New students are constantly asking me, “Why did you choose to come to Korea??” Of which I always answer, “Because I love Asian culture, the food looked amazing, and let’s be real.. the pay for teachers is GOOD.” But once I arrived in Korea to teach English, what did I really think?..
Let me start off by giving a little (horrifying) anecdote. Picture me, on the plane to Korea, excited/nervous to find out what would come, when halfway through my 12 hour flight I started having excruciating pains in my middle lower back. LOVELY. After about an hour of getting up, going to the bathroom 5 times, tears running down my face from the pain, and not being able to sit in my seat, I asked one of the Korean Air flight attendants if I could stand somewhere in the airplane. The pearly white skinned flight attendent with her plump red lids gently guided me guided me to the back of the plane where all of the other perfectly primped stewardesses were.
The women doted on me from then on. They brought me a hot water bottle for my back, gave me water every 10 minutes, offered me food, and happily let me stay there for the rest of the flight. Unbeknownst to me, I had a raging kidney infection that decided to manifest itself mid-flight (Yay!!) But this quickly gave me insight to how Koreans truly are.. kind and wanting to help regardless of what is in it for them.
Which brings me to the first thing I noticed about Korean culture when I arrived here..
This is a really hard concept to explain and I know I won’t do it justice.. But here I go anyways. Jeong is what those flight attendents on Korean Air gave me– It’s the feeling that you get when you see someone in a difficult situation and what to help. Jeong is more than just love. It’s sympathy, compassion, and endearment. It’s all of these elements wrapped up together to create people that genuinely want to help others regardless if there is an incentive in it for them. This concept is what makes Korean people so giving. Here’s another example: One day I randomly told my students about how hard it was for me to find a large bath towel (because Korean towels are tiny.. like, SUPER tiny). Then the next day, I was totally shocked when one of my studnets showed up with a nice, full-sized towel for me. Why did he do that? JEONG.
Whoa Kirstie.. what’s with the all caps?? It’s because the food has to be, hands down, my favorite part about Korea. The food is, in my opinion, the best I have ever tasted. Now, if we’re not taking health into account at all, and you don’t mind feeling uncomfortable and heavy after every meal, maybe there is some better food out there. But Koreans have managed to perfect the balance between health and taste. Take bibimbap (비빔밥) for example: who would’ve thought that rice, veggies, red pepper sauce, and an egg would taste so damn good? Well it does! Not only that but gimbap (김밥), odeng (오뎅), doenjang jjigae (된장찌개), and tteokbokki (떡볶이) are Korean dishes sent from the gods above that us mere mortals should be bowing down in praise for. Yes.. I love Korean food THAT much.
Every night I walk home from my work alone. My little blonde self walks quietly down little alleyways and barely lit streets to reach my apartment. Sound like a horror movie in the making? Well, it would be if I weren’t in Korea. Korea is ridiculously safe. Though I’m still not an idiot and I stay aware of my surroundings, I feel peace at mind knowing that I am in once of the safest countries in the world. This actually reminds me of another story! A student of mine talked about how his Korean friend was traveling abroad. He was in a library, decided he needed to go to the bathroom, and left his stuff on the table. When he got back, his stuff was gone. My student told this story like it was a front page headline news story. Which goes to show, Koreans are used to their country being extremely safe.
I’m not a complete Alien here
If there was one thing that got on my nerves when I was in China, it was the fact that people constantly stared at me like my skin was bright purple or something.. (I wish though, how cool would that be!). But here in Korea, that doesn’t happen. I mean, it happens occasionally but very rarely– and usually just by old people. When my foreigner friends and I used to walk the streets in China, people would come up and ask to take a photo with us. Here in Korea, that has yet to happen. Trying to actually live in a country but constantly being reminded that you’re an outsider can really be derailing to your sense of feeling grounded and welcomed. I greatly appreciate Koreans attitude towards foreigners.