Did you learn any Korean?/11 things I learn in South Korea
It’s been almost a decade since I moved to South Korea. In May 2009 I gave a metaphorical middle finger to the U.S. and signed a contract to live in a country that I knew nothing about, other than where it was on a map—and barely that. I’ve been back in the states since 2012 and sometimes my life overseas comes up in conversation over drinks, or during late night after-the-bar, greasy food runs. The first question is almost always, “Did you learn any Korean?”
There are a couple of things I learned while living in South Korea, but their language was not one of them. The reason for this wasn’t some form of cultural chauvinism (South Korea’s culture is way better than American culture in many crucial ways), nor was it necessarily the difficulty of the language, which other foreigners seemed to adopt with no serious bumps. The fact is that I had no real interest in picking up another language—at least not enough to put forth the effort required to learn it. Also, South Korea made it easy to be an English only speaker. Thirdly I was too busy doing other things. Things which lead to other lessons that I learned.
1) I learned that the Korean name Tae-young (태영) translates to “The Sun,” and that’s awesome.
2) I learned that personal space is a relative concept.
3) I learned that life is good. The idea finally solidified itself in my mind after thirty long years of breathing, eating and drinking out of half empty glasses. It was a sunny Saturday morning during my first year as a teacher. I rose out of my twin bed to stretch and yawn myself back into the waking world where I had a full day ahead of me. I packed my afternoon and evening with activities that I would engage in solo, and later with friends.
As I walked into the bathroom, I thought about the writers' workshop I had gotten involved in, and how much I had improved my craft. I thought about the woman I was with. How, as temporary as most expat relationships were, I found someone I loved and who made me tingle at the site of her.
I was in the shower while doing most of this thinking, and I smiled as the hot water ran over my head and face. I realized that I had so much more to go. In my mind, I could see an open road in front of me. I was given a space where I could be a better writer. Not only that, but I was able to develop a circle of friends who were like family. I was in love, and though I realized how lucky that made me, I also knew that if it didn’t work out I could move on because there was enough love left in me.
I felt so grateful to be where I was. To know the people that I knew, and to just be alive to experience all that the world had in store for me, good or bad.
A thick beam of light came in through the bathroom’s small square window—framed with spots of blackish mildew that wouldn’t allow itself to be bleached away from the think caulk. Reflecting off the ugly salmon-pink tiles, the sunbeam lit up the room, and I began to laugh. It was one of those ecstatic moments—like the birth of a child, or the triumph over some great challenge—where a sense of happiness rolls over your mind in ever increasing waves until you’re overwhelmed with joy.
I laughed and laughed, and then began to dance. Pumping my legs up and down like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, I let that joy rush through my body, eventually wash off my skin like sweat with each stream of water from the shower head above.
Life wasn’t my enemy. Life was my friend. Life would always be my friend.
4) I learned that there is no intrinsic benefit to taking the road less traveled. Some things are avoided because they suck. During my second year in Korea, teaching at a public school in Seoul, co-workers invited me to try some fermented skate fish. It was an old-school dish called Hongeo-hoe (홍어회) that was becoming rarer as the western diet continued its slow-motion razing of the region’s health and traditional food culture.
The fish stunk. I walked into the teacher’s lounge when my co-teacher, Mr. Cho (조), asked if I wanted to try a “unique Korean dish.” He had a mischievous grin that openly flaunted the fact that he expected to laugh at my expense. My naïveté brought him some happiness, so I didn’t mind the occasional good-natured ribbing. When we walked into the room though, the scent of formaldehyde filled my nose. After similar experiences, though, I was prepared for it and didn’t wince once as I walked towards a ceramic jar which held the food.
Many of the other teachers were standing around and giving it a try. When they saw me, the only foreigner, they each offered words of encouragement (“come on, give it a try”) or warning (“I don’t think you would enjoy this. The taste isn’t for you”).
Mr. Cho (조) said, “You smell that?”
“Yes. It is very strong.”
“Like alcohol, right?”
“Something like that.”
“This dish is very expensive because of the process used to make it. It is not eaten very often. We have it here because one of the teachers likes it and ordered it for us all to have some. I think it may be too strong for your taste, but would you like to give it a try?”
Being daring had gotten me pretty far in Korea so I said, “Of course I’ll try it.” The room became abuzz with chatter that I didn’t understand, and I was given a plate of stinky fish. Almost everyone in the small lounge was waiting for my reaction. I took a bite of the fish and… it was bad.
The surprise was that there was no surprise. I told anyone who asked that the fish wasn’t revolting, but that I didn’t like it enough to try again. It was all very anticlimactic, and after exchanging a few pleasant words, I went back to my desk.
The plot of “Man is invited to eat bad food. Bad food is bad. Man learns nothing” was very unsatisfying. I had eaten some nasty fish, and though it was an unusual experience, my life was not much different from having eaten it.
5) I learned that though it’s never been the case for me, for many, the point of drinking is to get drunk.
6) I learned that an assumption born of ignorance is not the same as racism.
7) I learned that, mostly, my health is in my hands. When I first arrived in South Korea, I was at a low period in life, regarding health—or at least, looking good naked. I had been living with someone who fostered lousy eating habits. She ordered Papa John’s every three days, and deli sandwiches became a household staple. I was too sad to resist what I knew was no good, or to push by exercise. I was dying inside both metaphorically and literally.
When I arrived in South Korea, I felt free, or instead, I felt refreshed. I felt like I had a chance to write myself anew. I started with my health and my budget, which connected in a magical formula where I spent money on unprepared fruits and vegetables. They ended up being cheaper than cooked food, and because they could be eaten raw, I could continue being lazy in the kitchen—which was a nice bonus.
There was a specific moment when I knew things had changed. I was spending a weekend in Busan, and one afternoon specifically at Haeundae beach. Wherein my childhood, or even my teenage years, I was ridiculously self-conscious and afraid to take my shirt off at the local pool, I was completely comfortable lying topless on the sand and adding color to my already melanated skin. I had been that way for most of my twenties, but my comfortability in my skin was bolstered by the fact that I felt confident in the way I looked.
Stepping away from the sand, I went to use the restroom, and after washing my hands, I took a look at myself in the long mirror above the low sink. Suddenly I could see the effects of the pound of fruits and vegetables I ate every day. I could see the morning exercise routine that I had developed. In the lines of my torso I could see the discipline I put into the Calisthenics at the local park, or the fun I put into hours of biking to, and along, the Han river. It wasn’t just the way I looked either. I had energy. I felt strong.
I thought to myself, this is exactly what I always wanted to be. There was no magic behind it either. I knew that nothing was keeping me from staying that way other than my dedication to the only thing I have in this world: my body. It’s a lesson I never forgot.
8) I learned that, if need be, soju could be a repellent, a disinfectant, and an intoxicate all in the same night.
9) I learned that I'm terribly clueless when it comes to women.
10) I learned that people are what make life special. Though I was a foreigner, there were other foreigners, and nothing creates friendship more than necessity. The moments in which I felt alone were vastly fewer and farther between than my time before Korea, or after, for that matter. There were always incredible people who I could talk to over coffee, meet up for drinks, or see a movie with. There was always some event or happening that I could plug myself into and meet folk who were open to new things because they were trying to make connections in the way we all do when we’re alone.
11) During my time in South Korea, I learned that there is hope, that there is love, that there is enough of both, and that there is no shortage of people who need them, just as I did.
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