I wanted to first complete some more bucket list posts before I started with other posts but this one has sort of presented itself to me in two ways.
Firstly, I was talking to a friend back home and they mentioned that I am living such a dream life here, I have it so easy. Secondly, I have heard a few stories of people (one recently) that literally packed up their flats overnight and left the country without giving their schools any notice because they couldn’t handle it.
So many people think that coming to Korea is going to be grand, they’ll be living the life. Travelling every weekend and vacation with all their amazing friends they have made, work will be rewarding, fun, non challenging and they will get on with all the staff. And while this does happen there are other parts they don’t realize. It is these things that they can’t handle and you see them being miserable or bailing out on their contract early to go home. It is also these things that no one posts about really. I would much rather post vacation photos than post about when I’m homesick.
So, here is a list of things that might cause trouble.
1. Not being able to communicate!!! This falls into three parts:
a) Not being able to read. A person does not realize how much they actually rely on reading till they can’t. Signs, bus times, menus, directions, my apartment’s heating system and even my school computer is all in Korean. Grocery shopping is difficult, I choose my laundry detergent based on whether it has pictures on the back or not. I feel like a child again surrounded by all this knowledge but just not being able to access it. It sucks and it makes me feel stupid. Luckily the Korean alphabet is incredibly easy to learn and you can learn to read in about 2 hours, if not less. Just a pity I can’t understand what I’m reading as easily.
b) Not being able to write. While this does not play as big a role as the other two it does still cause problems. You find something you want to read, you can’t, so you want Google translate to try help you, you whip out your phone only to realize you can’t type in Hangul on your phone, unless it’s a Korean phone. You first need to go download a Hangul keyboard app. You do that and then you painstakingly take forever to type out the characters just for it to tell you it means hot water. It also takes forever when you are trying to write out your address in Korean.
c) Not being able to talk Korean. I find that with this it is very much dependent on where you live. If you live in bigger metropolitan areas the chances are you will encounter English. I live in a small rural town where English is basically non existent. I can’t even say the words ‘train station’ to my taxi drivers, I have to use the Korean term. Which is ‘gichayeog’ (기차역) btw. At the moment I have basic survival Korean skills. So while I can’t have a conversation in Korean I am able to ask things such as, “Where is the …. (toilet, bus, shop, taxi etc.)?” “What time is the bus to …..?”, “How much is this?” “I don’t understand.” “I’m hungry.” “I’m full.” “It is delicious.” and then the all important, “Can I have some beer please?”
Here is an example where the lack of the above abilities can clearly be seen. It was my first weekend alone in Korea and Alex and I wanted to go visit friends. After getting the ticket operator to understand where we were wanting to go I got a ticket with no terminal number on, no time and funny squiggles for writing. We then had to walk down the terminal line till we found one whose board matched the squiggles on my ticket. After we got to Chungju, where we had never been before, we decided we were hungry and headed to a restaurant. We found a restaurant, sat down, got given a menu…and it was all in the funny squiggles, with no pictures. I luckily remembered what one dish was called, ‘Bulgogi’. I then Google searched for the word in Hangul and then we looked over the menu hoping the restaurant would have it and we could find it. Luckily for us it did. Our next step was getting in a taxi and trying to explain where we wanted to go. After a few trips around the block and in the wrong direction we finally ended up where we wanted to go and then proceeded to have some well deserved beers. The return journey was the same thing, except I was hungover and I ended up getting off at the wrong town and needed to buy another bus ticket to get home.
Even though my skills have vastly increased since then it is still an effort to do some basic tasks: trying to work out instructions on my ready mix muffins, figuring out if I’m buying the correct dumplings, asking someone the price but then not understanding the very fast reply, trying to give the taxi driver instructions or trying to find a sign for a shop you want among the hundreds of signs.
2. School can be a very lonely place (each situation is different). Not everyone will be able to speak English. At some schools there might be no one. You might sit in the teachers room with the other teachers or like me you will sit separate in your own room. While this does give me the freedom to search the web for whatever I want and shop online as much as I want I can end up going a whole day without speaking to anyone. Yesterday I had no classes so I spent the whole day in my office by myself. The only time I spoke to someone was at lunch when I got asked if I had had a perm done. (The answer is no btw.)
3. You don’t know how your Korean co-teacher will be. You could have the nicest, sweetest, most friendliest teacher to work with or you could have someone from hell. Luck of the draw. Luckily mine are great. This is a gamble you will take with any new job though, you never know how your coworkers will be.
4. Friends are transient. Everyone here is on some sort of journey. Some stay for a year, some for longer, but they all have one thing in common…eventually they (or you) will leave. With modern technology you will always be able to stay in touch, chat and follow their journey but the chances are slim that you will stay in the same place again. This does allow you to meet people from all over the world and make connections with people you wouldn’t normally encounter but saying goodbye is difficult.
5. Dating is more difficult. You find someone you like and, if they are a foreigner, one of the first things you ask is, “When are you leaving?”. This will set the tone of your time together. You will be forced very early on in the relationship to think about the future. If you are both in it just for fun then it isn’t a problem, but if it is serious you need to think of the ‘where to next?’ question. If you are dating a Korean, the same applies. Are you going to stay longer or are they prepared to travel with you? Depending on when, in your contract, you start dating the person will determine how soon some of these really big decisions need to be made.
6. Not being able to find things you are used to. Lamb chops require a special trip to Seoul. Braai spice? Forget it. Deodorant? Only available in summer. Niknaks, creme soda, BILTONG….get used to life without it.
7. Having a smaller apartment. Most apartments here are small (like matchbox small), you just have to get used to it. And if you’re South African you have to get used to cleaning everything by yourself.
8. The time difference between home and here. Luckily South Africa is only a 7 hour difference which makes it a tad easier than most to communicate with loved ones back home, some friends have 12-17 hour differences, but it is still hard and special Skype times have to be set aside for chats. I can’t just pick up the phone when I want to.
9. Missing out on the people you love’s journey back home. Your friends and family are getting married, having babies, starting new careers and you can’t be there. You miss out on watching your nieces, nephews and god children growing up. In my case I missed my grandmothers funeral.
Now please don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love living here, challenges and all, but it’s not for everyone and I’m not living this amazing dream life, none of us are. Sure my life now comes with amazing perks and upsides, which I am really grateful for, but it also comes with some downsides and trade-offs that often people don’t think about.
If you are considering moving to Korea then have a look at the list and decide for yourself if you can handle it. Or if you are envious of my life let me assure you that there are aspects of your life that I am envious about too.