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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.

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