“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights, it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”
I’m counting out my last metal pieces of Korean change, hoping to have enough for a coffee or pastry at the airport, and I happen to glance out the window of the airport bus. The last thing I’d seen out that window was Sohee’s cute, bundled face as she waved goodbye, but now, there is a man stumbling from the sidewalk to the street with a makgeolli, or rice wine, bottle in his hand. It is 8:45am and there is probably many other Korean men and women staggering home to their sleeping mats and floor heating.
These two scenes out my bus window nicely describe the two sides to Korea. One side is sparkly, fluffy, baby voiced “aegyo”, and sweet, but sexy Kpop girls and boys. A country well known for its obsession with plastic surgery, but despite it’s wanting for a fake face, the hearts of the people are some of the most genuine I’ve come across. People like Sohee, who opened her home to me for a week, took me out to Korean BBQ, hole in the wall bibimbap shops, and fed me her homemade kimchi jigae.
But, if you look again, there is another side. The ever-present soju, that’s drank like water, causes many Koreans to sleep on the cold ground until someone steps over them and rouses them from their drunken black out. Koreans can be very loose with the drinking, yet extremely conservative on issues like divorce, homosexuality, and religion. It’s also a sad, but well-known fact that as a foreigner in Korea, it’s better to be white.
Like any country, or a scrounged for coin, Korea has its shiny and dull side. I first arrived in 2011 to teach English, but I was too overwhelmed at the time to notice either. Nothing seemed better or worse than my own culture; it was just different. This is a travel mantra that I try to adhere to, but I admit, it can be hard to follow. When I would hear my students being hit by a Korean teacher or when I found out about the preparation of dog soup, I was appalled and immediately thought, this is wrong. This is not how we do things. But it is not my culture. It is different and I choose to accept that.
Korea was home to me for two years and I was lucky enough to get to teach bright, kind students, work with a generous and loving staff, and make amazing friends, like Sohee, during my stay. I’ve never regretted living there, not for a second.
Coming back for a visit, as somewhat of a stranger, the duality of Korea seemed more pronounced to me. Yet, in truth, these two sides are only passing glances. Korea is an intricate, three-dimensionnal world that I still am coming to understand. It is changing quickly, and just like the cityscape outside my bus window, I’m not sure what I’ll see next.