[Writer's Choice] Foreigner's Experience: Korea - The Good, The Bad, & The NOPE (Part 1)
BanSeok Shin, April 8, 2019, 3:52 p.m.
The sixteen total months that I spent living and working in South Korea provided me with some of the best memories and experiences of my life. For me Korea was and still is such a beautiful, charming, and overall wonderful place – but not everything was all rainbows and sunshine – that is to say, not all of my experiences and memories were pleasant or good. Of course, when going to live or even visit, a place that is foreign to them, should expect everything in and about that place to be agreeable with their own views and preferences. Included in my many fond memories of Korea are also memories of bad experiences and other things I encountered in my time there. I’d like to share with you some of the things I found good, the bad, and the “Just NOPE” about Korea. This list is not meant to shame or put down South Korea or Koreans in anyway and is simply meant as a mostly light-hearted sharing of knowledge and experiences. Enjoy!
1. The Education System
Due to how rigorous the education system is South Korea produces some of the best students in the world with many of them going on to have successful and prestigious careers in a variety of fields. It is also believed that the education system has helped improve the South Korean economy as its workforce is generally better educated. However, because South Korea’s education system is notoriously rigorous and cut throat it is often difficult on students.
Most Korean high school students spend around 12 or more hours on school with hours increasing the closer they are to graduation. After the regular 8-hour school day student will go to private tutors/academies/cram school for more learning – and these hours may not include extracurricular activities such as sports, clubs and so on! This can often be quite stressful on students and can even deprive them of much needed sleep, nutrition, and other needs.
This kind of school system also produces fierce competition among students trying get into Korea’s top universities. Additionally, many parents push their students to endure the stress and do whatever they can to beat the competition. Career wise, the education system can be beneficial to a student’s future, but the hours and effort required for a student to find success might also be detrimental. This isn’t just my opinion on an aspect of Korean culture. Aside from reading many media posts on the subject, I have worked as a tutor/teacher and talked to multiple Korean-natives (including parents) who believe that the education system is a problem. The cut-throat nature of Korean schools is often glimpsed in Korean dramas as well. Additionally, the system has become a topic of Korean public concern on multiple occasions over the years.
While I can certainly appreciate the high quality of students that South Korea produces, and I don’t oppose a rigorous education, I do think that this education system is a bit too much for students. I can’t help but think that kids are losing out on something important because of this, but at the same time there may be other valuable life experiences that they gain from being this system (like understanding how cutthroat their future job fields will be). Overall, I view this system as good and bad. Part of me wishes I went to a Korean school and experienced its culture as a student.
2. The Haze
The first time I ever went to South Korea (before I lived there) I experienced Korea’s amazingly hazy weather on my first day. There are different types of haze and they appear in different forms. For example, there is haze created by smog and air pollution, that you can see hovering over large population centers. There is also haze that can be created by fog or rain. The haze that I saw in Korea was neither of those. The best way I can describe it is that it is similar to the haze you get from a rainstorm – where the sky is grey and gloomy and long-distance visibility becomes more obscure the farther you look. However, this haze can, and often does, appear without any rain, cold weather, and sometimes even clouds.
Since the haze didn’t look like the brownish-yellow smog clouds I’m used to seeing I tried to research what this haze. There is little information in English available on the matter, but I did find some occurrences of haze are natural (outside of rain) so I assumed that it was mostly a natural phenomenon. But looking back…I’m not satisfied with that answer – especially given Korea’s recent poor air quality problems in relation to fine dust.
So…I tried to do some additional research on Korea’s haze to try and properly determine where it comes from, but again there wasn’t a lot of information out there. Given the results of my research and comparing it to what I personally saw it seems that much of Korea’s haze is in fact unnatural and can be attributed to air pollution. While haze does occur across South Korea it is less frequent outside of larger population centers like Seoul. I don’t have many memories of this haze while traveling through the countryside. Some days the sun evaporates much of whatever cloud cover there is, but the haze still remains which was very strange to see - especially as I saw it primarily through the summer season. This further supports the air pollution theory. However, still think some of the haze is in fact natural as it appears around the country with varying intensities and at different times of year. Overall, I think that the haze is mostly bad and there is a possibility that it blocks sunlight (although maybe not UV rays) which isn’t exactly healthy.
3. Bugs, Bugs Galore!
I HATE BUGS….well most of them anyways. As a person who loved studying science through grade school it was cool to see the many species of bugs that I had never seen before in the U.S. I just wish I didn’t have to see them up close haha… I am extremely fortunate that I spent a majority of my life living in an area where there weren’t many bugs and the ones I encountered were relatively small – like a couple inches or a fews centimeters in size MAX. South Korea’s bugs were bigger and somehow creepier...just take a look...and yes, I have seen these in person and they were all wild.
Greenhouse Camel Cricket/Wetta
Asian Giant Hornet (subspecies, the Japanese Giant Hornet is the largest hornet species in the world)...
Korea has some very large golden silk orb weaver spiders. One time I believe I saw a bow-legged spider (or a spider with no joints between the ends of its legs) but after trying to research bow-legged spiders and coming up empty (on English sites) I may have just seen a orb weaver walking in a way that appeared like it had no joints….or I saw a not well-known and creepy species of spider (to be fair it was kind a big and it didn’t have the colors of any orb weaver I had ever seen in Korea so I felt like what I saw was real)!
I assume the large size of many Korean spiders from the abundance of insects and other bugs flying and crawling around. About that abundance of bugs…Korea has a lot of vegetation in and around its cities so naturally there are a lot of places for bugs to live. Additionally, the country has many streams where water born insects like mosquitos and water striders can breed during the summer - so you’d better pack plenty of anti-itch ointments! Fortunately, the hordes flying bugs do not go about completely unchecked. Dragonflies (and/or damselflies) patrol the skies, especially near bodies of water, to devour the many pesky flying bugs that roam around. Now, you might be thinking, “But that just means that there are bigger and creepier bugs in the air!” Well, technically you’re not wrong, but from my personal experience you don’t have to worry about very much. Countless times I’ve seen whole swarms of dragonflies move out of a person’s way without flying into them or really even getting too close. It’s like they want to avoid humans as much as humans want to avoid them! I can honestly say that I’ve walked through swarms of dragonflies without being worried that they’d get uncomfortable close to me. They might be my new favorite bug!
Outside of all the aforementioned bugs, there is one that absolutely had me saying “nope. Nope. NOPE!” One morning, right after waking I went to the bathroom to get ready for work. As I closed the bathroom door, I noticed something behind the door on the doorframe, but couldn’t immediately tell what it was because I wasn’t wearing my glasses. So moved closer to see what it was and there it was – a “hairy” centipede!
I imagine since I lived on the 2nd story at the time, and since I hadn’t been home for a couple days, it easily climbed up through the shower drain. That was not a great way to start my day. Oh did I mention there are A LOT of cicadas? Tens of thousands or millions of them? They rarely bother you and you don’t see them much, but you will undoubtedly hear them everywhere.
4. Sweetness in Seemingly Everything
I love Korean food! So this is both and bad. Living in Korea and eating the local food all the time was barely any kind of challenge for me as I had experienced and learned to enjoy a wide variety of foods due my ethnic backgrounds and living in the ethnically diverse Southern California. However, despite this there was one thing about Korean food that bothered me from time-to-time and that was the fact that it tends to be sweet. Now, this isn’t necessarily true about every dish (I think), and it does depend of the chef’s preferences, but there are quite a few dishes that have an unexpected sweetness to them. Cold noodle soup, bulgogi, and even some spicy soups come to mind as these types of dishes. Growing up dishes were usually clearly ‘just savory’ or ‘just sweet’ and didn’t mix unless it was obviously intended to do so like with marinated meat. As much as I like sweets, I don’t like constantly having sweet and savory mix so often, although every once is a while is okay – but that’s just my preference – and besides I did say that I love Korean food!
5. Not Flushing Toilet Paper/The Sewer System (Bad)
This is not necessarily a bad thing but can be uncomfortable for people who grew up where soiled toilet paper was thrown away in the toilet. Many Korean buildings, and perhaps large parts of the South Korean pipping system are still old and not good or capable of handling of flushing well. As a result, most restroom stalls have trashcans in them so you can throw away your soiled toilet paper after you do your business. There also tend to be signs that ask patrons not to throw away other things such as hygiene products, baby wipes, tampons, and others so that the pipping system doesn’t get backed up. Yes, this does mean you can see the used tissues in the trashcans. Fortunately, it seems that newer buildings and areas may not necessarily deal with this issue.
6. The Seoul Subway (Good - mostly)
There are a lot of good things about the Seoul Subway System including its convenience, access to different areas of the city, speed, and so on. There are also some bad things such as how crammed it can get during rush hour – especially in heavily trafficked areas. Have you ever been packed into a subway car so tightly that you didn’t have to worry about your balance because all the bodies around you forced you to remain still?
Outside the things mentioned above, I love the subway for two particularly reasons – the first being that it’s so quiet. While some people do talk and make noise every now and then, usually most they aren’t too loud and try to be respectful of those around them. This is particularly true in the morning when everyone is headed to work. The second reason I love the subway is that it has free Wi-Fi! Well…for those whose cell phone providers have made their Wi-Fi available in the subway system. Since you can’t get reception while you’re underground, if you have access to the Wi-Fi in the subway, then you have access to people, music streaming, YouTube and other ways to keep yourself occupied during long commutes.
If you found this list intriguing then check out part 2!