How to Stay Sane in Korea

Oh Korea. For everything that is supremely awesome about you, there are also times when I want to shake my fists. How do I deal?! Well, I’ll let you know.

1. Make Friends, Not Enemies

People stare. A lot. I’m black. I have giant curly hair. Johnny has a port wine stain birth mark on his face. 9 times out of 10, when people stare, it seems to just stem from curiosity, rather than something mean or malicious. When I do catch someone staring, instead of giving them a stank eye, I give a slight head bow and tell them hello (in Korean). Usually they are so surprised and caught off guard that I was actually nice and not a rude ass bitch that they smile back and/or try to start a conversation. More people than you think speak some sort of English, and really most are just too shy to really try.

Give up your seat to the old people on the bus or subway. Try and use whatever Korean you know when you speak. I went to a coffee shop, and after the barista delivered my coffee I told her thank you in Korean (one of the 10 phrases I know). “YOU KNOW KOREAN!?” ….Well…no… but she was super impressed nonetheless and gave me a free pastry.

I’m friends with everyone in my neighborhood. This is the benefit of living in a tiny village. Mr. Kim and his wife that work at the corner store adore me and love to give me free food. Steve at the fried chicken restaurant gives me free drinks. Ian, the cutie who works at Tour Les Jours told me about the Eminem concert in Seoul. The ladies at the neighborhood grocery store always give me extra bags to carry my things. My coteachers and I all get along really well. It pays to be nice!

I’ve seen so many foreigners that just radiate entitlement and a rude attitude. And those are always the people complaining about how terrible Korea is, about how Korean people are crazy, about how Korea is the worst place ever. Well, maybe you should fix your attitude. I wouldn’t want to talk to your stank ass either!

2. When that old lady/man shoves you out of the way to get on the bus/subway/at the grocery store, take a DEEP breath and let it go

Yeah. Let it go. This one might be the hardest for me to deal with. As an American, anytime someone touches me in a rude, unnescessary way, my first reaction is to push back/throat chop/get really, really angry. You just have to understand that old people here do whatever the fuck they want…and that’s how it is. Lack of personal space/pushing/shoving/etc. is just a way of life here.  The older generation especially HAS to be on the train/bus first or they will combust (or at least that’s how they act). Try to not take it personal. I was at the grocery store buying 2 bottles of water and some other random things, when an older woman just cut in front of me in line and put her stuff down in front of me. Now, in America, homegirl would’ve been cussed out in about 2 seconds, and I almost lost my shit. BUT. but. but. but. I just took a deep breath, realized I’m not in America, and let it go. Yes, it’s incredibly rude. However, it’s not worth it to be rude/mean/whatever. For all I know, she may be the mom/grandma of one of my students, report that shit to the principal, then..yeah. Hot mess everywhere.

3. Make time for yourself

Korea is FULL of things to do. It’s overwhelming at times. Seriously. Any given night, on any given day, there is some event, drinking party, dinner party, birthday dinner, concert, coffee shop date, wine and movie night, baseball games, picnics, etc. The list goes on and on.  Not to mention 90% of us foreigners here are teaching screaming kids for 6 to 8 hours a day. For awhile, I was really getting burned out because I just was constantly doing something, go, go, go. It takes a toll! My mood was shit, and I was chronically tired. So, I took a rest. I told myself I would just come home from work, go to the gym, and just go home and rest. On the weekends, I wouldn’t do anything either. It gave me a such a peace of mind. At times, Korea is sensory overload. There’s flashing lights everywhere, you don’t speak the language, and you maybe can barely read it. Give yourself a break! Korea will be always be waiting for you. Your body and mind will love and thank you.

4. Choose Your (foreigner) Friends Wisely

This sort of goes back to #1. Yes, you’re new here, and yes, you obviously want to make friends. But choose wisely. Don’t hang out with the Debby Downers. Trust me, at any given foreigner gathering, the conversation inevitably turns into “WOW KOREA IS FUCKING NUTS”. You have the people that are normal, talking about the daily quirks, like the bus drivers that are clearly on a murder mission, and then you have the people that are just assholes. They talk shit about any and everything. They’re basically a walking DavesESL thread. “I hate Korean food. I hate my coteachers. My students are the devil. I hate the weather. The beer is terrible. The coffee shops suck. I hate kimchi. I hate everythinggggggggg.” And while those people are completely justified to have those thoughts, it’s all about the attitude. 9 times out of 10, those are the same people getting naked and puking all of over the beach at MudFest. Yeah, cut those people from your life immediately. Because once the Korea bashing starts, it doesn’t stop. Their negative energy is like a thick fog, and it’ll consume your life. RUN RUN RUN AWAY!

5. Splurge on Comfort Food

This is a big one for me. While Korean food is delicious, eating kimchi everyday just isn’t won’t cut it. I will probably pay any amount of money for Mexican food, good burgers, and great beer. We all know the beer in Korea is…just…not the best, so every once in awhile, I’ll go to Emart and splurge on the ‘finest’ selections of international beers. Or a nice bottle of wine. I spend a crazy amount of money on frozen fruit for my breakfast smoothies. I’ll go to Butterfinger pancakes and spend 16 dollars on pancakes. And yup, I even bought a watermelon for 10 dollars. You know why? Because I love watermelon, damnit! It makes me happy. Even though Western food is way more expensive than your standard bibimbap, mandu, or samgyopsal, sometimes, you just really want a good burger. So buy one! (PS, Burger B in Hongdae is awesome). There’s a number of Western chains/western style food/tons of shit at Emart to make your own food. Need specialty items? Order it from, or hit up the Foreign Food Market in Itaewon. Good food, and especially good food that reminds you of home will cure everything.

6. Make Your Apartment Into a Home

Oh. The Korean ‘one room’ aka studio apartment. When I’ve talked to other people and their living situations, it seems like I’ve got it made. My apartment is new, just built a year and a half ago. I have an electric stove top, a huge patio/clothes drying area, lots of sunlight, a pretty big bathroom with a shower that’s not attached to my sink…but it still felt like a dorm room.

Make your apartment into a home. Buy decorations. Put up your pictures, posters, etc. Buy really cute dinnerware. This is where Daiso becomes your best friend. For those that don’t know, Daiso is a Japanese chain store in Korea that is pretty much a dollar store. Everything is 5,000W or cheaper. Plates, cups, picture frames,  mirrors, wine glasses, decorations, stationary, candles, fragrance oils, etc., you name it. Daiso will become your new best friend in Korea. I always go for one thing, and end up buying like 10. Thankfully it’s cheap!

Having a clean, nice apartment that is rent free is pretty much the best thing in the world. There’s nothing that I hate more than coming home from a long day at work to a messy apartment. I try to straighten up everyday, so I don’t have a huge mess to clean at once. Plus, you never know when the air conditioner repair man will just show up at your place (true story).

7. Think of all of the Positives

I personally think Korea is great. And yes, there are times when I just want to shake my fists. But I always try to stay positive. Think of all the good things Korea has to offer! Like really cheap movies. And movies come out days and sometimes weeks earlier than in America. AND THERE ARE 4D MOVIES! Transportation is cheap, easy, and efficient. You can go to E Mart and have tons of free food samples. The subway bathrooms are ridiculously clean. Samgyeopsal. Korean cosmetics. Smart phones that work in the subway. Super fucking fast internet. Jjimjilbangs. Korean snack food. Shopping for cheap clothes in the subway. The stationary. Korean babies. Inexpensive healthcare. Drinking in front of the G25/Family Mart/711. Endless rameyon. Adorable coffee shops. Waffles. bars that stay open all night. Korean fried chicken. Tour Les Jours. The list goes on and on. So whenever you’re having a really bad ‘fuck you Korea’ kind of day, try to think of all the positive things. Watch a movie in your clean, rent free apartment and eat some comfort food. And remember, no one is forcing you to be here. If you’d rather gouge your eyes out than stay in Korea another day, break your contract and go home! Sure, you probably won’t be able to teach in Korea again, but…would you want to anyway?

Wow. So this post was way longer than I intended it to be. Anyone want to add any other tips?!

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