How to survive the ‘Ireland of Asia’
With the job market in Ireland as dead as Louthâ€™s Sam Maguire hopes, many Irish graduates are swapping the doom and gloom of home for a year of teaching English in South Korea.
By Rodney Farry
Despite boasting one of the largest economies in the world, the country Â doesnâ€™t really register on Irish peopleâ€™s radar. Most of us know little or nothing about it except that there was a war there in the 50s and that the locals are not averse to a bit of dog meat.
Often described as the â€œIreland of Asiaâ€ due to its North/South divide and its peopleâ€™s fondness forÂ the hard stuff, South Korea certainly has plenty to offer anyone eager to sample life in a new culture.
As someone who lived in the country for the best part of five years, I feel reasonably well qualified to give a few pointers on how to make the most out of your time in the â€œLand of the Morning Calmâ€.
Doing the dog on it
Contrary to some reports, dog eating is not that common in modern day Korea. Like most countries where our four legged friends have been on the dinner menu,Â dog meat was a staple when people couldnâ€™t afford or find anything better to eat. In the last three decades, as the country has become one of the wealthiest and most developed in Asia, dog meatâ€™s popularity has been on the decline.WhileÂ many elderly Koreanâ€™s still believe that a portion of pooch is good for a manâ€™s virility, most young people claim to be disgusted by the practice.
This writer only sampled dog meat once when it was dished out in a spicy soup called boshintang, and while the act of eating dog meat didnâ€™t overly perturb me, meat is meat, it just wasnâ€™t to my taste. A little too tough and stringy.
Ironicallly, the thing that a lot of foreigners miss Â most about South Korea when they leave is its cuisine. The most popular form of eating out, with locals and visitors alike , is the Korean barbecue. Currently being exported around the world with some success , the best thing about these restaurants, apart from the food, is that diners cook their own meat on a barbecue in the centre of their table.
While some of the array of side dishes, such as the national dish kimchi (fermented cabbage and other vegetables combined with some serious spices), Â that are served Â often take Western palates Â time to appreciate. Barbecue standards such as bulgogi (barbecued meat) and kalbi (marinated short ribs) are instant favourites with most visitors.
Itâ€™s also worth noting that unless you are going to a Western restaurant or a fast food joint, eating out will require the use of chopsticks. Like in many Asian countries, dining is a truly communal experience with everyone at the table sharing , so unless you want to draw attention to your newbieness, itâ€™s not a bad idea to master using them before you go over.
Beware the local fire water
South Korea is known, not unjustifiably it has to be said, as a nation of heavy drinkers ,and if you have any inkling that you may have an alcohol problem then this may not be the country for you.
Drink is very cheap (500ml of local beer costs a little over a euro). Pubs (hofs in Korean) stay open very late , and Â alcohol can be bought at corner stores at any time of the day or night. Some of the best nights out I had in Korea ended with a nightcap or three sitting outside our local Seven-Eleven watching the sunrise. Of course, with night-time temperatures in winter regularly hitting -20, drinking outside the Seven Elev en is a seasonal pursuit.
One drink that I generally stayed clear of, unless I was out with Korean friends, and then out of pure politeness, was the local fire water, soju. Often described as Korean saki, this rice wine is highly potent stuff. Similiar to the studentsâ€™ favourite Buckfast in that its stated alcohol volume (15%) appears to have little or no direct relationship to how incredibly smashed you get, soju is something that should be respected when drank. Beware.
One glaring difference between the drinking habits of the Koreans and ourselves it that, while extreme drunkness is Â not an umcommon sight -in my first week in the country I saw a very well dressed Â though absolutely shitfacedÂ businessman Â perched in a tree on a busy Seoul street- I never saw Â the sort of public disorder problems that occur in Irish towns and cities every weekend. Â In fact, Seoul is the safest city I have ever spent time in. Most of my mates, including myself, at some stage during our stay fell asleep Â on its vast subway network after a late night/early morning. Not one of us was ever robbed or violated in anyway. How many other cities of ten million plus people could you say that about?
Stay off the grass
There is one main reason for the lack of petty crime in the country- it is virtually drug free. The Koreans have a liberal attitude when it comes Â to the consumption of booze, but the same definitely canâ€™t be said for narcotics of the illegal variety.
This comes as a surprise to many Westerners who arrive and expect drugs to be as readily available as they are in other Asian countries like Thailand and Cambodia. Weed and other drugs can be purchased, I am reliably informed, if you do a bit of searching, but for most foreigners even those that enjoy a toke back home, Â itâ€™s not worth it.
If youâ€™re caught in possession or drugs are even detected in your system, then you are going to spend a minimum three months minimum in a local prison.
Cautionary tale alert
An American who worked in a school close to me suffered the indignity of being busted while in the middle of teaching a class of kids. Apparently, police were alerted to her illicit pastime when her number was found in the phone of a dealer who had been caught.
Although she didnâ€™t have any weed in her possession or in her apartment, a drugs test on the spot came back positive. She was imprisoned for three months before being deported back home. Talk about a bad buzz.
Get outta town
Most English teachersÂ live and work in the biggest cities and rarely, if ever, visit the countryside. While Seoul and the other cities have a lot to offer, a few nights in the countryside gives you a glimpse of what life was like before the urban areas were transformed into the high tech hubs that they are today.
One Â weekend away that I would strongly recommend is a trip to the village of Haeinsa in the south east of the country. Haeinsa is home to the Buddhist temple that houses the Tripitaka Koreana, one of the oldest and most sacred buddhist texts in the country.
While the wood carvings on which the texts are inscribed are worth seeing if you are into that sort of thing, the real attractions are the temple complexÂ and the village itself, which is nestled high in the Gaya Mountains. We travelled there in May, just in time for Buddhaâ€™s birthday when the entire temple complex, which was originally built in the 8th century, was decorated in thousands of paper laterns that were lit just as the sun wasÂ going down. It felt as if we had walked into the set of a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon film.
The Boryeong Mud Festival which takes place every July is, for most foreign visitors, about beer, mud fights and scantily clad girls covered in mud. Great fun.
The rather bizarelly named Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separtates South and North Korea. Despite its name the 160 miles long, 2.5 miles wide strip of land is the most fortified Â border area in the world and is populated by an estimated two million soldiers. One of the last true Cold War interfaces, the DMZ is well worth a visit even if youâ€™re not a history buff, just be ready for plenty of American/South Korean propaganda. Make sure to get a â€œone foot in North Korea/ one foot in South Koreaâ€ picture when you are in the room where the Korean War Armistice was signed.
Seoraksan National Park, although it should be avoided at peak season due to the ridiculously large crowds, is Koreaâ€™s largest national park and is worth the journey just for the large cable car with the transparent floor. Very James Bond.
South Korean Dos
Learn a bit of the language.
Even if youâ€™re only planning on staying for a year, learning a few basic phrases will help you get to grips with your new surroundings much quicker. It is also a great way to endear yourself to locals.
Play some GAA.
Although formed as recently as 2002, Seoul Gaels is one of the true heavyweights of Asian GAA with a number of Asian titles, both male and female, to its name. Itâ€™s a great way of meeting people and finding work as well as drinking contacts.
Go to watch South Korea play.
Fiercely nationalistic, one of the best places to experience positive Korean patriotism is at a football international. Large sections of the predominantly young crowd do not stop going mental throughout the whole game. When Korea scores, which happens quite often as it is one of the best teams in the region, get your ear plugs ready.
Get yourself a black belt.
Unleash your inner Bruce Lee and take up Taekwondo, a Korean martial art and the countryâ€™s national sport. In many cities there are special classes for foreigners and it is possible Â to get a black belt in a year.
South Korean Donâ€™ts
Pretend to be Japanese.
To say that the average Korean Â has not let bygones be bygones when it comes to their former colonial masters would be an understatement of epic proportions.
During my last year working there, while Korea and Japan were involved in some diplomatic squabble over Dokdo (an islet/rock in the East Sea that both countries claim as is their own), I jokingly told a class of mine that I was half Japanese.
Being the most Irish looking man in the world (red hair, pale skin), I thought nothing of it until a few days later when one of my superiors questioned me about the incident. Apparently the school had received a number of phonecalls from concerned parents. Needless to say that was the first, and last time, I claimed Japanese parentage.
Make out in public.
The Koreans, by and large, are a reserved bunch and like many of their Asian cousins, public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex are frowned upon. Many an amorous western couple has been told off by locals for getting a little frisky while out and about.
Leave your shoes on when you enter a home.
Always, always remove your shoes when you enter a Korean home. However, when visiting always make sure that you are wearing socks, as bare feet are considered disrespectful.
Leave your chopsticks sticking out of the rice bowl.
This is a major cultural faux-pax, as this is funereal ritual. Pointing with chopsticks wonâ€™t win you any mates either.