Formspring 2: Liz's first top ten.

Hi there! I read your blog daily, I love your honesty. I'm moving to Busan in April-I'm really excited but would love some solid, honest advice regarding the big move. What are the most important things to know/expect/prepare for when moving to Korea?

Well, first of all congratulations on taking the plunge -- no doubt you've been wading through endless paperwork and bureaucratic headache in the last few months to prepare.

So. General kind of advice. I'm sure there's a lot of this to be found peppered throughout this blog, or that can be wrung out of a lot of the anecdotes contained within. But let's do a top-ten kind of list, just to get some of it all in one place. This is a huge subject, and no doubt after I post this, I'll think of dozens of other things I should have included. But you must start somewhere.

1. Be prepared to tell yourself over and over again that you don't understand, even when you're completely convinced that you do.

You guys see me do that almost weekly here in this blog. It's the first important lesson I learned after moving to Korea. It has a lot to do with my personality type -- in general, I am pig-headed, stubborn and an all-around know-it-all. I have a tendency to assess situations quickly and come to a conclusion, which is rarely swayed by what anyone else has to add to the conversation, especially if I can't see their point as soon as they make it.

But this is a different culture. Duh, right? But seriously. Listen to me when I say this: even when you know this is a different culture, are doing your best to be open-minded and trying to understand, there are going to be countless times when you see something, hear someone explain something, and you think you've got it down, when you really don't at all. It's going to take months, possibly years for some things to click. I still experience this on a daily basis -- something will happen, some situation, something someone says, and I'll suddenly realize ah! I was wrong about that. I get it now.

2. Don't get caught in the foreigner bubble, unless that's what you want.

Especially you young'ns coming in with orientation groups. Don't be so quick to lock yourself into one group of people, just because they are the first people you encountered on this peninsula. Foreigners are always eager to meet and commune with other foreigners, and there will be plenty of opportunities to do that, whether you seek them out or not. But don't lock yourself into a tight-knit group too quickly, unless you're sure that's what you want. Be open to having dinner with that mild-looking co-teacher who can barely mutter three words of English to you. Invite the rowdy group of Korean university guys over to your table at the bar. Allow the ajeosshi on the train to invite you to his house for dinner to meet his family. Most of these situations will end almost exactly where they started, but they are the doorways which, after you've walked through enough of them, will really start to open your eyes to new world that's around you.

3. Don't ignore the advice of elder expats, even when it seems like they have no idea what they're talking about.

This closely relates to number one. They've had long relationships with Korean significant others, they've had long-term friendships with Korean buddies, they've been in the Korean workplace longer than you have. Hell, in most cases they've been teaching longer than you have. Even if you're sure they're wrong about something, don't be so quick to forget what they say.

4. Ignore the advice of elder expats, even when it seems like they know exactly what they're talking about.

Now to completely contradict myself. Use your common sense, your personal experiences and your gut to gauge your own situations. We're all coming at this with different agendas, different points of view and different motivations. What's true for one foreigner will not be true for another. What's terrible and unbearable for one foreigner, may go completely unnoticed by another. Korean culture is not Korean Culture, full-stop -- Korean culture is what you come to the table with, combined with how you experience the world around you, combined with Korean culture. At the end of the day, the only thing to do is just lay yourself open to it all and see what happens.

5. Accept that the dating culture is different.

No, Korean men and women don't act the same as Western men and women. Yes, this is at times charming, at times infuriating, and always just a bit fascinating. Every Korean is different, just as every foreigner is different, but there is a general set of social guidelines that are going to be followed that are not the same as in your home country, and it's going to take a hell of a lot of trial-and-error to work it all out. You're going to make huge social blunders, and so are they (in your eyes). You can, and should, talk about these things openly with your partner, figure out what you can and cannot accept, and try to work through it together, come to an understanding. But you're not going to get anywhere if you automatically condemn things as wrong, stupid, or just fucking strange.

You must remember that you have the benefit of experiencing both cultures, whereas your partner may not always have that, so you're often going to hold the lion's share of the responsibility on this one. They don't always even know that something's different or off from your culture. You're going to have to explain yourself clearly and often, ask a lot of questions and be prepared to have an open mind and change your behavior and expectations often, as well as go to bat for the things that are really important to you, in order for this to really work. Basically, all of this applies to close friendships with Koreans as well.

6. Accept that the culture of gender equality is different.

This one is particularly important for female foreigners. You don't have to like it -- I sure as hell don't. But you're not a one-woman army and you're not going to change it, all by yourself. In fact, you are a foreigner and it's not really your job to change it. Korean women (and men) are working on it, as we speak, and they are making positive strides everyday. You can speak as open and honestly about this as you wish (although it's important to remember to be respectful when you do), but you're not going to get anywhere stomping your feet and declaring that something isn't right. You're only going to frustrate yourself even worse than you're already being frustrated by outside forces.

Of course, it is always up to you what you will and will not tolerate in regards to your personal treatment. I sure as hell don't let anyone push me around, and it's one of the rare things I'll take a firm stance on, often declaring that my culture is just different, rather than trying to do things the "right" way. That's my choice, and I pay the consequences of that choice. But I have come to an understanding that gender equality in Korea is different from gender equality in the U.S., and that's the way it's going to be tomorrow when I wake up, as well, and if it gets to a point where I can't tolerate it, I know where the airport is. Which isn't to say that that's the way things should be, but rather just the way that they are.

7. Accept that the work culture is different.

This one is really important to me. And it's one place where I will get really judgy about other foreigners.

Look -- you're coming to Korea to work. You've accepted a job in a Korean workplace. If you've done your research properly, you know that, from a Western perspective, the Korean workplace is hierarchical, not particularly valuing of contracts, and demanding in the sense of riding over into your personal time and life. It's also really, really disorganized.

It's going to drive you absolutely crazy, and you're going to want to slap the face of the next person who looks like they're even thinking about muttering those infamous words we've all come to know and love: "When in Rome....."

But. It's not your school's job to reorganize itself around you and your culture. They've got far too many other things to worry about than the foreign teacher. It is part of your job to adjust yourself to Korean work culture -- not the other way around. You wanted to come and work in a foreign country -- well, guess what. You're here. And it's different and it's hard to understand and it's frustrating. Welcome to life. Get ready to dig in and start adjusting. Stop blaming your co-teachers, stop blaming your students, and stop blaming your higher-ups.

Of course, you're going to get furious at times. You're going to rant and rave and nearly lose your cool. It's not an easy task, and you're admirable for taking it on. But, take it up with the other foreigners after work with a beer. Get it all out -- scream, cuss, rant and relate. And then laugh. And relax. And move on. Because you're here, working abroad, which is not a privilege than many people in this world ever get to experience. Don't turn it into something negative when it doesn't have to be. Tuck your head down, roll around in your own humility and get ready to learn some of the hardest lessons of your life. And be grateful for the experience, because it will make you a stronger, wiser and more tolerant human being.

8. Keep your cool in the classroom.

This one speaks for itself, but I can't stress the importance enough. Never get emotional and never fly off the handle. It won't end well for you. Face saving culture is intense, even with children, and when you flip your shit in the Korean culture, you've lost respect. And it can take a long, long time to get it back. Don't do it. Even when you can't stop yourself from doing it, don't do it.

9. Eat the food. Eat ALL of the food.

Again, self-explanatory. Food is, as far as I can see and next to family, literally the most important thing in Korean culture. You will be offered much and often. Your eating habits will be asked about and commented on incessantly. If you put extra gochujang on your bibimbap, you will have moved up two levels (I'm not kidding) in everyone's respect and regard for you. No matter how bad it smells, how slimy it looks, or what disgusting bug-like creature your culture would never put in your hands, let alone your mouths, it comes from, just eat it. At least once. At least a little bit. After some time around your co-workers and Korean aquaintances, you will have earned the right to say, "I don't like that," without it turning into a mourning ceremony about how you don't like Korean food, you don't like Korean culture, and you don't like Korea, but up until that point, just make things easier on yourself -- chew, swallow and smile.

10. Be stupid. Open yourself up to getting hurt.

I've had a lot of struggles since I've been in Korea with forming relationships with Koreans. Enough to fill a book, maybe, but let's not do that here just yet. Koreans come in all shapes and sizes, with all different personalities and agendas. But, the truth of the matter is, you're going to have to do some real work to find Koreans who can really accept you at the core for who and what you are, and do so just because they like you, as a person, and not because of some outside motivation or influenced thinking. Sometimes an invitation to dinner will turn into can you teach my kids English? Sometimes what looks like a date for coffee will turn into, and I'll invite all of my friends because they've never met a foreigner before and isn't this all really funny? Sometimes even when a person really wants to get to know you, really wants to understand and accept you, their lack of life experience will get in the way and you'll realize they just aren't ready to break through that barrier yet. Sometimes the gaps will be too wide, the basic communication just too difficult. Sometimes you'll just grow tired of trying, making excuses for someone, and overlooking small hurtful things to make it worth it with that particular individual anymore.

That's okay. It's going to happen and it's going to hurt. And there are going to be moments when you want to just say, to hell with all of this -- I give up. It's impossible.

But, sometimes you'll get there eventually. Sometimes you'll meet someone who's never been off this peninsula who looks you square in the face and sees absolutely nothing but another human being. And you can never know when one of those people are coming. And you can still have valuable experiences with the ones who don't, in the end, quite work out.

So, as hard as it is, don't give up. Don't stop trying, even when it seems like the stupidest fucking thing in the world to continue on. You'll end up cheating yourself. And cheating others out of a chance to get to know you for who you really are.


Helena said...

I loved both of these posts. Very well-written.

I've been trying to figure out how I might get myself back to Korea within the next few years. Having two small kids makes it complicated. I don't want to just go to visit for a week or two, and I don't want to just go in the summer time (ugh). I'll figure something out.

Lauren Forde said...

This is PERFECT! Thank you so much Liz. I'm sure I'll have more questions to bother you with soon! I appreciate your time. Though I don't know much about your situation (just what you've posted) My sincere best wishes for your grandfather. I can tell you're a very strong woman with a big, giant heart. Don't lose hope.

Diana said...

Very well said. Especially the listen and don't listen to other foreigners thing. I would also add don't be afraid to ask Koreans about why they do something, but again, listen AND don't listen to their answers.

I'm no Picasso said...

Helena -- I can't imagine being in Korea with children. I can't imagine having children period, let alone handling that responsibility in a foreign country. But hopefully you work out a way to get back. One good thing about Korea is, it will always be here.

Lauren -- Always, always happy to help. Never hesitate to ask any questions you may have. And thank you so much for the encouragement. Busan is a city I've only spent a few days in, but it seems to be a great one with a really strong foreigner community. You'll do just fine.

Diana -- Absolutely right. Ask ask ask. Koreans take great joy in foreigners taking an interest in their culture, and will bend over backwards to help you understand. Of course, it can be hard for them to help at times, if they haven't experienced both sides of the culture, but they are a great source especially when you're getting conflicting reports from the foreigner community. I've often approached my co-teachers with what I like to call waegookin rumors, which they clear up in an absolute heartbeat.

Anonymous said...

I've been internetless for about a week, so I know this comment is probably a bit late for this post, but it really is an excellent one! I've lived in Korea but never taught there, although I am thinking about it in the future, and I just think this is a really balanced piece of advice that anyone in Korea or going to Korea can take something from.