I Live In Korea

My name is Ben Gwynne. I USED to teach English in Incheon, South Korea. Here's some photos, stories, videos, etc.

So I went back for the month of May and added 6 more posts, but now I'm done....Again... So, in conclusion, I'd just like to re-post my farewell video. Till we meet again Korea..........

- Ben Gwynne

Long post ahead but it’s informative. Most of these I forgot to mention when I was there teaching, others I just found out about on my recent trip.

1. Eye glasses are insanely cheap and take a really short amount of time to make. How cheap? I have two really nice pairs that I spent a combined $150 on. How quick? I walk in, and in 30 minutes I have my glasses picked out, my eye checkup done, and the lenses are fixed according to my prescription and ready to go.

2. Some people keep charred logs of wood in their fridges, this supposedly helps keep the fridge smelling fresh as the charred logs eat up any foul odors.

3. The subway cards are awesome for a variety of reasons, one of them is instead of a card you can have a little charm to put on your cell phone that will work as a subway pass. Also, you don’t have to take it out to swipe at the subway/bus machine, it can read through your wallet/bag. The card/charm works for most taxis and even at some convenience stores. It’s not flimsy like the Metro Card which can be destroyed easily. Also, look at them. There’s no way a Metro Card is better than this...

4. You can charge your cellphone in most convenience stores. Maybe I mentioned this before, but it’s amazing and needs to be mentioned again.

5. Everyone composts, even if they don’t have a yard to plant things in. Don’t know what composting is? Well, then you’re probably an American from a large metropolitan city and you should look it up.

6. Korean people don’t think white people can eat spicy food or use chopsticks. I have received many compliments on my ability to use chopsticks and get looks from people in restaurants when they see me eating spicy food. Sometimes I get overly dramatic (but serious) responses with people literally shaking their head and encourage me not to eat the food. Sometimes I see people elbowing their friend and pointing in my direction to imply “look at that white boy, he’s going to try and eat that spicy pepper!” It’s highly comical and I play it up when I have the chance.

7. Long stop lights. My old neighborhood had a light that took 3 ½ minutes to change through its full cycle (I timed it). People wait too because......Confucius. Follow rules, order. I nearly got a summons my first weekend there for crossing the street at 4am when no cars were insight, a cop came over to nab me but I played the dumb-foreigner card. The longest light I’ve seen was 5 minutes.

8. Most newer apartments you don’t use keys to get inside, they have an electronic keypad so you just punch in a code and you’re in. This is amazing. Think about all the time you’ve spent looking for your keys, how inconvenient it is to have to bring your keys with you when you go for a run or go to the gym, or think about the times when your jacket was stolen with your keys inside, and your roommate was passed out so you had to sleep on the floor outside of your apartment door to the horror of your neighbors (Hypothetical situation of course).

9. A number of fast food restaurants are open 24 hours.

10. Spitting is…how do I put this mildly…socially acceptable? Standing on the corner waiting to cross the street, and hearing a 70 year old woman loudly “hock a loogie” is not only not out of the question, but probably something you will see regularly.

11. All fast food restaurants deliver.

12. Excluding the “blue trucks” and some taxis which are orange, I’d estimate that 93% of the cars are black, white or silver. Nothing unusual really, just following the norm. Confucius.

13. Most apartments don’t have dryers or ovens. Clothes are air-dried on a rack, baking just isn’t very big.

14. Ping-pong halls, pool halls, PC rooms (think, internet cafe without coffee, just heaps of people playing computer games), and noraebang’s (karaoke rooms) are EVERYWHERE. If you walk 2 minutes without seeing one of them, you are blind.

15. There is a motorcycle delivery service where they will literally bring you anything you want. I always wondered why I saw some guys on a bike with crap stacked six feet high on the back, but now I know, he’s running errands for someone.

16. There is also a motorcycle taxi service. In a bind and don’t want to deal with traffic? MTS will weave through and bring you wherever the hell you want. Awesome.

17. __________ don’t ____________________ _________________ _____________. (Too lengthy to get into, use your imagination and get back to me.)

18. Being single is somewhat of a sin. I must have been asked about 100x if I had a girlfriend and each facial expression when I replied “no” was more sad than the next. Being 30 there (my Korean age) is like being 36 and single in the US. Basically, I’m close to being washed up (no offense to any 36 year old single people). Good thing I’m a man though as it’s worse for women. What does this lead to? Well, my roommate when I was back for this trip kept wanting to set me up so I could have a “girlfriend.” Guy surprised me by bringing along some random girl when he and I went out to dinner. She knew about 20 words in English and her first question to me was “are you disappointed by my age?” (Little does she know!!!!)

Seriously though, it was over-bearing how many times this guy would pester me about being single, trying to set me up, or being flabbergasted that I was meeting up with former coworkers or friends who were females and the relationship was just platonic. The important thing to remember though, is that he was just being nice. Sometimes the kindness can be overbearing, but you always have to remember that they’re just trying.

19. Cigarettes are $2.50 a pack. Foreigners come here and think “I’m in a new place, let’s change some habits of mine, no more smoking.” But then you see how cheap cigarettes are, you can smoke everywhere unlike most major American cities, and then they crack.

20. Dunkin Donuts is awesome. There is considerably less sugar in the donuts here, making it possible to eat six (if one were so inclined) without feeling sick. Oh, they also sell churros at some of them too.

21. Cell phones work everywhere...tunnels, highest peak in the country, subways, etc. everywhere. I mentioned this before, but the reason this is important is because the luxury isn’t abused like it would probably be in the US. On subways, if someone is using their phone, they are probably covering their mouth to keep their voice low and are talking for a very short period of time. It’s just not polite. C-ON-F-U-C-I-U-S.

22. The school buses are nicer than ours

23. According to the always accurate Wikipedia, there are 2,282 7/11’s in Korea and it’s the 5th most of any country in the world. I’m shocked by that number and believe it must be higher since that figure was calculated. There were two on my block alone less than 400 yards from each other. It’s insane, I saw more 7/11’s there than I see Starbuck’s in NYC.

24. Elevator buttons can cancel out. Pushed the wrong button? No problem, push it again and the light goes off. This would have ruined mine and some of my friends’ childhood, who made a habit out of pushing every button on the elevator before we got off on the floor we needed to. Kids.

25. Nothing gets stolen. Ever. People keep their gym shoes in a shoe rack at the gym so they can go straight from work and leave their shoes there. In supermarkets and some other stores, they have a bin in the front where you put your wet umbrellas so you don’t have to carry it around with you and get the floor all wet. CONFUCIUS.

26. Drinking in public is legal anywhere. I’ve said this before, but you have no idea how great it is (not trying to sound like a lush) to be able to hop in a cab with a road soda. Of course there’s dumb-asses who ruin it though and make foreigners look like ignorant "louts." Sitting on the floor of a subway car, drinking and playing card games? Really? It’s something great but shouldn’t be abused, it's a simple pleasure like cellphones working on a train. Do it undercover and in a way where it's basically kept to yourself.

27. People eat buffalo wings with a fork and knife. I only went to wing night twice, but every single person in the bar on both occasions was using a fork and knife. I didn’t want to be rude so I obliged and it completely ruined the experience of eating a buffalo wing.

28. Beer pong is played with water. I only went to a bar that had beer pong twice, so it’s not the greatest sample size, but all games throughout the night were played with water. No one drank the water, they just played to see who could hit the most shots. What kind of game is that?

29. Bus seats all face forward in the same direction. A lot of buses in other cities will have some sideways seats for space efficiency. I have no official explanation, but I can only believe the orderliness of the seats all facing forward has to do with a man named Confucius.

30. North Koreans who successfully defect to South Korea are given $10,000-$28,000 in start up money. In the US, Mexicans who cross the border get shitty jobs picking tomatoes and are blamed for the collapse of the US economy, crime and a number of other problems.

31. In the US, if there is a sale advertised, it usually looks like this “20%-40% off.” In Korea, it looks like “40%-20% off.” It seems weird, but it might make sense. Seeing the bigger number first might suck people in more. I believe a study needs to be done on this if it has not already.

32. A lot of gas stations look like this. Notice anything weird (hard to tell, shitty picture)? Well, there are no pumps, just an overhead thingie. This is a huge space saver and also let’s people not have to worry about what side of the car their gas tank is on. Genius idea.

33. Cabs are cheap as hell, probably 1/3rd of the price of a NYC taxicab. It’s awesome.

34. Traffic on the highways around Seoul is horrific, worse than NY, better than LA though (I think).

35. The vast majority of tennis courts are a clay/dirt. They also keep a chalk line maker there and some places even keep a bunch of balls too, but of course, none of them get stolen. Confucius?

36. Subways have vending machines, a digital map so you can see the overview/Google maps type view of the surrounding area to locate parks, restaurants, hospitals, etc. It’s awesome. There are also flat screen tv’s in a number of train stations showing commercials, news, etc.

37. Despite the constant references to him, Confucius is not from Korea, he’s from China, but the influence of his teachings reached Korea and I’m glad it did.

Decorated Subway Car

Subway Bench

Crabs Tempa?

My Korean Family

Aug 21, 2011

Koreans Dancing

I wish I could tell you there was a rational explanation for this video, but, it's just Korean silliness. These videos were all taken on the same day, within a few hours of each other, within about 10 yards of each other. Just an average day of walking around a busy park in Seoul, and people doing weird things for no reason and having not a care in the world about those watching them. Obviously, it's better with the sound on.

People are selling socks (and stockings) everywhere in Korea. Everywhere. Every week it seems the sock guy outside of one of the train stations has a new shipment in of absurd looking socks. I wish I took pictures of all the different ones I saw throughout my time there, but I only decided to on this last trip back. They cost $.50-$1.00, are comfortable as hell, and if you are lucky I sent you a pair for Christmas in 2009.

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.