A year ago, I would have been loathe to admit I had any dislikes about a trip to another country. It’s an incredible privilege to travel and it often doesn’t feel right to hold negative feelings about experiencing this privilege.
As I mentioned in my “What I’ve Learned Post,” I’ve come to realize that it’s okay to have disagreements and frustrations about experiences in other countries and cultures. It’s how we deal the frustration that matters. I apologize ahead of time if this post offends anyone. I’m speaking from my own experiences, and it’s safe to say that other expats will have completely different views on the same experiences, while some will share them.
I loved Korean food before coming here, and my love has only grown as I’ve tried more dishes and variations. Among my favourites are tagkalbi (spicy chicken), mandu-guk (dumpling soup), spicy ramyeon soup, sundubu (tofu soup), and the abundance of pickled vegetable banchan (side dishes).
Bulgogi with ample banchan!
Going out to eat is a fantastic experience. Whether its food prepared before it gets to the table, or food you cook yourself on the grill, eating in Korean restaurants is always a treat. I especially love the more traditional restaurants here that have low tables where you sit on the floor rather than in a chair. I’ve always preferred the floor to chairs, so it’s perfect for me!
Cooking Korean food is equally enjoyable. Most recipes are quite simple, involving only a handful of ingredients, and often just one pot. With loads of vegetables, limited amounts of meat, and lots of fermentation, Korean food is healthy and delicious.
Delicious kimchi jigae, and it’s so easy to make!
Jimijilbangs are public baths (separated by gender) accessible almost anywhere in Korea. With bathtubs being a luxury reserved for high-end hotels, jimjilbangs are the best way to get a good soak and scrub. The offer up a wide range of saunas and tubs with different temperatures and properties, and services like face peels, massages, and hair masks.
The first time I went to a jimjilbang was my first trip to Korea in 2010. I was sixteen, and no one had seen my nudey-pants since I was a little kid. I was pretty insecure, especially since I was pretty chunky by Korean standards, and stood out with my excessive paleness. It didn’t take me long however, to relax in the warm baths and get a rush in the cold ones.
The other bonus jimjilbangs offer is a place to sleep at ridiculously low prices. For as low as $5 CAD a night, you can enjoy an evening of hot tubs and saunas, and a mat to sleep the night on. Granted it can be noisy and bright, it’s still a great option if you’re travelling on a tight budget.
I love everything about coffee. I love the taste, I love the smell, I love making it, and I especially love the simple pleasure of enjoying it in a cafe with a good book or good company. I love it hot, and I love it iced. All around coffee is one of my favourite things.
Korea has a well-developed coffee culture, with cafes on every corner, even in rural areas. It puts Toronto street corners, with Tim Horton’s and Starbucks on all four points, to shame. Moreover, Korea strikes a fantastic balance between well-known chains and independent local shops.
For Korean cafes, ambience is everything. Industrial-style cafes with polished concrete floors and exposed brick are a favourite, and cozier styles with comfy cushions and wood stoves and rocking chairs are also available.
Beyond your typical cafes, Korea also has a plethora of themed cafes, including cat, dog, racoon, and sheep cafes. You can get your photo printed on top of your latte at Caface in Hongdae, or have it served in a toilet mug at the Poop cafe in Ssamziegil Mall.
The Korean drinking culture summons both positive and negative feelings for me. Koreans are fiercely proud of the rich traditions around drinking, and its been fun to learn about and experience them. There are plenty of fun drinking games to enjoy, and Koreans have a knack for finding things to celebrate.
I’m not against drinking, but I’m also not that into it. Before coming to Korea I barely drank at all, and in fact only experienced being intoxicated for the first time after moving here. Of course, being a university student at Canada’s number one party school means I’ve had plenty of folks attempt to pressure me into drinking. Feeling that pressure come from co-workers that I barely know takes that experience to a new level.
At staff dinners (which are frequent and where the alcohol flows freely) I have often felt an instant change in attitude towards me when I ask to cheers with water rather than soju. It’s not that I don’t like soju–I think it’s great. But I’m not interested in getting drunk on a school night, especially when I usually have plans to go to teukgong or climbing after dinner.
When I choose water over alcohol, I frequently feel friendliness switch to offense and interest in conversation shift to discomfort. I understand that alcohol acts as a social lubricant for my co-workers–especially when they’re trying to speak English with me. But it’s frustrating that my personal choices which are considered completely respectable back home are looked down upon here. (Luckily my actual co-teachers are fantastic and totally accept my drinking choices).
Beyond my own reservations about the intense drinking culture here, many Koreans themselves find it taking a toll on their personal and professional lives. Often, when they choose not to drink, they are looked down upon, especially by co-workers. When they choose to participate, they can be pushed into a constant cycle of drunkenness and being hungover that puts their health at serious risk. Al Jazeera’s short documentary South Korea’s Hangover reveals some of the serious consequences that many Koreans face as a result of these extremes.
Evidently, food makes it onto both sides of this list. As a general rule, I love Korean food. However, there are a few trends that I just can’t get behind. First, turning perfectly delicious savoury dishes into sugar- and honey-drenched disasters. I’m talking garlic bread, pizza, sandwiches, hotdogs, cheese, etc. When it comes to most Korean adaptations of Western foods, I’d rather pass.
The other aspect of food that gets to me is the fish. I love fish. It’s one of my favourite foods. But I’ve been spoiled with having most of the fish I eat caught down the road, filleted in front of me, and eaten within a few hours of the catch. In Korea however, a lot of the fish hangs around for a few days before it’s eaten, causing it to acquire a really strong fishy taste. Sounds a little strange to say I don’t like fish that tastes like fish… but that’s just how I prefer it!
This dislike probably affects me the most. I don’t have a car so I walk everywhere and I walk a lot. In Canada, and especially in Nova Scotia, being a pedestrian puts you in a privileged position. Pedestrians always have the right of way, and traffic lights and stop signs are common to regulate traffic and protect pedestrians. In Korea however, pedestrians are treated as a nuisance and drivers come first.
I can’t even count how many times I’ve almost been hit by a car while walking on the sidewalk. I’m not talking walking across a parking lot entrance. I mean straight up on the sidewalk where cars are not supposed to be. And when I “get in the way” drivers scoff at me like I don’t belong on the sidewalk. Crossing the street is an even more dangerous affair, but it’s necessary for me to get to work everyday. Being a pedestrian in Korea can be incredibly frustrating, and often dangerous. It’s a wonder I haven’t been hit yet.
I want to reiterate that these are my own experiences, and many other people’s views likely differ from mine. I love living in Korea, and the positive experiences far outweigh the “dislikes.” I love the people here and I love the culture, but naturally there are a few clashes that get to me from time to time.
What are/were the best and not-so-great parts of living abroad for you?