First Six Months in Korea
This is part two of the what to expect in your first semester/6 months in Korea. Part one was about teaching and part two is going to be just about living in Korea in general. You can read part 1 here.
Again I asked my several of my friends for their opinions about these subjects and have done my best to incorporate those as well. We are all teachers who started at the same time, went to the same orientation, and teach in the same city. So our experience may not be the same as everyone else’s. But I think a lot of this stuff holds true across the board.
1)Expect that Korea was not exactly set up to accommodate foreigners.
This is both a good thing and a bad thing. In a way it’s amazing because everyday is an adventure. Everything is new and difficult and you are constantly learning and growing. I study Korean pretty seriously and so for me it’s also a chance to be forced to use the language a little bit everyday. I am an ethnic minority (albeit one that often benefits from being so) for the first time in my life and I think that’s good thing to experience.
But long-term it is a little taxing. The constant staring, the language barrier, the fact the my name doesn’t fit into boxes, the constant fear of messing up and committing one of a million cultural no-no’s can be quite exhausting.
I know that people who live in the country side have a vastly different experience than I do, but even I am having a different experience from people who live in Seoul. Daejeon is the 5th largest city in Korea, but I am still the only foreigner in my neighborhood. While foreigner bars, international food, even Starbucks, are not too far away from me in the downtown area, I could still feasibly not leave my neighborhood and not see another foreigner for weeks at a time.
The one good thing though when it comes to the fact that the entire infrastructure of the country seems to be working against you, is that a little bit goes a long way. Let me explain.
If you can read Korean, just the alphabet you don’t even need to know what the words mean, you can very easily navigate the entire country. If you speak Korean, even a little bit, you will be praised to high heaven. If you try to maintain the correct table manners at school dinners or the proper cultural norms between co-workers, you will be respected and greatly appreciated. A little goes a looooong way here.
2)Expect to discover a different kind of homesickness
For me homesickness is almost never me sitting at home in Korea wishing that I was at home in America.
For me homesickness is suddenly smelling something familiar and feeling an overwhelming wave of nostalgia. It’s hanging out with people who don’t know me the way that my friends back home know me. It’s when the seasons change and I’m reminded all over again of the feeling of winter mornings in Florida, the way the flowers bloom in spring in Florida, and the oppressive heat punctuated by violent thunderstorms in the Florida summers.
I don’t miss America all that much, but I miss my people. I miss the feelings of home. And sometimes I really miss Gold Fish crackers and good coffee.
I have yet to miss any big holidays or huge milestones for family members back home but I know that will add another layer to the homesickness.
3)Don’t expect that you will suddenly speak Korean. (Even though you should try.)
This has been a hard pill to swallow.
I love studying languages and I really love Korean. I studied for about a year on my own before coming here and amassed a small but solid base of grammar and vocabulary. In my head I thought, “once I move to Korea I’ll be forced to speak Korean everyday so my speaking and listening will improve by consequence.”
And that turned out to not be true.
My listening has definitely improved, quite drastically in fact. But that’s because it’s a relatively passive skill to practice. I listen to Korean being spoken all day everyday, all I have to do is pay attention and pick out words and grammar structures that I know.
Speaking is a completely different thing. I know people who live here very easily without speaking any Korean at all. The unfortunate (or fortunate depending on how you look at it) reality is that you don’t really need to speak Korean to live here.
My co-teachers speak to me in English. And my other co-workers just don’t speak to me at all or they use very broken English in an attempt to make conversation. Which I appreciate, but even though they know that I can understand them a little bit, no one initiates conversation with me in Korean. Ever.
I get it, I’m sure it’s uncomfortable for them to have to repeat themselves for me or slow down their speaking. And for a lot of people they almost never hear non-Korean people speaking their language so maybe my accent is unintelligible.
But when I go to a café or restaurant and order my food in Korean and they respond to me in English it’s a bit frustrating.
This topic in and of itself is a bit complicated because I’m sure the Korean clerk is just trying to be accommodating to me and it’s coming from a place of kindness. But for us foreigners it can feel like a refusal to acknowledge our attempts at fitting into this country.
And while I desperately wish people would speak to me in Korean so that I could practice, I’m sure there are tons of foreigners here who are incredibly thankful that no one approaches us.
The other aspect of this is that the amount of base knowledge and cultural knowledge you need to have before you can even think about speaking, is incredibly high.
Not only are you speaking in what feels like code because of the almost completely opposite sentence structure and use of particles that have zero English equivalent, but you have to simultaneously consider your social relationship to that person to determine what level of honorifics to use. Because if you accidentally use the wrong one, you wouldn’t just sound stupid, you could offend the other person.
I’ve gotten to the point in my studying where now I really need to practice speaking. But despite the fact that I live in Korea, I’m having a really hard time finding people to practice with.
If this sounds like encouragement to not study Korean then please don’t misunderstand me. It’s important. This country is being very generous to us in a lot of ways so it’s respectful to try to learn the language. Plus you’re cheating your self out of possibly the only opportunity you’ll ever have to conversationally speak an Asian language.
So, expect the language to be hard. But expect your efforts to be worth it.
4)Expect living here to be relatively easy
The craziest part of all of this for me has been just how easy living in Korea is. It’s a very livable country. In my city I have only ever gotten lost once. ONE TIME! And that was in my very first week because I decided to just get on a bus even though I wasn’t 100% sure it was going in the direction I wanted. It didn’t.
The public transportation is incredibly easy to use and figure out. If you read and can listen for everything in Korean then obviously its even easier. But even for people who can’t, it’s still pretty darn easy. Many of the subway stations will announce the next stop in English and the busses will announce what they deem to be the more popular stops in English.
The paperwork and time involved in getting your alien registration card is pretty much the biggest headache as far as livability goes. But even that seems like such a distant memory.
The transportation is good, the internet is fast, my apartment is comfortable, and given the location of my city I’m less than 5 hours away from every part of the rest of the country.
Even food, which is one of the big differences between here and my home country, is really not all that big of a change. Or doesn’t have to be.
My neighborhood is tiny, and older, and a little on the less developed side. We have two markets around my house where I can buy groceries. But those places are not exactly stocked with the comforts of home. However, if I absolutely need peanut butter or cheese, EMart is only a 10 minute bus ride away. So even though I eat Korean food for lunch at school everyday, and usually I just shop at the market by my house for necessities, there are always ways to get the food you’re craving.
So if you’re worried about not being able to get your hands on some comfort food, don’t be. There is always a way. Even it means heading up to Seoul and visiting an international market in Itaewon. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
6) Expect that it might be hard to make Korean friends
I know this absolutely does not hold for everyone. At all.
But this is something that a lot of my foreigner friends and I have talked about. And that is, being surprised at how difficult it is to make friends here.
And that’s not the fault of the people here. If anything it’s my fault or the fault of society at large. People don’t really speak to strangers here. There are places that I frequent so much that they smile in a more friendly way when I come in, and sometimes the workers give me some extra food. But they have never spoken to me, or asked my name, or what I’m doing in Korea, or where I’m from. And to me, as an American, that’s kind of baffling.
I know part of it is that people see me and immediately are afraid that I’m going to speak to them in English. The irony is that I’m desperately wanting people to speak to me in Korean so that I can practice and meet new people. But it’s not happening. The longest Korean conversation I’ve ever had happened two days ago when I got my nails done. And she was literally stuck with me so I think that’s kinda the only reason it happened.
I have my co-workers who I love but don’t hang out with frequently, and I have my foreign friends who I need to keep me sane, and I have all my Korean friends in Seoul who I met in America. But I honestly don’t have very many Korean friends in my city.
This is still a work in progress for me.
I know what needs to be done. I need to join a club, or find people to play volleyball with, or look for language study groups at universities. But all of that information is so hard to come by because you really need to search for it in Korean. And because it requires me to go out on a limb and be very uncomfortable for a little bit. Which you would think I wouldn’t mind, what with the whole moving across the world to Korea thing, but surprisingly showing up somewhere alone like that is much scarier.
Again, please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying that Koreans are unfriendly or anything like that. It’s just simply difficult to encounter people here, for me.
7)Expect that it will be more fun and rewarding that you ever imagined.
My life here is great. It is not what I expected it would be, it’s better. It’s real.
I have a job that I am genuinely happy to wake up in the morning for. I am constantly challenged by the country and culture around me and I have found strength in myself that I never knew existed.
I get frustrated by the language barrier, by the challenges in places I didn’t expect them, and by myself when I don’t do as well as I know I could have.
But I have grown to love my crazy students and their crazy antics. I have grown as a teacher and a person.
Don’t expect it to be easy. But expect it to be worth it.
That’s about all I have for now. I hope that was helpful to someone out there! If you’ve lived or are living in Korea and can relate to any of these things, please let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading, hope you’re having a lovely day!