From Korea with Love

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January 1st 2012
Published: January 1st 2012
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Ten months in Korea as an English teacher and another New Year. Ah, I'm feeling reflective. Time for a long overdue disjointed and chaotic entry on my time in Seoul during 2011...

Don't Believe the Hype

And so, flashbacks to the beginnning of the previous New Year, when I was first considering coming to Korea... And naturally I was interested in trying to understand what this small country, surrounded by three of the greatest powers in history - China, Japan and Russia - was all about. And what type of experience I could expect teaching overseas in a country that, shamefully, I could have exhausted my entire knowledge in a few syllables - Park Ji Sung.

I recall that, as usual, my background research was very sophisticated and involved the crude Google “Teaching English in Korea”. This exposed me to the first Korea “horror story”. There are plenty of them out there in the ESL community. Sorry Korea. That is just a fact. See the the third or forth Google return as evidence - an absolutely damning blog entry from someone who essentially just poured vitriol all over his experience in Korea. Now, this is by no means the only one out there, but it was only one that I was prepared to properly dissect...

Would this provide serious food for thought, perhaps? Or was it merely the ramblings of an angry, bitter cretin...

Reading the blog entry in question further, the particular individual tactlessly revealed that he had picked up a fake degree certificate in Bangkok and that he had no intention of completing the 12 month contract he signed in the first place. This, as far as I’m concerned, makes his negative standpoint completely and utterly redundant! And also helps understand how Koreans could easily attribute very negative generalisations to westerners coming to their country….

Now, clearly I am not implying that anyone who has had a bad experience in Korea is a selfish, thoughtless fool. Or for one minute that Korea is without its faults. Far from it. But I would say to anyone tentatively considering teaching here who is concerned by a lot of the negative stories out there that you should take them with a serious pinch of salt.

Is Korea the problem? Or are there perhaps a lot witless toss-pot expats out there who was getting as much from the experience as they were really putting in?

Daft racists

And so, where next... (told you this was chaotic). Oh yes. That word.

ho·mo·ge·ne·ous adj. 1. Of the same or similar nature or kind 2. Uniform in structure or composition throughout.

So much is also made of how Korea is “one of the most homogenous societies on the Earth” and, whilst most expatriates agree that Koreans tend to make foreigners feel welcome, there is sadly a widespread consensus that this friendliness conceals rampant xenophobia.

Justified? Er, no. I have experienced this prejudice only once (and not directed at me), funnily enough on my first night out - an American service man, smashed in a Hongdae bar, clearly unduly fearful and contemptuous of that which is foreign, aggressively ranting at me in disgust, "Koreans are all racist. I'm here trying to tell them about their culture and they won't listen to me".

*Poor Dear. I cannot understand why? He must have felt like Luis "In Uruguay, the term 'negro' means 'lovely friend'" Suarez.*

However, whilst there does occasionally seem to be an underlying contempt for Japan that surfaces on rare occasions at school, this is not a view that reconciles with my experience in Korea at all. It's total nonsense.

It has as much validity as claiming that all Brits are imperialist redcoats, hell bent on "making the world England". I could sadistically claim that much of Middle England still considers it an achievement to have white skin, that many still hold the view that the French are “cheese eating surrender monkeys” and enjoy belching “God Save the Queen” whilst watching repeats of Top Gear. Such broad and damning statements clearly fail to reflect the fact that, whilst by no means perfect, Britain is still one of the most diverse, multi-cultured and tolerant societies on the planet. Jeremy Clarkson aside.

No. I have found people out here to be warm, friendly, respectful and fun-loving.

The Vanity

But, er, this is the bit were perhaps I show how to lose friends and alienate people. I'm not going to make myself popular here with some people, but please excuse the following - I just have to get it out of my system...

Here goes...

Rightly or wrongly, Korean girls are famed throughout East Asia as being a little vain. Especially in China, where they are often broadly viewed as shallow superficial creatures, whose main ambition is to own a Louis Vuitton handbag and have their cheeks stapled to the back of their head by a plastic surgery clinic.

The cynicism of Korea's "young and beautiful" in Shanghai for example (where several firecely proud Chinese girls cruelly mocked the fact that these good looks may not be entirely natural) amused me, but I never gave it much consideration until I came to Seoul and, I must say, this reputation, whilst clearly greatly exaggerated, is not entirely unjustified...

Now, this is merely an honest observation, and one which is not made with the view of making a wider point and I certainly would not want to be guilty of applying lazy negative stereotypes like the ones I have already previously lamented...

But, I have been simply aghast (from the second I walked off the plane), at the disturbingly regular intervals with which so many young girls gaze into their "vanity mirrors", making sure that every eye lash and hair follicle is in the perfect position. There are scores of young women seemingly hypnotised by their own reflections on the mirrored screens of their mobile phones in Seoul, gromming with such obstinate consistence that a North Korean ballistic missle would fail to distract them.

Indeed, if Pyongyang could ever make all reflective surfaces suddenly opaque, the disintegration of political, economic, military and all social institutions in Seoul would be swift. It is quite disconcerting and personally I find it slightly depressing...

Lacking Soul (see what I've done there)

Which leads me to Seoul itself... Where to start?

As one of Asia’s megalopolises, on paper it has absolutely everything. Yet, for all the sumptuous palaces, traditional tea houses, galleries and restaurants, the city often feels sparse, distant and cold. With the thriving non stop consumption of twenty million people packed sardine like in a sprawling maelstrom of identikit high rises and monstrous concrete highways, it is a city I will simply never love.

That is not to say there are not multiple things in isolation that are easy to adore: Insadong, Bukhansan, Hongdae (if you are really drunk), Jongmyo. But it simply lacks that intangibly glorious quality that certain cities have. It's got nothing on London!

Found that Soul

No, really, it's the traditional and largely rural provinces (such as Gyeongsang) that are really the green jewels at the heart of Korea… The absolute antithesis of Seoul and impossible not to be enthralled by!

Andong, home to the Dosan Confucian School and the Hahoe Village, set at the foothills of rolling mountains and surrounded by elegant flowing rivers and lush ancient pine trees is absolutely unmissable…

The dynastic Silla capital Gyeongju is also superb. The mesmerising White Cloud Bridge crossing and the walkway leading to the wonderfully artistic temple complex of Bulguksa, lined with lotus flowers and cherry blossoms was perhaps the personal highlight of my entire time in Korea thus far…

And as far as hiking and national parks are concerned, Korea is up there with the best...


Many people have fairly touching, deep-rooted and profound personal stories attached to completing their first marathon. I for one, sadly, did not have any “euphoria” moment crossing the line, instead just being bloody relieved that the torturous affair was over, wandering how I was going to recover my soul from the Devil, who had apparently ripped it out through my knee-caps and, more bizarrely shouting “Primal Scream Mother Fucker” at a fairly dazed looking Korean runner as the finish line came into view. I doubt he had any idea who Bobby Gillespie was!

Now, I have never really been hugely into running, having only completed two half marathons and occassionally limping down the Thames at snails pace, but since joining a running club out here (Seoul Flyers, with whom I have been fortunate enough to run several great events with and have met a range of great people from all over the world, with varying levels of experience), I was able to complete my first marathon this year. All be it very slowly!


And finally, the reason I'm actually out here. Well, I'm running out of steam here (much like the marathon) so I will simply refer you to the photos uploaded and will perhaps, at some point this year, get around to writing something/anything of substance... And do the subject some justice for once!

So, I'll just leave it with HAPPY NEW YEAR! And apologise for the sprawling, rambling, incoherent nature of my, er, ramblings...

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