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When I used to teach ESL back in Vancouver, my South Korean students were fond of telling me there are three types of people in their country: men, women and ajumas. 

Ajuma literally means “married woman”, but my students were really talking about a specific subset of this group between roughly 45 and 65 years of age. The young people in Korean society are cowed by these women who seem able to do pretty much whatever they want. 

You wouldn't want to mess with this ajuma.

You wouldn't want to mess with this ajuma.

 

Stories abound of how an ajuma getting on a subway train will throw her purse on an empty seat before rushing over to grab it. Some poor young kid who has been standing for fifteen minutes and was about to sit down can do nothing about this due to the importance of age in South Korea

Ajumas are also notorious for cutting to the front of long lines, using any and all means to get to the last item of a product on sale, and loudly discussing the bodies of young Korean women at the public baths. 

Ajumas are also incredibly fast. The first time I was in Korea, my wife and I had to take a long ride on the subway in Seoul. After I had been standing for about thirty minutes in the very crowded train, a young student who was sitting right in front of me got up to make his way to the door. I couldn’t wait to take a load off, but just as I began to turn around to take the newly vacant seat, some tiny little ajuma magically appeared from nowhere and took it! She was quick as lightning, and while I was irritated that I had to keep standing, I couldn’t help but be impressed. My students had told me about “ajuma power” many times, and now I knew concretely what they were talking about. 

In addition to their mighty power, ajumas also have a distinctive style of dress. Floral prints mixed with pastels or else a dark track suit are the two main looks. A perm is de rigueur. It starts off as a wave perm for women in the pre-ajuma power stage, gets tighter around 45 and finally progresses to a poodle-like coif later. To cap it all off, so to speak, almost all ajumas wear a visor, preferably one with a dark shade that covers almost their entire face to prevent their skin from freckling in the sun. 

An ajuma with full visor works out.

An ajuma with full visor works out.

 

Young women put up with a lot in Korea. Growing up, they often take a backseat to their brothers – especially the eldest brother, who is basically the parents’ retirement plan. Smoking on the street is taboo for young women but not for young men. Their curfews are stricter typically. And if a Korean woman marries a first-born son, she will usually live with his family and be under her mother-in-law’s thumb. 

Given all this, I can understand why a woman in South Korea would let loose once she reaches a point where she is older than most and finally has some power. After basically being a second class citizen for her entire life, why not enjoy the perks once they come? This is why I don’t believe the women of my wife’s generation when they tell me they won’t behave like today’s ajumas. Power corrupts. Ajuma power corrupts absolutely. 

Ajuma visors come in many colors - but all black is best for intimidating the young.

Ajuma visors come in many colors - but all black is best for intimidating the young.

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A good friend of mine is doubtful that North Korea was responsible for last month’s sinking of the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan. He says North Korea knows they would be obliterated several times over if they committed an overt act of war. I’m not so sure an overt act of war would lead to such a result, though.

I’m certain the North would be obliterated if a full-on war between the two Koreas broke out. The price to the South, however, would be painfully high. North Korea would rain fire on South Korea, especially Seoul. Many thousands would be killed, property would be destroyed and South Korea’s hard-earned economic miracle would be over for a good long while.

It seems to me that South Korea’s military advantages are cancelled out by its own economic success. Whatever they would “win” in a war would pale in comparison to what they would lose. I don’t believe South Korea wants such a fight, and I have a feeling North Korea’s leadership shares this belief and is emboldened by it.

This little bit that ran recently in the Korea Times leads me to believe a full-scale war is not likely:

“Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Yu Myung-hwan said Sunday that South Korea could take the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) if North Korea was found to have been involved in the incident.

Asked what kind of diplomatic measures South Korea could consider, Yu said ‘war-related’ affairs were the jurisdiction of the council and therefore Seoul would have to abide by its ruling.”

This is bunk. There is nothing in the laws of physics that says the UNSC has any such jurisdiction. This is just a fiction commonly propagated by countries lacking the power to project their will and/or seeking to constrain more powerful countries from projecting theirs. South Korea now adds a third category: countries trying very hard not to go to war. And they’ll succeed, because I sure don’t see China giving a green light to an attack on the North.

If North Korea did it, I believe we’ll see an emergency session of the UNSC, a very serious sounding communiqué and some “tough” sanctions that really won’t have much effect on Pyongyang.

Maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part. I am living here with my wife and son, after all, and the last thing I want is for us to be anywhere near a war zone. One thing I know for sure is that if I come to feel the chances of war are greater than 25 per cent, we’ll be moving on.

Right now, though, I feel pretty comfortable staying put.

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If you’ve ever been to Korea (or pretty much any country in the Far East), you have seen folks of all ages and walks of life wearing surgical masks. Here is a guide for expatriates in Korea who would like to join in the fun but are unsure of when it is appropriate to do so.     

Surgical masks may be worn under the following conditions:     

  • If you have a cold or the flu;
  • If you are trying to avoid catching a cold or the flu;
  • If the weather is cold;
  • If a wind storm is blowing sand from the Gobi Desert all over the place;
  • If the air pollution is bad; or
  • If it is a Tuesday.

Basically, it is acceptable to wear a surgical mask pretty much any day of the year. There is, however, no rule that says it must cover your mouth. In fact, it is not unusual to see some young fellow walking around with his mask covering only his chin. Whether this is an expression of youthful rebellion or simply some jaunty new style, I cannot say for certain.     

Coming or going? Doesn't matter. Either is perfectly fine.

Coming or going? Doesn't matter. Either is perfectly fine.

 

Want to wear one while using the public exercise equipment? Go for it!

Want to wear one while using the public exercise equipment? Go for it!

 

Want to wear one that offers absolutely no protection against infection? Why not? Ritual is an important part of life.

Want to wear one that offers absolutely no protection against infection? Why not? Ritual is an important part of life.

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Do you remember how important age was in elementary school? If you were even a year older than another kid, you were the boss. And kids two or three years older were viewed with a certain awe. It’s kind of like that in Korea, except the obsession with age continues all the way through until death.

Praise or blame Confucius for this, because it’s his system of philosophy that places such importance on age. And nowhere does Confucianism hold such sway as in Korea.

Confucius teaches that there are five basic relationships: king-subject, father-son, husband-wife, elder brother-younger brother (or old-young), and friend-friend. In his teaching, only one of these relationships is egalitarian – friend-friend. The rest are hierarchical, with the subservient party owing a duty of deference and the dominant party owing a duty of care, basically.

This duty of care manifests as a freewheeling propensity for top dogs to dispense advice (wanted or not) and give orders – as well as to pick up the tab at dinner, which makes the previous aspects at least somewhat bearable. Since the dominant party is very typically older, age is held to be very important.

Whereas Westerners will ask someone they’ve just met things like “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”, Koreans very quickly get down to the business of figuring out who is the oldest. “When were you born?” is a question that gets asked fairly shortly after two or more Koreans meet for the first time.

If the gap in age is small, say one or two (maybe three) years, everybody can relax a bit. The potential for a friend-friend relationship exists. If the age gap is bigger, however, most Koreans will not feel that friendship is possible. They can be friendly but not friends. Instead, they will adopt the elder sibling-younger sibling relationship. In cases where the gap in age is very large, the older party is almost like a king or queen. Lots of deep bows and attentiveness from the juniors.

So here’s where we are so far: Older outranks younger.

Simple, right? Well, no, this is Korea and they don’t do simple. Just to make things fun for foreigners trying to figure out the culture, the system of age hierarchy has at least one interesting wrinkle. I’ll explain.

Back in 2003, I visited Korea for the first time. I taught ESL in Vancouver then and had lots of Korean students, so I knew a fair bit about the culture before I left to meet KJ’s family and get their blessing for us to get married. I knew how important age was.

In the first three weeks of our visit, I learned the myriad ways age affects everyday life. Smoking in front of elders was a big no-no. Hold your glass with two hands when a senior pours alcohol for you and hold the bottle with both hands when you pour alcohol for a senior. Use two hands and turn away from your senior when drinking alcohol at the table. Never use an older person’s name. It goes on and on.

Finally, Chusok (Korean Thanksgiving) arrived. Well, I was very excited, because KJ’s cousins and nieces and nephews were coming. Finally, I’d have more than just KJ’s two sisters to outrank in age.

Not so fast, outlander! What nobody told me is that since I was marrying into KJ’s family, I got demoted in terms of age – taking KJ’s age and losing five years in the process. This meant that KJ’s older sister (who is younger than me) and her youngest cousin (who is younger than me) are older than me.

If I were Korean, then KJ would move up the age hierarchy in my family by taking my age. She would, therefore, be older than my sister – despite the fact that my sister is older than she is.

Confused? I’m glad, because that means I’ve done a decent job of giving you some idea of what it’s like to be a foreigner in Korea – a land overflowing with unknown unknowns, where the obsession with who’s older than whom continues far beyond elementary school and never ever ends.

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Are you looking for a healthcare system that combines quality, promptness and affordability? Well, then come on over. South Korea has just what you’re looking for.

Our son came down with a fever on Sunday night, which at first was pretty minor and nothing to worry about. By lunchtime the next day, in fact, it had pretty much gone away. But the fever soon returned and each time we got it down, it came back worse.

Finally, at 8 p.m. Monday night, it reached 103 Farenheit (39.5 Celsius), pretty close to emergency room territory. It took the help and guidance of KJ’s mom, older sister and brother-in-law to finally get Ian’s temperature down to a safe level.

And so it was that we came to visit the offices of Dr. Lee Jong-yul on Tuesday morning. It was an impressive experience.

Dr. Lee is a jovial fellow who radiates the kindness and patience surely required to deal with crying and screaming sick kids all day. He also projected the kind of calm competence that a worried mom and dad are looking for.

Once informed of Ian’s symptoms, he got straight to work looking for the cause. He listened to Ian’s heart. It was fine. He tapped the little guy’s tummy. No problem there. He put a scope in Ian’s right ear and saw that it was infected. He chatted briefly with KJ about this and then examined the left ear, which the monitor showed was almost completely blocked with ear wax.

This didn’t surprise us much.

When Ian’s ears had been examined back in Victoria, British Columbia, a couple of doctors had noted the same problem with wax buildup but did nothing. The first said it wasn’t too bad and would work its way out. The second doctor just told us to put a drop of mineral oil or olive oil in his ears and that would take care of it.

Dr. Lee did something different – he fixed the problem. He calmly told KJ to hold Ian’s arms and body tight and then, as the nurse held the little guy’s head, Dr. Lee inserted a long thin instrument into the ear. A very short time later, he pulled it out and inserted another instrument and brought out the offending clump of ear wax. It all took less than a minute.

Why the doctors we saw in Canada couldn’t do this is beyond me.

Next, Dr. Lee felt Ian’s neck and found the cause for the fever: swollen glands. He checked his throat for good measure but it was fine.

Now, you might think that an uninsured couple would pay a lot of money to receive such high-quality medical care for their toddler, but you would be wrong. Sure we paid full price, but full price is about $13. Getting the prescription filled? Another $7. Hardly worth the paperwork to get reimbursed by our travel health insurance provider.

Another shock for me was that the prescription was filled in three minutes! 

“In Korea, if it only takes three minutes to prepare your medicine then you only wait three minutes. They don’t make you wait twenty minutes like they do in Canada,” KJ said on the drive home. “Unless it takes twenty minutes to prepare it. But that’s not common.”

KJ’s mom told me doctors give such excellent prompt care because of the competition. There are lots of other doctors just on that one street and Korea as a whole has an ample supply, she told me. Anything less than top-notch service and a practice suffers.

I’m a citizen of Canada and the United States, two countries where health care is a pretty hot topic. Many Americans love to deride the Canadian healthcare system and Canadians are wildly enthusiastic about slamming the American system. Well, I can tell you America and Canada both have something to learn from Korea.

Canada can learn not to kick the can down the road and to speed up the delivery of care. Addressing the shortage of doctors so the ones we have aren’t so overworked would be a great start. America can learn to make care affordable. I don’t know enough to say where Korea’s healthcare system ranks in the world, but it sure seems good to this dad.

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An ajuma works a pair of toe socks at the Gu In Jung Sa Temple's sungmoo on Sunday, April 4, 2010.

An ajuma works a pair of toe socks at the Gu In Jung Sa Temple’s sungmoo on Sunday, April 4, 2010.

 

While I was at Gu In Jung Sa Temple watching the sungmoo on Sunday (please see Buddhism With Korean Characteristics below), I noticed an older woman wearing toe socks. I’ve always thought these gloves for the feet were just a novelty item, but apparently they’re not over here. 

I figured that perhaps toe socks were something that ajumas wear, but KJ’s older sister, Kyung-mi, set me straight. She informed me that they are most commonly worn by people suffering from athlete’s foot so that the toes can be kept separated. In fact, she said, her husband has a few pairs and I could have one – an unopened and not previously worn pair, I would like to make clear. 

I’m always up for a new experience, so I said sure. Off she went to fetch them, and I wore them that afternoon when Kyung-mi, her husband, KJ and I took the kids out to Ulsan. Well, I am quite pleasantly surprised to report that they are the most god damn comfortable things I’ve ever worn on my feet. 

Sure they look kind of funny, but your feet stay cool and you don’t even feel like you’re wearing socks. They are fantastic. 

A place for every toe + Every toe in its place = AWESOME!

A place for every toe + Every toe in its place = AWESOME!

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Gu In Jung Sa Temple Spring Ritual

Monks play instruments and chant during ritual to ask local god's protection of the town.

There are about a million Buddhist temples in Korea, and it seems like almost every little mountain in the country has at least one. Yesterday the father-in-law thought I might like to go over to the temple nearest the house to watch a ceremony they were holding.    

So off we went to Gu In Jungsa Temple, taking a shortcut past the cow pen and through the tiny hay-field of the miniature farm out behind the in-laws’ house. Then we went up the road a spell until we came to the small temple. Judging by the noise, the ritual was well under way.    

Two old men were sitting on chairs just outside the gate. My father-in-law said something to them and gestured towards me. I gave a good deep bow and said, “Ahn yong hasayo,” which is the formal way of saying hello to strangers and those older than you. It is one of the very, very few Korean phrases I have mastered and I enjoy deploying it at pretty much every opportunity.    

Having astounded the locals with my virtuosity in their own language, we entered the courtyard of the temple, where the ritual was being performed. I learned later the purpose was to ask the god of the mountain to protect the town.    

Sungmoo

A monk performs sungmoo, the dance to ask the local god to protect the town.

At first, it all seemed to be a pretty standard and straight-ahead Buddhist ceremony. There were drums, cymbals, moktaks (a hollow wooden percussion instrument) and chanting. There was a table loaded with offerings to the local deity at the front, the monks were to the left and the congregants were either sitting or bowing to the table or to the monks.    

Then I noticed something that surprised me: a big dead pig right beside the offering table. I’m no scholar when it comes to Buddhism, but I’m pretty sure there is something in there about not killing animals and the importance of being a vegetarian. I can understand that the rank and file might not follow this teaching, but shouldn’t the monks of a temple?    

Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the pig had envelopes stuffed in his mouth. Then I saw some folks put 10,000 won notes in his ears (worth about $10). I knew what I would be asking KJ after we got home.    

Some pig

Jaymul pig with money offerings stuffed in his mouth and ears.

According to KJ, Korean Buddhism has been influenced by the animist traditions that preceded it in this country. The envelopes in the pig’s mouth contained money and were put there by believers so that their prayers would be answered. Same thing with the money stuffed into his ears.    

 These pigs are pretty important in Korea, apparently. When someone opens a business, they may buy a pig to help bring good luck. Usually it’s just the head, though. The value of these jaymul pigs (offering pigs) is determined by how big its smile is. The bigger the smile, the bigger the luck – and, naturally, the bigger the price.    

How sacrificing a pig for use in a Buddhist rite gets reconciled with the teaching of the Buddha and the sages who followed him is something I do not yet know. All I know right now is I’m looking forward to the opportunity to find out.

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Before flying to Korea, my big concern was how my fourteen-month old son would tolerate such a long journey – about 24 hours from the time we left my mother’s until we arrived at my in-laws’ house. I needn’t have worried about Ian, though. He was a trooper. It’s the people who run the airports that are the problem with long-distance travel.

This is my first trip abroad in six years, but I’ve flown domestically during that time so the whole taking off the belt and shoes thing was nothing new. Except for doing it while holding a 25-pound toddler in one arm, I guess, which is a patience-draining addition to the ritual. While emptying the contents of pockets into a big plastic tub, tossing my watch in there and then the belt, I found myself thinking, Bring on the god damn body scanners already.

If political correctness precludes a reasonably targeted approach to airport security that minimizes the discomfort for folks not planning on blowing up jets or smuggling drugs, at least make the silly process we have now quick. If that means some bored security guy or gal sees my private parts, so be it.

The one mildly entertaining part of the security ritual came after all our stuff had gone through the scanner. KJ and I were keeping tabs on Ian while gathering everything together when a short, stocky security guy came over and looked inside one of the tubs. He had five o’clock shadow even though it was about eight in the morning.

Spying my red Bic lighter, he muttered with a very gravelly voice, “That’s gonna need to go in a bag.”

He quickly procured a Ziploc bag issued by the Government of Canada and CATSA (the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority), dropped my Bic in it, and sealed it shut. I thought maybe it would be kept by the flight attendants until after we landed in Vancouver, which actually seemed sensible to me. But, no, he handed it right over.

I honestly cannot figure out the point of this. I had an image of a shoe bomber sitting in a window seat, crossing his leg so his foot was against the fuselage and then reaching for his lighter – only to be crushingly disappointed to find it in a well-sealed plastic baggy. Bet they don’t teach terrorists how to get around that one!

Vancouver International Airport, meanwhile, is apparently dedicated to persecuting travellers who smoke – people (and we are people) like me.

Once we made our way from YVR’s domestic terminal to the international terminal, I set about looking for a smoking-room. They used to have one, but now they don’t.

I was told by security that the only way to have a smoke was to pass through customs, exit the airport, and then go through security to get right back to where I already was. We had a lot of time to kill before the flight to Seoul, but not so much that such an onerous exercise would be worth it.

Why an airport can’t make any sort of reasonable accommodation for smokers, who in many cases are travelling a great many hours, is beyond me. I know we smokers are outcasts, but this really does seem to take things a little too far. Add the ridiculous security procedures to the mix and all the fun has been taken out of flying.

It’s too bad. The journey itself used to be one of the best parts of travelling.

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