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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Opposite Travel Styles, Claudia, and Berlin

Not everyone has the same travel style. In fact, even people in love may not necessarily travel well together. When I told Claudia that I’d be in Berlin and we worked out that she’d join me for about a week in Berlin, this wasn’t on my mind. I didn’t think about it. I was just excited to see Claudia after five years and a week with her sounded wonderful, no matter what the circumstances.

And it was. We met at the hostel and exchanged hugs right away. We shared a lot of delicious cocktails outside, took some long walks and generally had a great time in Berlin together. But it wasn’t all cake and champagne, because as we found out within 24 hours, we are complete opposites when it comes to planning. It had me worrying at first. We were supposed to have an amazing week as old friends. How were we going to do this?

Back in the day.
Back in the day.

I’m the kind of traveler that may or may not purchase the Lonely Planet guide ahead of time. I don’t have a list of things I’d like to see ahead of time. My research is kept to a bare minimum and involves mentally adding to a list things people ask if I’ve seen. I’ll sometimes put one thing on my to-see list and spend the better part of the remaining day just wandering the area and finding things to do on my way. I’ll go out of my way to find a highly recommended restaurant. The method to my madness is simply to feel the pulse of a city for a moment. If I feel hungry, I’ll eat, if I’m tired, I’ll go sleep, no matter how much of my mental to-see list was completed. Sometimes this works out really well and I see everything I should, other times I completely miss a huge, iconic part of the city. (Although regardless, I always have a nice time.)

Claudia plans. She had her guidebook, she had read and highlighted things she’d like to visit. She will not stop for the evening until everything is completed and she’ll hurry through one place to make sure that she gets to the next before it closes. She thinks about travel times and knows which bus to take before she gets to the bus stop. She’s prepared and ready for each day before it begins, treating it as a series of things to be conquered. And she does it well, very well. Better yet, I can tell she enjoys it. In the time that we were in Berlin, she managed to fit in a crazy amount of sightseeing. I was impressed.

But we are completely, 200%, 180 degrees different when it comes to planning our time while traveling. Both styles are fine, nice ways to vacation in a new city, but are they compatible?

Our first couple days were a trial. She’d ask me what I want to do and I’d give a noncommittal shrug and say “whatever you want!” This probably drove her crazy, since it was her second time in Berlin and she wanted to make sure I was having a nice vacation; I wouldn’t be back in Berlin anytime soon. Then it would be dinner time, I would get hungry and point out an obscure restaurant some friend on Tumblr told me about with not very exact directions. We’d be on our way to the S-Bahn stop and she would want to sit and figure out our public transportation before boarding the street car, I’d prefer to jump on, head downtown and figure out the exact route while on our way. Claudia loves pizza, I like meaty burritos. Claudia is a vegetarian.

Talk about opposites.

Claudia, planning things.
Claudia, planning things.

But slowly, as the afternoons passed, we somehow figured out how to accommodate each other. She started making her plans and telling me about them, I decided whether I would join or not, or for how long. I let her figure out all of the public transportation ahead of time. She came along when there was something delicious nearby, and I tried to find places in the area from other places she might be more interested in. I quickly learned that Claudia probably wasn’t going to eat the same thing that I wanted, but I should just eat it anyways and then sit through her meal, later. By the end, we were splitting up entirely, but agreed to meet for dinner or drinks at a certain time. When we went to Potsdam, she elected to do a group bus tour and I did an audio guided solo bike tour, instead. We met up afterwards and talked about the things each of us saw (or missed), each of us having enjoyed the tour and also happy to be able to discuss it afterwards.

By giving and taking, doing some things together and plenty of things separate, being clear about what each of us undoubtedly wanted to see or do (or in my case, eat!), we smoothed over the rough patches that inevitably come while traveling with your complete travel planning opposite. The benefit for me of seeing Berlin with Claudia was that she forced me to be a bit more organized than I might have been otherwise, which meant that I saw more of the city. I may have never made it to Potsdam if it weren’t for Claudia, but Potsdam was one of my favorite areas of Berlin. She pushed me to be more efficient, even if I did want to knock her over while she made us run for the subway. I really hate running to catch any kind of train.

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This would have been the perfect moment to knock her over, but instead I just took some pictures.

And I’m sure that she wanted to toss me into oncoming traffic more than a few times as I said, “Eh, it won’t take 30 minutes, probably just 25. We don’t have to leave right now,” or “It doesn’t really matter to me, you can decide,” and “Yeah, I don’t know what my plans are for the morning yet,” ten minutes before bed.

But somehow we did it and still had a great time. We shared cocktails galore, lots of bakery stops in the morning, museum after museum after museum and the joys (terrors) of staying in a party hostel with an actual club outside the window. My last evening in Berlin I spent alone, she’d already flown out, and it was a little quiet and strange. I had a glass of wine outside and endured an hour of a sudden, huge thunderstorm underneath the restaurant umbrella. As the rain came down hard and the wind whipped drops all over my table, I thought to myself that it was a moment I would have liked to have shared. With Claudia.

The final cocktail before she flew home.
The final cocktail before she flew home. Sad day.

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Seeing Pinja or Why I Won’t Delete My Facebook

Sometimes Facebook terrifies me. The fact that I constantly have to keep my privacy settings in check is annoying at best, kind of immoral at worst. I don’t own my photographs once they’re on Facebook, the new graph search is pretty creepy and my older brother always insists on putting weird, sometimes vulgar posts on my wall, because he’s my older brother and that’s what they do. Thanks bro.

But despite all of the concerns I have with Facebook and privacy and the company using my information for advertising or stealing phone numbers from my phone, there’s one thing that stops me from deleting my account entirely. (Actually, if I’m honest, two things: I have to keep up my social media presence for this blog!) It’s because Facebook does what it’s supposed to do and it does it really well: it connects.

When I was 17, a junior in high school, I set off on the adventure of my somewhat-short-so-far lifetime. I went to live with a family in Austria and be a foreign exchange student through the lovely program AFS. We were a group of strangers that left New York together and arrived in Vienna as a group of friends. During our arrival, we met up with all of the various people from around the world that would be living here too. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Canada and Finland. Hong Kong. Iceland. USA.* We all had one thing in common: we were going to be foreigners in Austria. We all crossed our fingers that our host families would be nice.

I'd like to thank Facebook for allowing me to find and download my friend's picture from 6 years ago.
I’d like to thank Facebook for allowing me to find and download my friend’s picture of us from six years ago.

That semester led to plenty of new Facebook friends, who would later become old Facebook friends and buried under news feed of newer acquaintances as the years passed since our life in Austria together. Occasionally someone would pop up in my feed and I’d click on their profile to try and decipher what they were up to these days. In 2011, I studied abroad in Argentina and had a short but lovely reunion with one of the old AFSers named Berta. We hadn’t seen each other in four years, yet here we were, meeting again in Argentina this time and feeling like no time had passed. For that, I definitely had Facebook to thank. (That also sparked my decision to stop deleting Facebook friends all the time.)

So when I was doing my bi-annual Facebook stalking of all of my old AFS friends earlier this year and saw that Pinja (from Finland) was in Germany at the moment, I immediately messaged her with news that I’d be in Germany this July/August. Soon enough I had a reply and our schedules lined up. If it weren’t for Facebook, I’d have never known to get in contact with her in the first place and I’d probably only have the most ancient email address to do so.

We worked out a plan, I flew to Germany, took a train to Leipzig and did a couple things in between that exact sequence of events. We found each other quickly at the train station. Apparently, I look the exact same as I did when I was 17, but so does Pinja. We started out with a short tour of the city, touring at old churches and noticing the beat down buildings, remnants of communist East Germany. The conversation was endless: we had over six years of catch up to do, yet we slipped into our friendship as comfortably as we’d left it. And it was just as hard to say goodbye, this time, too.

There we are, looking the exact same as when we were 17 apparently.
There we are, looking the exact same as when we were 17 apparently.

The laughter, the old drudged up memories of being a teenager in Austria, the hilarious German vocabulary that only we (and all of Styria) know; these are the things that old friends share. As old friends we, of course, created new memories too: pasta making adventures, the search for baby clothes (don’t ask) and my first curry wurst. But our old friendship was only reignited because of modern technology. Because of Facebook.

So as much as I dislike consonantly monitoring my privacy settings, knowing that people look at the my photographs and information without me knowing and that Facebook is collecting and creating a nice little personality file on me, I will remain. Because as long as Facebook keeps doing it’s main job, keeping me connected to old friends and new friends alike, then I’m going to stick around. For days like the short ones I spent with Pinja, for last year’s reunion with Berta from Argentina, it’s always going to be worth it. Seeing smiling faces and great big hugs after years-long hiatuses are two pretty good reasons, if you ask me, to keep that Facebook page up and running.

 

*I know I didn’t include every country represented, sorry guys. Writing style, ya know?

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You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. There’s also an email list, if you’d like to subscribe.

Upcoming: 2 Weeks in Germany

Here's a picture of me at 17, in Austria, falling in love with the German language. (No, really, I'm pretty sure that's exactly what I was doing in this picture. Trust me.)
Here’s a picture of me at 17, in Austria, falling in love with the German language. (No, really, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I was doing in this picture. Trust me.)

Wonderful things are on the horizon! Yes, I’m talking about my upcoming vacation time, the majority of which will be spent in Deutschland.

Why Germany? To explain it properly, I’ll have to tell you a little secret.

Continue reading Upcoming: 2 Weeks in Germany

Photoessay: Camping on Hagampo Beach

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This Saturday/Sunday, my friends and I went camping on the beach. Koreans love camping, so it was especially lucky that we not only found a nice stretch of beach to accommodate all of us (over 20 people!) but also had the beach almost entirely to ourselves. We all set up our tents, located all of our bags and cracked open a beer (or wine, or soju + juice) to enjoy in the sunshine. The communal environment was relaxing; we all shared pork, beef, ramen noodles, vegetables and drinks of all kinds and our laughter echoed over the empty beach for hours. Freezing as the water was, the brave few swam and the majority of us waded only as far as our calves. We played frisbee, “cricket”, soccer and hiked to the part-time island (low tide/high tide) to climb over rock piles and see the other side of the beach. After sunset, we built a huge bonfire on the beach and sat in a circle, warming our tired legs and soaking up the heat.

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Thanks for the memories, Hagampo.

About Hagampo (학암포):
Hagampo is a beach located about 20km Northwest of Taeon (태안), in Chungnam Province. A local bus runs to Hagampo a few times each day or, alternatively, a taxi will cost about 26,000₩.

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You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. There’s also an email list, if you’d like to subscribe.

the end of a job

after some shaky attendance and a few classes for which nobody showed up (causing me to lose three hours of my life), my teaching gig after-school has come to a close a little earlier than expected. while I’m sad that the class had to be prematurely canceled, I’m also relieved. not knowing whether no students or two students would show up to a class registered with over fifteen people was quite an annoyance. that’s what happens, though, when you offer free classes, after hours, with no repercussions for signing up and not attending… during one of the most stressful (and important!) months for the interns, who comprise over half of those registered. Continue reading the end of a job

It’s a Korean thing: Kakao Talk

This, my friends is a little phone app called Kakao Talk. In Korea, this is more important than a lot of things… eating dinner, having a job, maybe combing your hair everyday. (Scratch that, nothing is more important than having recently combed hair.) It’s so important, because it’s the universal free messaging application used by Koreans. I’m not just talking young people here… I’m talking everyone. Like my co-workers. Like if my mom was in Korea right now, she’d have Kakao. Actually, she already does, because I made her and my immediate family download it. When I first got my phone, a Korean friend of mine took it and immediately installed Kakao. My phone was essentially naked before the Kakao app, now it’s fully clothed and ready to go out in public. If there’s a smart phone that exists in Korea without this application installed, it’s probably in the bottom of a garbage can. Continue reading It’s a Korean thing: Kakao Talk