the George Bush: Korea 12

I couldn't help but compare my first day at my Korean internship with my first day in the courthouse last summer. The differences were actually quite stark. Most of those stark contrasts revolve around the fact that here I am the only white person. Not only am I the only white person, most of my co-workers only have an elementary understanding of English. Likewise I only have an elementary understanding of Korean. It makes for awkward business lunches but more on that later.

I arrived at work this morning for orientation and immediately took part in the flurry of business card exchange that is part and parcel of corporate life in Korea. I don't know why but they are obsessed with business cards. Everyone was so amused that I had a business card (in both english and Korean no less) to give to them. After learning a bit about my new workplace, I was shuffled off along with my co-intern. You see when we started the morning, I was with the 3 other interns assigned to the same company from the program. After the meeting with our mentors we were split off into our various departments. For example, I'm in life insurance along with one other intern.

Anyways, once we were upstairs we were shown our desks. Thus began yet another series of awkward and confusing exchanges as we attempted to figure out how to log on to our company issued laptops. Did I mention that they're all in Korean and that the internet wasn't working at first? Once that situation was straightened out we were taken around the office to meet the rest of the life insurance team. I practiced bowing, they practiced shaking hands and saying "nice to meet you." Not without a few practice rounds first though, just to make sure they had their pronunciation right before actually greeting us. I have to admit, I am very impressed at how much effort they are making to get to know us. After all we'll only be there for 5 weeks so they really have no obligation to bond with us. Yet they're making quite the effort to communicate and learn more about us personally. Despite the awkward moments I appreciate their effort.

During the introductions the most interesting thing happened. While sitting down to meet a higher level employee we began a conversation about where we were from. I mentioned I was from Texas. The higher level employee pauses, knits his brow together, looks at me and says:
"I think you resemble the George Bush."
My face must have resembled some sort of horror (no offense to President Bush but who really wants to be compared to him physically?!) because my mentor quickly jumped in to clarify. Apparently here in Korea George Bush is considered quite handsome making that statement quite the complement.

I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

After awhile we were taken out for a traditional Korean business lunch. We all sat on the floor eating cold noodles but not first without an ordeal. All of the other women pop a seat on the floor in their skirts and dressed yet when it comes my turn to sit down a flurry of activity breaks out. Here in Korea where you sit has a great deal of significance so I waited patiently until someone pointed me towards an appropriate floor mat. I was prevented from sitting by a flurry of Korean and lots of gesturing my direction. My mentor translated that apparently everyone was quite concerned about my ability to sit on the floor in a skirt. To show that I could do so I simply sat down. Everyone finally quieted down. Not quite though--they did bring me a bib to wear while I ate. Oh and proceed to ask me 17 times if I was sure I didn't want a fork instead of chopsticks. While I, again, appreciate the effort to accommodate me I felt somewhat like a 5 year old learning to tie their shoes. You know, the whole "no let me do it!" thing. Gosh darn it I'm in Korea. I want to sit on the floor, eat with chopsticks and not have to wear a bib while I do so.  But hey, I'm still a bit flattered.

The afternoon was filled with work. I think this internship will be quite the good thing. Not only will I learn to navigate Korea culture and get used to feeling like a goldfish in a bowl (did I mention that it's not considered rude to stare here?), but I'll also gain a lot of valuable knowledge on antitrust and life insurance law. We already have research assignments to work on. I've worked for years to convince myself that not everyone's staring at me. Between 9:30 and 6 today everyone was actually staring at me. Tomorrow I begin my actual work according to my mentor. At least this time I'll be prepared when everyone stops working to stare at me as I get a cup of water.


Disclaimer: This post is more about adjusting to life in a radically different culture and is not meant to be construed in any way as anti-Korean. In fact, it's pro-Korean. In many other cultures they would not go out of their way quite so much to be accommodating to someone of a different background, especially if they weren't sticking around long. It's just awkward for a girl who doesn't like having a fuss made over her. 

1 comment:

  1. Ok so you look like George Bush? hehehe! Sounds like a wonderful internship and I know you will do great!