Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

What to do in your first year in Korea

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Nov 18 2013

A minority of people who come to teach English in Korea are, I suppose, just economic refugees: unable to get a job at home, and in Korea for the money. But I don’t think this is true for most people. For most people it is a chance to do something different with their lives; to live overseas for a year or more, to experience another culture and hopefully change and develop as a person.

And yet for many people who come to Korea, this idea seems to go awry at some point. At first, they drink and find it all exciting, then they drink and find it all frustrating and hostile and alien, and eventually they go home with not much to show for it but some stories of cheap alcohol, clubbing in Seoul, and Koreans always telling them things at the last minute.

Why is this? I don’t always have the highest opinion of many of my fellow waegukin. Often, the problem is with the people themselves. For some, particularly the less mature ones, this really is what they had in mind by “exploring another culture” – seeing some beaches and temples and getting drunk in them. Meeting people from other countries, and sleeping with them. A sort of post-university gap year. I’m not making a moral judgment, because I was young once, too, and almost everyone goes through a period of acting up when they first get here – more on that later – but the people who come here only seeking that sort of experience can give everyone here a bad name, and leave a lot of damage behind when they go home. So I’m not going to defend them, either. I can understand wanting to have those experiences, but expecting to be paid for them is a bit much.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my first year in Korea. It was a memorable time for me; certainly the most exciting year of my life. I think I lived pretty well in my first year in Korea. I saw and experienced a lot of things, and I learned a lot about both Korea and myself. I’m not suggesting this was because I was particularly enlightened. I was extremely lucky in one respect: most of my friends were Korean-Australian, Korean-Canadian, and Korean-Americans. They spanned a spectrum from “spent the first 12 years of their life in Korea” to knowing almost as little about Korea as me. But collectively they schooled me up in the culture really quickly. I spent a lot of my first year trailing around after them while they did all the talking to Koreans and patiently explained things to me, and that made a huge difference.

But that was the TaLK program, at least as it was then; I don’t know how it is now. And if I was being honest, it could have gone differently for me. Like everyone who first arrives, I was keen to make friends immediately, because the thought of being alone in a foreign country is so terrifying. And I was lucky that I met the people I did. If I had instead fallen in with a group of jaded, hard-drinking ex-pats, I might have had a different sort of experience, and I probably wouldn’t be writing a blog about Korea right now.

(It easily could have gone that way, too. For instance, that kind of group was about all that was on offer for “foreigner friends” in the town I lived at in Gyeonggi-do. These days I’m confident enough in Korea to do without those sorts of friends, but it is much harder to make a choice like that when you come to Korea for the first time.)

So this post is addressed to that percentage of people who come here with the best intentions, but may not know how to avoid the traps that lead to so many people not enjoying their time and not accomplishing much. And yes, it is me in insufferable mode – telling you how you should spend your first year in Korea. You probably won’t listen to my advice (does anyone ever listen to anyone’s advice?) But maybe some of these things will stay in the back of your mind, and then at some point you’ll realize some things on your own, and your first year in Korea will end up a little better because of it. Because there are traps. And the first you are likely to encounter is this: the local waegukin bar.

The waegukin bar

The chances are very strong, unless you are religious, or married with kids or the like, that at some point on your first free weekend you will find yourself in your city’s local waegukin bar.

Welcome! Come in! Pull up a seat. It’s full of people just like you. Some people will be new, as you are. Many will have been here longer; some much, much longer. The beer is cheap. It’s a little bit exotic, because the bar staff are Korean, but not too exotic – they all speak fluent Bar English. You’re about to get drunk, meet a bunch of new people, and make plans to meet up with them again.

Take a moment to look around. There’s a beer pong table and a pool table and an electronic dart machine. All around are tables of foreign teachers, and the occasional Korean looking for some strange.

Get used to it. Because if you’re not careful, this is about all of Korea you will ever see. You’ll spend every weekend in this place, and you’ll go home with nothing to show for your time here but a lot of photos of you drinking, right here, and playing beer pong and pool and electronic darts, right here.

For a great number of people who come here to teach, this is the standard experience of Korea. And if you are one of those people, I think the chances are that you won’t have a very good time. It might seem like you’re having a good time, those nights when you stumble out onto the street with your bar friends, bellowing English at the top of your voice. But soon you’ll start to see all of Korea outside of this bar as a hostile, unfriendly place. And you’ll find plenty of people in the bar who’ll agree with you on this, and you’ll spend your time drinking and complaining about Korea until it’s time to go back to your home country.

The first six months

That’s one extreme. But even with the best intentions, your first six months are likely to go something like this:

“Ohmygod! Hey, new friends from all over the world that I’ve just met, look at all this amazing stuff and all these amazing places! And you can get beer here. And the beer is so cheap! Let’s get drunk.”

Liz at I’m No Picasso wrote a fantastic post about this phenomenon, which she called “The foreigner freakout”. It’s worth reading:

You land in a whole new world, where the language and culture are both foreign to you. You’ve got a new job with new pressures and stresses possibly (probably) previously unimagined or unencountered before. It’s a drinking culture — a BIG drinking culture — and you’ve got money to spend. Add to this the fact that you’ve got the enormous task of creating a whole new community for yourself (the only suggestion for which anyone seems to have is “the foreigner bar is atta way!”) and the fact that you are suddenly “exotic”, which means it’s quite easy to just show up somewhere and have people swarming around starting conversations and paying you attention, and there you go — all the ingredients for a prime Foreigner Freakout.

Booze ahoy! Stumbling in at 5 am? Pfft. For amateurs. That’s why God invented GS25, plastic tables and paper cups. It doesn’t count if the sun isn’t up.

I can advise you all I like against it, but look – Liz is probably the most culturally sensitive foreigner blogging about Korea that I know. She went through it. I went through it, too.

I don’t want to overemphasize the role alcohol plays in this. Alcohol is, I think, more a symptom than a cause. My main memory of that time is an experience of extraordinary emotional and sensory overload. The colours were brighter; every experience was heightened; I ran on nervous energy for such a long time. Because you arrive at Incheon with your bags and only a vague sense of what is to come; maybe jetlagged, certainly nervous. And then… you are whisked off to somewhere else! There’s foreign writing and touch screens and crowds; neon everywhere and forests of huge apartment blocks blooming in rice fields. There’s a whole bunch of people to meet, and you want to make friends with them all. Then it’s time to start work, and that too is nerve-wracking, then exciting. And everything is always new, and you learn so much so quickly, and all the things you were nervous about start to fall away–

It’s a heady time, and you’re likely to feel yourself at some point like a Colossus, striding triumphantly across the peninsula. Nobody is humble about their first six months.

So I won’t council you too much. Most people go through it to some extent. Just these three pieces of advice:

  1. If you’re going to drink anyway, at least see some of Korea while you do it. Catch a bus or a train with some friends, see some new places, save your drinking for the night. And try Korean bars, too; they come in a few different styles, are interesting, and will usually be cheaper than the waegukin place.
  2. Keep your work separate from your triumphant striding and indulgence in sensory overload. What you do on the weekends is your business, but don’t turn up hungover to school. And take your work seriously. The biggest difference I’ve noticed between people who make something of their time in Korea and those who don’t is that the first group find meaning in their work, and the second group view their job as a thing to be endured while they wait for the weekend.
  3. Don’t be an ugly foreigner. Don’t yell at Koreans in English, throw bottles on the street, get into fights, sexually harass Koreans. Have some class.

After that

Hopefully, at some point you will change. For me, it was a gradual change, and .I don’t know exactly what caused it, but one memory is clear: a long bus ride with a good friend, off to see the cherry blossoms in Jinhae. A little tired; we’d been out the night before. And it was a long bus journey, and we were weary as well as tired, and we talked a lot and found that we’d both been noticing the same thing. Something had changed in the experience for us. We didn’t feel the same desire to be out partying and meeting new people. Our focus had turned inward. It had became more about just living and teaching and thinking. It may not have been as exciting, but we felt we were starting to change, somehow.

And we were. And I feel sorry for the people who don’t get to experience that.

The title of this post is almost something of a misnomer. It is meant to echo those “What to see in a week in Korea”-type articles, when actually the point I wanted to make is a little more subtle than that. There is no checklist; it is about an openness to all kinds of experience, and not being sidetracked by a relatively narrow, if initially appealing, experience.

Still, I will give a list of things I think you should do in your first year in Korea. None of these are especially challenging; many of them, in fact, would be hard to avoid. Having put it together and looked at it and thought about it, I think it’s about spaces. Different kinds of spaces, where if you spend time and are open to it, you can experience a lot of Korea.

The list

Unless you have religious, moral or personal objections, try all the Korean foods, at least once.

Being “open to new experiences” means you should be, y’know, open to new experiences. I am a fairly picky eater, and there are some Korean foods I don’t like. But I know I don’t like them because I’ve tried them. A blanket statement that you “can’t eat Korean food” is just ridiculous – a nation of fifty million people manage to eat it just fine. And sitting alone in the teacher’s room during lunch time, furtively munching on a packet of crisps is not a good look.

Spend a night in a love motel and a jjimjilbang. Do a homestay and a temple-stay

These all have one thing in common – they are far more pleasant than what you are imagining. Except for a temple-stay, which is much less pleasant than what you are imagining. I don’t have particularly fond memories of my weekend of Buddhist boot-camp, but it was certainly worth doing as a measure of how much I had changed. Regarding the others – jjimjilbang is a terrific sensory and cultural experience, if you can get past the naked thing (harder for some people than others, but you can get past it) and I’ve written before about my obsession with love motels.

Try out all the options for public transport – subways, trains, buses, and taxis

The train and subway systems are not very intimidating, and taxis are cheap and convenient. I’ve known some people who, as a consequence, avoid the bus system. I really urge you to get out and explore, using the inter-city and express bus networks. You will see and experience much more of Korea than you will from the window of a train. (Though the trains are cool, too, particularly the dining cars.)

Spend plenty of time in Old Korea

Another common mistake is to become too comfortable in downtown, with all its familiar modernity. Downtown is fun, but there’s a lot more to see. Often neighbouring downtown is an “Old Korea” district, where the average age immediately goes up by thirty years. It’s the other half of Korea – the part that hasn’t quite realized or felt the benefits of Korea’s rapid ascent into the ranks of developed countries.

Experience bang culture

It would be pretty much impossible to miss out on noraebang at some point. Jjimjilbang, despite the suffix, is not really, I think, part of bang culture. Love motels, with their primary purpose of providing a place in a crowded society for people to get away from their families, seem to fit much more closely. There is also PC Bang, DVD Bang and Multi Bang, which are worth checking out. Da Bangs can be a bit tricky – as a general rule, if it has darkened or covered windows, it’s probably not primarily a place to get tea and is best avoided if you don’t want to find yourself in awkward situations.

Visit different provinces. Visit small towns, small cities, medium cities, and large cities

Korean cities of roughly equivalent sizes can tend to look a bit samey, but there are differences. But Korean public transport is so fantastic that there is no reason not to visit a lot of different cities and provinces. The process of travel will give you new experiences. Isn’t that, after all, why you came to Korea? Don’t make the mistake, once you’re in the country, of restricting yourself to the few places in which you’ve managed to make yourself comfortable.

Have friends who have spent more time in Korea than you, and who have spent less time in Korea than you

This is one of the few good pieces of advice I heard at EPIK orientation. Friends who have been here longer can help you a lot. Likewise, it’s a good feeling to be the wise sage. Once you’ve been here a while, make some friends amongst the new arrivals, if you get the chance. It will give you perspective on how far you’ve come.

Make foreigner friends and Korean friends. If you get the chance, gyopo friends are great

An extension of the previous point. Most people draw most of their friends from other foreign English teachers. It’s only natural. You have a shared culture and a common experience, so you have a lot to talk about. But in can also put you in a protective bubble where your Korean experience just becomes a simulacrum of your life back home.

I’d like to make a special mention of gyopo friends: ethnic Koreans who have grown up in Western countries. Groups of foreigners are often illustrations of the proverb about the one-eyed man in the land of the blind, and most Koreans are pretty terrible at explaining their own culture to foreigners – they’ve never really thought about it. I admit I’m biased, because as I’ve mentioned, so many of my first friends in Korea were gyopo, but they really can play a special role in helping you learn about the culture; they understand both sides of it.

Making friends with Koreans isn’t easy. Age differences are much more significant than they are to your Western friends, and many young Koreans follow a path of being busy with university work, then busy with their first jobs, then being married and having kids. Not to mention that the majority are not really comfortable or even able to have a relationship where English is the primary language of communication. So to take the opportunity when it comes up. Which leads to my next suggestion:

Accept invitations from Koreans, even if they don’t seem particularly appealing

Koreans take being a good host seriously. If the manager of your local supermarket invites you to come to his house and have lunch and meet his family, try to accept, even if it doesn’t seem appealing at all. Yes, he probably just wants you to give his kids free English conversational practice, but he will also give you a tremendous meal and show you some of how Koreans live.

I’ve done this sort of thing a bunch of times. Sometimes it is exactly as awkward as you imagine it would be, but at other times it can be fantastic. (Also, a side note: don’t become one of those grumpy people who act like speaking a little English to a Korean kid is something terribly burdensome and which you will only do for fifty bucks an hour. It’s only speaking English. Your ability to do it really isn’t the equivalent of complex heart surgery.)

Try to cultivate a Confucian mindset

You were raised in a Western society that taught you about how important you are; how you should always have faith in yourself and be confident and never let anybody demean the glory that is You. In Korea, the group is more important than the self; the understanding is that you should be respectful and obedient towards your superiors (even if they are wrong) and benevolent and helpful to your juniors.

It’s not that either system is inherently right or wrong; nor is it about letting people walk over you. But, having spent a lifetime having your ego treated as the most important thing in the world, it won’t kill you to spend a year practicing some humbleness. And it might give you a new perspective.

Take a Korean class

Not “study on your own”, not “pick it up as you go along”, but actually take a regularly scheduled class. You will learn more quickly, and you’ll also meet a slightly better group of fellow foreigners than those at the local waegukin bar.

Try to get enough sleep

Life is fast in Korea. This is why on an inter-city bus trip, no matter what time of day, you will see most of the Koreans taking the opportunity for a nap. Learn from them, and try to sleep when you can.

Find some places to relax

Korea is also pretty crowded. It’s good to have some places that are your own and where you can relax. For me, it’s tiny, independent third floor coffee shops, and parks.

A final note

I once had a friend, new to Korea, who told me that they had no interest in K-pop. I made the following prediction:

“You think you hate K-pop, but once you’ve been here about four months, something will happen. You will hear a K-pop song and you’ll think, ‘Actually, I quite like this one.’ You’ll watch the video a bunch of times, and suddenly you’ll have a favorite K-pop group and a favorite member of that group. And before you know it, you’ll be waiting for their comebacks on Music Bank.”

Now, around the five month mark, this person suddenly started posting Super Junior videos on their facebook wall and links to dramas starring Choi Siwon. I sent them a message asking if it had happened, and they said. “Yes. You were right. And my group is Super Junior, and I am going to marry Choi Siwon.” (I could probably also have added, in my prediction, that hormones would play a role in the choice of favorite group and singer.)

Well, I looked like Nostradamus, but I could have been wrong. Some people come to Korea liking K-pop, and some people leave Korea detesting it as much as they did when they arrived. My point is this: there are generalities to the experience of foreigners in Korea. But the trouble with generalizations is that they will be wrong for a lot of people.

So, more than with most things I write here, I’d welcome comments on this post. Have you gone through a change like the one I’ve described here? Is it true to your experiences? Are there other things you’d recommend people do in their first year? Let me know.

Waegukin wrote these 3663 words on November 18th, 2013 | Posted in Living |


9 comments on “What to do in your first year in Korea”

  1. J. says:

    I hope you hadn’t gone without mentioning this blog in your CV when you submitted them to the Korean universities that you applied for. Personally, I think it would be extremely hard not to be impressed by the thoughts you have shared here.

    Best of luck.

  2. Kiki says:

    I really enjoyed reading this! I completely identify with everything in the article! I actually just finished my 6 month contract with TaLK! I like to think I did a good job of balancing the cultural with the not so cultural waygookin bar experience you talk about, but I think TaLK had a huge role in this. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Korea and it definitely meant I connected with a lot more Koreans or Gyopos than I probably would have done. I actually stumbled across this as I’m now going back to Korea but with a Hagwon and really want to make the most of my year as I know how easy it is to fall into the trap of the “waygookin bar” experience. Thanks for the article, I’m now feeling inspired for the next year in Korea and hopefully avoiding that trap! 🙂

  3. Amanda says:

    After 2 years of living in Korea, I’ve just stumbled upon your blog. This quickly led to me clicking endlessly on posts, nodding in agreement, and ending up on this one before deciding 2am is a reasonable time to stop. I just wanted to say thank you.
    Thank you for having little patience for those who come here and just complain. My judging eyes are reserved specifically for them.
    Thank you for not contributing another tl;dr style blog to the Internet. A picture is worth a thousand words but what’s wrong with typing a thousand words?
    Thank you for the effort of trying too many canned coffees so we don’t have to. Unfortunately, it’s too late for me; my tin coffee knowledge fills me with pride and shame.
    Thank you for appreciating side-notes as much as I do.
    Thank you for recognizing that Korean toothpaste just doesn’t perform like it should.

  4. Waegukin says:

    And thank you for one of the nicer comments I’ve received in a while.

    Korean toothpaste… I can still remember the first time I put some on my toothbrush and ran it (as I was taught as a child) under the water for a moment to wet it, only to watch the nubbin of toothpaste simply fall off the toothbrush in its entirety. That, I thought, is not supposed to happen…

  5. Peter says:

    This was a very enjoyable read. I normally stop reading articles about five minutes into them, but you held my interest with your sage advice and interesting anecdotes.

  6. Judy says:

    I said the same thing about KPOP when I was in 9th grade. I was confused as to why my friend was attracted to men who looked so feminine. Boy was I wrong… ten years later I’ve go my comp set to their pic and my fb is full of their pages and I’m on a comment war defending a person from a hater. Sight… c’est la vie!

  7. Lidiya says:

    I was laughing out loud at the portion about K Pop.;)..
    I just found your blog online..Really enjoyed reading this..

    I have a question.. My 24 yr old sister is a Masters degree holder In english literature, we are from India (south Asia)..She’s really interested in teaching/working in Korea …But reading ur post about EPIK and other entry requirements, she wouldnt satisfy the criteria.
    Am I right?…
    She is going to college for getting a bachelors degree in library science. What do you think her chances would be if she applies for a non-teaching related job in Korea? She would have to clear TOPIK? any other requirements?
    Sorry for the long post..
    Appreciate your thoughts on this.

  8. ilovekorea says:

    I love Korean toothpaste!

  9. Eoin says:

    Just found this blog, really enjoyed it and it did me a lot of good. Certainly found myself nodding along to several points (especially regarding being friends with jaded expats – which can be hard to avoid in small towns).
    Definitely taking a tip or two from it, thanks!

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