A year back, roughly around this time, I was a bundle of jittery nerves and two jelly feet. As July approached, so did my anxiety of having to relocate to a new country. The positive effect of living for two months in Seoul (April and May) — in preparation for the actual move — had been negated by spending a month back home in June. It’s hard to explain the uncertainty of a new life; the fear of meeting new people; the struggle with a new language; and the effort it takes to learn a new culture. It’s harder to leave the ones you love behind and the memories that shaped who you are.
As an expat, there’s always a constant struggle between the excitement of what you love — about your new home and the anxiety of all your fears. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to give in to my fears. But, I’d also be lying if I said that life here was always glum. Maintaining a balance between the highs and lows has been the biggest challenge so far. In Korea, the word “Hwaiting” (fighting) is often used to boost your morale before a difficult event. Without a doubt, it’s been my survival mantra for the past year.
Here’s our ‘Survival Guide to Life in Korea’. It’s a sum of our experiences, our mistakes, our observations, and everyday life — over the past year. I don’t think we have the final draft just yet. It’s still a work in progress and hope we can improve it over the next year.
Live like a Local
It’s easy to find localities built for expats in Seoul. If you want to live like a foreigner — you’d feel right at home. It’s may be relatively easier to live in expat friendly localities; especially, if you can’t do without your favourite food ingredient or need to speak English for survival. We chose our locality based on its proximity to Basil’s workplace and connectivity to the major landmarks (and airport) in the city. Besides, we always wanted to live with locals (an extremely difficult decision to stick by). When we moved here, I found it to be a lack lustre locality with towering, grey buildings and busy people — always trying to reach somewhere. Fortunately, within a few months, the forest line opened and life slowly changed for us. It took time to be recognised, to win smiles, and start conversations. Once that happened — those frozen, grey buildings melted into the background and all that was left behind was a collection of familiar faces.
Eat like a Local
Korean food is dominated by meat. If you’re a vegetarian or somewhere in-between (like me) — it can get quite difficult. I had spent the better part of my life, thinking of convenient excuses to decline meat, in a meat-eating family, and here we were. Even vegetarian croquettes, at a local bakery chain, had meat stuffing in them. The first few months were hard and I believe — I ate whatever I could. Gradually, I discovered Korean preparations (porridge, bibimbap, gimbal, ramyon) that weren’t necessarily meat intensive. I’m particularly fond of the traditional Korean (rice) sweets because they don’t douse it with sugar and are a good option for a light snack whilst hiking or otherwise.
As much as I love language, I’ve never found it be a deciding factor in choosing where we should travel. I picked up traveller sign early on and we survived most of our trips — without knowing the local language. Sadly, traveller sign doesn’t work effectively as an expat. Choosing to live in a locality, with hardly any expats, doesn’t seem like a wise idea in hindsight. Few locals speak English in our locality and the first few months were extremely frustrating.
Being multilingual makes me more open to learning new languages, but also leads to an inherent confusion. I started learning Korean (a free online course) last year, only to give it up, when last year’s heat wave got to me. A couple of months back, I resumed my online conversational Korean course and have stared learning Hangeul (the Korean alphabet — invented by King Sejong). This small step has helped me win brownie points with taxi drivers, the laundry lady, tailor, local eateries, and our friendly security guard. I’ve realised when you know the language, everyone is very ‘chatty’ and friendly. They’re not curious, just want to get to know you. Sadly, when my vocabulary gets stuck at lesson 13 of my online course, I can see the mild disappointment of a conversation cut short.
The more you travel, the more you start to realise how little you actually know. You also realise how different perspectives get painted — depending on which side of the line you’re on. The War Memorial of Korea, in Seoul, is a definitive place to get a summary of Korean history. It’s where you truly begin to appreciate the resilience of the Korean people. The war wasn’t a pretty sight and it’s fascinating to see a country rebuild itself to where it is today. I had been searching for a course on Korean history, but haven’t been very successful in finding one or managing my time better. Instead, I picked up an interesting book on Korean History, written by Korean teachers, for Korean students, and later translated for an international audience. From the first Koreans, to the tribes, and eventually three kingdom period (where I have reached so far), its a great way to get insight into local history.
‘The Admiral’ was a rage when it released back in 2014 and was suggested by Basil’s male Korean colleagues (an idol for many Korean men). Based on the battle between, Korea’s exalted naval commander, Admiral Yi Sun-shin and the Japanese fleet; it’s an unbelievable tale of victory over doubt and learning how to channelise fear to your advantage. After watching this movie, you realise, why the entry to the iconic Gwanghwamun Square has a towering statue, almost dwarfing the mountains in the background, of the admiral rising valiantly from the ground below.
Watch Korean Movies
I used to watch arthouse Korean movies long before our stint in Seoul. And when I felt the need to resort to escapism — I turned to Korean rom-coms. When we moved to Seoul, I had long given up watching world cinema and bowed down to popular internet shows. Now, unlike Basil (who’s obsessed with the dead, the living dead, the undead, and everything in-between), I’m not a zombie movie fan. And yet, ‘The Train to Busan’ captured my attention with its trailer. It took months before we could watch the movie with subtitles. On the surface, it might look like just another zombie film. But, for someone who’s lived here, or is in tune with the popular pulse of the nation, you slowly begin to realise the hidden subtext in the movie. In fact, it could also be taken as a metaphor for some of the more recent events in the news. I’ve never felt much for zombies as much as I felt for almost every character that turned into a zombie in this movie. The emotion is well placed and the director makes you think about: preservation of self, the throes of capitalism, nation, fear, and lost opportunities.
Submit to K-Drama & K-pop
My musical preferences have evolved with age or where I lived. What’s remained constant though, is my adulation for bands that can write/compose/play their own music. Now, that could have been the reason for my aversion to K-Pop. And it is a hard battle to fight, especially when you see K-pop stars plastered on every visible marketing surface, and their songs played at every cafe or shopping outlet. It’s a slow, steady seduction to the other side. You will lose the battle and the sticky tentacles of catchy beats, androgyny, and incomprehensible lyrics will eventually suck you into the honeypot-of-no-return.
Now, K-Dramas are hard to escape from in Korea. You’d see almost every ajumma, at small eateries or shops, glued to her TV screen. ‘Descendants of the Sun’ was a rage last year and this year it was love-fantasy drama, ‘Goblin‘ that rocked TV screens and music charts. It made Gong Yoo (also starring in Train to Busan) the heartthrob of the nation. Anyone who’s seen ‘A Muse‘ might feel compelled to compare the two and reach the verdict that ‘Goblin‘ is the toned down version of the former. That being said, we loved the show and given the times we live in, I believe, we all need a little sugar coated television to take a break from the trend of tapping into the viewer’s dark side.
Learn a traditional craft
I started Hanji (traditional Korean paper craft) to make new friends and get oriented in Seoul. It sounds pretty lame now, but there was no deeper reason for spending hours gluing paper to cardboard. What started as a whim has become an obsession of sorts and a year later, I’ve begun my first level of the certification programme in Hanji. I hope to complete all three levels — without questioning why I’m doing this in the first place?
Over the past few weeks, we’ve had a surge of new followers and we’d like to thank each one of you for your follow. We truly appreciate it. I do try to visit as many blogs as I can, but honestly, it’s hard to keep up, and if I don’t check your blog — here’s my apology. For those who’ve been following us since we moved to Seoul, this will probably be my last post on Korea (do I hear a sigh of relief?) for a while. We aren’t leaving Seoul yet, just taking a break from writing about it. I’ve convinced Basil to write his first post (fingers crossed) on his solo trip from 2012. In more recent news, we’re just back from Vietnam and I’m going to spend the next few weeks documenting our trip (once I get the pictures organised). That means my posting schedule might be far apart and I hope to see you around whenever I break the silence.