Living in Korea can be so dynamically different for each foreigner, depending on a few things like age, motives, and outlook on life. The three types of foreigners that I describe aren’t mutually exclusive. I believe that a person can encompass varying levels of the different types in a single moment. Of course each person has their own unique story and they are defined by the sum of the whole, not any single instance.
I moved to Korea while I was still processing what I believed and separating myself from religion. It was a process that took more than five years and I wouldn’t be surprised if my mind changed again before the end of my life. When I spent my time alone, I was often reflective and just trying to connect the dots of my life. It was a rare opportunity that I was able to allot so much free time for myself. I would go into the mountains and listen to sentimental music. I even started doing therapy for a few months. Looking back at the version of me from two years ago, it’s so fascinating to see how progression has occurred. At the closing of each chapter of life, I am always humbled by realizing what I didn’t know and anticipating what I have yet to learn.
Personal Experience in Korea
The greatest opportunity I gave myself was joining a Crossfit gym while living in Korea. I had done Crossfit for two years back in the US, so I was already familiar with the movements. I started attending class four to five days a week and found several people that spoke varying levels of English. Up until Crossfit, the greatest communities I found were in churches. There is something about exposing physical vulnerability and encouraging other people going through the same struggle as you. It often develops deep camaraderie in Crossfit and this is the second gym I’ve invested in that has given a hefty return on investment. It’s refreshing to observe community and see how it transcends borders and offers unique cultural nuances. The people at the box became my family and it was my refuge that I looked forward to each day after work. It offered a look into Korean lifestyle that wasn’t catered to foreigners, something I found valuable while living abroad. We shared laughs, we made memories, and everyday before the workout we’d shout in unison, Fighting! (파이팅).
One night, roughly four months into living in Korea, during one of my usual breaks, I went to a restaurant to get dumplings, or mandu (만두). One thing to note is that most meals in Korea come with radishes. Unfortunately, I don’t like radishes, so I usually end up throwing them away. Wanting to make people happy by offering them food, I offered the radishes to one of my Korean coworkers. She politely declined and I proceeded to throw them away in the trash can a few feet away. Immediately, she went ballistic and started accusing me of purposely offending her. I had no clue what was happening as her outward reaction exponentially grew. She was convinced with her life that I had ill intentions and she wasn’t willing to hear any of my words. She quickly walked out of the teacher’s area and went to complain to another coworker loud enough so that the entire hagwon could hear her. As if it couldn’t get worse, another Korean coworker took this opportunity to complain to me that I talked too much.
The radish coworker, as I so aptly say, ended up becoming a menace to the workplace. She would lie to me several times about what was and wasn’t acceptable about Korean culture, she would give the students the answers while they were taking tests, she would leave projectors on all night and sometimes through the weekends, and she would sometimes ask me or another foreigner to help her find the cursor on her computer. Her incompetence led to the end of her job, which seemed inevitable.
Buddha’s Birthday (석가탄신일) is a national holiday celebrated throughout most of Asia. Beopjusa Temple (충북 법주) is located in Songnisan National Park (속리산국립공원). They hold temple stays throughout the year where you spend twenty-four hours at the temple and focus on a day in the life of a Buddhist monk. They held a special temple stay for the holiday and I decided to go. We did activities during the day and explored the temple grounds. We went to bed at 21:00 (9:00pm) and woke up at 03:00 (3:00am) to the sound of a beating drum, a gong, and chanting. We walked single file into the temple and went through the motions of bowing and giving reverence to Buddha. Later that day, we did the 108 prostrations, an exercise that results in standing up and doing a full bow 108 times, each focusing on a specific area to improve one’s life. It was a wonderful experience and was a reminder of a world that doesn’t revolve around its vices.
The passive-aggressive game in Korea is unlike anything I had ever experienced. For an entire week, my boss went to each teacher and kindly asked that we remember to turn off our projectors. Being told something like this surely leads to the idea that I’ve made a mistake and need to remember to turn mine off. Done. What I learned halfway through the week was that it was a single teacher with the problem, but the Korean culture of saving-face and not calling anybody out specifically was an override through all logic. It blew my mind that such time and energy would be expended to waste the time of so many other people. Another instance of this behavior was my boss encouraging me to threaten my students to work hard and be good or we’d turn off the air conditioner in the middle of summer.
The Korean government funded an initiative called the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project. The project completely revitalized the river ecosystems across Korea. The government also developed bicycle lanes alongside the rivers to encourage an environmentally friendly recreation for citizens. One of the bicycle paths extends from Incheon to Busan, roughly 633 km (400 mi) across the country. In early summer, my friend Tim flew to Korea and we spent six days riding along the bike path. We came to eat dinner with strangers, slept in small towns alongside the river, arduously climbed mountains, and endured the summer heat. It wasn’t easy, but the mental reward for completing such a journey was most satisfying. For months after the trip, I would reflect back on that experience and continue to learn from it.
Working in Korea for two contracts, I was part of two (mostly) different waves of coworkers. The first wave included two new foreigners, just like me. We got along well and made memories. We fabricated celebrations just so we could buy and eat cake and we expressed frustration to each other whenever something happened in the workplace that couldn’t make sense to us as foreigners. The second wave of teachers meant that there was only one other foreign teacher. Despite this difference, we developed a solid friendship and spent our lesson planning time usually ranting about something we found on Reddit. Also, the Korean teacher population went down by two, so we were running a smaller crew. There were four of us that got along and spent all of our time together at work. We would crack jokes, eat dinner together, and simply enjoy friendship.
Muse released an album and went on a world tour while I was living in Korea. They announced a date in Seoul and I had to go. I talked to one of my best friends from back home and he came to Korea to see me and to go to the concert. I’ve seen the band perform five times now, and this performance was easily the most intense crowd I had ever been part of at a concert. The crowd was so into the band and we got to hear some songs that I hadn’t heard before, which was a gem in itself. I felt like a drop in the ocean in a sea of people. It was chaotic, but so addicting to want more of it. Koreans definitely know how to rock.
Living in South Korea for almost two years completely changed my outlook on life. Most of my friends were from other parts of the world and it was revealing to see the different cultures play out in each person. During my time in Asia, I stayed in hostels and had late-night conversations about the problems with the world. I spoke with Koreans about the cultural differences between the western and eastern worlds and how each one motivates the personalities of its people. I witnessed privilege that extended to color and sex and I saw discrimination for just the same. I got to experience being a teacher for students as young as first grade all the way up to teenagers. I laughed and had fun and also got extremely frustrated with them. It’s been an unforgettable journey full of adventure, excitement, uncertainty, adaptation, and understanding.
I would encourage anybody to step outside of their comfort zone and spend a few months in a country with a different language and culture. It is most humbling what you will learn about the world and yourself. Living in Asia for two years allowed me the opportunity to visit both China and Japan, two places I never expected to visit in my lifetime. These experiences have made me refrain from setting limitations to potential opportunities because the reality is that you cannot know what to expect in your future so long as you choose to be open to possibility.