You Know You’ve Been in Korea Too Long When…

As an expat, Korea is a great country to live in. As an ESL teacher, it’s even better. Free housing, excellent pay, a low cost of living, a job that isn’t completely time consuming, other foreigners that you can relate to. The list could go on for ages. But it’s also a country that vastly different than the West, and if you don’t go home frequently enough, then it becomes easy to lose track of social norms and the correct spellings of complicated words. The slope gets even more slippery when you notice how easy it is to sign for a second year, or skip that visit home in exchange for a cheaper, more adventurous and booze-filled vacation in SE Asia.

So yeah, a lot of us (myself included) find ourselves in Korea maybe just a tad bit too long. Here are some tell-tale signs that you need to fly home and reacquaint yourself with Western culture, before it’s too late.

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You give your expat friends money with both hands.

Once you get into this habit, it’s hard to get out. I guess it can’t hurt to be extra respectful to your friends, even though you just look weird. Thank goodness your friends are expats and understand your struggles; you won’t find the same understanding at home.

You take “selcas” in public and send them to your Western friends. (And you call them “selcas”, not “selfies”.)

Everybody and their grandmother takes selfies in Korea, sometimes people take selfies with their grandmother. After a while you stop watching marathon selca sessions and start to just accept it. Then you try it out yourself. Then you like it. Then it becomes a problem because you don’t have anyone around you who’ll give you weird looks or just tell you to stop being so obsessed with yourself and put your damn phone away, you’re at the gym.

I can't be entirely sure, but I think that selfies with your dog are still culturally acceptable, though.
I can’t be entirely sure, but I think that selfies with your dog are still culturally acceptable. Right?

Excluding sleep, you haven’t spent more than an hour of the last day not looking at some kind of screen.

Good morning, check your phone. Open the computer with breakfast. Walk to work, or commute to work with your phone. Get to work, use the computer for things. Take a break and read a little on your Kindle. Remember that you haven’t played that cell phone dragon game in two days. Answer messages from a friend. Write a blog post. Go home and edit some photographs. Relax before bed with a Kindle. Oh my gosh, I need to get out of Korea before my brain turns to mush and my eyeballs stop working!

You become passionate about Dokdo.

I’ve read about the historical nuances of the territory dispute, and I get that it’s just a giant rock but in a strategic location. And I agree that based on the history, Dokdo should probably belong to Korea. But if you are not from Korea and feel really passionate about this subject, then you probably need to take a breather from propaganda and read about mass murders by drones or something. It’s still just a rock. And if you’re a foreigner, it’s not even yours.

You use the world “delicious” (or, worse, “deliciously”) without irony.

The word “delicious” used to sound kind of creepy, when not used in the correct context. Now I don’t even know what that context would be. I can’t even think of an alternate way to describe food, except for “good”. Last week, I wrote the word “deliciously” in one of my updates and I’m wondering if I should be ashamed about that, too.

Also unacceptable, the word "yammy".
Also unacceptable, the word “yammy”.

You not only drink the instant coffee, you like it.

If you were trained as a barista at some point, then this one applies doubly to you. There should be no circumstances in which sugary, milky, chemically not-coffee is drinkable. Unfortunately, us expats in Korea know that indeed, such circumstances exist and they no longer feel shameful.

You’re no longer upset that beef at the grocery store costs $10-15.

It’s outrageous. And if you’re not upset about it anymore, then you need a vacation. It’s outrageous, I say!

You group text your friends about grammar, because you can’t tell if a sentence is wrong or just awkward sounding.

You know it’s bad when you’ve been out of an English-speaking environment so long that your internal mother-tongue radar needs a recharge.

You stop giving warning to friends about upcoming events.

Everyone knows about Korean propensity to tell you ten minutes in advance about extra classes, cancelled classes or huge life changing events that are about to take place. When it’s rubbed off on you, that’s when you know you have a problem. Your friends back home will not appreciate this new trait if you don’t get it together and fight your urge to notify people of things at the last second.

"Hey guys, I'm going to Germany tomorrow, so can someone take care of Mary for the next two weeks?"
“Hey guys, I’m going to Germany tomorrow, so can someone take care of Mary for the next two weeks?”

You never type “haha”, only ㅋㅋㅋ.

Especially if you’re typing in English… you have to actually switch keyboards on your phone to do this. If this is you, please schedule your visit immediately.

When you want to search for something, you use Naver.

I rest my case.

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By virtue of even being able to make this list, I think I qualify as having been in Korea too long. Time to go home.

[In July 2014, did. It’s been hard.]

What kinds of weird quirks have you picked up that make you realize it may be time to get out of Korea? Do you disagree with any of these? Let me know in the comments!

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White & Pretty in South Korea

A complete stranger: “Hello!”
Me: “안녕하세요.” (Hello.)
Stranger: “오! 한국어 잘 하시네요!” (Wow, you speak Korean very well!)

White, pretty, female privilege. What does it look like?

Two laborers, doing construction work: “Would you like some Makgeolli?” (Korean rice wine)
Me, walking past them on my way home: “No, I have to drive later. Thanks!”

How much of it is privilege and how much is simply a welcoming, kind culture?

Me, at the local coffee shop: “One waffle and one Americano.
Owner: “One thousand Won, please.” (About 95¢)

Are discounts because I’m foreign? Are they because I’m pretty? Are they because I’m white? Are they because I’m a “guest” in Korea, expected to leave within a year or so? Are they because I’m a girl? Is it simply because the shop is new and it’s my first time coming here?

A coworker’s mother-in-law’s funeral. As my coworkers each put money into an envelope for the family of the deceased, I realize I don’t have any cash.
My coworkers: “Oh no, you don’t need to give any money.”
Me: “Are you sure?”
Coworkers: “No, no, no. It’s fine.”

Should I feel grateful or ostracized, knowing that others likely won’t get the same treatment?

Walking around with my Korean boyfriend in Seoul. No one spits at, grimaces or insults us. No one assaults us. We are served a free soft drink at dinner, just because.

Which part of my foreign, female, and pretty identity exempts me from the idea that foreigners “dirty” the Korean race? Why do Western men and Korean women get treated differently, disdained while I walk around, unscathed?

An acquaintance of my boyfriend sees us together. Behind my back, he gives my boyfriend a thumbs up.

What part of my identity makes me a plus as opposed to a negative? If I was fatter, would the reaction be the same? If I was skinnier and less pretty, what then? What does it take to flip the scales and push me into “unwanted foreigner” territory? What if I was really from Russia, but looked the same? Would anyone notice?

My coworker: “Oh my gosh! I forgot to tell you about the staff picture! You aren’t in it!”

When should I insist on being treated the same, when it affects me negatively or when I’m served free food and drinks for my skin color? (Or is it my long eyelashes?) When I’m forgotten in the staff photograph or forgiven for missing the school assembly? If I put my foot down on special treatment, will that offend the Koreans I work with? The Koreans I meet? Would they listen?

I don’t take put any kimchi on my plate during lunch. No one says anything.

Can I ever be anything other than just an “other”, even with my culturally desirable white skin, skinny body, pretty face and fluency in English? I spend time understanding Korean culture and learning Korean, but is it enough to be accepted? If I speak fluent Korean, will that be enough?

I fear not.

Should I be upset about it?

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Those that came before me:

Understanding Racism in Korean on Seoulistic

A Huge Cloud of Shiny Whiteness: On Being White and Privileged in South Korea on The Unlikely Expat

“Because you’re foreign…” Western, White and English privilege in Korea by Sarah Shaw

“Be White” on Scribblings by The Metropolitician

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You can find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page, on Twitter & Instagram or you can subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

I Almost Fainted in Public… Again.

When I’m sick, I need to be padlocked to my bed for 48 hours, because this is the second time I’ve left the house for something I “need” to do and it’s ended less than pleasantly.

Last time, I was in Buenos Aires, on a subway, and I actually completely lost consciousness. (You can read the entire story here.) This time, the scenario was eerily similar: I was on a bus, once again there were no seats and I was stuck standing. Continue reading I Almost Fainted in Public… Again.