Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Remembering South Korea

Several things stick out in my mind when I think back to life in South Korea. One is "hectic". Korea is a nation on the move. Nothing closes. People barely sleep. There is no such thing as "rush hour" because every hour is just as insanely busy as the previous one.

Another thing that sticks out in my memory is "delicious". Korean food is absolutely fantastic, and I have had a hard time trying to find something similar here in North America. I realize why it would be impossible to have authentic Korean food in Canada, and that is because our health codes are just too strict. Still, I would love to go back and eat some kalbi and kimchi and shabu-shabu. Look them up. They're delicious!

South Korea (formally the Republic of Korea or ROK) is a republican-style democracy of just over 55 million people jammed into a mountainous peninsula about the size of Denmark. It has 3 major cities; Seoul (the capital), Daegu, and Busan. These aren't the only notable cities.

Because of the rippled geography, most of the land in the ROK is mountainous, so every valley and plateau has a city stuck in it and the result is that the entire country appears to be paved. This is true in some respects, but there are areas between Seoul and Daegu that are wooded and quite serene, and the entire area along the DMZ between North and South Korea is practically untouched by civilization! This is an ironic benefit of the 60-year standoff between the two countries.

Regarding North Korea, most South Koreans don't care too much about their Stalinist brothers to the north. They believe that the western media is alarmist and biased, and I never met a South Korean who actually believed that there would be another war on the Korean peninsula. Most laugh at the idea, and many feel that the presence of 50,000 American troops in South Korea only serves to inflame the situation.

Instead, South Koreans believe that one day North Korea will run out of economic and political options and will collapse, much like East Germany in 1991. South Koreans are somewhat against this scenario, as they know that they will be burdened with a huge amount of economic responsibility as the cost of re-unification between the two Koreas will undoubtably be born by South Korea. Even if the international community were to donate billions of dollars to bring North Korea up to speed, in the case of re-unification South Korea will be saddled with the social and economic costs of caring for millions of poor, uneducated, and starving North Koreans who will flock to centres like Seoul in search of a better life. This is the scenario most South Koreans believe will occur in the future, and they are not particulary happy about it.

At least, these were the results of my discussions with Koreans on the situation. Most Koreans are happy to talk about it and it is not a taboo subject. In fact, most Koreans are happy to talk about anything, particularly in English. Koreans come off at first as aloof and even rude if you are a stranger to them (the result of having millions of people jammed into a small space), but I found that they are approachable and open up right away. Whether on the subway, in a store, or at a bar, it was very easy to approach Koreans and say "Annyong-Hasseyo" (hello), at which point they will start asking questions and even blush a little (the girls will, anyways).

And once a Korean is friends with you, they are friends for life. Friends and family are synonomous in Korea. To be friends with someone means they are part of your family, as well, and Koreans will go to the ends of the earth to help out their friends and family. It's a culture of honour and sacrifice and is heavily based on loyalty, and the benefit for a Canadian such as myself was that even though I haven't seen my Korean friends in three years, I can still call on them whenever I want. That was a nice change from our cold and impersonal North American culture, where the individual has loose connections to friends, tighter connections to family, and very little connection with society as a whole. In fact, in North America I find myself often alone and without a safety net whereas if I were in Korea today I would have three dozen people to entertain me and catch me if I fall.

Another thing I remember about Korea was the crazy expat community. The vast majority of expats in South Korea are ESL teachers, with a few U.S. soldiers thrown into the mix. And like any ethnic minority, they all tend to band together (it's hard to critiscize other minorities in our own countries who do the same). And what do westerners in the late 20s and early 30s like to do when they are together in large groups? If you guessed "drink" give yourself a prize.

Korea seems like one big bar nestled between Japan and China. Koreans drink a lot. Visitors drink a lot. Everybody drinks a lot and I started to distrust people who said "I don't drink". And man, did we have some wild parties in Korea! Because all us expats were in the same boat, we all had a common ground for getting along, and hordes of us would permanently take over a bar and make it our 'spot'. One such place was the Wa-Bar in a Seoul suburb called Suji.

When we first took over the bar, the staff and owner spoke no English. Several years later they could speak to us in modern slang, and the owner even gave me the shirt off his back the night before I left!

One last thing I remember is that the expat community was very helpful to newbies who just landed in Korea. Every person newly in Korea arrives slightly bewildered, utterly confused, and not sure what to do next. It is a completely foreign culture, after all, and is absolutely terrifying at first! My advice is to get to know other expats right away (check out Dave's ESL Cafe forums for info on expat hangouts all over Korea). The expats will help people get oriented, befriend them, and watch them grow into confident members of the expat community.

When I first arrived I was completely dazed but thankfully other westerners who had been there awhile got me oriented. By the time I left, two years later, I was a veteran. I loved watching new people show up all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and completely unsure of where they were, and over time I would watch them transition into people with their own experiences of Korea (and the ability to read the alphabet...which, for some reason, I noticed that it was mostly expat males who picked up this skill while most of the females hardly bothered trying...can't explain it). It was a strange existence, making friends with other expats from all over the English speaking world. I considered some of them to be the best friends in the world while I was there, and then I would watch them rotate out never to be heard from again. I did the same thing.

That's all I can think of right now. I'm sure I'll have other posts about Korea in the future.

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