Sunday, October 31, 2010

Human interactions can be hilarious

My nature is shy and introverted and perfectionist. If you catch me at the right moment, sitting in Starbucks or at a park reading All Story, my favorite literary journal, you might get a glimpse of this more introspective girl. I will get wrapped up in the story, laugh, and occasionally look up to ponder something the author has just written. I will be having a constant inner dialogue. If it’s a particularly well-written story, my disposition will change based on the scene being described. When you see me drawing, or walking down the street listening to music, you might recognize that I am perfectly happy to be alone.

And while I am perfectly happy to be alone, over the years I have come to value human relationships more. Often in a comfortable and familiar setting, I am fairly passive when it comes to meeting new people. I’ve learned to be a bit more outgoing, and living abroad by myself has pushed this to the extreme. Now I actively seek out genuine, honest, down-to-earth, laid back people, who are like me but challenge me.

Throughout my experience of meeting different types of people. I’ve become better at reading people and judging from first impressions, body language, and attitude if I will get along with someone. I have also come to thoroughly enjoy other people’s interactions.

Names have been removed from the following example to protect the unaware.

One evening out, while sitting at the bar, I was introduced to my friend, J---’s close friend, H--- and two girls that were acquaintances of J---’s. Particularly attractive, especially for an Asian, H--- spent much of the night scanning the bar for women, despite having two interested girls, M--- and G---, sitting right next to him. My first observations of H--- established him as intelligent, confident, aloof, and aware that girls find him attractive.

After spending a bit of time talking to J--- and getting acquainted with H---, I went to talk to the girls, M--- and G---. They taught at an art school, and I wondered if I could possibly make some good connections. While this didn’t pan out because the school mainly taught performance arts, I gained quite a bit of entertainment from the situation that followed our brief conversation.

I sat down between M--- and H--- at the bar, and M--- quickly told me that H--- was her boyfriend in a flirty, cute way. Because I didn’t know either of them, I accepted this statement at face value and quickly suggested that maybe we should switch seats, so she could sit next to H---. She shook her head coyly and said it was alright. Then, she looked at H--- and asked him to give her a kiss while gesturing to her cheek. At this point, I just thought perhaps she was a slightly territorial girlfriend that was a bit nervous to have me sit between them but not willing to take my seat from me.

After a few retrospectively hilarious minutes of H--- denying her a kiss, and M--- letting me know she wasn't actually his girlfriend, she was just flirting, I got up to go to the restroom. Because H--- had seemed moderately interested in her, though he didn’t want to lean over me and kiss her on the cheek, I suggested that she sit next to him, of course, in order to flirt more properly. When I exited the restroom and looked across the bar, M--- was sitting next to H---, hugging his arm while H--- scanned the room. For all intents and purposes it was as if the girl hanging on him was invisible.

As I walked back over to the group, I laughed.

Disregarding the comfort of either party, it was quite a comical scene.

Picture it. An attractive male, uninterested in the girl hanging on him and talking up a storm, while the girl is completely oblivious to his obvious lack of interest. The situation appeared as a caricature of similar situations that happen all the time.

Because of the new seating arrangement, M--- having occupied my old seat, I chose to sit on the other side of H---, next to J---. H--- continued to scan the room and occasionally make comments to M---, while I shared my observation with J---. As soon as M--- left to go to the restroom, H--- quickly turned to J--- and me and said, “She keeps trying to get me to kiss her.”

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I told her I was shy.”

I laughed and said, “You are not shy.”

“But I am.”

“No, you aren’t. I can tell. You just aren’t interested in her, right?”

He admitted to having been interested from afar, but upon closer observation he had lost interest. Regardless of why he suddenly lost interest in the girl, I was quite entertained by his extreme change in body language, and let him know that I could tell he wasn't interested in her because he was scanning the room.

While this exact scenario has not occurred again, I have run into H--- on other occasions, and observed him looking up from his conversations for extended periods of time to glance around the room. Because most guys are a little less picky or a little less obvious about their lack of interest, it has been quite entertaining to run into H---. It almost seems like a bit of a performance, and I have let him know how hilarious I think his interactions are.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The frustrating experience of not knowing enough of the language to make yourself understood in an efficient way.

For some reason, this week has been abnormally busy, and I have been abnormally hungry. Perhaps it is the preparations for Halloween. Perhaps it is the way the week began. Perhaps it’s the weather which has suddenly turned colder. Whatever the case, I have not been able to or made the effort to prepare my dinner before work like usual.

Not having dinner made has meant I have been eating sandwiches from the local bread shop. Koreans do not consider a sandwich a real or healthy meal because it does not involve rice or kimchi and Russians considered sandwiches junk food because they don’t take much time to prepare. These perspectives seem a bit perplexing to me even though I know them because in Idaho, a sandwich, homemade or otherwise is viewed as a much better choice than some of the other options out there for a quick meal on the go. But, this is perhaps the crux of the issue. Americans want quick food on the go, and in both Russia and Korea, each meal is viewed as a time to sit and relax, not just stuff your face with food.

A couple days I have been chilled to the bone and decided a “cold lunch” consisting of a sandwich was not going to cut it.

One of these days I had instant noodles, which I consider junk food – most contain 89% of your daily value of sodium, which is honestly ridiculous.

The other day, I grabbed Korean fast food across the street from the school. When I walked into the restaurant, all the women looked up and stood up and rushed to help me, or so it seemed. I started saying the word for the soup I wanted, and the woman helping me interrupted and finished the word for me. Seriously, the best way to shut down a language beginner is to jump in too quickly. I nodded in agreement with what she said, and then tried to express that I needed it to go. I had no idea how to do this, so I motioned toward the school. The woman then told me I needed to order two servings for this. Then asked, "Where?"

I was confused.

She wanted to know the name of my hagwon (academy), and I realized that she thought I wanted it delivered.

I was hungry, had been shut down in my attempt to ask for the food, and a bit frustrated. I needed the food quickly. I only have half an hour for dinner, and I was starving. I tried not to show my frustration, but anyone who knows me will know that for some reason I have never been able to succeed in the endeavor to hide emotions.

While I told the woman the name of my hagwon, after I realized the situation, I gave up on Korean and said, “No, no … I will take it.” Motioning to myself and motioning that I would take it. After I repeated this in as many different ways as my starving brain could muster and was about to give up, the woman finally said, “Oooh, take out?” Ha! Figures. Koreans use the English phrase, and I hadn’t even thought to try it. In fact, those words hadn’t even crossed my mind. I nodded in agreement, lit back up, and jumped back to what Korean I know, saying, “Neeeey.” Which means, “Yes.”

As I was sitting and waiting for my food, one of the women talked about me in Korean. She wondered if I knew Korean. You would think by the ridiculous performance that had just occurred, she would understand that if I knew any Korean, it definitely wasn’t enough to help me get by yet. Then she asked in English, “Do you know Korean?” I replied, “No. Well … a little, chogum.

These women talked to me and about me a bit more, were pleased when I told them I wanted kimchi, adeptly wrapped my food in plastic wrap, and smilingly said “Bye-bye” as I walked out the door.

While the experience was frustrating at first, their efforts and attitudes make me want to go back and explore fumbling around with Korean some more and maybe even try some new foods.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Speaking Russian in Korea: A cure for homesickness

Sunday when I woke up it was rainy, dreary, and the leaves were beginning to change colors and drop from the trees onto the damp ground, creating a soggy mess of what should be fall. Homesickness began to bud, so I decided to dwell in it and make pancakes. By early afternoon this nurtured bud had flowered into a lump. Everywhere else but here, it seemed, fall is crisp with red and green and gold leaves. Recently, I saw pictures of Muscovites at the park with huge, dry, crisp, colored maple leaves. Imagining the smell of dry autumn leaves, the feel of the sun, warm on my face, and a slight chill in the air, I put on a sweater and almost heard the crunch of leaves underfoot. As I delved deeper into my memories and imagination and further away from Ulsan, I imagined hot chocolate, a fireplace in the evening, maybe a bit of vodka and some Russian. I was in heaven. When I walked outside into the mild, wet weather, reality hit.

My heart dropped.

This is not the fall I love. Missing Russia and Idaho, I sulked.

After my day of fighting homesickness and missing Russia I had an interestingly serendipitous moment.

As if I had stumbled into a dream.

It began with a search for material for my Halloween costume. I ventured over to Ulsan’s old downtown via bus. While on the bus, I derived brief satisfaction from understanding the Korean announcement of my stop, and I briefly compared it to understanding the metro in Moscow. I know I’m finally making progress with language skills when small battles like these are won. I hopped off the bus at my stop and began walking in the general direction of where I remembered seeing a fabric shop. I hadn’t walked ten steps from the bus stop, when I noticed a group of foreign guys. They stuck out, as we non-Asians always do. A bit nervous about the seemingly inevitable encounter, I momentarily entertained the idea of darting across the street to avoid talking to them. Again, this is the Kim that is shy and sometimes doesn’t make an effort to say hello to people she knows. My hesitation to make a run for it meant that suddenly they were in front of me.

With a heartwarmingly genuine smile on his face, a man I would later know as Dima said, «Ты русская?» “You’re Russian?” In shock, but on my game with the Russian that is always swimming in my head, I laughed and answered in Russian, «Ниет. Я американка.» “No, I’m American.” They gaffed and laughed and insisted that I was Russian. I laughed more and was so relieved after my day of homesickness to run into a group of Russians that felt so familiar and friendly that I felt in a dream. They were equally blown away and confused to find an American girl in Korea that spoke some Russian. Even after I told them I had spent two years in Moscow teaching English, they continued to follow the regular Russian line, which is that I cannot be American, I must be Russian because of my style and weight and my language skills.

As our conversation continued, I couldn’t stop laughing at how fortuitous the whole situation was. What are the chances? I enjoyed the familiar Russian accent of Yuri’s and Dima’s English, and while the two younger guys talked to me, the older men stood back and watched. Occasionally interjecting something amiable but generally indecipherable.

Due to our limited knowledge of each other’s language, my broken Russian and their broken English, our conversation was not as poetic as I would like to imagine, but the overall feeling was one of genuine relief and happiness. I could not believe that I was speaking Russian to people who understood it, and they seemed to feel the same way.

A great cure for homesickness, I only hope that I will run into Russians again, though hopefully they will be longer stayed than one day.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How being in Korea has made me miss Moscow

While some things were expected, missing the metro, it's efficiency, the ease of transportation as well as extremely affordable cost, there are some things I didn't expect to miss about Moscow. Number one being the weather. While I like winter, it often seemed to drag on and on, but now that fall and the leaves changing still hasn't even close to hit Ulsan, I'm starting to realize that I miss putting on layer upon layer and walking out into the brisk Moscow air, pollution or no.

Of course, I miss students. I miss the level of proficiency and how many of my teens had already adjusted to me and my teaching style. A new school, let alone a new culture and country would have been a bit difficult. While I really can't compare too much because I taught mainly teens and adults in Russia and in Korea I teach children and teens, if I dare make the comparison, Russians seem more adventuresome. More willing to make fools of themselves. Of course, there were occasional classes of shy students. Students who were scared to make mistakes, and perhaps it's the classroom set up or the different sense of humor or the different levels, but Koreans on the whole seem shier. They are not as willing to just pull me aside and ask a hundred questions about where I'm from or why I'm here. They just accept that I'm a foreigner, move on, and leave it at that.

While Koreans on the whole seem friendlier, I think Russians on the whole were more interested in getting to know me, establishing a friendship or comradery, while in Korea, because of the culture and the hierarchy, I assume, many students put a distance between teacher and student. I would like to break this down, but it seems as soon as I think I'm establishing a friendship, where I can rely on the student to back me up in class because we are "friendly" they turn. Peer pressure or shyness or culture or something takes over, and they revert back to refusing to speak English and refusing to work with other students. While Russians may not have liked it, they nearly always followed directions. They put an effort into the mingle activities I organized, were willing to make fools of themselves and so was I, but Koreans sometimes won't even give it a try, which in turn makes me more reserved at times. They are used to being allowed to "opt out" perhaps ... whatever the case, it makes things frustrating because as soon as one student "opts out" the rest of the group feels uncomfortable.

I need to just have a talk with them. When speaking a new language, you are going to feel like a fool at times ...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How to meet strangers in a strange land

The first Friday night in Ulsan, I had a choice.

A) I could stay in and start a routine of possibly not meeting people who may eventually become friends because of my theory. That theory is this: I would like to hang out with people like myself, but I have no idea how I would go about trying to meet myself.

Or B) I could go out to the foreigner bars alone in the hopes of meeting people and even if I didn’t make the best of friends, at least be social and adventuresome.

After a small debate I decided on B. The pros far outweighed the cons. I knew what bars I should hit up. I knew how to get there. I wanted to go out, just not alone, and I’m independent, awesome, gorgeous … Oh, sorry, that last part was purely self-motivational talk. It takes a lot of self-motivational talk to decide you are going to go meet new people in a strange land where you don’t know the language of the majority of the people, and you don’t really know a soul ... AND you aren’t on vacation but rather trying to start your life in this land, so you don't have that much anonymity.

After all this talk, I got myself on the bus, ready to meet the world, got downtown and wandered around trying to decide which bar I should try out. But when I finally landed at the first bar, my nerves began to kick in …

"How the hell am I supposed to meet people? This was a stupid idea. Maybe I'll just have a drink and go home."

Ok, so I’ve traveled to several countries alone. You think I should be tough. This should be no problem. A breeze. Heck, I’ve introduced myself to a bunch of new people before. But there’s a catch, on the inside, I am still the same, shy, socially awkward Kim that used to hide behind her mother when relatives visited. I’m still the girl that used to cry before my school pictures because I couldn’t stand the spotlight and pressure of meeting an absolute stranger, that’s admittedly kind of creepy, and having to smile on command …

Anyway, my nerves kicked in, so being an adult, I did the adult thing. I sat down at the bar by myself and ordered up a Black Russian. I'll give myself some liquid courage and a time limit. If I don't meet anyone by the time I need a second drink, I'll call it a night.

As I sat at the bar, drinking my Black Russian, I started to feel a little strange. For starters, this bar seemed basically empty. On a Friday night. True, there were a few people. To my right a couple foreign men about 40 or 50 years old having a beer and chatting away. To my left an older Korean man had just sat down and seemed to be boring holes through me with his eyes. I really have no idea if that’s what he was doing. I did everything I could to keep my body language from suggesting that he come talk to me. So, I didn’t look at him once. Basically, I came to the conclusion that somehow I had gotten a crumby tip. This wasn’t a good bar for foreigners, at least not ones my age, and there were no girls, which is actually who I wanted to meet.

Finally, I noticed a group of four younger guys walk in the bar and up the stairs behind me. No one really looked my way, so I couldn’t just follow them. That would have been creepy and weird, making me even more socially awkward, but deep down that’s really, really what I wanted to do.

Run after them.

Despite my urge, I continued to sit downstairs at the bar, being shy in a very unshy way. By which I mean, I had gotten myself out to the bar on a Friday night, which is not shy, but I wasn’t sure I could follow through with actually meeting people, which is definitely shy. I knew that in order to meet people I needed to be approachable, and in order to be approachable, I needed to wear a smile and keep my inner cool, but because of the situation around me … awkward 40-50 year old, trolling men, I couldn’t let myself be approachable. It would have been asking for something I really didn’t want. I’m sure this inner debate was showing on my face because after about five more minutes, the bar tended came to talk to me. She had sensed my painfully obvious discomfort. Very politely, she said, “There’s another bar upstairs. With younger people. Maybe you want to go up there?”

On her suggestion, perhaps too hastily, I took my drink and walked up stairs.

“What’s the game plan?” I asked myself.

I had no idea.

So I took the stairs slowly.

When I saw the bar, I walked up to it and set my drink down. I was about to sit on a stool and cling to it like a life preserver, but instead, I looked around. There were several groups of younger people, and I made eye contact with the first foreigner who looked at me.

“Jump in, Kim!”

Like getting into cold water, meeting new people is way easier if you jump quickly, without over thinking it. In fact, without thinking at all. So, I grabbed my drink, which I had sat down on the bar for 2 seconds, walked over and said hello.

My self introduction started a series of introductions, which lead to a series of questions verging on conversation but interrupted by the game of darts that these for guys were playing. And yes, they are the same four guys I had seen walk into the bar not ten minutes prior. Basically, the conversations when something like this.

Guy 1, “What’s your name, again?”

Me, “Kim, what’s yours?”

“Where are you from?”

blah, blah

“What are you doing in Ulsan?”

“Teaching English, before this I was in Moscow for two years.”

It’s Guy 1’s turn at darts, and Guy 2 strikes up conversation, “What’s your name, again?”

Me, “Kim, what’s yours?”

“Where are you from?”

… blah blah I was in Moscow for two years.

Guy 2 is up at darts and Guy 3 starts in. At this point Guy 1 and 2 are having their own conversation as they are hanging out. Basically, I’ve interrupted guys’ night.

Guy 3 is up at darts and Guy 4 starts the conversation over.

I ended up having 3 or 4 conversations and repeating myself a lot. After the game ended, we regrouped, grabbed another drink, and eventually headed over to another bar where one of the guys was meeting up with friends. Surprisingly this has been the smoothest, least awkward introduction to date.

Two thumbs up for embracing social awkwardness and kicking shyness to the curb.

Monday, October 11, 2010

When the expected becomes unexpected

To get to the bamboo forest, you cross a gorgeous piece of architecture. It builds expectations and transports you from city to green space. From views of apartment buildings, high rises and skyscrapers, to views of greenery, river, jumping fish, and lush, rolling hills.

Yet, not knowing where exactly we were going, we ended up being deceived by what will be the future of the forest. A small row of bamboo, which hides the expansion of the forest and creates a mirage that pulled us toward it and away from the actual forest. Disappointed, we wondered if that was all there was. A small, misleading row.

This can’t be the forest.

Then, I saw it.

If we had only looked to the left instead of right, we would have been at the forest.

After being deceived by a mirage and feeling a small plateau of disappointment, the serenity around the actual forest was amplified. Not only was there calm, but relief.

Disappointment assuaged.

When we got to the edge of the bamboo forest, I stopped talking at a regular volume and started whispering. Tall green space creates an enchanting, serene mood and wards off the hustle and bustle of the city that surrounds it. A welcome break from everyday life in the city, the smell changes from one of car exhaust and warm pavement to fresh, damp soil and greenery. Each time I find a green space like this in a city, I am blown away by the different atmosphere and calm surrounding it. Rather than worrying about what I have to do next, which bus I need to take, which class I need to teach, where I can find that perfect thingamajig, I am soothed, relaxed and reenergized. The feeling is magnificent, and I’m glad Ulsan saw the need to reforest this particular area.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Onggi is pottery in Korean

Thanks to Joo for all the photos.

Before I came to Ulsan, almost right after I was offered the job, maybe even before, I discovered the Onggi Festival which takes place near Ulsan every year around this time. I was excited to go, made plans, and got over to the pottery village today. While I had tried to do a little research beforehand, I really had no idea what to expect. I knew onggi was traditional Korean pottery, mainly used for storing food. I knew there would be a bunch of international artists, and I knew I wanted to buy some pottery. What I didn’t realize was how huge the compound would be, and I had forgotten how much I enjoy art processes and craft.

When Joo and I arrived at the pottery village, we were both overwhelmed with its size. While the festival only takes place for one month out of the year, the compound is set up like a theme park, only for art. It’s amazing. Outside the gate are pottery shops, food stands, a school, kilns and a museum. Inside was a food court, several different galleries showcasing different pottery, interactive studios, demonstrative studios, exhibits on the process of making onggi, and even exhibits on the uses of onggi, including an area for making kimchee which is kept in onggi.

Going with someone who knew little about pottery allowed me to explain a lot of what was going on and take a second look at things about pottery that I had taken for granted – like that clay is cut off the lump with a wire. Of course I also learned a bit about the processes of pottery in Korea.

The clay is kneaded by foot and with a stick

Pottery is an ancient craft and the festival celebrated Korea’s use of onggi as a utilitarian, food storage vessel. Each step of the process was shown either by visiting artists, interactive activities, or through photos with details.

Adding clay

I had never seen someone make a very large pot, and the process of construction varies from that of smaller objects. Rather than trying to center a lump of clay that is same size as the artist and then pull it up into a shape, the clay is rolled out into slabs that are then added bit by bit onto the pot.


The potters used paddles like this one to shape the clay after attaching it to the body of the vessel.


I’m still not sure how they move these large pots or how they load and unload them from the kilns, but the process of firing a kiln like this seems incredible.

Finished onggi - It's huge!

While there was so much to see that I didn't do any of the hands on, interactive activities, I enjoyed the entire experience. My love of craft and art processes was rekindled, further encouraging me to find a pottery class in a country that takes great pride in this ancient craft and the traditions that have been passed down from potter to potter for generations.

The importance of ambiance

Many of the pottery shops at the Oegosan Pottery Village were selling mass produced, possibly machined pottery, but I wanted something unique. Something that looked like it was made by a person and felt like it too. Luckily there was one shop that was this way. Before going into the shop, I noticed the pottery on the outside. Unlike the other shops, it did not have rows and rows of onggi, rather it had a small stack of large pots and walking up to it was like stepping down into another land. Not one made for Korean and foreign tourists, but one made for a potter who loves their work. There were even some old pots on the roof which added to this feeling.

To the right of the shop was the studio and inside sat work benches that had seen good use. The only “clean” spot being where the artist sat. The smell of the studio, wet clay, reminded me of my pottery classes and all other associated memories. I was transported, to an international land of craft and artistry.

Stepping back into the sunlight and looking through the windows of the shop, I was excited. This is what I was looking for. A small shop, with a small quantity of pottery on display: tea cups and bowls, some flower pots and cups. Each piece had the artist’s stamp on the bottom and the sizes and shapes were as they should be. A little irregular, not perfect, with slight variations in glazes and coloring. Just enough create a dilemma with decisions. The only thing that would have made it better would have been to get to hear the artists talk about their work, but sometimes I don't know what questions to ask and of course the language barrier makes it difficult.

The dilemma

After looking around the shop with an eye for detail, touching things, mulling things over and finding a bowl I was in love with, I decided I would still check out the other shops before buying. My philosophy is, “If it’s meant to be, it will be.” I walked out of the shop, with my heart strings being pulled toward that bowl and those tea cups, and checked out the other shops. No others were like this one. None had quite the same ambiance, and there were fewer shops and studios than I originally thought. So, after a bit I returned with a budget in my mind. The shop lady recognized me, grabbed her calculator and showed me the prices. Then I went over to the bowls, the one I wanted was still there, and I looked through the others more thoroughly. After my purchase, I was satisfied. I had accomplished what I wanted for the day.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Stereotypes in Ulsan

Occasionally stereotypes hold some general truth, but perhaps more often, they just make me laugh. Below I have simply listed those I have noted, and I tried to refrain from adding any bias to show which ones I think are true and which are hilarious.

Also, please note in Ulsan, the term foreigner is used to describe non-Asian, English speakers, so mainly those coming from America, Cananda, Australia, and South Africa.
  • Foreigners need bread
  • A foreigner doesn't need a rice cooker
  • Foreigner home-cooked food is not salty enough and is "healthy"
  • Foreigners can't live without certain sauces: yellow mustard, steak sauce, ketchup, etc.
  • Foreigners love coffee. There are restaurants that advertise serving coffee and hot dogs, coffee and spaghetti and waffles, and I think I even saw coffee and beer
  • Foreigners, particularly Americans, rely on their mothers to do their laundry, dishes, and other general cleaning
  • Foreigners don't like "spicy" food, kimchee, or any other "strange" Korean food
  • Foreigners won't eat raw fish or beef

Assumptions about the produce section

Like in Russia, shopping for groceries has been one of the more challenging things. As a consumer, when I know the language written on packaging, I like to look at ingredients, calorie content, and the like. By the time I left Russia, I knew enough of the language that I was almost back to how I shopped in the States, but in Korea, I am starting from scratch. As I am just learning the alphabet, it is difficult to sound out the ingredients, let alone understand the words I’m sounding out. Yet, through it all, I have managed to avoid mistakes similar to those I made in Russia. When I bought milk, I actually bought milk … But a whole new set of issues has arisen.

So far, most of my grocery shopping has been in large hypermarkets, comparable to a super Wal-Mart. Finding products in the store can be a challenge, simply because the place is huge. Also, signage in English doesn’t always lead me to the right place. I saw a sign that read “Fresh Dairy” and in the case under the sign were processed meat products. It made me wonder why they even had English signage!

Surprisingly, through it all, one of the most confusing things has been the produce section of the grocery store. In Russia this was a bit confusing as well, but in a different way.

Generally in Russia there were loose bins of produce, whether it be apples, potatoes, carrots, bananas, etc. Like in the States, you grab a plastic bag and fill it with your selected amount of produce, but unlike the States, the produce is not weighed by the cashier at check out. Instead, you should take your produce to a scale – sometimes there is a person to weigh and label it for you and sometimes you have to weigh and label it yourself. Overall, the Russian system was only a bit intimidating, with the major question being, do I need to weigh this myself or is there someone to weigh it for me?

In Korea, at a hypermarket, things are a bit different. Almost all produce is pre-bagged, though there are some loose things – like potatoes, occasionally onions, and the like. The loose produce obviously needs to be weighed, and there is a woman who will weigh it for you. The pre-bagged produce with prices is also no trouble. It is the pre-bagged produce without prices marked that is the confusing and intimidating part. In Russia, these needed to be weighed along with everything else, so that was my assumption. In order to avoid the confusing ordeal of being at the cashier and having to go get something weighed, I went to the lady by the scale and gave her my pre-bagged broccoli. She took it, walked over to where the broccoli was displayed, and put it away.


Because I was a bit embarrassed about this result, I didn’t go pick up the broccoli again. I just decided that I didn’t really need it and continued walking around the produce section a bit thrown.

The next time I went to the grocery store I found things were not as confusing as I had made them. Anything pre-bagged with a UPC has a set price and the cashier just scans it like any other product. It turns out in this case that my experience in Russia actually hindered my understanding.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A ridiculous assumption ...

When I got on my first bus here in Ulsan, I noticed a small pouch attached to a bar on what would be considered the passengers’ side of the bus. The pouch was made out of a synthetic, burlap like material and had a loosely woven window which showed its contents. It seemed to hold some small, colored, oval rocks and dangled as we went down the road. My first thought was, huh, strange. I wonder what that is? Maybe a good luck charm or something to protect passengers and drivers?

The next bus I got in, in the same place, I saw the same type of pouch only it was a different color material, with different colored “eggs” in it. This seemed to reaffirm my hypothesis that it was something to do with travel because I hadn’t seen them anywhere else. Not indoors, only in vehicles, particularly buses.

Finally, I noticed a similar pouch in my co-director’s van. It was hanging from the rear view mirror, but contained something which looked like coffee beans. Now, anyone in a different frame of mind, that hadn’t already carved a misconception into stone, would have recognized this for what it was. But, in my made up world, where I had hypothesized a good luck charm and felt it had been reiterated, I furthered my assumption. But research is not only direct observation, so I conducted an interview.

I asked a very leading question, “What is that? Some sort of good luck charm? I’ve also seen them in the bus.” Of course, I was trying to support my previous assumption, rather than remain open to all possible outcomes.

Bless my co-director for not laughing at me or thinking my assumption was silly. She just said, “It’s supposed to make it smell good.”

All the sudden I realized how ridiculous my hypothesis and assumed conclusion had been. It was based not on actual observation, or thorough investigation, but on what little I know of talisman in my own culture and what I know about beliefs in Russian culture. I had made a jump of logic that turned out to be kind of silly. Granted in the States people hang rosaries and Russians had icons in their vehicles so maybe it wasn’t too far of a stretch, but what else hangs on a rear view mirror that is in no way associated with religion? Air fresheners.

The image that popped into my mind immediately after my co-director answered the question was the tree shaped air fresheners people have in the States being interpreted as a good luck charm or some type of talisman. The tree god that protects your car … I wonder how many other assumptions I have made like this that have gone unchecked …?