It has been ten weeks since I moved from the United States to South Korea. I cannot begin to fathom how the time has flown by so quickly. So many changes have come along with starting over in a new country; but it has been extremely easy to adjust and become enveloped by my new life in Korea, because I love it here so much.
I departed Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on the evening of Sunday, May 10, and landed in San Francisco for a short layover. The flight from California to South Korea had a duration of 13 hours, and the the in-flight entertainment system was down for the entire flight. If you are rolling your eyes and muttering “first world problems” — you are absolutely correct. However, sitting on a plane for 13 hours with nothing to do but bask in your own thoughts quickly gets boring. Luckily, the flight was a red-eye and I spent the first several hours sleeping. When I woke up, my first glance out of the window was welcomed by a sea of darkness, with the exception of glistening white specks of light randomly scattered on the land below. In that moment, I knew we were somewhere over Japan and Korea wasn’t far off.
My flight arrived at Incheon International Airport in Korea on Tuesday, May 12 at 5:00AM local time. You can read the details about my experience of traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic here.
Upon my arrival in Korea, I immediately had to enter into a 14-day quarantine. I stayed inside of my apartment for the entire 14 days, because breaking quarantine meant facing jail time, deportation, or paying a hefty fine. It was not difficult to quarantine for my first two weeks, because I had no idea what life in South Korea entailed. I didn’t know anybody when I first arrived and I had never been here before, so I really did not know what I was missing by being holed up in my apartment.
My school enrolled the other new teachers and me into a two-week virtual training course. I had numerous documents to read, technology manuals to study, and quizzes to take throughout my time in quarantine. We also had meetings over Zoom. Needless to say, I was never bored during those first 14 days.
South Korea is 14 hours ahead of Chicago, and it took five days for my jet lag to wear off. I was thrilled to have time to adjust my sleep schedule. Other activities I did during quarantine included: cooking, reading Where the Crawdads Sing for my book club, talking to friends and family over video chat, exploring vlogs and blogs about life as an expat in Korea, and occasionally watching movies. I also shot multiple time-lapse videos of the lively world outside of my bedroom window, because I had all of the time to people watch and enjoy warm sorbet sunsets.
South Korea is one of the most visually appealing places I have ever been. There are tall mountains covered in vibrant greenery scattered throughout the entire country; and on hazy days, a light gray mist blankets the mountains, turning them into silhouettes. Dozens of neon signs hang on the outside of buildings for businesses and restaurants, and as the days turn to night, the streets are painted with a warm colorful glow. As you walk through the streets at night, it feels as though you are being embraced by a rainbow of light. It is such a beautiful feeling, and I love every second of it.
Korean food is another one of the visually appealing facets of this amazing country. All of my culinary experiences thus far have been welcomed by a display of colorful foods with the most gorgeous presentation. I have eaten a lot of delicious food since arriving to Korea, but my favorites so far are Korean BBQ and Bingsu, a popular Korean shaved ice dessert.
I try not to paint with a broad brush, but overall, Korean people are very kind. I have been welcomed with open arms by so many people in Korea, and they are also extremely helpful as I continue to acclimate into South Korean society. Some Korean people will stare, especially elderly people and small children, because I am a foreigner; but it isn’t nearly as intense as it was with the locals when I lived in China. In my experience thus far, Korean people are typically excited to interact with me; and I love interacting with them, so our exchanges have always been pleasant.
I have learned a handful of Korean phrases, and I am continuing to learn Hangul (the Korean alphabet). I have also started to read some words in Konglish (the Korean version of English words.) I am nowhere near being fluent, but a language barrier has not been an issue at all during my time in Korea so far. A lot of people here speak at least a tiny bit of English, and signs in English are prevalent. If I’m not sure about what something says I use an app called Papago, and it provides English translations of Korean words. The app is amazing because I can take a photo of a sign, highlight the words I do not understand, and it immediately translates from Korean into English.
As I mentioned before, I currently reside in Uijeongbu. If you’re a fan of the TV series M*A*S*H, Uijeongbu probably sounds familiar to you, because it was the location for the show. The city sits 13 miles north of South Korea’s capital city, Seoul; and I spend a great deal of time every weekend exploring areas of Seoul with friends, and occasionally by myself.
Public transportation in Korea is excellent. There are many types of trains, and all of them are efficient, fast, and unlike some of the trains in the United States, boast very clean interiors. There are also buses and taxis for people to use. I often find myself using a Korean transportation app similar to Über and Lyft called Kakao T. The app provides taxi-hailing and designates a driver to riders. If I am not in an area with any cabs nearby, the app comes in handy because I can type in my location, my destination, and the app utilizes GPS so I am able to see where my driver is located and when they will arrive.
Dozens of familiar stores and restaurants have popped up on my radar during my adventures in Korea. Last weekend, I signed up for a membership at my local Costco (it was also my first time ever being inside of a Costco). They sell Korean products as well as American products. I have also seen: IKEA, Outback Steakhouse, TGI Fridays, Shake Shack, Garrett’s Popcorn, Domino’s, Taco Bell, Yankee Candle, On The Border, Panda Express, Pizza Hut, Lush, Forever 21, Papa John’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, Dunkin Donuts, Krispy Kreme, KFC, Dairy Queen, American Eagle, DKNY — and there are even more!
I teach English at a private English academy, which also happens to be a technology school. On Monday through Friday, I instruct two, 3-hour classes from 4:15 to 10:00PM. The ages of my students range from 10 to 15 years old, and the class they are in depends on their language level. After spending the day at their regular school, students come to the academy for additional instruction in learning English. Because my school is a technology academy, each student has their own tablet during class; and all of the academic content is available on their tablet. We also use smart television sets in all of the classrooms to further enhance their educational experience.
I have roughly 70 students, and they are all unique. All of them are Korean, but some of my students have lived abroad in areas such as America, the United Kingdom, and India. They are all extremely smart, and some of them are more talkative, outgoing, shy, sassy, rambunctious, competitive, or comedic than others; but all of them radiate kindness.
We have a lot of fun in class, and I’ve introduced them to games such as Charades, Pictionary, Jeopardy, and Hangman. I split the class into teams for each game, and the winning team always get to pick from the candy bag (it is filled with Pocky, Haribo gummy bears, Trolli sour gummies, Hershey’s, Tootsie Rolls, Mentos, etc.). Needless to say, the games tend to get extremely loud because the students get very competitive; but there’s always a lot of laughter, too (especially during Charades!)
Because of the lockdown, I had not gotten a haircut since January. In mid-June, I went to my first-ever salon appointment while abroad. Korean summers are sweltering, and the humidity is very intense. I could not step outside without my hair instantly turning into a ball of frizz within minutes. After a few weeks of research, I discovered the Korean Magic Straight Perm, a hair treatment that alters the bonds in your hair to make it permanently straight and so it won’t react to humidity.
Getting the Korean Magic Straight Perm was one of the best decisions I have made during my time in South Korea so far, because it has cut down dramatically on the amount of time I have to invest in wrangling my hair. Unlike previous straightening treatments I have done, I am able to wash my hair and it continues to dry completely straight everytime. I love it because when I am outside, constantly sweating under the Korean sun, I don’t have to worry about how my hair is responding to the overwhelming amount of moisture in the air.
All of the friends I have made in Korea are amazing. I have only known them for a short time, but it is easy to love people here because they all seem to have such wonderful hearts. I realize it is a broad statement to paint everyone in that light; but overall, it’s true.
There is such a prominent expat community in Korea, that I have met people from all over the world in several different settings since moving here. To my surprise, I have met a lot of people from Indiana! I have to use two hands to count the number of Hoosiers I have met while on the Korean Peninsula — it has been that many!
HOME SWEET HOME
I never expected South Korea to feel like home so quickly, but it does. I have not been going through the typical levels of culture shock that I experienced when I moved to the countries of Georgia or China. Honestly, I haven’t narrowed down an exact reason why; but I have a few theories.
When I traveled to Eastern Europe back in 2015, it was my first time leaving the United States. In fact, it was my first time ever on an airplane! The entire experience was very overwhelming, and the fact that I was in Georgia to do the Peace Corps, it goes without saying that there were conspicuous cultural differences.
During my time in China, I was on the outskirts of Zhengzhou, which at the time was a two-tier city. I loved my experience in China and I would not trade it for anything in the world, but it was difficult. I was the only foreigner in my area, and a 45-minute taxi ride from downtown. The nearest store was roughly a two-mile walk from my residence, and the amount of firewalls they put on the internet already made an isolating situation feel even more isolated.
Because of COVID-19, the sense of normalcy I felt while living in the United States was completely altered. I no longer recognized “home” anymore. South Korea’s response has been a lot better and dramatically more effective than America’s, and society as a whole seems a lot happier here; therefore, it is significantly easier to feel happier here. Spending the past few years residing in Chicago really prepared be for the urban setting I currently live in, and life in Korea reflects the sort of life I want to have for many years to come. I love it here, and I cannot wait to unfold the rest of this adventure.