Let me just preface this post by saying something. Although I left, I still love Seoul. Previously, I wrote a post about things I will miss about living in Korea. Seoul was a city that was exactly what I needed at a time. Filled with glamour, neon lights, and endless parties, Seoul is the kind of place that one can really escape.
The thing is, I don’t need to escape anymore. When I first moved to Seoul, I moved there with my boyfriend of two years. We ended up breaking up and he moved back to the States. At that time, I needed to party, dance, and feel alive in a city that never sleeps.
After finishing my year contract in Seoul, I backpacked through India. India was a huge wake up call for me about the things that I was placing value on. After seeing a sweatshop in Delhi, the fast fashion of Seoul lost its appeal. After seeing people live so happily with so little, I began questioning the things that I was aspiring towards. I became aware of how much value I was placing on looks, material items, and social media. I also become aware of how living in Korea was bringing out aspects of my personality I was working on changing.
Nevertheless, I went home and still planned to return to teach in Seoul. The money was a huge draw for me, as well as the lifestyle. I had a few moments where I questioned my decision. Most of these epiphanies while smoking a joint with a face mask on, contemplating the true meaning of happiness and the like. However, in the end I decided the money was more important and found myself on a plane back to Korea.
It wasn’t the same.
Seoul had lost its luster for me. I realize that wasn’t a change in the city itself, but rather my own perception of the world. Things that didn’t get to me before now became points of irritation I just couldn’t get past. I also couldn’t shake the idea of Southeast Asia and the freedom that I felt there. I missed riding my motorbike and waking up in the morning to the smells of incense and the sounds of birds chirping. In my heart, I knew that Seoul wasn’t the place for me anymore, and so I decided to leave.
Yes, I pulled a midnight runner for a plethora of reasons, most of them being that the contract would have made me lose thousands of dollars and my boss was untrustworthy, and would have found every possible way to screw me. Am I proud of the way I left? No. Do I regret my decision? Hell to the no. In the future, I will write a post about my midnight run and the reasons I think that teachers shouldn’t work in Korea unless they have a personal reference that can recommend a hagwon. The E2 visa is a huge risk, and people shouldn’t feel trapped in a job that they hate.
There are a couple of reasons that cemented by decision, and these are the main ones.
Seoul has many great characteristics, but it is a very materialistic place. There isn’t much room for individualism, and huge emphasis is put on looks and fashion. While maybe this wouldn’t bother some people, I have a very materialistic side that I am working on changing. I don’t want to be a person that places value on things. For me, Seoul had a very negative effect on that aspect of my personality.
Korea’s Vain and Conformist Culture
Korea is internationally known as one of the plastic surgery capitals in the world, and it shows. An estimated one-fifth of men and one-third of women have undergone the knife. It really hit home for me when I was out shopping and saw three women, covered in bandages out shopping. They had all gotten similar surgeries, their faces were swollen and bleeding, and yet they were out shopping. Everywhere you go in Korea there are mirrors, plastic surgery billboards, and advertisements. It’s hard to begin to describe how damaging that this epidemic has been for young peoples’ self esteem in Korea.
You’ll notice there is no such thing as just ‘throwing on a sweater to run to the grocery store.’ Korean women don’t leave the house without looking perfect, and that kind of effort was just getting exhausting. At first, I found the clothes to be fashionable and lovely, but as I lived in Seoul for a longer period of time, I realized it all looked the same. The people there were all very fashionable, but there was not sense of uniqueness or creativity in their style. This mentality of conforming to others ideals and opinions is a huge facet of Korean culture. I’m sure some young people are branching out from that ideal, but it is certainly not the norm.
The Educational System
My first time in Seoul, I worked at a hagwon that was strict, but that still had art classes, music classes, and playtime. My new hagwon job was a dreary place, and I found myself questioning whether I was harming my kindergarten students by forcing them to do workbook page after workbook page. The pressure placed on these little five year old students was heartbreaking, and I didn’t want to perpetuate that cycle any longer. Knowing that I was perpetuating this sort of culture for the sake of a larger paycheck was very upsetting to me.
Korea’s Stress Culture
Koreans are a high strung bunch. Starting from a young age, Koreans are forced into attending school, going to after school english academies, and coming home and studying. There doesn’t seem to be any time for fun, play, or relaxation. Once they grow up, the adults are expected to work long, grueling hours , unable to escape the stress and anxiety that has been placed on them their whole lives. It’s all very strange though, as Korea has one of the lowest productivity rates in the world.
The Political Climate
Things with North Korea never really frightened me before, but with Trump as president things became a little too politically tense. Every day, I would wake up to a new terrifying news headline. Even if something never escalates to an all-out war, I decided that I did not want to live in a place where that was an everyday threat.
Although being a vegetarian in Korea wasn’t always challenging (in Seoul especially), it can also be very hard. There are other options available in Seoul, but I was starting to get really sick of kimchi and white rice. One of the most negative aspects of my job was that we had to serve and eat lunch with the students every day. I had specifically asked about this during my interview, and they had said we didn’t have to. When I arrived, I found myself eating what the kids were eating, which became very difficult as a vegetarian.
The Drinking Culture
The drinking culture in Korea is huge. Most bars close at 5am, and alcohol is cheap. Not to mention, as a foreign woman, I wasn’t buying too many of my own drinks as it was. I had a lot of fun going out my first year. However, when I returned, the nightlife had lost its appeal for me. As I have trouble with moderation, I needed to be in a place where people were more focused on wellness.
Finally, I made the decision to move back to Southeast Asia. It wasn’t an easy choice, and it took a lot of contemplation, but I believe it was the right one. Something I have learned in my mid 20s is that I no longer want to entertain the things that aren’t serving me. Life is short, and you don’t know when it will end. Why spend it doing something or living somewhere that you know is not serving your purpose? Although I will miss some of my friends and some aspects of Seoul immensely, I know it was the right decision for me to make.
Here’s to new beginnings.