As the end of my year in Korea quickly approaches, I thought I’d take some time to reflect and look back over the entire year…

(DISCLAIMER: I have had an amazing time in Korea, even if my time wasn’t perfect or even close to the experiences of others. Don’t be alarmed by the negative aspects as I’m only trying to report objectively and honestly. My goal is to paint a complete picture of my time abroad for my friends and family at home. In no way is this ended to be racist or overly critical; these are merely observations based on only my personal experiences. I’ve already spoken at great length about the positives…. this is just the other side of the equation. Rest assured, the good far outweighs the bad.)


Teaching English as a Second Language overseas is quite a unique experience with many facets. Minuscule aspects of daily life, second nature to most people, become major issues for ex-pats including but not limited to: acclimating to your host culture, changes in sleep/work schedule, daily and weekly routines, social involvement with new friends and romantically, finding your way in a new environment, getting along with your coworkers and students, the way the school is managed, and your ability – or inability – to communicate.

We are the sum of the choices we make. I made a conscious decision to live in Daegu (pop. 3 million people) as opposed to Seoul (pop. 20 million people). I had my reasons. And I will stand by them; however, other ex-pats who chose Seoul or Tokyo over smaller towns and villages, experienced a completely different lifestyle. Which is better? That’s not for me to say. My point is everyone’s stories will differ greatly. Some teachers have day jobs while others teach in the evenings; the schedule also has a great deal of impact on each ex-pat’s experience.

These are only some of my own personal observations (to be added to a year’s worth as chronicled in this blog).

First and foremost, Korea is a very confused nation. Having been sandwiched between two superpowers over the past five thousand years has left them void of a cultural identity. Because of this, Koreans gravitate toward Western culture to plug the holes. Technology, arts and entertainment, sports, fashion, food, transportation, and other aspects of life in a Korean city and borrowed (or stolen) directly from America.

Where the Smart Phone is King...
Korea: Where the Smart Phone is King…

The worst of these is the image-based, superficial society. South Korea has the international record for most cosmetic surgeries per capita (40% of women under 50 go under the knife). They care so much about the way their faces look and which clothes they buy, they spend hours staring at themselves in their smart phones adjusting and readjusting their hair and makeup. I’ve literally witnessed a half-dozen teenager or twenty-something Koreans sitting around a table – none of them speaking to each other, but all are either texting other people or staring at the own image in their smart phone screens (older Koreans don’t fall prey to this behavior and I’m concerned about similar symptoms present in the American youth).

Lee Bahs Kwoh Mo
Skinny Jeans anyone?

Additionally, the Korean men have to be the most socially awkward demographic I’ve ever encountered. Most in their 20s, dress like Brooklyn hipsters (and are super feminine [not just the boy bands] – probably the reason when it comes to dating, overtly masculine Western men have a more difficult time than our slimmer counterparts), and if that weren’t bad enough, they’re clumsy, tripping and falling over themselves. They also regularly have goofy expression plastered across their faces and when they interact with each other, not just Westerners, they seem to be self-conscious to the point that nervous ticks and twitches become abundant. They drink a lot and cannot hold their liquor. I’ve seen older Koreans stumbling home from happy hour piss-drunk and unable to walk straight.

Moreover, the cities themselves are filthy. Trash is everywhere and nobody bothers to clean the alleys. There are no trash cans. People litter constantly and the only way anything gets recycled is when old ladies sort and collect the cardboard, paper, glass, and plastic from the huge piles of trash dotting the curbs. They must do a great job though, since 49% of all trash ends up recycled.

Too Many Streets Look Like This
Too Many Streets Look Like This

Accompanying the trash are the smells; most places in cities (the countryside is completely different and smells lovely) stink in some combination of rotten fish/seafood, sewage/garbage, and cat shit. I haven’t been able to figure out why Koreans don’t seem to mind but most ex-pats who’ve lived in Korea longer than a couple days, comment that the stench is the worst part of their experience – I wholeheartedly agree.

One of the misnomers of Asians in general is that they are smarter and have a stronger work ethic than their Western counterparts. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Asians, if they’re better at math, are only so at earlier ages. This has nothing to do with their level of intelligence, but rather has much more to do with their language development.

Kids Will Be Kids
Kids Will Be Kids

The counting system in Asian cultures is much simpler for toddlers and elementary school students to pick up and master. They count each single digit in each placeholder. So instead of saying: thirty-seven…. Asians say three-ten-seven… Much more logical for young kids to understand. If America changed their language to count in the same way Koreans do, elementary math scores would increase across North America.

I’ve found that my kids (middle school age) are very similar to American students in most respects. They don’t want to study, they don’t want to work, they don’t want to pay attention in class, and in general care more about what they’re doing on their smart phone screens than what I’m doing on the dry-erase board.

Kids will be kids, after all however, don’t be misled: Asians are not more intelligent (or harder working) than Americans. They do have more excuses than Americans though, since they find themselves under immense pressure from parents, teachers, peers, and society to succeed. While their Western counterparts engage in extracurricular activities like sports teams, debate clubs, and drama productions, kids in Korea sit in classrooms from 8:00am until 10:00pm more often than not (In a previous article, I mentioned the skyrocketing suicide rate among teens – this is mostly due to test scores and schoolwork). Overall, like most things in life, I found the kids in Korea to fit into a bell-shaped curve.

To Be Continued…



One thought on “Your Mileage May Vary: Part I

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