Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Korea's 'Yes' culture

The past 24 hours has been ... well, not hellish, but not enjoyable either. We were told last week that we'd be moving to a bigger apartment that is slightly closer to town - currently we're three blocks away from the city centre and it takes around 25 minutes to walk to our schools. The small apartment is not ideal but it's clean and has air conditioning and we have some nice neighbours. 3 bedrooms sounded pretty appealing, we could each have a room (Tom can play guitar in his, I can eat chocolate and fart in mine) and we'd have space if anyone deigned to make the trip and visit us. Currently guests can enjoy a night on our rock-hard couch, in our bedroom/living room. I hate that couch.
As we'd heard some horror stories about the apartments in Buan - heavy mould on the ceiling was described as 'green paint' by one eager landlord - we wanted to see the place first. I asked for the address and a key and my co-teacher gave me the building name and apartment number, insisting that I would know how to find the building as soon as I stepped out of our current apartment, and that the security guard would let us in. Of course. We spent a good part of the weekend wandering the streets of Buan and matching the hangul on my note with what was written on the side of apartment buildings.
On Sunday, we went to Jeonju and met up with Lauren and some other teachers, ate lunch and walked around the city. Jeonju's about an hour away by bus and where we'll need to go for shopping, movies, entertainment - we bought parmesan cheese and a guitar for Tom.
We got back to Buan at about 6pm and we were tired and sunburnt so we splurged the 3000 won (about $3.50) and caught a cab to finally see the apartment. Or so we thought. The Lonely Planet Korean Phrasebook doesn't cover 'Please can we borrow a key so we can look at the apartment that we might be moving to?' so after a good 20 minutes of walking around, gesturing, pointing and then one exasperated call to my co-teacher (who explained the situation to a very confused security guard) we got let in to apartment 202. I wish I had pictures - the apartment is easily 3 times the size of where we live now. The kitchen has a gas hob. The master bedroom is a decent size, the other two are small but big enough for us to use. There are two drying areas and enough space in the living room for a couch, a TV and a dining table. The downsides?
  • The bathroom is gross.
  • There's no air conditioning.
The latter is a dealbreaker. Korea is HOT and so humid in summer and although we've only been here during the tail end, it's still intolerable. I've spent most of my time here looking like this:

The first few days, I just couldn't concentrate because of the heat and I barely wore pants (usually, I love not wearing pants!) but then I'd get stuck to and have to peel myself off our crappy leather couch. Have I mentioned how much I hate that couch? That couch is like sitting on a park bench covered in sellotape.
Monday morning I talked to my co-teacher and explained that we'd like to move but we needed air conditioning. I'd been teaching her about conditional phrases (a lot of Korean adults use us as their own personal English teachers) so this was a good chance to reiterate - If the Office of Education bought us an air conditioner, we would move into the new apartment. My co-teacher confirmed they'd buy one. I asked again to check. She reconfirmed.
On Tuesdays I teach at two small rural schools, about 20 kilometres out of Buan. Yesterday morning my co-teacher called and asked me where the keys to my house were. They were with me, and no my apartment wasn't unlocked. She seemed really annoyed that I'd gone to work and taken my keys with me. I was told to hurry back to Buan (a 10,000 won taxi fare) and wait while the Office of Education moved our double bed into the new place.
As the movers packed up the bed I talked to one of the assistants from the Office of Education. I wrote down a list of the appliances we'd need for the new apartment and put air conditioning at the top. I got him to sit on our awful couch and explained that we wanted a softer one (please!!) and that we needed a big fridge. His supervisor came up and confirmed that everything we wanted for the apartment was fine and they took our bed and I spent the rest of the day packing everything else. We've been here three weeks and have already amassed quite a bit of stuff:

We were told that we'd have to move everything else ourselves, either 2 taxi rides or about 10 trips between the old apartment and the new (about 1km each way). Taxi rides are cheap but the lack of support from the Education Office was a bit questionable - if the Education Office can move our bed, why can't they move the rest of our stuff?
Fortunately, we are lazy bastards. If we hadn't been lazy bastards, by the time my co-teacher rang at 5pm we would have moved everything into the new place. When she rang, she told me that the Office of Education wasn't going to buy us an air conditioning unit, and would a fan do?  
At this point, the patient and even tone I developed while working at the contact centre of one of New Zealand's major banks really came into play. I explained that no, a fan would not sub in for an air conditioner, and that without it we would stay in our current apartment. I explained that I understood it wasn't her fault, and that I wasn't angry at  her. I explained that although summer is at an end that next year we will still have to suffer through two months of hot, humid Korean summer without air conditioning, and I would rather live in a tiny apartment with air con than a large apartment without it. My sanity needs air conditioning.
Basially, we became victims of Korea's 'Yes' culture. Koreans HATE to say no. Saying 'no' makes Koreans feel like they have 'lost face.' This can happen for small things - like 'Did you do your homework?' or 'Can you understand me?' to bigger stuff - like 'Can we have air conditioning for our apartment?' Despite checking and re-checking, we were never going to get air conditioning. I'm going to have to learn to rephrase my questions to get more direct answers.
This morning, I was told that we have to figure out how to move our bed back to the small apartment ourselves. Tonight, we're going to fit a double bed into a taxi and then drink soju until we forget everything.


  1. I'd be happy to drag our leather-covered wooden bench (I will not endorse Anna's reference to this item as a "couch") into the kitchen for any potential visitors/self torture enthusiasts to "sleep" on.

  2. In Japan they have a 'maybe' culture. Maybe means no. And to say yes in Japn, you can say 'maybe yes'. 'Maybe no' means hell no.