The 10 Stupidest Things I Did While Living in Korea

When someone mentions they are an expat or living abroad, you might feel like they’re being a little pretentious. Some blogs (cough cough Thought Catalog) like to romanticize the experience, talk about why home will never be the same and generally just drone on and on about what an original experience everything is when you’re abroad.

Yeah, I’m sorry, but I need to tell you the truth. Being an expat is just a series of stupid moments and mistakes that never end. Yes, it’s like no other experience, yes, you’re better for it, yes, you’re automatically a little misunderstood when you go home because no one was there with you. But let’s cut the shit: being an expat isn’t glorious. You go somewhere, act like an idiot and learn enough about patience to accept that sometimes you’re stupid. And it’s okay.

Being an expat is asking yourself this question: how many times in one day can I embarrass myself before I just die?

As I’ve learned from living in South Korea, the answer is, well, a lot. In fact, after all of these stupid moments, I’m still living! I think that’s the big lesson here when you move abroad; it doesn’t even matter. Life goes on. Embarrassment isn’t actually a cause of death and most of the time, except in extraordinary circumstances, you will get out of stupidity alive.

What did I do that was stupid? Oh this will be fun. Take a seat, I’m an idiot, so prop your feet up and settle in for some belly laughter.

I said the word “bitch” to my bosses.

In my defense, they knew I meant the word “year” and just kind of blinked and let me finish talking. But the fact that the word for “bitch” and “year” are the same, but the meaning changes depending on sentence context is just lunacy. Someone change the Korean language.

I gave myself food poisoning.

I was too lazy to go to the grocery store, so I walked half the distance to the convenience store and bought what turned out the be the most disgusting meal I’ve ever had the displeasure of putting in my mouth. I couldn’t eat solids for a week after that and I’ll spare you the details of my bowel movements. See the full story here, if you actually want more information than that, ew.

NEVER AGAIN.
NAVER AGAIN.
NAVER AGAIN.

I withdrew $200 from the ATM when I only wanted $20.

In Korea, they count their money in 10,000s, because 1,000 won = ~$1 and it would be difficult to keep track of, otherwise. They even have a special word that means 10,000, “man”. So while I typed in 20 into the screen, which I assumed would mean 20,000, what I was actually typing was 20 ten-thousands. Or 200,000 won. I immediately ran into the bank, shame-faced, with my hands overflowing with bills and somehow communicated to the banker that all this money I’d just withdrawn should go back into my bank account. Never made that mistake again.

I walked into places with my shoes on, multiple times.

In South Korea, shoes do not come inside, only socks or slippers are allowed. I forgot this a couple times, at first, but within five steps there were screams and arm grabs and generally, just a tragic scene of horrified Korean faces around me. This happens to me even now, because some places are a little unclear about what is a “socks only” area. Just two weeks ago, on a ferry boat, I got the death state when I unknowingly stepped one foot into the shoe-free zone.

I agreed to adopt someone’s dog and then gave it back, all before 8am.

I can’t explain this story in only a few sentences, so just head over to the post I wrote about it to see the full story. *face palm*

There she is. Parry.
My short term adopted dog that shit on my floor as a welcome gift.
My short term adopted dog that shit on my floor as a welcome gift.

I fell on my ass in public.

Sidewalks during the wintertime in South Korea should be renamed “ice walks”. Need I explain more? People laughed. My butt was sore.

I wore Hanbok to work.

This wasn’t really my own stupidity, but simply one of the most embarrassing moments of my teaching career. My boss told me we were going to the city right that moment, took me to a Hanbok shop (traditional Korean costume), made me choose my favorite and then wear it for the rest of the morning. To work. And show the students during their English class. And show my bosses. And he stopped at the local gas station on the way back so my neighbors could see me, too. (The picture can be found, here.)

I asked where to find the salt in the grocery store.

Who can’t find salt? This girl. It was in clear view, but apparently my eyes just weren’t working that day. I also remember using Google images to show a shop owner a picture of an onion, so she could help me locate them.

Luckily, the tuna wasn't as hard to find.
Luckily, the tuna wasn’t as hard to find.
Luckily, the tuna wasn’t as hard to find.

I ordered food that I couldn’t stand to eat.

Never, ever point to something random on a menu and order it. What comes out might be cold noodles drenched in gochujang, red pepper sauce, and literally nothing else. Within three bites, my gag reflex started up and the cause was lost. Consulting my phone for pictures of what the menu said, I successfully ordered hot food for round two. The giant plate of disgusting noodles sat wayside for the rest of the meal. Yuck.

I went on dates I didn’t know were dates.

Actually, I’m not even sure that they were dates, to this day. I’m still confused about some. But there were several times I went to a dinner or two with my “guy friend” and later found out that his intentions were more romantic than platonic. I usually found this out when he had some alcohol in his system and felt he should confess his love. Even though we might have had frank conversations about how we were just friends. Anyways, I don’t have any “guy friends” that are Korean, anymore. That didn’t work out very well.

G-Dragon_2012_4
My accidental dates would have been much better if they were with G-Dragon.
My accidental dates would have been much better if they were with G-Dragon.

Those are just ten instances that I remember, but there are probably a few repressed memories hiding in the dark corners of my brain. Even after all of this, though, my self confidence is still intact and I still wake up breathing, every single day. I also still do stupid things. That never ended, unfortunately.

So next time your friend comes back from Paris and starts to drone on about the croissants, stop them. Say, “Tell me about the stupidest thing you did while you were in France.” You’ll be able to laugh instead of rolling your eyes, something both of you will appreciate, and no one will be under the illusion that expat-ing is glorious in any way, shape or form.

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What are the stupidest things you’ve ever done while living abroad? Don’t you wish you were an expat, now? Do you agree that being an expat is more misadventure than adventure?

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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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The Characters of Sambong

In a small town, it’s a given that you’ll see some people more than a few times and learn their face, even if you don’t know their name. In a teeny tiny rural Korean town with three roads, it’s even worse (or better?). There are some people that I see every single day, doing the same things, while I do the same things. Sometimes they talk to me, sometimes we just pass each other by with a head-nod of acknowledgement and sometimes it’s a new face, doing the same things the other old, similar face was doing. It’s kind of a weird way of life, but the people that live in my town are the pillars of my existence, in a sense. They make Sambong, my little town, what it is. They color my experience with entertainment and wonderment, causing me to simultaneously scratch my head and laugh hysterically in public.

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the characters, the faces, the Korean people of Sambong.

The Exercising Ajumma

Every morning I wake up earlier than the crack of dawn to run with my puppy. I walk to the school track and in the dark morning, through the darkness I always look for the moving shadow. The exercising ajumma is often the same woman, but sometimes a new face appears to do the exact same thing. She does a brisk walk for about 30 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes, and then does strange stretches for another five minutes before disappearing into the new daylight. Her signature stretch is arms raised in a V-shape above her head, holding a scarf taught between them, and twisting to either side. Another favorite is what I like to call the almost-falling-backward-onto-the-bed stretch, where she leans backwards, arms stretched out, as far as she can without falling over and holds the position. Do these stretches actually stretch? I’m not sure. But I would never question her.

The Avid Golfer

About ten minutes into my morning exercise routine, the avid golfer usually arrives. In his mid forties, he comes to the track in his running gear and with a golf club in hand. (I’m totally serious, this guy is real.) He does the same series of exercises: alternating between a brisk walk with the golf club, a (very) short jog with the golf club, some stretching with the golf club and then actually using the golf club for its intended purposes, by doing swinging practice in the nearby sand pit. His reasons for exercising at all are crystal clear.

This is what you've been missing in your exercise routine.
This is what you’ve been missing in your exercise routine.

The Gung-ho Crossing Guard

On one of the three roads in town sits my school and while there is some traffic in the morning, I’m not entirely convinced of the need for a crossing guard. Regardless, he is there every morning, bright and early, in his neon vest and military-style hat. He takes his job extremely seriously, swinging his stiff arms in quick succession; signifying to cars that yes, they may pass, even if no students are in sight, let along trying to cross the road. He reminds me of a robot, on occasion. As I walk closer to him on my way to work each morning, he swings his arm sharply up to his forehead into a salute, and yells “Good morning!”

The Farming Neighbor

This elderly man was clearly hot stuff back in the day, based on his charming smile and confident swag. I don’t see him everyday, but on the stretch of road between home and school, he sometimes walks around his fields or checks on piles of garlic (or potatoes or cabbage) that need to be sorted out for selling. When I see him, he smiles that devious old man smile, waves hello, asks about a random work in English (“pumpkin!”) or just gives up the facade and makes arm hearts at me.

The Sober Laborer

Korea has a bit of a social epidemic on their hands: all the women move to the city and all the men working menial jobs are left in the country, wife-less and bored. I live in a building of one-room apartments, which I’m sure you can imagine attracts exactly this kind of 40-year-old man. The sober laborer is many people who all do the same thing; they smoke, they wear their construction vest, and they stand outside between 6:10-6:25am waiting for the bus to work. All of them say hello to me, as if we’ve talked, because hey… there’s only one foreign girl with a dog in the area. They adore Mary, and frequently use her as an in to ask me weird questions that I don’t understand.

The laborers in the morning club, as seen from the roof.
The laborers in the morning club, as seen from the roof.

The Drunk Laborer

The drunk laborer usually appears outside of restaurants on Saturday and Sunday mornings, though occasionally he appears outside my apartment having a Saturday/Sunday picnic on the rolling table. He says things like “beautiful!” “pretty!” or the classic, “foreigner!” He adores my dog even more than usual. Last week the drunk laborer even gave me arm hearts, although usually he just slurs his words or stumbles down the road, going nowhere with a lit cigarette in hand. By evening, he’s ironically nowhere to be seen.

The Student Terrified of Dogs

Some students like puppies, but other students have this deep seeded, unexplainable terror for animals in general. As I approach, the student terrified of dogs will give Mary a wary eye, and as I get closer they’ll shy a little behind their friend, towards the street, away from me. When I get close and I let Mary sniff their feet (because I’m a jerk!), the student terrified of dogs inevitably lets out a high pitched scream, runs sideways or backwards off the sidewalk and never takes (usually) her eyes off of the scary, biting and drooling, flesh ripping thing that is my ten month old, ten pound puppy.

TERRIFYING.
TERRIFYING.

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I’ll be collecting these

sometimes, when we don’t know the word for something in another language, we attempt to describe it. oftentimes, our description is hilarious.

I’ll be collecting these in a notebook for a future blog post, but for now, here is yesterday’s gem:

“did you turn off the cold wind?” (what he meant: did you turn off the air conditioner?)

I’m sure there will be many, many more to come.