I’ve discussed my experiences in the school I teach in in Korea and with my Korean co-workers. I’ve also talked about the good times with my friends around Korea and how important it is to have a support group. In this post I’m going to discuss what are for me, the more difficult aspects of life in Korea.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but I will me mentioning some of the more prevalent difficulties I have struggled with whilst living in Korea and how I managed to cope with them or learn to live with them.
Some of My Experiences as a Foreigner Living in South Korea
Using and implementing the language
I remember during my first year I had such issues with my ability to speak Korean. I had learnt Korean for a year with Talk To Me In Korean (TTMIK) prior to actually coming to live here, so I was going into this with a sense of confidence.
However, when I got to Korea I quickly learnt that my knowledge only scratched the surface, and that practising alone in my house with just myself and a computer had not fully prepared me for the freight train of Korean I was about to encounter.
At the time this hit me hard. I was always used to doing things right and being good at what I did (being a perfectionist if you will), so the fact that I was constantly making mistakes and fluffing up my Korean on a daily basis made me really upset. I felt like I was constantly failing and embarrassing myself.
Over the period of about 6 months I gradually began to get better but it took a lot of failing to learn how to naturally order a coffee, how to order food at a restaurant/for takeout, to make passing small talk to strangers and all the other odd times I use Korean.
I was rather dramatic and apocalyptic about it whilst I was going through it but I think this was a really good experience for me to have. It felt like hell at the time, but I needed to shed my perfectionist skin in order to understand that people make small mistakes all the time, but they just get up, dust themselves off and carry on, hopefully learning from their mistakes.
This is such an important thing to learn in life and I’m glad I know about it.
If you are a foreigner who lives and works in Korea and you don’t look Korean, I know you know about the staring. Let me talk you through my relationship with Koreans staring at me.
When I first arrived in Korea I understood that people might stare at me because I was a new foreigner in town. Korea is a very homogenous country with a majority Korean population which means that if you don’t look Korean, you’re gonna get stared at.
By my second year in Korea I had gotten used to the town where I live. I knew where things were, how life works and who the people were. However, it turned out that people had not gotten used to me. Why? They had seen me walking around for an entire year and they were still staring at me like I was some kind of anomaly.
This made me annoyed, frustrated, sad and resentful. I had never been in this kind of situation for a prolonged period of time. I wasn’t used to handling it and honestly, it made me resent the people in my town.
I got really wrapped in my head about this and I had such negative feelings. As someone who was raised to think that “Staring is rude” somewhere in my brain I was very offended that all these people were constantly gawking at me.
However, something important to remember is that South Korea is still fairly new to globalisation which has resulted in a few generations of living Koreans who have had little to no exposure to cultural diversity. Their whole lives have been very homogenous due to Government restrictions. So when someone like me turns up in their town, the natural reaction is to stare, but don’t you look a little bit longer at something that seems out of the ordinary?
It was a conversation with a friend that switched my mind-set. She was the one who reminded me that most of the Koreans I see every day have never encountered people of different ethnicities or races. This is especially true of the older generations that live in the countryside and suburbs where I live. They have never had the opportunity to be amongst cultural difference due to the society they grew up in.
After thinking about this for a while, it actually made me feel sorry for these people who haven’t been around cultural and societal diversity because there are so many benefits to it.
Now when I encounter people staring at me (which still happens everyday with a lot of the Koreans I walk past) I try to cope differently. It’s still difficult, especially on days when I feel down and not my best. However because I interpret the act of staring in a different way now, those feelings of sadness, frustration, being the ‘other’, are slowly diminishing.
Honestly the staring never stops, especially in a suburb town like the one I live in. However, I can truly say that switching my mind set to interpret the stares differently has helped me so much. It has lightened a burden I felt in my day to day life.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s difficult always having to shrug the stares off as nothing more than curiosity (and possibly a little bit of fear). What I want is for those certain people in Korea to think positively about cultural diversity but unfortunately, being stared at because you look different is still a big part of life for many foreigners in Korea. I don’t know if it’s going to get easier as time goes on. We will just have to see.
Christmas? We don’t know her
My first time experiencing Christmas without my family and all the festivities that come along with it was in December 2018. For me it was quite difficult.
I grew up in the UK where Christmas is basically celebrated throughout the entirety of December. For me Christmas is a season, a prolonged period of time. In Korea, it is just one day. I gave some of my co-workers Christmas cards in the first week of December and they were really confused. They told me “But it’s not Christmas yet” which just shows the difference in cultural understanding of how to celebrate Christmas.
I remember being really upset and sad because there were no festive lights anywhere in the town I live in, no Christmas trees up, no one was walking around with a little pep in their step because of Christmas time. Everything in my town was kind of the same and it bummed me out.
The days were short and cold and there was nothing to lighten up my mood so I slowly became more and more sad. I was actually really surprised at how sad I got and it showed me how much I relied on the cultural Christmas celebrations and traditions I know to make me happy.
I missed my family and friends and getting together to visit the Christmas Markets in Manchester. I missed the cosy evenings together, putting the Christmas decorations up with my Mum, hot chocolates with a shot of Baileys. I missed the jolly buzz in the atmosphere that works so well to liven my mood during the cold winter days. Yes, I even missed the bright twinkling lights and their soft golden glow in the December evenings.
There were some signs of Christmas in Korea but it was all in Seoul. At the weekends I did make it into Seoul to go and find Christmas trees, Christmas lights, decorations and to eat nice food. I tried to do as many things I was familiar with to make myself feel better. It did help a little bit but it was just not quite the same, but if you think about it, it’s not going to be the same.
In the UK because I grew up Catholic (although I don’t practice any religion these days), I would argue that Christmas to me, was and still is the biggest cultural event of the year. In Korea, Christmas is just not as big a cultural event as 설날/Seoullal (Lunar New Year) or 추석/Chuseok (Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival). There is much less emphasis placed on the importance of Christmas compared to the UK. Plus in the UK, there’s so much marketing hype around Christmas. It permeates everything and everyone is so into it.
This dichotomy was so stark that it was a big culture shock for me to go from what is personally the biggest cultural even of the year, to hardly anything.
It wasn’t the end of the world, but I do enjoy many of the Christmas celebrations I grew up with, so it wasn’t a walk in the park experiencing this either.
To cheer myself up I bought my own decorations to decorate my apartment and my classroom with and I had Christmas lunch with another teacher. My mum also sent me a box of some things I love from the UK as a Christmas gift, along with some Christmas cards from some family members. So it wasn’t all doom and gloom.
If you’re into Christmas as much as I seem to be and you’re from a place that REALLY celebrates, just a heads up if you’re in Korea during Christmas time, it won’t be the same and that’s ok. You’re just going to have to make your own Christmas celebrations for yourself and your friends who also live in Korea. It’s all in the expat life package.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of the difficulties I experienced and still experience here in Korea but are the main things that stood out to me over the past 1.5 years living in here.
If other people are experiencing the same struggles, I hope this post shows you that I too am having a hard time with some aspects of living in Korea. You’re not alone. It can get very lonely, but let me tell you, there is probably someone out there in Korea feeling the same difficult emotions you are feeling.
If you’re coming to Korea, just know that you will, at some point, experience culture shock. Even if you tried to prepare yourself as much as you could, like I did, you’re still probably going to experience something you don’t like or that makes you feel uncomfortable. I still experience culture shock on a daily basis but I have to live with it until I leave Korea. That’s why it’s important to have an open mind and some great friends you can talk to about what you’re going through, something I mentioned in a previous post.
I wanted to write this to show a fuller picture of my experience and time in Korea. I’ve written positive posts but not everything has been sunshine and rainbows for me. You’re going to experience good and bad things when you move to a different country so it’s important to have measured expectations. I hope my posts can shine light on this.
Lastly, even though these were some negative stories, I want to say that you can learn a lot from negative experiences. I would argue more so than positive experiences. I have learnt that mistakes are there to give us the confidence to grow and take risks. I have learnt to have more empathy for people who live in a homogeneous society, even though some days it still feels very ostracising to have a bunch of people stare at me. Finally, I have learnt the importance of creating my own happiness and showing up for myself, especially because I live inside a completely different culture that does not celebrate or believe all the same things I do. It is all up to you to bring it to the table. Good luck out there.