Is that a challenge?!?

June 16, 2007

In the midst of editing deadlines and trying to keep up with Korean homework (90 minute private lessons last a painful eternity if not sufficiently prepared!), I’m taking a break to embark upon a formidable challenge presented to me by Matty last week. While I am truly having a wonderful time here in Korea, there are a good many, many, maaaany things about Korean culture that drive me absolutely batty.

Many of these are admittedly pet peeves; that is, things that normally shouldn’t bother me as much as they do, but that for various personal reasons, I can’t seem to get past (a lifetime of psychoanalysis would hardly begin to unravel my tortured relationship with this country, one that got off on a very bad foot during my first, traumatic visit in 1989). To give just one example, the Korean language has culturally appropriated an unbelievable number of English words and expressions. Because Hangul is a phonetic alphabet, the linguistic transformation that occurs is often quite dramatic, not to mention ridiculous. For example, a “rear-view mirror” is called a “back mirror” in Korea, but is written in Hangul and therefore pronounced as “back meter.” “back meter??” It is also not unusual for couples here to wear the same accessories (watches, shoes, etc.) or even to be outfitted head to toe in identical attire. This phenomenon is called “cuplook,” an abbreviated form of “couple look.” Engagement rings are often referred to as “cup link” (couple ring)? The prize goes to something we discovered for sale the other week, a “cupful.” anyone? anyone? This would be a “couple waffle”… a waffle treat for two. Okay, I realize how petty it is for me to be annoyed by this at all, but I think I would be less bothered if, as a language teacher, I hadn’t known so many Koreans for whom this linguistic quirk didn’t make learning French infinitely more difficult (e.g., “bonjour” is spelled/pronounced “bongjour”), or maybe if Koreans didn’t sometimes look at native English speakers like they were clueless for not understanding what is meant by “back meter” or “cuplook”… after all, it’s English, right? Again, wholly superficial and irrational, I realize. (It must be said, though, that many Koreans express horror when they find out how badly some words and expressions have been Konglish-ified.)

The greatest difficulties I have living here, however, are more legitimate, and are mainly related to gender restrictions and expectations. I feel it each and every time I leave the apartment, and to such a suffocating degree that not a day goes by that I don’t silently and sincerely thank my parents for acting on their belief that life for their daughter would in so many ways be better in the US. One of these days, I will try to devote a long post to (my perceptions of) gender roles in Korea, but for now, I’ll just say that it’s pretty tiring to live in a society where women out running frequently get stared at as if they have three heads, where I’m surrounded by young adult women who wear dresses and high heels to go hiking and who refer to their lovers in whiny, undulating girlish voices as “ooppaaaaaaaaa” (big brother), and where one of the first items listed in a friend’s employee manual indicated that it was considered socially offensive for a female employee not to wear make-up in the workplace.

So what’s the challenge? Despite my many issues with Korean culture, few things would make me happier than to somehow make peace with this country. Matty knows this better than anyone else, and to help me accomplish this goal, he has challenged me to find at least one thing I truly love about Korea for each critique I have about it. Therefore, as time permits over the next 6 weeks, I will try to write short posts about things I love about living in Korea. These will likely be more culture-specific in nature (e.g., eating & drinking culture, public bathhouses, customer service, etc.) since it should certainly go without saying how deeply I appreciate more universal things like spending time with friends and family. We’ve actually already blogged about a number of things I really love here: temple stays, Cocaine (our local request bar), running on the Han River… now, what else? 😕



  1. In case you are all wondering what a “cuplook” might look like, these guys are rocking it to an almost sublime level.

  2. Now, now… just to be clear, it’s not the “cuplook” itself I have an issue with, it’s the fact that it’s called “couple look ==> cuplook”.
    Elaine, if you are reading this, as a fellow Korean-American woman, do you have any particular gender/linguistic pet peeves… OR any positive gender-related aspects we didn’t already discuss or that you think I’m overlooking?

  3. Oh, Dominica, I can hear and see you now, wanting to pull your hair out and scream! I feel for you.

  4. Dominica,

    Just two thoughts-

    How would “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” sound in Korean?

    Love Korea thought for you for today –

    I love Korea because it’s on the same planet as the U.S. of A!


  5. … or France!

    More seriously though, I don’t want to give the impression that I could never be fully happy here (who knows what the future holds?), or that I don’t also take serious issue with many aspects of American culture. My critiques of Korean culture certainly do not translate directly into corresponding praise for life in the US, and in many respects (especially outside the realm of gender norms) I feel much more comfortable here than I ever have back in the states. I also know a number of American-born Korean-Americans who have never felt “bien dans leur peau” (happy in their skin) until moving “back” to Korea for good. In the end, I’m simply trying to understand and absorb the difficult truths behind the cultural alienation I personally feel in both the US and Korea (but for very different reasons in each). Such is life…

  6. Korea is the BEST country in the world!!! What the hell are you talking about!!!!!! ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ

    and yes!!! If you are not wearing make-up, it’s insulting!!!! ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ

  7. so so sorry to have insulted you for all of these years, sanghyun! haha. you win the prize for being my “thing” I love about Korea for today. 😛 btw, i really wish you and haejin would rock the “cuplook” more frequently!

  8. this IS a challenge … i’ve been racking my brain for examples of positive gender-related aspects of korea and have come up with nothing that isn’t secretly related to deeply ingrained heterosexism and homophobia. for example, i was thinking, wow, it’s great that men in korea can carry purse-like bags without feeling self-conscious, and that they can be “metrosexual” or snuggle up to one another quite intimately without fear of being called a faggot, but then i realized these actions are largely possible because the notion is always, automatically, that the purse-carrying metrosexual is straight, as there is no other possibility.

    but i did think of a pet peeve, of course. many, in fact, but this one i’ve more recently named and thus have been chewing on. i’ve been noticing lately that all of my attempts to build individual friendships with men are laced with this odd discomfort, and it occurred to me: do they think i’m interested in them? are we on a date? dear god. i think it’s difficult for women and men to be friends in korea, and that this is a function of strict gender roles and heterosexism. there’s a suspicion, if you’re a single woman (particularly one of my age, out of college, living alone, etc.) hanging out with a single man that there’s something going on there. which is just so backward and heterosexist (once again) and, for someone who has a fair number of close male friends, kind of sad. and there’s more about gender here as well, as part of my interest in building friendships with men is related to how i’ve found a number of my friendships with korean women to be unsatisfying. of course, this may have more to do with personality, life experience, etc., but i think it also has to do with the boycentricity (??) i’ve encountered. and maybe all of this frustration would be solved if i was more out and in people’s faces about it, but that’s a whole other discussion.

    and as for “cuplook”, i’m the opposite! i think the word inventions are kind of funny, perhaps even creative or subversive, in a way. it’s like: let’s fuck up that english we have to learn, let’s fuck it up real good, and make it mean something – take that! but i HATE HATE HATE those couples dressed head to toe in matching outfits. i want to throw up and punch them, all at the same time. which would not be pretty.

    but i, too, will take up the matty challenge and report back to you …

  9. oh! i just thought of one! there’s very little ogling here, which is SO nice coming from new york where i almost got whacked in the head by a guy carrying a ladder on his shoulder when he turned a full 180 to watch this woman walk past him. he almost hit HER with the ladder, come to think of it. and you can go drinking with your friends without being harrassed. unless, of course, you want to be, in which case you go to “booking” club.

  10. no ogling… unless you are a woman wearing running tights! When Dominica runs with her running outfit on, the ajeossis cannot be stopped from gawking, as if they are watching the Queen of Town walking by on her hands, naked. I believed her when she told me as much, but as I was usually a few steps ahead, never witnessed it. Then one day, I stopped to tie my shoes and ran behind, witnessing the whiplash and slack-jaws in action. Mesmerizing. Fully over my shock at their shock, I’m now ready to start yelling – “야! 쳐다보지마 씹발새끼야!!!”

  11. so interesting…. actually, i would agree with mielaineous on this one! as you yourself know since you run, the staring is indeed out of control. in fact, just today, a guy almost crashed his bike into matty as he rode past me and cranked his head around to get a closer look. HOWEVER, one thing I have always noticed is that there is no sense of the typical sexual ogling. it seems 100% (ok… maybe 95%) shock of the “what in the heck is that woman doing out RUNNING?” (not wearing the typical ajuma outfit, that is). This is why I described it in my post as being looked at as if I had 3 heads.

    anyway, thanks e., i’ll try to think of the linguistic massacre as subversive… maybe it will be easier for me to see the humor in it. haha!

    as for the male-female friendships, all I can say is that most of men to whom I speak ONLY refer to me as “hyung su” (wife of big brother matty) which gives you some indication of where I stand in the mix. i’m sure as someone more establish with a life of your own, that must get very frustrating… grr.

    thanks for sharing your observations – can’t wait to continue the conversation over some dark brews in Gwangju!

  12. Hey, just discovered your blog through some random Googling but I see we have a blog buddy in common, Elaine.

    Anyhoo, just wanted to write because so far you are the first foreigner in Korea who was written (or spoken) openly about the patriarchy and misogyny that makes up the number one reason I am sick of living here. Everything you said it so true and so annoying — the high-heeled hikers, the baby voices, the stares.

    Personally I think I look quite fresh and pretty when I am all natural and without make-up but it’s soooo patronizing to me to have Koreans say “You look so beautiful today with 15 layers of eyeshadow on.”

    The Koreans are bad enough, but I happen to live on Geoje-do, home of the two largest shipyards in the world. Shipyards mean lots of single men from all over the planet, and there is a certain industry that flourishes here by catering to those men, if you get my drift.

    Being a 5’10” slender blonde chick, I often find it humiliating to simply walk down the street, day or night, because it’s assumed I am Russian (I’m American), as though there is no other conceivable reason in the world for a woman like me to live in a town like this.

    Jesus, I could go on and on, but I’ll stop after this last story. I have a friend from home who is now teaching in Busan. She is short, has dark hair and is very shapely. So, we were walking through Nampodong Market and we happened upon this stall selling used sewing machines. I’m in the market for one, and so while we were looking I overheard the old man who runs the place talking to his friend. I don’t speak much Korean but I understood enough to clearly hear the word “concubine” fly out of his mouth. I turned around to see them staring at us and I just stood there and stared right back for about 30 seconds before walking out. I find it frustrating and annoying that the thought never even occurred to him that we would understand what he was saying. I wanted him to be absolutely positive that I heard what he said and took offense to it. And to think I considering spending money in his shop. What’s worse is that both of us were dressed totally normal — jeans, t-shirts and flip flops.

    Okay I’ll stop now. But the NERVE…

  13. Glad that you found us, Brittanie — and thanks for the comment! Ugh, I feel for you. It doesn’t matter how much people think you are exaggerating about the situation for women in Korea. It’s even worse than they can imagine. For the sexism alone, I could never, ever be happy living there for any length of time. Thankfully, there are positive aspects to living there, and I hope you are able to enjoy those enough to forget the maddening negatives. Good luck!

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