Through the Looking Glass: You're Just As Weird As I Am

by Chae Kim | 9/13/17 2:10am

mirrorttlgchaekim
Source: Courtesy of Chaeyoon Kim

Bzzz. I feel the familiar gentle vibration in my hand. “Your Uber is arriving now. Your driver will wait two min before leaving. Enjoy the ride!” Surely enough, the gray Honda Civic turns in from the corner, lighting the dark street with its blinding headlights like a lighthouse in the dark sea.

The driver starts up the usual Uber-small talk, “How was your day?”

“It was fine — long day at work but glad it’s done, you know.”

“Yeah, I get that.”

“How about you?”

“Same — long day but not too bad.”

It’s silent for a few blocks. Then he starts up the conversation again, “Are you from around here?”

“I’m originally from Korea, but I go to school in New Hampshire.”

“Korea? That’s awesome!” He seems excited all of a sudden, and I’m not sure why.

“Haha, thanks.”

“Hey, is it true that you can’t get whatever haircut you want over there?”

“Huh?”

As the driver begins to ramble on about how he saw on the internet somewhere that my “leader” has all these weird rules about haircuts, I soon realize that he thinks I am from North Korea. I explain to him that I’m from South Korea, which is a different country from North Korea. I also tell him that what he saw is probably exaggerated by the media and I’d guess that people can get different kinds of haircuts if they wanted to. I sense an immediate decrease in his excitement.

To be frank, I wasn’t very alarmed that this driver didn’t know that I was from South Korea. You’d be surprised how many people I run into that confound North and South Korea or ask me which one I am from. It even happened once during a Dartmouth sorority rush event. What completely blew my mind, however, was that this man legitimately thought that he had a North Korean person in his car, and he decided to use this rare opportunity to get a peak inside the mysterious country by asking about haircuts. Seriously, amidst all the crazy things that are going on right now with North Korea, he wanted to know if I can get a bowl cut if I wanted to. I was baffled.

Born in Korea but having spent much of my life in the United States, I have seen many Americans time and time again point out all the things they find weird in other people’s cultures. They commented on French eating habits during my study abroad, complained about the squatting toilets when I went to teach English drill in China or just pointed out things that international students do in everyday life. I find it natural that people love to notice and comment on the weird things in other cultures rather than things they can relate to. Perhaps to my Uber driver, a regulatory limit to the length of his “bro flow” felt like a more foreign concept than massive amounts of nuclear weapons and military power controlled by a capricious national leader. Of course, this tendency to notice the differences is not unique to Americans. To demonstrate, here is a taste of some things I find odd as a foreigner in America:

Food

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love and appreciate food. The combination of moving around so much from country to country as a child and the fact that my parents didn’t allow me to be picky about food led me to really value different food in other cultures. That being said, there are definitely some strange combinations of foods that are common in the U.S. that I would not have guessed to put together. Examples include chicken and waffles, bacon on donuts, fried Oreos and sweet potato and marshmallows (yet there are so many movies and TV shows about the cause of obesity in this country?). I also find snow cones an insult to all types of ice cream, gelato and sorbet around the world, and I have trouble getting myself to pay money to buy balled up snow that has syrup poured over it.

Tipping

I still fail to understand why restaurants won’t just pay their servers appropriate amounts of money and not have the customer try to figure out what the tip should be each time. Do you tip before tax or after tax? Is 15 percent standard or 20 percent? Do you tip for takeout? Do you tip if a bartender makes you a drink? Do you tip if a bartender just pours you a beer? Do you tip less in that case? Do you tip if the owner of the restaurant or bar serves you? I remember talking about the tipping culture with my French host mother once, and she expressed her confusions as well. She asked, “Why is it that you tip servers but not any other people that offer you a service — like a bus driver or a store salesman?” I had no answer for her.

Drug advertisements

On the rare occasions that I watch TV while here, I am always amused by the numerous pharmaceutical advertisements that never look like what they are advertising. If you had the TV on mute, you would never know what it was about.

“Look, isn’t this happy family of three generations blissfully laughing at the dinner table just lovely? By the way, taking our drug can cause severe side effects that are probably worse than your original illness. They include headaches, hallucinations, never-ending diarrhea, heart attacks or death. Also, the drug hasn’t been fully tested or approved by the FDA yet, so we don’t actually know what will happen if you take it. Did you catch that? Probably not, since we sped up the tape to four times the normal speed of talking. Anyway, call now and buy our product — you will be just as happy as this laughing family, or regretting all of your life decisions on a toilet.” Just listening to it gives me anxiety.

Star spangled everything

I have always admired the incredible amount of nationalism that people in the U.S. appear to have. Children begin to pledge allegiance to the flag every morning in school before they even know what the word allegiance means, people can list all the reasons why the U.S. is the greatest and people love to put the flag everywhere — on porches, streets, clothing or even plates and silverware. I drove through parts of rural Maine this summer on my way to a hike, and we drove through a half-mile stretch of a road that had hundreds of American flags on both sides of the street. People wear shirts, socks and bikinis patterned with the American flag. In Korea, a bikini with the Korean flag pattern would likely be considered offensive, whereas in the U.S. it’s a way to express love for the country. Ask an international student if they own a t-shirt with their national flag.

Carding adults

Turning 21 is always an awkward celebration for international students that have been drinking legally for years. That the drinking limit is 21 is beside the point — the U.S. is possibly the most stringent country that I have lived in regarding alcohol. Honestly, it’s a great thing that everyone is so cautious about checking for IDs before serving alcohol, since no one wants to be responsible for serving alcohol to a minor. That said, I just don’t understand why my 50-plus year old dad can’t purchase wine at the supermarket without his ID.

Coins

The currency in Korea is called won. The coin that is worth 10 wons is called 10 won, the coin that is worth 50 wons is called 50 won, the coin that is worth 100 wons is called 100 won and the coin that is worth 500 wons is called 500 won. The 10 won coin is the smallest and the 500 won coin is the largest. In the U.S., you have nicknames for your coins that aren’t always relevant to the value of the coin. Furthermore, the dime looks like it should be worth the least, but is in fact the second most valuable coin. The currency in the U.S. is called a dollar. One hundred cents make up a dollar. The coin that is worth one cent is called a penny, the coin that is worth five cents is called a nickel, the coin that is worth 10 cents is called a dime and the coin that is worth 25 cents is called a quarter.

The list could go on (ask me how I feel about using Fahrenheit, trying to understand distances by imagining a chain of massive feet or that a temperamental rodent supposedly predicts if spring is around the corner), but I think I have made my point clear. Weirdness is in the eye of the beholder. The Dartmouth community includes members from all kinds of different backgrounds that originate from over 70 different countries. I guarantee that you can find something weird about each and every one of these community members, and they can do the same about you. Weird doesn’t mean inferior — it just means different. I hope that we can learn to celebrate and appreciate weirdness, because how boring would it be if we were all exactly the same?