As my last few weeks are ticking away, I have been reflecting on my three years in Korea. The following are ten things I will miss the most, not in any particular order.
- The food – It’s spicy, it’s cheap, it’s delicious. While I don’t eat much meat or seafood, it is easy for me to be satisfied for a few dollars. The dining experience is topped off with “the button”, an ingenious invention that waves a waiter down with a push of a button at your table. The waiter will come immediately if you need help, but leave you alone otherwise. Service is generally excellent, yet there is no such thing as tips. I also love the culture surrounding food. It is to be shared and enjoyed by all. If a student has a chocolate bar, he will give one to everyone who asks, leaving a tiny bit for himself, but he’s perfectly content. Sharing is just what you do.
- The safety – I’ve never felt safer in my life. Back home, I wouldn’t walk around streets by myself at night, but I don’t think twice about it in Korea. I also lost my wallet twice and got it back both times. While it is easy to relax and let your guard down, the place is not free of crimes, of course. It would be my guess that most of the crimes that happen involve alcohol and involve domestic disputes. Actually, domestic violence is a huge issue, but that is for another topic.
- Transportation – It is easy to get around to almost anywhere you need to go by buses, subways, and trains, although my main method of transportation is by bicycle (not the safest, but I live on the wild side). Not only is transportation good within cities, the intercity network is superb.
- Festivals – Korea Burn, Kimchi Festival, Sea-parting Festival, Bibimbap Festival, Watergun Festival, World Music Festival, Jinju Lantern Festival, Rose Festival, Cherry Blossom Festival, etc., etc. I’ve attended a host these celebrations which sprout throughout the year. I love the upbeat environment of Korean festivals, even though they all seem to look similar after a while. Lots of tents, food, music, nice stages set up, and crowds of people.
- The international community – I wavered whether I should include this or not because most people don’t come to Korea to spend time with other foreigners, but the Gwangju international community is absolutely fantastic. Most expats are English teachers, but they are not teachers by trade, so they pour their hearts into their passions and share it with everyone else. The Gwangju Performance Project is a fabulous organization that puts on plays (and recently, a musical), and holds workshops like juggling and swing dance. There’s always something to do. The international community helps each other out – I remember when a teacher came down with a horrible illness and her school fired her, but fellow teachers raised enough money to cover her medical expenses and flight back home. Not only do we help each other out, we give back to the community. One particular initiative is Adopt-a-Child for Christmas, a program that grows each year. Last Christmas, enough money was raised to bring Christmas gifts to every orphan in Gwangju. All of the expats come from different backgrounds, but we all have one thing in common – we left our home countries to live abroad. Some of the people I’ve met here are friends for life. People always come and go and it’s hard to get too close knowing we will all leave soon, but I know they will thrive and continue seeking adventure wherever the world brings them.
Watch this video my friend, Chad, put together from the Gwangju International Community Day!
- Cold drinking water – Seriously, this is magical. There are free filtered water machines seemingly everywhere so I can refill my water bottle with refreshing cold water at the phone shop, bus terminal, hair salon – everywhere. I do not look forward to having to purchase bottled water in India, but our health relies on it.
- Things fit me – I can get makeup, clothes, and shoes that fit my body and skintone with no issues. Too bad I stopped caring about these things and haven’t shopped in over a year (only swapped!), but I like having the option of going to get a cute dress quickly and not have to try it on. I also like getting my hair cut and straightened here. People know how to deal with my hair, even though I have to emphasize that I do not want straight-across bangs. Oh, and my haircuts are 4,000 won (less than $4).
- The Outdoors – Even though I live in a big city, there are plenty of ways to escape into nature. One can laze on the grass at a nearby park, take a stroll through the pedestrian-only greenway belt, take a hike up one of the many mountains, ride bikes traversing rice fields, kayak, paraglide, hammock under a tree next to the beach, etc. Korea boasts a variety of landscapes that are often overlooked by initial travelers who flock to Seoul and Busan.That being said, some mountains are overrun with geared-up hikers, so it’s best to avoid the main routes.
- Bangs – No, not 앞머리 (literally, front hair) or “fringe”, but 방, which means room. There are a variety of specialized rooms designed for people to read comics, “watch” movies, and play computer games, but the rooms I will miss are noraebangs (노래방) and jjimjilbangs (찜질방). Noraebangs are singing rooms, so a handful of alcohol-drenched friends can rent out for a few bucks an hour to belt out your favorite hits (my personal favorite noraebang song). The next day, release those toxins by steaming out your pores in the public sauna and take a nap. I will really miss the luxury of public baths and a cheap place to sleep last minutely.
- Affordable healthcare -As a public school teacher, I am covered by the national insurance. Even without it, healthcare is relatively cheap and excellent compared to the US. Fortunately, I haven’t had major complications sending me to hospitals, but I have gotten dental work, vaccinations, check-ups, gyno visits, and even LASIK during my time here at a fraction of what it would cost back home. Not only does Korea take good care of its citizens, they take good care of us foreigners as well!
Phew! I’ll miss you, Korea. It wasn’t always easy, but you were too good for me.
I’m considering writing a list of 10 things I WON’T miss, but I try to keep things positive around here. The reality is, though, there are many things I am glad to escape from…