The Big French Project

Bonjour readers,

I am updating you guys about a semi-secret project I started preparing this spring. I am leaving Korea. For good? Who knows. Probably. But I am ready for new challenges. A ticket has been purchased and I am heading to France this winter. Most of my friends and family don’t even know about this yet, so let’s consider this the public announcement.

I have been wanting to spend more time in Europe since my 2012 study abroad. This side trip to Korea (is two years a side trip?) have been illuminating, interesting, exciting, frustrating, shocking, and ultimately educational. But I know in my heart that there are many reasons I won’t live in Korea forever. It’s time to challenge myself and keep working toward my goals.

My problems with Korea are not culture shock– I got over that quite quickly. I am a very “go with the flow” kind of person, so I understand that things are done differently. There are just some social and cultural things that ultimately I don’t like about living in Korea. I think a couple of my Korean friends are a little hurt by this because Korea is very insular and patriotic. If you make a criticism about Korea, it hurts them on a personal level it seems. (When people complain about America, I’m just like, “Yeah sometimes it sucks, I know.”) So I try to refrain from making criticisms about the homogeneous side of the culture that puts anyone different in the category of “other” and therefore to be avoided and scorned….and about the out dated business culture that makes them the “least efficient OECD country“…. I don’t dislike Korea and I have loved many people I’ve met here, but it’s hard to work in this climate and live as someone who will never be accepted into this culture no matter how much kimchi I eat or how hard I practice my Korean.

This post isn’t meant to be a rant about what I dislike about Korea. It’s just a brief overview of some of the reasons why I’ve made this decision. I have had a ton of good experiences in Korea as well. And of course there are exceptions to these rules. There are small changes happening in Korea and young people who are interested in setting a different tone for the upcoming generation. Because age hierarchy is so integral to Korean culture, these young people are fighting an uphill battle, but slowly, some change is being made. As more young Koreans travel and study abroad, some of the enclosed exterior of the society is being chipped away at. I think it’s great. But I don’t want to wait another ten years until I can walk around my neighborhood without being asked if I am a Russian prostitute. Seriously.

But back to my French plans…

In Seoul, I have met many French speaking people who have reignited my interest in the language. I studied French in high school (because everyone else was taking Spanish and I had to be a special snowflake… and I was stubborn, I think my mom told me French was useless, so then I had to take French). This renewed study of French came at the time when I was searching for my next step. I started feeling fidgety this winter, like I needed to move on, but I wasn’t sure where to go. For a while I was actually feeling a little depressed because I couldn’t help but think that I either had to stay in Korea or go back to my microscopic hometown in America. Obviously, that’s not true.

So I returned to my first love: Europe. I am going on a reconnaissance mission for 3 months to France (with some side train trips to Belgium/Switzerland/Germany if money allows). I have some friends there who I will be couch surfing with to make my meager funds hold out while I look for a job in France (or Belgium). I may have to duck back to the US for visa processing which is annoying. I want to check the legality of me just hanging out in the UK and processing it from the embassy there since I will be bringing all my paperwork with me. Basically. I am going to collect hard copies and electronic copies of all my documents from Korean immigration, as well as picking up a Seoul police check to prove that I haven’t been naughty over here, since my FBI check from the US is two years old and I’ve spend a total of 3 weeks in the US in those two years.

Yes, of course money is a huge concern. I feel like most travel bloggers gloss over this. Basically, I am selling all the stuff I acquired here in Korea, selling my guitar (I can’t really play it well anyway), selling a lot of my clothes, collecting my Korean pension, and picking up a little part time online tutoring that I am hoping to continue on the road so that my account sees a little trickle going into it, not just all my money pouring out.

This has put a stop to a few of my plans in Korea. I have been working on a project called “You’re-a-Grown-Woman-With-a-Professional-Job-So-Dress-Decently.” A project that is not easy or cheap for me in Korea. But I feel I have made some strides, mainly thanks to mail order. But that tends to be more expensive, so I will have to take a break from that project for the moment. I also cancelled my summer trip to Japan, regretfully. I have really enjoyed traveling to Japan and Hong Kong and hope I will visit them both again some day.

I plan to do some reflection posts on the bests things I’ve seen, done, and eaten in Korea, as well as some things I am probably not going to miss from here. And instead of leaving the country for summer vacation, I will do some small day trips around Korea to see all the cool sites before I go.

I know that every country and culture has its less desirable sides. But I think that in the end it’s about weighing which problems you can live with day to day. And also choosing a place that will help you move toward your goals. I think it would be silly to stay in Korea longer if it’s not moving me toward those goals. I’ve proved that I can survive and live well here– it’s now a matter of deciding that I just want to live differently.

I am really excited to go to France (and avoid another Seoul winter!). I think it will be refreshing and exciting. Even if it doesn’t result in a job and a long term stay, three months in France and its neighbors will be an enriching experience.

Surviving Korea in the Summer

It’s not the hottest place in Asia, but that’s little comfort in 35 degree heat and 90% humidity. Especially when you don’t have a car, so you are walking everywhere. Even worse when your apartment doesn’t have an air conditioner. When the monsoons start to roll in for July and August, then you’re fighting to stay dry and cool. It’s virtually impossible.

Clothes:

Light cotton is the key. Even when it’s not extremely hot, everything starts to get sticky. And then it rains. You need light layers that can dry quickly. Jeans are suffocating and will feel like they are vacuum sealed to your legs by the end of the day. Cotton trousers or dress shorts are better, flowing skirts and dresses are best. Sorry guys.cardi

For work or evenings out, it’s important to have a top layer to go over your summer dress or tank top (because shoulders are scandalously unprofessional in Korea). I recommend Uniqlo’s summer cardigans. They have them in 3/4 and full sleeves. They are light and sheer– pretty much the lightest top layer you can wear.

And for shoes, you can choose to go with rain boots or something that is allegedly waterproof, or you can stop fighting it. Sandals are your best bet because they dry quickly. Or you can go even further down the rabbit hole and buy… Crocs. Turns out that Crocs makes a lot of cuter styles now that are pretty far from their sad clog origins. Tons of people in Korea wear Crocs for the rainy season because they don’t have fabric components that will get ruined when completely drenched. They are easy to clean and without fabric, they don’t hold odor.

Outdoors

Korea has very strong sun compared to the US and UK. I definitely recommend wearing a light spf whenever you’re going to be out walking around. Sunglasses are slowly starting to gain popularity in Seoul, though they aren’t commonly seen outside the beach in the provinces. I recommend sunglasses regardless. Lighter colored eyes can be photosensitive, so why risk it?

If you want to be super Korean, carry a parasol. Since most Korean people desire a pale complexion, lots of women will use a “sunbrella.” Not going to lie, I carry one on days when I will be walking around outside a lot. I burn very easily. I also recommend blotting paper and a folding fan if you’re walking around outside. Your skin will become super oily very quickly and sometimes you’ll want to pick up your pony tail and fan the back of your neck. Trust me.

Around the house

Your house will quickly become a rain forest in the summer, with mildew creeping up under the wallpaper. You’ll want some sort of dehumidifying system. Ground and basement levels are the worst and certain regions of the Korea are worse. Regardless, you can buy small dehumidifiers on GMarket (Korea’s answer to Amazon) or at your local Emart. You can invest in a big industrial one as well, but they can be expensive. For specific spots, you can also buy “Thirsty Hippo” containers for a couple thousand won. They absorb water from the air and when they get full, you just dispose of them.

If you have laundry drying around the house (hardly anyone in Korea has a dryer in their apartment),1435929229548 I recommend cracking a window (unless your windows have no screen…) or your clothes will take days to dry.

Otherwise, just stay hydrated, try to do outdoor exercise or activities before 8 am or after 7 pm. Bug repellent is a good idea because Korean mosquitoes always seem to leave a giant welt when they bite. And when it’s hot, eat all the bingsoo. I definitely recommend that. Basically, it’s just shaved ice with fruit, condensed milk and various other toppings. From fruit syrups, to chocolate, to frozen yogurt, to cheesecake or brownie chunks– bingsoo comes in many refreshing varieties. It usually comes sized to share with a friend (or 3) which also makes it really affordable.

Random Things I’ve Learned After 2 Years in Korea

It’s like I got a Phd in random life skills or something. So here are some of the many things I have learned as a resident of Korea and traveler around east Asia.

~How to make banana bread in a rice cooker

~The perfect cold, dead, teacher stare to give rowdy children

~How to deter chatty strangers

~An eclectic, but by no means fluent, Korean vocabulary

~How to be the grill master at Korean barbecue

~The freedom of not tipping anyone ever (!!!!!!!!)

~Aegyo (aka the language of Korean flirting)

~That dating and courtship in Korea can be intense

~The power of gestures

~Details about dozens of countries and cultures from all the international people I’ve had the privilege to call my friends here in Seoul

~That moisturizer is the most important thing ever

~Humidity can ruin everything from your bread, to your toilet paper, to your first date

~How to live without a car

~How to navigate public transit in various countries and cities

~That sometimes I do need to iron my clothes

~How to haggle with the adjummas

~The sparkly wonder of Kpop (but we don’t talk about Psy, okay?)

~The importance of always having tissues and/or moist wipes in your bag

~How to navigate assertively in really big crowds

~Communal eating in a relatively clean, hygienic way

~How to be funny in more than one language (or at least give it a shot)

~How to luxuriously sleep on floors

~How to be naked in a room full of equally naked strangers

~What really good sushi is (this one is thanks to Japan tbh)

~How to make a positive impression on Korean moms

~The power of not caring that you stand out as different

~That occasionally stereotypes are true, but that’s okay, don’t let them limit you

~You can pack a lot of exploring in even when you’re working full time

~The Korean police can be nice and helpful, even for foreigners

~Living with a roommate can be pretty cool

~Kakao Talk is amazing and everyone should download it

~That hostels are really the best

~How to roughly calculate multiple currency exchanges, time zones, and Celsius to Fahrenheit in my head almost instantaneously

~Korean people aren’t necessarily more shallow, they are just way more blunt and open about the facts that appearance is extremely important

~How to simplify my words to help people with a basic understanding of English grasp meaning from what I need to teach them

~How to (usually) successfully order clothes online that look good and fit well in real life

~The importance of a good neighborhood cafe

~You can teach yourself almost anything from the internet

~How to keep relationships alive across thousands of miles and a handful of time zones

~How to pretty successfully tell who is Korean, who is Japanese, who is Chinese, and recognize various other Asian ethnicities and languages

~Kimchi really is magic

To be honest, it’s hard to boil down exactly what I’ve learned these two years. I’ve learned a lot about what I want from life, what my priorities are, and what I need to be happy. I’ve grown up a lot in Korea. I’ve learned what it’s like to be an outside, a minority. I’ve learned what it’s like to be completely responsible with no one to protect me from my mistakes (which is why a miscommunication resulted in my apartment having now gas for 6 weeks recently).

I’ve also learned that soon it will be time for me to go. Now that I know who I am and what I want, I know that Korea isn’t going to give me those things in the long run. In a few months, I will be saying goodbye to this strange place that often lives in the past, but with all the technology of the future.

5 Surprisingly True Things From Korean Dramas

A couple months before I came to Korea I started watching a few Korean dramas, mainly to start listening to the language and get a little sense of the culture. I know that television is often exaggerated… kdramas maybe doubly so. However, after I moved to Korea a few tropes and themes from dramas were surprisingly accurate or did reflect the culture and attitudes in Korea more than I expected.

I see many kdrama viewers talk about all the crazy and unrealistic things from Korean dramas and, yeah, there are some crazy plot twists. But some of the things I see getting mentions on their lists are actually not terribly far from the truth in Korea.

1. Parental Influence Over Adult Children

Most Koreans live with their parents until they marry unless their parents live way out in the provinces and they land themselves a city job. This is for practical reasons, but also because family is extremely important in Korean culture. You don’t just marry someone– you unite two families. If you get yourself a bad reputation it will hurt your entire family.

So, for that reason, parents and even grandparents will often still have a big say in the lives of their adult children. If someone is the eldest child (especially eldest son) expectations for their career and marriage might be very high and very strict. Of course all families are different, but even my Korean American friend told me that from a young age, her family had a list of criteria the man she married had to meet (top of the list: Korean). As the oldest daughter, she was supposed to set an example for her younger sisters. If the first marries well, the rest will follow many think.

This is also why place like Love Motels are so popular. Since most Koreans live with their parents, they can’t take their significant other back to their apartment for… alone time. On a smaller scale, DVD rooms fill the need for simply being able to cuddle and watch a movie with your sweetheart and not being interrupted by parents or siblings.

2. Gender Bending

I’m by no means saying that outright cross-dressing is typical in Korea (in fact queer subcultures are seriously underground in Korea and the governments says that Korean people aren’t gay– only foreigners are gay and we might infect Koreans with our rampant gayness???). However, androgynous fashion is more common here than in many western cities.

Guys tend to wear a wider range of colors and girls will have short haircuts quite similar to boys. Casual wear among young people has a lot of crossover between the genders. Because many Korean guys have somewhat finer features and tend to be very slim, and because Korean girls tend to have more angular body types, there are a decent number of actually androgynous people. People in their teens to early twenties can often fall into that category because of their fashion choices or because their bodies are still maturing.

Some dramas do this girl-disguised-as-a-boy things quite well (See “Coffee Prince” and “Sungkyunkwan Scandal”). Some dramas do this in the worst, least believable way (See “You Are Beautiful”). I have definitely been unsure of people’s genders many times in Korea, and all these gender bending dramas seem way more after plausible living here.

3. Loose Traffic Laws

When it comes to the streets of Seoul, I often say “There are no rules!” Usually I am shouting this while I risk my life at a sketchy crosswalk that might not even be a crosswalk because I have to run diagonally across six lanes of traffic. Nearly every major street does indeed, have a U-Turn lane. All those U-Turns in dramas are pretty accurate. Red lights are basically a suggestions. Drivers pause and if nothing is immediately coming, they tear on through.

There aren’t many traffic cops patrolling so traffic laws aren’t strictly enforced. The cops don’t seem to do a lot of preventative work when it comes to Seoul. They just sort of show up after something terrible has happened. And there are tons of traffic accidents. In the last month one of my friends was in a taxi that got rear-ended, and another friend got hit by a bus. So… it’s crazy out there.

And parking is terrible too. People will park facing any direction on the street. If there’s a space that looks possibly legal, they will wedge themselves in because there is such a deficit of free or even not terribly expensive parking. People stick their phone numbers in their front window so that the parking cops can call them and tell them that if they don’t move, they will get towed. And tickets are a regular part of life. If only speeding tickets were as common.

4. Nose Bleeds

Perhaps this happens to an exaggerated degree in dramas, but they definitely happen frequently in Korea for two major reasons (neither has to do with thinking naughty things anime fans–besides that’s Japanese). The first is the climate. Korea swings from very humid sticky summers to extremely dry, cold winters. In the winter time many of my students would get nose bleeds from the dryness in the air. Most of the children don’t have the foresight to put some petroleum gel around their cracking nostrils as I learned to do suffering from similar issues in America when I was an elementary school student.

The other reason has to do with stress. Children can be away from home studying at school and then academies for 12 hours a day easily. Employees at companies can have long tiresome workdays that stretch out into work dinners that keep them away from home half the night. The pace of life in Korea and especially in Seoul is kind of insane. Vacations are a nice suggestion, but not built into the Korean working model. Holidays are usually spent preparing food and visiting with family, sometimes paying respects at family shrines as well. The level of preparation and obligatory family events involved can make the holidays stressful as well.

It’s true that when your body is under stress it gets weaker. Just like many people get cold sores when their condition is not good, some people may get nose bleeds. And high blood pressure can also cause nose bleeds. So basically everyone needs to have some me time and a humidifier.

5. Soju til you Drop

Soju is incredibly cheap and easy to obtain. For about a dollar, you can buy a bottle of chemically processed rice alcohol. It’s not tasty (though I confess, the new fruit soju on the market isn’t bad), but it gets the job done. It is the preferred drink of old dudes in the park who haven’t bathed in a while as well as corporate executives who are having a “hwae shik” or work dinner with their coworkers. So I guess it’s the unifying drink of Korea.

Because of the culture of Korea that’s largely based on Confucius principals, if someone older or higher up than you offers you a drink, you take it. So if your boss is a big drinker, but you can’t handle alcohol well, you’re screwed. Unless your boss is super cool, modern, and understanding, it would be insulting to refuse. And it’s estimated that as many as 30-50% of Koreans suffer from “Asian flush.” This is a real genetic disposition that makes some people more sensitive to alcohol. It can even make them ill with only a few drinks. But because they can’t say no, they often overreach their limits and that’s why you see them being carried piggyback home.

Of course there is a big social drinking culture in Korea too. It’s viewed as the best way to make friends with someone as well as an effective therapy tool. If you’re feeling down, your Korean friends will very quickly suggest breaking out the bottle as a way to talk more easily, or even forget about your problems. Sunday morning comes and there is vomit all over the streets and some guys even sleeping on the streets or in the subway station.

Honorable mentions: Hotel or Hospital?; Big Bandage, Tiny Wound; 22 Hour Work Day; Rich People Problems; “Taking Responsibility”/The Family Shame; Piggy-Back Time

Korean dramas and this post are all for fun and entertainment. However, they can give us some insight into Korean culture in small ways. What crazy things have you found to be outrageous or truthful in television from Korea and other countries?