Note: if your name is Bonne DuCharme, or actually if your surname is DuCharme at all, do not read this post. Or if you do, approach it with the same wariness that you would a giant spider. For the rest, continue.
I wish I had some cool trips to report, some earth-shattering discoveries about life or living here in Korea that I could share to shed some light on my experience. As it is, I’m lamenting that I’m already a month and a half into my second year here, with the “fresh start,” and it seems as if I have barely accomplished anything thus far. I should consider myself lucky, with a stable job, nice apartment, and short working hours, I have absolutely no grounds for complaint. My best friend Erin always comments after these kind of posts that they’re really dark, but that she appreciates that I’m honest in them. Sugar-coating and gilding lilies? That’s Instagram kind of horseshit. I’m only a truther on here.
Less than 11 months out and I’ve already begun to convince myself and my mother that I’m returning to the states when this contract is up. I’m pretty sure that I will. Until then, I have lots of major diversions coming up: a trip to Vietnam in May, a revisit from Aidan hyung in June, a visit or several from high school friend Sylvia also in June, and perhaps vacationing with my family in South Carolina in July (uncertain). In December, it looks like my family is coming here to visit Seoul (hence the warning at the beginning of the post).
It’s hard to leave, and I know I will miss it, but sometimes it is also hard to stay here. I’m reminded of this every time I see a post detailing the horrific racism my fellow foreigners experience on a daily basis or I see somebody spit INDOORS in the subway. There are many great things about living here, especially as a young person in my 20s, but right now, here are the best reasons I have why living here can kind of suck sometimes.
Sometimes Koreans’ hygiene is impressive; they are militant about wearing the face masks when they are or might become sick and they brush their teeth multiple times a day (perhaps to the detriment of their tooth enamel, but). That’s where the good hygiene ends, though. There might be many moral failings in this country, but my personal pet peeve is everyone chewing with their mouths open, coughing and spitting and sneezing wherever and whenever they please. That’s okay in your own home, but in public, it’s just not sanitary or polite to be doing that. I’d rather leave a little bit of mystery than see every bit of food you’re chewing all the time. The only thing worse than these habits is the fact that everyone denies that they do these things, which smacks of willful ignorance and denial to me.
Every country has an obsession with being pretty, but Korea’s takes it to a new level. In what country do they give plastic surgery as a graduation present because they think their daughters aren’t pretty enough? I know the attitudes are different toward plastic surgery here, but it’s something else to hear about fourth and fifth graders talking about plastic surgery as a very real possibility in the near future for them. Ridiculous. Once you’ve got the face you wanted, you have to accessorize endlessly with makeup. While in some ways it’s cool being spoiled for choice, it’s insane how many products the average Korean woman uses to stay young-looking.
You can’t ever go in the sun because you don’t want to become darker. Because, of course, dark is ugly. And dark won’t match the 80,000 won foundation you bought in the wintertime. You must always be ready with a pocket hair straightener in case your bangs go flat when riding on the subway (???). When out with your friends, no matter what the occasion, be prepared to take literally a million selfies to post across all your social media. (To be clear: I love social media and I don’t mind selfies, but the amount of selfies here is insane. And it’s not always in scenic little cafes or at cool events, it’s sometimes in dingy alleyways or in line at Costco.) While I appreciate the aesthetic that everybody puts up, I’m certain it’s not worth the effort.
- Bad parenting
I know that somebody who’s not a parent has no business telling a parent what they should do with their kid, I really do. But, as a current teacher and former lifeguard, sometimes the blatant negligence with which the parents treat their children pains me to the max. I’m reminded of a story where a foreigner at Costco saw an unattended child walking out in front of a speeding car in the parking lot (parents were nowhere to be found). He shouted to get the parents attention and saved the kid, but somehow the parents and grandpa ended up yelling at the foreigner, attacking him and blaming him for the incident when really he saved their kid’s life.
The cycle repeats into infinity. The parents have to work their asses off to earn enough for a big house and comfortable life, so they put their kids in myriad after school programs and academies. On the days off the parents aren’t so good at parenting, usually much more content to take selfies together rather than preventing their kid walking off a pier into the Han River. It’s amazing natural selection hasn’t weeded out every single one of these babies already, honestly.
- World-revolves-around-me syndrome
There’s an element of this one that can be good and freeing. But mostly, this is damaging to all around. Like the foreigner who thought that he was doing right by trying to help someone else, it’s usually best to leave well enough alone. You see somebody drop their card or something on the ground? That’s their problem. You’re leaving the bank as somebody else is coming in? Don’t hold the door for them, they will only look at you with confusion and bewilderment, not an ounce of thanks. Somebody’s taking too long to order or scan in their card to get on the subway? Push right in front of them, they should have been prepared.
There’s an element of this kind of self-defense that is freeing. Only looking out for #1, or the people in your clique, that makes it a lot easier. But it’s a lot more isolating. This is actually one of my main reasons for not staying for another year, or forever. I don’t want to absorb this element into my personality. I don’t want to not care about other people. I want to be nice and help out others, even if it has no discernible benefit to myself. I would much rather step out of the way on the street than full-on shoulder-check old ladies because they’re too rude to move even a single inch to the side. Usually I do step out of the way. But other days, we have shoulder-checking days where I only walk straight, square my shoulders, and plow through everyone in my way. It’s shitty and impolite but that’s how things are done here.
- Why does everything have to be so hard all the time?
Some things here are easy. Too easy. It’s too easy to become a full-blown alcoholic or caffeine addict. It’s too easy to fuel your insomnia or shitty sleep schedule by going to cafes after 10pm (current life). It’s too easy to get food and furniture and anything you want delivered right to your door without lifting a finger.
Some things, on the flip side, are infuriatingly hard. For no reason. (Koreans will tell you there is a reason, but really, don’t listen to them. There is a better way). In the United States, you can walk into a bank and say “Hey, I don’t know how to write a check, can you help me?”
“Sure, do you know your account number?”
“Just give me your card and I’ll figure it out.”
“Hey, I have a whole bucket of loose change, can you count it for me and put it in my account?”
“It might take a little while, but sure.”
In Korea, banking is a nightmare. Say you want to pay for your plane tickets online. First of all, you need to enable your card to be used online. You need proof of employment and a passport and your Alien Registration Card and a score of other things. You need to create about 5 unique passwords which you inevitably forget by the time the process is even halfway over, making you start again, of course. And then, nothing works on Chrome, so you must use Internet Explorer for everything, which is absolute bullshit. I make almost all of my transactions in cash or in person with my card because I still can’t make purchases online with my Korean card, even after more than a year. In the U.S., if you have a card, you can immediately use it online, at the store, abroad, whatever. So easy.
- Juke & commit
This one is kind of related to #4, but it’s a lot less self-defense and a lot more idiocy. In the U.S. and other reasonably intelligent countries, if you see somebody directly in your path far ahead of you, you’ll adjust your path by a couple degrees and never run into them. If you do this early enough, it will be like you never even made the adjustment at all. Korean method: don’t look up from your phone ever, or better yet, stare right at the person as you plow right through them, coffee or cake box in hand be damned, because your path is more important than theirs. Most days, I give benefit of the doubt and think, “Okay, that person is in more of a hurry than me, I’ll let it slide.” But of course the days when I’m in a hurry, everyone else seems to be on a leisurely Sunday stroll with nowhere to be.
Walking is okay because everyone is roughly going at the same speed. When biking, it’s important to commit to a direction and keep going that way, not swerving. Koreans are shitty at biking etiquette, I’ve learned (a gripe that didn’t even make the list). I’ve seen so many almost-collisions on bikes that it ceases to surprise me. When I’m running on the trails, the walkers stare you down in the same way. I think to myself, “Do you really want to play this game? I’m running, I will bowl you over, no hesitation. This is not a fight you want to pick.” Usually the walkers spring out of the way at the last second, even though they saw me coming from 100 yards away, outright resentfulness written plain on their faces. I’m lumping in with this category the driving on the sidewalk. For cars, usually it’s only to park, but motorbikes and scooters drive for miles on the sidewalks with absolutely no thought to the pedestrians with whom they’re sharing the path. I’m amazed there aren’t more accidents.
- Everything is sweet
To some, this might be a blessing. But to a red-blooded American who often just craves a salty-ass snack, it seems like an impossible task to find something that isn’t sweet. Cheetos? Sweet. Doritos? Sweet. Cheese popcorn? Sweet cheese. Garlic bread? Sweet. (who the fuck decided garlic bread should be sweet because honestly that’s so offensive to my culinary sensibilities). I’ve heard that Koreans hate our salty American snacks, but I don’t care. Sometimes you just want something salty, and those kinds of snacks are very scarce here.
- Littering is encouraged
This might be convenient to some, but it stresses me out to the max. There are barely any public garbage cans in Korea, or at least in Seoul. (They’re afraid you’ll throw your home trash in the garbage cans because you are supposed to buy special garbage bags from your neighborhood store. Whatever.) Say you drink your Starbucks iced cherry blossom latte and you don’t want to carry the empty cup with you anymore. Should you pop into a convenience store and throw it away there? No need. Just leave it on any old corner or in a telephone box or on the curb. Some little old ahjumma will come by a few hours later or that evening and pick up after you. I suppose this is good that it gives the retired ladies a job, but really just the normalcy of littering here irks me to no end. It’s to the point where my students even throw things right on the floor rather than putting them in the trash can because they know that somebody will have to clean up after them later (me. It’s me.)
- Treatment of animals
My friend Jenn had a roommate last year who decided to get a puppy. This roommate had no idea how to take care of a dog, how often you should feed or walk it or bathe it or clean up after it. She didn’t train it, so eventually the dog, living a life of squalor and neglect in its own filth, became angry and lashed out at anybody who tried to pet him. At long last, the roommate gave the dog over to her parents, who also lived in Seoul, and they agreed to raise the dog properly. This is a pretty good allegory for how animals are treated here. They’re only useful as accessories, but the owners usually don’t understand what is involved in taking care of animals. I’ve seen far too many animals in this country being hit for not obeying orders. It’s not the animals’ fault that they were poorly trained and have a shitty owner. (To be clear: I’m not a dog owner, never have been, but I’d rather stay dogless forever than provide a less-than-adequate home for any kind of pet).
- Leaving cars running all the time
Seoulites complain about the terrible air quality all the time. I know an element of that is the evil yellow dust that comes in from China, but a lot of it is also self-inflicted. You can’t blame all the smog on China. People in Seoul are TERRIBLE at turning off their cars when they’re not being driven. I’ve seen people full-on napping in the driver’s seat of their cars while waiting for their companion to return back from wherever. My street right now is a hotbed for idling taxis and trucks waiting to be called into service. I hate how much fuel they’re wasting just on being able to charge their phones and listen to music in the car at the same time. It’s so irresponsible.
I know exactly why this came to be, that of course Korean streets are never laid out in a nice grid, usually extending in a sort of spiderweb from the palaces, with the more action-packed streets situated exactly one street back from the main thoroughfares, but it’s nearly impossible for a foreigner to navigate if you’re not familiar with the area.
Everything is labeled cheese. Almost nothing actually IS cheese.
Koreans are all really skinny and look really fit, but most of that is just good diet and high metabolism. When actually in the gym, most are just walking at a leisurely pace on the treadmill or lifting at the plate machines, often with absurdly bad form. My friend Matt is compiling a video slowly of all the crazy things he has seen weightlifters do at the gyms here. I’m sure the video can go on and on all day.
Please ignore this as I’m just being a bitter single person here. But it’s really impossible to be a single person in Seoul. Not that everyone is trying to hook up all the time, but rather it’s frowned upon to not be part of a couple. Everyone walking around holding hands, snogging, wearing the matching clothes, talking in whining voices in the café or subway. Korea is not a friendly place for single people.
Take all of this with more than a couple grains of salt. I really do love being here. It’s easy to blame my bad days on the place and the people rather than myself, whereas back in the States, with no language barrier, I’d have no one to blame myself usually. I don’t regret a single ounce staying for the second year. Most of my sadness stems from this frustration with the place preventing me from getting out more and making the best of my time here.
Immediately following (within a day or so max) is a part 2, of sorts, or 10 things I love about Korea. I really don’t hate it here, promise.