Thursday, January 7, 2010

A year in Korea... so what?

Tomorrow I leave Korea, 373 days later. So what of all this?

I came here for a variety of reasons: I was tired of safe, insular Portland; burned out from my last job; wanting a change of pace and to see a bit of the world; wanting to support Sara. I didn't have too many hopes for Korea - I really had no idea what "moving to Korea" meant. I did, however, hope to learn about Korea, make some life-long friends, find a second home, and all that.

Overall, living in Korea is easy. Food is cheap, there is very little crime, and a little Korean can get you pretty far. If English is your native language, and you know how to negotiate, you can get a pretty good salary, a decent apartment and maybe good hours too. That said, unless your favorite activities are drinking and shopping, it is almost impossible to thrive here.

Now it is easy to get all negative on Korea - shooting fish in a barrel is a good analogy. The Koreans are pretty gung-ho on Confucianism, and a lot of times it feels like a bad 1950's sitcom. The workplace is as hierarchical as the army, women are treated horribly, and people treat strangers like dirt. I don't want to dwell on these things though... you can find them discussed ad nauseam elsewhere on the internet.

When I first got here, I was so excited to make some Korean friends - get into the Korean counter-culture and ride bikes and play polo. It took me a long time to figure out that the most successful ex-pats here are the ones that have almost exclusively ex-pats networks, and that there is not much of a Korean counter-culture scene. I'm leaving Korea with only one Korean friend, which might actually be a success, but I have to say I find it surprising.

As I have discussed in other posts, one of the things that I've had the most problems with here are how strangers are treated. It has been explained to me that if you know someone, you must be very polite to them, but it doesn't matter if you don't know that person. Wanting to fit in, when I first got here, I copied the locals and it drove me crazy -  I hated myself, even if I was fitting in well. I decided that I was just not going to give up this core-value of what I think is polite behavior - being polite to strangers. I've gotten so many crazy looks when I've held the door open for people, let old people sit down on the subway, or simply said thank you to waitresses. Once I realized that I didn't have to give up on who I was, things got a bit easier, at least from my point of view.

Working here was definitely a challenge. Fortunately, foreigners get a lot of leeway in the workplace, and aren't expected to work like their Korean counterparts. Again, I'm going to resist the temptation of talking about how messed up Korean companies are, and just say that I am so happy I don't have to work in Korea anymore. Also, it has made me resolve to buy American-made products whenever possible.

So, besides the fact that I'm not wild about Korea, what have I learned? Well, like they say, only when you don't have something do you realize how much you miss it. I miss living in a community. I miss small groups of like-minded people. I miss trees and clean air. I miss having choices about food. I miss America. Sure we've got problems, and plenty of them, but they are our problems.

Now, perhaps the most interesting part of all of this will come very soon... the reverse culture shock! What will I, in America, prefer back in Korea?


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