Over the past several weeks, I have caught up with a number of friends from back home over video chat. Some of them, I have not spoken to since I arrived in Korea. I am often bombarded by a series of questions about my time abroad – “Tell me all about things in Korea!” “What is it like?” “How is it?” “You must be doing awesome stuff” etc, etc. Being the honest person I am, I’ve been telling them that my life in Korea isn’t really all that exciting, and that it is actually pretty damn stable – some may even say it’s boring. What? Didn’t I come to Korea for an adventure? How are things stable when I am living on the other side of the world? Easy – I have a Monday-Friday 9-5 job, I spend my weekends doing miscellaneous, and sometimes “Instagram worthy” things, and I come home every night after work to do yoga, cook dinner, and relax – wild. My life is essentially the same as it was in Canada, except I live in Asia.
I mean, I have been lucky enough to see a lot of Korea, and I have visited Vietnam, China, and Japan – so there have definitely been bouts of adventure – but all in all, my life is exceptionally stable. Surprisingly, when I am on these adventures, I usually crave the stability that my life in Korea provides – my comfortable bed to sleep in, adequate space and alone time, a kitchen to cook my own meals, and a regular job with a consistent income. After about two weeks, I am ready and excited to get back to my regular routine. Next year, my plan is to travel for several months – I likely won’t have a stable home or job for at least half a year – for a control freak like me, that brings about a lot of anxiety.
While I am clearly someone with a sense of adventure, I also crave stability – can these things go hand in hand? Perhaps I can find a way for these two aspects of my personality to complement each other, or maybe not. Only time will tell as I set out on my long-term travels in 2018.
In the past few months, I have gone from being very frustrated by a lot of the happenings in Korea – the shoving culture on the buses, the obnoxiousness of drunk middle-aged men I encounter midday on a weekend, and the lack of consideration for pedestrians – to gaining a significant appreciation of my life in Korea and the people who live here. Perhaps these are the effects of culture shock easing up as I have been living here for seven months, or perhaps I have stopped giving a shit.
That being said, I came to Korea to step out of my comfort zone – to grow, and to change – and maybe to see a little more of what the world has to offer. While I wouldn’t say I have significantly “grown or changed”, I have noticed that there are small things that Korea has taught me – things about myself, about life, and about those around me – all of which, I did not expect.
I am a type A, control freak who needs to plan everything. This is something I despise about myself. I long to be one of those people who can just go with the flow and take life as it comes. However, Korea has altered my perspective – I no longer feel compelled to make plans seven days a week, and I appreciate far more downtime than I ever have. Once upon a time, my schedule was so ram jammed that I hardly ever had a free evening. These days, I get overwhelmed if I have any less than three to four evenings to myself. My new relaxed lifestyle and copious amounts of free time have taught me to enjoy life as it happens, and to do things as I feel like doing them – instead of having every moment planned, and then hating myself for it later. If I feel like doing yoga, I do yoga. If I feel like writing a blog post, I write a blog post. If I feel like binge watching three hours of Netflix, I binge three hours of Netflix.
I am not sure if my time in Korea has taught me self-discipline, or if extensive free time has allowed me to recognize this about myself – but, man am I ever productive these days. Perhaps the self-discipline of my hard working students has inspired me, because I am truly lazy by comparison.
During my time in Korea, I have started doing things for myself that I have been saying for years that I would do – and that is not an exaggeration. I am waking up early to be productive, I am doing yoga almost daily, and I’ve even been studying French – something I have been saying I want to do since I quit in high school.
Money does not grow on trees
My entire life, I have been a reckless spender. I am not much of a shopper, but when it comes to my social life, I have spent more money than I’d like to admit. Food… Wine… Concerts… Festivals… Traveling… The list goes on and on. Since I have lived in Korea, I have been on strict budget. While I have not deprived myself, I have said no to social events when I am approaching the end of my budget, and I avoid buying new things unless I have to. My mentality towards money and spending habits has completely shifted in the past seven months. I want to go back in time and give my 23 year old self a lecture about money management – or just a good slap in the face – either would be effective. Of course, these are the life lessons we have to learn the hard way. My time in Korea has taught me that I don’t need to spend my entire pay check to have a good time, and that budgeting is essential – who knew?
Home is not a place
I have always been the kind of person who attaches a lot of sentimental value to everything – places, spaces, scents, music, personal belongings. My apartment in Kitchener – formerly known as “The Madi” – was a very special place to me. It was the place where I had a fresh start and began my life as a legitimate adult (sort of). When I left, I was in tears – packing up my life, and seeing the confused look on Bailey’s face as I carried out the final contents of my apartment was difficult. Afterwards, I expected that I would miss my home, but I don’t. The moment I arrived at my apartment in Korea, and I started to unpack my belongings, it felt like home.
I’ve realized that home isn’t a place, and it’s really not all that important to me. I’ve come to noticed that what really matters to me is community – something that us social work-y types talk about a lot. It’s the people I am surrounded by, the neighbourhood I live in, and those who support me. It’s having community events to attend, local spots to do my shopping and people to make memories with. This has made me realize that I could live anywhere in the world, and it will feel like home so long as I have a supportive community. There will always be moments where I miss aspects of my life in Kitchener, and the place I grew up – but as cheesy as it sounds, these places have contributed to who I am, and I carry those pieces with me as I make a new home each new place I go.
I’m relatively irresponsible
Alright onto less sappy stuff – I’ve always prided myself on being a pretty responsible person – but in recent months, I have realized that I am actually really fucking irresponsible. Somehow, in the past two months, I have managed to lose not only my Korean ID card, but also my credit card, I smashed my cell phone to the point where it no longer functioned, and I went swimming in the ocean in the middle of the night after getting a tattoo the week before.
Additionally, even though I stick to a budget, I spend the last week of each month living off of approximately $10, and declining all social invitations with the excuse, “sorry, I have no money”. This month, I even spent my last $10 on a pizza – adulting. I’ve never been a 26 year old before, but I can’t believe that most 26 year old’s are this irresponsible. Maybe I’ll grow out of it, or maybe I’m destined to lose shit, spend all my money, and break electronics for the rest of my life.
Thanks for the useful teachings Korea – my bank account is grateful.
Six months. Six months. Six months. I have to retell myself this on a daily basis because it is so hard to believe I have lived in Korea for six months. I have already finished an entire semester of teaching, Jay’s visit has already came and went, and I have visited Vietnam and Japan. I feel like these were all milestone markers in my head over the past six months. Events that I had counted down the days to, have suddenly flown past me.
I am starting a new semester of teaching this week, which means new students and new classes. I am counting down the days until my trip to China at the end of September, Halloween, Christmas in Jeju, winter vacation in January, another visit with Jay at the end of my contract, and my three month Eurasia backpacking tour in the spring. In six months, I am sure I will be twice as flabbergasted that these moments have come and went, just as the past six months have.
The past few months, I have found myself getting very comfortable with my time in Korea – perhaps a little too comfortable. I won’t tell you how many Netflix originals I have binged watched since my arrival. Life in Korea has become a pretty easy coast on autopilot – perhaps that is due to the fact that I spend my weekdays in a constant state of work, eat, sleep, Netflix, workout, repeat. I also spent the majority of my summer weekends locked in my friends apartment watching crime documentaries and battling over the air-conditioner settings. This summer wouldn’t have been the same without delicious vegetarian eats and Amber the dog.
I have essentially had almost an entire month off of teaching, and am excited to start back up. I must say, I have a newfound respect for all of my friends who are teachers. Lesson planning, teaching, grading, and additional teaching responsibilities add up fast, and I am well aware that my workload does not compare to that of teachers in Ontario. Kudos to you guys. I feel like I have made vast improvements in my skills as a teacher over the past few months. I remember at the start of my contract we were encouraged to set up some general classroom rules – and I had no idea what I was doing – Rules? Who needs rules? Well, after six months of classes, I definitely know what rules I want in my classroom.
Jay’s visit to Korea, and our trip to Japan made all of the things I dislike about Korea quite apparent. It is easy to be blindsided by these things until your boyfriend calls you out for bulldozing past a Korean man on the bus – “What? That’s just the Korean way…..” – turns out you look like an asshole to someone who doesn’t understand the “bus-shoving” culture of Korea. But, Japan was a breath of fresh air – the people were lovely, the food was lovely, everything was lovely. I will ramble on about my love of Japan in a future blog post.
It’s hard not to see the past six months as a separate chapter of my time in Korea. I have friends from the first semester who have left on new adventures *sniff*, I have brand new students starting this week, and I have an entirely different outlook on Korea than I did when I first arrived. The next six months will be entirely different than the last, stay tuned.
Now, it sounds like I am trying to poetic with my title, but sadly, that is not the case. Recently, I have started to get out hiking more, as I want to take advantage of the mountains before the temperatures reach a point where I no longer want to leave my air conditioned apartment.
Over the past month, I have spent several weekends hiking on the mountains of Korea. Luckily, I live on a mountain, so this is as easy as stepping outside my apartment and going for a hike after work. It’s pretty magical to have the opportunity to step outside my door and have an entire system of trails to get lost on. The mountain my home is situated on is not a large mountain by any means, but it fills my mountain void that I constantly struggle with living in Ontario. This is a great opportunity to get out for some solo hikes, and escape the concrete jungle that is South Korea.
However, I have also reached the summit of two mountains in Korea over the past month. The first one was Namsan in Gyeongju – a beautiful mountain that has a spiritual significance to the people of Korea. There are many Buddha statues, and other tributes to Buddhism on your trek up the mountain. My favourite part of this hike, was the post cards and mailing box they have close to the top (*hint hint* some of you should be checking your mail for a surprise).
We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to get out hiking – the sun was shining, and I was surrounded by more green than I think I’ve ever seen. We met some kind Korean’s, who when we asked them to take a photo of us, decided that we were essentially a tourist attraction, and took turns taking photos with us. I felt like a Disney princess. I also learned on this hike that I am a terrible navigator (and am usually the designated navigator among my friends for some strange reason). I had intended to take us up the mountain, and then back down the same side of the mountain, but what I actually did, was take us up and over to the other side of the mountain – whoops. Luckily, Korea’s transportation system is quite extensive, and we didn’t have to trek too long before finding a bus stop. Namsan was a pleasant hike that I look forward to doing again – hopefully in the fall when the colours start changing.
Now, onto hike # 2 – Sinbulsan. Sinbulsan is the second highest mountain in Ulsan, but it is not even on the top ten list of the highest mountains in Korea – regardless, the technicality of this hike should not be underestimated. I was told that on this hike I would have to semi “rock-climb” and pull myself up several systems of ropes. Okay, I can handle that, I thought to myself.
In reality, Sinbulsan was a terrifying experience once we started to reach the summit. There were at least five sections where we had to pull ourselves up a rope, while walking up a moderately steep rock face. This was fine… I could handle this so long as I didn’t look down. I felt good knowing I had been working out, and this was not as physically daunting as I thought it would have been. However, my paralyzing fear of heights really started to catch up to me.
Things got really interesting when we reached the top area of the mountain, and I realized we essentially had to walk across the peak of a mountain – where there was basically a straight drop to death on either side. While I was hyping myself up in my head – “You fucking got this Justine”, I started to walk across the peak and immediately dropped down to straddle the peak of the mountain. Now, this is where things got intimate. Picture this – my friend and I are essentially straddling the peak of this mountain… sliding ourselves across to a more stable section. While this is happening, our other friend and several Korean’s are laughing at us, taking photos, and walking by like it ain’t no thing (I would share the videos with you, but I am not willing to subject myself to that sort of humiliation #Sorry). Apparently dying isn’t a concern for the people of Korea. Eventually we made it across, and later, as we were on our descent, my friend points up to the peak – “Hey guys look, that’s the mountain you essentially had sex with”… Awesome.
Overall, I am pretty happy I completed Sinbulsan, but I think my irrational fear of heights will stop me from ever completing that trek again. I’m off to climb Mount Fuji with Jay in August, and while it is over two times the elevation, I think it will be a walk in the park after my mountain straddling experience in Korea. Good times.
Culture Shock – we have all heard of it, and we all think we know what it is, but do we really? Do a quick Google search and you will find a million different definitions and interpretations of it – you will also find about 1.4 million different graphs explaining the process of culture shock.
After talking to people I know who have lived abroad, and reading a lot of material on the internet, I have heard it all. “The first three months will be the hardest”. “The first three months will be the easiest”. “After three months, you will have a complete meltdown”. After over three months in Korea, I have come to the conclusion that culture shock is 100% an individual experience that will be entirely different from one person to the next – for me, that has meant random sneak attacks of culture shock that have bitch slapped me in the face unexpectedly.
What has culture shock looked like for me?
Culture shock is sitting on a jam packed bus as the only Caucasian English speaker, while listening to some sappy as shit song by Bleachers, and feeling 100% invisible.
Culture shock is playing a fucking BEER COMMERCIAL during a “Canadian Culture” lecture, and feeling like you’re about to choke up in front of a room of 24 high school students.
Culture shock is staring at a menu in Korean for a solid 27 minutes trying to determine a suitable dish to order that doesn’t contain meat – only to order a meal that DEFINITELY contains meat.
Culture shock is searching for those small home comforts; relating to fellow Canadians who resided in neighboring communities to yours, streaming NHL playoff games when you’re not even a major hockey fan, and listening to the Arkells on repeat because it reminds you of home.
Perhaps some of these things didn’t happen in my first three months in Korea, or perhaps I am more sensitive to them as I am inevitably exiting the honeymoon stage of my time here.
Overall, my time in Korea has been relatively seamless, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t come without it’s downs. For some reason, those “downs” seem to appear at the most unexpected and inconvenient times. I’ve come to learn that this is something you simply cannot control – breathe, accept, and recognize that, like all things, this too shall pass.
Well, here I am, a quarter of the way through my twelve month teaching contract – seriously, where has the time gone? I had a feeling the time would fly by, but I had no idea it would fly by so quickly.
Before leaving for Korea, I had a lengthy list of intentions for my time here – I was going to learn Korean, save sooo much money, start working out again, get back into running, journal more, blog every week…. you get the idea. Well, I can now say a total of like eight words in Korean, so can’t say I’ve accomplished that. I have purchased flights to Vietnam, Jeju island, Japan, and China, and also purchased tickets for the Olympics, so I clearly haven’t saved any money. I was doing a great job working out for about a month, and then was plagued by a stomach flu, so that came to an end. And of course, for those of you who read my blog, it is pretty evident that I have not been posting on a weekly basis. What a surprise – I am on the other side of the world, and I am still setting grand ambitions for myself and only completing a fraction of them. Self-five.
I really did want to use blogging as a tool to reflect and document my experience abroad, so I have something to look back on in the years to come. Luckily, I found a blogging challenge that I am hoping will motivate me to blog more frequently (hopefully weekly). Each week, I will receive blogging prompts to my email which will hopefully get the creative juices flowing, so without further ado….
Why am I even here?
This week’s challenge suggested I revisit my “why”, and gave me a series of questions to prompt this. Being that I have been here three months, it seemed like I perfect time, so here is my rambling response to those questions…
Last July, a community colleague randomly told me in passing that he had spent a few years working in Korea – that he made a lot of money, and was able to fund some serious travel. Last September (nine months ago… *mind-blown*), I was driving home from a work event with my co-worker and friend, Giordan. I was complaining about the same old sh*t, and ranting about wanting to leave and live far away. Which now seems alarming, because my life in Kitchener was a solid 10/10 – hindsight right? These two events were pivotal in my decision to leave. After that day in September, it snowballed. Before I knew it, I had interviews for various jobs, I was preparing visa documents, giving notice at my apartment and job – and just like that, I was moving to Korea.
In the months leading up to my move, I made solid plans to pay off all of my debt, made endless lists of all of the places I wanted to see in Korea, and spent hours determining which mountains I wanted to climb. When I think of how much I’ve seen, and how much I’ve experienced in the past three months, I want to say I have achieved some of my hopes and goals for my time abroad. But when I think of my time here as loading screen on a computer, “25%”, I realize that before I know it, I will be halfway, and then it will be over. This really makes me want to get my priorities in line for the next nine months – I want to spend my time in a way that is meaningful and intentional (and that doesn’t involved binge watching Gossip Girl on Netflix again).
Ah, so this brings me to my next thought, what exactly are my priorities? Saving money, traveling, experiencing as much of Korea as possible, and building relationships with my students, are my key priorities for the remainder of my year. Unfortunately, traveling and experiencing Korea, conflicts with my desire to save money – finding a balance has been difficult, and I’m sure will continue to be.
A big realization that I have come to during my three months here, is most things in life are significantly less significant than we make them out to be. If I had a nickle for every time I had a “Korea Meltdown” in the months leading up to my move, I’d be rich. The truth is, my transition here has been easy – I had far more meltdowns in the months leading up to my move, then I have since I have been here. I am 11,000 kms from home, and I still feel connected to my friends and my family – technology is a wonderful thing.
At the end of the day, my move here seemed like an earth shattering life decision – and it wasn’t. I’m still the same person. I think the same thoughts. I do the same sh*t. I could have made a million excuses to not take this leap, but I am so glad I didn’t. It took me many years to gain the courage to move so far from home, and pursue this type of experience. I look forward to the next nine months of teaching, and extended exploring after that.
At the start of April – I told my co-workers to expect me to be a significantly happier human being at the end of the month. After procrastinating completing my final capstone portfolio for my MSW, I officially had three weeks to submit everything, and four weeks until my presentation – it was time to buckle down. What followed, was a vicious cycle of procrastinating by doing anything BUT my homework (not limited to, but including, an increased amount of working out, drinking wine, going out for dinners, eating pizza, adventuring to new sites, and “studying Korean”). This would then be followed by a period of guilt and stress, which resulted in a period of productivity – April was a god damn roller coaster ride.
In the midst of my procrastination, I was also happy to be distracted by the blooming cherry blossoms throughout Ulsan and Gyeongju. This only happens once a year, so I had to take advantage – right?
Aside from these distractions and periods of procrastination, I had no choice but to buckle down and complete my final project for my MSW. To my surprise, the day I submitted by final project, and one week prior to my panel presentation, I was blessed with the worst stomach flu I have had since childhood. My friend Caitlin and I have shown up a number of times wearing matching outfits – cute, I know. What isn’t cute, is coming down with matching stomach flus. While we spent the week exchanging stories about our bodily fluids, the hilarity behind it all only went so far as I spent over 60 hours dying in my bed.
Twinning outfits are cute – twinning stomach flus, not so much.
Two and a half sick days, and a few bowls of oatmeal later, I was finally able to start moving around and eat more than a tablespoon of slop (oatmeal) at a time. I felt weak and exhausted, and despite feeling “better”, my stomach disagreed. Luckily, I had netflix, naps and my awesome boyfriend to keep me company over video chat.
The Saturday after I was sick, I thought I was almost better and decided to go out for the day (I had been trapped in my apartment far too long). I felt okay throughout the day, and when I woke up on Sunday morning I, once again, felt like I was dying. Five days later, the stomach flu had not let up.
I decided to go to the doctor – hoping to get a magic pill to fix my problem. Instead, what I got was a two day stay in the hospital – not exactly what I had hoped for. As the doctor told me I would be admitted for three to four days, I nearly had a nervous breakdown knowing I had my final presentation for my MSW on Wednesday morning. After one night, and two miserable days in the hospital, I was able to sweet talk my way out, even though they wanted to keep me at least another day. I have always proven to be quite stubborn, and this was no exception. I spent the next day re-energizing myself with real food after starving for two days and was pleasantly surprised that I felt much better.
The following day was my final capstone presentation. I practiced in 10000000 x, and finally felt prepared, still completely terrified, I did it!
Blah blah blah, my presentation went well, blah blah… You get the idea.
Needless to say, April brought far too much work and stress than my body could handle, and I could not be happier it’s over. I suppose April showers bring May flowers. Oh, and it didn’t hurt that the stomach flu helped me get bikini ready for my upcoming #Namcation – optimist over here. Excited to head to Vietnam this Sunday – I can’t think of a better way to celebrate!