Halfway reflections: six months in Korea

View from my apartment window shot in August

This week marks my six months spent living and working in Korea. I’ve certainly repeated it enough, but I’m quite serious when I say that my time here has sped by rapidly and though it does feel like I stepped onto a plane Asia-bound eons ago, the calendar and its measure of time passing somehow seems wildly inaccurate. In these six months I’ve learned so much about this country, its people, culture, customs and language, but I’ve also learned a lot about myself. There is a strange level of loneliness that comes with being a foreigner in a city constantly buzzing with busy bodies and being surrounded by voices you cannot understand. Though this aspect sounds perhaps unappealing, I’ve come to savor the time I’ve had alone here as it’s provided me with ample opportunity for self-reflection and self-examination, which at this stage in my life are things I dearly needed. I’ll likely never be satisfied with the amount of writing I complete, but when I set out for this adventure part of my intention was to write my heart out and though my heart has many more things to say and scream, I feel as though I am succeeding in turning myself more and more, bit by bit, into paper.

Anyhow, the point of this post is to report some of my findings and discoveries from my first six months living this foreign life, so here are a few thoughts that immediately come to mind…

1. Chopsticks beat the fork

Just last weekend I had a food experience that basically rocked my proverbial world. While going on a book binge in Itaewon (the often cited “foreign section” of Seoul aka where foreigners go when they’re homesick–due to all of the foreign restaurants that serve something other than Korean cuisine, innumerable themed bars that are, again, not Korean and countless vendors selling clothing that is “American sized”) my coworker David and I took a break to indulge in some Thai food. When our food came out and our hands moved for utensils we were both silent for a moment as we picked up our forks with a certain awkwardness for how unnatural something once so ordinary had become. We had a good laugh about it, but the fact remains that I seem to know not what to do with a fork any longer and that, my friends, is WEIRD. Having grown to prefer using chopsticks, I found this instance of using a fork so hilarious not only for how strange it felt, but also for how primal and animalistic using a fork seems to me now. Forks somehow lack a gracefulness that comes with eating with chopsticks; using a fork requires movements that seem too aggressive to me, too similar to stabbing and shoveling even if it is just with vegetables and rice. This is already more than I ever needed to say on the topic of forks vs. chopsticks, but my point here is that the chopsticks beat the fork–I’ve found a new preference.

2. Heated floors are amazing. Seriously.

I’m too lazy to figure out (or google) what genius was behind the creation of heating a home through the floor, but this person, whoever they are, is easily on my favorite list because heated floors are awesome!! Waking up in the morning and stepping out of bed is made much better when the floor is nice and toasty. I don’t have a whole lot more to say about this except that it is really quite wonderful and everyone should experience the pleasure of heated floors someday.

3. The Korean education system is by no means perfect, but the U.S. could definitely take a lesson from them

Every student in Korea attends public school receiving a standard education across all subjects, but, beyond that, just about every Korean also attends a variety of hagwons, which are private specialty schools that offer further instruction on a specific area of study. I’m employed by an English academy/hagwon, but there are literally hagwons for every subject you could think up–math, science, taekwondo, art, Chinese, music, you get the point. Most of my students, ranging from elementary school grade through high school, attend classes everyday but Sunday from 9 AM through anywhere between 6 PM-11 PM. There are some breaks in between for meals and whatever necessary transportation, but, for the most part, kids in Korea are in school all day long. This system of schooling definitely has its drawbacks and in no way do I think how it’s done here is the ideal, but it’s worth nothing that Korean families and the Korean government do take education very seriously and their investment in both time, money and resources is one reflection of this fact. I, along with most Americans, am concerned about the state of the educational system in America and though I don’t know what exactly the solution(s) is/are, I do know that great measures need to be taken and changes need to be made because other countries, Korea included, are surpassing us in far too many areas. The fact that a thirteen year old in Korea can write a better essay in English than an American high school student is something that worries me as I’ve witnessed this to be the case far more often than I’m comfortable with.

4. Warm beverage vending machines are almost as amazing as heated floors

I do gain an immense pleasure from inserting 1000 won (less than $1) into a machine that will spit out a can of warm, sweet soy milk. 

5. Neon night light

My officetel/apartment is on the thirteenth floor of a fifteen story building and out my window at night the neon lights of love motels, restaurants, PC bongs (internet cafes), noraebongs (singing rooms), clubs and whatever other forms of entertainment warrants colored light signage are glowing bright. If I were on say the fifth floor, my room would probably never know the dark, but higher up the neon glow that radiates into my room is the most comforting and strangely soothing night light I’ve ever had.

6. Korean kids come up with the best English names

Most of my students have fairly generic English names (Sarah, Tom, John, Richard, Lisa), however there’s a handful that get creative and make the attendance roll significantly more entertaining. My particular favorites are Obi and Maybelline of the girls and Flash and Ocean of the boys.

7. Makgeolli my love, soju my death

Ugghhhh, soju is the worst. It’s downright awful and anytime that stuff shows up at the party (which is way too often) my liver, my brain and my entire body punish me severely. Soju is often compared to vodka and is a potent and unbelievably cheap distilled beverage, costing about 2,000 won (just over a $1) per bottle with an alcohol content of anywhere from a 25% – 45%. Added to all of this terribleness is the fact that soju is generally consumed in straight shots and there are loads of drinking rules that all work against the aforementioned liver. Makgeolli, on the other hand, is a wonderful Korean rice wine that is milky white with a subtle sweetness. Just as cheap as soju but a bit less strong, makgeolli is beloved amongst Koreans and for whatever reason, whenever they spot a foreigner drinking makgeolli they will immediately consider you their new best friend. Though it’s generally consumed plain, I have had makgeolli mixed with cider, which is quite sweet but a rather refreshing beverage.

8. Kimchi in everything, all of the time

When I first arrived in Korea I had a semi-open mind about consuming meat and figured maintaining my vegetarian diet wouldn’t work, but after one meal of pork with my Korean coworkers I quickly realized that my innards don’t know what to do with meat anymore and it was better to accept the confusion/intrigue/shock of Koreans than to miserably try to convert to a diet I don’t care for. This is where kimchi comes in. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish of spicy, pickled/fermented cabbage and is consumed with almost every single meal in Korea either as an ingredient in the main dish or as a side. Trying my darnedest to stay away from meat, kimchi has become the staple of my diet and most of my meals are centered around it–kimchi fried rice, kimchi stew, kimchi pancakes or a kimchi rice ball; my Korean life figures into having kimchi in everything all of the time. Fortunately, I love kimchi and all of the dishes that call for it.

**For the record, I haven’t been a proper vegetarian while living here as I have on occasion been eating fish, which is the only meat I’ve ever really loved and found difficult to give up when living in close proximity to the sea (as I did growing up in the Pacific Northwest and now in Korea).

9. The pleasures of Korean cinema

Before moving to Korea I became obsessed with the work of Korean director Park Chan-Wook and was especially enamored with his films Thirst and Lady Vengeance. Since living in Korea I haven’t watched all that many Korean films as finding titles with English subtitles can be difficult, but recently I went on a movie binge and am diving into the works of other well-regarded Korean directors. At the moment, my obsession is with Bong Joon-Ho and his most recent film, Mother. This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen and is so well-crafted and stunning in all of its attributes–storyline, acting, character development, visuals. The thing about Korean cinema that I find so special is that I have yet to watch a film that isn’t breathtaking and, simply, great. When it comes to cinema, Korea seems to know what they’re doing. If there is anything you take away from my six month reflection, I hope at the very least it is that you need to watch a Korean film. 

I’m certain there are things I’ve left out, but these things are what immediately came to mind. My Korean experience has been phenomenal and this is no doubt a year of my life I will never forget. I could easily ramble on about my fascinations with my current home for days, but it’s getting late and the part of me that is obsessed with American television shows needs to be fed some of The West Wing (GO SANTOS!). Stay gold my friends. 

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One thought on “Halfway reflections: six months in Korea

  1. Beth January 16, 2011 / 12:47 am

    What a wonderful post, Chelsea. I’ve learned so much about your time in Korea, and I really enjoyed reading this. I, too, love heated floors–wish I had ’em. And the fork vs. chopstick idea, yes! Your descriptions are wonderful–I wish you could send us some of that soothing light! As for the kimchi, enjoy–it certainly is an acquired taste, but a delicious one to be sure. And eating fish for a while is certainly easier on your body and on the earth than is pork. Stay gold yourself! 🙂

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