Pros and Cons of South Korea

November 26, 2013

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If Japan taught me the importance of packing light – among other things – Korea was also quite the educational experience. I’m back in the US for the holidays and using the time to prepare to return to the ROK. Unlike before, in which I lived in a very small town and had a hard time reaching anything outside of Uljin, I will be staying in Gangneung and enjoying the benefits of the “big city”: E-Mart, Home Plus, and a smattering of expats.

It almost didn’t happen (still might not, if there’s a snag in the visa). I was offered a teaching position a few weeks ago while still in Peru, and knew it was dependent on the biggest hurdle for Americans working in Korea: the FBI background check. If you’re a US citizen considering applying, you need the following:

1. FBI criminal background check. This may be obtained directly through the FBI, which can take months, or, for an additional cost, through an approved channeler who can do it in a few days (my processing time was a day). I chose National Credit Reporting in San Jose. Although they require you to hand over a physical fingerprint card, they’re one of the few channelers who can provide a paper copy of the results of your check.

This is necessary because in additional to waiting for the background check itself, one must then forward that document to the Department of State in Washington DC for Apostille certification. This is what I’m waiting for at the moment. Hopefully, it will only take a few days.

2. Two university transcripts, signed and sealed

3. A copy of your university degree, notarized and Apostilled in the same state (doesn’t have to be the same state as your university). When I applied for my visa in 2010, Korean immigration would only accept original degrees. I guess they came to their senses.

4. Health statement, ensuring you’re physically capable of working abroad.

5. A copy of your passport

6. A copy of your resume

7. A copy of your teaching contract

8. Five passport photos

…and viola! Mail them to Korea, get a visa issuance number, and take that to the local Korean embassy or consulate. As I wait for all of this to come together, I can’t help but think what I left behind in Asia.

Pros:

Healthier lifestyle
Not everything about Korea is healthy. In fact, some foreign residents find the plethora of bakeries like Paris Baguette a little too tempting. However, I would say the local diet is conducive to fitness and healthy. In addition to ginseng, many dishes lack butter and salt, which helps keep fat and cholesterol down.

Familiarity
Coming back will be second nature to me by now. I know to where to shop for food. I know how to navigate the bus system. I know I will be ogled by Koreans and sometimes made to feel like a total outsider. But it’s home, in a way.

Things working
After living in a developing country like Peru, where the taxis and buses run rampant… wait… that’s not much of a difference (in fact, both countries use the same vehicles). For the most part, though, it’s nice having things work. Streets are clean. People are more or less orderly – with some big exceptions when it comes to standing in line. Food, air and water are clean.

Places to run
Again, this is more of a personal issue, but Korea is a running-friendly country. We can sign up for races doing bank transfers, accept a decent amount of prize money for winning. More to the point, there are just more places to run in Korea; trails are built next to rivers and into the countryside.

Hot springs
Ah yes. My Achilles’ heal. Japan has completely ruined my American standard of hygiene. Oncheon in Korea may not be as deeply engrained into the culture, but they are appreciated and used. There’s nothing like coming off a day of work and settling into a hot bath.

Comfort
This is little bit more difficult to explain. As a long-term traveler, I just feel more at ease out of the country. I tend to stay more on top of the news, exercise more, make more friends… overall, just be more aware.

Cons:

Being an outsider
It does get to me at times. Fortunately, I’ll only be in Asia for two months on this stint. Nevertheless, being pointed and laughed at by children, harassed by drunk ajussi, and overall just made to feel like a perpetual tourist or unwanted take its toll.

Creative outlets
Though I do feel more alive abroad, there are often fewer ways to channel those feelings outside of writing and vlogging (for me, anyway). There’s always a chance I can run into like-minded people and form a solid group with shared interests, doing projects, playing hold ’em, talking international politics, but this is a very rare and special thing, to be completely in tune with a large expat community. If I find it again, as I did in Uljin, I’ll cherish it.

Green tea
Laugh if you like, but I just don’t care for Korean green tea. Even their bottled stuff is iffy. If I need something tasty and potent, I usually hop the ferry over to Fukuoka.

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