I’ve lived in Korea for five calendar years and have traveled around the world as well as come back home to the USA a few times. People sometimes ask me where I live, and I noticed that there are a few questions people ask when they hear the words, “I live in Korea.” Centuries ago, it was called the “Hermit Kingdom” as there was so little known of the oft forgotten peninsula between the two formidable Asian giants, China and Japan. Before I came here, I didn’t know much either and probably would have asked these same questions. So, this is not a post designed to shame the clueless or disgrace the inexperienced. After all, we’re all experts and idiots in one area or another.
1) “North or South?” OR “Aren’t you afraid of North Korea?”
Although Kim Jong-Un is a plump, egomaniacal, scion of brainwashing zealots and a perfect case of foolish nepotism, his nation is of no more concern to South Koreans than Americans are afraid of a Canadian military attack. I’m greatly exaggerating the point; however, North Korea’s craziness remains north of the 38th parallel. Because of the war in the early 50’s yet despite the historical relation, today’s North and South are polar opposites. The yearly U.S.-Korean joint war-games usually pisses off whichever rotund Kim happens to be dictating at the time and some military posturing ensues.
Where South Korea has TV, Internet, excess amounts of delicious food, political and for the most part (Confucian society (i.e.: collective hierarchy) is deeply ingrained and restrains many social processes)) societal freedom, North Korea has none of that, and instead has statues and framed photos of their god-kings. It’s a stupid response but even stupider and hurtful when posed to an actual Korean. My Korean girlfriend hated when we traveled through SE Asia and people would ask her, “North or South.” North Koreans aren’t allowed to leave the country for fear of them never returning, or worse, returning with a tacky t-shirt and knowledge of an open and free world outside their tiny half peninsula of despotic tyranny.
*A better question: “How is the South Korean government changing their policies regarding maritime guidelines in response to the Sewol disaster?”
2) “Do you eat a lot of sushi?”
This one isn’t really that bad, because there is sushi in Korea, but it is more of a Japanese dish, not Korean. The sushi in Korea is expensive, but can be found anywhere. It’s a dish that is too clean and polished for normal Korean cuisine. Most Korean food is in combination or mingled form, like soups or the numerous side dishes called “banchon.” Japan is orderly and beautiful, like sushi. Korea is rushed but satisfying, like BBQ. Obviously comparing a country’s attributes to food is a generalization, but sometimes apt.
*A better question: “Do you eat a lot of kimchi?”
3) “What’s the weather like?”
This one has an easy answer for me because Philadelphia is on the same parallel lines of the globe as Korea, so we have similar weather, vegetation and trees. But not every foreigner is from my latitude, so this one can be a good question for those from the southern climes or another hemisphere. Technically, the weather has four seasons, but winter is the boss. He arrives in time for Halloween in an angry, horror show snowman suit complete with whistling Siberian winds and bone chilling temps. Summer is sticky, hot and humid and has a month of almost perpetual rain, whereas spring and fall are completely wonderful with blooming flowers or flamboyant colors of autumn foliage respectively.
*A better question: “Does Chinese pollution affect you?” (Yes, it does.)
4) “I have a friend/relative who teaches in ___________.” (Not Korea, but it’s their only contribution to such an outlandish statement and a mild confusion of all Asia as one.)
I actually find this one to be endearing. Asia isn’t a place many people will visit in their lives. It’s literally on the other side of the world from the Americas. The follow up to this question is, “Do they like it?” And the answer is usually affirmative, which makes for an easier introduction about my reasons for living here. Asia opens up new possibilities and increases cultural awareness. Smelling the street fires of Cambodia, partying in Thailand, feeling the history of Vietnam and Laos, bowing in Japan, people-watching in China or laying on the beaches of the Philippines seems like such a distant dream until you live within one hour of the immaculate Incheon airport. Traveling is a major perk for expats. The road is a liberating place to feel comfortable inside of your own anxiety. Since you are a foreigner, there is a certain amount of exemption from the strict societal frameworks of some Asian cultures. You can get away without bowing, but if you do, you’re golden. You can get away without speaking the language, but if you do, you’re heaped with praised. Which brings me to the next point…
*This one was a statement, but anyway—a better question: “Why did you move there?”
5) “Do you speak Korean?”
When asked this, I inevitably ask myself, “Why don’t I speak Korean?” I’ve lived in Korea for several years and I’ve just never committed to fully learning the language. There’s many excuses: difficulty, lack of time, everyone speaks English, but they’re not good excuses. Some foreigners will devote some time and get decent or even fluent enough to be a part of the crazy Korean reality TV scene. I fell into each category. The Korean alphabet took me one day to learn, but the speaking part is not so quick to absorb. After work, I barely have time to juice my biceps at the gym, shower, eat a meal and watch a quick Daily Show before it’s time to hit the sack and do it all again! Also, it’s true that anybody you hang out with will speak English. Yet, the inherent truth is that maybe you could meet new (non-English speaking) people if you could communicate in their language.
*A better question, so that you won’t make me feel apathetic and lazy: “How do you say, ‘Thank you’ in Korean?”
6) “I’ve always wanted to do that.” (You can.)
This is the rare response from the person whose eyes light up with the phantasmagorical dreams of Oriental life with bustling floating markets, neon-lit crosswalks, bizarre street foods, copious rice paddies, or sparkling emerald waters. These people are genuinely interested in your experience. They want to know more. They want to know how you did it. OR, they are not interested at all, completely happy in their life and had thought about it once in passing during a sunny happy hour in the week after university graduation. The fact is, anyone with a college degree can teach in Korea or Japan. Non-college graduates with at least a desire to teach, travel and live abroad can go to Thailand, Vietnam or China. It’s a wide-open world for English speakers. I’ve even met Filipinos, Germans and Dutch who speak such good English that they get hired as “Native Speakers.”
*Again, another statement—but a better second question is: “Do you think I would like it?”
I recommend the experience to most people. One-year contracts go really fast; and a friend of mine told me long ago that everyone should teach at least once in their life. If you are working in a job that isn’t your career, recently had a bad break-up and need to get away, living at home and don’t know how to move out, desire travel opportunities or simply crave an adventure, this is a good choice.