5 Reasons You Shouldn't Live in South Korea

This is a follow-up on another post I made last week. I tend to not think of myself as a very negative person, but in the interest of balance this list in necessary. Not just to be well-rounded either. There are some serious downsides to being an expat in Korea. And if you intend on living in Korea, you ignore them at your peril. So here you go, 5 big reasons for why Korea may not be the place to relocate to:

5. You 

So... You're considering a move to Korea. Maybe your spouse is Korean, maybe there are some particular business opportunities you'd like to capitalize on, or maybe you've found a job as an English teacher and you could really use the money that they're talking about, and prospects of adventure are an added bonus.

Do your friends all look like this?
Well before you do, look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself: Have I been living in a socio-cultural bubble my whole life? do I have any friends from other nationalities, races, or cultures? Seriously, if Korea is to be your first experience abroad, bear in mind that you just might experience culture shock severe enough to make you pack your bags and run crying back to where you came from. Thankfully the "midnight-run" isn't as common an occurrence as it once was, but I'd hazard to say that thin-skinned or ethnocentrically minded folk are more susceptible. If the idea of being regularly and unapologetically pushed around on a subway, accosted by total strangers, or asked to do things that would be unethical or illegal in your country puts you off, then maybe Korea isn't for you.

Or perhaps yours is the opposite case. Maybe you're one of the few (yet increasing) Korean weeaboos or "kimcheerleaders". Perhaps you fetishize Korean women as gorgeous if not slightly submissive creatures to be hunted for your desires of being with an "exotic" woman, or (for the ladies) you're utterly smitten with the countenance Kim Soo-Hyun or Song Joong-Ki and fancy all Korean men as being so suave. No matter how you slice it, real life doesn't play out like TV or the movies. If your preconceived notions of Korea are skewed... so be it. Actually in this case you might have a fantastic time in Korea, whether of not you further besmirch the image of westerners while you're at it. I have seen quite a few oblivious coworkers and cohorts, navigate themselves through a variety of cringe-inducing faux pas that both give them a shitty impression of Korea, and give Koreans a shitty impression of expats. In any case however, reality tends to shatter any overly rose-tinted glasses you may be wearing.

4. Environment

I come from one of the colder parts of the Northeast United States. I'm pretty used to dealing with temperature extremes. When it comes to this Korea isn't too bad. In terms of its temperature range of -10 to 40 Celsius I'd say that Seoul compares pretty well with its American counterpart Washington D.C. That said there are a number of things that make the weather here a serious drag.

The monsoon season that afflicts other countries doesn't quite hit Seoul. While in rare cases typhoon do make landfall in Korea, they are quite uncommon. That is not to say that rain here isn't an issue. Usually during July there is a wet period of about 3 weeks in which you can expect daily, nearly unending, rain (and I still can't find a wide enough umbrella). Yellow Dust(황사) that blows over from China (year round, but mostly in the spring), also mixes with localized particulate pollution an this makes much of the rain not entirely water, but a slightly acidic kind of thin mud. Oh, and this yellow dust is likely to aggravate any respiratory issues you may already have; so bring your asthma inhaler and buy one of those silly-looking surgical masks. It should be remembered that it actually doesn't snow too much here. Extremely low humidity in the winter, is an issue that keeps insulating snow off the ground and many offices using humidifiers.
The dull weather of an average day

Most side streets look a bit like this.
The other forms of pollution in Seoul can be overwhelming. I do find it ironic when Koreans describe China as "dirty" (the connotations of the Korean equivalent being far more debasing I presume) while the streets of Seoul stink of rotting garbage, open sewers, the occasional public arc-welding, and litter strewn about due to a deliberate reduction of public trash cans. My resounding memory of the environment in Korea when I leave is going to be one of boring, dull, overcast skies with scant city beautification. It can really affect your mood sometimes. If you feel you are in any way susceptible to seasonal depression, weather in Korea may really wear thin on you and help make otherwise minor inconveniences into bigger problems.

3. Manners

Football? I'm going shopping in Seoul!
This starts out with something minor like someone pushing you aside in the middle of a crowded department store, or an old man belching loudly in the middle of the street as you walk by, but soon you begin to notice a distinct lack of concern for others in public. Don't expect anyone to hold the door open for you ever. People practically charge at you from all directions in subway stations or shopping malls, so unless you can dodge people like Neo, you might have to be a little hard shouldered in public, just to avoid getting knocked over. You can expect people to talk with their mouth full while eating, and if not talking often their maw is still left gaping for you to listen to their mastication. Spitting in the street is very common too (hell, I've even taken to it after all this time), and will be joined by urine and vomit during the late-night drinking hours.  So... what gives? Aren't Asian countries like Korea supposed to be extremely polite and reverent?

The trick is... They are being polite, just in their peculiar little Korean way. And by omission, and most shockingly to pretty much anyone else, they usually don't observe what would be considered polite behavior in any other country. I really don't wanna tackle the lingering Confucian influences from the Joseon era on modern Korean society, but suffice to say that politeness is generally determined by ones relationship to another. Koreans are very polite once you meet them, and especially once a relationship of some sort is established (no matter how flimsy or temporary). Korea has a very rigid social hierarchy, making it very uncomfortable for your average Korean to talk to someone they haven't been introduced to. This is less rigid for Waygook, so if you are approached randomly it is largely because curiosity (and prejudice) got the better of them. Still, when you do meet someone expect a barrage of potentially intrusive or uncomfortable questions, as your new Korean acquaintance may be trying to figure out where you fit in their hierarchy. Once a relationship is established Koreans can be extremely polite and accommodating; so much so that you may feel quite uncomfortable with the level of hospitality you are being shown. It may even feel insincere for how over-the-top it sometimes gets, so just do your best to be gracious and reciprocate if possible.

Though not so old, Psy shows us some fine manners
The thing that irks me and many others however is that the elderly pretty much get a pass on all of this, and as a result they do whatever they please and just don't give a fuck. Old people in Korea will both be the nicest people you meet, and the most blatantly bitchy or offensive. If you haven't seen this in action it can be astounding. I once witnessed a pair of girls returning from a bar stop and help what appeared to be a homeless old man passed out in the gutter; this is far from a common occurrence, but suffice to say the notion of filial piety here is serious business. Old men in particular seem to be socially without reproach, and with an increasingly huge elderly population in Korea, you'll often witness them doing whatever they may please.

Even once explained, the lack of manners to others in public can be exasperating. It is often unfair and prejudiced against those from a less respected group(which as a Waygook you are, sort of). It can feel seriously shitty to experience. Don't expect much respect for your personal property either, if you happen to have anything that is commonly in public (car, motorcycle, stuff you're moving in a cardboard box) be prepared for people to either move it, steal it, or pile garbage on top of it. Although this is like any other city really...

2. Unoriginality

I'm no fan of North Face but... seriously?
This is one of a few issues for which I disagree with The Korean about... Not like anyone cares. However this perception, or dare I say stereotype of Koreans being uncreative, didn't arise out of nowhere. From blatant and unapologetic plagiarism in Korea's academic institutions, to businesses and artists, who would appear to be making comical parodies with their copyright infringement if it weren't for the fact that it makes them billions of .

I believe the crux of this lies in the culturally held belief that it is more important to be right in the regurgitation of unquestioned "facts" than it is to be original. This is actually sometimes the case when learning mathematical formulae, or studying chemistry, or maybe even history. However, the degree to which many in Korea are comfortable reproducing another's handiwork as their own (and to a lesser degree consuming such handiwork) is a little surprising to say the least. This can partially be due to the cultural difference previously mentioned, and also partially attributed to the enforcement of copyright laws being rather impotent. The other effects of unoriginality can be far broader than commerce however.

Much of Seoul looks like it was designed in SimCity
I have talked with many a friend about how too often in Korea one can get lost in an unknown place, and yet have everything around you look exactly like the neighborhood where you live. Sure there are many exceptions, but a number of the smaller cities and towns in Korea look nearly identical. I suppose there is just a certain style of building things that results in this. A more tangible example are the cookie-cutter concrete tower blocks that form (I reckon) the majority of residences in South Korea. This curiosity of communistic conformity is fine to marvel at when you're travelling the country, but it is far less so if you want to find a place to live.

Perhaps the worst of this conformity and unoriginality will come across when you speak to Koreans in English. Due to everybody learning English from essentially the same textbook, in the same cookie-cutter fashion you will encounter the same questions, get the same drive-by English comments, and will be subject to the same stares of awe and disbelief when you inevitably don't conform to the narrow stereotypes you've been pigeonholed into. And yes, I realize the irony in saying this as I am stereotyping Korean people myself in doing so. To be fair though often times Koreans will stereotype themselves, to purport the idea of everyone belonging to the Minjok(민족), to the 우리. And you, the foreigner, being excluded as such leads to the following problem.

1. Racism

Performers from Burkina Faso were enslaved in Korea
Ah, yes my #1 reason to stay away is a doozie. It was for this reason that I felt I ought to tell my black college roommate to not bother visiting me in Korea. Korea is racist. Plain and simple, racism is unfortunately one of those insidious socio-cultural things that does not oft present itself in obvious tangible means. When it finally does rear its head, it tends to be in ways that are shockingly insensitive, or downright bigoted.

Indeed Korea is an extremely safe country for expats to travel to and live in. Anyone visiting Korea for business travel or tourism is likely to notice none of these things, and find Korean relatively accommodating. However, that certainly doesn't mean that everyone finds you welcome. Often this is kept polite and quiet, if things get physically confrontational however, you will have no advocate but yourself, and you will likely be victimized by a system that is stacked against you. There are many stereotypes of Waygook floating around, few of them are very generous, and they are generally divided along racial lines. It occurs to me in writing this as a white male that my experiences with racism are at the tip of the iceberg; in Korea racism towards white men tends to be much less pronounced, if existent at all in some places. Rather the opposite, but also uncomfortable experience of white privilege can be experienced depending on where I go.

North Face knockoff and racist comedy all in one baby!
In both my own, and in reading and listening to the more harrowing experiences of others, and in the clear and openly prejudiced media in Korea, I can assert that this is a much bigger problem than many expats in Korea realize. It comes down to respect, which as I stated earlier, functions differently out here. Therefore even people who would by all rights be considered Korean, experience marginalization and mockery in a manner similar to the racism espoused against Waygook.  So is what I call racism just some sort of classified hyper-xenophobia? Not quite, but mix in a cultural superiority complex with a social custom of having a white face to appear as one of a higher-class, and you have the seeds for Korea's particular flavor of racism. Furthermore this flavor is generally non-confrontational and stand-offish until someone gets drunk, or gets brave. I don't mean to use this to deter anyone from coming to Korea. It isn't Jim Crow era America out here, but if you are not rather thick skinned when it comes to these matters, you may have a very difficult time living here.


Now I hope you don't just read this list and get scared off, or use it as another means of justifying some anti-Korean angst. If either is in danger of happening please check the other list I also linked at the top of the page. Nowhere is perfect, Korea included; this was just to point out some of the darker side of living out here...

1 comment:

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