Looking Back on Looking Forward


Hi, this is 29 year-old Ben and I’ll be writing in italics for the duration of this article. I’ve lived in Korea four years now. This means a lot of the things I found fascinating and amazing at first have become entirely mundane. This normalization of what, four years ago seemed very exotic, makes it hard to explain Korea when asked. As such, I’d like to present an essay I wrote about Korea during my first week in country. I’m leaving in the factual errors but noting them so as to avoid spreading falsehood. 24 year-old Ben will be writing in normal script. Enjoy.

Okay, so let’s get down to Korea, or Hangook as the natives say. In my entire 1.5 weeks of experience, I have amassed so much wisdom I need to break it into chunks.  First chunk : how Koreans act.  Second chunk : what Korea looks like. Third chunk : how I’ve acted. Chunk number four : traffic.  Fifth chunk : my workplace and co-workers.

The first thing that surprised me about Korea is how incredibly, unreasonably, unbelievably nice they’ve been to me and the rest of the idiot foreigners I’ve trained with. It almost never fails that I’ll get a huge, happy smile whenever I say anseyo anyounghaseyo (hello), ah-nay-anseyo anyoungheegaysay-yo (goodbye) or komsamidad kamsahamnida (thank you).  They even get their jollies when I screwed something up and said che-so-haminida cheysonghamnida (sorry).

Upon reflection, they may have smiled so much because my pronunciation changed the act of listening into a vaguely surreal experience. My mispronunciations meant that instead of saying “hello” I was actually using the imperative form of ” to hug,” “goodbye” became “the wife hugs,” “thank you” was gibberish and “sorry” became “please cancel it.” 

However, I have noticed one exception to the nice Koreans thing; old people.  In Seoul, where I trained, I got run over by at least four little old ladies on their way to or from church (yes church, everybody’s a Methodist  wide variety of Christian and Buddhist sects here). They usually didn’t talk to me, but I interpreted the body language as something along the lines of “step aside lest I feed you your own testicles.”  But even then, give a small bow and say anseyo  and pretend you didn’t notice the fact they wish death on you and they’ll change tune and smile back.

They probably changed their tune because I was offering a hug. Important life lesson, there are entirely too few hugs between strangers. Oh, and those old ladies are called “ajuma.” Time has not tamed their ferocity at all. 

The whole experience of being a foreigner here, especially if you go out in groups of foreigners, is sort of like being a cross between Manbearpig and Brangelina. Rock on 2008 pop culture references! Sometimes people just gawk, sometimes people come up spontaneously to talk and ask for advice (on any conceivable subject) or personal history and sometimes the supermarket attendants will run to you in order to say hello. Uh, they often had an accompanying desire to prevent me performing some unspeakable horror on their unfamiliar escalators. But you never, ever go anywhere unnoticed.

I actually wasn’t off by much in this paragraph. You are manbearpig and people are generally really friendly. Lots of Korean folks, especially in more rural areas, get a kick out of speaking to “the first real foreigner they’ve ever seen!”

But what of the scenery and the city-scape?  What little I’ve seen outside Seoul and Daegu (where I’m living), has been hilly and covered in trees and a lot like pictures I’ve seen of rural West Virginia or Pennsylvania.  However, that’s all based on my view out of the bullet train (even cooler than you think) and the view out of my sixth story office. I plan to expand this section in a couple weeks after I’ve gotten some money saved up and bought me a scooter. More on scooters later.

Do NOT buy a scooter! Korean traffic is, when distilled, one of the three or four most dangerous substances known to man. To venture forth into such madness on a scooter is to bet one’s life on the benevolence of the enraged sofa delivery man three lanes over. 

Seoul is monstrously huge in every way a city can be huge.  In good traffic, a taxi ride takes almost three hours to get from one side to the other.  From the roof of my 20 something story hotel, I could see no end to skyscrapers in each direction. Supposedly, I wasn’t even downtown at the time.

In some ways, Seoul is the megopolis of 2215.  The subway is nothing less than beautiful. You can get almost anywhere in the city with it, the fares rival Top Ramen for extravagence, and even idiot foreigners like me can figure out how to get home. In other words, American cities, build subways! Further, much of the architecture impressed even snobs like me. The way the Koreans build huge, glass skyscrapers full of nooks and crannies for their beloved trees to grow in seemed genius at the time, and just common sense smart now. Daegu isn’t as big and doesn’t ooze money the way Seoul does, but the same general observations hold. In fact, Daegu’s subway is even easier to use.

It really is difficult to explain how much better Korean public transportation is than American or even Canadian public transit. Take everything I said about the traffic earlier and turn it upside down, basically. 

But in some other ways Seoul (and even more so Daegu) better fits the outskirts of London circa 1850 archetype than the super city image. Roads have sidewalks at least 30% of the time and when they don’t, you just walk amongst the cars.  The trash collectors evidently number very few, work very little or recently went on strike. The buses are mostly old, and mostly of the visible toxin belching variety and about half the houses I can see from my apartment’s roof look like tenements.  It’s like South Korea went from being the grossest house on earth to one of the nicest in three weeks, but hasn’t finished remodeling the bathroom, kitchen or den yet. I’ve literally seen rickshaws and Mercedes CL600s competing for the same chunk of road.

Korean buses have gotten a lot better since I arrived. 

I’ve generally loved my time here. I freaked out on day two (when I found out everybody I’d made friends with would train at a different time than me) and on my first day this week when I faced my first live munchkins. I’m eating well, super healthy (not hard to do here), and for about 8000 won a day. At current exchange rates, that works out to about $5.50-6.00.

It’s a little more expensive today, but in general, still much cheaper and massively more healthy than American food. 

I live in a nice, five story apartment building sticking up right in the middle of a sea of not nice one story buildings. I have a bathroom, a kitchen and a bedroom/front room and a laundry room. It turns out I need a separate laundry room because Koreans do not believe in driers. No, these hardy souls believe in little racks to hang your wet clothes from and water-proof rooms you can flood everyday because Koreans also do not believe in connecting the washing machine to a drain pipe. That really amused me day one, but I’m kinda getting used to it now.  Speaking of flooding, I also put my bathroom under a couple inches of water everyday. There is no separate shower, the entire bathroom floor serves as a wash thyself surface. My shower head connects to the spigot on my sink with a little valve. Turn it once clockwise and it’s a spigot, turn it once counterclockwise and it’s a shower. So, to summarize, if I decide to do laundry and shower at the same time, almost half of my house will flood.

While none of this is incorrect, it is also very emblematic of taking housing from an employer who really, really doesn’t want to spend any more money than necessary on your upkeep. Thankfully, my accommodations during the college years were ghetto to the extreme and thus a merely cheap house, like my first Korean apartment, felt like a huge upgrade at the time. 

And I’ve had a few culture shock moments too. Before I left, I resolved to try as many new things as possible in Korea. When I arrived, that meant staying away from the TGFriday’s and McDonald’s and sticking to the kimchi, the dwin jo dwinjang soup and other things I’d never seen before. Generally, this has paid off. I’ve only had one thing I really couldn’t stand (sushi covered with ketchup and mustard and onion) and a bunch of delicious new discoveries.

I really like this spirit of adventure in 24 year old me. I honestly believe this is the biggest reason I’ve gotten along so well in Korea while so many others couldn’t handle it.

Dwin jo, as I originally wrote, translates as “sour completed.” Kind of zen if you think about it. 

However, it has ended up providing me with a few curious culinary choices. My first day in, I went to a small market to pick up breakfast as cheaply as possible. I got a giant, triangular sushi looking thing with spiced chicken inside (very good and super cheap, btw) and what I assumed was a soft drink for a combined cost of 1900 won (about $1.20).  Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on perspective, instead of a soda I’d purchased a drink called Mahkilli magguliMahkilli Magguli is rice beer with about 18% alcohol.  I’ve rarely felt so classy as when I had chicken-sushi and rice beer in a public park at 7 in the morning.

The other embarrassing choice came very soon thereafter when, on a whim, I decided to pick up a small, orange colored drink. The cashier gave me a very strange look, followed by an “oh, idiot foriegner” look before very graciously handing it over to me.  I wondered why, but after enjoying the taste, decided I didn’t care.  However, I did keep the bottle and showed it to a fellow trainee who was fluent in Korean. Turns out I’d been slurping down bottles of a drink designed to help women with menstrual cramps.


Oh man, traffic in Korea acts like nothing your Western eyes have ever seen before. Red lights are more suggestion than law, sidewalks are perfectly acceptable passing lanes and merging seems to follow the “they’ll swerve” theory.  And I have yet to see a situation in which the person taking the inside left turn lane doesn’t switch to the outside left turn lane by the end of the intersection. Oh, and if you see a police car with the lights flashing, just ignore it. Everyone else will.

It turns out you can ignore the flashing lights because the lights are always flashing on police cars, some tow trucks and even some rentacop cars. Why? No effing clue. 

But my favorite part of Korean traffic centers on the guys on motorcycles and scooters. No man in the West can rival the daring, bravery and fortitude of a 93 pound noodle delivery boy astride his Daelim 100 cc scooter. They regularly cut off busses and buzz through busy intersections during red lights. Needless to say,  if you hear one coming on the sidewalk, get the hell out of the way.

One of my former students would die aboard a 100 cc Daelim scooter almost exactly three years after I wrote this. 

The Job: I work for Chungdahm Institute’s April program. This means my oldest students are around 11 and my youngest are 6 or 7. During training my instructors stressed how deeply Korean children respect their teachers, about how solemn the silences would be that I’d have to break and how important it was to retain my “godlike” aura. Evidently my instructors last taught classes here in the 11th century because while my students mostly like me, mostly want to know more about me and mostly want to learn good English, they sure as hell aren’t awed by me. Maybe a little more studious than the typical American 9 year old, but taking into account only the top 10% of public school students get into CDI, less super-brainiac than I expected.

And also, sadly, stressed out of their minds more often than not. One of the biggest reasons I’m glad I’m not in private academies anymore centers around crazy mothers who raise miserable, test-taking-machine children without even the slightest clue how to use any of the knowledge being shoved down their elementary-aged throats. Please, if you decide to come work in Korea as a teacher, make sure to pack a healthy sense of empathy. These kids work a lot harder than you know.

Adorable Kids

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