What I Learned From Two Years in South Korea.

It’s cold outside, around three in the morning, and I’m staring up at the apartment building I’ve been living in.  Friends have passed in and out of my life there, relationships have begun and ended there.  

My gaze drifts higher and I notice that an unusual number of stars are visible.  This seems fitting, as I’ve often lamented how few stars one can normally see, but such is not the case on my last night in Korea.  My plane leaves in just a few hours, and I know that sleep will not come for many more.  But I don’t mind so much just now, as I’m lost in a particularly intense train of thought.   Beneath the jeweled sky, in the pre-dawn chill, I reflect quietly, and with a hint of sadness, on all that has changed for me these last two years.  

If I could sum this long post up in a few words, I’d say that living and working in South Korea has been every bit as rewarding and life changing as I thought it would be.  If you relish challenges and are looking for a change of scenery, then I would heartily recommend giving the Land of the Morning Calm a try.

But I won’t bullshit you.  There have been real problems, loneliness, and cultural mishaps of the tragic and hilarious variety. When you live in a place where most people don’t speak your language and you are very obviously a foreigner, a thousand little sources of friction are created that will wear on you.

On a good day everything is an adventure, even mundane tasks are tinged with a sense of novelty, and people’s enthusiastic questions will make you feel like a celebrity.

But some days are bad.  Some days you don’t want an adventure, you don’t want to struggle to complete even simple tasks like mailing a letter, you don’t want to feel like a zoo animal with kids pointing at you and whispering.  All I can say is that learning to deal gracefully with the bad days is part of the value.  That, and, in my experience, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives.

My hope is that if I detail my experiences then I can both encourage people to go for it while also preparing them for the inevitable difficulties that will arise.

Ending Up Far Away From Home

I came to Korea in February of 2012, partly as an act of desperation.  There were no jobs to be had in America at the time, you see, and I was tired of working multiple jobs while still having my savings dwindle.  A friend of mine from college lived on the beautiful Korean island of Jeju-do, and she had almost nothing but good things to say about it. So, lacking a better plan, I began the process of filling out applications and getting my paperwork in order.

Since numerous factors shape my conclusions, I’ll tell you that I’m a 25-year-old white heterosexual male, fairly introverted, college-educated, with an adventurous streak. Though I’ve traveled widely in Korea I’ve lived and worked in a small town at an after-school private academy teaching kids aged 7 to 15.

Gyeryong, South Korea.  My home for nearly two years.

Gyeryong, South Korea. Home for nearly two years.

I’ve made my best effort throughout the past two years to be as objective and observant as I possibly could be, but still, this is all just one guy’s opinion.  People of different ages, races, and sexual orientations, as well as people who live in big cities or work at public schools, often have somewhat different stories to tell.  Nevertheless I think what I’ve written here will prove useful to most everyone.  At any rate, if you decide to take the plunge you’ll get to learn about all of this stuff yourself 🙂

Korea

The Korean peninsula is basically a group of mountains and foothills, hanging off the eastern part of Russia and jutting out into the Pacific Ocean.  It occupies approximately 100,000 square kilometers, or roughly the same amount of land as two Nova Scotias, Scotland and Wales together, three Lesothos, or Kentucky.  Most of the foreigners I’ve met have been from Canada, the U.K., South Africa, or America, so I chose my geographic comparisons appropriately.

There are four clearly defined seasons. The vibrant, humid summers, colorful autumns, and springs filled with wildflowers and rain offer outdoorsy types plenty of chances to lay on the beach or hike.  Winter, however, is not a gown that Korea wears well.  Some places have a sparse, desolate beauty which can make the colder months almost electrifying. In Korea it’s just frigid and grey, with winds screaming across the landscape cramming fistfuls of cold air down people’s shirts. Be sure to bring some heavy winter clothing.

Population-wise there are about 50 million people, fully half of which live in the sprawling capital, Seoul.  The cities are big, skyscraper-studded affairs offering just about any pleasure or convenience you could ask for.  In the towns and the countryside the old and new are rather dramatically juxtaposed; temples and mountain-top pagodas are sometimes visible from supermarkets, the chanting of monks can be heard a minute’s walk from a cafe. This can be very captivating, and is a primary source of what I call “holy shit I’m in Korea” moments.

Food

The cuisine is one of my favorite things about Korea.  It’s typically rice- and vegetable-based, with small amounts of protein and few fruits.  That may not sound like much raw material, but a staggering variety is produced by combining and seasoning the food in different ways.  To give an example, consider Kimchi, the ubiquitous cabbage dish that is one of the only Korean foods a lot of non-Koreans know about.  It is served at pretty much every meal, but it can come as whole leaves or diced-up cubes, nearly raw or extremely fermented, salty, sour, spicy, or completely plain.

For the most part eating in Korea won’t blow your mind, but a few things may take some getting used to. Of course the most obvious is eating with chopsticks, but you’ll get the hang of it before too long, and there are usually forks and spoons available. Also, Koreans like their food hot, in both ways: many of their dishes are spicy and soups are served still boiling.

If you enjoy sea food you’re in luck, as fish, squid, and octopus show up quite a bit at Korean tables, and in some places you can eat octopus while it’s still alive. This is apparently pretty dangerous because the octopus can stick to the inside of your throat and choke you to death.  I haven’t done it.

The only Korean food I think I have genuinely not liked has been silk-worm larva, or ‘bondeggi’. It’s not usually served at restaurants but they sell it as a snack on the streets in most places, and it’s extremely tart.

I especially like the way Korean restaurants work.  Before the main course you always get a smattering of different side dishes, usually something along the lines of kimchi, fish cakes, or bean sprouts. This is fun because you can sample a wide variety of foods at every meal and every restaurant makes their side dishes slightly differently.  In restaurants where the specialty is meat there is usually a grill built into the table where you cook whatever you ordered.  This makes going to a restaurant sort of a communal, participatory experience.

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A pretty typical spread at a Korean restaurant

As far as costs go, eating in Korea is generally pretty cheap, and it can be extremely cheap if you want it to be.   Since I exercise a lot I also tend to eat a lot, and I consume a good bit of meat, so for me eating here has been more expensive than it is for most other foreigners I know.   Still, I’m usually able to save money by waiting until there is a sale on something like chicken breasts, buying a whole bunch of it, then cooking and freezing it, unthawing as needed. Non-meat items like fruits and vegetables are comparable in price to what they are in America

Eating at restaurants costs about the same as cooking and eating at home.  I verified this by carefully tracking what I spent at the store and what I ate at each meal, calculating the cost of the average meal eaten at home, and comparing that to what I usually spend at restaurants.  My figures aren’t in front of me just now, but eating at home cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 when I got many of the items on discount.  The cheapest meals at a restaurant are about $6, usually more like $8 or $10.  But consider that’s only when I wait to find deals on the most expensive items, and it doesn’t include the time spent cooking and cleaning.

I eat out five or six times, go shopping once or twice a week, and spend around $500 a month on food.

Koreans

My impressions of Korean people have been overwhelmingly positive.  Koreans are for the most part extremely generous and accommodating, more than willing to aid the lost and weary foreigner looking for a place to bed down for the night.

I will never forget trying to buy fabric softener within the first few weeks of arriving, and asking one of the store employees if a particular item was what I was looking for.  Our attempts at communication failed, so she asked someone else, who asked someone else, which began a chain reaction that ended with six or seven Korean people standing around my friend and I and talking to each other.  Finally one of them pointed to the thing I was holding and said ‘soft’.  Problem solved.

This generosity can have a down side.  I will also never forget the many times I’ve been in the gym, headphones in, music going full blast, literally in the middle of doing bench press, only to have someone wander up and insist I eat a sweet potato.  Turning down food that has been offered to you is considered rude in Korea, so when this happens I find myself either having to force something down in the middle of exercise, rudely refuse it, or effusively promise to eat it later.

For myself and my circle of friends about the worst that’s ever happened is cab drivers charging us more than they would a Korean, but one does occasionally hear of abuses much more serious than this.   Apparently other teachers have worked at schools which have stolen money from them or fired them over completely trivial issues, have had coworkers that treated them with indifference or even disrespect, or have had to live in really sub-par housing.

The truth is, there is a chance you will end up in this situation.  It’s a bit disconcerting, but that’s the reality.  As far as I can tell it’s exceedingly rare; I’ve never known anyone to whom this has happened, and I’ve never known anyone whose known someone to whom this has happened.  If you go through a recruitment agency like Reach To Teach (whom I cannot recommend enough) or contact the other people working at your school ahead of time you stand a good chance of being happy with where you end up.

Foreigners in Korea

By and large I’ve gotten along with the non-Koreans I’ve met.  You might be thinking that the foreigners here are exceptionally adventurous or outgoing or enthusiastic about novel experiences. After all, wouldn’t it take just such a person to uproot their whole life and move to a new continent?

Surprisingly, no.   The foreigners I’ve met have mostly been pretty average on all of these traits, with some extreme personalities in both directions.  Note that this isn’t me making a value judgment; there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert who likes routine.  I’m just saying that my expectations were incorrect.

There are plenty of foreigners here who like to party, though, and in the bigger cities there are establishments which have sprung up to cater just to us.  This is great, and Science knows I’ve had my fair share of shenanigans while I’ve been here.  But it seems to me like a lot of foreigners get stuck in this trap where they make a bunch of foreign friends, give up their initial attempts to learn Korean and integrate into Korea, and begin a cycle of boozing and partying all the time which leaves them complacent, takes a chunk out of their savings, and prevents them from experiencing Korea in a more authentic way.  No one is going to stop you if you piss away your paychecks drinking four nights a week, but ask yourself if that’s really the best way you could be spending your time.

Ultimately, like most other opportunities, this one is going to be what you make it.  It could be one of the more intense and fertile periods of learning you’ve had up to this point, like it was for me, or it could be a drunken haze you barely remember and from which you learn very little.

Learning Korean 

There is one place where I am absolutely going to make a value judgment, though, and that’s the pitifully small number of foreigners who make an effort to learn Korean.  Make no mistake, it is a pretty tough language, but that’s no excuse for not learning how to carry out basic tasks in the language that everyone else speaks.   Most Koreans are going to accommodate you, and a lot of them are happy to practice their English, but most of them can’t speak English well and shouldn’t be expected to.  If you live in Korea then you should learn Korean, and though you can probably get by without it, you should feel a pang of guilt every time you point and grunt your way through an interaction like a Neanderthal.

I’ve met people who claim that they have ‘survival Korean’ and don’t care to study beyond that.  Fair enough, maybe you aren’t interested in reading Korean literature or holding forth on philosophical topics in Korean, but I think a lot of people are kidding themselves as to what constitutes the minimum Korean they need.

My Korean is at about survival level.  I can hold basic conversations, give and receive directions, figure out what most signs and print means without pictures, and get the gist of what’s being said around me.  A bit less than half of my communication with friends has been in Korean, mostly texting, and I have managed English-free interactions for a few hours at a time with only minimal referencing of the dictionary.

Here is a video I made speaking Korean right before I came back to the States:

I’m not tooting my own horn here.  My Korean isn’t as good as I’d wanted it to be before I left, and I’m still embarrassed every time I can’t get a point across or understand someone who is trying to talk to me.   Getting this modest level took a lot of effort and study, but it has been absolutely, without a doubt, worth it.  In addition to all the little things that have become easier, my experience here has been significantly deepened as a result.

Let me give you an example: the secretary that works at our school is in her early thirties and has two kids I’ve taught. We’ve become good friends, and we always use Korean because she doesn’t know more than a few words in English. Though she maintains professionalism at work I’ve had the opportunity to hang out with her many times during off hours, and have discovered she has a really quirky and dirty sense of humor.  She’s taught me Korean slang and Korean swear words and I’ve returned the favor in English, and she gets a kick out of hearing about my adventures and exploits. I hope to keep in touch with her, but even if I don’t I’ll remember her for the rest of my life.

If you’ve been in Korea for years and still can’t speak Korean, that’s a problem and you should fix it.  Assuming you want to learn, let me give you some advice: there are free classes offered in various places, and these might be a good place to start, but  I recommend transitioning to private tutoring as fast as possible.  Seriously, it costs all of $10 a lesson and you can do them over skype.  Beyond that, use Korean every chance you get.  I talk to people at bus stops, in the gym, between classes at school, through texting, on the internet, etc.

There is no substite for speaking to new people as often as possible.  If you interact with the same group of native speakers, they are going to get used to your quirks and mistakes.  They’ll learn how to tell what you’re trying to say and they’ll figure out how to hear through your accent.  The only way to be sure you’re improving is by testing yourself with new people who have no idea who you are and have never spoken to you before.

Dating

Romantic interactions have been a pretty big part of my stay in Korea; they have helped me get to know the language and culture better, and have contributed massively to my positive feelings on Korea overall.  As such it’s only appropriate that I say a few (tactful) words about dating here.  As I mentioned before I am straight, so I can’t tell you anything about dating Korean men or what it’s like to be gay in Korea, though these subjects have been broached elsewhere.

As others have noted, there are some unique rewards and challenges associated with dating women outside your language or culture.  Miscommunications are commonplace, even when the other person speaks your language pretty well, and you will almost certainly end up either being a little offended or offending them at least once because of something culturally insensitive one of you did.

That said, one of the lessons I’ve learned living in Korea is that an amazing amount of non-linguistic or barely-linguistic communication can happen when two or more people are motivated to get a point across.  This goes for people who just want to be friends as well as for people who want to rip each other’s clothes off.  If you’re into her and she’s into you, then I doubt either of you will have too much trouble figuring that out.

Which brings me to another point, one I think it is important to stress: in my experience, Korean women are just sexually normal people with sexually normal appetites.  You may have had your expectations molded by…erm…certain videos that can be found on various corners of the internet.  If so, then you may imagine Korean women will be either completely submissive in the face of sexual advances or, in the memorable words of a friend, “sex-crazed dragon-ladies”.  They are neither, and if I could pass on a pro tip here, I’d say it’s usually not a good idea to take your cues from porn.

The bottom line is that there are few surprises waiting for you behind closed doors.  Like anywhere else every person is different, and I have been involved with girls who range from very conservative and deferential all the way to career-driven-alpha-female types.  I recommend dating Koreans not because it’s some extremely exotic new experience, but because Korean women are attractive and affectionate and fun to interact with.  You know, pretty much the same reasons you date anyone.

Sometimes, though, they will pretend to smash your head while you're trying to achieve transcendence through your guitar.

Sometimes, though, they will pretend to smash your head while you’re trying to achieve musical transcendence.

If you do choose to date outside the group of foreigners, though, you’ll see a side of Korean culture that’s hard to get any other way.  Plus, as a bonus, you’ll most likely become very motivated to practice Korean.

Teaching

As a teacher your job is to build structures of information in the brain of another person.  When it comes to language education you will need a special set of communication skills, the ability to direct attention, and ocean’s worth of patience.

Let’s start with re-learning how to use English.  This is far, far more than simply speaking more slowly, and involves changes in vocabulary choice and sentence structure as well.  Repeated interactions with students at different levels will start to give you an intuitive sense of the kinds of words and phrases someone is likely to be able to understand, and time spent in Korean culture will teach you which words have been imported from English.

Many Koreans, even ones who for all intents and purposes speak no English, know common words like ‘cheap’, ‘famous’,  or ‘early’, as well as unusual ones like ‘casanova’ (referring to guys who have a lot of girlfriends).  I couldn’t tell you why these particular words have been absorbed, but that’s been my experience.

You’ll also figure out how to phrase complex ideas in terms of simpler ones by choosing which subtleties and nuances can be smoothed away without losing too much of the meaning.  One of my favorite examples of this was when a pretty competent student asked me what ‘engineering’ meant.  Before I tell you my reply let’s look at one way I could have responded:

“The process of using scientific knowledge to create new technologies.”

This is a nice dictionary definition, but no one outside of the best one or two students would have understood it.  Why? Well despite the fact that ‘process’  and ‘create’ are common English words most students aren’t going to know them because the ideas behind them are actually fairly complex.  Further, most of my students would know what ‘science’ is but would have difficulty with the adjective ‘scientific’.  My actual response was this:

“Using science to make things.”

Now, engineering is a sprawling human enterprise which involves both using and creating new scientific knowledge and new technology.  Does my definition appropriately capture all that?  No it doesn’t, but you will have to learn to live with this kind of partial communication as it’s often the best you can do.  Importantly, though, my definition does capture a significant portion of the first definition’s meaning, and it does it with words almost all of my students will know.

Second, you’ll have to learn how to keep the attention of a large number of kids.  Attention is a pretty fickle thing, even in adults, and the best ways I’ve found to keep it are by being funny and using a lot of pictures and props.  Humans are by nature visual animals, so most any concept that can be communicated with the aid of pictures should be, and big, exaggerated, silly actions are easier to focus on than detailed verbal explanations.  None of this is a guarantee, unfortunately; there will be days when every effort fails, and you’ll go home emotionally exhausted.

Using pictures to try and keep my students focused on the ridiculous story we were making together.

Using pictures to try and keep my students focused on the ridiculous story we were making together.

Finally, you’ll need a healthy dose of patience.  If you’ve ever tried to communicate with a foreigner who doesn’t speak your language very well you know it can be an exhausting experience.  If you’ve ever spent much time interacting with kids, even teenage ones, you know it can be an exhausting experience.  Well, as a teacher your whole job all day is going to be interacting with kids who don’t speak your language well.

Does that sound exhausting?  It is.

Here, Sophie and Emily are giving me exactly the amount of respect they think me age and position entitle me to.

Here, Sophie and Emily are giving me exactly the amount of respect they think my age and position entitle me to.

Now, I really like kids, and I think I like them even more after having taught them for a while. But let me tell you: sometimes they’re going to frustrate you, disappoint you, and do things that are downright bizarre.  Other times they will be funny, affectionate, and surprise you with their insight and competence. You’d better just steel yourself for the roller coaster ahead of time. If you teach English for any length of time in Korea, you absolutely will learn to be more patient.

All Good Things…

Now I’m back in the States, and the experience has of course been bitter sweet.  I miss speaking Korean, and I’ve found out that my driving skills have atrophied considerably.  But I’m a lot more outgoing than I once was, I have many more interesting stories to tell, and I’m more confident.

Looking back, there were so many days in Korea when I was tired and stressed and wanted to quit.  If you choose to take the leap, you’ll have them too.  But I can’t remember any stretch of time during which I made more positive changes and learned more about myself and about life.

It was worth it.  It really, really was.

What’s True And What’s Not In Stereotypes Of South Koreans?

[You may also enjoy What I Learned From Two Years in South Korea. Also, check out the latest adventure I’m undertaking, The STEMpunk Project.]

In order to give a kind of overview of my Korean experience I thought it might be helpful to lay out some common stereotypes and discuss which ones I’ve found to be true and which ones are nonsense.

Perhaps you think of Koreans as rice-eating math geniuses who play Starcraft all day and are a foot shorter than Americans. When you think of Korean classrooms you might be picturing rows and rows of disciplined students dutifully writing down your every word. Unsurprisingly these stereotypes are neither totally accurate nor completely off the mark.

Korean people are significantly smaller than Westerners.

This one is unequivocally false.  I am right at 6 feet tall and a reasonably muscular 190 pounds.  Seeing men who are taller, more muscular, or fatter than me is normal, and seeing women about my height only slightly less normal.  I have several students who are still teenagers that are getting pretty close to my size.  Compared to America I see fewer people who are insanely in shape or insanely out of shape, but unless you are pretty big at home you aren’t going to be pretty big here.

Korean people are very deferential and polite.

This is generally true, but with some important caveats.  First, what counts as impolite is different in Korea, and I’ve heard Koreans tell foreigners that they ‘look tired’ or ‘look a little fat’.  This is almost never meant to be hurtful and just reflects different cultural standards of appropriateness.  Second, your students are going to vary enormously in how polite they are to you.  Some of my students are extremely respectful, while others don’t give a damn about me and don’t care if I know it.

Koreans eat a lot of rice.

This is absolutely true.  Koreans eat rice with everything and at nearly every meal.  Once, while I was on a low-carb kick, I ordered what looked like a big omelet because it was the only thing on the menu that didn’t come with rice.  Guess what the omelet was stuffed with?  Rice!

Koreans can’t drive. 

Here is the thing you have to realize about roads in Korea: things like traffic lights and stop signs are just suggestions.  Whereas in America a red light means “you have to sit and wait until I turn green, even if no one else is around”, in Korea it means “slow down long enough to make sure no one is going through the intersection and then gun it”.  I looked at traffic death statistics from Wikipedia and the World Health organization, and it appears that Korea has more traffic deaths than America, but not that many more.

Koreans love starcraft.

This one is true but I get the feeling that starcraft’s popularity is waning just a bit.  There are still major Starcraft tournaments here and the best player’s are still Koreans, but I think most regular people have moved on to other games. Fair warning: this assessment is based only on my having asked around and observed what people play at internet cafes.

Koreans are sexually repressed.

This is actually a pretty complicated topic, and the response will depend on the angle at which it is viewed.  Korean culture emphasizes monogamy and marriage, and this puts tremendous pressure on people to settle down.  As a result I think a lot of Koreans rush into long-term commitments for which they are not prepared and wind up unhappy with the decision.  Though divorce is on the rise it’s still not common, leaving those in unsatisfying marriages with no way to escape.  This isn’t the only thing driving the booming prostitution business, but it can’t be hurting it.

So that’s one side of it.  But as far as individual Koreans go, I haven’t yet been involved with anyone who was even remotely afraid of their sexuality.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

Koreans are geniuses.

Not really. Education is a huge part of Korean society, and most Korean kids go to school all day everyday (even, in some cases, on Saturday).  The result is that the students who work hard end up being pretty impressive by the time they get to college. However, I had quite a number of students who didn’t ever do homework, didn’t listen in class, and put no effort into furthering their education.

Every Korean studies martial arts.

Taekwondo strikes me as being similar to American sports like baseball in that it is very popular and a lot of people study it, but the vast majority of them are not that serious about it.  You aren’t going to see many Koreans flipping over tables and breaking boards with their face.

Koreans eat dogs.

This is true, but it’s far more rare than you probably think.  I’ve never been served dog meat, never seen it in a restaurant, and come to think of it, never met a Korean person who admitted to wanting to eat it.   When I’ve asked my students whether or not they have eaten dog, or wanted to in the future, the answer has always been an emphatic no.  I don’t know how often dog is eaten, but I can tell you that one weekend a co-worker had some at a restaurant, and the way he told me about it on Monday made it seem as though it was a very unusual experience.

Korean is a difficult language.

Korean is pretty exotic for an English speaker.  Verbs always come at the end of sentences, things like definite/indefinite articles and pronouns which are important in English are often omitted entirely, and sentences can vary significantly depending on the formality of the conversation.  That said, there isn’t any tonal system like in Chinese, and also unlike Chinese Korean uses a phonetic alphabet.  Learning Korean is going to be harder than learning Spanish or French, but it is something you should do and it’s also worth the effort.