For Those New to South Korea

Been working on a list of recommendations for foreigners new to South Korea. They’re available in the extended entry of this post. Comments and refinements welcome. Thanks!

1. Pursue a hobby. Could be playing in a band, knitting, downloading TV shows and posting long, exhaustive analytical essays about them to the net, or even playing a sport (I learned to swim in Korea, in a class full of Koreans, speaking mainly Korean). Now, most foreigners do go through a period of depression/homesickness/culture shock and, alcohol being as easily available as it is here, most of them drink their way through it. I did. But it’s best that don’t become a lifestyle. The hobby will get you through when nobody else is around.

2. Make a couple of good foreigner friends. In my case they’re usually the types you don’t meet at the foreigner-bar, as they’ve been here long enough to get bored withat that routine. The majority of foreigners in Korea, in my experience, are either brainless frat boys drinking and partying to no end, mentally ill hound dogs chasing hot Korean girls, alcoholics who couldn’t work anywhere else in the world, or old letches who are clinging to the memories of the last Korean girl they banged years ago, about whom they delight in saying endless nasty things. This is a sobering fact. But you can also find cool foreigners, especially those who have been here a while, or just arrived. Watching new arrivals recreate their identities as “me-in-Korea” can be fascinating. Talking with the lifers can be interesting too. These are the people you can bitch with about the things that grate on you, and they’re a support system of sorts.

3. Make some Korean friends, too. This is of great importance, especially with foreign women in Korea. I don’t want to put you off, but according to most foreign women I’ve talked with about this, being in Korea is a profoundly frustrating experience. If you’re young, Korean men will see you as a sex object, and white men will see you as an easy second choice after the hordes of slim, pretty, hyper-feminine Korean girls they think are available to them; if you’re older, or less attractive than a movie star, most men of either extraction won’t give you the time of day. Most foreign women I know who spend any time here at all find some good Korean friends — usually female Koreans, since close friendships between the sexes are often jeopardized by the default jealousy mode that most Koreans seem to think is necessary when they become a couple. I’ll say that the very few foreign women I know here found some Korean women (and foreign women, but not exsclusively foreign women) with whom they share some goals and ideals, and they became close friends. Also, these Korean friends will help you to understand the culture, instead of just reviling it like so many foreigners do.

4. Relationships can be a minefield here. There are people who’re cool and interesting. There are people who all but assume you’re engaged after one date. There are lots of people who can be shockingly cold when it comes to relationships, in a way I’d never even heard of back home, and there are people who get suicidal when a short relationship ends in breakup. And that’s just in romantic relationships, so say nothing of the relationships surrounding it. Lots of people have very little sense of boundaries. It’s weird, but true. Lots of people have tons of stereotypes in their heads—Koreans and expats alike will tell you all kinds of nonsense. Be on your toes, trust your instincts, but also… be prepared to be bewildered, radically disappointed, and hurt in ways you can’t imagine. Okay, that’s dating anywhere, but… it’s like 20% more so here.   

5. Try the food. Eat the food. Learn to cook the food. Love the food. Many people who don’t put on a lot of weight and develop health problems, because the alternatives to Korean food are largely fatty, unhealthy, and crappy… unless you’re in Seoul, and/or unless you have a full kitchen. Don’t believe what Koreans suggest, that a foreigner eating and making Korean food is an amazing and unusual thing. It isn’t it absolutely isn’t. That’s part of their superiority/inferiority complex showing through. Korean food is far less spicy than the spiciest of Indian or even Thai food (which deflates older Koreans when you tell them). But it’s just as delicious (which pleases older Koreans when you tell them).

6. Ask questions. Don’t ask them once, to the same person. Ask the same question many times to different people, and piece together answers from the most reasonable-sounding combination of fragments of the answers. Never take any single answer at face value. You’re a space alien to a lot of people here. Nobody tells the space alien the whole truth, even if they know it, and most people don’t know the full truth anyway. Urban myths abound here and people spout them with surprising confidence. 

7. Make an effort with the language. Some people will say, if you’re only going to be here a year, don’t bother. Well, I disagree. It’ll help you be more understanding of the kind of hellish difficulty your own students face learning English, it’ll make you a better teacher, win you a smpidgin more respect from Koreans you interact with, and
really it’s the least you can do in an effort to understand this place you’re living in and profiting from being. It’s as essential as adjusting to the local bugs or learning to use a squat toilet.

Korea can be a deeply frustrating place. Practically speaking, especially if you’re on an E2 visa, you have relatively few legal rights and not much protection from bad employers (who abound, even in the big educational franchises); you’re a (relatively) hairless monkey to a lot of the population outside of Seoul; you’re in the middle of a culture that in many ways seems more dysfunctional than it is (though, it is, honestly, also quite dysfunctional in areas where North America is very attentive to combat dysfunction—deep sexism and the massive sex trade that goes with it, Confucian ageism, superificiality, political and academic corruption, and so on are just a part of life, accepted in the way of “Well, what can you do?”, as average North Americans look at things like environmental issues or food deserts. Things are slowly getting better on a number of levels, but you know, this society has only been free for a decade and a half, and there’s a long way to go. You will not fix it. The best thing you can do is work to understand it and function within, against, or in some other relation to it.

9 thoughts on “For Those New to South Korea

  1. What I’d really like to know about is the FOOD; there’s a Korean place in my area that’s supposed to be good, but I don’t know how to tell an authentic dish from something invented for white people to eat, or which dishes are considered the tastiest… any suggestions? :-)

  2. The way to tell if it’s authentic is to see if there are Koreans there. I always find being the only white guy in a place means that the food is more authentic.

    Also, you can be up-front with them and tell them you want to have really Korean-styled food. Tell them you heard about Jeonju Be-bim-bap and want to know whether it’s really that good. Jeonju, where I lived, is famous for delicious be-bim-bap.

    Another dish they’re unlikely to mess up is bulgogi. It’s just flavoured pork.

    It’s also hard to mess up a kimchi jjigae, which is a kind of staple dish here. If you have any doubts, reassure them you like really spicy food. But it’s hard to make it less spicy, since it’s made with spicy kimchi from the get-go.

    Finally, and this is crucial, there should be some panchan on the table. Side dishes. You can ask, “Where’s the panchan?” if there’s not at least a couple of things on the table besides the main dish.

    Other things I like:
    “Tak doritang” — a very spicy chicken and potato stew.
    “Gamja tang” — a somewhat spicy potato and pork-bone soup
    “Dwen Jang Jjigae” — kind of like miso soup’s ugly older cousin.
    “Chun Guk Jang” — kind of like Dwen Jang Jjigae on steroids.
    “Saeyoo Hobak Jjigae” — a stew made with zucchini and shrimp, also red and spicy
    “Jae Yook Bokeum”, which is spicy fried pork, often when it’s tastiest it’s also a little greasy but delicious as hell.

  3. Great post Gord~!! Many useful reminders.

    I think a good idea would be for someone (I’ll see what I can do if people are really interested, but my web-knowledge is pretty low) made some sort of a group “site” simply dedicated to stuff like this that everybody can put links from everywhere to get to it. Something like “Idiots Guide to Being a Foreigner In Korea”.
    The problem with stuff like this is that most people who need it don’t know how to find it (although I know I still need reminders often), or they simply wouldn’t look because they just don’t think about it. I know I didn’t come across any blogs here until about 6 months after I got here, and by then, I figured out a lot of things the hard way.

    Anyway, I think it would be a great idea to get some responsible people together and organize a site (sub-domain) dedicated to stuff like this — and then advertise everywhere…making banners and what-not. I don’t like the idea of doing it myself (alone) because everybody has different experiences…and I tend to have quite different experiences than the average Joe. There’s a lot of stuff out there, but it’s random and scattered…needs to be organized better. Anyway, if you or anyone else is interested in the idea – I’m all for chatting more about it~ ^^

  4. I’d be up for contributing, but right now I have too many other projects I’m trying to keep going. Novels to draft, and to redraft, instruments to practice… I’m still wanting to start posting in Korean on Blinger’s group Korean-blog. *sigh*

    But I would be willing to contribute.

  5. Also, I think that a single author might be better in terms of readability. Otherwise you get dozens of people writing the same thing on the same topics, and nobody wants to read through all of that.

  6. Hmmm…I see your point on the authors, but I think that could be rectified with good organization and a single editor. I’m good at the editing side, just not the format – but I’m getting better. That might cause a problem for picky contributors who don’t like anything they contribute toyed with, but I think there could be a way to edit out duplicate information without stepping on too many toes. If I can get something together, I’ll let you know. I’ll have a lot of free time soon to play with stuff like this.

  7. Great Post and some real dead-on observations.

    There are, of course, tons of expat hints floating around the net, but so few are updated on a regular basis and most are written based on sole experiences. A group effort would be great but I agree that there should be someone in an editor role.

    I really have to agree with you on a lot of your observations. When I lived in Jeonju I found the vast majority of fellow foreigners to be rather negative of the work, the lifestyle and of the country in general. I quickly stopped going to the foreigner bars (like The Deep In) and found spots filled with locals instead. Korea is the kind of friendly country that will welcome a foreign drinking buddy. Even if the initial introduction is based on curiosity, it can easily develop into a really strong and sincere friendship.

  8. JPednaud!

    I remember our email correspondence from a long time ago! So you’re not living in Jeonju anymore?

    Yeah, it’s a complicated thing, that negativity; I mean, even I have a lot to criticize in Korea in general, and in my situation in particular. But there’s criticizing things, while being aware of the good stuff, and in contrast there’s plain old Korea-bashing.

    For every hair-tearing-out frustration we can encounter here, there are lots of good things here that are just waiting for us to stumble onto, and we need to remember that.

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