Yes, I went back to Korea recently, not for too long though. After this rant I have a few more posts to make and then this will be done for good, whether I ever return or not.
Since leaving Korea about a year ago, I continued to receive emails and random comments on my posts/videos from people moving to Korea who wanted to ask me questions about the country I maybe left unanswered. It made me wish I had written more while I was there since there are so many topics I just made blurbs about without really getting into fully. I probably could’ve promoted the blog more inside of the country as well, but I need to remember, (뒤로보지말고, 앞으로 나아). I did realize that I never really wrote an overall post about my reflections after the year I spent there, so here goes...
The great thing about going to Korea to teach is that it can be whatever you want: if you feel like staying out till 6am three nights a week and just get wasted all the time, ok. If you want to totally immerse yourself in the culture to the point where you don’t mind dating someone who barely speaks your language, cool. If you want an easy job to pay off any debt you have, it’s a great place to do it. If you want to get away from problems in your life and not look back, perfect. If you have no clue about what you want to do in life, but want an easy job that will pay well, while at the same time continue to bi*** about how much you hate living in the country but for some reason decide to keep staying, well you can do that too (and you’ll have a lot of company). To put it simply, if you’ve ever wanted to live in another country for a year and you have no idea what you want to do with yourself, Korea is a great option. It can be whatever you want.
A lot changed since I left even though only nine months passed. A new subway extension was built connecting Seoul to a big ski resort/water park, a massive amount of construction is being done in my city (Incheon) which is hosting the 2014 Asian games, a lot of park beautification efforts are taking place along the Han River which divides Seoul, buildings were completed, a lot of new stores opened up, etc. etc. etc. This is only the beginning, as there are other major reconstruction efforts inside and outside of Seoul. With Korea getting the 2018 Winter Olympics, forget about it. I won’t recognize the place when I go back in 2018 to watch. Again, I was only gone for nine months. I remember returning to the U.S. after being away for a year, and feeling a little depressed walking around NYC as I noticed more places had closed down since I left. In Korea it was the complete opposite. Anyway...
Teaching English in Korea is a good job, if not an extremely cushy one. Pay is good, your hours are great, the work isn’t too overwhelming (to say the least) unless you’re a dumbass like me and decide to spend a lot of time doing work you don’t have to do. There are some downsides to the position but overall it’s a great experience. Still, for some reason when you’re there it feels like you’re on the grind. It could have to do with the nature in which you begin teaching there: thrown into the fire without any training or familiarity with how the school operates, etc. Koreans work pretty damn hard in general, like bees. Robot bees. This rubs off on the foreign teachers and creates the feeling of the grind, where despite the positives of the position, the fact that you’re in a one-year contract and seem very replaceable, it makes it easy to move on.
But I found myself in those months when I was back in the U.S. talking about Korea whenever I could. I would ramble incessantly to anyone who lent an ear. I loved going to get Korean food or making it for friends. When I went into a shop owned by any Asian, I quickly looked around to see if there was any calendars/documents around, to see if they were in Korean so I could ask a question, make a comment, or just say hello/bye, which would get a huge smile out of them. Koreans have a lot of pride, and some of them really get a kick out of you just saying anything in their language. I still follow the news regularly over there. I love the place, and most importantly, I love the people who are kind beyond belief, sometimes to the point where they can be overbearing (I’ll touch on that in a future post).
There’s a big red carpet waiting for foreigners (well, most of them) when you arrive in Korea. The problem is, like the boa constrictor that digested the elephant in the Little Prince and was mistaken for a hat, it’s not there for everyone to see. I can’t tell you the amount of free things I received or preferential treatment I got simply because I was a foreigner. People wanted to befriend me and or went out of their way to make me feel welcomed (especially since I lived in a smaller area of the country). When I went back I visited the oldest temple in Korea with my friend and his family. Not many foreigners ever go there (my Korean teachers had never been there) so they don’t have a pamphlet with information in English to give out. However, they were more than happy to print out a 30 page document with the history of the place and give it to me even though I didn’t ask. How’s that for customer service? Ten minutes later, one of the staff members came from behind the desk, looked around for me and decided to practice his English by telling me all that they knew about the place even though they gave me the information already. This might bother some people because I wasn’t able to go at my own pace, I was now a guest, and they were hosting me around this site and I had to be respectful.
Korean people are funny as hell too. I always laughed when people were shocked that I could eat spicy food, since most Koreans don’t think westerners can for some reason. I distinctly remember a woman at a restaurant initially refusing to give me more spicy sauce because she didn’t think I could eat it, and she watched in horror as I put it all over my food. I laughed when people gave me compliments on my ability to use chopsticks. I thought it was funny that kids walked behind me sometimes when I was heading to school so they could ask me questions or just say “hi” and “nice to meet you” over and over. Being pointed at sometimes on the bus or in public by kids, as if I were an alien, was always a good time, and it happened quite a bit. This may sound narcissistic, but people were often fascinated simply by my presence. I don’t mean that about myself either, just in general because I was a foreigner.
I wonder if I would get tired of it over time though. In a way, I was a novelty there and I soaked it up (without taking advantage). But in the long-run, I wonder if the inability to escape that and never really being able to blend completely in because I’m not a native would eventually make me feel resentment about the place. Maybe I’ll never know…
So, if you think right off the bat that you’d be annoyed or angry by the guy who wanted to talk to me at the temple, then you might end up hating Korea. If you choose to live in an area outside of Seoul/Busan/Jeju (and a few other places I suppose), and don’t like little kids running up to you to randomly say hi and blurt out any word they know in English, you also might not like Korea. If random people coming up to you in a store or on the train to try and chat with you in English bothers you, stay away. If you get mad at the thought of an old lady on a train forearming her way through the crowd to get a seat, then you definitely won’t like Korea. They do that to everyone though, not just foreigners, and personally I think it’s hysterical.
I loved living in Korea, but I think I’m done with it. I probably peaked…I dominated for one year and I think that was that. Even though Ben Teacher will always be a legend at my school (shop/restaurant/post office workers in my town all remembered me too!!), I don’t know if I’d go back and teach, but never say never. Either way, Korea will always feel like a second home to me, and aside from New York City I doubt there will be a place I’ll ever feel as attached to.
Korea isn’t perfect though, and I guess I should point out why since people give me crap and say things like “well if you like it so much why don’t you move there then!” For starters, it’s tougher being a woman and working there since it’s a very patriarchal society. I’ve heard a fair share of sexist comments from men which made me think they were the offspring of Borat. It can be a superficial place at times, and with “appearance” being so important, it could make or break whether you hate the country or love it. There are customs and traditions in the workplace that might not make sense, but you have to follow through with them without any explanation of what they are or what you’re doing. Sick at work and have to miss a few days? Well, you might get fired like a friend of mine did (via email no less!). It can be a frustrating place at times, there’s no denying that.
But all in all, the relative ease of life, awesome nightlife, high-quality transportation, number of things to do, well-paying teaching jobs where the kids are beyond obedient, cheap food/alcohol/cabs/movies/everything, etc., make it hard to complain about. From someone who taught in Korea, left for a while then went back for a bit, I was reminded of how lucky I was when I lived there, but I knew that all along and highlighted it many times on this blog. My advice would be to take advantage of what the country has to offer, or GTFO and go back to the US/UK/Canada/Australia where the job market is miserable, then tell me if you regretted ever going to Korea or not. It’s great for what it is, just remember that.
When I go traveling, I like to finish where I start because it makes me feel like I completed a full circle. So I went back to my old ’hood before I left to stop by my favorite lunch spot, the same place I had my first meal when I arrived in 2009 (I’d bet my life that no foreigners went there since). It was nice chatting with the lady who worked there again. This time, I was at least able to ask/answer a few questions. For twelve months I went there three times a week and the only communication we had was ordering, paying and then goodbye. This time it was a little different, and the pleasantries of that along with knowing I was just back to pay my respects and to see friends, meant she refused to let me pay for the meal. I was the guest, and it was Korea after all.