During my time here I’ve met some lovely interesting people and visited some beautiful, peaceful and inspiring places but South Korea is without a doubt the most “foreign” country with a developed infrastructure and economy that I have visited. It has been a challenge to try to comprehend what Koreans are thinking in the majority of situations. When questioned regarding a particularly anomalous or irrational-seeming perspective, a universal answer (outside school) has “Because I am Korean” or “It’s Korean style.” This says everything about having an insular rather than open mind. Koreans give the impression they view culture, nationality, language, and race as one-and-the-same consequentially this manifests itself in an indisputable incapacity to grapple with Western viewpoints regarding multi-cultural societies and equality. Of course there have been exceptions to varying degrees in the interactions that I have experienced with my co-workers and others when I’ve visited Seoul. While in Chungju, even those I like and speak some English, entertain mindsets that I can’t hope to understand or agree with.
The “wisdom” of Confucius prescribes patterns of behaviour apt for interactions among people of different positions in society, age, and social/familial connection. This can manifest itself in any response to a situation that is not “prescribed” being viewed as unsuitable or wrong. For example challenging a colleague who only speaks when he or she wants something means they don’t understand that their behaviour is wrong, in fact you are wrong NOT them. I generally felt that people responded to given situations in a way which seemed to be ignoring the nature of the problem or perhaps even exacerbating it; however, if the reaction was consistent with the majority-held belief systems, then a Korean generally viewed it as cogent and proper.
In my experience many Koreans are genuinely unable to imagine how you live (alone), think (liberally but with a social conscience), or what motivates you (quality of life rather than status and money). This, obviously, resulted in many misunderstandings and the occasional argument. Generally I learned to become more patient but also quite often lapsed. Many Korean’s (in work and outside) struggled to understand my mindset and an opinion, their instinct was to suspect I might be looking down on them, being that I was from a ‘waygook’ country. They did not respond well to sudden displays of irritation or criticism but hey that’s life and that’s my great failing. I will depart with hope, in my morning classes I’ve challenged the cultural norms and tried to open minds. In work I’ve put forward alternative strategies for intervention that offer carrots and a valid alternative to the stick. My efforts within Chungwon FC have been generally positive giving some kids a more positive view of school and education in general and hopefully a positive interaction with an alternative culture. The hierarchical norms have proved challenging in the world of sport but I hope I left a positive lasting legacy.
Here are my top 10 places to see in Korea (in no particular order) but please note not on public holidays and preferably early morning before they (the Ninja Fashionistas) rise from the interrupted bio-rhythms of the night before.
- Seokbulsa Temple (Busan)
- HanokGuesthouse (Sarangchai) and Royal Tombs (Gyeongju)
- Circumnavigating Seoul Fortress over 2 days (passport required)
- Seoraksan Mountain (Taebaek mountain range in the Gangwon Province near the city of Sokcho)
- Bukhansan National Park in Seoul and Gyeonggi
- Seoul Olympic Park and Mongong Fortress
- Seongsan Sunrise Peak (Jeju Island)
- Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju (Spring, Autumn, Winter [avoid summer])
- Songnisan National Park and Beopjusa Temple
- Andong Folk Village
Now as I prepare to depart I’ll take away many fond memories of co-teachers (though not all), students and the sights and sounds I’ve experienced. I endured the lack of planning and disorganisation, the inability to accept fault and lay blame elsewhere and the disillusion that they have the greatest cuisine, education system and culture in the world. I may come to miss it but then again only time will tell.
I still hope to visit Jeolla Province before I leave but that’s looking increasingly unlikely.For now I have the CELTA in Chiang Mai, Thailand to look forward to in January followed by my epic overland journey home via China, Mongolia, Russia and the rest of Europe.
From July 2015 I’ll be seeking out pastures new but I will be teaching English armed with my CELTA and hoping new doors will be flung open because of it.
I have a final pet project to display here before I leave and that will be a photo-diary of my time in SK.