Tales from abroad: Korea

Locals gather around Seoul’s Cheong Gye Cheon River to celebrate the first anniversary of the city’s restoration of the freshwater stream. (credit: Courtesy of justinadams on Flickr) Locals gather around Seoul’s Cheong Gye Cheon River to celebrate the first anniversary of the city’s restoration of the freshwater stream. (credit: Courtesy of justinadams on Flickr)

Only a few hours into my stay in Korea and I was already sweating. No, it wasn’t my concern over starting a new job, nor was it my apprehension at moving to a country halfway across the globe. It was the ddeokbokki.

After graduating from Carnegie Mellon in 2009 with a degree in English and history, I decided to pick up my life and try my hand as an English teacher in South Korea. At the time, I knew almost nothing at all about Korea and its culture, people, language, or food. I wanted to see the world, and I had never been to Asia. The prospect of desperately searching for an offer in the black hole that was the American job market wasn’t especially appealing to me. Plus, I’d spent a semester as a junior in Barcelona and loved the experience of living abroad. “How different could it really be?” I thought.

As it turns out, I had almost no idea what I had gotten myself into. Nearly everything about living and working in Korea required a sizeable adjustment for me. Overcoming the red pepper spice found in what seemed like all Korean dishes was only the beginning. I had to get used to living completely on my own for the first time in my life. I experienced what it was like to stand at the front of a classroom rather than sitting at the back of one. I learned how difficult it can be to get around in a place where almost no one speaks English. Things I took for granted at home — ordering delivery or taking a shirt to the dry cleaners — became protracted events for which I had to work up a steady amount of courage and dedication.

And yet, here I am, more than two years since my arrival, still proudly calling myself a Korean resident. If you had asked me after the first six months of my stay if I would be here this long, I would have probably laughed in your face. So what am I still doing here? The short answer is this: Korea has grown on me in a serious way.

There are so many things I love about this country. Despite my old aversion to eating spicy food, I’ve come to love Korean food for its variety (it turns out that not everything has red pepper in it) and peculiarity (have you ever tried eating octopus that is still squirming when you put it in your mouth?). Korean nightlife is fantastic; there is no such thing as “closing time,” and you are never more than a few meters away from a bar, or at least a convenient store stocked with beer, soju, and munchies. The Korean landscape is extremely varied, and Seoul boasts a remarkable blend of old (think 1,000-year-old palaces) and new (think modern skyscrapers). Korean people have been, in general, extremely warm and welcoming to me as a foreigner, albeit in their own unique way. Strangers approach me randomly on the street to say “hello” and little children stare at me like they’ve seen some kind of giant white ghost.

Living and exploring in Korea is significantly cheaper in relation to the United States. Also, finding a job has never been a problem here. In fact, I’ve already had the chance to be a middle school teacher, professional writer, and wildly inconsistent travel blogger. I am now working as a professor at a university. If that isn’t upward mobility, I don’t know what is.

There are also many things that frustrate me about this country. Taxi drivers are nuts. Some elderly women push and shove other pedestrians with reckless abandon. Riding the subway during rush hour is more akin to trying to stuff fifty clowns into a Volkswagen than any kind of public transportation I’ve ever seen. Learning Korean is hard, although that might be more attributable to my lack of effort than any inherent linguistic flaws. Plus, I’ve still yet to find a place that will serve me a real deli sandwich.

The longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve realized that these are the kinds of challenges inherent to the life of an expat. Living in Korea has taught me more about myself than I ever could have imagined, and I really do believe that I’ve grown an immeasurable amount as a person, a professional, and a student of the world. Maybe that sounds corny. Maybe it is. But at least now I can eat ddeokbokki without sweating ... usually.