Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The New and the Familiar

One of the questions I get often is how different life in Korea is compared to living back in the States. You figure that, living in Asia, everyday life would be dramatically different than back home. I mean, you're not on vacation here. You aren't consuming culture 24/7 for a couple weeks then going back home to tell people how awesome your trip was. This is home for an entire year, and that mentality is completely different from that of the average traveller. 

Next month marks 6 months for me, and in the first half of my Korean-English Teaching adventure I've begun to compile an introductory guide for anybody wanting to teach English in Korea. It's been getting a bit lengthy, filling up the better part of my handy dandy notebook that I carry around everywhere (maybe a book in the future?).  I started to separate my jotted notes into two categories: the new and the familiar. Here's a sample from my notebook...something to take a look at and get a better idea of how my everyday life in a foreign country goes.

The New

 - Language. This is the first one that scares the living bejeebers out of me when I travel. You truly never realize how important language is until you're surrounded by one you barely understand. It affects everything that you feel and think, and basic tasks like ordering food or shopping becomes exponentially harder when you're trying to decipher the native tongue. The Asian cultures are even more difficult in that they don't use a Latin alphabet. This makes identifying brand names or places even more difficult in that you have to rely on photographic memory or pictures. All that effort to understand and be understood takes a toll on you, and for the first couple of months (and even now) I was mentally exhausted.

- Transportation. Like at home, you have to figure out the local transportation system. Most of the time you can figure this out in a week or two, but combining that with a huge language barrier complicates everything. It's ok if you're fine with getting lost every once in a while, but don't plan on making every scheduled event on time for the first couple weeks.

Another problem with transportation in Asia is how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B. In Korea especially, if you're in the city you're fighting literally millions of other people to go somewhere. If you're in the country, some busses don't run on a consistent basis, and I've often found myself hanging out at the station for 20 or 30 minutes to get anywhere. An iPod, book, or some kind of game will become your best friend, as it'll make that hour long trip into the city feel less like a waste of time.

- The food. Ok, so this one isn't so bad. Who honestly doesn't love to eat? Korea is home to literally thousands of different dishes and combinations that will throw your tastebuds for a spin. If you aren't that adventurous when it comes to food, at the very least learn to love the Kimchi. It's served with everything, healthy for you, and once you get over the hump of 'oh God, I ate fermented cabbage', everything else seems like a cake walk.

- Xenophobia. I'm going to try to avoid the term 'racism', as we tend to think of the negative extreme when it comes to a sensitive topic like race. Korea is a country that is 99% Korean. That's huge. It's only in recent years that foreigners have started calling this place home, and as a culture Korea is still getting use to seeing people from other countries share their home with them. Most of the time, this is met with a hospitality that cannot be beat. Many Koreans will invite you to eat at their home, or take you out and show you the town. They are excited to meet you and, hopefully, you're excited to dive in and experience Korean culture as well.

You do run into the occasional awkward moment, however...but it's all about how you interpret the situation. For example, when I'm on the bus, every available seat will fill up before someone sits next to me. It's disheartening at first, but understand that they are uncomfortable too. Greet it with a smile and all that tension will dissolve in an instant.

- Shopping. The prices for goods and services in Korea will vary, and at first I was confused by it all. I could get a free smartphone, unlimited data, and no cancellation fees for $45 a month, but a can of Peanut Butter will set you back $10. You do not tip people, but you are also expected to not be a demanding guest at the restaurant. Soju (vodka-like alcohol) is literally cheaper than water. You'll learn by trial and error at the super market. Be prepared to make sacrifices in terms of what you normally purchase back home.

- K Pop. Addicting as hell. Still don't know why.

The Familiar

 - The Food. You'll find your McDonald's and Pizza Huts here in Korea. On every corner there is a 7-11, Baskin Robbins, and Dunkin Donuts. KFC and Burger King are very popular here as well. They make western food regularly, sometimes serving your burger with Kimchi on the side. Mexican food is scarce, however, so load up on burritos and tacos before coming over.

- Movies. Most major English releases will come to Korea, and Korea has a booming film industry to boot. They will have subtitles, but 95% of them keep the original dialogue. All the theaters are state of the art, and a ticket will set you back about $7 or so. Popcorn and a soda are fairly cheap as well.

- Style. Koreans like to think that they are stylish. To a degree, they are. There's a weird obsession with backpacks and rain boots, but outside of that the fashion of Korea is a rehash of Western style. Chucks are popular, as well as the thick rimmed glasses and ripped jeans. As long as you don't dress too crazy, you'll fit right in. Just don't buy aviator goggles when you're drinking...trust me, they don't look nearly as cool as you think they do.

- Electronics. I'm a nerd, so shopping in Yongsan is like Christmas for me. If you like video games, computers, phones, and consider yourself pretty wired, then Korea is the place to be. The 100mb/s internet is worth the trip alone!

- Routine. Yeah, believe it or not, living in Korea is just like living at home with a job. You work 9-5 on the weekdays with a break for lunch. They like to party on the weekends. Restaurants, banks, government buildings, shops: they all keep hours that are very similar to the US. 

- Morality. I won't touch on this too much, but Koreans (and most of the world for that matter) share most of the same values as you. What's right and what's wrong is basically the same. Trust your gut when making a decision...most of the time it'll be the right one.

There's a small snapshot of what my life's like at the moment. It's not always exciting and glamours, and every weekend isn't always story worthy. That doesn't stop me from enjoying every moment here, even the moments when I want nothing more than to hop on a plane and see my family. This isn't a vacation...you're here for a job. You're here long enough to settle into a routine and even call this foreign land home. 

There will be a time when I slow down...when I settle for good, and only have these stories and this chapter of my life to look back on. A year is a long time, but in the grand scheme of things it really isn't that big. Make the best of the time that you have, because it's all temporary anyways. 

1 comment:

  1. Aviator goggles... Hahaha. Have you worn them since? Maybe it means you need to buy a motorcycle!!