7 Ways South Korea Has Changed Me

I’ve been a little retrospective lately, as my contract comes to a close this Christmas. A year and a half isn’t really a long time and the time has certainly flown by, but when sit down and really think about my earlier self, I realize that I have changed a lot. Some of these changes are surprising and others simply hilarious. (I also suspect that landing in the USA will reveal an entirely new host of transitions that I didn’t even realize I’d gone through.) For those hoping that my weird, not that funny sense of humor would be one of the things vanquished during my time in Asia, I have some sad news for you: my jokes are still horrible. Get over it.

I Stopped (Binge) Drinking

I mentioned this shortly in my earlier reflections after a year post, but this is a huge contrast to my college years. Grandma plug your ears, but oh my gosh did I drink a lot and do some really, really dumb shit. I guess everyone does, but my senior year most people had cleaned up their act and I was still drunkenly stubbing toes and getting rides in police cars. Anyways, those days are over. Either it was my overwhelming and new-found maturity, the $25 price tag on a taxi home (living in the countryside does that) or perhaps the uncomfortable reality of Korean-made beer that tastes like water, but it isn’t actually refreshing. By some strange combination of elements, I stopped drinking anything but occasionally and now actually enjoy my sobriety. I don’t even know who I am anymore.

I may have stopped binge drinking, but Koreans did not.
I may have stopped binge drinking, but Koreans did not.

Road Rage

I’ve always been a patient driver in the USA, allowing people to be stupid, slow down in the middle of the freeway and calmly maneuvering around them. I used to let strangers merge ahead of me during rush hour, and condescendingly reprimand my cousin when she screamed at cars on the way to Denny’s. Those days are also over. Driving in Korea has made me an angry, angry, unforgiving and ruthless driver. My mouth is about as clean as my bathroom floor 95% of the year and thank goodness my windows are tinted because I have flicked a lot of birds. As soon as I step out of my vehicle, though, all is well and I’m a content, zen-like human being again. Still to be determined: if my road rage will diminish in the USA or if it’s here to stay.

Nothing Sudden Phases Me

I’m not talking about ghosts popping out from behind a tree here. I’m talking about life’s little surprises, also known as the tendency of fellow Koreans to not tell you what’s going on until immediately before it happens. Like when I have several extra classes and I’m told at 9:15am that morning. Like when my coworkers are missing, I go to find them and discover it’s picture day, my turn to sit and I haven’t showered. Like when all of my classes are cancelled for unexplained reasons, then rescheduled, then cancelled again, all within a three hour time span. I’ve become a strange life-events Gumby and sometimes it weirds me out. Today, some martial art competition was happening next to the building where my class was and some strange competitor decided to show me his abs. I calmly shut the classroom door and continued with teaching. Sometimes I walk around a corner and see the building that was there yesterday has now burned to the ground. Interesting. Next week it’s two new restaurants. Korea’s taught me to just roll with it.

So you went camping on the sidewalk... interesting.
So you went camping on the sidewalk… interesting.

I Understand How Studying Works

Yes, this was the skill set that I was supposed to learn in high school so that I could use it in college. In reality, I was too smart for my own good and somehow just remembered enough from class to get by with A’s and B’s. I honestly graduated university without knowing how to really, hardcore study. Insane, right? That’s not to say I’ve never studied in my life, I have, but not for long periods of time and never on a schedule. Korea, land of kimchi and student suicides because they study too much, made me realize that I totally didn’t even know what real studying was. Learning Korean to the less-than-stellar level that I’m at now required me to really sit down, study and then repeat. Regularly.

Honestly, I still really suck at studying. But at least I understand now how the whole thing works, and how to do it successfully, even if I’m not always able to execute it well.

I’m a Modest Dresser

The USA and South Korea have a complete opposite view of modesty. Arms and shoulders and chest are scandalous when they’re shown off too much in Korea, but in the USA, a v-neck shirt is pretty standard and certainly nothing to look twice at. Tank tops are everywhere. Hell, belly shirts are totally in fashion now. But none of that flies in South Korea, particularly in a professional setting, even more particularly in a rural professional setting where you work with a bunch of middle school kids. Even outside of work, I live in a building full of single, middle aged laborers and a town equally as populated with grandmothers. I just don’t feel comfortable going anywhere in a shirt without sleeves. Or shorts that look sexy. Or a shirt that is v-necked and wide shouldered. Yeah, that tube top I packed has definitely not been put to good use, and I honestly don’t even feel comfortable in it anymore. I don’t see us having a very promising future, that tube top and I.

I Like Spicy Food (or at least can always tolerate it)

My older brother was always the one with sixteen different hot sauces from Arizona sitting in the family kitchen. At least one of them had a skull and crossbones on it. I always, always ordered mild salsa with my burrito and did not participate in the extended family Quaker, Steak and Lube atomic wings challenge. (Yes, this really happened.) Well, in Korea I’ve had no choice but to eat spicy food all the time. Spicy chili paste is a staple ingredient in, well, everything. Ever. To enjoy my time and food in Korea, I’ve had no choice but to go in with an optimistic, “Yes! Spicy! I’LL EAT THE SPICIEST THING YOU HAVE AND LIKE IT, MUAHAHA!” attitude. Somehow it worked and now I kind of like spicy food. Some of it. Anyhow, I’ll be trying that medium Mexican salsa from now on.

Chili peppers, kimchi and other unidentified red specks? Alrighty.
Chili peppers, kimchi and other unidentified red specks? Alrighty.

I Don’t Care About Beauty

Korea is a really superficial culture sometimes and rocks their plastic surgery capital of the world title with no shame. Even more uncomfortable, the only compliment I get when I meet someone is that I’m pretty. The people I least expect sometimes surprise me by whipping out their new Dior brand foundation with a big smile. To add to it all, South Korean women are straight up tiny. I’m officially an extra large size in pants when I go shopping, as opposed to my usual single digit pants size in the USA. Instead of worrying about being up to snuff, I’ve found myself completely rejecting this obsession with image. I haven’t touched my high heels in months and partially in an effort to be an example for my students, mostly because I stopped caring, I haven’t worn make up more than three times in the last six months. I don’t even know how much I weigh, because I can’t justify spending money on a scale. My style has now become the style of being clean, wearing clothes and brushing my hair regularly. I just can’t be bothered to care about looking more “beautiful”, because it simply doesn’t matter to me anymore.

I’m a free spirit, ya’ll! Who wants free eye shadow? Because there’s no way I’m making space for something so useless in my suitcase, this time around.


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15 thoughts on “7 Ways South Korea Has Changed Me”

  1. It’s so interesting to see how we change over time, especially after living abroad for an extended period of time.
    I, for one, can’t wait for crop tops to go back out of style. I hate those things, and I hate seeing them! Haha!

      1. I go crop top and full length skirt and ain’t nobody gonna stop me 😉

        also, I can’t believe you’re just starting to like spicy food! I assumed you loved it already!

  2. You might be the only person to ever say that Korea made you STOP binge drinking, haha. Maybe it helps that you live out in the country, but it seems like every expat social event revolves around “omg let’s get hammered yeahhhhh!” Love your point about beauty, though, I feel the same way. Their obsession with appearance here sickens me and I just find myself rebelling against it. Let me know how the road rage back home goes! 😉

    1. Haha you’re right. My expat friends in the city do drink a lot and that’s central to most of their meetings, but it’s definitely the country that stops me from having any “fun”. But I make my sober hangouts with my drunk friends fun anyways… no other way to do it.

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s annoyed with the obsession with looks. I’ve seen some expats go the opposite way and totally get sucked into the “look beautiful” culture and it always makes me sad. It doesn’t even matter!

  3. I especially liked “nothing sudden phases me.” Some laugh-out-loud stories there. I have to say, though – I always thought you were especially good at just rolling with it even before Korea. Now you must be reaaallllly mellow.

    1. It’s true, I can think of literally nothing that would cause me to freak out now, besides sudden death of loved ones. And I considered myself pretty laid back before, too. But let’s not test that hypothesis, yeah? 😀

  4. Interesting changes. I think that learning to overcome the ridiculousness of how Koreans don’t warn you about anything before it happens is the most important of all. I once received a call in the morning, telling me to pack my bags because I would be leaving the apartment that same day. I packed my bags and went to work while someone moved all my worldly belongings, then went home to a new apartment, half-way across Daegu.

    1. Insane! Yet typical. If you don’t learn to be flexible in Korea, then it’s really hard to have a good time. It must be said, though, Koreans really know how to do something quickly, even if they do forget to warn anyone about upcoming changes.

  5. I’m actually really happy to see that you’ve stopped binge drinking. I stopped binge drinking when I went to Mexico but now that I’m back in the UK, the social etiquette is to meet up “for a drink” and there’s a lot of pressure in that area. If you’re not drinking, you’re seen as “not having fun”. Having heard of how much Koreans like to drink, I was starting to get really worried but I guess if you can do it, cutting down the alcohol is definitely do-able.

    I also laughed so much at what you said about dressing modestly. My friend from New York came to visit over the summer and half the time she spent open-mouthed in shock at how people in the UK dress. I seriously thought we were the same but apparently the UK’s… I don’t know? That much closer to Brazil when it comes to showing off skin, I guess?

    In all seriousness though, I love this list. I especially love your last point – Not caring about beauty. Doesn’t it just give you a great sense of freedom? 🙂 Also, I can’t wait for you to get to Mexico and taste REAL authentic chilli-laced food now. 😉

    1. Haha I assure you the chili they put in food here is real, but I’m excited for Mexican food that adds other flavors to compliment the spice, instead of just pure spiciness. Argh!

      And it’s definitely possible to stop binge drinking, especially if you live in the sticks like me. It’s always a personal thing, you know? But that said, my friends in the city drink quite a bit and the expat culture here is pretty alcohol-centered. But it’s also food centered, so you can find your place, sans binge drinking, if you look for it. 🙂

  6. YES to the nothing sudden phasing you bit! My old job would often be like, “oh, you know you’re taking T4 for their reading classes now?” “Starting when?” “…Now.” “As in right now?” “Yes.”…agh.

    “What are you doing? You’re teaching Silver 8 now!”
    “It’s my free period, I’m eating dinner…”
    “Ohhhhhhh! Did I forget to tell you?”
    “Give me five minutes.”
    *eye roll*

    1. Hahaha exactly, exactly, exactly. Last year they never told me about that random week in February, so I woke up to “Where are you?~~” text messages and four classes on the schedule, one open, and like 20 minutes to plan them all.

      Oh, Korea…

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