Skip to content

5 Things I Learned Living In South Korea

As a child I remember sitting on the front porch daydreaming about the possibility of a life beyond the city limits or the cornfields of Omaha, Nebraska. I imagined flying on a magic carpet visiting far away countries and enjoying different people and cultures, but never in a million years did I expect to actually live in another country.


In 2009, I had the pleasure and honor of moving to South Korea as an English teacher. Since then my life has never been the same. While there, I met some wonderful people, had an opportunity to get to know myself, developed resilience, and reevaluate life in its entirety. I would hope that I am better person now. Traveling gives you the chance to learn about other people, cultures, but more importantly it helps you know yourself better. However, living in another country will completely change your perspective on many things. It has been my greatest learning experience to date. Here are 5 things that I learned while living in South Korea.

1.    Be Fluid
Nothing in life is constant. Prior to moving to Korea, I understood that life was constantly evolving, but moving to a foreign country taught me the importance of remaining open and being fluid. Fluidity prepared me when things outside of my control that changed without notice such as when my employer implementing schedule changes or informing us of mandatory events the day of with little to no regard for our pre-planned after work agendas. Learning to be fluid helped me to adapt a go with the flow attitude, which proved to be essential to my survival in an ever changing environment. It was difficult at first because I wanted to view things as I had in my home country, but I learned very quickly what the phrase when in Rome really means.
2.    To Be Thankful for Creativity
Being an American is a blessing. Although we have more than an enough issues, there are still many great things about being American I truly appreciate. After living a homogenous society like Korea, I have a new appreciation for individuality and creativity. Koreans are very creative people, but teaching in Korea was often challenging because many Koreans have been taught to memorize everything. It often proved to be difficult to get my students to think outside the box and use their imagination to come up with something creative. When I arrived, I first noticed how ingrained memorization was when I went to change my order at a restaurant. If I wanted to remove or add an ingredient to my order it was met with resistance because that was not how the person was instructed to make the item. Again, Koreas are very creative, but in general, they have been taught to systematically approach things, which revealed challenging when I wanted to get something done a different way. Especially if I knew there were alternative ways things could be done easier than what may have been presented. Now, I appreciate seeing how creative people work  and how options give way to variety and choices.
3.    I am American
Yes, I knew this before moving to Korea, but I never self-identified as being American until I moved to Korea. I was a Black Woman. Unless there was a reason to mark a form with my nationality, I solely identified as being a black person or an African American. I didn’t actively think about being American at all. In most cases, America has a funny way of constantly dividing us by race, economics, or gender. Therefore, I never felt very American. I fully identified as being African American and my reality consisted of all things black unless I was at work or school. It wasn’t until I lived in Korea that I could identify, accept, and understand what it meant to be American and identify as an American. Now, I even questioned being called African American. I totally understand that my origins come from Africa, but when you say African American it really refers to someone migrating from Africa, which doesn’t not describe me at all. I was born and raised as an American meaning I’m American with ancestors from Africa. Let’s just say I’m still working on this one.
4.       Human Kindness is Essential
When I moved to Korea, I was shocked at how much Koreans and black people had in common. I use to laugh because some of the things Koreans did reminded me of someone I knew back home. From eating pig feet, to their hustle, to the little old woman or Ajumma sitting on the steps watching everything go down, but hasn’t seen a thing. It’s often comical to know how propaganda sells us the vision that people are vastly different, when in fact, we all are human. We all want what is best for ourselves and for our families. We all want to smile, have someone acknowledge us, and to know what it means to love. I will never forget a ride I took one New Year’s Eve. I was trying to get to Seoul and there were no seats on the bus.  An Ajumma (older lady) made the girl she was sitting with move over and make room for me so I could sit with them for the duration of our two-hour ride to Seoul. I was so thankful when we arrived in Seoul that I tried to offer her money. She wouldn’t accept it. She reached over and took my hand and point to her heart and then back to my heart as to say, “From my heart to yours.” That brought to tears then and still brings me to tears now.
5.    Language is Optional
People often ask me how one lives in a country for over three years and never learns to speak the language fluently. Well, honestly I went with the intention to learn and I did make an attempt, but once I got there and my purpose was teaching English the plan changed. I went to Korea wanting to learn and I had a plan to do so, but it actually became harder trying to learn than not with so many people wanting to practice their English. However, I am not advocating moving to a country and negating to learning the language. My point is that you don’t have to learn a language to communicate, communication is deeper than speaking. So, during the time I lived in Korea, I learned what it was to have deep relationships with people even if we never spoke the same language, and I will tell you, I truly understand what Koreans are saying even if I couldn’t reply in Korean. There is something about acknowledging and respecting each other that moves things beyond spoken words. I truly learned how to function without speaking and I’m much better at communicating my needs, wants, and desires without never uttering a word.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *