KOREA: Land of the Mornign Calm
Korea is a land defined by its contrasts. It is a country where one generation grew up ploughing crops by hand and living by the light of oil lamps, the next, never knowing a time when computers and high speed internet were not available on every corner. Where neon lights and golden rice fields exist side by side and where traditional mud and straw restaurants sit in the shadows of MacDonalds. It is a country where mountains and trees vie for space with the ever expanding concrete and steel of the cities. Where nature is respected and valued as much as progress and expansion.
I wake up in Korea and the first thought that goes through my head is “What on earth am I doing here?” I have left behind teaching in Thailand for the allure of more money, doing the same job in Korea. Two weeks before this I was sitting on a beach and now I am bundled up against the cold looking through the shelves of a supermarket trying to find something I recognise. Odd containers stare back at me even odd illustrations giving no clue as to what they contain, or what they could possibly be for. Thankfully I stumble onto a box of cookies and a small bag of oranges that will have to tide me over till I can find something more substantial. I reminisce about teaching in Thailand and how easy life there was, and wonder how I am ever going to
Mahayana Buddhism is the traditional religion in Korea, yet in the last two generations, Christianity has been adopted by more than forty two percent of the population and growing. The city landscapes are dominated by glowing red neon crosses. Korea’s own unique take on an adapted tradition. In contrast, Buddhism as the traditional religion is shrinking in numbers as Koreans leave behind their traditional views. Hardly a week would go by without a knock at the door, from one Christian church or another, with the intention of recruiting worshipers. Buddhists on the other hand do not. And so more and more of the population converts from the traditional religion to one imported by missionaries in the last couple of generations.
The first weeks are the hardest; I wonder constantly what I am doing here, the apartments are cramped and small, a far cry from the bright, clean, new apartment I left behind in Chiang Mai. The city I live in, Cheong Ju, is right in the heart of Korea but none of the signs are in English, I have trouble ordering food at restaurants and even more trouble finding my way around. I am constantly lost in the maze of carbon copy apartments that stretch to the horizon. But the job is easy and fun, a few hours a day and I make in one month what I would in four teaching English in Thailand. This is the appeal that draws so many teachers to Korea.
The demand for foreign English teachers is so high in Korea that a first time teacher practically has their pick of their work environment. But it is being able to adapt to the culture that makes or breaks expats here. Korea is not what you would call a country that is open to foreigners, it takes work to gain an understanding of the culture and knowing how to speak some Korean is a virtual must. Few signs are in English, fewer menus, outside of Seoul a teacher needs to work hard if they are to fit in.
Western influence crashes with traditional culture here. The usual string of burger and chicken joints line the major pedestrian centres of towns all over Korea. Yet they are not the ones you would see in the west. Korea has adopted the idea but has not been sold it wholesale. Fashion, too, is very western but a unique Korean take on western clothing is applied. To my eye I often feel that the clothes are just thrown together with no sense of style, but I am sure I am being looked back at with the same thought in mind. Mostly I don’t even try to fit in as far as fashion is concerned, I stand out regardless.
Living in Korea has its ups and downs. Koreans will go farther out of their way to help you than any nationality I have ever seen. Coming down from a long hike I was asked by a stranger if I would like a ride home. I asked him if it was on the way and the answer of course was yes. Later during the car ride home, I found out he was going in the opposite direction to me and that his offer to take me home took him forty five minutes longer than it would have taken him otherwise. Yet there was never any hint that he was inconvenienced at all. On the other hand as a visual minority I was often pointed at, stared at, on occasion, poked, and children have stopped in their tracks when they saw me coming, screamed and ran the other direction. Balancing the good with the bad, the good is by far the winner but many people have a hard time keeping this in mind and thus do not fully enjoy their stay in Korea.
Korea is a land of opposites and as it is ushered farther and farther from traditional ways that once made up the fabric of the country, it struggles to maintain a unique Korean identity. A confused society at its core, today’s youth struggle to build a personal identity while still conforming to behaviours that are acceptable. Counter culture is an idea that is beginning to take root with B-boy and runway model schools beginning to take their place beside math and Chinese chess schools. Korea is a place in the middle of massive cultural changes yet intent on preserving the traditional aspects of their culture.
After that initial morning, waking in shock to find myself thrown head first into a new culture and a new life, I look back on my time in Korea and have no regrets. I only wish I could have seen more, done more. I am happy to be back living in Thailand. Yet there is a part of me that will always feel at home in Korea, watching the world go by from an outsiders view.
Namdemun Gate, Korean national treasure number 1, was lost to fire last year. What once stood, in the heart of Seoul, as a reminder of the traditions and heritage of Korea has been lost forever. Will the steel and concrete modern city now close around its ashes or will Korea find a way to preserve its heritage amidst a rapidly changing and developing population of youth?
Ryan Chappell is a travel photographer currently based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. For more information or to contact him, please visit www.ryanchappell.com.