I should begin by explaining I’m writing this blog as secretively as possible. I’m currently playing a game of cat and mouse with some security guards at the Jeju airport and so far they’re winning. Apparently, this airport closes around 10 pm and my plan to spend the night here before my 8 am flight is shot. Luckily, I have found a humid fire escape staircase they don’t seem too bothered with. (It’s better than the bathroom stall I had to stay in for a solid 10 minutes.) Oh, the joys of traveling on a budget. (And without an alarm clock. The ultimate reason I concocted this plan.)
Anywho, this is my first blog about the six weeks I’ve spent in South Korea. And actually, this is my first time in Asia at all so I have a lot to share. There is much to explain about the culture before I divulge my individual experiences.
First, let me explain why I came here. My friend Mandy (originally of the Bay Area but kin to Chico State) has been here teaching English for nearly a year. She was planning on backpacking Southeast Asia for a couple of months with another mutual friend and I decided to tag along, with a pit stop in Korea first. There’s no better way to experience a country than through a local’s eyes. And if you can’t get that, this is the next best thing. I wasn’t going to pass up this opportunity, nor that of backpacking with amazing and crazy friends.
Korea is the highest paying country for teaching English which makes it both popular and crowded with waeguks (foreigners). Not only do you receive a decent salary, but your apartment and plane ticket are included as well. So Mandy didn’t have much of a choice when the apartment she was given was the size of a shoebox. Bedroom, kitchen, office, and bathroom in something that’s not much bigger than my own room at home. The shower in the bathroom is even hovering over the laundry machine. (And yes, the electrical outlet is directly below the shower head. How do you Brits like that for outlet safety?)
So keep this in mind when I remind you I’ve been staying with Mandy for six weeks sleeping on the minimal floor space on a mat. She’s been a trooper for putting up with me that long. At least during the day she works and gets her space (from me, but not people in general). I’ve gone to museums, shopping districts, and temples; but mainly I’ve just played housewife. I sleep in, use the internet, skype, watch (bad) TV, run errands, and sometimes cook dinner. Who knew I’d actually be a perfect candidate for domestication?
At least on the weekends we go out and party with friends or get out of town. (The specific trips I’ve done I’ll get into with my next blog. This is just an overview.) It’s been a really good experience though seeing what it’s like to teach English abroad. It seems the obvious thing for me to do; I love to travel and I majored in teaching. (Duh!) People constantly seem to think they’re suggesting this route to me for the first time, yet I couldn’t really give one concrete answer as to why I am so against it. It’s for a faucet of reasons which makes it more complex.
Namely, it’s work. A lot of it. And I don’t want to work that much while abroad, at least not yet. I like to relax and enjoy my time in other countries, which is why I work so hard when I’m home. It’s part of that 9-5, 5 days a week concept that I’ve never really jived with as well. And more often than not it seems, the bosses are demanding and a bit crazy. Since experiencing it now, I know now more than ever I would never teach English abroad.
That’s not to say it’s not for everyone. Mandy herself enjoys it and is even planning on doing another year, only next time in Japan. She loves the children and since she is a person who likes regular hours, organization, and hard work, this is right up her alley. I wouldn’t ever discourage anyone from doing this; it’s a great way to live abroad. It’s just not for me.
With that said, know that there are pretty much only 3 types of foreigners here in Korea.
1. English teachers
2. Americans in the army (HUGE base here. You know that whole North Korea thing? Yeah, that’s why.)
3. People visiting someone either teaching or in the Army.
That’s it. The person traveling here for their own personal reasons are few and far between, and I’m not exactly sure why. Korea is a beautiful country with lots of natural wonders, fevered activity, and many surprises. This place has much to offer and I’ve been more than pleased with the time I’ve spent here.
Seoul, the capital and where I’ve been living, is immensely big and jam-packed with people. People are constantly coming and going and I do get a bit overwhelmed by the constant clusterfuck. During the day when you check out the landscape of the whole city, you see plenty of lush green mountains popping up all over the place. It’s refreshing but also necessary to their way of life. Most Koreans love hiking and do it daily. Before, after, and even during the work day you will find these climbing spots chalk full of hikers.
When you get out of the cities, Korea is breath-takingly gorgeous. It has so much to offer; from postcard beaches to soaring mountains, this place has it all. And in a compact enough space as well. The bus system is conveniently well connected; from the main bus station in Seoul you can get to the furthest point in the country in about 6 hours. Luckily for me, Mandy happens to be a 10 minute walk from this station. (You really don’t understand how lucky this is unless you get just how vast of a city Seoul is.)
You can tell the natural beauty of Korea has been inspiring people for generations. The art, food, and culture all reflect that as well. But it’s the temples that I truly adore. I understand I have many more temples to gawk at while backpacking Southeast Asia, but I am a virgin at this point so you should know I nearly fell over in awe when I laid eyes on my first giant Buddha. And when I say giant, I mean mother-effing giant. Temples are literally everywhere in this country and I have only seen a handful, yet every time I am impressed by their details and stamina over time
On the other end of the spectrum is the crazy nightlife that often goes until sunrise. From noreabang (karaoke) to jinjilbang (sauna) most places run 24 hours a day. Even the convenience stores put out plastic tables and chairs and stay cracking all night long. (Yes, 7/11 is a great place to start the night. Cheap drinks and good people watching.)
This country is fueled by a liquid known as soju. It’s an alcohol similar to vodka, but grossly cheaper. At around a dollar a bottle you can get wasted for super cheap here. Of course there is a catch. (There always is, eh?) Soju, for most newcomers, can rip your stomach and head to shreds. It takes time for your body to get used to this elixir and this was something not told to me until after my first night out. Or really, after my first god-awful hangover in Korea. Some advice: upon arrival to Korea, don’t go crazy the first night, especially with jet-lag. And don’t eat Kim chi (spicy pickled cabbage) if you’re going to drink. Chances are it will return with a vengeance and it’s not pretty… or tasty.
Still, most people here prefer to drink soju and get stupid drunk every day of the week. From old men to the working stiff, soju is a big part of culture here. And unfortunately, so are drinking problems. Now I could get all serious about how sad this really is. Or I could direct you to the hilarious website www.blackoutkorea.blogspot.com and you can see what I’ve been experiencing my entire time here. From metro trains to street corners, on garbage piles and strangers, Koreans very regularly get so drunk they fully pass out in the most random of places nearly everyday. And luckily someone started taking photos and encouraging others to do so. I’ve created my own personal collection as well.
One reason this happens so much (other than the price of soju) is because of the work culture here. First, it needs to be noted Koreans are workaholics. I’ve been told they have the lowest amount of sleep compared to all other nations, children included. Kids not only go to regular school but take more specialized classes such as English, music, art, math, science, and chess and this generally consumes their weekends as well.
This tradition of work consuming life continues into adulthood as they work early mornings, late nights, and fill spare time with activities such as hiking or exercising on the multitude of public equipment all over the city. Even when work is over, colleagues are expected to go out for drinks and/or dinner together. One will bring out the soju and inevitably all will get plastered before heading home to their families (or passing out on the street). If someone declines invitations for such outings, they are seen as rude and anti-social and inevitably this will affect their work environment and even future promotions. No joke. So that is why it’s so unfortunately common to find businessmen/fathers passed out on the metro ride home late at night during the week.
These high expectations aren’t only for men and children; women also have societal pressures that seem exceptionally strong. There is a huge emphasis placed on physical beauty here which translates to high fashion and consumerism, body image issues, and even surgery. That’s correct; Korea has a very high rate of women going under the knife in the name of beauty. Common surgeries include nose and boob jobs, but most popular is getting eyelids done (to look more western). As if that weren’t enough, women are obsessed with getting whiter skin so most lotions contain a skin whitening agent. Several times at body shops they’ve tried to get me to join this trend. They obviously don’t understand how hard I’ve worked to get this tan.
So here I am: an oversized, heavily tanned, loud, and unfashionable foreigner which translates to impossible to meet men. Let’s be honest: Korean men don’t really go for western women. They’re louder, more opinionated, and if they’re traveling, far more independent than the girlfriends they’re accustomed to. As for foreign men though, it’s the opposite. They’re allowed to be as brash, ugly, and different as possible. Getting a white boyfriend is definitely seen as having higher status and the Korean ladies will giggle, dance, and kiss the night away if they think it will help their chances of scoring that (not-so-attractive) white guy. These men are known as ‘Korean lady chasers’ and are oh-so-common.
Once a couple is formed, the females proceed to fully whip their men. That is to say, it is really popular for couples to wear matching outfits (Koreans only generally). I’m serious, and it’s very common. Sometimes it’s only a shirt, sometimes it’s the entire outfit from hats to shoes. Most people insist this is cute. I’ve decided this is the ultimate way for women to mark their territory. It’s a subversive way of pissing on a fire hydrant and saying “this one’s mine. Back off”.
On top of this, women can actually get their boyfriends to carry their purses for them. Not for a moment while they try something on, but instead for the whole evening. I’d say that’s just lazy but really it’s the female’s way of keeping her man in line, reminding him who is who’s bitch. Although this is something I’d never dream of torturing someone with, it’s entirely entertaining to observe.
While there is much more to share, I hope this provided a decent overview of culture and life here in Korea. My next blog will cover some of the specific adventures I’ve had. From a mud festival to living at a Buddhist temple, I’ve got lots more to divulge. Hope you can handle the suspense.
As for my adventure hiding from airport security, well, let’s just say I’ll never make a good spy. I wrote most of this blog until my typing was so obviously loud I had to finish this the following day. There is a pretty hilarious story about my capture and since you’ve read enough for now I’ll give the ridiculous details later. It really shouldn’t surprise me I end up in situations like that often. At least my absurdity can provide entertainment for both you folks and the locals as well. I always leave an impression.