Korea by way of English Teachers
English teachers in Korea have been an invaluable liaison to Korean culture for me. Without them, I would not comprehend the concept of ajummas, I doubt I would have made it past the entrance of a jimjilbang and I would certainly have gone hungry more than a few times.
At first glance Korea might seem like any other free, developed country. It glitters with all the perks of a strong economy. It has a million restaurants and coffee shops, high end clothing stores, nice cars, healthcare, education and enough disposable income to make it a leader in receiving plastic surgery.
In order to see beneath its vanity and superficial surface and learn the intricacies of its customs requires time. That process, for me, has been sped up thanks to the help of a few new friends. This is where Couchsurfing with English teachers comes in. Living in their own special world, they are an interesting subculture within.
Originally I started using Couchsurfing to meet locals and save a few bucks on accommodation but with little expectation. It quickly grew to be worth so much more. With the massive language barrier and many behind the scenes traditions, it’s not always easy to see behind the curtain. English teachers, however, hold backstage passes. They have shared with me huge insights into Korean culture. I’ve learned about everything from the social stigmas and pressures people face to the deeply embedded respect they show for others. It’s not just stories told by a third party. I have been introduced to many of their local friends whom I’ve been able to communicate and interact with better from crash courses on social etiquette. When language puts distance between us, it’s the English teacher’s efforts at speaking Korean that bridge the conversations back together.
It all started with Kevin, an ex-English teacher in who happened to be staying in the same hostel during my first few nights in Seoul. Kevin led our pack of hostel dwellers to the food market to sample the local specialties. He knew the drill and helped navigate the choices. Whether or not we noticed it at the time, it gave us room to relax and enjoy. He shared lots of tidbits and eventually asked if I had noticed the ajummas. I had no idea what he was talking about. This is the moment I realized the wealth of knowledge to be tapped. Since then, ajummas have become a bit of a fascination for me. The term loosely translates to “aunt.” They are older, married women. That’s the textbook definition anyway. In reality they are so much more than that. They are a well-known cultural stereotype. To my surprise, I learned the title is often taken on with hesitation. Ajumma is a loaded term with negative connotations and assumptions, but they also hold a reputation for being strong, confident, and not be messed with. To me they seemed awesome. They are the bosses, especially in the markets. They command attention and respect. You can tell in the way they move, their outfits, their hair. They have a certain look and attitude you start to notice. Basically Ajummas are my new spirit animal.
Wanting to get away from Seoul and see more of the country, it was actually Couchsurfing that led me to more interesting, off the beaten path places. Blythe and Cal, my week-long leaders took me to all the best restaurants, cafes, and bars. They had already invested months of investigation leaving me with an impressed view of Korean cuisine and saving me the trouble of many blundered meals. They taught me the customs and etiquette of dining out. They invited me to gatherings with their friends who would become my future hosts and dictate my next move.
Chris hosted me in the small town of Samcheok for many days. He opened up his home which consequently opened up Korea to me. From his home in this town with no other source of accommodation I was able to venture to some unique and unexpected parts of the country, like the Haesindang penis park.
I was lucky to connect with amazing expats that have a passion for travel and embrace the country they are living in. Their enthusiasm to share the lesser known gems of Korea led me on a tour along the seriously beautiful east coast. Highly under traveled (even by Koreans) and different from other parts of Korea. Acting like my own personal band of tour guides, five kind strangers turned friends took shifts passing me around from town to couch and always making sure I was handed off with care. I was always pointed in the right direction for day trips and hikes with them joining me whenever they could.
Though found all over Korea, this is when I was introduced to jimjilbangs, something I don’t know if I would have mustered up the courage to do without Blythe. Jimjilbangs have become one of my favorite cultural staples. I don’t recommend these 24 hour spas for the modest… well, actually, I can’t think of a better place to face that fear. It might be easier to liberate yourself and walk around stark naked with a bunch of woman or men (depending on your gender) in a foreign country.
Jimjilbangs are essentially spas with several pools and rooms at varying temperatures. Spend some time in a super hot sauna, and move into a chilly pool. What makes the jimjilbang experience unique is the unspoken etiquette. Visiting these spas is a long engrained part of Korean culture.
As soon as you enter you pay the fee for the facilities and are handed a stack of fresh, clean, oversized shorts and t-shirt to be worn in the coed areas, towels, and a key to a locker designated to store your shoes. You then proceed to a counter where you trade the key from your shoes locker for another locker key where you store your clothing and belongings. The steps are the same across all jimjilbangs and the procedure is common knowledge, unless of course you are a new, unknowing backpacker, then it’s a bit confusing. I was very glad to have help.
Then you take a deep breath and walk your nervous, happy, naked butt out from behind the safety of the maze of tall lockers, push past the glass doors and into the showers to get washed up.
All in one large, open room, steam escapes from tubs and closed doors. Sound of splashing water and bare feet slapping the floor bounce off the ceramic walls. The showers remind me of backstage dressing rooms for theaters, with bright lights hanging over rows of mirror lined vanities riddled with caddies full of special soaps and lotions. Small, plastic stools are provided to sit on while you use a hand-held shower head. Relaxed, uninhibited woman concentrate to meticulously scrub and exfoliate for great lengths of time. Each pool varies in size, depth, salt, and temperature. Woman shuffle slowly from pool to sauna and again. Some of the shared spaces are big open rooms with heated floors and smaller ones set at different temperatures. Scattered about, folks wearing their matching shorts and t-shirt sets gossip, sleep on thin mats, or just relax, unrushed. It’s a family affair and many visit jimjilbangs as a weekend getaway.
Unlike western spas that are expensive, and often only visited on special occasions, these spas are a no frills place to unwind and spend some tender loving care on oneself. They are 24 hour, fully equipped establishments that even have sleeping rooms and serve food. Many people use jimjilbangs as a cheap and convenient alternative to hotels. So, you could enjoy a whole day pool hopping, grab dinner, get some sleep, and do it all again in the morning for a mere $6-$10.
After an amazing tour of the Northeast, many friends and lessons richer, I returned to Seoul to plot my next move. Not sure of where to go I was more driven by my fascination with expats than specific sights and headed back out to an odd destination. I found myself traveling to the busy city of Gwangju in the Southwest.
What was meant to be two days with Alyssa and Patrick turned into one week of nightly dinners, long, in depth conversations, soju tastings, and korean culture and language lessons. A visit to a Korean baseball game was a surprising highlight.
Baseball in Korea is big. Much bigger than I realized. And I was in the perfect town to catch a game, with the perfect baseball loving hosts. At home baseball games usually equate to friendship, beers, and hot dogs, and are my true motivators for attending. The game itself isn’t really on my radar. So with that same mentality I excitedly agreed to go to a game, most certainly something I would never think to do alone. I am so glad I did! If American games were half the fun they are in Korea, I might actually become a fan of the sport itself.
From the outside, slanted walls specked with cheering fans and bright lights create the same familiar vibrations of stadiums around the world. Anticipation and excitement is felt in the air. While there are hot dogs and popcorn available the Korean baseball food of choice is fried chicken. Yes, please! The smell closes in like four walls on the open sidewalk saturated with vendors selling boxes of the delicious fried meat. We grabbed a couple of those, paired with a beer each and made our way to our seats. This is when it dawned on me that Korea has taken baseball to a whole new level.The game itself is played with the usual rules but they have managed to merge the concept of cheerleaders from American football, taken the taunting, chanting, ruckus crowds armed with noise making blow-up bats from cheering sections associated with what the rest of the world calls football, and adds to it fried chicken. Count me in. I couldn’t understand a word of the cheers but thanks to my teachers and translators I tried to participate, mostly laughing at myself the whole time. Announcers frequently engage the crowd during down time with games of paper, rock, scissors, and kissing cams. I can’t say I’ve ever had more fun at a sporting event in my life.
Before traveling to Korea, I never gave much thought to expat communities in other countries. They come from all over the world to try something different. In Korea they are largely hired to teach English to Koreans and yet somehow they ended up this native English speaker’s teachers as well. Their individual stories are fascinating. Their long term desires, hopes, sometimes money, and love for travel are often what bring them to make the choice to live in Korea. With one year commitments required it’s no easy decision to trade the comforts of home, friends, and family, for a life of unfamiliar food, language, and culture all alone. It takes a certain type of person; the type that is willing to take risks and has a thirst for knowing the world beyond where they come from. They all seem to share a sense of adventure and openness, making them exciting people to talk to and draw inspiration from. I feel forever indebted to the kindnesses and guidance provided. People and connection can make the world feel very small or hugely scary. English teachers in Korea have certainly provided me with the former. They have afforded me a unique experience, and true connection to new Korean friends and culture that only continue to multiply the longer I extend my stay in Korea. I guess I’ll stay a while.