After three and a half years, I’m leaving Korea. It’s time to start new chapter, so my husband and I are heading to America. Our current plan is to spend 1 year (2 max) in America before making our next international move.
I’m very excited to start the next chapter, but I know there are a couple of things I’ll miss about Korea. So here’s a mini-catalogue.
I’ll miss… the simplicity of my life here. Living in Seoul lets me live without a car. Public transportation is amazing, affordable, and easy to navigate. I’ve lived in four apartments in Korea, so the constant moving has made me pare down to my necessities. When I think about my friends and family back in the States with their houses full of stuff, I feel overwhelmed. I like keeping my possessions lean, so that when opportunity knocks, you can follow it. It also encourages you to save your money and buy investment pieces instead of cheap throwaway items.
I won’t miss… the occasional lack of creature comforts. Perhaps growing up in America spoiled me, but I always feel a sense of dread using public bathrooms in Korea. Will it have warm water? Soap? Paper towels or a hand dryer? More often than not, washing your hands is just giving them a cursory blast of icy water in a bathroom that might not even be heated in the middle of winter. Apartments are made of concrete that is often unsealed. In the summer, the humidity can seep through your wallpaper. In the winter, your walls are always cold to the touch. And unless you’re living in an apartment that’s brand new and quite expensive, you won’t have a bathtub if you live in the city. I miss baths.
I’ll miss… the safety. Korea has a very low crime rate. I had my own brush with danger at the end of my first year here (more about that at some point), but school children can walk themselves to and from school in the middle of a busy city without much worry. America has a much higher crime rate and I can’t help but have concerns about the perception people will have of me and my husband. He’s mixed race and I’m white. Here, we’re both just considered American (in spite of his Korean mother), or even the broader sweep of “foreign,” but in America, prejudice is alive and well. That’s not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist in Korea. Korea can be quite xenophobic, but since we exist outside of the mainstream society, Korean people aren’t offended by our relationship. We are categorically the same to them; we’re not Koreans.
I won’t miss… the lack of diversity. Only about 2% of the population of Korea is not Korean. This can lead to many misconceptions about non Korean people. All white people are assumed to be American, or at least English speakers. All black people are assumed to be from somewhere in Africa. I swear, if another person expresses shock that I can eat Korean food and use chopsticks, I might scream. Things tend to be over-generalized. It’s either Korean, or not. Though everything that isn’t Korean is quite a wide band. For example, Korea is certainly not the only culture with spicy food. It’s not even the spiciest. My friend’s mother is Sri Lankan and her “toned-down” curry was much hotter than anything I experienced in Korea. Cultural ignorance is rampant all over the world, but at least in some countries there is a bit more diverse population to learn from.
I’ll miss… all the cute coffee shops and fun places to go. Being in a big city comes with the advantage of having a lot of options for entertainment. From a handful of nice parks to escape rooms, you can usually find something cool to do. Coffee shops are plentiful and some are really cozy. Now that drip coffee has become trendy, coffee shops that roast their own beans are becoming more common. Nice drinks and a pleasant atmosphere at a local coffee shop can be a lifesaver. Most Korean apartments aren’t sized for entertaining, so meeting with friends, having a casual date, or even getting work done, are all coffee shop activities.
I won’t miss… fighting for space. Any area that has trendy cafes or entertainment is inevitably flooded with people, particularly on the weekends. Festivals and events in the city will have you getting pressed by possibly millions of people. In such a big city that has developed so quickly, most people are numb to it, just seeing other people as obstacles to wordlessly shoulder past. Rush hour on any of the main train lines is a similar nightmare of people wedging themselves into others as tightly as possible so they don’t have to wait for another train. Sometimes I really miss personal space and people saying “excuse me” in any language.
I’ll miss… the food. I really like Korean food with very few exceptions. And I love that eating out can be quite affordable if you don’t mind sticking to Korean staples. Kimbap shops and noodle places can get you a filling and relatively healthy meal for about $4 usd. Side dishes are refilled for free giving you extra value, which is great when you’re saving up for something (e.g. a wedding and an international move).
I won’t miss… grocery prices. Weirdly though, sometimes eating in isn’t much cheaper that going out. Things that are basic kitchen staples to me are priced luxuriously here. Fresh produce can be easily 2-3 times the price I paid in America. Basic vegetables like carrot, cabbage, and potato are not unreasonable, but most fruits are absurdly expensive. Buying off local fruit trucks can get you a better deal, but they aren’t usually as consistant. Beef is so expensive that I’ve only bought it a handful of times since moving here, substituting for more economical meats (such as pork). Nuts are priced like they’re stocking a hotel mini-bar. Canned tuna is about 3 times the price I’m used to as well. Keeping a stock of healthy snacks and ingredients can be a challenge.
I’ll miss… my friends. I’ve made so many great friends here. Both locally based and others that have moved to Korea from around the world. Of course, many of my friends love traveling too, so seeing them again becomes a greater possibility. And since my husband has family in Korea, the likelihood of our visiting again in the next couple years is pretty high. I’m fortunate to be taking the best friend I made in Korea with me.
I won’t miss… my job. Honestly, I’m feeling quite burnt out by the hagwon system in Korea. This has been a stressful year for me. I didn’t mesh well with the school, and I don’t agree with the educational trends in Korea overall. Chasing kindergartners around all day exhausts me.
Korea was quite a ride. It’s terribly cliche, but I really grew up while I was living here. I lived on my own for the first time, I supported myself, I made amazing friends, I found the love of my life. But, I also know it’s time to move on. I don’t think that staying here will help me grow in the directions that I want to. Korea was a very necessary chapter in my life, but it’s not the whole book.