Tag Archives: living

Living in Korea

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Almost five months ago now, I landed in Korea and started a new stage in my life as an English teacher. Time has gone by as it usually does, impossibly moving along slowly and quickly at the same time. February seems a lifetime ago but at the same time its almost like yesterday.

Five months should be a reasonable amount of time to get even the slightest of grips on anything, but in those five months I feel like I’ve learnt only the tiniest amount about Korean culture, how Korean society works and what its actually like to be a Korean.

In my time here, I’ve found many a blog from people in exactly the same position. Many of these blogs have provided some commentary on Korea – usually going for the option of comparing the differences and similarities between Korea and America (or England). As time goes by though, I’m starting to realise that any experience I have in Korea, is not a true Korean experience, but rather an experience shaped around who I am and where I’m from. As an expat, I am not actually living within Korean society, I live outside of it, in a bubble. I am an outsider. I do not experience Korea, I experience a warped version of Korea presented to me.

I don’t live like a Korean, I don’t eat like a Korean, I don’t speak like a Korean. I am not Korean. I do not live the Korean life. So really, I can’t comment on what it’s like to truly live in Korea. Naturally, my life shares many experiences with that of a Korean person, but all of these experiences happen to me through an English lens.

Going to a new country, we often see uncanny things, because we are experiencing a new place while imposing expectations from places we are used to. Really, these things we experience aren’t strange, just different. I’ve come to understand that what I see as strange, a Korean doesn’t see as anything, they have no opinion on it at all. My experience of Korea is nowhere near the same experience as a natives, due to my reaction to this new environment being completely different.

One thing I’d like to take as an example is the strange (to me) lack of public garbage cans in Korea. If you find yourself buying, and eating a Snickers bar you’ll soon find that there is nowhere on the street to dispose of it. Public garbage cans barely exist and they’re commonly only found in civic buildings or subway stations. The lack of garbage cans is almost immediately noticeable and even more immediately annoying. I’m sure I’m not the only foreigner to fall to my knees and scream “Where’s all the garbage cans!?! ARGH!!”

Now lets look at the other perspective. When living in your home country have you ever spared half, or even quarter of a thought to public garbage cans? It’s not something you would ever think about. How many times have you used a garbage can without conscious thinking? Be honest. You don’t think about throwing away garbage, you just do it, its part of life. You never feel any opinion towards it, because its so ingrained into your routine as to be invisible, subconscious, you never think about.

It’s part of a routine, the garbage routine – you eat your food, you realise you have some garbage to get rid of, you find a nearby garbage can, then you throw away your trash. Once that routine is broken though – as it is in a foreign country – that’s when the whole activity of getting rid of your garbage becomes a conscious thing.

The routine for a Korean person is different, when they eat a Snickers in public they don’t immediately start to seek out a garbage can. They put the wrapper into their pocket and wait. Go on with life as normal. A garbage can will come eventually. As an English person though, this will not do. I am so used to the idea – the routine – of a garbage can being immediately accessible that when it isn’t I can’t snap out of that routine which quickly leads to anxiety or rage.

Essentially, what I’m talking about, as I have done a few times on my blog, is culture shock. This time about the disconnect between the routines I am used to in the West – that are subconscious – and the routines I now face in Korea – which I have to consciously think about. This disconnect becomes tiring as you need to think about every little thing which before wasn’t worth thinking about. Garbage. Taking a taxi. Shopping. Paying bills.

All of these things that were once ingrained in me, I have to learn again, and because these things are now more noticeable, they are the things that shape my opinion of Korea. If you ask me “what is Korea like?” my first thought will be “there is a complete lack of garbage cans” and really this shows I’ve learnt nothing about the actual country and that all I can make are comparisons to England which seems to only scratch the surface.

Eventually, I’m sure I’ll become completely immersed into Korean culture, I’ll no longer think about where to find a garbage can, I’ll just think much in the same way as a Korean person would, by not thinking at all. I will have learnt all of the routines. Day to day living will no longer be an issue.

So really, if you wonder “What’s it like to live in Korea?” you already know the answer. It’s the same way as living anywhere else.You know all the rules. You know all the routines. It’s comfortable. 

Note: I wrote this post 6 months or so ago and its been sitting in my drafts folder since then. My WordPress end of year report revealed that in 2013 I only published 3 blog posts. It was quite a surprise to me and slightly disappointing. I’ve grown to fear clicking publish, so I’m going to try to go through my drafts and publish a few.

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The Annual Existential Crisis (Birthday)

By Dan

Progressione II

Last week I turned 25. I tried to forget about it, tried to push it to the back of my mind, tried to pretend it was a normal day. But, no. Noooo! Over 30 people (most of whom, let’s be honest, I barely talk to) were there on Facebook, “politely” reminding me that it was my birthday with a constant barrage of jovial messages.

It’s not that I dislike birthdays. I like presents. I like cake. I like attention. But what I hate is that moment. The moment when the party is over, the house is empty, cardboard hats cover the floor, the food on the table lies half eaten, and you sit alone on your sofa and you think, ‘so, I’m 25 now, what have I done with my life?’ The silence is the answer.

Nothing.

I am 25 and I have done nothing with my life. I don’t say this with pride, but I also don’t say this with self-pity. I just say it. How many 25 year olds have done anything with their life? Not many I wager. So why do I feel bad that I’ve done nothing with mine?

I don’t know what to do with my life. At all. But I feel I should be doing something. So my mind is caught in a constant cycle. First I must feel bad because I’ve not yet done anything. Then I must feel bad because I don’t know what to do. Then I must feel bad because I haven’t done what I don’t know what to do. I feel constantly confused. Like I have no place. I feel lost. I’m unsure about everything.

There’s a term for this. A “quarter life crisis”. A time in a young person’s life where they becoming introspective and start to question their existence. We go back to that question again of ‘who am I?

I’m sick of asking it. Really sick. The question is even starting to bore me. I’m starting to not care about who I am. Who gives a shit! Who says I should give a damn anyway?

The world. That’s who. My generation has been brought up with an unhealthy dose of optimism. As children we are told we can be anybody we want to be. That we can do anything we want to do. If we dream big, those dreams can one day be turned into reality. We can all be a great person. A memorable person. We can change the world if we want.

Then you grow up and you realise that unhealthy dose of optimism has turned you into a pessimist. You come to the realisation that you can’t be anybody you want to be. You can’t do anything. If you dream big, you eventually realise your dreams will never happen. You can’t change the world. You can barely build up the courage to change your hairstyle.

We’re raising our children to have a false grip on their existence. If we raise every child to believe their life is special, then eventually there’ll be a fallout when all of these children grow up and realise they’re just the same as everybody else. We aren’t all great people.

If everybody is a great person then what’s the point of being great? If everybody is great, then that just means being great is average. So really, what we’re saying is, everybody is average. It comes as quite a blow when you realise you’re just the same as everybody else. You will live, you will do nothing with your life, then you will die, and 100 years afterwards you’ll be lucky if your name turns up on a family tree. That is all.

We can’t all change the world. We all read the same books. We all think the same thoughts (even these thoughts, right now, that I’m typing.) We all buy our clothes from the same stores. We all feel. We all speak. We all see. We aren’t unique. We aren’t special. We are average. That hurts.

But I wonder, did it hurt my grandfather? Did he ever sit alone after the party. Sad about being the same as everybody else. Sad about his life having no meaning.

I doubt it. My grandfather’s generation fought in two World Wars. They went off to a foreign country, barely adults, and they shot other humans, who were also barely adults. But they never thought about it. Never wondered “what does this all mean?” They just thought about their family. Their love back home. Their luck to be alive. Nowadays it’s almost as if we’re unlucky to be alive.

However my grand parents were sold a different dream. They weren’t special. They weren’t unique. They were simply told that if they worked hard, they could have a family, they could have their own home, they could have a dog. They could be happily the same as everybody else, and if they were lucky they’d have enough money at the end of the year to buy a full turkey for Christmas. And they were happy enough. Not truly happy. But happy enough. With their existence, with their lives, with what they had. They knew that true, complete happiness was an impossible dream, that happy enough was the best they could hope for. They were happy with happy enough.

So where did it all go wrong? Well, personally, I blame The Beatles. I love The Beatles. They’re one of my favourite bands. But we really should have smelt trouble when they stopped singing about holding hands, and started singing about LSD.

The 60s were amazing, right? The world started to become more liberal (and never stopped!). Everybody started to become open minded. We suddenly decided that people should have equal rights. That everybody should have a chance. We decided that everybody, everywhere, could be a great person. Even you. Yes, you! Right there, you! Sure you’ve been born into poverty. Sure you’ve got no education. Sure you’ve only got the skills to dig ditches for a living. But even you could change the world! You could be great!

Once people believe they’re unique, they start to believe their life has meaning. Which leads to a horrible, horrible discovery when they realise it’s meaningless. Religion used to solve the problem. Sure, we have no meaning now, but we’ll have meaning later! But even those damn liberals have stolen religion from us and replaced it with the worst thing possible. Choice.

You can choose. You can do anything you like with your life. You have a choice. So much choice. So so soooo much choice. Choice is great. Choice means we’re free. But. (Oh, shit, there’s a but!?) You must choose wisely, you must make the right choice. God no longer exists, heaven doesn’t await us. This is it. This is your life. You have only got one shot. One choice. So make it the right choice. But make it now dammit! Time is running out!

That’s a lot of pressure. Your whole life is brought down to a choice. Which you must make. Around about now. Around about 25.

I don’t know what choice to make though. There are so many choices, and so much pressure to choose, that I can’t choose. I’m like a deer standing in the road, paralysed by the light of a car coming towards me. Behind the wheel is life. Grinning madly. Happy to run me over.

What if I make the wrong choice? What if I screw up? What if I fail to be that great person the world has told me I will be? What if? What if? What if?

There are so many what ifs that in the end, I make no choice. I don’t become a great person. I don’t change the world. I realise I’m not unique. I realise my life has no meaning. I realise I am average.

I sit alone. After the party. Thinking these things. Realising I was sold a lie in childhood, that I’m now paying for in adulthood. Searching for a solution. Searching for a choice.

But as I sit there, I start get bored. Bored of thinking. About everything.

So I turn the TV on. I open a bag of tortillas. I eat.

I start to go on with life. Forgetting all about that choice

Forgetting, that no choice is the worst choice of all.

—————–

Photo is Progressione II by Iguanajo