It was a year and a half ago since I left my life in Canada to move across the world. I wanted to live in a different country so that I could completely dive into it and learn from it. I had already lived in New Zealand and Austria and was ready to take on more of a cultural challenge. I wanted a country that would make me question everything. I knew that China was too far of a stretch for me so I settled on the more toned down version, South Korea.
On top of that I specifically requested not to be in Seoul because I knew that as a big city it would be more international and therefore a less authentic experience. I wanted to experience the nitty-gritty bits of South Korea. In all honesty though- I had no idea what to expect.
I ended up getting a job in Ulsan, in the South of South Korea. South, South Korea? People in Ulsan do not speak English, nothing is written in English and you will not see another foreigner unless you make a coffee date with them. At least this makes it easy to spot them in the coffee shop.
Even after living in South Korea for over a year I find it hard to put my experience in words or to even define the culture. The best way that to describe South Korea is that it is just one big oxymoron. Nothing makes sense.
South Korea has a high buddhist population- yet it is impossible to order a dish without meat. If you use the bathroom you will either get a squat toilet with no toilet paper or a technologically advanced toilet with a heated seat. Men are very affectionate with one another and even hold hands, yet being gay is not accepted. Eventually, I learned that it was a lost cause to try and make sense of everything.
I have found many struggles with living in South Korea and often wonder if I am not as adaptable and open to change as I think I am or wish I was. I guess I thought South Korea would be a transformational experience as I dove myself into this vastly different culture. I expected to come out of South Korea as a more polished and crisp apple- juicy with new expediences and wisdom. Yet, sometimes I think this apple will be leaving battered and bruised.
It’s the most difficult country I have lived in thus far. The language and cultural barrier can make the most simple tasks extremely difficult. Where is the dentists? Are the open on Saturdays? How do I call to make an appointment if they don’t speak English?
As I prepare to leave I thought that I would do a review of my time in South Korea to see if i succeeded in accomplishing what I came here to do. i am going to be brutally honest in this review- no fluff. For my review I took questions from two different blogs, meant to reflect on your past year from TheHuffington Post and The Art Of Simple.
1. Complete this phrase: South Korea was…
Crazy, challenging, and fun.
2. What surprised you?
When I moved to South Korea I think the one thing that surprised me was how very few foreigners there were here. I mean, I know that I am moving to South Korea and there would be lots of Koreans, but ONLY Koreans?
Coming from one of the most multicultural countries in the world I am so used to meeting people of all different shapes and sizes. In South Korea it’s one size fits all. It was hard to get used to a culture that lacks diversity – especially when you are its drop of diversity. Being stared at has become so normal to me that I hardly even notice it anymore.
Individuality is not encouraged. South Koreans tend to wear the same makeup and fashion trends as one another. Every clothes shop in Korea sells the same thing. As well, they are brought up with a rigid educational system – adding to their like-mindedness. As someone who attended art schools my whole life found South Korea very restricting.
When I did go shopping in Korea (because a girl needs clothes eventually) I was often not allowed to try anything on because I was a foreigner. I had a friend that once tried clothes on and then they searched her bag after thinking that she was shoplifting.
There are many ways that Koreans discriminate against foreigners that would be unbelievably offensive and even illegal if did them to a South Korean visiting Canada. The culture can be judgmental and it felt like anytime I did something ‘different’ I was harshly critiqued.
As mentioned before, South Korea is an oxymoron in itself. So there where times when I was given special treatment for being a foreigner. For example, at restaurants they sometimes gave me free dishes. Yet, at other times they would refuse to even let me in. I could have gone without the free food though, and more respect. So yeah – lots of surprises.
3. What did this year teach you?
The reason that I moved to South Korea in the first place was because I knew that it would be a very challenging culture for me to adapt to. I hoped that it would help me grow a better understanding for East Asian cultures and of myself.
I wanted a challenge and that’s exactly what I got. It took me about six months until my apartment finally felt like my own and I wasn’t afraid to call to make a doctors appointment. On top of that, as a vegetarian this was literally the most frustrating and difficult place to try and avoid meat. There were some days that I loved Korea and was high on life and other times that I would crumble from my frustrations.
It is almost hard to reflect while I am still in Korea because I am sure that I will probably only noticed the real effects of how much this experience has changed me when I return home. I know that I now do the peace sign in all my pictures and have grown to love kimchi and honey butter flavoured chips- but my changes go deeper than that, right?
I definitely think that I have grown a better understanding for East Asian cultures and will always hold a special place in my heart for South Korea.
Even though I moved to South Korea to be a teacher, I think that my students ended up being my greatest teachers.
My students are amazing and so filled with love. They are not afraid to show affection for each other and even towards me. I remember the first time a student hugged me and I was freaking out imagining the sexual assault violation being charged against me. But in South Korea it is encouraged to show affection. I found that my personal bubble evaporated quickly with so many children telling me they love me and giving me hugs everyday. My coworker even holds my hand when we hang out together.
As well as affection, I love South Koreans sense of community and sharing that they have with one another. Meals are always communal with many dishes being shared. This means no more having to ask your friend for a french fry. Even if you order soup you will get one bowl and five spoons.
By living in a country whose culture is on the opposite end of the spectrum from mine, I have also learned to appreciate parts about my own country that I took for granted.
As mentioned before I am so grateful to come from a country where I am encouraged to express myself and that is open and accepting of people from all walks of life.
4. What needs to be left behind?
Ooooh this is an interesting question to ask as I pack the only belongings that I will keep into one box to ship home. I know that this question is probably talking about emotional baggage and old habits- but sometimes I feel like a lot of this is actually reflected in the things that we own. My mother is an interior designer and she always says that the hardest part of her job is getting people to get rid of things. People have so much emotional attachment to objects.
As I sort my items into piles of what to give away and what to keep, I am trying to be aware of the real reason that I want to hold onto things. There are some things that I feel I just want to put in the box because I bought them in South Korea and want to bring a piece of it home with me- not fully ready to close this chapter in my life.
But onto the less literal explanation.
I think I need to leave behind the pressures that I feel from society. I know that I am living the dream and this will be an experience I will never forget or regret. However, in the back of my mind there is always that nagging voice from society telling me that I need to have a stable career, get a house and settle down. Facebook is a constant reminder that people are having babies and buying houses while I – in just a few days – will be homeless and jobless.
I love to speak to older people and hear their words of wisdom. Whenever I do, they tell me that I am doing it right. You never know when life is going to slip away from you and I want to spend it doing what makes me happy, not what society tells me will make me happy.
Just this year, another teacher in Ulsan got hit by a drunk driver and passed away. The news was shocking. We had all moved to Ulsan together and all of our lives here had similar stories, only hers ended sooner. It wasn’t fair, but I found peace in knowing that she passed away while living out an adventurous life and going after her dreams. Her passing was something none of us expected and was both heartbreaking and a rude awakening.
It was at this point that I was debating between moving back home to get a ‘real job’ or traveling the world. This unfortunate experience reminded me that our time on earth is limited and I need to make the most of it. Instead of immediately looking for a job I chose to travel for five months- visiting friends from around the world that I haven’t seen in years.
5. What was the single best thing that happened this past year?
Seeing my best friend Becki who lives in England and I hadn’t seen in about three years. I remember at one point she made me laugh so hard that I was literally so happy I was about to burst into tears of joy.
Our friendship is highly abnormal. I met her traveling about six years ago in New Zealand and a few years later I met up with her for one fantastic day in London. We have now spent a total of three weeks together in the last six years – yet somehow she has managed to nuzzle her way in as one of my most valued friendships.
6. What was the single most challenging thing that happened?
I was dealing with extreme stomach issues to the point that it was taking over my life and I ended up at the hospital at 1 a.m. from an anxiety attack. I spent a year going to multiple doctors but nothing they did helped. I felt like they wouldn’t listen to me – and the language barrier added to my frustrations.
As a last resort I ended up going to acupuncture. That in itself was enough to give me anxiety. She literally would inject bee venom into me with a needle as well as burn my stomach. I felt like I was going through an exorcism. I still have scars from my burns on my stomach and don’t know if they will ever go away.
The worst part is that none of this has helped.
I am convinced that I have a parasite but the doctor refuses to consider this an option and look at me like I’m a crazy foreigner when I suggest it.
7. What was an unexpected joy this past year?
Traveling solo throughout Sri Lanka. I had originally planned to go with a friend of mine but he fell through. I had done some looking into Sri Lanka and had been really excited for our trip. I decided that I still wanted to go even if he couldn’t come along. All of my friends were booking flights to Thailand and Vietnam, places closer to Korea, and thought that I was crazy for picking such a random destination.
This trip was probably the highlight of my whole year. The country was so beautiful with the lush green tea hills, national parks and beautiful hikes. I was in awe of this countries beauty and I loved how untouched it was from tourism.
I love my friend and all but I was actually very happy in the end that I went alone. I find that when you are a solo traveler it forces you to put yourself out there more and meet more people. I met some amazing travelers and the locals in Sri Lanka were awesome too!
Sri Lanka is at the top of my list for favourite countries in the world.
8. Who were your most valuable relationships with?
My friends from around the world. I missed a lot of important events this year, such as best friends weddings. I hated that I could not to be there for them so I did my best to try and let them know how much I wished I could have. My heart broke that I couldn’t celebrate with them because they are the most important people in my life.
Even though I wasn’t there for their actual weddings, it was nice being able to hear from them about the planning process and the wedding dramas. It meant a lot that I was still someone they wanted to confide in even though I wasn’t going to be there for the big day.
I think that shows you how deep a friendship is; that even if you miss an important milestone in their life they don’t hold it against you and try to share it with you in anyway that they can.
9.What was your biggest personal challenge from this past year?
My biggest personal challenge was trying to balance being myself as well as adapting to this new culture.
I am an alien in a homogeneous culture and that is not a good feeling. I didn’t realize this about myself until I moved here, but I hate attention.
Anything that is different to South Koreans is strange because they hold strongly to their culture. Sometimes to avoid being judged or discriminated against it was easier for me to try to adapt to the culture. I found that I would change my fashion and makeup to fit their ideas and attract less attention to myself. I would wear loose-fitting clothes to try to hide my curves and made sure that my shirts always covered my shoulders and chest.
Then, there were other days where I was completely over it and refused to change myself for them. I would wear a tank top and shorts and not care who stared – it was too hot not to.
I am using clothing as an example to share with you because it is a lot easier to understand. In reality this applied to almost all aspects of my life in South Korea.
My biggest personal challenge was trying to find a balance between accepting and respecting the South Korean culture while not losing sights of my own beliefs and values.
10. What was the most enjoyable part of your work?
My students for sure. What other job (besides being a rockstar) do you get to go to work everyday and have people screaming your name. I would literally walk into the school and have students yelling “Hello Tessa teacher!” and run up to talk to me. Of course their English wasn’t very good so it would just be a couple of minutes of awkward, broken conversation – but the love was there.
11. What was your single biggest time waster in your life this past year?
Ugh South Korea is the definition of time waster. They work more than any other country in the world yet they are arguably the least efficient. Another oxymoron.
As I write this I am actually at work. I have time to write this because I don’t teach a single class for two weeks! And I leave in two weeks. I just came back from my vacation to sit at a desk for two weeks until I finish my contract. In fact, this is so common that there is an actual name for it – ‘desk-warming.’ Yep, you’re just there to keep your desk chair warm.
Even if I wanted to plan lessons during this time I couldn’t, because I literally will never teach again. But common sense doesn’t exist here so instead I am writing in my blog and planning my next five months of travel. Not that I am complaining about getting paid to do those things.
12. What was the best way you used your time this past year?
Writing my blog.
This is something that I have thought about for ages but let self-doubt get in the way. I am happy that I finally started my blog because it has kept my creativity alive and given me a passion project to work on. As well it has been a lot more challenging than I thought – learning about creating a website and all the technicalities that go along with it.
That is my review of what my life here. I usually post pictures of happy moments and fun times on social media, so I thought that it was important to be brutally honest about what living in South Korea has been like. Along with the unforgettable experiences here came everyday struggles. Now if you excuse me I am going to enjoy my last bag of honey butter chips.