How to Survive Korea
Sweating, bleary-eyed and far from attractive, Chris, a Canadian English
teacher rolls into work on Monday morning with the weight of the world on
his shoulders. The weekend just past was a sorry affair, only deepening the
depression that took hold months ago. At least a few months ago the grim
realities of everyday life were tempered by the hope that things could only
get better. He is no longer so optimistic, realizing that, if anything,
things will probably get even worse.
His weekdays are filled with long hours in a job he hates. His evenings
spent watching garbage on AFN, the moronic comedy shows only interrupted by
his nightly call to the local pizza place. His weekends are no better. He
sleeps till mid-afternoon and spends his nights trawling Seoul’s expat bars
looking for cheap women and booze. He recognises many of the same faces week
in and week out. Yet his attempts to make conversation with his fellow
foreigners are always rebuffed. He smacks of desperation and is always
alone. His Saturday nights usually end on a Sunday morning with him vomiting on a
side street before stumbling onto the subway home.
Chris came to Korea six months ago full of high hopes and good expectations.
He would pay off his college debts, save money to go travelling, experience
the real Korea. He would love teaching, make friends, maybe even extend his
contract for another year. Six months on, however, and his time in Korea is
slowly turning into a living nightmare. He has saved virtually nothing, made
no friends and is bored, frustrated and lonely. He now hates Korea and is
counting the days till he goes home.
While this might seem like an extreme example of the Korean experience, it
can and does happen. Before coming to Korea there are a number of simple
steps that can be taken to ensure your time here is as enjoyable as
Do as much research as possible before your arrival. Not just the usual
Lonely Planet / Rough Guide spiel, but the history of the country and it’s
people. This will go a long way to help you understand what makes the
Koreans tick, which will be useful when dealing with some of their quirks.
Having an idea of what Korea and it’s people have gone through will help
understand why they act the way they do. Obviously nothing compares to real
experience on the ground but it doesn’t help to be prepared.
2) Make Korean Friends:
Easier said than done. It’s easy to meet Koreans who want an English
speaking “friend”, but in reality they want free language instruction and
nothing more. Some also want a trophy to show off..look at me I’m cool, I
have a western friend. This pathetic ploy should be immediately obvious,
and it’s going to get a bit tedious if your friend can only speak pidgin
One golden rule is never befriend the hordes of drunk Koreans that
will approach you when you are on the piss. Half of them have been dared by
their mates to come up and talk to you, and the other half are freaks. If
you really want a Korean friend, invite some of your co-workers out, or
maybe someone at your gym or dojo. Longlasting bonds can be made but
unfortunately a lot of “friendships” are wafer thin, so don’t expect to
leave Korea with any same sex friends…
3) Do Taekwondo:
This is the one of the main things I would recommend to anyone coming to
Korea. There are countless benefits in taking up the martial art. The
obvious one being fitness. You will sleep better, have loads more energy and
get rid of the weekend’s excesses. It also teaches discipline and focus and
it is the perfect way to release the frustrations of a shit day. Your Korean
will improve, you will meet new people and be learning something that’s
actually useful. It’s entirely possible to gain a black belt within a year,
providing you put in the effort.
Don’t expect taekwondo to turn you into a
lethal killing machine, it won’t. And if you are only interested in fighting
techniques then most martial arts are a waste of time. Taekwondo is almost
entirely leg based and involves much repetition of kicks and blocks. As with
everything you will get out of it what you put in. Be warned, however, to
choose your dojang (club) carefully. You will learn faster if you are being
instructed in English. Also many clubs will give out belts like candy,
simply to ensure the students stay on. Many clubs feel having a foreigner
is prestigious and may fast track you. If you are on more than a yellow belt
before three months are out, find another club. There are loads of quality
places and virtually everyone will have a club within five minutes walk away.
4) Get The Balance Right:
It is tempting to go out drinking at every opportunity and many teachers
save nothing, preferring to spend the money they earn on socialising. However,
Seoul is an expensive place to go out in, with most nightclubs charging
upwards of $8 a pint. Add an entrance fee as well as food and transport and
you can easily spend the guts of a hundred dollars. Do this more than once
a week and those college debts aren’t going to be paid off anytime soon. If
you must go out, do it sensibly. Go to a nightclub around 2am, drink first
in somebody’s house or in one of the cheap hof’s which charge around $1.50
a pint. Get the subway home as taxi’s will add up.
On the other hand there are those that are so determined to save money that
everything else becomes secondary. What’s the point in coming home with a
full bank account but no memories. Splash out now and again. The bottom line
is that you can save money and have a good time here, just don’t do either
to extremes. I have found the best way to save is to change the money I want
to save to travellers cheques immediately after I get paid.
5) Ignore The Stares:
You will get stared at. If you don’t want to get stared at don’t come
to Korea. For all the talk of Korea’s dynamic, forward looking mindset, the
reality is that when it comes to foreigners Korea is more like a rural part
of Bangladesh. You would be forgiven for thinking that some Koreans have
never seen a Westerner before, given the amount of eyeballing you get
walking down the street. This juvenile attitude towards anything different
is rife in many aspects of Korean culture. The best way to deal with it is
to ignore it. Sometimes this can be difficult, particularly if you are a
western male with a Korean female. This really annoys some Korean men,
particularly if they have had a few, and the verbal abuse can sometimes turn
nasty. However, drunk Koreans are cowards and it is rare for anything
physical to take place. This extreme insecurity can be traced to the fact
that there are more Korean men than women and many natives feel that there
are hordes of western men descending on Korea daily with the sole intention
of stealing their women. So bottom line, ignore the stares, enjoy the women.
6) Don’t Take Korea Too Seriously:
Your time in Korea can be wonderful, but the reality is that it probably
won’t be. I have never heard anyone talk in the same glowing terms about
Korea as they do about, say, Japan or Vietnam. There just seems to be
something, well, ordinary about the place. Day-to-day life can be a struggle
sometimes and it is all too easy to let things get on top of you. Just
remember that you are only here for a year, not the rest of your life. Keep
a routine, whether it be a journal or a trip to the gym, some way of
unwinding at the end of the day. Don’t let alcohol be your relaxant as it is
all too easy to drink on a nightly basis here.
Break the year up into three month segments with a trip in each, just to break
up the time you have here. Find a girlfriend/boyfriend. Time will pass a lot
quicker and if he or she is Korean it’s a great way of getting to know Korea
(in more ways than one).
You will hear a lot of talk about Korea being
numero uno in everything from technology to short track speed skating.
Obviously most of this is crap, but do bear in mind you will hear most of
this from your students, and majority of the bragging is just overactive
hormones. More worrying is the same spiel from your co-workers and even the
English language media. Again, ignore. Most Koreans are incredibly insular
and have never left Korea. They have no idea about the outside world and
have set conclusions about Korea’s place in the grand scheme of things. You
will not change their minds so don’t even try. It’s not worth the effort.
Just take everything with a pinch of salt and you will get through your
Korean adventure in one piece.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Asia Insiders page.