(2) Poverty: We went to Busan yesterday, which is the 2nd biggest city in South Korea (at 3.5 million people, it's the size of Los Angeles). At a busy McDonald's (happily, McD's supplies toilet paper in their bathrooms - just another little cultural tidbit for you who take that little public bathroom nicety for granted each day), we waited for Nick to buy drinks (side note: the straw dispenser was jammed and when he opened it to fix it--another American-ism in itself-- he discovered a very chewed-on straw. Eww). Anyway, the kids were messing around with the (rather creepy) Ronald statue and I was standing near the trash counter. Korean McDonalds's are serious about trash sorting: the reusable cups go in one bin (remaining liquids should be dumped in another bin); food waste goes in a separate bin from paper waste. I noticed a middle-aged Korean woman with dirty hair fussing around the trash but taking longer than the usual few seconds; she took a straw out of her small black plastic bag, then poured the contents of several (unemptied) cups into one empty cup, which she stirred and then began drinking. As other customers approached, she busied herself with her plastic bag, trying to blend in with the trash rituals of the oblivious customers. Curious. Then my memories of living in Chicago kicked in: this lady was poor but had too much pride to beg. My Christian/American side wanted to help her; my history in Chicago said you shouldn't give money to poor folks on the street; new sensitivity to Buddhist/Korean standards (don't offend, and don't help strangers ESPECIALLY if you're not Korean) meant I should definitely not help her. Nick had brought the drinks, chatting about his straw adventure, and we were leaving. In the end, I hurriedly folded some money together and dropped it on the counter near the woman, where she found it with a smile and met my eyes before I turned to leave. I still don't know if it was the right thing to do
(3) Foreign money: In the US, I rarely carried over $20 with me and usually had less than $5. I'm not sure why; maybe it's from being a graduate student for so long, when buying a box of Oreos was a really big treat; maybe from living in a rough neighborhood in Chicago and riding the train every day made me cautious. But Korean money just doesn't seem real, especially given the difference in value vs. the US dollar (1000 Korean won are worth about 90 cents), and personal crime is so uncommon here that I carry a tiny amount or a huge amount with equally little concern. There are no checking accounts here, and our bank statements are in Korean, so inability to balance our accounts makes our finances seem even less real. I have paid David and Elisabeth's school tuition in cash: 1.3 million won (about $1200) made the school secretary's eyes grow very wide. I did some editing work recently and the author paid me in cash: a beautiful fan of 50,000 won bills. It's so freeing to not be bound by money; our rent, utilities, and landline are deducted from Nick's paycheck; his cell phone bill is deducted from our bank account. We have no bills to pay. Side note: I love that Korea has a woman on its regularly-used currency; poor American women Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea got stuck on US coins that no one used.
half of all Koreans share just 3 surnames: Kim (pronounced "Geem"), Park (pronounced "Pahk") and Lee (pronounced "ee"). But of course there are others: Jeong, Cheong, Choi (pronounced "Chey"), Gang (pronounced "Kahng"), Min, etc. First names range all over the place: Youchung, Ganghyun, Min, Hyeung-sup, Juram, Boyeon, etc. Married women keep their own name rather than taking their husband's; children take the husband's family name. You probably know that Koreans use their family names first (so, Kim Juram) unless they are speaking to an American and they switch it around for you (Juram Kim). Now imagine seeing names on office doors, in news articles, etc. Even if you can pronounce every name (the Korean language is pretty easy that way), you have no idea which are family vs. first names or which designate males vs. females. (There are even generational names, which I have only begun to sort out: every kid in a family gets the same basic first name plus a special suffix just for them). I mentioned this naming confusion to a Korean woman, who laughed because it was so easy for her - but she couldn't understand American names! Well, that's easy, I