Mar 6, 2012

Posted by in Blog, Featured, Personal | 37 Comments

What I Will (And Won’t) Miss About South Korea

I’ve just left South Korea after over a year there, which is the longest time I’ve ever spent abroad. It was an experience full of adjectives – exhilarating, confusing, educational, frustrating, amazing – and never boring.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the bittersweetness of my departure, and of all the things I will and won’t miss about living in South Korea. Below, I present my completely random and unordered list.

If you’ve lived or traveled there before, you will probably appreciate this list, and if you haven’t, then stick around, you’ll probably learn something!

What I Will Miss: (other than the friends I’ve made, obvs)

  • Kimbap, bibimbap, mondu, galbi, and a few other Korean foods.
Dolsat bibimbap with egg, carrots, mushrooms

The way the rice turns crunchy from the hot stone pot is the stuff of legends.

  • The plethora of food samples at the grocery store. You can seriously get an entire meal from samples offered by ladies in HILAR outfits.
  • Not understanding background noise and other inane convos. Having a cell-phone argument with your bf in the seat right next to me? Don’t understand, don’t care.
  • Being a teacher. You get mad respect, and going back to lowly backpacker status somehow isn’t quite as appealing!
  • Easy Asian travel. While I was in Korea, I got to travel to Mongolia, Japan, and the Philippines… sans jetlag!
  • Cheap taxis. Oh so cheap. Though talk about making me lazy!
  • Everything and every person in my size. I’m 5’1. That’s not normal in the USA.
  • My students. Their smiles, laughs, jokes, and love for all things Angry Birds.
South Korean students Jeju Island

My adorbs 3rd grade girls

  • Bars staying open until 4 am. Well, actually, maybe that’s a good thing.
  • Having a washing machine in my apartment. I haven’t had one since I moved out of my parents’ place. Despite the lack of a dryer, an in-apartment washing machine was ohsogreat.
  • Never having to be scared that someone is going to kill/rob/attack you. Korea’s SAFE.
  • Not paying rent and FIVE weeks of paid vacation. Prior to this experience, I thought paid vacation was some type of myth that adults tell you about to convince you to get real jobs.
  • Cheap haircuts. $10 for a 2-hour wash, cut, blow-dry, straighten? Yes, please.
  • Not tipping. I worked as a server for a long time, so trust me, I tip 20%, BUT it is really nice not having to.
  • The efficiency of the post office, bank, life. If Koreans are one thing, they’re efficient.
  • The ability to download movies in less than 10 minutes. Hello, fastest internet in the world!
  • Unlimited side dishes at restaurants. Fo’ free.
  • Jeju Island – the beautiful volcanic island where I’ve been living. The ocean, the mountain, and beach volleyball!
Beach volleyball game Furey Foundation Jeju Island

I was def on the sidelines for this game.

  • Being able to do things just because I’m a foreigner. Nobody ever thinks anything you’re doing is weird. They just see you’re a foreigner and then give you pretty much free rein.
  • Not being the worst driver on the road. In the States, I usually am. In Korea, I am normal!
  • Jimjilbangs – nakey Korean spas/saunas that are heavenly in the winter time.
  • Eating Mickey-D’s and Pizza Hut and chalking it up to homesickness.

What I Won’t Miss:

  • People running into me at every turn. While walking. Every. Turn.
  • People chewing with their mouth open. This needs no explanation. It’s completely common and acceptable in Korea, and it’s just gross.
  • Lack of quality beer. I never thought I would say this. I am not a beer person, by any means. I have drank my fair share of Keystone Light, if that tells you anything. But Korean beer is almost undrinkably bad.
Cass beer and corn dogs South Korea

My hand is covering up the beer in just the right place - that's what the name should read.

  • The inability to communicate. This is not Koreans’ fault, but mine. I didn’t learn Korean as well as I should have, which made everyday life sometimes extraordinarily difficult. I’ve always been able to speak the language when I’ve lived abroad before, and this was definitely a lot harder!
  • The lack of desserts and breakfast. (Biscuits and gravy! Ben & Jerry’s!)
  • Movie theatres with the only English options being terrible action flicks.
  • Getting up at 2 am to watch Michigan football games. It makes for a very strange weekend sleep schedule.
  • The complete dearth of good live music. This has nothing to do with Korea, and eveything to do with the fact that I lived on a tiny island. Seoul gets some decent concerts. Jeju, notsomuch.
  • Hurry hurry culture. One of the first words I learned in Korean was “bali,” which means “hurry.” The Korean ethos is focused on this concept, and I am excited to relax a little bit.
  • The homogeneity. Granted, I grew up in a SMALL town, but even that was diverse compared to Korea. They don’t even drive different colored cars here! And don’t get me started on the food. Ahhh, Mexican, Thai, Indian, Japanese, BBQ, here I come!
Line of Korean cars in silver, gray, and white

Notice how the cars all seem to blend together?

  • No dryer. It is going to be so exciting to be able to wash my clothes and then have them the same day!
  • Waiting for hot water. Turning on a faucet and immediately getting hot water is an under-appreciated luxury.
  • Spitting in public. Another one of those things that is okay there and shouldn’t be.
  • The grocery store. I am stoked to be able to navigate a grocery store without a GPS. And for one without entire aisles devoted to seaweed.
  • Scheduling calls with my friends. I’ll be only a few hours behind or ahead of most of my peeps. Just being able to send a text or give a spur-of-the-moment call will be fabulous.
  • Driving. See hurry hurry culture, above.
  • The way that pets are treated, especially dogs. Eating dogs is part of the culture, I accept that. But if you have a dog as a pet, treat it like one!
Volunteering at the animal shelter Jeju Island South Korea

Doggies are meant to be loved!

  • Kimchi. Everybody thinks I don’t like kimchi because it’s too spicy. Nope, not too spicy. Just gross.
  • Sharing food. I love the concept behind sharing food. It is warm and fuzzy. BUT, there are some times when you just want to eat what you ordered and not share it with the whole table. Enter, USA.

Phew, I think that’s it. Despite our occasional differences, I will always hold a great respect for Korea and its hardworking people.

I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work and live there and thank everybody for putting up with my awkward bows and grimacingly awful Korean. 감사합니다! (Kamsahamnida ~ Thank you!)

Does any of this surprise you? Anything that you didn’t know about South Korea, or that you would disagree with me on? Let me know in the comments!

  1. Never been to South Korea, so that was really interesting. I could totally relate on being able to do things just because you’re a foreigner. This has kind of dimished since I’ve been in Texas now for… gasp… seven years, but there are still plenty of little customs I just don’t know and luckily people cut me some slack 🙂

    • That’s one of the things I love about the United States. You don’t have to leave to experience completely different cultures.. like Texas!

      • Well, I’m from Germany, so I’m actually quite far from home 🙂 But you’re right of course. It’s fun to see how things change from state to state here.

        • You are quite far from home! I’m sure Texas takes a lot of getting used to coming from Germany… kudos!

          • You know, it’s weird. At first it seems very, very similar and then you realize that the same things don’t really mean the same thing 🙂

            • Francis says:

              Texas really is like another country. We are american and have been in TX for 6 yrs. we are still figuring it out. :).

              I have heard that adjusting to all of the background noises, that you suddenly understand again, is difficult. What an interesting list

              • Haha! I’ve only been to Texas a few times, but it has always been an interesting experience. Thanks for stopping by, Francis!

  2. I can relate to pretty much all of these points! I hope that once I leave Korea I never hear the words ‘bali wa’ again.
    I’ve been in Gangwon-do for 18 months. While the experience has been worth it (hello, 7 weeks’ vacation), I’m ready to move on. Good luck on your next adventure!

    • Ahhhhh… I had forgotten about the whiny “bali waaaa” until you just mentioned it. Haha, now it will be playing in my head for the day. Gangwon-do was my second choice – I’m glad you’ve enjoyed your time up there!

  3. Oh so jealous about Mongolia, it is on my bucket list.

  4. Thanks for sharing! Did you teach there through any specific program?

  5. Hi Susan! I just came across your blog and I’m so glad I did, seems like we have a lot in common. I’m headed to Korea next month to start teaching, so it was cool to hear more about what to expect. Strangely, I think what I’ll miss most is a dryer! I think the smell of fresh dried clothes is better than crack (not that I do crack or anything, but ya know, hypothetically…). I’m really into the idea of living a life of seasonal jobs for a while, too; I want to live on a sailboat in the Caribbean, do some WOOFing in New Zealand, work at a brewery in Germany… all kinds of good stuff. That lifestyle is really underrated, it seems. Anyway, looking forward to following more of your adventures, cheers! 🙂
    Kaleena’s Kaleidoscope recently posted..My 12 Kickass Moments of 2012My Profile

    • Those all sound like awesome ideas, Kaleena! Have a blast in Korea next month — and check back tomorrow for a profile of my friend, Angela, who’s done a bunch of cool seasonal jobs!

      • Hi Kaleena I am here in South Korea as PhD Student in Civil Engineering from Pakistan. Can share with you the life in South Korea. Working as teacher (Lecturer in my Hometown). When a teacher like you write something about abroad journey I wish him good luck to have experience of out of town/country. You may have more abroad experience but for me it is the first time. Let see you how much interesting you find your life in South Korea.

  6. kimberley Buckridge says:

    one of my long term goal is to spend a month or so in korea…to enjoy their food and culture overall…thanks for the info

  7. GREAT post. You covered all the bases here. I was saying “Yes!” in my head to everything I was reading… Except, I actually like kimchi and never witnessed anyone eat dog.
    Alexa Hart recently posted..EPISODE SLICE #44: The Globetrotter Girls Discuss Being Digital Nomads and HousesittingMy Profile

  8. Enjoyed reading about your experience in South Korea – I love it there and hope to be able to spend an extended amount of time there soon. I’m a Korean-American, and have been there to visit several times. BTW, eating dog is not really a part of the korean culture – it’s a common misconception and most Koreans would never dream of doing that. Jeju-do is beautiful, and it’s good that you can have dol-sot bibimbap in the States too. What would be a good way to find a way to teach English in Korea?

    • Hi CJ, thanks for stopping by! Please shoot me an email at traveljunkette(at)gmail(dot)com, and I’ll be happy to share some tips about teaching English in South Korea. Thanks!

    • Marci Barton says:

      CJ, How was your experience being Korean-American?

  9. Kourtney says:

    I was laughing at loud at some of these things. You painted a perfect picture of everything I remember about my last journey to South Korea (well except for when I accidentally ate pig intestines from a street vendor!! haha). Thank you for this list.

  10. I loved reading this post! My husband and I have been living in Korea for 10 months and SO much of this rings true.

    The only thing I would change…the dog thing. In my experience Koreans care TOO much about their dogs. Eating dogs is just limited to one very specific type of dog and is only done is certain areas. However, babying dogs is done EVERYWHERE. I see dogs dressed up in crazy outfits and it is very common here to get your dog’s fur dyed so they have hot pink tails or blue mohawks. Much too much time and energy spent on an animal, if you ask me. But everything else you wrote I totally agree with!! Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks, Megan! I’m so glad that your experience with dogs was different. In Seoul, that may be the case — woohoo! But in rural Jeju, dogs are still treated very poorly. Something that I wish would change. Thanks so much for the input and for stopping by!

  11. Hello from HTown, Susan! We met you when you worked in Maxwell’s back in the day, where we introduced you to our Scottish godson, visiting from Edinburgh. Had dinner with Frank and Sally last night, and they told us about your blog. I spent a hunk of my life in Korea—first with the Air Force in Osan (one year), and later with the embassy in Seoul (five years!). Got a lot of language training before the embassy assignment (even served as interpreter in White House!), which made my time there so much more meaningful! Anyway, wanted to say howdy, and Sue and I wish you continued success as you pursue a memorably exciting life around the world!

    • Hi Ron & Sue! Wow, it is great to hear from you! I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to get back to you. I’ve been traveling for a month and took a few weeks off from the blog. I remember you both, and Christian, as well! That’s cool that you spent so long in Korea. It is a fascinating place, and I’m sure you have some incredible stories. Thanks again for stopping by and saying hi; please take care and keep in touch!

  12. Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Asia. I’m interested in South Korea because I published a few articles at Oh My News with remarkable success in reads. Also, a former student has taught in South Korea since graduating from Texas College, an HBCU. I taught Developmental English there, and saw Reggie visit with the upper-division profs. Now we’re Facebook friends. Unlike you, I like kim chee and just bought a jar for the first time in ages–got some Sriracha hot sauce and Wasabi horseradish too. I’m glad South Korea still has Confucianism in colleges.

  13. “People running into me at every turn. While walking. Every. Turn.”

    I can definitely second that. When I went back to Korea after more than 5 years of being in the U.S., I was stunned. I paused and said, “REALLY?…YOU CAN GO AROUND ME…mother & child.” haha.

  14. This is a fascinating list. I say fascinating because I’m an American living abroad (not in Asia but in Europe), and I had fun reading this list and 1) learning some new things about South Korea & 2) finding some things that I agree with living over here in Germany as well! Thanks for sharing!

  15. Thank you for sharing this! I am trying very hard to learn all about how to teach there in South Korea. It is my dream to learn most of the language and to go there to teach. By any chance, can you give me some advice on that? It’s also nice knowing what you liked and didn’t like, so that way I can be somewhat prepared if I ever get to go. 🙂
    I actually JUST tried Kimchi a couple of days ago and I really liked it a lot. Cabbage is one of my favorite things to it, so I think I might be lucky and like the food if I go there.

  16. heyy I LOVED your blog and well i am a person who is confused and rather puzzled i would say as i REALLY love korea and want to either Move or Visit it every year…but im not a white person so i was wondering how would life be for a person like me in korea?..(also im planning on learning to speak atleasy 70% fluent korean so would that help me out?) THANKS

    • Hey Ahmed! Glad you found it helpful. You’ll definitely get more stares in Korea if you’re not white — but it’ll be out of curiosity, rather than discrimination. And learning to speak Korean will definitely help you!


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