Dispatches From Korea

[Disclaimer: what follows is largely opinions and first-person evaluations.  I’ve made an effort to get my facts straight wherever possible, but you shouldn’t consider this authoritative.  It’s written for entertainment purposes and to give me a chance to reflect.  It’s not a dissertation.]


I am wrapping up a 16 hour plane flight, with more fatigue in my joints than I can relay in words.  I’ve slept very little, a combination of being on my first international flight and being in seats designed for smaller bodies than mine.  The back of the head-rest in front of me has a small screen with a representation of East Asia on it, and a little flashing airplane indicating that we are about to fly over the Northern part of South Korea.  It’s night time, and I look out the window at the constellations of lights that are my first glimpse of my new home.  

South Korea sits on the bottom half of the Korean peninsula, divided from its cousin to the North at the 38th parallel. It occupies an area roughly the size of Kentucky or Portugal, and is surrounded on the West, South, and East by the Yellow Sea, South China Sea, and East Sea, respectively.  This gives Korea 1500 miles of jagged coastline and a number of world-famous beaches.  The five largest cities in order are Seoul, Busan, Incheon, Daegu, and Daejon.  As of this writing I’ve been to three of them.  Busan is a beautiful  coastal city in the Southeast with ample beaches and a steady breeze blowing in from the ocean.  Seoul is a megacity if I’ve ever seen one.  I hesitate to say I’ve even been to Seoul because I managed to see such a tiny fraction of it.  I live about 30 minutes away from Daejon, which is big and frantic in its own right but maintains some of the charm of a smaller city.

Korea is nothing if not mountainous, which suits me just fine.  I fell in love with mountains when I ascended my first real one, shortly after arriving in Colorado.  It was evening, and the sun was more hinted at than visible.  The snowcaps were bright and golden, reflecting light but somehow appearing to glow from within. Looking out at the peaks rippling into infinity like the spine of some vast slumbering Earth-God dreaming on a scale I can’t comprehend, I realized that mountains were my favorite form of natural beauty.  I like oceans, lakes, rivers, forests, etc., but there isn’t anything quite like all that sky to put your existence into perspective.

Linguistically and ethnically Korea is pretty homogenous, though there is a sizeable population of foreigners living here.  There are probably fewer Buddhists than you are imagining; according to the CIA World Factbook 1/4 of people are Christian and 1/4 are Buddhists, with a surprising 1/2 reporting no religious affiliation.  I’d says that’s a point for the atheists but my understanding is that there is a strong and forceful creationist presence here.  I’ve taken very little interest in the churches, but the Buddhist temples which dot the landscape are incredibly beautiful.  It is not without irony that I note some of the most beautiful, lavish, and rioutous displays of color are to be found in these temples, where the whole point is to quiet the mind.

I grapple daily with the Korean language, and it’s a fight I’m slowly winning.  Its design  is interesting and logical, making it more amenable to learning than other tongues.  This isn’t an accident.  Unveiled by King Sejong the Great in 1443, Korean script is phonetic, and was meant (among other things) to boost literacy amongst Korean peasants by ditching Chinese characters and replacing them with something more essentially Korean and much easier to learn.

It is a genuinely thrilling and philosophically fascinating process, language learning.  Very little else has so thoroughly impressed upon me the intricacies of human beings.  Next time you feel like you can’t do anything extraordinary, stand in front of a classroom full of children speaking enthusiastically in an endless soup of total gibberish.  If you’re anything like me you’ll be absolutely floored that they can make sense out of any of it.  Then turn around and try to patiently explain what a phrase like “most of” means, something which makes perfect sense to you and which you use effortlessly.  It won’t take long to realize that there’s a lot of “you” between your ears, most of which you not only don’t control but can’t even see, and it’s capable of some pretty awesome stuff.  Just because everyone can do something like speak or recognize faces doesn’t mean it isn’t amazing.

So far I’ve had good things to say about Korea, but I’m not going to sugar coat things: “beautiful” is not exactly an adjective I’d use to describe the geography or language of Korea.  Especially when I first arrived during the winter, there was an unbelievable amount of trash in the streets, set against a backdrop of constant freezing cold and grey skies.  In some of the bigger places I’ve been to, people just throw their used bottles, cans, cigarettes and so on anywhere, and the streets are consequently disgusting.  I originally didn’t like the orthography of Korean, preferring it instead to the more intricate scrawlings of Chinese.   Something I’ve only recently fully appreciated is that the buildings are mostly covered in lights which send out so many stray photons that I haven’t seen a decent starry night since I left.  I’ve not been able to feel small in the vastness of the universe in a while, and that can’t be good for my mental health.

But “ugly” doesn’t work either.  Rather, Korea is characterized by a sparse, jagged elegance which is charming and subtle and requires time to appreciate.  Its food is spicy, its language choppy, and its landscape rocky and sharp.  I’ve grown to like Korean writing, having worked with it for a number of months now, and I admire and appreciate its clean and simple lines.  Spoken Korean is also starting to make more sense, proving useful in the classroom and leading to gradually more successful interactions with native Koreans.  During the summer months a lot more effort is made to keep streets clean and trash picked up, at least in my kneck of the woods.  The greenery and flowers and open ocean are a welcome antidote to winter conditions, though Korean summers are bitterly hot and humid.

The mountains, of course, were never a problem to begin with.


Like the culture of any place, Korean culture is a mixed bag.  The people are remarkably kind and favoring of foreigners; many are the times I’ve wandered up to a perfect stranger who helped me find what I was looking for, at times going as far as to communicate with the cab driver until everything was sorted out.  They value politeness and being well-educated.  Appearance is important in Korea, and people generally dress up in nice clothes even when going shopping or just carrying out the business of day-to-day living.  Korean barbecue has earned it’s international reputation for deliciousness, and KPOP is about as infectious and catchy as it’s possible to be.  They have proven themselves resilient, having rebuilt and restarted following invasions, annexations, and outright assault on their way of life (in the decade and a half preceding WWI, the Japanese officially occupied Korea, declaring it a part of the Japanese empire and outlawing use of the Korean language)

So there’s a lot to love about the “land of the morning calm”.

But these virtues are not without vices. I’ll speak about the one with which I have the most experience: hyperconcern with education.

Korean society is gripped by an obsession with schooling that, from my point of view, borders on the pathological.  I have kids in my classes who do nothing but study from dawn til dusk.  I ask them what they’re doing this weekend and they tell me that they’ll be studying.  Since I teach at a private school, I work from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., which means that my latest students — middle schoolers — stop going to school just a few hours shy of midnight.  Twice a week.  And that’s assuming they’re not going to private schools aimed at math, art, music, etc. I know at least one of my students goes to multiple private academies like mine.  Every day I try to teach kids whose mental exhaustion is written all over their faces.  Sometimes they can barely stay awake, and after fourteen hours of studying, who can blame them?

Now anyone who knows me knows that education and improvement of the mind are two things I could hardly care more about.  I’d sooner shop for books than shoes; my interests span linguistics, computers, music, philosophy, evolution, neuroscience, and religion, and that’s just what I’ve been reading about lately; I may yet go to graduate school in computational neuroscience, or maybe do a fellowship with the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

A nerd I am and I nerd I’ll always be.  But still, there’s a balance, and I think it falls somewhere shy of going to school six days a week.

There’s another aspect of Korean culture that has been fascinating to learn about.  Before I came to Korea I had an impression that the culture was very conservative sexually, and I still largely maintain that.  When I went to Busan I observed a number of people on the beach in full pants, shirts, and shoes, but not very many two-piece bathing suits.  I’ve never seen couples doing anything more than holding hands, and that’s pretty rare.  Though I’m not really a regular on the club scence, the bigger cities usually have places worth checking out.  Korean girls are beautiful and elegant and sexy, but there’s something forced about the way they dance which I don’t think just comes down to skill.  I get the sense that open and unapologetic sexuality is something that’s fairly recent in this part of the world, and many of them aren’t comfortable wearing it around in public yet.  Even in dark rooms with loud music and copious amounts of alcohol, there aren’t many girls dancing with guys.  They usually dance with other girls, at a distance of a foot or more, completely ignoring the advances of every male around them.  Korean women not only leave room for Jesus when they dance, they leave room for his disciples to have a spirited soccer match.  That’s not to say they never get down, they definitely do, but on the whole there was more intensity at college parties than the majority of clubs I’ve been to.

But my evalution  is complicated by something I haven’t talked about yet.  Namely, there is a level of straight-male-to-straight-male affection that I wasn’t really prepared for.  I’m not homophobic, and I went to an extraordinarily open and liberal college, but it still took me off guard a little bit to see straight men holding hands, putting their arms around each other, and playing with each other’s hair.  It’s not uncommon for Korean men to tell me that I’m “very handsome” or that I “have a good body”.  They’re not shy about touching my chest or arms, either (sadly, girls may age seem much more shy about this than men my age…)  These are not really things we do in America.

From an American westerner’s perspective, this is an odd cluster of behaviors.  You have a relatively sexually conservative culture in which people wear suits to beaches and where men are as likely to hold hands in public as women.  This probably has something to do with a culture in flux between the more conservative older generations and the more Westernized younger generation.  Though I haven’t gathered scientific data on the matter, if I think back I mostly remember seeing older people being innapropriately over-dressed. And if I’m being objective, I’m sure they would see the American tendency to be hypersexed in certain regards but to have a real paucity of male-to-male affection equally strange.

Random tales from the road

Ordering Korean food (like a boss):

It was, I don’t know, 11:30 in the morning or so and my friend Jeremy and I were getting very hungry.  Our options were limited; we had to go to work in about an hour, but we were tired of eating hamburgers from Lotteria, the Korean version of Wendy’s.  Neither of us had been there for more than two weeks, and while our Korean was progressing quickly enough for us to get phone numbers from girls, we still couldn’t order food very well.  Priorities are important 🙂

Standing outside and the side walk we discussed our choices.  There was a restaurant not far from our apartment that we both wanted to try, but how to order food?  What if no one speaks English?

We hatched a plan, which went like this: we’ll go into the restaurant and sit down.  When they ask us what we want, we’ll reply with one of the only food words we know, “beef”.  We’ll answer “yes” to their inevitable follow up questions, and eat whatever they bring us as a result.

A kindly middle-aged woman took our orders.  “Two beef soups”, we said, holding up two fingers.  Then a question in Korean.  “Yes”.  More questions.  “Yes”.  This went for ten seconds or so, but eventually she seemed satisfied.  Looking somewhat dubious, she went to the kitchen to make the food.  We munched on Kimchi and side dishes for about ten minutes until she came out with our orders: two big, steaming bowls of blood sausage, squid parts, onions and, floating in tiny little strips on the bottom, beef.

I have to say, it wasn’t bad at all.  Similar procedures have gotten us lots of other stuff.  It’s about flexibility.

The jimjilbang experience:

The jimjilbang is really just something that has to be experienced.  There is no cultural analogue in anything I’ve encountered in America.  I was rather startled during my first encounter with one, but I’ve since grown to really like them.

Jeremy and I were under the impression that Jimjilbangs were places where you could sleep cheaply at any time of the night.  Well….no, not quite.  We decided to give a jimjilbang a try this particular night because 6 a.m. had snuck up on us.  It tends to do that when you’ve had a few to drink and you’re hanging out with some locals.  There were no trains, and taxis from Daejon are pretty expensive.  So, we had the girls point us in the direction of a jimjilbang.

There is an entire procedure to a jimjilbang, one does not simply walk in and go to sleep.  First you put your shoes in a little locker and put on some sandals before proceeding to the place where you drop off the rest of your stuff.  It took a lot of pointing and bewildered Koreans before we figured this part out.

Sometimes you go to a second floor after you drop off your shoes, sometimes you don’t, but either way you go to a big locker room, filled with naked men of every conceivable age.  We were not expecting that.  You see, in addition to being a place to sleep, a jimjilbang is also a kind of sauna, with separate shower, hot tub, and sauna rooms.  Men and women have separate accomodations, of course.  We put our stuff in our lockers, got naked like everyone else, and put on the shorts and shirt we were provided with.  That first night we didn’t partake of the saunas or hot tubs, we were far too tired and frankly confused by that point.  We wandered out to where everyone was sleeping…

…And got our second shock.  No beds, no cots, no mattresses, no blankets.  Ever person, from 80 to 8, was laying on a hardwood floor in the open air with a tiny pillow and a mat.  Both genders reunite here, sleeping in a big open space together, inches from complete strangers.  We hunted up some mats, brows furrowed, and quietly drifted off to sleep.

Since that first encounter we’ve gotten quite a bit better at the whole thing.  We both love jimjilbangs, as they’re a great place to get a cheap shower, a soak in a hot tub, and shave before a night’s mischief.  You can also stumble in as late as you want and as, ahem, inebraited as you want, fighting off a hangover the next day with food purchased in the jimjilbang itself (they tend to have drinks and things like cup ramen and sandwhiches).  The headaches and aching joints recede much faster when you can soak in 100 degree water for an hour or so.

The Boryeong mud festival:

The name of this pretty much says it all.  We decided mostly on a whim to go to the mud festival, and the next day piled into a van and set off for Boryeong.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Boryeong is a beach city on the West coast of Korea.  For the festival there were many stations set up where mud was constantly being replenished.  Close by there were mud-themed slides and rides behind a fence, but we never made it into this part; we were maybe 8 people away from the ticket window when they announced that they’ve run out of tickets.

No matter, we made our own fun.  After fueling up on food and beer, we had a series of mud fights with each and with total strangers.  This lasted for about fifteen minutes and resulted in us being covered in thick grey sludge from head to toe. At this point the mud was in my mouth and eyes and everywhere else, so I decided that I would follow the others to the beach.  That was were we spent the rest of the day.  It rained gently on and off, and there was much horseplay in the ocean.  I managed to not get ducked the whole day, though a Danish fellow did get me off my feet once.

Exhausted and sun burnt, we drove home in the darkness, singing along to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

A rain-soaked pilgrimage to the mountaintops:

I love to hike and I’m not afraid to be outside in the rain.  It may not surprise you to learn, then, that I go hiking in the rain whenever I get the chance.

Near the beginning of the rainy season a couple of my friends and I gathered to go for a nice rain hike which would end up taking the better part of four hours.  It wasn’t raining particularly hard that day, just a light drizzle which was filtered through the thick canopy of leaves.  The climibing was pretty good, if difficult, not too slippery or muddy yet.  As the hike wore on and we got closer and closer to the top of the mountain, it gradually stopped raining.  We encountered only a few other people, all on their way down, and the usually cacophany of animal noises was absent.

When we got to the top of the mountain we found a number of small frog sculptures and some miniature pagoda sculptures.  We were in the thickest mist I’ve ever seen, visibly reduced to twenty feet or so.  There was a temple nearby, but I could only see a little bit of it at a time, and there were pools of little frogs that were filling their air with their sounds.  This was normally a place where there would be a lot of people, but because of the rain we had it all to ourselves.

It’s a semi-mystical experience, feeling like you’re in a room made of clouds, breathing the sky, shrouded even out in the open, the air and trees and ground wet from the rain andalive, expectant.

I must’ve been feeling in a literary mood, because I decided to try my hand at myth-making on the spot.  Once, long ago, I told my companions, there were no clouds.  Each day the sun would rise blistering in the sky and beat down on the Earth, with no way to escape the heat.  The ancient Koreans, being a clever and industrious group of people, decided that they would invent a way to temporarily shelter themselves from the sun.  So they built cloud pagodas on the top of the mountain, and that’s where all the world’s clouds came from. The little stone statues make clouds like the ones we were standing in which drift far and wide and give humans a break from all that sunshine.


There you have it, my honest evaluation of home after the first half-year or so living here, together with some random excerpts from life.  It would not be at the top of my list of recommendations for people who want to do touristy sorts of things, but it is good to its expats.  If you give thought to teaching or living abroad and you don’t care about location, Korea is a better spot than most; if you find yourself about to move here for business or school, I wouldn’t be too afraid of what follows.

For what it’s worth, I’ve found the whole process of living abroad to be challenging and illuminating.  It’s an experience everybody should go through at least once.  I suspect that there are things you simply can’t learn until you’ve lived out in the world for a while.

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