My experience has been really, really great overall. The ups to me are obvious. Getting to experience a new culture, seeing how people in another corner of the world live and interact, eating great food, taking advantage of Seoul’s awesome transportation system, having new experiences I never could have had back home… Also, just learning the quality of adaptability. You learn to be more mature, and flexible when you live abroad. To grow. To rise to the challenges you are faced with. Because ultimately, you don’t have a choice. At the end of the day, you only have yourself to depend on.
I think the biggest ‘down’ was when my phone was stolen. That was when I felt really estranged here, because everywhere I turned for help, I couldn’t find it. The guy who had my phone was harassing me; I went to a police station and it was conveniently closed that day; people on the street who I asked if they could tell me where another police station was shied away from ‘the foreigner’ and didn’t even bother sparing the 10 seconds required to look it up on their phones; when I finally met with them, the police were condescending towards me and unwilling to help; people at the phone store I went to to track it just kept laughing and oohing and ahhing at the foreigner speaking Korean instead of actually listening to what I had to say…
That situation really opened my eyes to a big part of the culture here, which is that if it’s not their problem, or they don’t personally know you, the majority of people here aren’t going to go out of their way to help you. I feel like in America, if I went up to a group of girls on the street and asked them where a police station was, 9 times out of 10 they would say something like, “Are you alright? What happened?” and not even hesitate to quickly google where one was for me. The girls I asked (and I asked in perfectly polite Korean) basically looked scared of me, and completely brushed me off. I asked an older woman as well, and she just walked away.
Even carrying big, heavy suitcases up and down the subway stairs — I’ve never once been offered help, whereas in America, every single time I move into my dorms at college, there has never been a time where a guy hasn’t asked me, “Oh that looks heavy. Can I give you a hand?” Not a complaint, because obviously I don’t expect every place to be just like the U.S., so much as an observation.
It really seems to me like Koreans keep a much stricter distance from strangers than we do in America, where I can see a girl in the checkout line at Target and be like, “Wow, I love your bag!” and start a conversation without it being weird. Like, that’s just not something that happens here.
And I think that is especially true for foreigners, because Koreans assume we don’t speak Korean, and therefore approaching us can be very intimidating for some people. So, in many ways, life as a foreigner can be very isolating here, and it’s a realization that hits you the most in times of need. For me, that was losing my phone, or whenever I was really sick and needed to go to the hospital.
All of that being said, in my experience at least, if they do know you personally, most Korean people will go above and beyond to help you and take care of you. Chunsa’s family has done so, so much for me without ever being asked to, and only knowing me for a short amount of time. I honestly feel like a part of their family, and I’ve never felt anywhere near that close with the parents of my friends back in America. (Some of whom I’ve known for years.)
Anyway, this post has gotten much longer than I intended it to. I love Korea. I really do. It’s not perfect by any means, but it truly is a wonderful country, and I hope you’ll fill yourself with unique, new thoughts and experiences here.