South Korea is close to my heart. I spent a great deal of my young happy years exploring the country of South Korea, from the southernmost seaport city of Busan to the heart of Seoul, Korea’s bustling capital city. The mountains, the oceans, the winter, the high rise apartments, the heated floors, the way of life — all and more show the unique splendor of this beautiful country and its people.
South Korea was the very first overseas country I set foot in. It was the perfect place to be immersed in another culture, one that’s different from my own. I was sent as a missionary teacher to a sahmyook elementary school in the southeast city of Daegu when I was 21 years old. Never have I imagined that I would live there for 4 years. I did not know anybody and nobody knew me. The experience resulted into a lot of funny encounters. On my very first day at the school, I asked for the restroom which was commonly called comfort room in the PI. Unbeknownst to me, comfort room is not an accepted English term of a washroom or a toilet, except in the Philippine archipelago. Addressing everyone in the teachers’ lounge, I said, “Excuse me, may I know where the comfort room is?” Everyone looked at me, stunned. I repeated my request a few times and I could see them trying to discuss amongst themselves. The school secretary motioned for me to follow her. We went up three flights of stairs which really baffled me. Then she used a special key to unlock a door. To my horror, there were computers everywhere. It was the school’s computer room. I animated some body language to let her know what I really was asking for. I silently laughed at my silly self as I finally got into a restroom, wishing I could flush out my embarrassment.
Having a guide book to study would have saved me that time, I don’t know. But hey, those were years that formed my total independence, and though there were many learning moments, it gave me the courage to go anywhere I wanted to go and inspired me to see the world in a different light.
There are countless of things I love about Korea, I listed down 8 of my favorite ones:
- People. Lovely people. Really. I stayed with a Korean family for 2 years. They would take me with them whenever they went on vacations. I watched the famous Sokcho sunset, climbed Soraksan, cheered at the WorldCup, and witnessed (on TV) in shock as the twin towers in NY collapsed on 9/11. One of my students’ mom became my very good friend. She invited me several times to her home, fed me, gave me a flute (she was a flute teacher) and offered me free lessons. When my husband, then boyfriend, would come visit me, the elders would hand me money so I could take my boyfriend to the cool places in the area. Everyone was like family. South Koreans sure know how to spoil people they love and admire. Even though they are busy, hardworking people they also know how to have a good time.
- Respect. There may be times that this would become a sense of entitlement for old folks, but respecting ones elders is a value that should never go out of style. Children are taught at an early age to do the “insa” or the bowing to the elders as a sign of respect. Young ones are expected to give up their seats for the elderly. Quite a surprise to Westerners is the question that often comes after the usual greeting: “How old are you?” may come as too forward to most people in the world. To Koreans, however; this is quite important so they could give due respect to the older person. Friends are those that share the same age. Otherwise, people are addressed according to their age or their status.
- Integrity. One particular experience showed me this wonderful trait of South Koreans. After a weeklong fun vacation in Seoul, I took the train back to Daegu city. I spent the day gallivanting so I decided taking the night train. I slept during the 4-hour trip back. When the train stopped in my city, I just took off leaving my purse with all important documents in it, including my passport. Less than an hour later, I got a call and had all my stuff returned to me.
- Food & Entertainment. Korean food is for the adventurous palate. I have met quite a few people who are not fond of spicy food. But if you love spicy and unique foods you might love South Korean cuisine. Food is very affordable. It’s possible to get lunch for $2.50. Back then, it was just $1.50 for a kimpop/sushi roll. There are also lots and lots of fun stuff to do. Have you heard of the jimjjilbang/bathhouses? The musicroom/noraebang? In big cities, there are night markets that are alive even past midnight.
- Health and Fitness. With an “alien” card, I had free dental and medical care. The health insurance card was at my disposal every time I needed it. All over the country you will see fitness machines in parks and neighborhoods and are free to the public. People do a lot of active exercises like walking and hiking. Don’t be surprised, some pretty ladies even go hiking in high heels while their boyfriends wait patiently on them! Amusing and cute at the same time.
- Language. The language is beautiful. It’s fairly simple to read and understand. Even if you don’t speak the language, it’s easy to go about Seoul and other big cities with all the English translation available for you. No translation? No worries! You can simply approach any young-looking person on the street and for sure, they would be able to help you. English institutes/academies are everywhere in Korea.
- Safety. You will meet people on the streets even after past midnight. Many of them are students who attend extra classes. Some are employees who do overtime work. There were several times that I would walk to my apartment from the subway station and felt very safe. You might see a few drunks passing out or staggering on the streets (drinking is legal everywhere in Korea). Otherwise, it’s quite safe. The only one time I felt a bit threatened was when a group of teens tried to steal my bicycle. I told them I’d call the police if they don’t go away. They left immediately. I was shaken when I confronted them but even that did not dampen my impression about Korea’s safety. They finally succeeded in snatching my bike away, a week before my final departure. I guess they just want it so bad. 😉
- Patriotism. I can’t help but admire South Koreans’ love for their country. After years of being under Japanese rule, they are done with colonization. While some people prfer imported goods or “Made in China” items, most of my South Korean friends love to shop for Korean-made products. It’s hard not to fall in love with people who are true and faithful to their roots.
There’s very minimal negatives living in Korea. The positives definitely outweigh them. I enjoyed conversations with ajumas and ajoshis in marketplaces, in church, in the subway. I could still remember the 901 bus I took everyday to school, the odengchip and the kimpopchip I frequented whenever I needed a simple snack. I loved how delicious spicy Korean food was. I loved the quality pampering I received in a sauna or a hair salon. And how could I forget the people I got to work with who were humble yet successful in their line of work. Some of my students were mothers, pilots, doctors, CEOs, children, people who have become a part of me. Thank you South Korea for all the love! Someday, I will be back…
Have you been to South Korea or would you like to visit there someday? This Etiquette Guide to Korea will help you understand and learn more about etiquette and culture of this beautiful and interesting country. Let me know if you have any questions.