As I near the end of two years living in South Korea, I find myself thinking of home. I think of how great it will be to hug my family, play with my nephews, drink micro beer with my friends, and have vegetarianism become a non-issue again. I also think of how frequently people will ask me, “How was Korea?”
Asking something like that is too big a question. I can easily answer specific questions about how Korean food was, how I liked teaching English, or how much Koreans drink. But if someone asks me how my experience was, I’ll simply say, “good.”
The truth is, after living in a country where the culture is so different from my own, it is hard to summarize my experience into just a word or two.
Living in Korea makes me slightly nervous to reemerge into American society. Koreans don’t have the lawsuit mindset of Americans, and overall they are very easy going, good-natured people. They are not easily offended, but rather always ready for a laugh. This means that no matter how ridiculous foreigners are being, Koreans will smile and let it be.
None of the stories that are to follow are epic ones by any means. But rather, they’re a short collection of memories that I’m departing with.
1-Do Talk to Strangers
One choice that I’m happy I made was to move to a city that is small by Asian standards. When I visit Seoul, even the subway map blows me away with its extensiveness. Pohang has a population that is similar to Milwaukee, but it’s almost entirely made up of Koreans. This means that foreigners are a bit of a surprise for Koreans. Even I found myself staring at white people after a few months of living in Pohang.
Younger generations are forced to study English in school, and many Korean children take additional English classes at after school academies. Almost all young people in Korea know at least a minimal amount of English.
Frequently, when passing groups of Koreans, I would get stared at. If the group was a young group, they’d be likely to giggle and say “Hi!” My friend Jared taught for a year in Pohang, and then moved to teach in Seoul. When he came back to visit, we passed a group of school girls in uniforms who all laughed and greeted us as we walked past them on the crosswalk. Jared laughed, and said, “Oh my God, I forgot that this happens in Pohang.”
“Wait, it’s not, like, a Korean thing?”
“No!” he said. “There are too many foreigners in Seoul. No one is special like they are here.”
Sometimes groups of teenage boys would greet me and my friends as well. Occasionally they’d say, “Hello. You are beautiful!” And then they’d laugh loudly.
Sometimes parents pushed their children towards foreigners, insisting they practice English. I met an adorable little boy shopping with his parents. “Hello.” He said.
“Hi there! That’s a nice shirt you have,” I said.
“I am fine,” he replied. Clearly he’d been taught a script.
I smiled and played along. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” he said. And then he ran back to his beaming parents.
My favorite English came from an old man on his bicycle. It was a Sunday tradition for us to go get coffee downtown and then walk to the beach. Usually we’d been out late on Saturday nights and our Sundays started in the early afternoon.
One day, as we were walking to the beach around maybe 3:00, an old man suddenly biked out in front of us from an alley. We paused, letting him pass, and he said, “Good morning, I love you.” Then he biked away.
Because I believe that it is extremely challenging to learn a new language, and I understand that English is one of the more difficult languages to learn, and because I like that these people have the balls to try something that scares them, I totally encourage these odd interactions.
When I would see Korean boys talking, and feel them see me, I’d smile.
“Hello!” One boy would cry out.
“Hello. You are handsome. I love you,” I’d reply.
They’d laugh. And then one boy would respond, “me too!”
In my final month living in Korea, I saw myself doing this in new eyes. Had I really been going around telling teenage boys that I loved them?
A big group of my friends had planned to meet up, but Claire and I were the first ones to get downtown. She and I walked into Portabellas and sent our friends a message that we’d be there. The tables seat four, and we had many friends on their way, so we pushed a few tables together with the help of the bartender.
The bartender brought over a few bowls of pretzels, and we ate them while we waited. One of our friends sent us a message that they’d stopped at a different bar instead.
We hadn’t yet ordered drinks, but we’d eaten all the complimentary pretzels and we’d made the bartender push tables together with us. Leaving now would sort of make us assholes.
“Shit,” I said.
“We didn’t even order beers, but we ate all these pretzels,” Claire said.
“Should we maybe get something now?”
“I don’t really want to.”
So, feeling guilty, Claire and I got up and said thank you and goodbye to the bartender.
The bartender waved happily and went to our table to clear away the empty bowls.
3. Butt Show
We were all sitting at the beach one Sunday afternoon, drinking slightly sandy bloody marys. It was a warm spring day, but the beach was nearly vacant. Koreans tend to follow a strict set of rules of timing and seasons. For example, if you wear sunglasses in the winter, they’ll think you’re dressing crazy, because sunglasses are for the summer. Also, they frequently stay clear of the beach until beach season officially begins.
We were happy to have the beach to ourselves. We sat around drinking, talking, laughing.
Somehow the topic of body hair came up. Andrew, who has only a few sparse hairs on his face, said, “I’m really hairless on my body,” which was no surprise.
Just to prove his point, he stood up and began showing various body parts to us. “Look at my legs, my arms, my chest,” he said lifting his clothes and showing us his hairless skin. “Even my ass is hairless.”
“Bullshit,” said another guy who apparently had a harry ass.
So Andrew spun around and dropped trou, exposing his white, hairless bum.
We laughed a little at first, and then more when we realized that one Korean family had gone against the seasonal norm and was sitting a few feet away from us on the beach.
“Andrew! That family just saw your ass!” Said Alissa.
Sure enough, the mother, father and all three young daughters had just seen Andrew’s bare butt. Andrew smiled sheepishly and raised his hand in apology. The father gave Andrew a thumbs-up.
Moon some little girls in America, probably get in some trouble. Moon girls in Korea, get a thumbs-up from their father.
I spent my first Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) going to Goje Island with a big group of friends. It was a rainy holiday, and we spent a lot of time inside playing games and drinking.
Though most of the businesses on the island had shut down for the holiday, we’d heard of an Indian restaurant that was not far away. Thrilled by the thought of non-Korean food, half of us left to find this gem.
I was waiting on the porch for everyone to put their shoes back on and come outside. William was hammered and talking continuously, as per usual. He started mouthing off to Tim, pretending he was going to fight.
“What are you gonna do, have a pants-off dance-off?” I asked.
William erupted in laughter, and immediately started unbuckling his belt. Tim did the same, and soon they were shaking their boxer-clad hips. I smiled, delighted to be the instigator.
After dinner, a few of us felt slightly sobered up, and decided to go to a bar before heading back to our friends. Wa Bar is a chain bars in Korea, and one of the only places you can find good imported beer instead of the watered-down local beer.
The bar was nearly empty. There was one group of four Koreans who had a bottle of whiskey sitting on their table, the bartender, and a few of her friends. “Today is my birthday,” she told us. “Help yourself to some food.” There were a few pans filled with food nearby, as well as a cake. We were all too full to eat, but we thanked her for the offer.
I had just taken my first sip of Duvel, and sighed in happiness, when I looked up to see William and Tim having another pants-off dance-off. Then Tim pulled his pants back up, grabbed two sets of tongs from the food trays, and started dancing around and clicking his tongs together like castanets. We giggled, and so did the group of Koreans who turned to watch.
Tim, loving the attention, sashayed over to their table, tongs in action the entire time. When he reached their table, he froze for a moment, then robotically leaned down to grab their bottle of whisky, straightened up as he swigged it, and then set it back on the table. Then he sashayed back to us.
“Wow, they really didn’t care that you just drank their alcohol,” I said.
“No, they love me. Watch.” He set down the tongs and shimmied across the floor. Again he took a swig from their bottle, and they laughed and clapped as he danced away.
He had just returned to our group, when the Koreans began waving him over. They wanted more.
Tim danced back like a snake. One of the men poured a tall glass of whiskey and handed it to him. And he chugged.
Only in Korea will dancing like an idiot earn you free whiskey from strangers.
4- Western’s as Entertainment
Sometimes we are a ridiculous bunch, but even when we’re not, we seem to be a spectacle to Korean passersby. The typical Korean reaction is to smile or take pictures of us with their camera-phones. The fact that there are no reprocutions for our strange actions is sort of like a pat on the back and a permission slip to continue our shananigans.
Frequently our mishaps occurred on the beach. This is probably because most of us were from somewhere cold and inland and so we took full advantage to living in a city with an ocean so close.
I have three distinct beach memories. They are as follows.
4a- Teagan Model
A few of us were gathered on the beach one spring day, and few Koreans were near, as beach season had not officially started.
There was one Korean man who had a tripod set up near the water’s edge and was taking pictures of a vase filled with yellow flowers.
Teagan got an idea.
He took off his shirt and ran to the shore, then lay on his side behind the flowers. The photographer had just put his lens cap on, but now took it off and began taking pictures of Teagan, while offering tips on how he should pose.
This was funny enough, watching Teagan tilting his chin, shirtless in front of the ocean with flowers by him. But to make it even better, Koreans who were on the boardwalk saw this photo shoot occurring and decided to come inspect. In no time at all there was a semi-circle of onlookers forming around Teagan and the photographer.
“I bet they think he’s Brad Pitt,” we said to each other, laughing.
4b- Half-Volleyball-Hat Dance
William, having some sort of inspiration, decided to put the volleyball on his head, like a special ed helmet. Then, laughing, he unzipped his jeans and dropped them to his ankles. He put one hand on his hip and the other behind his volleyball hat, and swiveled his hips, singing “Let’s get physical, physical. I wanna get physical, physical.”
The Koreans who passed by just smiled and walked on.
4c- Polar Bearing
Going polar bearing is a common, yet crazy event anywhere cold. However, in Korea, it is not a custom and therefore it’s completely bizarre.
January first 2012 I made the decision to go polar bearing, mainly because Alissa and her couch surfer would otherwise be going alone, and also because I was still drunk when I agreed to go. What I actually told her was that I’d think about it, and then I hung up with her.
“It’s gonna be so frickin’ cold in that ocean,” I told Kevin as I tied my bikini top.
He looked at me, clad in a swimsuit. “I guess we’re going, huh?”
So I called Alissa back and told her we’d come swimming with her. “YAY!” she said. Then I called several other friends and tried twisting their arms. It worked better than I’d expected.
It was a nice day for winter in Korea, and we sat at a table on the boardwalk drinking beers and waiting for the Canadians to show up. My fingers still got cold holding our beer, but I tried to ignore it and sipped on.
Finally, everyone arrived. We stripped down to our swimwear, and suddenly all the Koreans who’d been walking past us stopped moving and stared. Six of us ran splashing into the water while a crowd gathered on the shore, wrapped up in warm scarves and gloves. Of course, their camera phones came out. I could picture them later talking to their friends and saying, “Seriously! I saw foreigners swimming at Bukbu Beach today! I know, it’s winter, they’re crazy! Here’s proof.”
When we walked out of the water we were numb and getting cold. Kevin stood beside me and yelled, “Chuah, Chuah, Chuah!” to the tune of a popular Korean song about coffee. Everyone laughed, as ‘chuah’ means cold and our skin was clearly goosebumpy instead of smooth.
I smiled at our audience, and held up my beer, chanting “haejeon sool! Haejeon sool!” (Hangover alcohol)
One man raised his cup too, and chanted, “haejeon cuppie! Haejeon cuppie!” (Hangover coffee)
We made it back to the beer can-covered table and shivered as we put our sweats back on. Koreans lingered to smile at us and shake their heads before they continued on their way.
5-Childlike Friendship for Old Ladies
The relationship between men and women is very different in Korea than it is in the west. I’m friends with both genders and we all hang out together. Western style. Koreans tend to hang out with the same sex unless they’re with their significant other.
While drinking coffee and people watching downtown one day, I observed the Koreans passing by. There were groups of girls giggling and holding hands as they walked, groups of boys with their hands in each other’s back pockets or pushing each other, and couples walking along quietly, occasionally pausing to take pictures of each other.
I thought about my rowdy group of mixed-gender friends and how strange we must seem to Koreans. Part of this divide, I believe, stems from the fact that Korean classes are separated by gender, and even in after school academy, children squirm if they have to sit with a classmate of the opposite sex.
Part of it too, must be cultural. My Korean friend’s parents stay out late on weekend nights; his mom with her female friends and his dad with his male friends.
To me, this seemed a bit sad when I first heard it. Since then, I’ve noticed that this makes friendships between women and women, or men and men seem stronger and longer lasting than western friendships.
It’s typical to see groups of elderly women hiking all throughout the day, or sitting together in the woods eating kimchi and rice cakes, but I’ve also seen other cute things that ladies do together in Korea.
Near my house, two women practiced hula hoop a few times a month in the middle of the street. Two other women attempted to play badminton in a soccer field near my work. One woman would hit the birdie, and the other woman would miss, pick up the birdie, and hit it back, only to have her friend miss. I watched them never complete a successful volley for a while, yet the whole time they talked and laughed. Another time I was in a jimjilbong (bath house) and saw two older ladies bathing naked beside me. Before they got out of the hot water, one woman leaned forward and tweaked her friend’s nipple. Her friend laughed and tweaked back.
So I guess, though Koreans may miss out on male/female friendships, they have their own bond in their same-sex relationships that keeps them young for life.
When I first got to Korea I was shocked by the price of alcohol. 15 dollars for an Irish Car Bomb? At home, 15 dollars would by me three Car Bombs.
By the end of my first year in Korea, I’d realized I’d been drinking wrong. The way to drink was to stay out of the foreigner bars and hit up the local dive bars. And the best of the local dive bars was Soju 19.
First of all, Koreans, though tiny, eat ridiculous amounts of food. They eat while they drink, and if they change bars, they eat more. Most Korean bars insist that customers order food, and we’ve frequently had to order a plate or two of something that we don’t touch.
Soju 19 was different. They knew us because we were regulars and because we were some of the few foreigners who knew of and frequented their bar. They didn’t make us order food, and they typically brought us tons of free food like kimchi jeon (fermented cabbage pancake) and fried eggs with ketchup.
The standard bar snacks at Soju 19 were cold canned corn, peanuts, and bondaegi (moth larvae). We never touched the bondaegi, we picked at the corn because it made for a fun chopstick challenge, and we ate the peanuts. After several visits, the bar owners knew us well, and they served us only the peanuts and corn, saving the larvae for the Koreans.
The owners knew that when we came we would stay for a long time and drink a lot. They sometimes shuffled Koreans around to make room for our large group or to give us a private room where we’d sit on the floor.
Sometimes there were too many of us, and the private room would turn into a battle ground. If someone threw a peanut into your drink, you had to chug the whole thing, but you couldn’t throw into the people directly beside or across from you. Also complimentary tomatoes or oranges would regularly fly through the air. One day the man who worked there walked in to replenish our orange supply, and seeing the disaster, he smiled and started throwing oranges at us.
Another time that same man walked into the back room, and, without speaking any English, taught us a new game. He mimed the instructions to us. After taking a shot, we were to soak a wad of toilet paper in water and throw it at the ceiling where it would stick.
I wasn’t sure if I understood right, and we all stared at him blankly. No bar owner would encourage patrons to trash his bar. But then he pointed up, and sure enough, there were old crusted wads of toilet paper still stuck to the ceiling, as well as dark blobs where wet wads had certainly hit and fallen down.
Of course, this was a hit with us.
The alcohol we drank at Soju 19 was purely Korean. We had a regular flow of Hite beer, Mokoli bottles (rice wine, white in color), soju (rice liquor) and dana moo soju (bamboo rice liquor). After hours of drinking, eating, and throwing shit at each other, we’d ask for the bill (“Gay-son jusayo!”). The owner would come back, count our bottles, calculate it, and tell us the total. We’d divide it evenly, and pay about 10 dollars each before staggering out into the early morning sunrise to take a cab home.
On my last night in Soju 19, I tried to explain to the female owner (who we called Auntie) that I was going home. She nodded and hugged me. I walked outside, and the male chased me out and gave me a hug as well.
There will never be a dive bar as great as Soju 19.