“So put my picture on your button, my name around your hat. Call all the neighbours, and tell them I’m back. I’ve changed. I’ve come in from the ledge. I’ve changed. There’s nothing here at all. There’s nothing here at all for me to run from.” -Evan and Jaron, “Show You Sometime”
In less than 24 hours, I’m leaving Korea and returning (at least temporarily) to my old life in the States. To say that I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster the last few weeks would be a terrible understatement. I’ve spent a lot of time reminiscing about my first few weeks in Korea, only a year ago. It feels like yesterday and like forever ago, somehow all at the same time. Leaving the place I’ve called home for a year is bittersweet, more than I expected. I love Korea, but I’m ready to move on to the next chapter. It’s still difficult to leave some of the best friends I’ve ever had, but I’ve made so many wonderful memories here that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. This post, like all of them, will be a reflective one about the ways I’ve changed (and I have!) and things I will and won’t miss Korea.
There’s a great Snow Patrol line that goes, “I’m just not the same as I was a year ago and each minute since then.” This lyric sums up my year more accurately than anything I could come up with on my own. I’m 31 and was confident that I knew myself well. As it turns out, living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language changes you in ways that no other experience really can. When I came here, I wanted to be open to everything and try new things, especially things that scared me. I’ve shed some of my shyness by hanging out with people I’d never met or didn’t know well and became great friends with some of them. I’ve shared rooms with complete strangers. (If you know me, you know that I hate sharing a room with anyone, no matter how close we are. I still do, but at least I’m a tiny bit better about it.) I’ve eaten foods I’d never try otherwise, like octopus (just one sliver) and Beondegi (silkworm pupae). I’ve travelled solo and discovered I love wandering aimlessly on my own. I’ve gone skinny dipping. To my surprise, I found out that I love ziplining and roller coasters, which I’d only ever been on once, despite practically growing up at Disney and Universal. These all sound like normal or minor things for most people, but for me, they were big. I most likely wouldn’t have done/overcome any of them without coming to Korea. I feel virtually fearless.
I’ve changed most, however, in that I’ve lost some of my sense of shame. I once was easily embarrassed, but I attract attention wherever I go in Korea just by looking different. “Graceful,” for example, is not a word most people would use to describe me, crushing my dream of being a ballerina. Whether it’s falling on a full bus twice, singing horribly at noraebang, or accidentally exposing myself before getting a massage at the spa (not the jjimjilbang, where you are meant to be nude), I laugh about those moments now. I accept that my clumsiness makes me who I am and is one thing that’ll never change.
Inevitably, Korea hasn’t all been rainbows and unicorns. There are some things I knew I wouldn’t like or miss. These are not all bad, just different, and were things I had to get used to over time but sometimes didn’t. This isn’t everything I didn’t like, but these are the top things. It’s not meant to be negative but something for anyone coming to Korea to be aware of and to help people who won’t do this understand why I was sometimes frustrated.
1. Food – I knew I wouldn’t like Korean food much, and that hasn’t changed. As a vegetarian, my options are incredibly limited. I do like bibimbap, but in general, I have found that too much of the food I can eat tastes the same. I quickly tired of the same things at school every day and of questioning whether most things I ate were truly vegetarian. Obviously I knew the foods I mentioned above weren’t, but that was the only time I knowingly broke my diet, and I felt so sick after eating them. I also got tired of explaining that vegetarians don’t just pick the meat out or eat around it. As nice as it is when people share food, which is all the time, I don’t like the pressure to accept everything given to you or to share your own food. Sometimes you just get tired of rice cakes or just aren’t hungry. Alternatively, sometimes you want to have a little snack without having to share it with everyone. I thought sweet foods were too bland, and salty foods were too sugary. Let’s just say that I look forward to eating garlic bread that tastes like garlic and isn’t covered in sugar when I get home. (Yes, that’s real.)
2. Hygiene – I knew about the spitting, but I didn’t know how bad it was before I came here. I’ve always been repulsed by the act, but I can’t walk down the street (or even inside some places, like school) without seeing someone spit. However, Koreans are great about brushing their teeth. You could go into any bathroom – public or private – and see multiple women brushing their teeth. I’ve no problem with that. I just wish the same applied to washing hands, which is sorely lacking with many.
3. Korean Surprises – Anyone who teaches here has heard of this. It’s real. This could go on the list of things I will and won’t miss. Sometimes they’re good surprises, but more often than not they’re frustrating. Cancelled class? Great! The class that was supposed to be cancelled is back on and starting in 5 minutes because there’s a schedule change, and you have no worksheets printed for said class? Not as great. These are very minor examples, but Korean Surprises happen all the time. There was probably at least one a week, sometimes more than one in one day. Sometimes were left to figure it out on our own. Korea being the rushed culture it is in general, I was often left scrambling.
4. Appearance – In Korea, the sad truth is that if you don’t look a certain way, life will be rough. People get plastic surgery to get jobs. I taught middle school and had students tell me they have already had people tell them they should fix this or that. Friends had students as young as grade 6 who came back from breaks with new noses or eyelids. For women especially, there’s a massive focus on appearance, as if we’re only good for looking pretty. Things that would be inappropriate in Western culture are not inappropriate to say in Korea. People who are average where I’m from are considered fat in Korea. Westerners (especially pale ones), however, are often considered beautiful. If you want to be constantly told you’re beautiful, move to Korea. Believe me, you’ll tire of hearing it quickly. Sometimes you just want to say, “Thanks, but I’m also smart and nice with a killer sense of humour. Let’s talk about those things!” It makes me feel bad for Koreans, who are pressured to always look good. It’s kind of like being in Hollywood, except it’s expected of everyone.
Now that those are out of the way, let’s focus on some of the many things that I will miss the most. Most are pretty self-explanatory, so I’ll just touch on them briefly.
1. Internet – Korea has the fastest Internet in the world, which makes it equally hilarious and frustrating that they still use Internet Explorer for everything. There’s also free wifi in most places, including many buses. Need I say more? I’m not looking forward to going back to terrible, slow Internet that often stops working.
2. Shoes – As someone who despises shoes, I loved not having to worry about wearing uncomfortable shoes at work. I wore regular shoes to school and then spent the day in slippers. It made me wish they did this everywhere.
3. Keyless entry – It was so nice to be able to leave my apartment with only my phone and wallet or to rent an Airbnb and not have to actually meet the host. No lost keys; all you have to do is remember a code. Again, every place in the world should be required to do this. It’s brilliant.
4. Rock, Paper, Scissors – It’s not just a children’s game. It’s the best way to make decisions or solve arguments because the rules stand. I’m convinced that it would solve all the world’s problems if we gave it a shot. Fighting over land or, say, an island? Play 가위바윕 and winner gets it. (Hey, with all these great ideas, maybe I should run for President.)
5. Public transportation – I lived in a town with under 50,000 people. There were multiple buses less than five minutes from my apartment, and I wasn’t even downtown. These buses could get anywhere in town or even to bigger cities, like Daejeon. In small town America, as I’ll soon learn, it’s pretty much impossible to get anywhere without a car. The high-speed train (KTX) made me feel like I was living in luxury. Korea is a very small country, roughly the size of the state where I was born (Indiana), and I loved being able to get to the other side of the country in only a few hours. I could be in Seoul in under 2 hours and to Busan in about 3 hours, including time on the bus to get to the KTX station. Yesterday, I took a 3-hour bus ride from Daejeon to Incheon, and the bus was clean and comfortable. They even played arrival music when we were getting to the airport. None of that even includes the nice subway stations, which have bathrooms and often smell better than ones in Chicago. I’ll never know why Haeundae station always smells like fresh cookies, but I’ll never complain either. (Except that it makes me want chocolate chip cookies, but if I’m being honest, I always do.) Did I mention that public transportation is affordable? I’ll miss transportation here so much for so many reasons.
6. Service – There are several things that fall under this. For one, places want you to keep coming back, so they give you free stuff all the time. The lady at my favourite boutique always gave me free stuff – from socks to apples to a ride home when she saw me at Home Plus once. I only shopped there every few months and didn’t always buy anything, but she knew me and always gave me stuff. I always got the same girl when I went to the bank, also only every few months, and she always gave me tea and even remembered that I went to London last month. Tonight I decided to actually eat at a Korean restaurant for my last meal here. I found a place with bibimbap. I ordered, ate, and paid in 20 minutes. In Korea, there’s no waiting around for food. (This goes back to the rushed culture. It does have its perks.) I received a big bowl of food and sides, as is customary in Korea restaurants, for under $4. Taxis are also generally cheaper. Pretty much everything is cheaper than in the US. Also, there’s no tipping – and taxes are included – in most places, so you don’t have to worry about figuring out percentages or any extra money. Because people aren’t working for tips, you don’t have someone bothering you every 5 minutes, and you can just press a button or call for help (which I’m still not good at doing) if you need something. Let’s just add buttons to the list of things to implement worldwide.
7. Safety – When I told people I was moving to Korea, everyone worried about my safety for obvious (but incorrect) reasons. I always had sort of a “If it happens, it happens, but it probably never will” attitude about it. The fact is that I feel safer in Korea than I ever have anywhere. I don’t have to worry that I’ll be raped or mugged if I’m walking alone at 3 AM. Korea has some of the strictest gun control in the world. When someone actually does get shot, it’s usually someone who was in the military and makes big news because it never happens. The last mass shooting in Korea was before I was even born. I don’t even hear much about petty crimes. That’s not to say things like sexual assault and petty crimes don’t happen, but it seems rare, and there are safety measures in place, such as safe havens or buttons to press for help. The only times I’ve ever felt unsafe in Korea is with drivers. Traffic laws are more of a suggestion, it seems, and drivers often don’t yield to pedestrians. Cars park completely crooked, often on sidewalks and crosswalks. As long as you watch closely, you’re fine.
8. Celebrity – This one has its advantages and disadvantages. I think we all know I’m meant to marry a minor celebrity, right? (It’s funny for someone who wants neither fame nor fortune to say, but it’s just a fact.) Okay, I’m being facetious, but actually, I got rather used to being approached all the time. Sure, there were times I wanted to do my grocery shopping without being asked for my phone number or didn’t want to answer a million personal questions from a total stranger or didn’t want to be the poster girl in someone’s “I met a foreigner” picture. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun sometimes.
There’s no way I could sum up what this year has been to me in a blog. There are so many things I love about Korea, even though there are also things I don’t like. That’s true anywhere you live. Leaving tomorrow won’t be easy, but I know I’m ready now. There will be an adjustment (and reverse culture shock), but I’m moving onward and upward, as always. I’ll leave Korea with a deep love in my heart and fond memories of its wonderful people. I regret nothing about this experience, and I’m eternally glad I did it.
I started this blog with the intention of writing about Korea, and I intend to keep it open to write about other things. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll write about in the future, especially seeing as I already have an entertainment blog, but I guess we’ll see where life takes me.
Thank you to my friends in Korea for making this experience as incredible as it was. I love you all dearly and will miss you terribly. Thank you to my friends and family at home. I couldn’t have done it without you, and I’m ecstatic to see you all soon. Lastly, thank you to everyone who has followed me on this crazy ride.