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 Post subject: Northway's Life in Korea
PostPosted: Sat Dec 18, 2010 6:37 am 
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I've been in Korea for a year and a half now, and considering my temporary home seems to be in the news a lot lately, I thought some might be interested in what my life as a foreigner is like here:

My job: I teach an immersion kindergarten class of students who are "Korean age" six (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Asian_age_reckoning). Korean age essentially means that you are one year older than the year you will turn in a given Lunar year. Thus, being born in April of '86, I'm 25 here, despite being 24 in conventional terms, and I was 25 when I was 23. Confusing. As such, my students are basically in the year before students would go to American kindergarten. At this point a fourth grader seems like an adult to me.

I started with my current class last March and they're now capable of understanding English well and speaking English on a lower level. Immersion education at such a young age really can't be knocked: I have no teaching experience or qualifications outside of my current job of sixteen months, yet my students learn from just hearing me talk.

The biggest downside to my job is Korean work culture, in which there is always an expectation to work far more than necessary. This doesn't mean working harder than necessary, just that you work more. What you do is fairly irrelevant, but there is an expectation that you should do things "for the company" even as a very temporary worker.

It really doesn't pay as a foreign teacher to buy into this attitude, as you're generally looking at a very small raise each year regardless of what you put into it. Whether you work as hard as possible or you work as little as possible, if you are re-signed you're looking at a raise of about $100 a month on a $2,000 a month salary (with my rent already paid for). I make good money for someone being just out of college, but the opportunity cost is that I don't have a job that will ever turn into a career. All in all, it's a good gig for the time being, but not a permanent solution.

The surroundings: Korea is the third most densely populated country in the world after Bangladesh and Taiwan, respectively, with half that population being in Gyeonggi Province and Seoul, which makes up the upper northwestern corner of the country (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyeonggi). This is where I live. As everything has been built within the last fifty years, construction is highly inorganic. Everything is planned. I live about 40 minutes outside of Seoul proper, and my city is essentially built up around subway stations. Each subway stop has a boatload of stores, bars, and restaurants, while everything surrounding it is twenty story apartment complexes built up in a sort of gated community where there is a common garden area in the center. From an urban development perspective, I think it makes for much better living than the street-oriented buildup you see in the States (New York in particular).

That said, a quiet place in greater Seoul is generally as busy as New York at its busiest. Personally, I like it, but it drives a lot of the foreigners crazy here. Personal space is not an option. While Koreans are generally adapted to this, it really bothers a lot of folks who come from small towns in the Midwest and aren't used to being jostled everywhere they turn.

The language: I don't speak it much. I can read Korean script, but 95% of the time have no idea what I'm reading. Everything I can speak I've learned from the Korean girls I've dated here. That said, I generally get along without issue and attempt to use what I have as much as possible, and continue to learn more. My students are actually hugely helpful, as they are quick to teach me the Korean word for any new word I teach them. I must admit that I'm a bit ashamed I don't speak it better, but after my ten hour days with a 30 minute commute each way I'm generally pretty ready to just chill out when I'm done.

Being a foreigner: Korea is the most homogenous country in the world. Well, to be fair, North Korea is the most homogenous country in the world, closely followed by their brothers to the south. As such, there's a bit of what some perceive as racism here. Generally, it seems more like ignorance to the political correctness of the West, but it really grates on some of the foreigners here.

A couple examples of this: I take the subway to work every morning with middle and high school students, and nearly every morning I have kids say "Waigukin!" (foreigner) when I get on the subway with my coworkers in the morning.

Another: my coworker had his African-American friend interview at our school this week, and he introduced one of our students to her. He looked at her for a solid minute, then pointed and said, "Very black!"

Generally, I view such instances as being a result of living in a country where everyone is of essentially the same blood. Even other East Asians are singled out as being different here, so it's very much a, "Hey, you're not Korean!" thing.

Anyway, I hope some find this of interest.

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 Post subject: Re: Northway's Life in Korea
PostPosted: Sat Dec 18, 2010 9:39 pm 
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What about all the kimchi you can eat?

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 Post subject: Re: Northway's Life in Korea
PostPosted: Sat Dec 18, 2010 11:41 pm 
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thanks for posting this. i enjoyed reading it.

Immersing yourself in such a different culture must be a fascinating experience.

but I would imagine that a potential conflict with N. Korea must be a bit worrying.

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 Post subject: Re: Northway's Life in Korea
PostPosted: Sun Dec 19, 2010 1:02 am 
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Kimchi has actually gotten a bit limited. We got hit by a couple typhoons over the summer and farmers underproduced because they had a bumper crop last year, so cabbage was costing about $12 a head for awhile. My school's cafeteria stopped serving it. The end result was they had to lift all tariffs on Chinese cabbage before winter set in, as otherwise families would be entirely bereft of kimchi. I asked one of my students what he would buy if he won the lottery and he told me he wanted cabbage.

As for the situation with North Korea, the only way in which it worries me is that all my savings are in won. I may send home all my money next week, but I'd also like to wait for the exchange rate to improve. Regardless, I think the worst thing that might happen is low-scale conflict. If North Korea utilizes it's trump card and hits Seoul with the 5,000 guns they have pointed at it they immediately cease to exist.

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Baseball has a way of ripping your ❤️ out, stabbing it, putting it back in your chest, then healing itself just in time for Spring Training. - Thor


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 Post subject: Re: Northway's Life in Korea
PostPosted: Sun Dec 19, 2010 2:30 am 
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Thanks for the interesting post, Northway! Any clue as to how much longer you're planning on staying there? I'd have to imagine it'd get lonely staying in a foreign country across the globe for so long.

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 Post subject: Re: Northway's Life in Korea
PostPosted: Sun Dec 19, 2010 2:45 am 
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plash ricrem wrote:
Thanks for the interesting post, Northway! Any clue as to how much longer you're planning on staying there? I'd have to imagine it'd get lonely staying in a foreign country across the globe for so long.


I'm not really lonely. There are eight foreign teachers at my school, and one of my buddies from high school lives about twenty minutes away. Having a Korean girlfriend really helps though.

At the moment I'm meant to stay here through February of '11 (mostly for the girl). After that I feel like I should go make use of my degree for something, but again, the girl might change things.

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Baseball has a way of ripping your ❤️ out, stabbing it, putting it back in your chest, then healing itself just in time for Spring Training. - Thor


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 Post subject: Re: Northway's Life in Korea
PostPosted: Sun Dec 19, 2010 1:02 pm 
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I have a lot of admiration for what you've done, Northway.

You had the experience of going to college in Montreal, which, as Steve Martin once joked about Canada as a whole, "is like a whole different country".

Then going and living in a dramatically different culture in Korea is another adventure.

When I think back to the mundane things I did in my early to mid-20s, there's a part of me that wishes I had used the time to learn more about the world.

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 Post subject: Re: Northway's Life in Korea
PostPosted: Sun Dec 19, 2010 7:58 pm 
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Thanks Chico. At this point it feels a bit mundane though, as my friends are all in grad school or starting proper careers and I'm teaching kindergarten in Korea. That said, I'm certainly enjoying my life, and there are less interesting things I could be doing.

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 Post subject: Re: Northway's Life in Korea
PostPosted: Mon Dec 20, 2010 12:34 am 
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Thanks for sharing about your time in Korea. This is very informative and thought provoking. Hope it works for the best for you .

As a side note, how are the people there regarding baseball ?


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 Post subject: Re: Northway's Life in Korea
PostPosted: Mon Dec 20, 2010 12:57 am 
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Although I'm married to a Korean, I work with Japanese and I guess they have the same work ethic - with the Japanese there is a toast that's given with every dinner during a job which exactly translated goes "Thank you for being so tired." It is never thanks for the great job or performance, just thanks for being so tired.

But from what I gathered in Korea during my visit there this fall, Koreans have a much more stable home life. The men seem more actively engaged in the family than their Japanese counterparts, perhaps that's specific to my relatives but it was something I was certainly glad to see. A couple of observations from my trip for those interested in Korea:

1. They definitely have the most beautiful girls in the world. I always thought that being married to a Korean but after a week of riding the subways in Seoul I can say categorically it is not just the Korean women who have come to America, it's the whole country. On every subway car there were always about 5 or 6 absolutely stunning girls. Phenomenal.

2. Seoul has perhaps the best subways in the world. In addition to the female passengers, they are simple to navigate, have stations in convenient and easy to reach places, relatively quiet, immensely clean. They've got a great system of double doors - in the subway station the tracks are separated from the platform by glass with a separate set of door built in the wall. When a train arrives, the wall doors open, then the subway doors open and you go in and out. For a person who always worried in NYC that I'd get pushed onto the tracks, or even worse voluntarily jump, this was a welcome sight to see.

3. The country is remarkably easy to drive through. Once you get out of the maze of highways which circle Seoul, the highway system through the rest of the country is terrific. Korea is almost entirely mountains but there is a system of modern tunnels which speed you through. None of the climbing up and over mountains like in America. And the highway rest stops are great. A wide variety of food, very inexpensive, delicious, clean. We ended up driving a lot at night so we could go to the rest stops for dinner.

4. Busan. Korea's second largest city is a blast. There is a giant live fish market (actually there are a couple of these) where you pick out the fish you want, then go upstairs and they cook it for you and you eat it right there. And cheap. We had a dinner with all the sushi you could possibly eat, some grilled fish dishes, fish stew, and the usual 100 side dishes of a Korean meal, and liquor, with 11 adults and 5 kids for less than $150. There is a beautiful beach, Gwangalli Beach, in the center of the city which is lined with restaurants and cafes with high rise apartments on either end of a cove, a beautiful bridge spanning the cove, and great walking streets behind filled with boutiques and pastry shops. I highly recommend the Hotel Press, a boutique hotel where we stayed in the biggest room for just under $100/night which is walking distance from Gwangalli. If you haven't had a chance to go to Busan, Northway, you should definitely go.

5. The people. It is often said that Koreans are the Irish of the East. By that they mean they are extremely emotional, passionate, hard drinking, and not as uptight as the Japanese and British are. Once you get over that they wear their emotions on their sleeves, will argue about everything and anything, and it doesn't mean anything and it's not personal, Koreans as a culture are a lot of fun. One of our favorite past times while there was to simply ask a group of people directions and then watch them get into an argument about which way we should go. But forget about Seoul taxi drivers - they are the worst.

6. And lastly Seoul. Northway you are lucky to be there, it's one of the great cities of the world and in the process of rapid urban change. If you are into shopping it is paradise because it has a mixture of a number of street market type shopping areas combined with Dongdaemon, a completely bizarre group of huge department stores like nothing you've ever seen before where the main business happens between 11 PM and 5 AM. Absolutely nuts. But to get away from the bustle there's a wonderful area in the north, Samchong-dong, near the President's House and the two Castles, which is a maze of walking streets with very hip boutiques interspersed with the old houses of Seoul which is peaceful and very cool. Great town. Everyone should go.


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 Post subject: Re: Northway's Life in Korea
PostPosted: Mon Dec 20, 2010 5:22 am 
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Rejoice: Yeah, baseball is quite popular here. The domestic league gets a lot of coverage, and pretty much every taxi driver in the country follows the playoffs religiously on the TV in his car (yes, the taxis have television, no, it's not for me, it's for the driver, and yes, it's kind of dangerous).

Games are ludicrously cheap to attend (around $5, generally), and feature none of the markup on concessions that you find in the States. They actually have GS25 (essentially 7-11) in the stadiums where you can purchase food and beer at the same price you would pay at any other convenience store.

That said, the level of talent is pretty weak, with the better guys generally topping out in the high-80s. Choo Shin-soo is definitely the cream of Korea's baseball crop, and my students love him. Any time I need to get my older boys engaged in a class I'll start discussing him and they'll immediately be very attentive.

Dougdilg - Yeah, Korean girls are justifiably renowned for their beauty. I can't complain about that category.

Seoul's subway is likely rivaled only by Tokyo's in its expansiveness and convenience. The double doors are actually there for a few reasons, notably climate control and suicide prevention (Korea has a crazy high suicide rate, largely due to the pressure-cooker environment that is life here).

I've never actually driven here, but the places I've gone outside of Seoul have generally reminded me a lot of the driving in the Berkshires where I grew up.

I like Busan, but for me, it's no Seoul. Gwangali is nice, and I actually prefer it to the more popular Haeundae, as it's not quite as crowded. Haeundae epitomizes one of the biggest problems I have with Korea, which is that if something becomes "popular" everyone goes there, even if there are better beaches elsewhere. Cachet is everything.

The Irish of the East categorization is spot-on. I definitely have a love-hate relationship with this, as there are times that the New England boy in me just wants everyone to chill out, but it's interesting to be around. For the most part, younger Koreans are significantly more relaxed than their older counterparts, and less quick to show that emotion and passion. Koreans my age have seen their country go from developing in their childhood to highly developed now, and tend to be more out to have a good time than their elders are.

Koreans in general drink like no other people I have ever encountered. Our work dinners are essentially mandatory drinking parties where we start drinking at eight at a restaurant, move to a hof (kind of a bar where you order food and have a private booth) at around ten, move on to a nuribang (singing room - private karaeoke rooms, they don't do the public spectacle singing here) around two, then then go back to a hof around five. What constitutes "acceptable drinking" is an entirely different beast here. Married men with children routinely spend a couple nights a week out drinking and smoking with their friends without much of a social stigma at all. That doesn't fly in the States.

Seoul is straight crazy. Not to knock North American cities, but nothing can compare in terms of fast-paced change. Everything in Seoul is new and sparkling and growing. Even the economic downturn hasn't slowed the city's growth. It does lack the amazing cosmopolitanism of an American city, but it is getting better in that regard as Korea takes in more and more immigrants and more Koreans spend time abroad and come home demanding the variety they were able to find elsewhere. The cities of the American Northeast seem positively rundown after spending time living in Seoul (though an odd contingent of foreigners seems to find the city extremely dirty, I think these are mostly suburban raised kids who've never spent much time, if any, in cities in their home countries).

Also: one of my kindergarteners was lacking an English name, and I really did name him Isaac after Ike Davis.

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 Post subject: Re: Northway's Life in Korea
PostPosted: Thu Dec 23, 2010 8:04 pm 
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northway wrote:
Koreans in general drink like no other people I have ever encountered. Our work dinners are essentially mandatory drinking parties where we start drinking at eight at a restaurant, move to a hof (kind of a bar where you order food and have a private booth) at around ten, move on to a nuribang (singing room - private karaeoke rooms, they don't do the public spectacle singing here) around two, then then go back to a hof around five. What constitutes "acceptable drinking" is an entirely different beast here. Married men with children routinely spend a couple nights a week out drinking and smoking with their friends without much of a social stigma at all. That doesn't fly in the States.



This passage reminded me of a bar we saw in Hongdae. One of the funniest names for a bar I've seen, plus it's a chain. There were 3 or 4 of these in that area alone.


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