of these “survival” tips to me are so inherently ingrained in my psyche that I believed them to be universal. Maybe not.
- You can be shot anywhere in America. This goes along with the previous statement, but I bring it up separately because of a discussion I had with a father whose son wanted to study at university in California. He said that he wanted his son to go because it would mean he could have a chance to be successful, but he was really worried about America’s gun problem. He asked me if it was common to see guns in daily life, and whether it was common for people to be shot in the street. It was odd, because while I know America has a gun control problem, this man was genuinely nervous about his son going to America because he thought he would be shot. I tried to tell him that it’s not at all like that in reality, that the chances of his son ever encountering either someone with a gun, or have someone threaten him with one were slim to none. But, it didn’t matter.
- LGBTQA+I don’t know if this is simple my own doing, but I’ve yet to bring up the LGBT community in any conversation, just because I’m not sure how well it would go over. It’s yet to be mentioned or anything, which to me, is interesting because it’s such a popular topic of conversation in America. My friend has yet to bring it up at the cafe either – all other subjects are on deck to be discussed, from politics to religion – but sexuality? Feels a bit iffy at times.
- There are no house parties. While I do know that Greek life at university is a very American thing, apparently house parties don’t exist here either. I guess it makes sense in the scheme of things, but I want to say there’s more respect for one’s household here. One girl asked, “Why would I want to invite people over to drink where I live?” with this tone that made me realize how ludicrous the idea is to begin with. Do people hate their homes in America? Why would you openly invite people over to destroy it? Here, if you want to go drink with friends, you go out to a restaurant or bar – and people do this nearly everyday. This is a side note, but I had an older man (in his forties) tell me that drinking alone is a sign of alcoholism while drinking with your company (nearly everyday) is normal. This was shortly after I explained that I didn’t really like going out to drink, but preferred to stay home and have a glass of wine every now and then and watch a movie – apparently this is depressing. Who knew?
- Female soccer players are rare. Whenever I tell anyone that I used to play soccer they always ask for clarification if I really mean soccer (“Like, where you kick the ball?!”). People are always weirdly impressed, and when I tell them that playing a sport long term is a pretty common occurrence in America (even for women), they are still confused by the idea of it. Most of the women I’ve talked to climb for exercise here (either going hiking, or rock climbing), while the men are often the one’s who play team oriented sports. Oh, and badminton. Why do so many people play badminton?
- Marvel 10/10! Iron Man! Wow! I’ve actually had more women say that they love Marvel movies than men (is it because of the characters, I mean, Tony Stark is a popular choice), while men have said they enjoy romantic movies (I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man in America openly and proudly tell someone they enjoy drama and romance) more often than any other genre. The movie, Begin Again, with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo has also been brought up a number of times – almost to the point where I feel like I need to watch it in order to understand what its massive appeal in South Korea is.
- Where are you from? Specifically though. This was pointed out to me yesterday by an older man. He asked why it was that when you ask an American where they are from, instead of saying America, they always respond with their state or city instead. This made me realize that whenever I ask people where they are from at the cafe, they always say, “Oh, I was born in South Korea” and then I have to ask the follow up question of what city they were born in, or if they’ve always lived in Busan. Do Americans always respond with a state name? I’m guilty of doing so.
- People study English to move abroad. Unfortunately, I’ve heard this sentiment more often than not, and understand that the pressure to succeed in this country is relentless. I want to research and write more about this subject, because I’m dumbing it down quite a bit right now, but from what you probably already knew and could gather, money is more important than enjoyment when it comes to jobs. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize this until much later, and regret their career choices. I’ve heard from quite a few individuals that they have to learn English so they can move to a different country that has better working conditions for its employees. Working over ten hours a day seems to be the norm, as well as a lower pay grade. I’ve watched too many people hesitate after I ask if they enjoy their jobs, then quickly justify that they enjoy the money they receive instead.
- It’s impressive if you can eat spicy food. One of the main reasons I decided to come to Korea is because of the abundance of spice in their dishes. While Korean food is more along the lines of a sweet spicy rather than a smokier spicy like Mexican food, there is still a significant amount almost comparable to the burning sensation from eating I’m beginning to miss. When I tell people I love spicy food they are always impressed, and I’m not sure if it’s because of the fact that foreigner’s are known for not liking/not being able to handle spicy food, or if it’s because Korea’s version of spicy is something I haven’t encountered yet but the Korean people I talk to assume I have. Yesterday after work, a few of us (volunteers and students) went out to get Tonkatsu at a restaurant near the cafe. My friend and I insisted on getting the spicier version of the dish, which was pretty spicy, but it wasn’t until later when one of the students brought out the spiciest sauce they had available that I finally got a taste of really good spicy Korean (or really Japanese) food. My friend and I continued to dunk the pork pieces in the sauce and the kid laughed at us (“Woah, you must really like spicy food!”) because we were so happy to eat something that made our noses run. Honestly though, I feel like I need to convince people at restaurants that I can handle their spiciest dish…and even if I can’t, I at least want to try it and see. I mean, hey, I’m not from up east in America where everything is bland and covered in butter and milk.
- Americans don’t care about how they look. I can’t even argue with this statement, because I wholeheartedly believe it. One girl said that while in America she noticed people were proud of who they were as individuals, but they didn’t show it in the way they presented themselves; while in Korea, everyone dresses so fashionably for fear of what their peers would think of them if they did not. While looking 1000% the majority of the time would be more stressful than not, I wish that Americans could take note that self-grooming and taking care of your body is not a waste of time.
- Australia > South Korea. People love Australia here. Why? Animals + open spaces + nature + people’s mentality + relaxing environment. Same answer every time.
As I continue work, I’ll probably add more to this list, but so far in the last week, these are twelve of the statements I’ve heard the most often. Wild.