for me, visiting korea is an experience that is difficult to classify. i speak the language well enough to get around and i understand the culture well enough not to make any horrible gaffes, yet i am somehow neither tourist nor local. obviously, being a korean person, i look the part, unlike most of the americans who visit korea. i know to remove my shoes when i go into a restaurant or, oddly enough, the dentist's office (don't worry, i didn't have some kind of orthodontic emergency, i was taking my little cousin to get FIVE cavities filled... girlfriend needs to chill out on the candy). i know how to ask for directions and to bow when i meet new people. i always receive and pour drinks with two hands. i try my best to use the formal kind of korean when i speak with elders and the casual kind of korean when i speak with people my age. i am completely comfortable wandering around seoul on my own using the super-easy subway system.
yet i'm still a visitor. the way i think, the way i see things, the way i relate to people -- all american. when i spend a lot of time with older, more traditional relatives, i have to shift my personality a bit to fit in. i force a smile when my grandmother worries about the fact that i'm not married, i eat rice and soup for breakfast when what i'd rather have is a coffee and a bagel, i make my body sleep on the floor with a small bean-filled pillow under my head, i don't stay out too late, i call often when i'm out on my own. it's definitely an effort and sometimes i feel like i'm playing a part... yet i don't mind because i'm visiting their home, their place and i have to respect their ways.
when you look at the history of korea, they come off like the little brother who has always been bullied by his bigger, more powerful neighbors. a long history of being invaded, pillaged, controlled, annexed and taken advantage of has created an intense nationalistic pride and a generally obsessive population and a desperate need to succeed. koreans are hard core about everything. they study hard core, they play hard core, they work hard core, nothing is subtle. you see 70-year-old grandmas decked out in hiking gear on the subway and 13 year olds studying until 2 am. to say that education is important is a ridiculous understatement as everyone, EVERYONE obsesses over whether they will be admitted into a prestigious university. the pressure is intense and it seems like they have few outlets to blow off steam.
in my continued effort to try and be a tourist in korea, next week i think i might make the trek up to the north korean border. it's a place of obvious historic significance, yet i've never been there. i'll try and blog about the experience.