As Experienced by Me
The following is my rant about everything I hated about South Korea. I did meet some wonderful Koreans during my 5 months as an ESL teacher. However, these were all people who had travelled outside of Korea and knew how to interact with 'Westerners'. There is a small, but loud contingent of anti-American extremists. Remember, even though you aren't American, we all look alike to them and speaking English is the dead give away.
Now, having travelled around the world and being anthropologically inclined, I have always considered myself to be culturally tolerant. I try to learn at least a few phrases of the local language (if only "Hello", "Yes/No" and "Thank you") and am always willing to check out the non-touristy locales and 'native' foods. I have been to countries where English is rarely spoken but due to effort on my part, and the aid of helpful locals, I have never had a problem getting around, feeding myself, finding accommodations or exploring the area. South Korea is not like that at all. You will see signs in English and Korean everywhere, which is helpful in getting around, but it is a rare occurance to find someone who speaks or understands English.
I have been to other Asian countries, so I was familiar with some of the cultural behaviours (respect for elders, bowing/no physical contact, etc.). However, the behaviour which soon wore me down was the cold, emotionless face which exemplify Koreans.
They don't smile freely, and especially not to strange foreigners. It was almost 4 months before any of my neighbourhood shopkeepers smiled in response to polite greetings. The thing is, after all of that time, it became difficult for me to smile at all. It was oppressive. Sure, you can laugh and smile with the kids you are teaching (when you aren't pulling your hair out or screaming at them to behave) but not smiling on a regular basis will make you depressed.
Koreans distrust and disdain foreigners. I have never felt more like a freakish alien in my life. This was not a situation where my clothing gave me away as a tourist (for the Koreans are wearing 'Western' clothing). No, what makes the ESL teacher stand out is our physical appearance (hair, eye and skin colour but not height).
I have been to countries where I have been stared at intensely (India springs to mind) and while that is fucking annoying, Koreans trump that by both staring and talking about you, the freakish foreigner. If you notice a group of women/girls/men huddled together, pointing in your direction and laughing amongst themselves, rest assured, they are talking about you.
What pissed me off the most about this is the fact that South Korea can't even claim to be an isolated country. The Americans have stationed 37,000 troops in South Korea for almost 50 years. They watch American and European movies and tv shows. They buy American and European books and magazines. They eat American fast food. They hosted the 1988 Olympics for fuck's sake!
Yet they act as though each 'Westerner' is a rare specimen, to be viewed and commented upon from a distance. Again, after 4 months of this type of behaviour, I gave up on trying to be understanding and polite. They simply don't know how to interact with non-Koreans (and I was in Seoul during the 2002 World Cup!).
You, the foreigner, will also be viewed as a complete simpleton compared to the superior Koreans. You will either be seen as over-reacting (which you tend to do but that is because you have been biting your tongue and trying to be culturally sensative for weeks at a time) or just ignorant.
The rule being, nothing ever goes wrong in Korea. You, stupid foreigner, simply do not understand that things are different (and superior) in Korea. Anytime you have a complaint, you will be greeted first by disbelief, then condecending behaviour. For example, I had told my principal that my washing machine hose was broken (it would spray water all over the walls and ceiling). I waited over 3 months for something to be done before I gave up and bought the Korean version of duct tape and fixed it myself.
Additionally, I had arranged for the principal of my school to pay all of my bills (thereby saving me the hassle of trying to pay them at a bank). Whenever I would receive a bill, I would give it to the principal and he would deduct the amount from my monthly pay. Well, one day I noticed that my phone was not working. I told the principal that my phone wasn't receiving a dail tone (and brought the phone to the school to save myself the hassle of drawing a picture of a phone).
He smiled and nodded in the Korean way which means, "Ignorant foreigner, can't you operate a simple telephone?". At the end of the day, he returned the phone and told me that it was okay. However, when I hooked up the phone that night, it still wasn't working. I left a note for him the following day, explaining that I still couldn't use my phone.
I was without the use of my phone for 3 weeks. I finally lost my temper and got another Korean teacher to speak to the principal for me. Four hours later my phone was reconnected. Apparently, the bill hadn't been paid (even though it was his responsiblity to do that). I later learned from other foreign teachers that they had all had their phones disconnected at one point or another (which is why most people eventually get cell phones).
Ultimately, the little everyday annoyances begin to weigh on the even the most saintly soul (which I am certainly not). You get tired of almost being run over by vehicles while walking on the sidewalk (Koreans seem to believe that the sidewalk is an extra car lane). You get fed up with people cutting in front of you in line. You become frustrated when you get lost yet again because the English on the map is completely mangled. You get angry because you are treated as something to be exploited instead of as an employee.
So, having reached the end of my rant (I feel much better thank you, especially after escaping and returning to Canada), if you still decide to head off to Korea, I wish you all the best. However, in parting, remember this:
My experiences do not come close to some of the horror stories I heard from other foreign teachers in Seoul.