5 Things I've Learned in Korea

As of yesterday, I’ve been living and working in Korea for six months. The wife and I arrived on a cold January night, given the keys to our little apartment, and started teaching the next day. Since then we’ve developed a tenuous grip on life here, crazy as it is. I’ve become more adept with chopsticks and less disdainful of karaoke. Seriously, though, here are five useful things I’ve learned since I left my hometown and moved to the other side of the world.

1. If You Don’t Know What You’re Doing, Fake It Until You do.
It’s tough to overstate the importance of this. Sometimes, we have to do things we don’t think we know how to do. Whether you’re changing lightbulbs, becoming an entrepreneur, or getting elected president, no amount of preparation beats actually doing something until you figure it out how to do it. Mistakes are excellent teachers.

Think of Frank Abagnale.  With a combination of confidence and costume, he could convince people he was a pilot, doctor, and attorney. Of course, I am not encouraging fraud, but Abagnale is an example of how you can pull something off if you can simultaneously convince others and yourself that you can.

On the other hand, consider people you know who constantly say ‘oh, my life is so bad’ when really it’s not that much different from others’ lives. What if, instead, they said, ‘my life isn’t awesome, but it could be worse’ ?

I wasn’t a teacher until I said I was a teacher. I didn’t immediately become a teacher, it took a couple days (joke), but now I feel like a teacher. At the very least, my students call me teacher.

Ready, fire, aim. Chance favors the prepared, but preparation without action is just a mental exercise.

2. Hard Work is Underrated
Korea is a hard-working country. Everyone, from students to salarymen, seems  to work twelve hours a day. Even the old ladies  at subway stations spend most of their days selling lettuce and arm socks. As an American, the thought of so much work makes little alarm bells go off in my head; a huge part of our culture worships the overnight success, the silver bullet, the promises of riches on  late-night infomercials.

However, looking back at Korea’s rapid growth, the way standards of living and income have improved for almost everyone, I can’t help but acknowledge the effectiveness of good old-fashioned hard work.

Further, while many people level criticisms towards the Korean education system (no time to play, rote learning), I must admit these kids are very well educated. From what I understand, when Koreans go abroad to study, they tend to leave American students in their dust….using their second language.

For me, I’ve found I don’t need to put in twelve hours a day to achieve my goals. Instead, I looked at what my students are doing: a little bit of something every day. The material stays fresh and it’s easier to build on what is learned. In other words, rather than try and complete a project in a few herculean bursts, do a little bit, but do it (almost) everyday.

Whether learning a second language, writing a novel, or building a house, avoiding hard work is impossible.

At the same time, efficiency becomes more important than ever. Why spend ten hours on a task you can do in four? Do some research, take action, but look for ways to do it better, faster, cheaper.

3. Sometimes the Chicken Isn’t Really Chicken
Just because the picture you pointed to looked like a delicious plate of General Tso’s Chicken doesn’t mean you won’t get a plate of spicy fried chicken fat. Looks can be deceiving, especially if you hold up past experiences as a frame of reference. In order to avoid disappointment, acknowledge that expectations are based on past experience. Just because something worked at one time in one place doesn’t mean it will work everywhere all the time.

I was going to riff on the barbershops, but I’ll leave that alone.

4. No Need to Constantly Apologize
With so many people packed in so close together, getting to bumped around is a fact of life. On the street, in a hallway, on the subway, you get jostled, pushed, all that, and no one apologizes unless they knock you down (a flight of stairs). As far as I know, the closest word to ‘sorry’ is shillyhamnida, translating roughly as ‘forgive me for that stupid thing I did.’ At first I didn’t know this word, and I’m glad I didn’t; it’s usually reserved for situations where an actual apology is necessary.

I realized that, at home, I would apologize too much: I’m sorry, oh sorry, sorry this, sorry that. Sorry is such a benign, common word,  but consider the definition: a feeling of sorrow, regret, or even something inspiring pity, scorn or ridicule. To constantly say “I’m sorry,” what are we telling other people and ourselves? I am pitiful? I am worthy of scorn? Bullshit. Some words need to be reined in. Sorry is one of them. ‘Like’ is another, as in, ‘I’m, like, totally sorry.’

Going further, sorry is nothing but a habitual phatic, basically useless. If people get offended, they’ll get over it.

For me, I’m not sorry about a damn thing, and that feels pretty good.

I’ll save the apologies for the times when I really screw up.

5. If A Bottle of Liquor Costs Less than $2USD, It Will Probably Give You a Dirty Hangover.
Enough said.


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  • Anon April 7, 2012, 5:15 pm

    Actually, number 5 can probably be applied to most non-western locales in the world, and not just Ko-Ree-Uh. Just my own observation!