A travel writer and artist, Sarah Shaw is currently enjoying her last remaining months as an expat in South Korea. She’s originally from Maine, but throughout the past six years has lived on four different continents, and spends her days getting lost, petting stray cats and embarrassing herself in foreign languages.
I‘m sure you’ve never heard this before: where are you from?
I’m from a small town in southern Maine outside of Portland. If you’re not from Maine, you’ve probably never heard of it. Many people I’ve encountered throughout the world have never heard of Maine, so I often (am forced) to say I’m from Boston. It’s better than saying Canada.
And what did you do there, then?
After I graduated from high school, I studied Spanish in Peru for a couple months, and then I moved to Brooklyn, NY for college. Ever since, I’ve been living away from Maine, but I love going back for short visits. The summer is especially nice.
How did you end up in Seoul?
When I was a junior in college, I wanted to study abroad in a country that’s drastically different from the United States. My school offered a few options in Europe, Japan and Korea, so I ended up studying fine arts for 6 months at The Korea National University of Arts in Seoul. I had such an intense cultural experience, and I met lots of friends, so I decided to return to Korea to teach English after graduation.
Have you lived abroad before?
Yes, after I graduated from high school, I saved money from waiting tables and scooping ice cream to live with a host family and study Spanish in Cusco, Peru for two months. I also lived in Rotterdam, the Netherlands in 2010 for a couple months with my boyfriend at the time.
So what’s so good about Seoul?
The city is so easy to navigate and the transportation systems are fantastic! The subway is incredibly clean and it snakes into all of the surrounding cities outside of Seoul in Gyeonggi Province. The buses and trains are also excellent. Additionally, Korean food is delicious, and there are restaurants everywhere. Lots of shops are open 24 hours a day. There’s always something going on—whether you’re into live music, night clubs, bar hopping, hiking, dancing, yoga, language meet-up groups, biking, etc. You can never be bored in Seoul.
And what don’t you like?
I can’t complain about much, but one thing that bothers me is how (non-Asian) Westerners are given special privileges, but at the same time, not always welcomed into Korean circles. I’ve lived in Korea for two and half years, but Koreans don’t expect me to speak Korean at all. Whenever I say a basic phrase in Korean, many Koreans will compliment me like it’s an amazing accomplishment, and then the conversation will often stop. I know they’re not trying to offend me, but this has really hindered my ability to speak Korean, even though I’ve taken classes and I’m currently studying full-time. I feel bad asking co-workers or friends for help after having lived here so long, but when I need to solve a problem—like discussing a bill with my landlord over the phone—it can be really difficult.
Also, making Korean friends can be really difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether someone genuinely wants to be my friend or if they just want to practice speaking English.
Do you feel like an insider or outsider?
Even though I’ve lived in Korea for 2 ½ years, I don’t feel like an insider, but I don’t necessarily feel like an outsider either. It’s difficult for foreigners to become “insiders” in Korea, no matter how long one lives here. Even though I’m currently studying Korean and I make an effort to learn about Korean culture, it’s hard to become genuine friends with Koreans beyond the “foreign friend” status.
How do you support yourself?
I taught English for two years in a public school in Seoul. The program paid for my flight, apartment, health insurance, and I got a reasonable salary each month—enough to travel frequently during my vacations and save a lot as well. Teaching in Korea is a great way to make a decent salary, enjoy your life, and have savings leftover. I would recommend teaching in a public school for the stability and Korean cultural experience, but after-school programs and hagwons (private schools) often pay better.
Any advice for wannabe Seoulites?
Have an open mind, and read up on Korean culture, learn Hangul (the Korean writing system) and learn how to say some basic phrases before you arrive. Learning Korean will make your life so much easier (i.e. being able to read a menu and not accidentally ordering pig feet or live octopus—unless you want to try it), and Hangul is surprisingly so simple. Try to branch out by meeting Koreans instead of just hanging out with foreigners all the time, and travel around the country to learn more about Korean culture beyond the modernity of Seoul. Couchsurfing, Meet-up groups and travel groups like Adventure Korea (www.adventurekorea.com) are all great ways to meet new people, have fun, and experience Korean culture. But be careful of how much soju (Korean alcohol) you drink—it seems weak at first, but it will hit you at some point in the night and leave you with a massive hangover in the morning.
Is the move permanent?
No. I finished my teaching contract last month, and now I’m studying Korean full-time. However, in August I’ll be moving to Colombia to serve in the American Peace Corps!
Finally, tell us about something typically Seoul (or Korea)
1. Don’t be surprised to see drunk business men in suits stumbling along the streets, passed out, or hugging their co-workers any night of the week. (Refer to http://blackoutkorea.blogspot.kr/ for photo evidence.)
2. The younger generation is generally obsessed with K-pop and the Korean wave. It’s not uncommon to see college-aged guys wearing BB cream (a type of tinted lotion/foundation), tight jeans and perfectly styled (often dyed or permed) hair. I’ve seen many couples where the guy is prettier than his girlfriend. On the other hand, there are lots of hot guys who don’t wear make-up. And don’t assume that Koreans are short—they’re not.
3. Many restaurants have buzzers on the tables, where you press the button to get the waiter’s attention. It’s a brilliant solution, and one that I think the United States should adopt. I’ve always hated how servers in the US are forced to pester their customers to see if they need anything.
4. Koreans use floor heating, called ondol. In the winter, it makes you want to curl up on the floor like a cat and never leave your apartment.