Today, February 18, marks exactly 1 year since I set foot on Korean soil at Incheon Airport, thoroughly exhausted, hopeful, excited… and terrified beyond imagination.
Following the typical expat experience, my first 3 or 4 months were the honeymoon phase – drinking in all the new cultural experiences with great enthusiasm. Every food was delicious, every person I met was wonderful, and every aspect of Korean life was amazing or intriguing or amusing. I was totally in love with Korea. (As such, I feel a little cringe-y reading some of the mushy posts I wrote at the beginning of last year. It’s like reading love letters that you would write in the early stages of a massive crush.)
And while I didn’t quite hit the low point that some expats hit after coming down from the high of the honeymoon phase, this year has certainly given me perspective on living in Korea. Every day can’t be a wonderful adventure (although when school is in session, I do have quite a few adventures, both wonderful and not-so-wonderful). Some days are full of frustrating, irritating things – made more frustrating and irritating because they are different than the frustrations and irritations I’ve grown up with in America – and some days are just plain mundane boring days.
With that said, here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of life in Korea, 1 year in:
— My students. They delight, amuse, and alarm me on a daily basis, and frequently become the highlight of my day. As much as I’m filled with dread about starting the new school year in approx. 2 weeks, I’m also so ready to be back in the classroom with them. I miss those goofballs.
— My lovely coworkers. I’ve been extremely blessed in this regard, because it’s completely luck of the draw, but the three or four co-teachers that I worked with most closely this past year have been absolutely wonderful. They are kind, understanding, and laidback. In a culture where “bally bally” (hurry hurry!) and last-minute changes are the norm, they’ve been so good at providing me with information ahead of time, helping me out, giving me free rein with my lesson planning, backing me up in class, and generally making me feel at ease. I’m so grateful for them. Unfortunately, with the mandatory teacher shuffling that goes on each year, I’m losing all but one of them and an entirely new crop will come in this March. Fortunately, that one teacher is my main co-teacher and she’s an amazing Cutter-of-Red-Tape and Blocker-of-Stupid-Arbitrary-Rules.
— Nature. I’ve never been much of an outdoorsy type, and the thought of camping still makes me slightly nauseated, but it’s so refreshing to live in a city but have access to actual mountains, plus a ton of parks and hiking trails, close by. I feel like living in a city would depress me at times if it weren’t for being able to see mountains everywhere I look.
— My soon-to-be new place. One of the hugest silver linings to come out of losing my main school this year is that I was able to change apartments, and with two of my aforementioned fantastic co-teachers leading the search, we found a literally brand new building with a thousand and one upgrades compared to my current place. I’m moving in next week, and I am so freaking excited! Pictures to come. Woohooooooooooooooooooo!
— Certain foods. Sometimes school lunches are great; we have fruit salad or regular salad or bibimbap or dongas (deep-fried pork cutlet) or awesome beef stock soup or tteokbokki or even spaghetti. But then… there’s the other times. At least twice a week we have lunches which, besides rice and soup, are this mix of sort of leftover cuts of pork (a.k.a. lots of fat and gristle) with chopped up carrots, onions, and spicy sauce. It sounds okay, and it is, but not when you’ve eaten it at least twice a week for a year. [Full disclosure, though, I’ve now gone about 2 full months without school lunch and I am so ready to eat it again. This complaint will apply again about 3 months from now.]
While we’re on the topic of food, there is one Korean food that I’ve flat-out given up on trying to enjoy or even eat: fish jjim.
This abomination of a food consists of AN ENTIRE FISH, head and bones and all, mixed with a bunch of bean sprouts, swimming in the spiciest hot pepper sauce imaginable. There are just too many things I’m not okay with in that scenario for me to enjoy eating it. (There are other varieties of jjim – “찜/jjim” itself simply means “steamed” – such as chicken served with potatoes and carrots, but somehow every time I have to eat jjim, it’s ALWAYS THE FREAKING WHOLE FISH STARING AT ME.)
I actually get angry every time I have to eat jjim. Angry at the tiny slivers of bone that inevitably wind up in my mouth, angry at how all I can taste is spiciness without flavor, angry because why does anyone think it’s enjoyable to eat something with tiny life-threatening ivory spears still in it? Then I laugh at how silly it is to be angry at a food.
I mean, I’ve learned to love and even crave tons of things that I used to have to force down, including naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles served in ice water with mustard and veggies and stuff), sushi, and bibimbap (yeah, I used to be not a fan of bibimbap). But jjim is just 100% NO. THE WORST. EVER.
nb: i apologize to any fans of jjim out there. but that’s how i feel and you can’t convince me otherwise. also, you are crazy.
— No car. At first there’s a feeling of “Wow, I can walk or bus or subway or taxi everywhere. Who needs a car?”… but after a year, it feels seriously limiting when the closest place I can buy some string cheese is a brisk 40 minute walk away through whatever weather we happen to be having. Even the 20-minute roundtrip walk to the little grocery store feels like too much effort in the freezing cold or blazing heat sometimes, and then it’s time to eat all the rejected foods still sitting in my cupboard.
For the most part I do enjoy that I’m forced to walk a lot, since I think it really does make a difference in my health… and if I had a car, I’d probably end up taking it for even short trips… but it puts a damper on a shopping spree when you have to limit yourself to what you can comfortably carry back for miles and miles.
— Spit. Spit everywhere. STOP SPITTING, AJEOSSIS OF KOREA! I BEG OF YOU!
— Mold. It’s a never-ending battle of Me vs. Mold in the constantly wet bathroom. So nasty. Thankfully it hasn’t ever reached the main living area, though many older apartment buildings in Korea do have that problem.
— Dirty air. Blame this one on a mix of city life, China’s massive air pollution floating down to the Korean Peninsula, and Korea’s own share of pollution. It’s not something you notice on a daily basis, but one of the first things I realized when I visited home was just how clean American air is.
Okay, that’s it for now.
Ultimately, all countries have their pros and cons, and I think sometimes expats or potential expats make the mistake of thinking that Korea (or their country of choice) is some magical wonderland that will give them zero problems whatsoever. That’s unrealistic. But neither is it realistic to degrade or blindly criticize a whole country because of an irritating cultural difference, because if we think about it I’m sure we can all find a lot to be annoyed with in our home countries as well.
Anyway, The Bad and The Ugly sections probably would’ve had a lot more punch to them if I’d written them mid/late semester when every little annoyance gets super mega amplified, but at this point I’m kind of chomping at the bit, ready to actually do something productive and get back to teaching. Plus I miss eating Korean food every day. I miss rice and scorching hot soup and even some of the vegetables that (and I have verified this) would be known in America as “weeds.” I miss it all. Everything except jjim. Jjim can go jump in a lake. The end.