If you’ve been following my blog or have spoken to me in person, chances are you’re probably aware that I didn’t love my first ESL experience. While my life in South Korea was charmed, I shudder when I think about the prospect of returning. I’ll be honest, though: there are times I’ve thought about it as a last resort because it’s familiar. Who am I kidding? It’d be because of the killer paycheck.
On a serious note, I will admit there is as much love in my relationship with Korea as there is hate. Korea is a part of me; it’s where I met James, regained my footing after my family members’ deaths consumed me and the country that introduced me to the Asia that I’ve grown to love. The time I spent living and teaching in South Korea was pivotal. I actually don’t even like to think of what my life could have been without the experience.
Autumn months always get me in reflection mode, and I’ve spent quite some time reminiscing about both Chicago and South Korea over the past few months. While I can’t imagine ever returning long-term, I will admit there are quite a few things that I miss about my life in South Korea. Here’s a round-up, in no particular order.
Things I miss about my life in South Korea
The ease of transport
I dream of the days when I used to be able to walk to a bus stop or train station and get to where I needed to go. Sure, there are some downsides to the public transport in Korea such as old women literally jamming their elbows into one’s body, but to be honest, I sort of miss being able to navigate Seoul with such ease, and, even more so, the same sense of independence I’d had living in Chicago. Although it’s not difficult to get around in Ho Chi Minh City without a motorbike, there are certainly days I’d give anything to have a mumbling ajumma rudely usher me onto a kimchi-drenched train.
A friend of mine once referred to kimbap as “sushi’s white trash cousin,” and that couldn’t be more accurate. Despite the fact the popular Korean snack is filled with a few ingredients* I generally want nothing to do with, I miss kimbap. I miss being handed pieces of it upon mountaintops by smiling elderly couples. I miss poking out all the little bits of Spam and giving them to James. Most of all, I miss the aunties from mine and James’ local kimbap shops.
*Spam and fish cakes
This has to be top three things I miss about my life in South Korea. Even on my darkest days in Seoul, I was consistently in awe of Korea’s beauty. My weekends were spent exploring the various towns and cities throughout the country, often with James at my side. By the end of our two years teaching in Korea, we both felt satisfied with the fact that we’d seen most of the country. Although there are a few towns near Saigon for us to explore, it isn’t the same. As I previously mentioned, the fact that Korea’s transit system is so well-connected made weekend travel moderately effortless.
Walking on the sidewalk
My life in South Korea was healthy and regimented. I was the fittest I’ve ever been in my life, much of which I think was due to the cultural obsession with perfection. I was easily able to stay active due to the running and bicycle pathways and walked pretty much everywhere. In fact, it was almost guaranteed that each weekend I’d gain about 35,000 to 40,000 steps on my pedometer. James and I often traveled by foot while living in New Zealand, too. Saigon’s sidewalks are crowded, dirty and often broken. Although I’m perfectly happy with this city’s grit and imperfections, this downside really takes a toll on my psyche.
Hanging out in jimjilbangs
There’s no better way to spend an afternoon than sitting completely naked in a massive hot tub alongside a handful of elderly Korean women and your gal pals. To be frank, jimjilbangs are legitimately one of my favorite things about Korean culture. While many countries throughout the world have unique bathhouse cultures, I’ve only experienced this phenomenon in South Korea. I have fond memories from within the confines of these saunas.
- Getting slathered with strawberry yogurt on top of a bench while an 80-year-old woman smacked my skin incredibly violently, focusing mainly on my butt.
- Not being able to stand up because the jets were so strong in one of the pools, resulting in loud laughter aka lots of angry and concerned stares from elderly women.
- Hearing an elderly woman exclaim that our “foreign skin was tainting the water” in one of the spas on Jeju Island. #GirlBye
My hefty paycheck
As I mentioned previously, it’s hard for me to imagine moving back to Korea for any reason other than money. Korea truly was the land of milk and honey for me. Even while traveling to Japan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and extensively throughout Korea, I managed to save about $25,000 USD teaching in Korea in just over two years. Although I’m earning decent money here in Vietnam, it’s not always guaranteed that I’ll put away a substantial amount monthly.
It’s a well-known fact that teaching ESL in South Korea comes with an onslaught of challenges. The hours are long and the pressure teachers must impose on the children is often immoral. Although the days seemed to drag on sometimes, there is something to be said about hanging out with hilarious children literally all day long. I miss their cute little Konglish explanations and the looks on their faces when they’d read their first sentences all by themselves. I miss their little hands reaching for mine on field trips or on bus journeys. I miss hearing their stories about their weekends and just generally being able to kick it with them on the regular. I love teaching in Vietnam, but I only see the kids for an hour and a half each day, which is a massive difference.
Experiencing all four seasons
One of the funnier grand declarations South Koreans often make is that their country is the only one in the world which experiences all four seasons. It’s a funny assertion because my region of the USA also experiences all four seasons. In fact, most areas of our planet experience all four seasons. At any rate, my favorite is autumn as there is something a bit magical about the season. I love witnessing the leaves change colors and, while it’s brief, the season brings a sense of happiness that I can’t describe. There are two seasons in Saigon: wet and dry. Gimme those golden rusty hues, please!
Chillin outside at 7-Eleven
For reasons unbeknownst to me, the area outside 7-Eleven and other convenience stores are popular hangouts for expats and locals alike. While one is never too far from a pub in Korea, it’s all the rage to sit in the plastic chairs, purchase a cup of ramen and a few beers and…chill. I’m a massive fan of Vietnam’s sidewalk stool culture, but it doesn’t quite hold a flame to the simple joys of marting.
All of the delicious food
There’s nothing better than a piping hot bowl of soondubu jjigae, or soft tofu stew, on a winter evening. Same goes with jeon – aka Korean pancakes – when it’s raining. Let’s not forget bibimnangmeyon, spicy cold noodles, on a summer’s day. Don’t even get me started on what I would do to burn my mouth on some hotteok, aka Korean sweet pancakes, once again. Vietnamese food is amazing in itself, but my life in South Korea was filled with meals that will always bring me comfort.
Shopping in Seoul was always a bit stressful for me. I’m not sure if it was due to the Asia-centric lack of personal space or the roaring EDM music, but it wasn’t something that I enjoyed. One benefit to throwing money at Korea’s economy is that foreign customers are often awarded free gifts, known commonly as “service.” I do miss walking into a Korean face care shop, buying a packet of 14,986 green tea face masks for a total of $10 USD and leaving with upscale toners, creams and random skin bleach. Who doesn’t need some good ol’ skin bleach?
Like any other country on earth, there are bits of Korea’s culture that were pretty goofy for me as an expat. Although many of the oddities are completely strange, I’ve come to now find them either endearing or completely hilarious. Here are a few off the top of my head:
- Receiving cans of Spam as a gift for the Korean Thanksgiving, also known as Chuseok. Seriously, though: people spend hundreds of dollars on Spam and olive oil gift sets.
- Receiving toilet paper as a gift. My landlord once delivered a massive pack of TP as an apology for the amount of construction nearby. Considering toilet paper is generally pricy in K-town, I was beyond happy. I think this needs to be adopted globally – everyone can always use a little extra toilet paper!
- Yelling “cho-gee-yo!” (over here) at restaurant servers when asking for more food or drinks.
- Nearly everything being sold with cartoon animals or people on the packaging.
- Random K-Pop concerts set up just about anywhere.
- Larger than life smartphone cases.
- Men and women literally screaming at customers within grocery stores from their microphone headsets.
- Childish spots throughout town, such as princess or bridal cafes.
- The entire country’s obsession with penises and poop. I’m serious. There are museums, statues, parks, and cafes dedicated to both. Who doesn’t need some dong bang, or poop bread, in their life?
This is quite possibly the best messaging app on the face of the earth. I cannot describe how much I love the little Kakao Friends cartoons and the goofy in-app purchased stickers that I busted out regularly in conversation. My heart broke a little bit when I had to stop using KakaoTalk earlier this year as someone took over my old Korean number. Thanks for the good times, you strange app. Missin’ you, dancing disco bear.
A general feeling of safety
Mom and dad, if you’re reading this, I’m safe in Vietnam. Don’t freak out. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t on high alert at all times. While there were certainly times I felt extremely unsafe in South Korea, I generally felt out of harm’s way. Vietnam is a different story.
I once lost my wallet in Seoul and it was returned to me within the week – cash and cards included. On the contrary, I was robbed within the first two months of living and working in Saigon. Most of my friends have been robbed a multitude of times; stolen phones, purses cut open, bags grabbed from their grasp by a passing motorbike – you name it. I don’t necessarily feel unsafe, but I fear that if I get too comfortable I will be robbed again. It can feel a bit daunting from time to time to constantly be looking over my back, and that’s certainly something I miss about my life in South Korea!
No delivery fees and reliable postal service
While I love Korean food, it’s not exactly the healthiest. Many meals are essentially MSG, corn syrup and sugar-laden – I couldn’t exactly lose weight abroad by eating it regularly. I ordered monthly hauls of items such as quinoa, beans, and spices – without having to pay the excessive tax fees like I do in Vietnam. While it doesn’t cost much to send items out of Vietnam, recipients are often charged outrageously for merely getting a package delivered. A few of my friends have simply never received their packages from home.
Gone are the days of simply recharging my T-Money card at a local 7-11 or boarding public transportation sans delays. There’s also something really special about the service buttons on restaurant tables; customers press them to beckon servers when needed. I’d love to take the bus more often here in Saigon, but it’s not easy for us expats to navigate the bus routes.
Sure, not everything in Korea is convenient. The fact that the majority of the country still operates on the Internet Explorer platform is beyond frustrating. However, there were certain aspects of modernity that I took for granted.
So, of all the things I never thought I’d say, this has gotta be #1. Anyone who’s visited knows that Korea smells like poop. They’ll also have noted that the air is filthy. However, the Korean government encourages its citizens to do their part by imposing strict fines on those who don’t recycle or properly dispose of their garbage. I understand that this sort of system comes with the territory; South Korea is a developed nation.
Since moving to Vietnam five months ago, I’ve had two pretty severe fevers and an onslaught of random bugs in my system. I can’t remember the last time I had a fever before moving here.
The overall feeling I had while living in South Korea
I’m not talking about the days I felt absolutely burnt out and wanting to run away. Maybe it’s because it was my first expat experience. Maybe it’s because it was so easy to travel throughout the country and there was so much to see in and around Seoul. Maybe it’s because I was able to understand the language and read the alphabet better than I can in Vietnam. Maybe it’s because I’m currently living in a city known for its backpacking antics. I can’t pinpoint exactly why this feeling is absent, but I’ll chalk it up to one, if not all, of the above. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my life in Saigon and I’m sure I’ll have a certain feeling when I miss this country – but, for now, it’s all about Korea.
I miss the autumn feels. I miss the rainy days in James’ apartment. I miss the train journeys, excitement, and novelties. I miss the [often repulsive] street food smells, the lovely tea house vibes and underground shopping. I miss bowing, indoor shoes and shower shoes. I never thought I’d say this, but sometimes I just miss my life in South Korea.
Fellow expats, past and current: do you ever find yourself reflective of your old home(s)?