Back in July of 2021, I was going through one of the most trying points I’d experienced in my then 24 years of living and decided I needed a trip to clear the air that had been suffocating me for years. I had decided to take my first trip abroad to Seoul, South Korea. I had never been on a plane longer than 6 hours, let alone out of the United States. As I am sitting here now twenty-five years old and almost a whole year later I can say I have no regrets. By October of that same year I had a new boyfriend, a place to stay, and all of my ducks in a row. As of now, I have spent two months shy of a year in South Korea. And so far I believe I have a pretty good grasp of what it means, personally, to live as a foreigner in Korea.
Firstly I need you to know I have struggled as a foreigner, but I want to take a moment to say I recognize the privilege I have had living this experience the way I have in Korea. Sometimes this shit is hard. I know very little Korean and being in this extremely homogeneous country with little to no Korean skills can be a problem. Even though Koreans are taught English in school from a very young age, it can be hard to get someone to truly grasp what you’re saying.
It’s relatively easy to get by with some ‘Konglish’ (a mix of English and Korean) but honestly, don’t be like me. Learn sooner! I have been fortunate enough to have my fiancé around to help navigate, order, and shop with me. He is a native Korean but speaks English at a native level. Truly, sometimes I feel like a child; unable to speak and convey to the people around me. The language barrier, in my opinion, is the hardest part. I want to be able to go out and shop for things or befriend Korean women but at this point in my journey, it is difficult. And it’s not just going out and shopping or ordering food any more. This past May I had the opportunity to meet my fiancé’s family for Parents’ Day. Parents’ Day in Korea is comparable to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in America but for both parents and grandparents. I got to meet his father, sister, uncles, and grandmother. And I could only speak to his sister, who also speaks English. Not being able to tell his grandmother how great her cooking was sucked, to say the least. All could do was bow and say thank you. 할머니 감사합니다! (That means thank you, grandma!)
So dear reader, this is my vow to get better at reading, writing, and speaking Korean! Not that you can keep me in check, but a superficial promise is always fun right?
Now we can move on to everyone’s favorite and probably my most asked question. How is the food? My answer is always: amazing! There are very few times where I haven’t enjoyed a dish here. The biggest change is the lack of salt. Koreans do not salt their food the way we do in America. Salt isn’t a seasoning, people! Personally, I have felt the effects of my body yearning for salt. My veins used to scream for high blood pressure! And the only way I have found to relieve this is McDonald’s. Even the McDonald’s here is different – better, but different. There are so many things on the menu that we don’t have in America. However, I have always loved Asian food. So, thankfully, I don’t always go running to McDonald’s. Whether it was Chinese food, Filipino, Japanese, etc, I was eating it. I had already tried a few simple Korean dishes before I made my move here so I had no trouble trying things or adjusting. Except for mushrooms! Mushrooms are in everything here and I despise them. Alas, I have adapted as best as I can and I just make my fiancé eat them all!
To add to the short list of things I had to adjust to here diet-wise, let’s talk about spiciness. I thought I had a good grasp of spicy food before. Not. I love spicy food, don’t get me wrong, but many things are spicy here. Just trying to eat normal chicken wings? Spicy. Random dumplings you ordered one night because you were craving them? Good job, now you feel like you have a lava baby in your stomach. Not everything here is spicy, but it is something you have to think about beforehand. Especially when it comes to some traditional dishes. If we’re talking personal favorites though, I’ll have to go with 잡채. Translated to Japchae in English, Japchae is stir-fried glass noodles and vegetables. Also often used in dumplings which is my absolute favorite. Korean food is slightly more favorable to me compared to American food; however, I don’t have to miss out on too much because Seoul still has things like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Subway. I am only sad about the lack of Wendy’s… but I digress. I miss things like Cracker Barrel the most. Being from Southern Illinois, I just can’t seem to find a good biscuit! A “biscuit” here is not the same thing.
On the brighter side of it though, my body feels so much more healthy and clean since coming here. A lot of the ethnic food here is generally very healthy for you and personally has cleaned out my gut. Kimchi especially has a lot of benefits on my stomach! As someone sensitive to everything, the food here is heaven! Now that I’ve got some of the lighthearted stuff out of the way, I’ll go ahead and drop some heavy stuff on you. Fact: Unless you are a Native Korean, and even sometimes that’s a stretch, you will never fit into Korean society. There will always be an aspect of you that doesn’t fit in. And you will know it. Even if I was a fluent Korean speaker, I will always stick out like a sore thumb. The current population of foreigners in Korea is slightly above 3%. That is 1.7 million compared to the total population of South Korea which is about 50 million. (Thanks to en.yna.co.kr for the stats.) This is extremely noticeable largely by the number of people who stare at me while I am out and about, especially while I am on public transportation like the subway and bus. People will also take pictures, believe it or not – which, by the way, is highly illegal here without consent. On the bright side, you can almost always tell when they do because in Korea phones are set to always have the shutter sound on. This is a feature that cannot be turned off unless you have a phone that was bought outside the country. I’ve even had friends whose phones auto-turned on that shutter feature.
If you are a person who loves drinking, dancing, and socializing, however, Korea is your place! On the flip side, some clubs can and will deny you entry because you are a foreigner. And the worst part? It’s not illegal. There are no anti-discrimination laws in South Korea. I have only experienced this once at a restaurant in Seoul on my first trip here. It is rare, but it happens. And people of color are even more vulnerable. I am in no way demonizing Korea; they have their problems like the rest of the world and have some work to do on a lot of levels. But I also don’t want to be the person who walks around and acts like this country is heaven on earth like some people do because that is simply not the case. Everywhere has its pros and cons.
Truthfully I love South Korea and I am beyond grateful to be able to live my life here with the man I love. There are so many places I have yet to explore and even more people I have yet to meet. And I am so excited for the rest of my journey. I understand it’s not feasible for everyone to come here and do what I am doing. Or even come here for school, work, and tourism. In this day and age, money is hard and traveling is harder. But more than anything in the world, I want people to know it’s okay to leave your small town. Please do it, even just once.
Coming to South Korea was the most drastic life change I have ever made. The biggest decision was to leave what I knew behind and come to a place where everything is different. When learning a new culture, language, and mannerisms, everything can become a challenge. However, I have found this challenge to be the most rewarding one yet. Coming to a new culture has opened my eyes to many things and has let me meet people I never would have met otherwise. I love these people and this country, as much as I have some qualms, I do love them. My experience is limited to my view so I encourage you all to read more about others’ experiences as well. Korea may be a small country but there are so many people here. Seriously, South Korea can almost fit inside the state of Illinois. Illinois has a population of about 12 million and South Korea is sitting at 51 million. There are so many parts of this world waiting for you. If someone like me, some random woman from the Midwest, can make it here. So can you. Before making this significant change, I was in a toxic relationship, wasn’t happy with my home life, had lost my job, and began spiraling into a deep depression all in 6 months. All it took me was one decision. One decision to change the direction of my life forever. If someone hasn’t said it to you before then I will now, I believe in you. You can do whatever you want in life. I am an example. Please don’t take the limited time we have for granted. Choose yourself, choose joy.
I will leave you with this quote by Ash Alves:
“Decide. You have the power to make a better decision today. You no longer need to hold yourself hostage to previous actions that weren’t in alignment with who you want to become. You can decide to prioritize your joy and peace right now.”
About the Author
Alexis Deomes is a writer, storyteller, and traveler from Centralia, Illinois. She is currently residing in Seoul, South Korea with her fiancé, where she works on her latest stories and her blog. You can find her on Instagram @AlexisDeomes or view her blog http://deomeswriting.wordpress.com.