Reflections on Korea

Hi there! Remember me? It’s been a month since I left Korea and about 6 weeks since my last post. A lot has happened since then.

During my last couple of weeks in Korea, I spent most of my time packing, cleaning, and hanging out with my friends. Glenn and I had a going-away party the Friday before we left, then went to the Brazilian restaurant in Ilsan with a small group of close friends, and then the night before we left, our very best friends met us down in Itaewon for dinner. Glenn and I stayed at a hotel that night because we would be flying out the next day and coming from Paju adds another hour to our commute to Incheon International Airport.

We flew out Wednesday, May 7th at 2:30pm, changed planes in Tokyo, and landed in Honolulu on Wednesday, May 7th at 8:00am. We gained a whole day because the time difference between Korea and Hawaii is 17 hours, but we were tired and I was recovering from a cold and we slept most of the first couple of days there. Unfortunately, we only had 5 days in Hawaii and the second day there, I felt so ill that I found a doctor and got a prescription for an antiobiotic that I had to pay for since I currently do not have US health insurance.

Once the unpleasantness of lack of sleep, jet lag, and being sick more or less wore off by the third day, we had a great time in Honolulu! We saw Pearl Harbor, went to a luau, and of course, enjoyed walking around and swimming at Waikiki Beach. We left Sunday evening and landed in Toronto Monday evening, where Glenn’s parents picked us up and brought us back to their house.

I was somewhat relieved to have left Korea at the time due to several factors (always being sick, not liking the current state of my job, general anxiety about moving, etc.), but almost immediately after arriving back in North America, I missed it. Well, I missed my friends, at least. Being an EVer means working and living with friends, and being removed from that causes a sort of withdrawal. It’s been a month and I still miss my friends, but it’s also good to be back in familiar territory, surrounded by English, and back with friends and family. However, the initial reverse culture shock and depression of having left behind my friends and an exotic adventure in the Far East was indeed quite a shock to the system.

So, a month later, here are some of the things I miss – or don’t miss – about Korea:

I miss…

  • Seoul. It’s a truly unique city with a little of everything for every kind of person.
  • Public transportation. It is efficient, clean, fast, and cheap.
  • Itaewon. It’s like being back home (i.e. culturally and ethnically diverse) but with a totally different atmosphere.
  • Kimbap changuk. Korea’s version of fast food, but is actually healthy and incredibly cheap. I used to buy a kimbap roll for dinner for 1,000 won (less than $1 USD).
  • Paying what the price tag says. In Korea, sales tax is already calculated into the price of things and you pay what it says rather than having to add a percentage to what you see on the price tag or waiting for the cashier to ring you up to see what the actual price is. In summary: In Korea, I didn’t have to do math in my head.
  • Not tipping. There is not a tipping culture in Asia, where workers are paid decent wages and customers can just pay the bill and leave without having to figure in a tip for the server. Again, I didn’t have to do math in my head.
  • Movie theaters. I loved going to the movies in Korea because, first of all, movies were in English with Korean subtitles – so we took advantage of that. Also, there are assigned seats and you choose your seats when you buy your tickets, so you don’t have to worry about going in early to get good seats or not being able to sit together if it’s really crowded.
  • Proximity. In Korea, we were an hour away from Japan, an hour from China, and a 2-4 hours from every other Asian country. Traveling around Asia was easy, fast, and about $2000 cheaper than going there from North America!

I don’t miss…

  • Being stared at/pointed at/taken pictures of without my permission. Yes, being a white person in Asia is like being a zoo animal and a lot of times, we were treated as such. Some people were okay with it, and even enjoyed it, but for me it was the absolute worst part about living in Korea (let alone EV, where we WERE the theme part attraction!).
  • Kimchi. Don’t get me wrong – I love kimchi! But I don’t want it served at every restaurant, for every meal, with my Italian food or Thai food or anything besides Korean food.
  • EV. I do miss my friends, but I don’t miss my apartment (whose heat didn’t work in the winter time), the job, or the administration who treated us foreigners so disrespectfully that they would not even acknowledge our presence if we walked by or were in the same room.
  • By that token, I don’t miss Korean culture: social hierarchy and saving face. Perhaps it’s the American in me that values equality and respect among members of society, but Korean culture was often difficult for me. I learned – the hard way – that anyone older than me and/or in a position of higher authority I must not question or disagree with. So when a class complained to administration that the equipment in the classrooms didn’t work, the blame fell on the teacher – and we had to accept it, despite the fact that our equipment was sometimes 8 years old and admin perpetually refused to buy or replace failing computers and projectors. Nope, it’s the teacher’s fault because admin must save face. And HOW DARE we let down our customers.
  • Sexism. As a woman, I didn’t count as a full human being. Especially a foreign woman.
  • Racism. Koreans have been taught that they are a pure race and therefore the best. Foreigners are treated as second-class citizens – especially those of any skin color darker than white.
  • Xenophobia. Korea wants the world to notice it, but yet they are one of the most closed societies in existence. Especially compared to their neighbors, Japan and China, they are extremely xenophobic. There is sometimes a lot of hate against foreigners in Korea, and resentment towards having to learn and speak English. Kids are brainwashed into believing that Korea is the best country in the world and a lot of kids were shocked to learn that nobody outside of Korea listens to or cares about K-Pop (Korean popular music). Oh, and the Samsung Galaxy is better than the iPhone. Why? Because Samsung is Korean.
  • The internet. Koreans claim that Korea has the fastest internet in the world, but I found that it was medium to incredibly slow (especially at EV). Also, Korea is in the Stone Age when it comes to online shopping and banking; they still use Internet Explorer, which crashes more often than not and when it doesn’t crash, there is a 75% chance that it won’t work. Oh, and the viruses! My one laptop was infected with so many viruses that it no longer turns on. The others were barely functional by the time I left Korea. Japan and Thailand had much faster internet.
  • Toilets. Things have been drastically modernized in the last 30 years in Korea, including their toilets, but they are still treated as ancient squat toilets in which you could not flush toilet paper. So, despite the modern toilets with excellent plumbing, Koreans still throw away their toilet paper in the trash can provided – which means that the build-up of TP means the bathrooms always stink. Badly.
  • Doing laundry. Koreans don’t use dryers, they use drying racks. That means in wintertime, when your heat isn’t working, your clothes will hang there wet for 3-4 days before they fully dry. And if it’s raining and your clothes get wet, hang them up and wait a couple days because there is no dryer to toss them into.
  • Lack of spatial awareness. I couldn’t figure this out. Koreans will literally walk into one another; oh no, they do see you coming – but they will continue walking and crash right into you or an inanimate object. This was especially frustrating during busy times in the subway and at Costco. I remember a 2-minute gridlock in the thru-way aisle at Costco because everyone had their carts pointed at one another and nobody had the sense to move slightly to the side to make space! I did not encounter this phenomenon in any other Asian country. 
  • Cell phones. Korea, with its sudden and recent technological advancement, went from having no phones to smartphones. Social etiquette has not kept up. Phones are partly to blame for Koreans crashing into one another, or stopping suddenly in front of an escalator so nobody can get onto it. They are also to blame for silent family dinners and social gatherings. Even when we traveled outside Korea, we always knew who the Koreans were because they sat there, together, in total silence, texting or checking their Facebook.

Okay, that’s a long list and there is clearly more that I don’t miss than miss about Korea. With all that, though, I have to say that, in general, my experience in Korea was a positive one and I met some incredible people with whom I will be friends for life. Would I live in Korea again? No. But it was fun while it lasted and I did a lot and grew as a person. I got to learn about Korean culture first-hand and travel to parts of Asia that I thought I’d never see. Teaching abroad is an experience I recommend to everyone. There will always be some bad with the good, but I’ve never heard of anyone regretting their decision to teach abroad.

So… what’s next?

PUERTO RICO! I will be applying some major changes to my blog over the summer, so stay tuned for that and in the meantime, check out my Photos from Hawaii. Aloha!

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2 Responses to Reflections on Korea

  1. shaunwebb says:

    I wish I knew sooner that I could have done Hawaii after EV. Eh, oh well. Maybe next time. Glad you guys made it here safely!

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