Sunday, February 17, 2008

Looking Back, Looking Forward: One Year in Korea

As of today, I’ve been living in Cheongju, South Korea for one year. Let me share some of my reflections about my experience so far and my plans for the upcoming months.

This is the longest I’ve lived abroad and the longest I’ve gone without seeing my family. The holidays were distinct low points for me. Christmas in particular was challenging because of some unpleasantness with a Korean neighbor; this had the unfortunate effect of not only enhancing homesickness, but also of diminishing goodwill towards Korea. In addition, some family members have dealt with significant heath issues in the past year. These times have caused me to acutely feel the enormity of the distance between me and the people I love most. For the most part, however, the distance doesn’t bother me, thanks to Skype, Facebook and email.

I’ve gotten used to living here- I’m used to the food, the clusters of 20 story apartment buildings, and the heated floors in my room- but being used to life in Korea doesn’t indicate my level of satisfaction with it. I’m used to sticking out in a crowd and being unable to communicate with people. I’ve accepted these two conditions as part of the non-Seoul territory, but ultimately I find it dissatisfying to live so far outside the broader community. I don’t always feel great kinship with Americans, but at least I have the capacity to bridge divides and foster connections through a common language.

My biggest complaint relating to day-to-day life remains Korean food. Though there are some exceptions, I haven’t been impressed by Korean food and am disappointed with the range of foods and restaurants available. This situation is obviously far from ideal and is the main reason why I would never consider living in Korea long-term. Traveling has helped me distinguish my priorities; it turns out that the variety and quality of food is more important to me than I would have admitted before moving here.

I’ve accepted the fact that there are things about Korea and Koreans that will annoy me. For instance, my gym played Christmas music until the end of January. Did they not know what music they were playing? Or did someone really think it was a good idea to play Christmas music at the end of January? After a year here, I'm only slightly better at not dwelling on things that make no sense to me than when I arrived, like why our group of three is given only one bowl for the unlimited salad bar at Pizza Hut. (Upon request for additional bowls, we got one more). As quick as I am to utter a deep sigh about some aspects of life here, I recognize that these frustrations are a natural part of communal life and that I wouldn’t escape these trials just by living in a different place. Like any other country, Korea offers its unique set of challenges. Honestly though, I wouldn’t mind living somewhere where it is not socially acceptable to spit so freely or to clear one’s nasal passages in the gym showers.

As much as I grumble about Korea, I appreciate the opportunities I’ve had because of living here. I’ve had four weeks of vacation and enjoyed my trips to China, Taiwan and Japan. I’ve been to Seoul many times and have done some other domestic traveling. I practiced Taekwondo regularly for three months and earned a green belt. I’ve made some great friends. I live in a rent-free apartment and have been able to save money. Put into perspective, the overall balance of living here has been positive.

Originally, I signed a contract for 14 months, even though the standard contract is for 12. Sitting at home in Princeton, I didn’t think an extra two months was all that significant. However, I had serious thoughts about leaving early after my first few months here. Even though I’ve gotten used to living here, it should be pretty clear that I have not thoroughly warmed to Korea. And so, it may come as a surprise that I signed a contract to stay an extra 3 months at my job. Why would I do this? Excellent question. I may be asking myself the very same one next week. Though there are some secondary reasons, the main reason is simple: money. I know, I know. What happened to those romantic ideas of following my heart, my gut, my instincts, etc. etc.? I still have them- they're just being delayed for a few months. I'm in the early stages of planning a 6-7 month trip through India, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China. After I finish with my job at the end of July, I'll go home for a few months and then will leave again after Thanksgiving. An extra three months in Korea will cover a significant portion of my trip, so the decision to stay longer is a practical one. That being said, I don't dread the next six months. Actually, I’m quite excited about having the extra time.

I plan to travel domestically as much as I can before I leave. I’ve found a few festivals that sound interesting, namely a bullfighting festival in March, a mime festival in May, and a firefly festival in June. I’d like to do a Buddhist templestay and hike the sacred mountains. I want to visit Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla Dynasty, and try traditional archery in Suwon. For my May vacation, I’ll go to Jeju, the subtropical island off the southern coast, explore the green tea fields in Boseong and walk through the bamboo forests in Damyang.

I want to see the best of Korea before I leave and I’m quickly realizing that I have a lot more to do!


Blogger JaneM said...

Although it pains me for Haley to not be coming home soon, as always, her logical argument for staying resonates and I understand. Haley has been logical since she could talk, and has always talked a good argument! As she says, the internet and telephone have eased the long separation, although there is a certain element missing. For many reasons we have not made a trip to visit, although we are mulling about a major trip to join her next year somewhere in her travels. Of course we are looking forward to July, and we also have some work to do to welcome her home. (Mom)

11:58 AM  
Blogger chessiakelley said...

My homesickness when abroad typically stems not just from the additional stresses of a new culture, but from the stress of missing loved ones (so cliche but so true). Blogging and talking on the phone are great ways to share memories, but I thought I would encourage you to check out ooVoo. Its a free video messaging service that downloads in 2 min. and has great quality because it uses such low bandwidth. you can even chat with up to 6 people at once, post the videos on your blog or email videos to let your friends see a slice of your life.

happy travels...your plans sound SO amazing! I am really jealous.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

hmmm all your travels make me jealous. hmmm.

10:53 AM  

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