I have now had the chance to visit Korea three times since being adopted as a baby. My first trip was as a tourist and I enjoyed getting to experience the tourist-y side of the country. My second trip was a chance to meet Whitney’s family for the first time and also tour parts of Korea that Whitney had not yet had a chance to visit. The third and most recent trip, we went back to attend a wedding, catch up with old friends, and explore Seoul. This most recent trip was the most enlightening that I have taken so far and I’ll explain why.
The first two trips that I took mainly focused on the tourist attractions of Korea. Being on a group tour is completely different than being on your own, no matter what country you happen to be exploring. On our tours, we were told what time to meet, eat, and when we had free time. It is a great way to see the country and I highly recommend it for anyone visiting for the first time. On the other hand, I’m grateful for the other visits I’ve taken that have given me the opportunity to see real daily Korean life. After we arrived and spent a few days in Seoul, I told Whitney that I could definitely see us living here someday. But after a week, there were moments when I wanted to leave and never look back.
The first week in Korea was excellent – catching up with family, shopping, sightseeing. Most daily activities didn’t really bother me, probably because my mind was racing and I was too busy enjoying things that I don’t get to experience back in the States. Our schedule was so jam-packed that we were on-the-go all day, everyday. It wasn’t until the second week that I started noticing small things that just really bothered me. I am so Westernized that my “normal” activities are abnormal in Korea. For instance, anytime we wanted to go anywhere in Seoul, we had to take public transportation (or risk driving) and then walk to wherever we wanted to go. You definitely stay in shape there, but sometimes you just don’t feel like walking. I’m so used to driving, trying to get the closest spot to the front door of the store just like everyone else, I’m annoyed when I have to park far away. In Seoul, I would be overjoyed if all I had to do was walk the distance of a far-away parking spot.
As a Westerner, one thing that I have become accustomed to is: personal space. For the most part, people will stay out of your “bubble” in the States. If they accidentally intrude, they will acknowledge it by saying, “Excuse me.” This is definitely not the case in Korea! It is pretty much every man for themselves, no matter how old you are or what you are doing. People will just randomly run into you and pretend like they didn’t even see you or know you exist. The first few times, I just brushed it off my shoulder, but then it got more and more annoying. I was more upset that they didn’t even acknowledge that they just ran into me. My first week, I was making sure to hold doors for people. By week two, I realized that what I thought to be common courtesy was not common here.
I would say that my experiences on the subway in Seoul, especially during rush hour, are what really bothered me every day. Seoul is known for having one of the best subway systems in the world. It’s so fast and efficient and will take you pretty much anywhere in the city. During our second week, we were traveling around Seoul during rush hour a lot, so we had the pleasure of riding the subway. During “normal times” on the subway, you are lucky to find a seat, so most times, you are required to stand. I didn’t mind that at all. During rush hour, you’re lucky just to fit into a subway car! People will keep shoving into the car to the point that you can barely breathe. Everyone is on top of each other and this is something people deal with every single day. I didn’t realize how much I value my personal space until I was riding on an overly crowded subway in Seoul trying to support the weight of a perfect stranger who was using me as his cane.
Koreans are some of the hardest working people. I am so used to 9-5 jobs, but in Korea that is far from normal. They work from early in the morning to extremely late at night. One of Whitney’s friends told us that he goes into his office around 8 am and doesn’t leave until 10pm each night. The Jeons are small business owners so they are always working and are rarely able to take time off. This is one of the reasons that Korea has such a thriving economy with such rapid growth – the work ethic of their people.
There were also many positives that I got to see in Korea. I think one of the most powerful was seeing how close families are and how they play such an important part in everyday life. Your family looks out for you and will bend over backwards for anything that you need, no matter how small. Family is everything in Korea and always at the top of the priority list. If a family member needs something and you have the ability to help them, you do it without question just because they are family.
So could I actually live in Korea? There would definitely be an adjustment period as with anything new, but I think I could. I know several adoptees who have lived in Korea for extended periods of time, and even some who have moved back permanently. Whitney is a great inspiration for me because she lived and taught in Korea for over a year and is a great resource for understanding culture. Of course, there is definitely a language barrier, so I would finally have to buckle down and learn Korean. Who knows what the future holds, but if Korea is ever in the cards, I know we could make it work.
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