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.
Oh, Japan… I am just going to go ahead and say this out loud – Japan is like Korea, but better – sooo much better. Within hours of being in Japan, Jay and I agreed that we 100% could live in Japan. It was beautiful, and clean, and everyone was ridiculously nice. I was so overwhelmed with the kindness of the people of Japan. I am not sure how Canadians earned the rep of being the “nicest” country, but Japan has us beat by a landslide. If we looked lost or confused for even a second, you could guarantee a Japanese person would approach us to offer help. They taught us how to use the machines at the subway, directed us to our destinations, and one woman even rode the subway with us to take us where we needed to go.
Japan was also an ideal vacation for me because our trip centered around two things – a big hike, and lots and lots of food – the dream.
The first stop on our trip was Osaka. Unfortunately, our flight was delayed a day due to Typhoon Noru hitting Japan – the day we were set to arrive – of course. We finally arrived in Japan a day late and decided to skip Kyoto and head straight to Osaka. We spent two nights in Osaka, one at the start of our trip, and one at the end of our trip. Osaka is known for being a foodie city, so I was eager to explore. With our limited time in Osaka, we spent most of our time strolling around the Dotonbori area along the river. We indulged in sushi (of course), and also okonomiyaki, and takoyaki – which are both specialties of the Osaka area – all of which did not disappoint. I also had a horrifying encounter with a screeching bug in Japan who landed on my foot – long story short, I gave a good laugh to a few locals as I screamed and leaped around the sidewalk. I think this was one of the highlights of the trip for Jay…
For me, this was why I went to Japan. I was more excited to climb Fuji than anything else on our trip. Fuji is a manageable climb for beginners with a rather impressive elevation, standing at over 3700 meters. Due to this, it is recommended you sleep on the mountain to avoid altitude sickness. We started our day by taking an early bus up to the Subashiri 5th station at 2000 meters elevation, and then we started our climb. Within an hour, I started to get light headed and nauseous – I now had an irrational fear of getting altitude sickness. We decided to take the climb slow and take many breaks, so I could acclimatize properly.
We took a longer trail that is less frequented and goes through the forest. There was an eerie mist throughout the forest for most of our climb, and we saw very few other climbers – it was perfectly peaceful. Inevitably, the higher we climbed, the more barren it got, and out of nowhere – the mist cleared up and we realized we were far above the clouds.
After about 8-9 hours of climbing, we reached our hut at the 8.5 station where we would sleep for the night. We had expected to see a mix of Japanese locals and tourists, but we were surprised to see that most of the climbers were locals from Japan. We slept in a room with 100 other sweaty hikers, nestled into rows of bunk beds.
Around 1 am, we were woken up by everyone preparing the trek to the summit. I woke up a very sleepy (and slightly grumpy) Jay, and we started to prepare to head to the summit. When we stepped outside our hut, I could not believe my eyes. There were thousands of people trekking up to the summit, and all you could see was the trail of lights.
It took us about two hours to reach the summit as we were going at a snail’s pace (my kinda pace) in line with everyone else. When we reached the summit, it was freezing cold, so windy, and snowing (sort of). I had to dig through my backpack to add on several layers of clothing, to the point where I was even wearing a pair of socks on my hands – yeah, I can be pretty resourceful. To our disappointment, we did not see a proper sunrise due to poor weather. We got a few glimpses of it through the clouds, but that was it. **Insert some cheesy quote about how it’s about the journey and not the destination**. Thanks for the pivotal life lesson Fuji.
However, once we started to descend about 50-100 meters, the views above the clouds were incredible. We started our trek to the bottom, which involved sliding down loose volcanic gravel for several hours – this proved to be quite challenging for my grandmother-like joints, but I survived. I was pleased when we reached the bottom to discover that I had lost my hippie clutch – aka my wallet – aka my Visa and my Korean ID card…. It will likely puzzle me forever how and where I lost that stupid thing, but that’s life.
Fuji was a beautiful accomplishment, and I was reminded of this in the following three days as I navigated the metro and streets of Tokyo. Every stair was taken painfully, one at a time, while my non-dilapidated boyfriend was able to walk around like normal. I will forever be grateful for escalators, elevators, and moving walkways.
We spent the night in a small town with views of Mount Fuji the day we came down from our climb. I expected Fujiyoshida to be a small, but busy and touristy town, but to my surprise it was a sleepy mountain town perfect for recovery from Fuji. Our guesthouse was perfectly situated beside a vegetarian Japanese restaurant called Little Robot. I came to the conclusion at this restaurant that they do everything right in Japan – even vegetarian food.
We also climbed 398 stairs to see the iconic view of Fuji from Arakurayama Sengen Park, but all we saw was clouds shaped perfectly to entirely block Mount Fuji. It was a beautiful quiet park, and Jay was pretty stoked about taking over a Pokemon gym – or something like that.
First impression of Tokyo when I stepped out of Tokyo station – “Wow, this feels just like Toronto”. The general areas in Tokyo aren’t as crazy as I would’ve expected – it’s not insanely crowded, it’s clean, and it’s pretty quiet. However, there are several popular areas and neighbourhoods in Tokyo that are insanely busy with a buzzing high energy.
To be honest – our main focus in Tokyo was eating (well, for me at least). However, we spent most of our time wandering various neighbourhoods, exploring various shops and markets, and trying to navigate the monster metro system. Shinjuku was by far my favourite area of Tokyo. It was high energy, had lots of food, shops, bars, and small pockets of areas, each with a different feel. We visited an old school video game cafe where I observed Jay spend over an hour setting a high score on some game… to which he succeed. Good for him… We also visited a bar in the Golden Gai area, where the stairs were lined with red shag carpet and the interior had money all over the walls. We met an older couple from Thorne Hill and spent our night chatting about Canada and critiquing the sport of “Speed Walking” that was being displayed on the TV. We even spotted some Canadian Tire money on the walls of this place!
We visited Shibuyua (the world’s “busiest” intersection), Harajuku, Raponggi Hills, and Asakusa, but the highlight of all of this was by far the food. We ate some incredible sushi, ramen, and tempura – all of which, will never be the same again outside of Japan. At most restaurants we visited, we were sat so we could watch the chef prepare our food, which was a pretty special experience on its own. I am pretty sure I gained at least 5 lbs in Japan, but was pleased when someone asked me upon my return – “Have you lost weight? You look so skinny” – the happiest moment after you have indulged in multiple dinners and even pizza for dessert over the past several weeks.
Japan has been my favourite country in Asia so far – any country that offers good food, kind people, and beautiful scenery will win me over. I am interested to see how China contrasts when I visit in six weeks.
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.
While this post is pretty delayed, I am still dreaming of the delicious food tour I had in Seoul at the start of May. In Seoul, there is an area heavily populated by foreigners called Itaewon – lucky for me, this area is a foodie paradise. As I have complained about often throughout my time in Korea, I have been quite deprived of my foodie and wino needs.
Thankfully, I left my weekend in Seoul with a happy tummy – you could say Seoul was good for my soul. This post is mostly for other foodies living in Korea, who are struggling to find delicious international food, so here we go. (Warning – I’d stop here if you’re already hungry for lunch).
Brunch – the most important meal of the day (well, on the weekend at least). Luckily, there are ample opportunities to get your brunch on in Itaewon. We found this adorable hidden gem that served delicious Norwegian Benedict and mediocre coffee. I approve.
This place is a bit outside Itaewon in Yongsan, but well worth the trek. The veggie burger was good (by Korean standards), but the real highlight was the “Animal Fries”. Apparently these are a take on a dish served at In-N-Out – french fries with thousand island dressing – yummmm.
I have a love-hate relationship with pizza in Korea. While it fulfills my cravings, it just isn’t Pepi’s (Holla Kitchener friends). What I do love, is that they serve their pizza here with – wait for it- honey and pickles. I’m not kidding, dip your cheese pizza in honey, and put some pickles on the side. Flipping delicious. Anyways, pizza peel does a pretty great job at a traditional pizza, and at an affordable price.
If I haven’t already mentioned it, my life here consists of drinking endless packets of instant coffee. It’s a sad life. Champ Coffee is a step in the right direction with regards to good coffee. However, the fact that it’s tucked out of the way down a quite alley, and has awesome hipster vibes gives it bonus points.
Another spot outside of Itaewon, but yes – so much yes. Gusto taco is amazing. Their tacos and their quesadillas are sooo good. They make their own tortillas in house, and it’s all delicious. Their nachos are a-okay, but I have come to expect nothing more than that from Korean nachos.
Nothing to make you feel like you’re at home more than a Canadian bar. 401 Highway signs, a Canada Post mailbox, delayed playoff hockey games, poutine, and whiskey – what more could a girl ask for? The poutine was incredible, and there were even real cheese curds – I’m not even sure where they find those suckers in Korea. Two thumbs up for Canucks poutine.
The weeks before getting sick and my trips to Vietnam and Seoul, I was hitting the gym hard. Probably a good thing as I spent my entire weekend in Seoul eating, and then resting up just so I could eat again. What can I say, I live to eat. Nom noms.
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.