Korea: an eight-month review

In some ways it’s crazy to think that I’ve been living in Korea for eight whole months (as of last Thursday, November 24), but in others it feels like I’ve always lived here, like back home was just a dream. Which is also crazy.

I guess it’s because I’m just so used to living here and doing what I do. It’s no longer strange to use public transport every day, to eat my lunch with two metal sticks and a spoon, to live in a room that’s smaller than the bedroom of the flat I stayed in last year. It’s no longer weird that 90% of my daily interactions are with people who don’t speak English, in some bizarre form of Konglish and sign language. It’s become second nature to sidestep gobs of spit on the sidewalk (ew), to bow when I greet people, to run for the little green man (traffic lights have insanely long phases here) and to use Americanisms like “sidewalk” and “traffic light”. (That last one makes me a little sad.)

I know that I have SHAMEFULLY neglected my blog over the past months, and you, dear readers, if I have any left. <hangs head> There will HOPEFULLY (fingers and toes and eyes crossed) be a series of backdated posts, letting y’all know what I’ve been up to, and indirectly WHY the blog has been semi-abandoned, but for now I’m going to give you an overview of what my life has been like in Korea over the past eight months.

I was originally going to divide it into love/hate sections, but I realised that, as with so many other things in life, there are good parts and bad parts to just about everything here. So I’ve split it according to topics: read on and enjoy….

The Weather

This is a big thing at the moment for me, and most other South Africans I know. When I arrived at the end of March, I was wearing full-on SA winter gear; gloves, scarf, hat, thermal underwear. It was spring here, and colder than it gets in winter back home. By the beginning of June it had started to warm up, and then it just didn’t stop. The nights became what they call “tropical” – averaging about 26 degrees Celsius, and the days ranged between 28 and 30. This doesn’t seem as hot as say, Pretoria in summer, but the huge, face-melting difference is the humidity. For about two months the humidity was close on 100%. It felt like walking into a sauna every time you left your apartment. Walking anywhere became a torment. I slept with no covering, and the fan on all night. I stopped taking hot showers and took lukewarm ones instead, and drank iced coffee in the mornings. There were mosquitoes everywhere. On the upside, this heat makes all sorts of fun things possible: sitting outside convenience stores ’til all hours, camping on the beach and swimming at midnight, never needing to take a jacket when you go out. The abundance of beautiful beaches on Jeju makes the hot summer (hot, hot summer) soooo worth it.

Gwakji Beach.

Hamdeok Beach.

Camping on Pyeoson Beach.

Now we’re getting to winter, and I’m getting worried. I’m fortunate that I live in probably the warmest place in Korea, but the wind here apparently makes the cold seem so much worse. I went on a shopping trip to the mainland last weekend and stocked up on some serious winter gear, but I’m still not sure it’s enough. I’m also lucky that I live in a very warm, well-insulated building in the city, but I work in the countryside, which is always a couple of degrees colder than in town. Last week the temperature dropped to about 10 degrees, and boy, did I feel it. I’m in layers and long underwear ALREADY, and everyone keeps saying “reassuring”, “comforting” things like, “Hahaha, you ain’t seen nothing yet, this is nothing, just you wait…” Eep!

From left to right: level 1 coat, level 2 coat, and the as-yet unworn level 3 coat...

A friend’s mom, who came to visit in August, told us she’d read that when the first Koreans moved to the peninsula, they decided to settle here primarily because of its “temperate climate”. I’m not sure if that’s true but it still blows my mind. How can one place be sauna-like in summer, and a dark, windy freezer a few months later?! If they think this is temperate, where the heck were they coming from: Siberia?? The Sahara?? Try SOUTH AFRICA, which has the most civilised temperature range I know. Long summers, short winters: just another reason why South Africa is the best country to live in.

Right?! (Twelve Apostles, Camps Bay, Cape Town.)

Jeju Island

I love living on a small island in the middle of nowhere. I also hate living on a small island in the middle of nowhere.

Here.

In some (most) ways I feel really, really lucky to have somehow ended up on Jeju. It’s beautiful, the people are laid-back, the transport system works well and we have a decent number of Western restaurants. The expat population is highly innovative and creative, so we have loads of fun expat events and happenings like beach volleyball tournaments, art exhibitions, salsa classes, craft markets and open mic nights. There’s always something to do here.

That's me!

That's definitely not me.

On the other hand, access to the mainland is limited to an 11-hour ferry ride or a 50-minute plane ride, which has to be planned and booked in advance. Not for us the last-minute weekend jaunts to Daegu or Busan! (You can, however, do last-minute weekend jaunts to Udo Island, but that’s another story.) The small expat population also lends itself to an atmosphere rich for drama. Remember how I used to describe Pretoria as a small incestuous village? Well, P-Town, I take it all back. You ain’t got NOTHING on this place. (Er. Don’t ask.)

The Food

Eight months in Korea have without doubt altered my taste buds. I can eat spicy food now! This is terribly exciting, considering I never ate spicy food at home, EVER. Now I’m dak galbi-ing it up with the best of them! But what, I hear you ask, is dak galbi? Excellent question. I was told about this food when I first arrived, by a girl who said it was delicious, but warned that it was extremely spicy and that it had been several months before she’d been able to eat it and enjoy it. So when I was taken for dak galbi only one month in my tenure here, it was something of an unmitigated disaster. When I tried it again, shortly after returning from Thailand (blog post pending!), I found it to be nothing less than the food of the gods! Ok, maybe I exaggerate. A little. But it is freaking delicious. What’s that? I still haven’t told you what it is? Oh, my bad. It’s chicken pieces (dak) mixed with veggies, red sauce in varying degrees of spiciness, rice cakes and cheese (optional, but not really) and cooked on a skottel-like thing in the middle of your table (the galbi part). You eat it wrapped in lettuce with some ssamjang (savoury bean paste, my favourite Korean food item, EVER). It. Is. Divine!

Dak galbi. YUM.

I still love ordinary galbi, which is basically a pork braai, and “Japanese steak” – beef galbi, although I’ve only had that once. Noodles are always good, and I’ve become great friends with a couple of Kimbap Heavens: restaurants where they serve a variety of basic Korean food and where you’re not looked at funny if you happen to be dining alone. Kimbap looks similar to sushi (especially nigiri) but tastes nothing like it, as it’s made with sesame oil and with entirely different rice. Its main ingredients are rice, egg, processed ham, sesame leaf, sometimes cucumber, and pickled radish. It sounds gross, I know, but it’s actually really yummy! My favourite is the chamchi, the tuna mayo, and the keranmali, plan kimbap wrapped in a thin omelette. Dinner for one to go, please!

Kimbap. Yum.

I’ve also found school dinners far more palatable this semester – either they’re making better food or I’m getting used to it. All I know is they haven’t tried to serve me sea cucumber again, and that’s a definite plus. (Sea cucumber may be the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted. Words cannot describe its hideousness, so I will not even try. Just trust me on this.)

As for Western food, I continue to enjoy Quiznos sandwiches (more often than I care to admit. The shop is in my building, ok!), delicious Indian food at Raj Mahal’s, spaghetti bolognaise at Pasta&, pizza either at Young Gu’s (where it’s tolerable. At least it doesn’t have revolting sweet potato mousse on it) or Dalgrak’s, where it’s amazingly delicious, mostly because they have a real live pizza oven! Chicken burgers are to be had from Mickey D’s (shut up) or The Plate (yum), and fish ‘n chips from Gecko’s (blah, and on the other side of the island) or an adorable little cafe on Gwakji beach (I haven’t been there lately but they do have the most delicious fish ‘n chips I’ve tasted since Seoul). And that’s the Food Story, as they like to say here in the Land of the Morning Calm. (No, I don’t get it either.)

Having Quiznos in my building is both the best and the worst thing ever.

People

On the whole, I like the people here. Most of my co-workers are very nice, some are absolute dolls, and some…well…I have a harder time with, let’s leave it at that. Because they’re all older and none of them speak particularly good English, I don’t really interact socially with many Koreans, but I do know a few, I promise! And they’re pretty awesome, so. In general the Koreans are polite, although some of the older people can be very rude. I still get annoyed when people stare at me on the street, like, hello?! Never seen a white girl before?! Take a picture, it’ll last longer. In some ways, it’s like being an mlungu in a township, all the damn time. Sigh. It’s even worse walking around the hotel district, where bus-loads of Korean, Japanese or Chinese tourists trundle around all hours of the day. I sometimes feel like a part of the local attractions: “And if you turn to your left, ladies and gentlemen, you will find a lesser-spotted female waygookin…”

People tend to drive like maniacs: they make taxi drivers back home look like civilised, law-abiding road users.

This guy.

U-turns are not only legal but encouraged; jaw-walking is frowned on but only because they got tired of cleaning the blood off the streets. Sometimes it feels like drivers are deliberately aiming for you as you simultaneously attempt to glare them down and scuttle for your life across the zebra crossing. It’s really amazing I haven’t seen more accidents. I guess the difference here is that everybody drives like a maniac, unlike home, where it’s more varied.

Other (hopefully) interesting facts about Life In Korea:

– I’m still enjoying the teaching very much. It’s unbelievably rewarding when the slowest second grade boy, who you’ve been patiently working with since April, finally manages to correctly unscramble sentences. Or when sixth graders can identify and correct grammatical errors in the textbook. Or a fourth grader spots a signboard you’ve learned about in class and can tell you what it means in English. Victory!

– I do salsa class every Sunday and go to a knitting group meet-up (Stitch ‘n Bitch) every Tuesday. I love the dancing and I’m attempting actual knitting patterns! I’ve already knitted several hats, a couple of woolly headbands and am working on a pair of mittens and a hot water bottle cover (ON circular needles. Go me!).

I made hats!

– I haven’t done as much hiking as I want to, or should have. I tried to do Hallasan, the highest peak in Korea, I got up early and wore hiking shoes and everything; but it sadly ended in a twisted ankle, and a ride down the mountain on a tiny diesel-powered monorail. Good times, although, as several friends pointed out, this just goes to show that physical activity is dangerous. Indeed. I’ve never been injured while reading, or watching series… :P

Hallasan, pre-ankle.

– We had a Proudly South African Braai for Heritage Day back in September. It was super fun. We plan on having another in December, before winter really hits, as there were some Saffers who missed out last time. Bring on the boerie!

Saffers eating boerie on Braai Day...

– My friend NATALI will be visiting me over Christmas. I am terribly excited about this :D I also have my fingers crossed for my first White Christmas… (I hate the cold but I’m excited for whatever snow Jeju has to offer!)

– Then in JANUARY I will be heading HOME for just over two weeks, to see friends and family and eat insane amounts of FOOD. There will be a blog closer to the time, as I am so excited about it. Cannot wait.

– In FEBRUARY some friends and I are hoping to go SKIING! It will be my first winter sports experience and I’m really looking forward to -it.

– I still hate the fact that people spit in the street and smoke in restaurants, that you can’t buy toilet paper in packs of less than twelve (less than 30 in the big stores), that they don’t give you milk and sugar and teaspoons with your coffee, that I’m regarded as a tall, big girl over here (Asian chicks are ridiculously skinny and tiny, ok :<) and that they think tomato is a fruit. (Yes, I know it is technically, but it’s still weird to find it in fruit salad, ok.) I do love the low crime rate, the fact that I can walk around at night in relative safety, having an Island BFF, friends on the mainland, meeting new people, having so many amazing experiences, the opportunity to influence kids’ lives, and of course the AMAZING, the WONDERFUL, the MIND-BLOWING world’s fastest internet. Thank you, Korea.

And that’s it from me for now. See y’all soon…

^_^

PS If you enjoyed reading about my life on Jeju Island, please take a few minutes and visit this website and sign the petition. Let’s keep this beautiful place naval base-free!

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2 thoughts on “Korea: an eight-month review

  1. Wow! So THAT’S what a blog is supposed to look like! I could learn a lot from you.
    I really enjoyed this. Your life looks so happy and cozy and exciting at the same time.

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