South Korea

Emojis – Here to Stay?

It seems that anyone who uses any kind of messaging app (Kakao Talk, Facebook Messenger, SMS, etc.) these days uses emojis to some extent. Even a 46-year-old relative latecomer to chat apps like me tends to use them as a shorthand way of answering affirmatively (thumbs up), to show laughter (as opposed to typing “LOL” which I never quite warmed to), or sometimes just to be silly and try to get a laugh out of someone.

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I haven’t had a use for this one. Yet.

This recent piece talks about the ways that East Asian users use emojis, and one of the things I found interesting was the idea that emojis offer softer or more indirect ways of saying things that would be hard to express otherwise for cultural reasons:

“[Emojis] appeal not just to the young but also to middle-aged office workers looking to smooth awkward or delicate situations with bosses, colleagues and family members. [Some emoji sets] include a crotchety grandmother who curses a lot – a softer way for chat-app users to swear in front of their elders – and a loving father-daughter set in which the girl gently admonishes her dad.”

Not everyone is crazy about emojis, for similar reasons why people were initially opposed to the ubiquitous shorthand of text communication in general (cya, omw, lol, OMG, etc). To me emojis serve as a useful supplement to written language, in that they convey that missing element of body language and other visual cues without which it often becomes hard to express humor, sarcasm, anger, levity, seriousness, joy, and a range of other emotional shades that are clearly present in face-to-face speech.

A judiciously chosen emoji can reduce ambiguity and thus lessen the potential for miscommunication, which to me is reason alone to consider it a useful supplement to the written language. My sense is that they’ll stick around in some form. What’s your take?

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Groovy Jay ending it all? I’m not sure what to make of this one. Use with caution.

 

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Tea for One

Eating lunch alone or having a quiet beer at home on the couch doesn’t strike most Westerners as out of the ordinary; but in South Korea, a country whose culture is more oriented toward group affiliation, something as simple as having a sandwich at your desk could mark you as anti-social or an object of pity: the dreaded wangtta, or social outcast, doomed to a life of solitary meals and other lonely pursuits.

This stigma on eating and drinking alone however is rapidly changing, as a few recent articles note (here and here). In the past year or so, restaurants have embraced solo diners, and a new word, honbap (a compound derived from the words for “alone” (honja) and “rice” (bap)), has thus entered the Korean lexicon. Likewise, drinking alone no longer marks you as a bum or an alcoholic, but merely a practitioner of honsul (“alone” plus “alcohol” (sul)), which has a decidedly more sympathetic ring.

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Cheer up, Bill. It’s cool.

As many observers have pointed out, the changes in dining habits are driven in part by the rise in single households, which now account for over one-quarter of Korean households – a significant social shift that has been playing out over the past few years as property values rise while economic uncertainty and changing personal priorities impels more young people to delay or forgo marriage.

The rise in solo living arrangements may also be having other interesting effects on consumption trends. This recent article traces a recent rise in the number of convenience stores to the same single-living trend, noting that many people who live alone simply find it easier to procure most of their daily needs at a CU Mart than at a larger store, which tend to deal in larger quantities and sizes.

On a personal level, I have noticed a steep drop in the looks of pity I used to receive from Korean students and friends whenever I was sighted sipping a coffee or scarfing down a sandwich by myself. Now it appears that I was just a man ahead of his time. Who knew?

Aaaaand it’s off!

Quick update for long-neglected followers of this blog: I submitted the manuscript of Culture Shock! Korea last week, a couple of weeks ahead of my deadline, so it looks like we’re on target to meet the April/May publication target date. Watch this space for details.

The process was a lot of work but was quite enjoyable, partly because it required me to do a lot of reading and other research, and to look afresh at a country I’ve been living in for about 18 years now. As with all such projects, a lot of the stuff you end up digging up can’t find a place in the finished work, but is interesting enough to share in some other way; while some of the stuff that makes it in can only get a brief mention, when it sometimes merits a longer discussion. I hope to be bringing some of that here in the coming weeks and months.

For now, time to catch up on some discretionary reading, naps, and Civilization VI.

 

I’m Baa-aack…

How many times has the owner of a neglected blog said that before? More importantly, how many times has the owner of a neglected blog not said that before?  At any rate, I’ve decided to fire up the old blog for a few reasons.

First, a word on what I’ve been up to. Now that the ink is dry, I can say that I’ve recently been contracted to write the new edition of Culture Shock! Korea, a culture guide to my 51S2PF3V45L._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_adopted home geared toward people who are going to be living, working, or studying here (as opposed to just passing through). In other words, I’m writing the book I wish I had in my own hands 17 years ago when I moved here.

Toward that, I’ve been busy boning up on everything from rental agreements, K-Pop, the Choseon Dynasty, and what not to say at business meetings, among many, many other things – some necessarily interesting, and some interestingly necessary – as well as hammering out the first, very messy drafts of what I hope will be a useful, readable book on how to get along in Korea.

Now, the reasons I’m firing up the blog again:

I need an occasional break from rental agreements, K-Pop, the Choseon Dynasty, and what not to say at business meetings. The work and the reading has been fun, and it’s taught me a lot,  while also obliging me to look at the familiar afresh. But I need an occasional short break, and five out of five doctors agree that blogging is better for you than smoking.

Also, as a writer, the blog helps me exercise good writing habits, like forcing me to get stuff out on time, not getting too hung up on perfection, and just jogging the muscles that we use in the creation of text. This of course is in lieu of actually jogging around the block, which is no fun at all.

Another reason is that I’m reading a lot of stuff, and a lot of it is stuff that doesn’t necessarily fit with what I’m doing in the book, but is nonetheless interesting ,and I’d like to share it. That’s just the kind of guy I am.

I also want to try to tap into that other great potential of blogging which is as a sounding board and avenue for thoughtful feedback. Criticism, comments, rants, and praise are all welcome, as all of it, good, bad, and perhaps even ugly, helps the process of refining a piece of writing and getting a sense of what makes readers tick. I invite you – the sensitive, thoughtful, and clearly tasteful regular reader of this blog – to share your thoughts. And thank you!

More to come, just after I wade through today’s to do list, which includes finishing the draft of the chapter in which I condense 5,000 years of history into 5,000 words. That’s one word per year, but trust me, most of those years were not especially noteworthy and will be skipped.

Have a good day, and welcome (back?) to Outside Looking In!

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Some place in Korea, at a time when nothing important happened.

This Week Out There – April 27th – May 3rd

A selection of this week’s expat-related stories


Whatever gets you through the night…

kim-kardashian-hollywood-game-revenueIt can be a little lonely out there as a stranger in a strange land, and everyone has different ways of dealing with it. To combat her loneliness and alienation in Spain, 30-year-old British expat Emma Biggins spends 30 hours a week playing the Kim Kardashian – Hollywood game, in which users (most of whom are teenage girls) “compete to get points in a bid to become Kim’s best mate.” Biggins says the game makes her feel “fabulous.” and that she thinks “Kim really is [her] best friend.” Read the story here, or decide you’ve already heard enough and move on.

Filipino Expat Spared Death (for now)

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Veloso

Filipino expat Mary Jane Veloso narrowly escaped execution by firing squad in Indonesia on Wednesday when Indonesian President Joko Widodo granted her a temporary 11th-hour stay of execution after evidence surfaced that she may have been duped into drug trafficking. Time will tell if she is exonerated, granted a reduced sentence, or executed, as were eight other convicted smugglers, including seven foreign nationals whose appeals fell through. For now it appears she will be given the opportunity to testify against Maria Kristina Sergio, the daughter of Veloso’s godparents who Veloso claims set her up by giving her a bag that had over 2 kilograms of heroin sewn into the lining.

There’s no Taste Like Home

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The Battleship Burger. Oh yeah.

As U.S. troops relocate from Yongsan Garrison in Seoul to points south, a reluctant U.S. expat marks the passing of the Navy Club, “an eccentric bar-and-grill that was a vital taste of home for generations of soldiers, sailors and civilian expats,” and waxes poetic about the Battleship Burger, “a sizzling half-pound of ground Angus sirloin, topped with America.” Seoul’s changing food scene in the area around Yongsan may make the passing of the Navy Club a quiet one, but the Navy Club will no doubt be missed by many for whom it provided a crucial taste of home to smooth the transition abroad.

You Can’t Go Home Again?

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A group listens to a returned expat as he relates his overseas experience.

Repatriating after an extended stay abroad can be tough; so tough, in fact, that many expats (like yours truly) never seriously attempt it, and those who do sometimes end up bouncing back overseas.

Was Thomas Wolfe right when he wrote that you can’t go home again? The following short primer on repatriating is a bit more sanguine, and advises those heading back to treat it as they would treat a move to any foreign country. This bit of advice from one commenter stood out:

“Don’t immediately talk about all the places you’ve been, what you’ve done, etc.… This will alienate people,” she wrote. “Keep it low-key, make it like dating, dole out information very, very slowly.”

Sounds about right. I would also add that favorably comparing country X to your home country in any way should be exercised with extreme discretion, especially during Christmas dinner.

And how are you doing out there this week?

Work Hard, Play Hard, Sleep Hard

As an American expat in Korea, some things, like eating piles of meat from a grill, are pretty easy to get used to. Other things, like sitting on the eatingonfloorfloor for the hour it takes to eat it, are quite a bit harder. My American education prepared me for a lot of things, but spending scads of time on the floor was not one of them.

Some of this difficulty is perhaps cultural, but some is certainly my own. I’ve been culturally flexible for many years, but physically I remain as stiff as I’ve always been. In college, I took a flexibility test that required me to sit in front of a sliding scale and push the knob as far as I could to get a measurement of my flexibility. I couldn’t touch the knob. Even as a slim, athletic kid, sitting “Indian style” was never hosp-misc-flexibility2-0903comfortable and the Lotus position would have required me to have two broken legs. Yoga for me is out of the question. Apparently I was born to plank.

Traditionally, Koreans did most things close to the floor, perhaps as a consequence of one of the great hallmarks of Korean civilization: the ondol floor-heating system, which has been in use for at least 3,000 years. For millennia, the floor was the warmest part of any Korean home, so daily life seems to have naturally gravitated toward the warmth.

Though there are exceptions, the average Korean today appears equally at home on the floor as were his remote ancestors, even though Western-style furniture is ubiquitous and ondol is no longer a common feature of Korean homes. Koreans still sit on the floor, eat on the floor, play on the floor, and sleep on the floor. On weekends, my wife and millions of other Koreans migrate to the saunas, lay their heads on a small wooden block, and bask in the simple and ancient pleasure of lying on a warm floor. After an hour or two of this, my wife is floor lounging in saunaready to take on the world. I’m ready for a chiropractor.

Our kids are OK on the floor too. They use the sofa a lot, but I’m just as likely to find them plunked down on the tiles in front of the tv, sprawled out with their laptops and iPads, or crashed out with only a blanket.

Our youngest daughter has an exceptional talent for sleeping on the floor. Ever since she was small, I’ve found her crashed in various parts of the house: in the middle of rooms, wedged under furniture, blocking IMG_0802doorways, etc. For years I’ve been documenting her remarkable sleeping habits in a photo album which is large and still growing.

How does my lack of floor-living skills affect our family? Not much. Occasionally we’ll pass on the odd restaurant that has no chairs, which today seem to be fewer and fewer anyway. Our home is furnished with chairs and a sofa, and my wife and I sleep on a bed – a bed with a mattress, I should say, not one of those luxury stone beds, which is basically an expensive piece of floor on legs. Recently I’ve learned to appreciate the flexibility of the coffee table, which is just high enough to use with a chair and just low enough to accommodate floor-sitters. Who’d have thought that the humble coffee table could have become an important setting for cultural compromise? And don’t get me started on the coffee.

A Defense of the Expat Bubble

Expat bubble is a phrase that usually has negative connotations; whenever we hear it, it’s usually to exhort us to burst, Janice.BubbleManescape, or avoid it, or to invite us to disparage those who luxuriate in its hermetic warmth. To many, the bubble is a perfect and all-encompassing barrier that signals a desire to keep the unfamiliar at bay. To burst someone’s bubble is to disabuse them of a fantasy, and expat bubbles are likewise seen as artificial oases in the midst of an otherwise authentic cultural setting.

While some expats can’t live within the bubble, some can’t live without it. I recently read a rare and spirited defense of the expat bubble by Alyssa Abkowitz, which begins from the proposition that expat life can be tiring and hard.

The idea of wanting the simple comforts of home in a foreign land is understandable, particularly after braving language, logistical and cultural hurdles throughout the day. These bubbles let expats’ brains take a much-needed rest.

Hard to disagree with that. I’ve had my share of trying days in Korea and can certainly relate to what she’s saying, though the bubbles in Busan tend not to encompass entire neighborhoods but smaller spaces like pubs or private homes (I think of my old friend and the “Korea Stops Here” sign that hung on his door).

In the piece, Abkowitz highlights five cities, and it seems that the cities that Westerners tend to find more livable (like Singapore and Hong Kong) had the most dispersed expat communities, while the grittier cities (New Delhi, Bangkok, Jakarta) were more likely to have Western enclaves.

Criticism of the bubble tends to assume that everyone came abroad to have some kind of growth experience, but that’s not bubbl popnecessarily true, particularly of company-assigned expats. Those of us who chose to come here and were attracted by adventure may find ourselves looking down our noses at the bubble dwellers (though strangely we’re also likely to be charmed by the expat bubbles ethnic neighborhoods in our hometowns), but the fact is not everyone is looking to burst it.

Whether or not one chooses to live in the bubble seems to have a lot to do with where you live and why you went there in the first place. The situation here in Busan seems to support that working hypothesis, with the company folks clustered around the glass towers of Marine City, and the long-term expats scattered far and wide.

What are your thoughts on the expat bubble?