Let me just start out by saying that overall I love living here, but I thought this would be the best way to paint a picture of life in this country. This article is intended not only for friends and family who want to know how I’m doing but also for the many people who may be considering undertaking a similar venture, are unsatisfied with the sugar coated, idyllic pictures painted by hungry recruiters and really want a gritty and honest report on what it’s like in Korea. Let’s be optimistic and start with the love and then move onto the hate.
JobI get tired sometimes, occasionally some of the kids make me want to throw them out of the window, but overall I get a job satisfaction that is just unparalleled by the world of corporate IT. I don’t make half as much money, but I feel like I’m really appreciated here. Also because it’s a small, tight knit team I feel that my input is really taken seriously and I can actually help with marketing and the future of the business in a way that is just not taken seriously in the shares driven, corporate hierarchy of say the BBC. Aside from that it may sound cheesy but I really enjoy teaching kids, of course they piss me off on a daily basis but they have a kind of trust and enthusiasm in you that is really refreshing. I can see why people really love teaching. I don’t think I will be doing this for the rest of my life but certainly for now it’s enough to keep me happy.
GirlsIt’s no secret that I love Asian girls and I guess there’s not really much to say about it other than I find them cute, elegant (usually!) and just generally more attractive than western girls (sorry). Also because I’m western and blonde I tend to get more attention than I would back home and so they are generally very friendly. That’s not to say they are perfect, they can be over emotional, more so than western girls on average, but overall it’s worth it. What can I say? I love Korean girls.5 Things I Love and 5 Things I Hate About Korea 5 Things I Love and 5 Things I Hate About Korea
FoodPeople often ask me which English food I miss the most and I always reply with the same response: “I haven’t really given it much thought”. It’s not that I dislike English food, a good roast dinner is always a treat, but it just doesn’t have the character and variety of Korean food. I remember the first meal I had in Korea, an inconspicuous little galbi restaurant in Cheongju. The owners were some of the nicest people I’ve met in this country, the food was fresh, plentiful, authentic Korean and delicious. The whole idea of galbi is that you get a little grill in the middle of the table and you cook the meat yourself, I love that DIY aspect I reckon in England you would pay a fortune for that kind of novelty. Now this place is cheap and particularly good so we’re now regulars but there are plenty more great little places serving all manner of things from live octopus to eel to sushi (I love seafood!) and one thing they almost all have in common is that you get great food and service for the price of a bus ride in England! And I haven't even mentioned dwen jan jiggay, it’s basically a soup made from fermented bean paste, various vegetables and chilli and it’s just amazing, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like it. It really feels futile trying to communicate this via text and it is so I’m gonna stop here. I guess unless you come to Korea yourself you may never know.
Cost of LivingNot as dirt cheap as I was led to believe by aforementioned hungry recruitment websites (no you can’t eat out for a pound) but still far cheaper than living in central London. I don’t need to use public transport much anymore especially now I have my bike, but when I do use the coach for example I can get to the other side of the country for about £4. I can get a beer for about £1.50, a pack of 20 Marlborough Lights for £1, I don’t really smoke but at this price isn’t it tempting?! (The same would cost about £6 back home). The best part is I don’t pay for rent so that’s like having an extra £400 a month. A 30 minute taxi ride to Cheongju costs me about £5, probably half what it would in the UK. Also throw in the fact that I get a free lunch every day at school I can live on surprisingly little!
PeopleThis is obviously in stark contrast to the Xenophobia point below, because of course the flipside is that a lot of people are really, really nice. Complete strangers will often go out of their way to help you. I’ve been driven home by strangers, picked up by the police and taken to the bus station because it was raining and I was lost, I regularly get snacks and drinks given to me by my students, occasionally not even in school. The local bike shop occasionally does minor repairs for free and even reupholstered my tatty seat for about £15. Also if you initiate a conversation with a random person say in a bar they are almost always chuffed to speak to you and will often offer to help you learn the language, request that you help them learn English, buy you drinks or invite you out for a meal. I’ve had freebies in restaurants and my friend Lauren claims that this happens to her regularly, although she is tall and blonde so that might explain it! It’s a strange bipolar attitude of apprehension, fascination that you’re treated with in this country but overall I do like the attention and am happy to be amongst the Korean folk. Almost forgot to mention the other foreigners, there are Canadians, Americans, Irish, South Africans and others and I can honestly say that I haven’t met one that I hate. If you pass a foreigner on the street it’s almost rude not to stop and introduce yourself. Because you are a minority you tend to stick together and subsequently get very close, we regularly have mass outings together with groups of around 30 – 50 people where we do anything from 10k runs to mud festivals, it’s like having a huge extended family and occasionally these guys are your life line so treat them well!
Pop MusicYou don’t have to be talented to be a Korean pop star, you just have to be young, attractive and have the ability to do jerky, diluted break dance-esque moves. So actually pretty similar to a lot of western pop music and yet somehow it’s worse! It’s auto-tuned, soulless, banal trash. It’s more manufactured than a Big Mac and doesn’t that just say it all? These kids clearly have little to no input into the “music”, it’s all just so rehearsed and homogenous, I wouldn’t be surprised if their shareholders wrote the songs for them! And the worst part is that unlike the west where a lot of people still do have good taste in music, here EVERYONE listens to it, rock music and even proper dance music is pretty much unheard of in this country.Back in the UK you kind of take it for granted but living here has confirmed that it is something that matters to me! To anyone who doubts that it could really be that bad just have a look to your right! Sure some of it will get stuck in your head for a day but more in the way that a parasitic fly might rather than a good song. Overall a constant irritation.5 Things I Love and 5 Things I Hate About Korea 5 Things I Love and 5 Things I Hate About Korea
LitterOkay, so it’s not usually as bad as this thumbnail and to be fair I believe this is a local issue but it’s still completely inexcusable. I’ve been told that the local council decided that having a proper sanitation department would be too expensive. So the alternative is to live in our own filth? It baffles me how people think this is acceptable. On almost every street corner there are piles of rubbish bags, often torn open and spewing out into the hot August sun, which as you can imagine really smells bad. In the UK this would be illegal and rightfully so, they could at least provide dumpsters. It’s not often I will praise Britain for having higher standards than Korea but in this case we definitely got it right. Sort it out!
WeatherAs I write this it's mid August so this point is particularly close to home. It's 32 degrees and so humid that even your washing that you hung out never feels completely dry. As I write my daily report the paper feels damp and beads of sweat run off my body constantly. Back in the UK I rarely sweat, but here I've been sweating for about 2 months now consistently. I've been told that Autumn is pretty pleasant here, dry and cool but apparently it only lasts a couple of weeks before it starts getting ridiculously cold, like -15. Now I'm a guy who doesn't like extremes of any temperature (basically an Englishman!) and I've been told that perhaps I'm in the wrong country! I guess being here has toughened me up in that respect, but of course I have yet to experience the winter so I'll just have to see how that goes!
XenophobiaNow I can’t blame all Koreans for this because a lot of them are simply curious, even fascinated by westerners, however some people, usually old people or fat, suited, middle aged men are just straight rude. This is usually expressed in petty ways such as looking at me like I’m not welcome or driving through puddles. Often there is a tangible air of tension in everyday situations like taking a taxi, but I’m happy to say that when I break the ice and show an interest, particularly when they realise I speak some Korean, they pretty almost always warm to me. Still, it does get tiresome having to constantly “prove yourself”. I’m pretty sure that it’s because either they assume I’m American or that if you’re western you’re basically American, because despite the political ties there is a clear undercurrent of hatred towards the US. Obviously I’m annoyed by this assumption, but this kind of thing is going on in every country in the world. Like I say you get ignorant people in any language, well that’s not exactly what I say but I want to keep this blog accessible!
BrowsersThis one probably won’t evoke much of a response unless you’re a web developer/designer, in which case you may share my pain! Korea is one of the most wired (online) countries in the world; on almost every street there is a PC bang (kinda like an internet cafe) where avid young nerds play World of Warcraft for 6 hours a day. So why is it that every last one of them seems to use Internet Explorer 6? This browser is now 9 years old and not only is it completely inadequate for the modern web it makes us web developers lives a nightmare (for reasons that I won’t go into here). Suffice to say if you know what I’m talking about you will probably know the reasons already. One thing I have learned about browsers is that if people don’t know already that they should upgrade, they won’t listen to you when you tell them to, you generally have to do it for them. So I recently upgraded all the browsers in the school I work at to Chrome. I then deleted all shortcuts to IE6 to encourage people to use it. A few days later I was asked by my director to please put the shortcuts back because most Korean sites only work with IE. I really do despair. I compromised by at least upgrading them to IE8; it’s not great but it’s still a lot quicker and more secure than 6! I guess when IE9 comes out I will encourage use of that instead. Ho hum