Tuesday, July 12, 2016

What I Do & Don't Miss About South Korea

There are many things I miss about Korea. It became my home for a year and was just as hard to leave as it was to leave America in 2014. At the same time, I don't regret my decision to stay for only a year. I can't believe that already eleven months have passed since I finished teaching there. I think it's due time that I make a list of what I do—and don't—miss about life in the Republic of Korea.


-I think what I miss the most about Korea is the safety. (Yes, despite the presence of North Korea. Most South Koreans really aren't that concerned about it.) I never felt any danger walking at night by myself, or going hiking by myself, or doing anything by myself. Owning a gun is illegal, and people simply leave you alone*. I hardly heard of any crime at all happening when I lived there. As an example, I accidentally left my key in my apartment door one night—which was practically inviting someone to come in—and nothing happened. When I think of how common crime is in the States and how mass shootings have become mainstream, I can't help but yearn for the sense of security I had in Korea. I also never had to worry about being catcalled or receiving any kind of inappropriate gesture or comment from a Korean. If this ever did happen, it was from a person of another ethnicity.

-I miss the restaurant and street food too, of course—though by the end I'll admit I was sick of kimchi. Bibimbap, toppokki, red bean fish, hotteok, dakgalbi...things that I'll have to travel two hours to the Korean section of Atlanta to be able to eat again. No more local kimbap stores that offer dozens of traditional Korean dishes for less than $5.

-Like I said in a previous post, I definitely miss the lack of tipping and the fact that taxes were included in the price. That makes so much SENSE! I propose the U.S. adopt this immediately.
Reeds along a beautiful bike path
through the countryside

-I miss how easy it was to access parks, nature, and good, car-free biking and hiking paths. While I live in a beautiful area of the Georgia suburbs that's surrounded by woods and animals that love to jump in front of your car, my family still has to travel a good distance to get to a proper, questionably-secure path. Parks in my city aren't very safe and I generally try to avoid them. I certainly don't feel comfortable going downtown alone. Do you see why I miss Korea's safety so much?

Palgong Mountain in the fall
-I miss being surrounded by mountains. Despite how built-up Daegu was, you could always see tree-covered mountains in the distance that made it beautiful again. And all the hiking paths on these mountains, of which there were probably hundreds, were always so well-maintained. I have yet to figure out who kept them this way and when on earth they did it.

-I miss being able to walk everywhere, but I guess that applies to most city life. Back here in the suburbs, it takes at least 8 minutes of driving to get anywhere. In Daegu, the closest local mart was a 3-minute walk away. The nearest convenience store, dry cleaner, and restaurant were around the corner. The subway was 10 minutes away, and that could take me anywhere a foreigner might want to go.

-I continually miss the cheapness, cleanliness, and safety of public transportation. A subway or bus ride was $1 each way, in Daegu at least, and was always incredibly prompt. It was nothing like the subways in New York City or Washington, D.C. Even the taxis were relatively cheap. I never missed driving my own car when I was there because the transportation was so good that I didn't have to.

-I seriously miss Daiso, which was and will always be the best dollar store I've ever been to. It's all over Korea (and Japan, where it started) and provided me with so many good-quality kitchen items, school and bathroom supplies, and other random things for ridiculously cheap prices. I've half-seriously joked that I'm going to run off and marry Daiso one day and am still considering it. Before you do any shopping at more expensive stores in Korea, go to Daiso.

-I miss the cheap outdoor markets scattered around the country. There's something special about being in a huge, crowded marketplace and buying all sorts of fresh produce directly from local sellers.

-I miss being able to "play the foreigner card." Whenever I was around Koreans and I made a mistake, or didn't understand something, or didn't fit in, I always told myself that it was okay because I was a foreigner, and people would realize that and be more sympathetic. Unfortunately I can't do that now that I'm back in the States.

-I miss cat cafes. Sadly my almost 19-year-old cat died when I was in Korea (it was heartbreaking, but I half expected it), so now I have to resign myself to hoping the neighbors' cats who wander into our yard will let me pet them.

-I miss the non-sketchy 24-hour convenience stores on every block (big shoutout to CU and GS25), which supplied me with many snacks and water bottles throughout the year. Oh right, and plenty of ice cream.

-I miss the tradition of automatically taking your shoes off when you enter an apartment or sometimes even a restaurant. Back in the States, my family has to make a point out of telling guests to take off their shoes before coming in the house.

I went to only 8 movies
in Korean theaters. Can you
spot the odd poster out?
-I miss the awesome mini movie posters that you could pick up every time you went to the theater. I brought all of mine home and made them into a larger poster that I'm quite proud of. I also really liked how Korean cinemas allowed you to choose your seats when you bought your ticket, which was much easier than searching around in the dark for empty chairs in a crowded theater.

A larger-than-life
Iron Man lantern.
What's not to love?
-I miss the festivals happening all the time, all over the country for various holidays or just because. My favorite was the Jinju Lantern Festival, which I was fortunate enough to go to twice. —>>

-I miss k-pop, too! It can be so catchy, it's great for dancing, and it helps that some of the lyrics are in English. Plus all the giant boy groups are amazing dancers.

-I miss being able to get anywhere within the country in around 5 hours or less. Korea is only 2/3 the size of Georgia, which my students found strangely hilarious.

-I miss all the group trips with WinK and Enjoy Korea that I took throughout the year and which introduced me to parts of the country I might never have visited on my own. I met so many new people through these trips and went on adventures I'll never forget.

-I also miss the indoor climbing walls that were literally everywhere once you started looking for them. I got into climbing in Korea (always just bouldering) and was hoping to keep it up in the States…until I found out there wasn't a single climbing wall in my home city. Great.

-I miss being in a country that has so much culture, so many traditions, and such a rich history. I like that the U.S. is so young and diverse, but sometimes I wish we also had our own unique culture apart from being an amalgamation of other ones. For example, I still have a hard time answering what constitutes "American food."

-I really miss, and enjoyed, living in another culture. There was a sense of adventure where everything was new and exciting and just waiting to be discovered: strange food, quirky traditions, historic temples and colorful festivals, sleeping on the floor with dozens of other people in a hot jimjilbang... Looking back through my pictures makes me really yearn for that feeling of exploration again. What made my time in Korea even better was that I still had access to such a large foreigner community. This was one of the things that attracted me to South Korea in the first place. Perhaps I would have been more immersed in the culture and language if I were in a more isolated place than Daegu, but I will never regret picking it as my home city.

-And finally, I really, really miss all the people I met from all over the world. There's just something special about being able to interact with people from other countries on a regular basis. I loved being able to hear about the similarities and differences between different cultures, and then to compare them to mine. These people—including fellow Americans—were very often well-traveled and open-minded, and somehow carried a different mentality on the world than people who had never traveled before. I hope I'll be able to experience that again soon.


-Somehow when I was brainstorming this list, the language barrier didn't even occur to me at first. I didn't actually mind not being able to understand the everyday chatter of passers-by or my students when they weren't in class. Plus there was the added benefit of not being able to understand the advertisements that are now blaring at me from all directions in America. The only time language was a problem was when I was trying to ask or communicate something that was more complicated than ordering food or telling a taxi driver where I wanted to go.

-I don't miss having to dodge motorcycles, bicycles, and sometimes even cars when walking on the sidewalk.

-I don't miss the lack of ovens or dryers in Korean apartments, though I got used to it eventually. But now I can make muffins again! :D

-I definitely don't miss how expensive fruit, cheese, and cereal were there. It was crazy.

-I don't miss Koreans' paranoia about the sun; it could get a bit tiring. White, wrinkle-free skin isn't everything, and it's even led to widespread vitamin D deficiency among the Korean population.

-I don't miss having to bring my own soap and toilet paper to public restrooms because many institutions didn't feel the need to provide these necessities themselves.

A gorgeous gray landscape
-I certainly don't miss the rows and rows of tall, gray, ugly, totalitarian-looking apartment buildings spread across the country. They really ruined the scenery sometimes.

-I don't miss the complete lack of trash cans! I still can't understand why, in an otherwise developed country, Korea continues to have giant trash piles in very conspicuous areas because they refuse to provide public trash cans.

-I also don't miss the paucity of vegetables in Korean food. For someone who loves veggies, it's nice to go to restaurants that actually have a good selection of green things again.

-I don't miss the lovely habit held by many Koreans of compulsively hacking gobs of spit onto the pavement. It made me cringe every time.

-I don't miss getting occasional looks for being a foreigner. It really wasn't bad at all; people mostly just minded their own business. But every now and then I'd feel self-conscious for being the only foreigner on an all-Korean subway car. I admit it's nice not to stick out anymore.

-*I know I said Korea was really safe above, but I did have a few very uncomfortable encounters with a middle-aged Korean man trying to look into my first-floor bathroom/bedroom window when I was showering or changing late at night. I had to tape a sheet to my window every evening because of that creeper. This man was definitely an anomaly and I believe he was more curious about the "foreign girl" than an actual danger—but still, it wasn't a pleasant experience.

-I don't miss the extreme vanity of the Korean people, even though they still seemed very friendly overall. On the whole, they are perhaps the most vain group of people I've met, and many (though not all) are overly concerned with their appearance, with plastic surgery and being thin, and with always checking their hair (even the guys) in whatever mirror they can find. They take selfies right and left and are constantly on their phones. Unfortunately, seeing all this vanity around me sometimes made me more vain as well…but at the same time it was acceptable, so I didn't have to feel bad about it.

-I don't miss the pushy, righteous old people (especially the old women) who believed that because they were older than you, they had the right of way. This applied even when they could easily take one step around you instead of barging into you on their way out of the subway. At the same time, I also don't miss seeing people old enough to be grandparents permanently bent over 90ยบ from years of searching through trash on the streets.

That's matching shirts
AND matching shoes.
Why. Just why. -_-
-I have mixed feelings about Korea's couple culture. Again, I've never seen a society so focused on coupledom, so intent on being in a relationship and showing it off to the world. And couple clothes. I will never get over couple clothes. Korean couples have no shame in acting cutesy, flirting with each other, or holding hands in public. For a single person, it is hell. You are constantly reminded of your singleness in the face of so many seemingly-happy couples. Korean singles, especially over 30, are persistently questioned by friends and family as to whether they have a boyfriend/girlfriend yet and if not, why. But for a person in a relationship, it's the freedom to act as couply as you want, with no disgusted stares by passers-by aimed your way. So again, it's all a matter of perspective.

One of my students
actually said "The Scream"
looked like Obama. Wtf.
-I don't miss the lack of long vacations for hagwon teachers, or the Korean mentality that everyone needs to be either studying or working constantly. My Korean coworkers worked their butts off every day, whether they had to stay overtime to set up decorations for a Halloween party, call parents all day to promote Summer or Winter Intensives, or attend an Open House on a Saturday. Some of these teachers left after only a few months because they couldn't handle the pressure, but for the amount that they were paid, I can fully understand their decision. On the other hand, I also felt bad for my students when I heard how many hours they were stuck in school or hagwons every day, sometimes even on the weekends. Kids need time to just be kids, and adults need time to relax.

-I don't miss the blatant racism among many of my students, who considered Africa one giant, poor, disease-ridden "country" and immediately labeled black people as "gorillas," "ugly," "dirty," or my favorite, "Obama." I understand that Korea (and Japan) has a very white, homogenous society. Nevertheless, in today's ever-diversifying international economies, this ignorance needs to be addressed. For the Koreans I met who had traveled to other countries, this was much less of a problem.

-Finally, I don't miss my hagwon's Winter and Summer Intensives. AT ALL. Those things were horrible—so horrible that I could write a whole blog post about them but shall refrain to prevent myself from getting worked up again. Then there's writing extensive report cards for 70+ students every three months. And trying to control a classroom of children who clearly didn't want to be there and made sure I knew it. I've learned from this experience that maybe teaching elementary students is not for everyone. But before I dissuade anyone from trying, just know that every school, every teacher, and every student is different. I will freely admit I had some students who truly wanted to learn, and their eagerness made my experience as a teacher much more fulfilling. Plus I know plenty of people, including several of my foreign coworkers, who extended their contracts because they truly enjoyed the teaching experience. (Or more likely, the easy lifestyle.) You'll never know unless you try, and remember that it's never too late.

Alright, fine…. I kind of loved these guys.

Well, I think that's it for my Korean blog. But who knows? Maybe I'll start a new adventure worth blogging about in the future. Until then, thanks for reading. Peace ♥︎


Colleen said...

Hi! My name is Colleen and I stumbled across your blog while researching Teach ESL Korea. I also live in Georgia and have been looking into this for a while. I have so many questions I would love to ask, if you wouldn't mind taking the time to help me!

HB said...

Sure Colleen, I would love to! You can email me directly at hbisat@uga.edu.