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?

Groovy-Jay-G-300x293

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

 

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!

koreatradition

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

Expat Gripe of the Month?

Everybody who lives abroad has complained about it at some point. Complaining is something everybody does, for a variety of reasons, and with varying degrees of justice and skill.

Much bandwidth has been occupied here in Korea with expat complaints, and many K-bloggers have attempted to explain the complaining itself, including this excellent taxonomy of expat complainers published by Roboseyo some years ago and which still rings true today.

Lately I’ve been curious about some of the things that expats in other countries complain about, and I came across an interesting piece in ScreamThe Kurdish Globe entitled An Expat’s View on Kurdistan: Complainers.

As residents of a self-governing region that has recently had to rebuild its infrastructure, absorb thousands of displaced people, fend off ISIS, and deal with collapsing states on its doorsteps, surely Kurdistan’s expat community would have some interesting bones to pick, no?

Turns out that the writer is addressing himself to Kurdistani complainers and imploring them not to abandon their country in these trying times. Any expats in need of a little shot of perspective can read it here.

And have a swell day, wherever you are!

keep-calm-and-love-kurdistan-27

The cultural artifacts around me

As I was combing through the last two year’s worth of grad school notes and writings, I came across this short piece I wrote for a course called Integrating Culture into the Language Classroom. One of the main ideas in that course was that in order to be better guides to culture in our classrooms, we need to see and better understand ourselves as cultural beings, and this short assignment is addressed to that. We were asked to look around our work space and talk about three “cultural artifacts” that say something about who we are culturally. It was a fun exercise, and I thought I’d post the results here.

My bed

Directly behind me is my bed. I started thinking about it as a cultural artifact now because I live in a part of the world where not everyone uses one. Many Koreans I know sleep on the floor, as do my stepdaughters most of the time. My wife and I sleep on a bed, but when we travel to out-of-the-way places in Korea it’s not unusual for us to roll out some bedding and camp out in a big scrum on the floor. While the traveler in me can do without a bed from time to time (I’ve slept on floors, benches, chairs, sofas, hammocks, beaches, train berths, subway cars, ship decks, and once or twice when I was in college, a barstool), I’ll take a bed over any other sleeping arrangement, any time. Okay, I have at times fantasized about hanging a hammock from my walls, but it’s hard to imagine giving up beds totally, and so I guess I can say it’s a pretty deep-rooted part of my cultural makeup. Maybe it speaks to the comfort that modern American culture perpetually strives for (and largely achieves). I don’t know, but I know that I want to always have a bed, and with any luck, to die in one.

Another thing I want to say about the bed is that I see it very much as our bed, meaning, the bed belonging to my wife and I and not to anyone else. This I think also speaks to who I am culturally. Right now my youngest stepdaughter, age 6, is sleeping on our bed as she sometimes does. The kids used to sleep with their mom a lot when they were younger, but as a stepfather who entered the family only three years ago, I missed most of that. While I tolerate it from time to time, I encourage them to sleep in their own beds (they have beds but generally don’t use them) in their own rooms. I can’t say it really annoys me when they crash on my bed, but the fact that I use a word like “tolerate” to illustrate my stance toward the kids sleeping on it tells you something about how I feel about that, as well as something about my cultural conditioning. I place a different value on what I see as my space, and feel a bit out of sorts when it’s infringed upon. I understand that many American families permit their kids to sleep with them, and that each family works this sort of thing out in its own way. It’s also hard to say how much my feeling comes from being a stepdad as opposed to having been there from day one and possibly gotten used to them sleeping with us. It’s probably a mix of reasons, and I don’t want to venture into half-baked psychoanalysis, but the nature of my reaction to the kids sleeping in my bed strikes me as being in some part culturally-based.

Coffee mug

There’s a coffee cup on my desk. I drink coffee every morning. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up, and if for some reason I have to be without it – because I’m travelling or because I’ve run out (which never happens) I feel like I’m missing something. One of the things that surprised me about Koreans when I came here in 1998 was how little they cared about the availability of coffee in the mornings. For a long time it was just impossible in Busan to buy coffee before noon. Koreans drank coffee in the afternoons and evenings and sometimes at night, but rarely in the morning, which to me was exceedingly strange. I probably would have found it less weird if Koreans had simply not drunk coffee at all, but the fact that they used it for purposes other than the one I considered the main one – as a morning stimulant – struck me as odd. To me it was as if someone had bought a toaster, and used it, not to make toast, but to warm their hands in the winter. It works, but you’re really missing out.

I realize now of course that this attitude is part of who I am culturally. Koreans tend to be much more social about eating and drinking than I am. I’m happy to have a coffee with my wife in the morning, or with a friend later in the day, but when I need a coffee, there is no social stigma to me in going it alone and getting my cup of joe when the mood strikes me. At the root of my solo coffee fixes I sense a small trace of the individualism that is bred into Americans, the pioneer mythos we imbibe in school, the outside-the-box thinker we are all encouraged to be, sometimes at the expense of community, sociability, or conformity, which is a dirty word in America but not here.

Memos

The fringe of my computer monitor is so ringed with post-it notes that it’s beginning to resemble some bizarre species of rectangular sunflower. These are very much a part of my personal culture. I use them to remember all of the things that I need to remember, which, apparently, is a lot. The information overload of our time and place has been often remarked upon. I think my culture puts a huge premium on remembering – just this week I was overwhelmed by “remembrances” of 9/11 – yet we are increasingly called to remember more and more and tend to feel bad when we fail.

I also confess to being something of an information junkie. I read heaps and wonder how much I retain or whether in the end it’s really worth it. Conversations, names, the never-ending cycles of news, new seasons of sports, TV programs, new semesters, conversations real and virtual, ideas, thoughts, dreams – this great swirl of things, most of it forgotten eventually. I really can’t say whether our brains today are better than those of our ancestors at remembering things, but I’d bet the average person today considers his or her memory far worse than one of our ancestors might have considered theirs had you asked them. If that’s true I think that’s probably because of the mass of information we are daily confronted with, much of it important or interesting, coupled with the awareness that nearly all of it passes away unremembered. The post-it notes are perhaps my attempt to stem the tide, though I too suffer from the popular perception that it’s a losing battle. Maybe the post-its would be better termed a “symptom” of my culture than an intrinsic part of my cultural identity; at any rate, there they are.

 

What are the things near to hand that say something about who you are as a cultural person?

Home is where the ________ is

One of the recurring questions I wonder about as an expat is the question of home. How do different people define it? Where is it?

My own sense of home has been evolving for several years. In my first year in Korea I had been provided a furnished house to share with a roommate. It was comfortable enough, though I recall spending little of my time there and feeling no great connection to it. In my second year I got a new job in a new city, and moved into a small unfurnished place that I found on my own. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to feel like a camper or a backpacker in the place I was living. I had done that for a year in Europe before coming here, and I didn’t want to live out of a bag any more, even if it was just for a year. I was determined to make myself at home.

So I did. I bought a used sofa and armchair, a kitchen table and a couple of chairs, a toaster, a coffee maker, a TV, a mattress, a desk, and a computer. I must have spent my whole first month’s pay on getting the place set up. I didn’t know if I’d be living there for more than a year, or of I’d be selling or giving away all that stuff twelve months later, but I didn’t care. I wanted to feel like I lived there, and I did. In a sense, I was “home” in that I had a comfortable place to live, a stable job that I liked, and a circle of new and interesting friends.

Even so, it would take a few more years – a few more one-year contracts signed, a few more friendships established – before I more fully felt that Korea was my home. It may sound funny to put it like this, but one day I just sort of took a look at myself and said Okay, so, this is my life. It’s hard to say when exactly, but I realized that it was not only easier but more satisfying to keep doing what I was doing than to go back and start over. When that sank in, the question of whether I was home was easier to answer, if only because there was no longer a case to be made for a life on hold anywhere else. This was apparently it.

*

From time to time, friends or relatives in the U.S. would ask me “When are you coming home?” meaning, to New York. As the years in Korea went by, this question increasingly struck me as odd. New York hadn’t been my home in any meaningful sense in several years. I may have been a bit overly sensitive – I knew they were really just asking me when they could expect to see me – but that question, phrased in that way, began to irritate me. When am I coming home? The question seemed to assume that everything I was doing – my fledgling career, my relationships, my lifestyle, my expanding interests and networks – was just some youthful phase, an inordinately long break from the real world, from which I’d eventually scramble back to start living my adult life in earnest in America. From some of the things that were actually said, it was clear that some people imagined my life to be a kind of perpetual holiday. “Traveling and enjoying yourself” was the way one relative summarized my life, never quite understanding that I worked full-time, had bills to pay, an IRA, a family, responsibility, obligations; in other words, a life that was more similar than different to theirs in almost every crucial respect. After a few years of that, Korea became my home more emphatically. To anyone who asked when I was “coming home”, I replied “I am home. You mean New York?”

In retrospect I see that I may have been a bit prickly about it. To be fair, I didn’t come to Korea thinking I’d still be here 14 years later. Until very recently, my plans never extended beyond my current contract year, so I can understand how others would not have considered that this was becoming my home, even if merely by default. More generally, the average American finds it much easier to understand why people would want to immigrate to America than why anyone would willingly leave. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, with a well-established history and mythos of the determined newcomer who battles long odds to live the American Dream. In numerous conversations over the years, I’ve found that the thought of leaving never even occurs to most people, and when it does, they almost always attribute the urge to some dark or suspicious motive. Draft-dodger. Hippy. Ingrate. Traitor.

Still, there was also a more pragmatic reason that question began bothering me. By that point in my Korea sojourn, I had already made my third or fourth trip back to the U.S., even though I had no great urge to go to the States on my vacations. I would have been just as happy entertaining visitors at home or taking a trip somewhere in Asia. The only reason I went to the U.S. at all was, not to be a January tourist in Westchester County, lovely as it is, but to visit family and a couple of old friends. To that point, nobody from the States had made a reciprocal visit. It occurred to me that I was spending three or four thousand dollars every year to fly halfway around the world to visit people, nearly all of whom made significantly more money than a new teacher, just because they assumed that I would want to rush back at every available opportunity to what they were still thinking of as my home.

Those trips were wiping out a big chunk of my savings for the year, and it began to strike me as unfair. To people who said they missed me, I took to nudging them, saying, “Well, get on a plane and come visit.” To that, folks would often say, “Wow, but it’s so far,” which is true, but isn’t the most compelling excuse to a person who has just done, for the Nth time, the very thing you are claiming it is so hard to do.

I don’t get many visitors from abroad, which I completely understand. Korea is far, it is expensive, and most Americans don’t get long vacations (like I do) and would rather spend them somewhere more relaxing or tropical (as do I). E-mail did a lot to connect me to friends and family back in 1998 when I arrived here, and in the intervening years, Facebook and Skype have further collapsed the distance between us. Many still tell me they miss me. Others are maybe a little more cautious, though I assume that they do too.

*

I’m always a little curious when I hear an expat friend, someone who has lived here for many years, talk of “going home” for the holidays. Are they really living thousands of miles from the place they consider home? Or is it just a habitual manner of speaking that I shouldn’t read too much into? Is Korea just a stop on the way to somewhere else, or have they just not reached the point where it’s easier to stay than to go back (or just not realized it)? I often wonder how other expats think of home. Where is it? What is it?

I asked my expat friends a few questions I put out in a Facebook survey and seventeen of them were kind enough to answer. One question was “Do you consider Korea home? If yes, at what point did you begin to refer to Korea as home and why?” Nine of the seventeen said Korea was home, seven said no, and one responded ambivalently. As you might expect, being married correlated very strongly with the settled feeling: all but one of the Yes group are married, only two of the No group are married (the fence-sitter is also single). Indeed, almost all of them cited being married, having kids and a stable job as reasons for feeling that way, though other things were mentioned too: having health insurance, liking the food, having a nice place to live, and just being happy.

For me too, being married and becoming a step-father have added a few extra layers of sediment over my deepening roots. It’s easier to feel that I belong here when I know there are at least four other people who feel the same way.

I’m curious about those of you living abroad: Where is home for you?