Thursday, March 8, 2012

Unintended Side-Effects of Living in Korea

(A gentle reminder: I worked on this blog on two separate computers, thus making the font a little inconsistent at times. Please excuse my blog manners. It should really only bother you if you are picky anyway, in which case I'm not entirely sure I care in the first place. Well, enjoy!)

We often embark on adventures with ideas of how we will change in and enjoy our new found environment. However, there is only so much we can imagine, and often we encounter unexpected mental and physical bi-products of a new culture. Korea is ultimately no different, and I've conceived a small list of "unintended side effects" of living in Korea. Every decision you make in life has consequences both good and bad, but it's more fun to explore the consequences that are, shall we say, accidental.

1) Zany for Zest
An increased spice tolerance is all but guaranteed for those living in, or visiting Korea. My parents will actually be arriving here in a month, so I intend to back up that theory with empirical evidence. However, most who have experienced the joys of Korean cuisine would probably agree that no such evidence is necessary. Not only is the food spicy, but it's also notoriously hot temperature-wise. Scorching hot-pots of soup (jjigae) and popular rice dishes such as bibimbap come directly out of the kitchen and continue to cook in the dish even after arriving at your table. It's the type of plate that would scream "lawsuit!" were it to come out of the confines of an American kitchen. Alas, I digress, where was I? Ah yes...I have wholly recognized my spike in spice aptitude because there are dishes I readily eat and devour now, that packed a little too much punch when I first arrived here. A dish known as tteokbokki comes to mind. It's a spicy dish with condensed rice noodles in it that seemed demonic when I first arrived, but now can only be described as delicious, and perhaps even nutritious . Basically, there's a man in the Jukjeon area that cooks a mean tteokbokki that I now revere instead of despise. Doenjang jjigae is another dish that can often be spicy that I've now come to love. Inadvertently, I've been giving my taste buds a workout for the ages, which ultimately morphed them into burly receptors capable of deeds that would have made them cry for mercy on Canadian soil. Well, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I do know that I'm going to go home and put a few spicy wing challenges to shame. Korean cuisine packs a unique kick, and I've learned to love it with a fiery passion (no pun intended...actually...pun intended).

Tteokbokki, a famous Korean street food. Best served with water nearby.

2) Hello Korea! Goodbye English!

I'm over here in Korea to teach and hone my English abilities, right? I mean theoretically I should be improving, or at least maintaining my English skills, correct? Well, not exactly, and let me explain just what I mean. During class you can't possibly speak with your natural speed, intonation, or pronunciation. So, you end up picking up the pitch a bit, slowing down the speed, and emphasizing certain words. This is especially true if you're teaching children at a lower level, or if they're just toddlers. The problem is that sometimes I catch myself outside of school making the same mistakes that I teach my children all week not to make. It really all comes to the fact that you accidentally end up dropping articles here and there.

Back Home: "Oh! This may in fact be the best sandwich that has ever graced my lips"
In Korea: "Ahhhhhhh! Sandwich is so good"

Back Home: "Tim! It's great to see you again. I heard you were going up North this weekend to the chalet. How splendid! Did you have a pleasant time?"
In Korea: "Tim, weekend was good?

Alright you've caught me, I'm exaggerating once again, but it certainly doesn't make for a fun post if I just present the bare bone facts. However, I am dead serious when I mention that English teachers here have a tendency to unwittingly drop their articles. I've caught myself doing it, and Bri doing it as well. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've caught every English teacher I've met here do it at least once. If I wasn't writing almost daily in one way or another, it's safe to say that my English skills would have regressed to that of a caveman.

3) TTC, I Hate Thee

The thought of returning to Toronto's metro services has become almost unbearable at this point. The Toronto Transit Commission is a sad excuse for a metro service, and the Seoul Metro has no need for excuses like Toronto's does. Therefore, I declare one of the side effects of living in Korea a creeping disillusion with the respective metro of your hometown. Seoul's metro has over ten lines that extend across three provinces, while Toronto has a mere two lines that extend about as far as your pinky finger. Although Toronto is a transportation abomination, (longest commute in the world/gridlock created by Satan) It's still safe to say that Seoul's metro services are most likely going to be many times more comprehensive than your average North American city. This is where I mention "the catch," right? It must be too good to be true. Nope, it's just true. It's very affordable, easy to navigate, clean, and efficient. Not to mention that the metro has excellent cellphone reception and wi-fi, thus placing the proverbial cherry on top.

The Toronto Metro (pitiful)

The Seoul Metro (wonderful)

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I'm pretty sure you wouldn't need a thousand words to sum up your conclusion on these two photos. Although I'm disillusioned with Toronto's transportation, I have to say that I am in no way disillusioned with the city as a whole. While on the road, I'm proud to call Toronto my home no matter what country I'm in, and I always will be. It's an often overlooked world-class city, and there's just no way around that as far as I'm concerned. As long as you're not an urban planner writing a report on Toronto's metro and roadways, then you're bound to have a fantastic visit.

4) Safety First

What is this strange feeling that has come over me? It's almost as if I've dismissed a major anxiety from my life. Actually, that's exactly what it is. The feeling I'm referring to is safety. I can honestly say that I've never felt safer than in this country, and that's saying a lot considering North and South Korea are still technically at war. In Toronto, you develop a subtle paranoia making sure that you have all of your possessions at all times. That's not really paranoia though in Toronto, it's called being street smart. I've felt threatened several times in Toronto walking home from the bar or walking down a dodgy street at night, similar feelings to those you would have in most large cities. These are feelings that have simply evaporated from me since I have arrived in Korea.

In Europe, it's heir apparent that I should be cautious with my belongings in some major tourist hubs. Barcelona is a city that immediately comes to mind, as I probably heard more stories of pick pocketing there than in any other city. Barcelona is by no means the only city though, cities like Milan also boast a reputation of having a populous with very sneaky fingers. This is something that I literally spend zero time worrying about in Korea. Of course, you still have to keep your head on your shoulders and be intelligent in public, but the Koreans are a very honest people. I believe that theft in Korea is probably one of the most dishonourable actions that you can commit, and thus it doesn't really seem to be a problem here. For example, Bri accidentally lost her wallet and (fairly expensive) camera several weekends ago. A kind Korean man found her belongings and contacted her bank (via the number on a business card in her wallet) to make sure that he could get in touch with her. He then mailed her belongings to Jukjeon Reading Town where we work. A mammoth city like Seoul would usually be rampant with safety problems, but to my knowledge that just isn't the case here. I'm really enjoying this new found feeling, and it was unquestionably a pleasant surprise.

5) Expect to Connect

If it has four walls and electricity, then I expect wireless internet. That is the sad assumption that my mind has made after living in Korea for over six months. Actually, I anticipate a connection to wireless internet just about everywhere I go. I feel as if it has turned me into a sort of technology snob where I will refuse to eat or get a cup of coffee at certain establishments based on their wireless internet connections. Facts are facts; if your cafe doesn't have wi-fi in Korea, then you are simply done for. Korea is a country that has marvelously integrated itself with modern technology. I feel confident that I could find access to wireless internet in five minutes or less in every major metropolitan city in Korea. It's really marvelous for a fellow my age, considering my interests. It's not unusual for Bri and I to venture off to discover a new cafe, and spend the afternoon writing and reading. I'm going to have to scale back my expectations when returning home, as it's a fairly safe argument that Seoul is one of the most connected cities on the planet. I even felt as if Seoul superseded Tokyo in it's technological prowess. I don't want to become one of those technological brats, but alas, it may be too late. Korea has showered me in its ubiquitous wireless internet, and now I've been spoiled rotten. However, it's certainly been a productive last 6 months.

It's quite amusing for me to reminisce on the way in which Korea has changed my perceptions and ideals. The main point to consider for myself, though, is that there has indeed been some "change." Writing blogs about topics such as this helps me to stay alert to the ways in which I am interacting with my environment. It's a way for me to take a step back, and look at myself in a more sociological manner, which I find is always helpful. I appreciate that each country is different in its own right, and I wouldn't want it any other way. If every country was like Canada, and every city like Toronto, then there wouldn't be any point to travelling at all. Experience, good or bad, is still knowledge, and knowledge can always be put to use.


  1. This is an awesome blog Chris! I really enjoy the part about English and how hard it is for us to sometimes speak true. I wonder what another six months will bring! Here's to an awesome rest of our year right!

  2. Thanks a lot Luke! I appreciate it!

  3. I live in Daegu. Even we have a better metro system than Toronto with the construction of Line 3. Its so embarrasing and disheartening going back to Toronto and dealing with their transit system! Busan also has a great system with six lines!!!

  4. It seems to me that most cities have a better metro system than Toronto! I absolutely agree with you.