It has almost been a year and a half that I have been in Korea. Wow. If you know me personally, then you probably already know this..
Korea and I don’t always get along.
If I have learned one thing here, it is that living in a foreign country continuously presents challenges. For some, like myself, the challenges can become tiring. There are things that I will just never be able to accept, and things I will just never be able to connect with. Most people may think, that after being somewhere for a long time you just get used to things. While I am used to things, that doesn’t mean they don’t bother me on bad days. (Sometimes also just random days. Out of the blue. Where does it come from?)
Does this mean I don’t see faults in my own culture? For non-Americans: Of course I do, I’m American for crying out loud! For Americans: Just kidding, go America!
Does this post mean I am not being accepting or understanding enough of Korean culture? I don’t think so. I try my best to see both sides of situations. I know that just because something is different, it isn’t bad. But I’m not perfect.
Does this post mean I am not enjoying myself while here? Not at all. I am so thankful for my time here, the people I’ve met, the children I’ve taught and the money I’ve been able to save to continue my travels afterwards. Korea is a fun and exciting place to live.
But there are also some things, on certain days, that drive me up the wall.
So here is my summary on why I don’t always connect with Korea, and how sometimes, living here can be a struggle.
I am Southern Californian. I understand materialism. I also love getting dressed up and looking good as much as any other girl, on some days, maybe even more. But I also have another side. The beach bum inside me really doesn’t mind going to the grocery store in baggy mis-matched clothing (my boyfriend will embarrassingly vouch for this). I also enjoy just rolling out of bed, putting on some random clothes and leaving for work make-up free. As much as I enjoy looking good, I also enjoy being natural. Yup, I really mean lazy.
In Korea, no one seems to understand this concept. When I show up to work looking a little worse for the wear, it is usually addressed with something like, “Jessica Teacher you look tired”. Which really means, you look worse than usual.
When I look around in the streets everyone is immaculately dressed. When I walk through the city, I am bombarded by plastic surgery advertisements, clothing stores, makeup stores, skin care and ridiculously tidy and skinny Korea women.
But hey, good for you. Great job for looking so damn good all the time.
Koreans also seem to love to have the best of everything. When I go hiking, everyone is in new and clean matching outfits. A matching North Face wind breaker to go with their new North Face backpack. When I’ve gone camping, the campground is covered in tent mansions. Multiple rooms, stoves, hammocks, chairs. All just for one day, and some don’t even stay the night.
I just wonder, why does everyone have to try so hard?
The cultures I’ve fallen in love with the most, are the ones that celebrate life regardless of materialistic possessions. The biggest smiles are seen on the faces of the dirtiest children. The people that have the least are the most eager to share. It is in these countries that I constantly feel reminded of what is most important in life. These are the countries that bring out the best in me.
Sometimes, being surrounded by all this ‘perfectness’ gets annoying.
Music has always been a large part of my life. I’ve listened to bands religiously, saved money for their concerts, the whole thing. When I’ve traveled I’ve adopted new styles of music to listen to. When I come home, I can listen to these songs and be taken back to those places.
I’m sorry Korea, but this never really happened for me. I just can’t connect with this music.
The most popular music around the country is accurately named “K-Pop”. These are catchy radio tunes, sung by large boy or girl groups. These groups usually contain more members than you could count. Super Junior, the current favourite for many, have 13 members. The songs play inside shops, inside malls and blare out into the streets. The music videos are playing in waiting rooms, elevators, hospitals, on the side of buildings and even outside convenient stores on HD screens.
Though the songs can be fun (sometimes), and catchy, I can’t come to appreciate any musical value. The large boy and girl groups are created by scouts to fit the perfect (Korean) mold. Each one of the members looks perfect, acts perfect and tries to sound perfect. The music videos showcase their beauty, but usually not any individuality and little personality.
I would love to have a few Korean songs that sum up my time here. I would love to have a Korean song that makes me remember those times we went to Zen Bar and smuggled soju into a noraebang (karaoke) after. Instead my nightlife memories are just clouded with LMFAO, and these days, that is no better.
Maybe it’s the obsessive commercialism, or the language barrier, but there is nothing about it I particularly connect with.
Traveling through South America, I loved hearing the popular songs in cafe’s or while walking down the street. The songs exude feelings of passion, romance and emotion. These songs embody the Latin culture that to me, is so strong and prideful. Being here, I suppose I miss music that gives a message, a feeling, something more than this. (My point is exemplified around minute 1.23)
Don’t get me wrong, I understand there is bad music everywhere. But sometimes, here, I feel bombarded by it.
Yet, alas, there is hope! Recently, I saw a music video that shows some of the quirks in modern Korean culture while also having a sense of humor. Finally!
It didn’t matter how many international business classes I took explaining to me the differences between collectivist and individualist cultures, I never truly understood why it mattered before coming here.
While growing up I was always taught to think for myself. I was told to stay away from deadly ‘group-think’ which can be counter productive. In school, we had critical thinking activities. And at the time, it seemed so petty. Though my co-teacher may be able to multiply digits and add up sums faster than I can write them on paper, I know I am probably more prepared to think on my feet or get out of a sticky situation. In Korea, the western way of thinking doesn’t apply and people don’t always mind going along with what they are told.
For example, when I asked my co-teachers why we must all come to school when it is the coldest day of the year, and sit in our offices without heating, while all the students stay at home because of district wide school cancellations, I got the response, “I don’t know, I was just told we must come.”
“But why? Why is this productive? Why is this logical?”
“The principal says so”.
And while everyone else is equally miserable I wonder, why doesn’t anyone say something? Why are we just following these rules?
Why are we all sitting here, doing no work, freezing our butts off?!
And then I remember why. Because it’s Korea.
Here people aren’t very confrontational. Orders from higher-up reign supreme, and they aren’t to be questioned. For me, this is hard to deal with.
Another example on our differences is evident in my afterschool classes for teachers. When I reflected back on my Spanish language classes, they were usually centered around debate and discussion of current events to practice our foreign language capabilities. Naturally, when I started planning for the class I wanted it to be somewhat similar. Yet, when I bring up a topic, or want to discuss an article or TV show to get them talking, it is like pulling teeth. No one wants to express their personal feelings first. The answers are usually lack-luster. Everyone always seems to agree. Nothing is exciting. Is it the language barrier? Do they just not care? I don’t know.
Sometimes I miss the debate, critical thinking, and logic in things. For westerners we are brought up to debate about our personal views and feelings. Also westerners, in my opinion, are the hardest critics. We always think we can do something better, we always think we could make something run smoother, we always think we have the solution.
Neither culture is more correct on this viewpoint. But it sure can be frustrating on this side.
I never understood what it was like to be in the minority until coming here. Sure, there were times during my previous travels when I felt I was treated differently because I was American. But since coming to Korea, I think I more accurately understand racism, and it is ugly.
Last weekend, my boyfriend went to a small beach with some friends for a music festival. When they arrived at their accommodation, the owner called the Korean girl who had booked it for them, and complained that she now had foreigners staying at her hotel and she didn’t want this. Later in the weekend, my boyfriend needed directions and walked up into a club. The owner quickly tried to shew him away thinking he wanted to come in. ”No foreigners” read the sign on the door. Upon his return I heard this, I was already irrelevantly grouchy, and this infuriated me. How is this okay? How can the world still be so backwards?
I usually try not to let these things bother me. Most days I walk through the city and feel glaring eyes, I remind myself they are just curious, and don’t know it’s rude. Sometimes, a taxi driver will slow down to pick me up, and on closer view speed up and pass me by. If these things always annoyed me, I probably wouldn’t still be here. But like I’ve said before, sometimes you just get tired.
The thing I hate the most about racism and discrimination is that I’ve learned how it goes both ways. When one culture is treated badly by another, the other can accrue a mutual grudge . I hate this. Being in Korea, I may have accumulated some discriminatory feelings towards others as well. When I see foreigners treated badly, subconsciously it makes me look down on Koreans.
I wish I had never started doing this. I also hate admitting it.
Sometimes, sadly, it takes reminding that discrimination is not personal. Koreans have a few valid reasons to feel badly about foreigners. They have been through a sad history of Japanese occupation, an influx in the U.S. military, and in the last few decades, an increase in the immigration of people with very different values. For the older generation, I understand how this may be new and strange to deal with.
One thing I can’t accept is ignorance. Hopefully with time, this ignorance will be lessened, and Korea and its foreign populations will have a smoother relationship. As for me, I just hope to leave here without carrying any grudges or any bad feelings.
Sometimes, all it takes is a deep breath.
Even while writing this, I feel a little flustered. I don’t want to offend anyone. I also want to be honest. I don’t want to be viewed as a bad traveler. I also get a little worked up thinking about all the aspects of living in Korea that can sometimes get to me. I am hoping that recognizing what aspects of the culture I don’t like, will help me have a clearer view of the aspects I love.
I also think this analysis has put one idea back into my head. Maybe I need to head somewhere laid back. Maybe I should settle down somewhere warmer (temperature and character-wise). Maybe I belong somewhere simple.
Latin America…are you calling me back?
Have you ever had the same feelings? Do you agree with my thoughts? Do you disagree? Let me know your thoughts below!