Why do foreigners love to complain so much?
Story by: Steve Lemlek
Photos by: Steve Lemlek
What was the first thing you loved about Korea? Did you immediately become enamored when you hopped off the airplane at Incheon airport? Or was it on the bus ride into town? Or when you were staring out of those limousine bus windows, gawking at the high rise apartments and the small communal gardens that were scattered around their feet?
Maybe your neighborhood did it for you. The exotic signs, sparkling with neon Hangeul characters. Street vendors hustling their steaming mounds of exotic food.
How about the neighborhood halabeoji and halmeoni? When I first arrived, it was a bit of a shock to witness my neighborhood’s elderly population congregate on the sidewalks. They would crack open bottles of makgeolli and bags of small Jeju tangerines as they dried their red peppers in the sun. A seemingly regular, seasonal ritual here in Korea, but one that really struck me. Especially because they took over the entire sidewalk of an otherwise bustling city corner.
That’s what got me hooked. The look. The feel. Old & new together. And the fact that this country offered something wholly different than my home (which was most recently a cowboy metropolis called Wichita in the United States).
That’s what got me hooked. The new look. The feel. Old & new together
The days and weeks that followed were filled with bright eyed wonder. I know that might seem trite to say, but it’s true. I loved meeting all these new people. Each person was filled to the brim with knowledge about their home country that they wanted to share. My co-teacher, Mrs. Moon, was my first friend in this country. She showed me some tips and tricks about our little town.
She introduced me to my first true Korean meal. Only five hours after arriving at Incheon, and 28 hours into my sleepless international journey, she and her husband brought me to a quaint pork restaurant. Assuming I hadn’t eaten a real meal in a very long time (I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I ate a KFC mini-slider immediately after touchdown), they ordered five servings of pork for our small three-person table.
They were generous. More than I was accustomed to in the United States. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Ms. Moon and her husband lived in Seoul, around the Gimpo area. To travel to my new home in Dongducheon was a five hour round trip. They were under no obligation to take care of me. They certainly weren’t paid by Oyu Middle School (our school) for the excursion.
They were generous. More than I was accustomed to in the United States.
No. They were just good folks.
That seems to be the standard in Korea. And that’s why I love it so much. And that’s why I appreciate this opportunity. The culture. The people. The opportunities. And lest I forget… the food. They’re all so amazing.
And I think some of you forget that sometimes.
Somewhere between Incheon airport and whichever day of the week it happens to be when you read this, you’ve forgotten why you love Korea. Whether your traveler’s high has worn off, or you’ve found it easier to focus on the negative aspects of life, you’ve just become jaded. Someone who’s less enamored with this country, and more in love with partying with other foreigners in Seoul. Or maybe you just want your paycheck. Or maybe you just want to be a voyeur, and experience this country at your own convenience, without actually having to immerse yourself with the people and the customs.
Whatever the case may be, I’m just really tired of “Man, my school sucks” or “ This fusion food is terrible” or “I hate when people try to speak to me in English.”
Sure, an occasional conversation about the annoyances of Korea is only natural. You’re a foreigner. You’ll experience some growing pains in a different country, especially one that’s so removed from Western mores.
But complaining can’t consume your life.
When the topic of Korea arises around the dinner table, it shouldn’t be met with a sigh and a tirade.
It should be met with appreciation. I know, in years to come, when you move back home, you’ll look back at your time in Korea as one of the best periods of your life. You won’t realize it now, but this country, this culture, will be the topic of conversation for you for years to come.
“You know, I lived in Korea for 2 years in my 20’s”… you’re gonna say that a lot. Like an annoying travel-abroad student who’s just returned from his summer in Paris, you’ll recount tales of Seoul or Gwangju or Busan to any willing (and unwilling) soul who happens to be in your general vicinity.
It’s going to be an integral part of your life. So remember to appreciate it. Cherish that first time you jumped off the airplane, ran to the bus, and met Ms. Moon in Gimpo. Cherish that car ride north to Dongducheon, two and half hours away. Cherish your first pork belly feast and the time you discovered that there was more than just cabbage kimchi.
And cherish every day after that.
Life’s too short to complain about your co-workers messing up your daily teaching schedule. Or the loud halabeoji shouting into their small red flip phones on Line 4. If your co-workers want to spend time with you at the local bar, and order a round of chicken, go with them. Don’t feel sour because this country, this culture, and this lifestyle doesn’t perfectly align to your desires. Be happy that you’re actually here.
Steve Lemlek is the handsome (and beautifully bearded) half of “Hal & Steve English,” an English education startup trying to change how English is taught in Korea.