Thursday, August 30, 2012

Korea: The Good, the Bad, and the Weird.

This post was supposed to follow shortly after my 6 month thoughts, but I admit I got lazy and demotivated and then went off on a BEAUTIFUL 2 week vacation (post on that to follow soon) so it seems now is the time to get down and do it. I am officially over the 6 month mark and man it feels good. I sat back and read my travel journal entries from when I first arrived in Korea and had to smile. I have come so far and learnt so much - which is exactly why I came here.

 It struck me that when I left South Africa, or even began this whole process, I had no idea what was waiting for me on this side. I still don't. Every day brings a new lesson, new challenge, new memory. I have seen temples and parades, stayed in hostels, pensions and jimjilbangs. I've come to love Kpop and Korean food, I find it unnatural to wear shoes indoors, I sleep on the floor, slurp my soup (cringe) and the drivers no longer scare me (much). I've adapted and tried to fit in as much as my lilly white skin will allow me, and I've loved it. I've learnt to be patient, to let the little things go, to be strong, to eat with chopsticks. I've realised how much I love to write and travel, how important a strong support base and English conversation can be. I've learnt to eat what's put in front of me no matter what (as I type this I'm sitting still feeling a little ill from all the food consumed at lunch) and that trying new things really IS good for the soul. I know now that it's okay to be homesick, as long as I don't forget what an amazing opportunity has been given to me this year. I have also now heard what I sound like when I speak with the American-type accent I use with my aint pretty. But enough about all this now.

Here are 5 pros and cons to living in Korea, from my view point.

Cons (let's start with the bad)

1. Language. If you don't know Korean, it's hard. It sounds obvious but the total impact of not being able to read or speak a language you are surrounded by only hits you properly when you're in the middle of it. And it's not just struggling to chat to Mr Kim down the road about how you like your chicken cooked. It's getting anywhere; communicating with taxi drivers, bus schedules and train sites. It's not being able to tell a doctor what's wrong, or the hairdresser how you want your hair done. It's not knowing what to buy in the supermarket, how to use your microwave and washing machine or how to speak to your landlord if something at home goes wrong. It's not being able to tell the kind coffee store lady that you love her place, or enjoyed a meal at the local restaurant. It's not understanding your kids and not being able to get them to fully understand you that can frustrate you to tears. Having said all that, it definitely doesn't take long to pick up some survival Korean, and to learn to communicate in non-lingual ways. The amount of stuff I can pick up now, while still not understanding much Korean, is really helpful. Logic will help you through this all. If you don't have any...eish.

2. The gross-ness. Korea stinks. I do not understand it, and think it has something to do with the sewerage system, but there are times when the most awful smells seem to seep through the streets. The people also aren't afraid to fart or burp and spit, making being in public interesting. I still hear the guttural build up to a spit ball that the men walking outside my apartment like to do. You never get used to it. Also, the garbage system has people putting their packets of waste outside on the streets where they are rummaged through or left to fill up till bursting point. They are collected regularly and it isn't a bad system, but sometimes you do feel surrounded by rubbish. Also, the whole no flushing of toilet paper and squat toilet systems that most public bathrooms have can get really disgusting. No details required.

3. Culture shock. I'm lucky in that I grew up in the multi-cultural diversity of South Africa and have been exposed to all sorts of people from a very young age. However, Koreans do things differently. You will always feel different, even if the only thing non-korean about you is your looks - that's actually where the whole sense of being an alien comes from. I found the real culture shock only hit me 3 or so months in, once you realise that this is actually your life now and the novelty wears off. It can be hard to adapt to the bowing and the passing with 2 hands and the not looking in the eyes and the always accepting you are inferior in any exchange. The language comes into play here again and the sense that although some Koreans embrace the need for English teachers and are happy to have us here, others are not so thrilled and do not try and hide it. The last minute nature of Korean logic is frustrating to deal with in the work place; the pushing in and shoving when it comes to any public line. The staring, the spitting, the public drunkenness and aggression, school pressure. I can go on but it isn't necessary. Culture shock can be exciting and can help open your eyes to the world, but it's hard to deny the fact that it is not always pleasant. Sometimes it's a rather big pill to swallow.

4. Korean Summer. Anyone who has spoken to me in the last 2 months knows I have struggled with this heat. It's not the dry heat I'm used to, but is as hot and humid as hell. There is a constant layer of sticky moisture over your body, and you never really feel clean. The heat makes me sleepy too. And Korea has the 'fan death' belief that leaving a fan on in a small room can kill you, and they are very aware of energy saving so air cons are not used to their full potential, leaving us to suffer through the heat with little relief. I've heard the Winter is just as extreme but because I haven't experienced it yet, I'm not including it here!

5. Getting the hang of school life. I cannot speak from much experience. I tutored at home and have a brother studying education and a mom who works at a school but I've never taught in an English classroom. But I can imagine things are vastly different. Some people will get amazing co-teachers who help them every step of the way. Some will co-teach like we were taught in orientation. But sometimes it doesn't work out so much. Co-teachers are a huge blessing but sometimes a curse too, who do not always make your job much easier. You need to adapt to being in front of kids who do not understand a lick of English; trying to get them to participate can be a real chore. Chances are you'll find everything out last minute, and this goes for anything from cancelled or changed lessons, to school dinners. You have little to no real authority or say at school and really, you need to learn to do what they want and be happy about it. You spend hours desk warming and not really knowing what the heck is going on - sometimes you love it, other times your brain melts and falls out of your head.

Pros ('cos really, it aint so bad)

1. The money. I know this seems like a really materialistic and superficial thing to put first but really, the money was a huge draw and it's a big enough motivation to get you through the tough times. It allows us to travel, socialise, spoil ourselves and most importantly, pay off debts or save money for the future. We are being paid to really do an easy job. Yes it can be frustrating and infuriating but compared to what else is out there, we're incredibly lucky and I'm grateful for that pay slip every month.

2. The teaching. A lot of my pros and cons cannot be neatly put into boxes because really, there is good and bad in everything. But the teaching is what we're here for and for me, it makes my experiences. I cannot lie and say I'm excited everyday for work. There are times where my motivation levels are below zero and I really want to kill my kids. But there is usually someone, everyday, who makes it all worth it. I get back rubs and hugs and endless hellos. My teachers generally treat me like gold and show genuine concern for me. School lunches are mainly good. I work in the most beautiful area and appreciate the drive everyday. Teaching here gives us the advantage of being something new and exciting to the children - sometimes this works in our favour (other times not so much). But I love the teaching and find it very rewarding. I feel my schools and staff teach me as much as I try to teach them.

3. The art of living abroad. And we're not just living abroad, we're living in a completely foreign world. Again, as mentioned previously in the cons section, culture shock can suck. But there is no part of me that is not completely grateful for everything I'm learning about myself, and the world, here. Nothing can compare to the life experience we are gaining here. Learning to live on your own, with very little support to start with, is daunting.  Your eyes are forced open and you cannot help but change the way you look at race, language, people, creed, everything. Assumptions need to be dropped - they are not going to get you far here. I have been welcomed time and again by the heart warming friendliness of a people so different from me, a people who do not need to speak the same language as me to make me feel welcomed. Korean people have earned a very special place in my heart, as has this country, and I know I will be going home in 6 months a very changed person because of all the experiences I've had here. Unfortunately the travel bug has bitten very hard too, and I feel I will never be content to settle in one place forever. But traveling will do that to you. Also, living abroad reinforces and reminds you just how much you have to be grateful for at home, and just how much the people you left behind mean to you. Homesickness sucks and it's hard to miss big events back home - but I feel that I'm lucky to have something to miss so much.

4. Travel opportunities. By the time my contract is up, I hope to have been to: China, Japan (both done), Thailand, Cambodia, the Phillipines, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. I know I might not get to do it all, but we are in the perfect position to travel as much as possible. We can travel over long weekends or save the money and do a trip at the end of our contract, which is my plan. I've just been on a week's cruise which I would NEVER have done if not for working here. I also hope to go and do some volunteer work back in Africa with the money I'm saving. A big pull for anyone choosing to teach here or live abroad is the travel opportunities we can enjoy. And I fully plan to take advantage of everything I can.

5. The people. From Koreans to Brits, to the Irish, Americans and Australians. Fellow Saffas. I am meeting people from all over the world and loving it. This helps broaden your knowledge of the world and once again helps to open your eyes to the different ways in which people live. They have become my support system here, my little piece of family away from home and I know for a fact that my life in Korea would not be the same without the friends I've made. And the Korean people who go out of their way to meet you or welcome you always warms your heart. I love people, I always have, and I love that being here is introducing me to so many different folks from all different walks of life. And nothing in this world makes you feel quite as comforted as a good ol' South African accent :)

There are so many things over and above these that I could talk many other points to bring up but I feel this is sufficient. It's impossible to neatly divide it all into the good and the bad, because within each point there is some good, some bad. Some really weird things too (it's Korea). But I hope this has helped shed a little bit of light onto what to expect here, or how I'm finding things. Everyone sees things differently and there will be people who read this and disagree - and that's fine. Because we're all on different journeys, in different situations, experiencing different things.

This is just the opinion of little Bron, living in the rice lands. Take it as it is :)


  1. Wow Bron I have been meaning to ask for your skype name so I could chat with you some time. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.... I miss you and yes I admire your Bravery its amazing stay strong xoxox love Matsepo :) !

    1. Thank you for the love and encouragement my girl! Miss you lots, will send my Skype name to you on FB. Lots of love xoxo