Ins and outs of living in South Korea, according to Wayne-native
Hey there. I'm Bren Vander Weil, Wayne High class of 2007 and WSC class of 2013, and I recently completed 2 years (Sept. 25, 2016-Sept. 25, 2018) as a guest English teacher in South Korea.
Sometimes, oftentimes, when catching up with folks from home I'll be asked, "What's the biggest difference between Asia and America?" or "the east and west?" or "Us and Them?"
This question, and all of its variants, was something I too was curious about. After two years experience, a few missteps, countless conversations, and a touch of hindsight, I've found the best answer to be...there isn't.
People are people. If you're looking for differences, look no further than the person next to you, or one better, look at those idiots across the Missouri! Something we all know is THEY don't know how to drive, am I right? Jokes aside, if one chooses differences as the lens to view the world, it can be very "othering," taking away the opportunity to learn, to be curious, to accept, and to include.
Those chances to explore another way of thinking can be washed away as soon as it becomes an "us" and "them" conversation. Differences are unavoidable, but how you see them is up to you. Instead of listing off differences, here are a few bite sized observations I've made. Feel free to make your own inferences.
Five things I missed while living in South Korea (in no particular order).
1. Friends and family: This one is a no-brainer. It's never the place, it's the people you're with.
2. Food: Yes, Korea does have food, but it's not the same variety. Korea certainly doesn't have Fiesta Brava, Udder Delights, Godfather's pizza, or RUNZA!
3. Forks: To no surprise, Koreans usually use chopsticks. Forks are available if you ask (sometimes the restaurant staff sees you're definitely NOT Korean and will provide one without asking). I just look forward to using one regularly and feeling competent in my cutlery dexterity once again.
4. Driving and wide open spaces: The public transportation system in Korea is phenomenal, but nothing compares to the autonomy of your own ride and the open road. South Korea is roughly 2/3 the size of Nebraska and has 50 million more people. Finding a country backroad is a little more than challenging.
5. Shopping for clothes: This isn't much of a hurdle for other expats in Korea, but at 6 foot 220 lbs., I've been told more than once, I'm not "Korean sized." Not to mention I could FEEL the eye rolls when someone would see I had the seat ticket next to them on the bus.
Honorable mentions: Thunderstorms, American holidays, waving, local banking, beer varieties, Amazon, Husker football
Five things I didn't miss while living in South Korea (in no particular order).
1. Family and friends: WHAT! That's right. Now you gotta love them all, but sometimes it's nice not to be at the family gathering and being asked by that one aunt, uncle or sibling "when are you going to get married?" or "are you saving any money?" GIVE IT A REST AUNT KAREN!
2. The American news cycle: Ignorance is bliss (but only in doses—stay informed, folks).
3. Tipping: Tipping is seen as such a strange concept that if you were to try, Korean's would think you overpaid and give it back.
4. The remoteness of North America: You know those two big ponds? The Pacific and Atlantic? Yeah, they’re not exactly conducive to international travel. Using Korea as a home base I've been able to see a great bit of the world including Japan, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia. In fact, I wrote this from a McDonald's in Moscow.
5. Road construction: is Highway 15 done yet?
Honorable mentions: TV commercials, flat topography, crime rates
Five things I'll miss about South Korea (in no particular order).
1. Korean food: Full of flavor and rarely processed, it was a definite highlight. Pigs feet, Korean bbq, kimbap, bibimbap, etc. It's not just the food I'll miss, but the way a group meal is enjoyed. It's very communal. Without having your own plate, everyone pulls from the same dish at the center and don't even think about pouring your own drink! That's what your friends are for, just make sure to reciprocate (and use two hands).
2. Public transportation: Clean, safe, and timely. Although I miss driving, getting on public transportation rarely brought me down. I lived three hours south of Seoul but didn't mind the ride to and fro. Hop on with a good book, podcast, or tunes and the world is yours . . . for three hours.
3. Accessibly to trails: 1 of 3 Koreans go hiking more than once a month. It's not just a hobby; it's a national pastime. I happily assimilated to that.
4. New friends, coworkers and the students: Again, it's not where you go it's who you meet. I've been fortunate to make lifelong friends from all over the world including Canada, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, South Korea (duh), and Wales.
5. Poorly spelled/wrongly translated/questionable English on clothing: No shortage of these and I have no explanation. Here are a few of my favorites verbatim: "west racific cost highway, I'll meat you there," "Butter English Academy," "apple of my face," and once I had a student wear a hat to school that read, "pervert."
Honorable mentions: K-pop, Internet speeds, Taekwondo, getting bowed to by students, karaoke rooms, Korean baseball games, soju, Buddhist temples
Things I won't miss about living in Korea? Nah. No top five here. Even the things I may not have cared for, I imagine I will miss as I look back on what was an overall wonderful and life-changing experience. Speaking of experiences, if you're curious to know more about mine or have an interesting one to share yourself, there are few ways we can connect. Since finishing my teaching contract Sept. 25, I am traveling around Europe (Russia, Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and possibly Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic) for five to seven weeks. You can follow my global antics on Instagram or Facebook. If you're more of a face-to-face person, I will be back in Wayne America mid-November. You can find me at the WSC multicultural center (shout out to Mary Carstens for the opportunity), substitute teaching or when ordering a pizza. You read that correctly. Order a pizza. As I will be between what Aunt Karen would call "real jobs," I'll be joining the pizza pie-piled high team at Godfather's (big thanks to Phil Anderson and Cale Giese).
Long story short (quite literally in this case), it's hard to condense two years of experience into one article.
Hometown pride knows no bounds or borders because no matter how far you go, you are where you are from and, for me and many of you, that's Wayne. Like it or not, your world is Wayne's World, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Facebook: Brendan Paul (profile picture in front of the Great Wall).