After 1 year in Busan and nearly 2 years in Seoul it’s time to bid adieu to the Land of Morning Calm. I’ve had plenty of amazing travel experiences and local opportunities, dating blunders, and hagwon hells in Korea. There’s plenty to love, but everyone loves to hate. Here’s my list of things I won’t miss about living in Korea.
#15 – Just Like T-T
One thing about gyms and spas in Korea is that they give you the tiniest towels of all time. How am I supposed to get my body dry enough with such a tiny towel? I’m on a tight schedule to cover up with all the other ladies gawking at my waygookin parts. I’m ready for a real towel, Korea – especially in the winter!
#14 It smells like shit everywhere.
Korea is no longer a third world country, but there seem to be an awful lot of third world values. The way people treat the streets as though the sidewalk is their own personal garbage can is infuriating. It’s especially obnoxious when your ajumma landlord freaks out because you’ve managed to get some paper in the plastic recycling or have put your trash in the wrong gu’s bag (the horror!) The plumbing is a massive issue here, too. In Seoul it’s not quite as bad as it was in Busan, but Korea still smells like fecal matter in certain areas. I joke that my apartment reeks of farts, but the plumbing here truly is garbage and until the frost came on it really did smell like crap.
#13 Laundry – I want to burn all of my clothes
Is it really too much to install drying machines in these apartments? With my ondol heating not being nearly as good as I’d like, my place is freezing. No chance of opening these windows for a breeze! In the winter, my clothes often smell musty/ moldy. Through the rest of the year my washing machines have always just destroyed my clothes. Packing up to go home shouldn’t be much of an issue considering I’d like to burn my entire wardrobe!
#12 Staying Healthy’s a Full-Time Job
I have found trying to eat clean to be quite difficult. The lack of affordable fruits and vegetables has made it really easy for me to fall into unhealthy habits. People LOVE to eat bread in Korea. My students are brought up thinking that glutinous rice is a health food. They use margarine/ canola oil to cook just about everything. Everything down to garlic bread is sweetened to high heaven. I was told I’d lose so much weight in Korea due to the healthy diet here and honestly that’s just a bunch of hogwash. I trained hard for 2 hours a day, 5 days a week and ate really clean to drop the weight. This year I even enlisted the help of Sprout, a natural, healthy food delivery service across Korea. No matter how much kimchi or kombucha you consume, there isn’t a quick and easy weight loss tool. The lack of easy, health-conscious options in Korea is something I just won’t miss.
#11 Personal Hygiene in Korea: What a Mess!
Why put soap in the bathrooms when nobody washes their hands anyway? Here – let’s put a bar of soap on a stick. Those who DO want to use soap will have to pretend to give a handy while touching something riddled with someone else’s germs! The number of times I’ve heard the hand-washing issue discussed has me…in disgust. For good measure, let’s give coughing a drop here, too. If I had a cheon-won for each time someone coughed a lung up on me while on the subway, I’d no longer have to teach English in Korea.
#10 Retail Anxiety
Another thing I won’t miss about living in Korea is the retail anxiety I experience every time I got to a grocery store or cosmetics shop. As I descend into the LotteMart grocery department, my ears sting with the sound of vegetable vendors, meat merchants, and fishy fellas screaming at me to buy their wares. I know that retailers shouting all day into microphones isn’t well-loved my foreigners, but the locals don’t really seem down for it either. I’ve seen plenty of people young and old covering their ears… “시끄럽다!”
#9 Foreigner Price in Korea
On several occasions at markets, shops, bars, and in taxis I’ve been quoted a higher price than my Korean (or even simply Asian) friends. Has this happened to you in your home country? Of course it’s happened to me at nearly every country’s tourist attractions, but when I’ve lived in Korea nearly 3 years and am speaking Korean to the service agent it blows my mind to still be quoted astronomical prices simply because I’m not from Korea.
#8 Here for your Edutainment
When shop owners make fun of my Korean or wave their arms and squeal “Big Size-y!” while shooing me away it actually really hurts my feelings. When I’m shopping I make every effort to be polite by bowing and speaking Korean in the most natural way I know how. I wear a Korean size medium and generally have no issues fitting into “free size” garments. I see you over there letting Korean women who are larger than me try on your clothing. What gives?
#7 Taxi Drivers in Korea
I have a major love/ hate relationship with Korean Taxi Drivers. The fares are incredibly cheap and, in most urban areas, cabs are plentiful. Sometimes I’ll get a very friendly driver who is just over the moon that I can speak my pitiful bit of baby Korean. More often than not, they’ll see my blonde hair and when striking up a conversation will ask if I’m Russian. Live here long enough and you’ll recognize that when a middle-aged/ older Korean man asks if you’re Russian, he’s asking if you’re a prostitute. The backpedaling that has happened when I tell my driver in Korean that I’m a Canadian person is impressive. That’s if they DO talk to me. I’ve had situations where the driver won’t confirm my destination and will take me on a wild goose chase to hike the fare. I shouldn’t have to call the cops just to get from point A to point B! I also get perturbed when taxi drivers simply won’t pick up foreigners. Sometimes if they do, they demand a flat rate and won’t use their meters. Don’t they realize how badly this reflects on Korean people on the whole when a tourist has to stay out all night just to get back to his or her hotel?
6. Ondol Heating
My kingdom for a radiator! While I know many people love floor heating (I certainly did while staying in a hanok in the middle of winter), it’s not for me. It’s November and I’ve been sleeping with 3 layers of clothing and 3 blankets on and my space heater aglow because it takes too darn long for my floor to heat up. I’m also terrified of having a “the floor is lava” situation if any of the gazillion plastic things I own overheat and melt.
5. The Sound of People in Korea Eating.
You’d think it’d be the soup I’d hate most, but it’s actually pizza. The sound of people eating pizza in Korea makes my eyes water and my ears bleed. I’m not (just) talking about Koreans, either. A few of my ESL teacher friends who have been here 3 or 4 years masticate obnoxiously, too.
#4 빨리 빨리!
“빨리 빨리”, or “hurry, hurry”, doesn’t actually mean productive or efficient. This cultural phenomenon is a great way to pass the buck and save face. People are moving along just fine and then all of a sudden it’s “hurry, hurry” time. In North America, the annoyance is “hurry up and wait”. In Korea it’s “wait…and then freak out because you just realized you messed up and have to fix the situation immediately or the whole world will implode.” I find that people in Korea really go out of their way to push or shove the foreigner. This was especially prevalent in Busan, where I’ve had ajummas elbow me hard enough (and for no reason) to leave bruises. I try to be polite and say excuse me in various forms before moving past someone. Often people will stand still completely oblivious to the fact that anyone is trying to get by. I hate being shoved out of the way just as much as I hate having to push.
P.S. Special shout out to everyone glued to their phone while walking up or down flights of stairs. You’re the real efficiency heroes.
#3 The Horking and Spitting
I live on top of a hill tucked away beside the army base in Seoul. I didn’t think that my only opportunity for sweet repose would be from 2 AM – 4:30 AM. In Korea, walls are thin and at all hours of the day and night I can hear horking and snorting and coughing and spitting. It wakes me up at home. It creeps me out when it happens in the street. There have been a couple of instances where the guy hasn’t been watching and I’ve actually been caught with an errant loogie. Walking the streets of Korea is not for the faint of heart!
#2 Respect is Reserved
I’ve noticed that in Korea, while the elderly are certainly not taken care of as well as they should be, there is a real sense of duty when it comes to showing respect in public. Respect is reserved, but don’t skip to thinking it’s deserved. You’re only due your common decency if you’re superior in age to the person dishing it. Then, there’s no real reason for you to thank the person (or even say please). Elders have no respect for the younger generation. They don’t even show appreciation when younger people go out of their way to help. Respect is an expectation. Common decency isn’t so common.
# 1 Korean Logic
If you work for a company in Korea, you may have experienced something called the “Korean surprise!” Plenty of my colleagues have arrived at work only to find out that there’s an essential presentation about which they were never told. It’s parents day! Open class! Graduation picture day! The Ministry of Education is here! You owe 30 report cards as of yesterday! Oh, you didn’t know? You must have been told. You are wrong. Please understand our unique situation.
The unique situation is sadly that there’s not just a lack of communication, there’s a lack of logic. When working with companies in Korea, I’ve found that they put one foot in front of the other. They focus on individual puzzle pieces rather than seeing the whole picture. Korean logic is my #1 pet peeve about living in Korea. Let’s hope I haven’t inherited it over the past 3 years of living in this country which has afforded me so much!
Are you an expat in Korea or anywhere else on the globe? Do you agree or disagree? What are your favourite parts of living in another country? Stay tuned for all the wonderful things I’ll miss about living in Korea!