"Words have no wings, but they can travel a thousand miles" (Korean Proverb)

Welcome to Flying Words, Jon and Aileen's blog of our adventures in South Korea! We will be in South Korea for a year, starting in mid-July, teaching English in a private school. We just graduated from college this past May, and are looking forward to having some adventures before continuing our education. 
We started this blog to keep all our family and friends updated and to share our photos and stories. We hope this is entertaining for you! We will miss you all, and are very thankful to have the internet to keep us in touch. 

Friday, September 26, 2008

Some Observations (Actual Substance....)

    So, we've been here for about two months, and I think its time I write about my impressions of Korea and Korean culture, beyond just narrating my life. There are two main things that stand out to me here that I want to expand on-- work ethic and coffee shops.

The work ethic here is intense, especially among the students. Just the fact that there are so many English teachers here is telling when it comes to how much everyone wants to learn English. But it's not limited to English. Most, if not all, of my students are also currently attending probably 3-4 extra classes, which meet multiple times a week. They go to science, math, music, Japanese and/or Chinese academies in addition to their normal school and, of course, English classes. I have at least two students who are attending TWO English academies at once. And my students are from 7-14 years old, most of them between 10 and 13. Most are up until midnight doing homework. Katy, one of my most advanced students, told me she had to spend Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) in her room studying for the huge tests middle school students have next week. She missed all the family celebrations and didn't even get to see her grandparents or cousins. 
While this may seem depressing, and certainly I think kids need free time, I can tell you that this is going to help them, and give them a huge advantage over American students when they all compete for jobs, which they will most definitely have to do. It makes me want to go home and tell kids to wake up! Maybe not so young, but I definitely think that a lot of high school and college kids need a wake up call, to stop messing around and not taking school seriously, or there won't be jobs for them. Especially college students. 
      I don't know much about college student here, but I do spend some time in the university area, which is full of restaurants and bars and shops. At the coffeehouses and restaurants you can see groups of students huddled over notebooks and textbooks. Not to say that they don't know how to relax. The bar and karaoke scene here is hopping every day of the week. I have found Koreans to be hard workers, and hard partiers. Proof to the American college student that you can do both. Even the adults go out drinking, and on the weekends grandparents hang out under bridges with cases of soju (rice liquor). As for the kids, they seem well-adjusted enough. They're still kids, they still goof off and complain about homework, and I always see them hanging out around town, giggling and acting like, well, kids. And the college students can be seen wandering the streets socializing, looking relaxed and happy as any college students. 

This brings me to my next observation. There are more coffeehouses here than I could have imagined, even if this were an American city. They're nice, too, and most aren't franchise. I haven't seen a Starbucks, though I saw where one was being put in. It amazes me how coffeeshops can survive when they're surrounded by others. In Jeonbuk-de (the university area) there are probably 4 per block consistently throughout the 10-15 blocks of pedestrian shops. And they are all always pretty busy. A few weekends ago, the coffeeshop Jon and I went to to hang out and read in was packed, people were searching in vain for tables, yet it still didn't seem too bustling or annoying. 
I read somewhere once that coffeeshops are crucial to the intellectual and political development of a society. I'm not sure how true that is, but I do know that public spaces, where people can interact outside of work or family institutions and where they sit around and talk, are very important to development of community. And I also know that coffeeshops were the epicenter of much revolutionary and reformist discussion and debate in very different societies at very different times. Cafes in Paris, Argentina, Russia and India teem with discussion. It's the very nature of coffeehouses. In this vein, the coffeehouse trend I am witnessing here in Korea is good, for a private society, one who prides itself on putting on a good face. Since I don't speak Korean, I can't attest to any intellectual conversations at coffeehouses, but I'm sure there are some, or that they will at least develop. People can only sit around, relax and talk about superficial issues for so long before they broach larger, deeper topics. 
I did some research into the connection between coffeeshops and intellectual development, and I found some interesting ideas. Some of these ideas went a little too far, in my opinion, in crediting coffee with about every political, economic and social reform during the Enlightenment. Some, however, seem quite interesting. Here are some passages I found most interesting:

This one is from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 

"Over the centuries, 'cafes became places where informed men, some educated and some not, could come together and talk about stuff,' including literature, plays, poems, economics and politics...'Having a place to do that enriches a culture,' Weston said. 'It takes us out of the cocoon of private life and into the public world. Cafes are important for creating a public life, particularly in a democracy. It becomes a place where the town, or, in the big city, where the neighborhood develops.'"

This one is from a review of the book "Coffee: A Dark History" in the Washington Post:

The role of the coffeehouse, he argues, simply cannot be underestimated. In the Arab world it "was, other than the reviled tavern, the only place to meet friends outside the home, discuss politics and literature..."and thus is became "an integral part of the imperial system, providing a forum for the coming together and dissemination of news and ideas." ... "It has been argued that, until the arrival of coffee, the population of Europe had existed in a constant state of mild intoxication, since the quality of water was such that many people drank the weak beers of the time morning, noon and night. By switching to coffee, they were not only reducing the muddle-headedness resulting from alcohol consumption, but also ingesting a powerful new drug. Indeed, it could be said that the introduction of coffee to England led to a ... 'brain explosion.'"

The author of the book, Anthony Wild, continues to cite Lloyds of London, the Stock Exchange, the East India Company and the Royal Society as among those British institutions having their origins in coffeehouses. 

Certainly food for thought, isn't it? Or at least 'drink for thought.' 


Lyn said...

I agree. I'd say that Americans are in for a wake-up call soon. Students aren't nearly as focused as they should be. I can see a major difference from moving from the North to the South, so I'm sure there's an even bigger difference with Korea. Luckily I won't be having any kids so they won't have to worry about the problem (lol... but should I have kids I will warn them! and when I worked at KMS I warned students).

Unfortunately for me, coffee isn't very appealing to me. I'm torn between trying to drink cappucino (which I do like), or avoiding it because it's bad for me. lol This is definitely "drink for thought", though, as you said.

Also, I miss you. :(

Anna said...

wow. um i didnt really get that...

Anna said...

dumb it down for us lazy americans please (says mom) gettin any of that taiwanese typhoon?

Anna said...

that was all mom

Jon and Aileen said...

haha ummmm yeah. don't know what to say to that, anna :) and mom. besides i don't think we're getting any of the Taiwanese typhoon...its been a little rainy but just normal rain.

Denise said...

HiHi Aileen and Jon! Thanks for your insightful comments on Korean culture. Further inspiration to kick my keister into gear ... this semester has been lax.