One Year in Korea!

One year down! Had I not renewed my contract I’d be on a flight home right about now. I’d have had my leaving party over the last few days – I’ve been attending a couple of meals to celebrate people in my training group leaving this week – and I’d be looking forward to a big roast dinner and a few days of rest back in sunny Salisbury. As it is I’m still here for the time being, and despite the call of friends and family back home I think a little more time in Korea is just what I need.

Like most expats I have fairly mixed feelings about Korea. In some ways it’s been incredibly good to me: My salary to saving ratio here would require a seriously good job at home to match (5% tax makes a huge difference, although I do spend a lot of my ‘savings’ traveling); I’ve broken into the freelance writing market in what I consider to be a fairly spectacular way from a standing start (more than 60 articles published over the last six months) and I’ve been able to visit China and North Korea. So certainly a lot of pluses. I’ve got quite into teaching; it’s something I can see myself doing for some time as an enjoyable method of sustainable travel. It enables me to see the world in a totally different light, meeting local people on a day to day basis and really absorbing their cultures. And then there’s Helena of course, who I won’t embarrass on here apart from to say she’s improved the whole experience no end.

Korean culture is really quite odd, and is the main reason why a lot of expats have very mixed feelings about the country despite all the benefits above. If you get to know somebody over here they are lovely: accommodating, open and prepared to go well beyond the call of duty to help you out. The strange side of Korean culture is with people you don’t know. In this country locals believe that strangers are not important and treat them almost like they don’t exist. This is manifested in a way that is perceived my most foreigners (me included to a certain extend) as arrogance and self centeredness. Of course this all goes back to their social beliefs, which are based on Confucianism.

Confucianism is highly fundamentalist and basically advocates racial superiority on the part of believers (South Korea was recently condemned by the UN for its inherently racist culture) and also an extremely hierarchal system. In other words if someone’s older than you, doesn’t know you or you happen to be neither Korean or White (for some reason Koreans respect white people but not other races) then you may as well be something stuck to their shoe. Not an issue in the short term, but after a little time it really starts to bother most expats. A good example is Ajummas – crazy old women who seem to have found ‘freedom’ in their old age, having gained a ‘respectful’ position in society, and abuse this position in pretty much every way you can imagine. Everyone else just stands by and watches. The ‘stand and watch’ attitude is also taken with North Korea – it’s amazing how little the average Korean seems to care. I realize there is little they can do, but considering people are starving to death literally 40 miles from here, and that North Koreans are constitutionally considered to be part of this country, it’s unbelievable how many people say ‘I’m not interested, it doesn’t affect me’.

Enough of the bad side of Korea – it just has to be included to give an accurate overview of life over here. Korean social idiosyncrasies are a major factor in the feelings of foreigners towards this country. Overall Seoul is great. It’s a cosmopolitan (though not really multicultural) city in which the vast majority of things are available easily and at less than the cost of the same thing back home. The only exceptions are the ludicrous expense of playing Golf and Studying, which frankly don’t bother me anyway. Though we don’t have the spectacular history of somewhere like Beijing, there’s plenty of cultural aspects to keep you going: lots of music, sport and art.

All in it’s a real shame that this society has such inbuilt negatives – things that are slowly changing over time, but the change is without doubt too slow. If it wasn’t for this I’d probably be staying in Korea much longer. As it is we’ll see how things go, but this has certainly been a good use of a year and I can’t wait for the summer festivals to kick start again in a couple of months! To another summer!

James

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