Korea, I love You

An expat’s love note to the beautiful land of mountains, department stores, & kimchi

It seemed such a foreign land when I first stepped foot onto the peninsula of Korea (South of course, I better clarify that before going any further.) Way back in 2009, I took a 30+ hour journey that landed me wearily in the country that I would unknowingly call home for more than four years.

My first hours in Korea were exceptionally Korean. I was placed in a love motel for my few days of training and taken to a dinner that came out wriggling and squirming in the pot. However, after the click-click-click of the gas stove, it began to slowly lose it’s luster, changing from sea life to dinner. It’s been kimchi and seaweed ever since, and although it took some time to acquire the taste, acquired it I have.

From Ulsan to Busan, teaching students aged 2 to adults; I’ve traveled the country, learned to love my local neighborhoods, and have grown comfortable living life as an anonymous foreigner in an incredibly homogeneous country. The list could go on and on of the things that I love about this country, but I’ll reign it in and keep it to a short-ish list.

Healthcare!

It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s so AFFORDABLE. Everything from a visa required health check to an eye examination and glasses fitting are services readily available and advertised to foreigners. Many hospitals employ a full time translator who will help set up your appointments, discuss what you need, quote you a price, and go with you to translate during your visit. My best medical experiences:

  • 10 Minute Glasses – There are glasses shops on every street corner full to the brim with inexpensive frames. The exam takes minutes and is as high tech as Asia gets. My last two pairs of glasses took longer to chose than to have made. After I found my perfectly dorky pair, the assistant informed me to wait 10 minutes for my prescription lenses to get put in. TEN MINUTES! The cost? 30,000 won, or less than 30$ (*Disclaimer – not all optometrists will speak English, be brave, or shop around for a shop with a doctor who can communicate with you. Or use google translate on your phone.)

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  • Dentist Visits – Luckily my dental health and hygiene has been mostly A-OK, minus one unfortunate incident. Cleanings you can have done at most chi-gwuas(dentists,) but you should know that it’s different from cleanings back home. In Korea teeth cleanings are called “scaling.” It can be a scary experience if you’ve never had it done before. While it’s called scaling, it is more like “scraping” and it feels like a sharp metal object scraping along the gum line of your teeth. But it can’t be all that bad if it’s what the entire population receives for dental care and the whole frightening experience will only cost you about 10,000 won, or less than 10$ USD.

 

  • Blood Work – I’ve lived with anemia for my entire life and never thought much of it, but figured that while I have reliable, full coverage insurance, why not check it out. It’s good that I did because my iron levels were extremely low, so I got jabbed with two viles of iron, started taking pills, and adjusted my diet. I then made a few more appointments via the English translator to continue checking that my iron level was increasing with the pills. The appointments may have been superfluous, the translator and doctor even questioned why I was visiting again so soon after my last visit, and my reasoning quite simply was, why not? The entire experience of seeing the doctor and having a consultation via the translator, having my blood drawn, waiting for the results took about 2 hours and cost roughly 20,000 won, I’m sure you worked the exchange rate out already, but that’s about 20$ USD. Oh, and after the results were done there was another consultation with the internal medicine doctor. Let me repeat that – I had two personal visits with a specialists via a translator, and got blood work done in about 2 hours. Getting blood work back in the US can involve visiting a lab and waiting a couple of days for the results, Korean healthcare is miles beyond American.

 

Cost of Living

Korea is so livable. I lived in the second largest city, Busan, and was able to not only get by, but to save money. Granted, I’m generally a frugal person, but the cost of living in Korea is relatively low compared to back home in the US. Check it out:

  • Rent – I found an apartment that was a block from the second largest beach in the city, a 10 minute walk to the subway line that connects the whole of the city, and was surrounded by mostly cafes and some dotted restaurants. In Korea you pay key money, or a deposit on your apartment which you get back at the end of your stay. Key money can range from 1 million won to 10 or 15 million won, that’s about 1,000/10,000/15,000 USD. Monthly rent depends on your key money and ranges from 300,000 won to 600,000 won (300USD/600USD.) Oh, and I should mention that Korea has the fastest broadband internet in the world and connection/router/month of unlimited use costs about 20USD.

 

  • Food – Korean food is healthy and delicious. As mentioned about it requires some 19041_546881468487_8253510_nacquiring though unless you grew up eating fermented cabbage on the regs. You can buy fresh fruit and vegetables at local markets for cheap. Eating out at Korean restaurants is cheap as well and healthy. Western restaurants serving pizza and pasta will put you back much more and generally are disappointing.

 

 

  • Enjoy Your Life – You can truly enjoy your life because you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to pay your cheap rent. There are loads of things to do especially around Busan: yoga of course, hiking, cycling, camping, bars, noraebang, department stores, jimjilbang, and more. I sometimes can’t believe the lifestyle that I have just given up, but I’m hopeful that a similar life is possible to create elsewhere in the world, and if it isn’t then back to the Bu I shall go.

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  • Healthcare – *See Above

Safety & Convenience

Korea is sometimes known as the Land of the Morning Calm (possibly because everyone’s still at noraebang [karaoke] till 7am) but should really be called the Land of Convenience. From shops and bars that never close to easy-to-use public transportation. Likewise Korea could be known as the Land of the Low Crime Rate. Straight away upon my move to Korea I adapted a sense of ease and comfort navigating the zigzagging streets at all hours of the night when returning from those never-closing-noraebangs, which might sound straight up stupid to someone who’s never lived there before, but those of you that have, know what I mean. I’m a small, unintimidating woman and never once did I fear for my safety while in Korea. This might just be the hardest thing to leave behind.

  • Transportation – It’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s often, it’s Korean public transportation and it comes in the form of buses, trains, taxis, and subway. You can get from one side of the city to the other for about 2$USD and in a little over an hour. You can also get from Busan to Seoul by bus or your option of slow or fast train, KTX. You can also use your rechargeable subway pass both in Busan and Seoul, and probably Daegu and Ulsan, etc. Now, can you imagine pulling out your DC metro card in New York with no problems?

 

  • Safety – No drugs. No guns. Minimal crime. There are countless stories of smartphones being left in cabs and getting returned, bags full of belongings getting forgotten on that convenient public transportation, and getting returned, and even wallets getting handed back with cash still inside. This is not 100% true all the time of course, and I did have a bike stolen from my building once, but never have I feared for my physical safety (other than every single day on my bike commuting on the road, but this is a love letter note a hate note, so I’ll leave that bit out.)

 

  • Healthcare – *See Above

 

This could go on. I could write about relationships, the yoga community, and my lovingly adorable students, but already I’ve hit the magic number of 1000+ words which means that most of you quit reading a long time ago, or never even clicked, too scared off, and to those of you who stuck to it, congratulations and thank you! So I must bring this post to an end by saying that I will forever remember my time in Korea in the warmest part of my heart. It will never fade away because Korea has become a part of me, I will probably take my shoes off when entering a house, I will pass money using two hands, and I will have so many great friendships formed over the bonding of being expats in the Land of the Morning Calm. 11193389_10155440948275618_418032844345695615_n

 

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Leave No Trace – Litter on Korean Mountains

Surrounding myself by nature is a wonderful luxury that I try to make part of my life as much as I can. Living smack in the middle of a city, it is not always easy to feel totally engulfed by the beauty of the natural world. Don’t get me wrong, Busan has great hiking and of course beaches, but often reminders of being in a city are there – noise pollution, light pollution, and straight up litter. Recently though, I was able to get out of Busan for a little trip up north over the Chuseok holiday to visit Seoraksan National Park.

Years back when I made my first trip to Seoraksan, a fellow American expat taught me about the idea of Leave No Trace, it’s as simple as it sounds, take with you whatever you brought up when you go, leaving no trace of your visit. This means clean up after yourself, that simple rule we learn in kindergarten. Don’t leave any wrappers, single use utensils, or even fruit peels (as they are more than likely tarnished with pesticides and are probably not native of the land so therefore might cause disruption to the ecosystem.) This is a rule that I strictly follow whenever I get up into the mountains (or parks, beach, etc.)

Admittedly though, I am not an avid hiker. When given the choice I much prefer to stay near sea level as opposed to climbing up a big ‘ol mountain, but once I have been dragged along on a hike I always love that I’ve done it. It feels rewarding and the views are fantastic.

Seoraksan

Unfortunately, not all of the views are beautiful. On my most recent hike I couldn’t help but be upset by all of the litter left behind by fellow hikers. Feeling affected, I collected as much of the litter as I could and stuff it in the side mesh pocket of my backpack, by the time I finished the hike the trash was spilling over the sides.

Water bottles were a common sight

Water bottles were a common sight

When I returned to my hotel I emptied it all out and arranged it to have a closer look. It seems that most of the trash was individually wrapped candies. (Candy wrappers are also one of the most frequently littered items on my local beach.) If only the sweet-toothed, nature “lovers” loved nature enough to leave no trace. Other items I took notice of were bits of gear that had apparently fallen off mid-hike, a reminder to buy quality when you shop so that you don’t have the problem of your backpack or footwear falling apart during use, and if it does, please take it with you and dispose of it properly.

It is so important to Leave No Trace; I can’t imagine how long all of this might have stayed on the gorgeous Seoraksan floor. Sure, there are probably teams that go up and clean, but wouldn’t it be nice if everybody took their own responsibility and left places as beautiful as they found them, with no traces?

Korean Templestay – 108 Prostrations

In the past I have been invited to teach for yoga mala’s which are events where participants do 108 Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar.) Teachers guide students through traditional Sun A and/or B, or through variations of both. It is both challenging and rewarding to push yourself to perform all of the sequences and as a teacher it has been fun to be creative and come up with variations. Although I have taught and participated in a few yoga malas, I never really knew what that number 108 was all about.

Recently, I took the opportunity to participate in a Korean Templestay. Templestays are little nightly or weekend getaways to a Korean temple. They are geared towards foreigners visiting or living in the country. During the stay, participants experience a brief monastic 24 hours (give or take.) At my templestay I wore simple cotton pants and a vest (worn over a T-shirt as showing shoulders is a big no-no at Korean temples,) ate and experienced the process of eating a monastic meal, attended two Buddhist ceremonies, made a strand of mala beads, and did 108 prostrations.

The Beads

Making the mala strand of beads felt a little bit like a summer camp activity. The other 20 or so participants and myself gathered in a beautifully painted room, sat upon meditation cushions, and were given little kits which included rough wooden beads, thick string, and a small metal tool that was to be used to push a better hole into the bead if it hadn’t been properly punched out.

While we made the malas our guide asked questions of us about Buddhism, such as what are the six offerings people bring to temple (I remember four of the six – rice, incense, flowers, fruit.) The guide/translator also explained that the beads were made of cedar which gave them a strong scent. According to her the scent is offensive to mosquitos and helps ward them off – bonus!

The number 108 was also explained, but in a mathematical-windy way reminiscent of conspiracy theories that add, subtract, and multiply to find their way to a meaningful number that supports their case. I’m not good with numbers in any sense, so unfortunately those numbers went in one ear and out the other. The following morning after stringing the beads we performed the 108 prostrations in the main hall and that’s where the magic happened.

108 Prostrations

After an opening ceremony of tycho drum, chant, and a few introductory bows, we began the 108. As I mentioned, the event was for foreigners; none of us were Korean speakers and the monks didn’t speak English, so during the bows they played a youtube video that gave a meaning to each bow. At first the video was offputting because the anouncer had a very cultish, deep, monotone voice, but what was being said by him was actually quite moving.

Reasons for bows came in groups. For example, for six or so bows there would be reasons about repenting. This is a rough memory, but a few  that I remember went something like this: “I prostrate in repentance for ever having taken my family for granted.” Then it continued with the same, “I prostrate in repentance for ever having taken my friends/nature/teachers for granted.” Another theme I remember was gratitude for similar topics: “I prostrate in gratitude for all the teachers that have touched my life,” for example. Having the sound of the video going, which visually displayed monks in monk like settings, helped the bows go by more quickly and gave them meaning.

Physically I didn’t find the bowing to be taxing, minus the speed. We bowed to the count of the youtube video which runs around 25 minutes, about 20 of those minutes being the actual bows. Doing 108 bows in 20 minutes is quick. The bows were similar to Sun Salutations and were performed by bending at the knees, hands at prayer at the chest (Namaskar,) lowering the knees down onto a meditation cushion, placing the forehead on the cushion, and then going to standing again. I overheard other participants complaining of the difficulty of it; it might be that my consistent yoga practice made the act easier for me.

Full bow.

Full bow.

Here is the link to the video to listen to while performing 108 bows, or while you do your dishes, give it a listen.  The intro of the video is a child giving a little background to the number 108 and then it gets right into the creepy voice reading of the 108 prostrations. As much as that description is not enticing, I encourage you to listen, it honestly moved me into conscious reflection.

If you ever get the opportunity to attend a Yoga Mala or a Korean Templestay, take the opportunity. Through both you can learn a lot about yourself while participating in events that lie outside of your comfort zone. Coming soon will be a write-up of the monastic meal that was the highlight of the first evening at the temple.

The templestay that I participated in was at a temple named Hongbeopsa. It is north west of Busan and can be reached by shuttle bus or taxi from Nopodong Bus Termanl. Hongbeopsa generally hosts monthly cultural events for foreigners such as lantern making, tea ceremonies, and kimichi making. To find out more about their events follow them on facebook here.