(Header Picture: Taken from the Dragon Hill Lodge in Seoul, Korea on Feb 26th, 2015)
And now for something completely different. Taking a break from my normal “sport” centric articles to write about an experience in my life unlike any other. Being stationed in South Korea for a year was full of ups and very deep downs. In Korea’s defense, the downs can mainly be credited to my work and not the country. I was lucky enough to live there with my wife and experience the culture with her by my side. What I’d like to do is lay out some of my favorite aspects of life in Korea, separate from my work there.
(Picture: Typical bathroom messages in Korea.)
1) The People
I cannot praise the South Korean people enough for being some of the most kind hearted and thoughtful people I’ve met. With that disclaimer out of the way, they can seemextremely rude in the eyes of an American. For example, the Country is quite populated and Koreans seem to always be moving with a purpose. During these concentrated and purposeful movements, they will bump into you quite often and not acknowledge it. At first I couldn’t believe how often this happened until I realized, that’s just apart of the culture. That’s when I started getting into it. I would slightly bump someone and just keep going about my business without the half hearted “oh, I’m sorry” following. It was actually quite refreshing.
Ok now that I’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the pureness of the Korean population. This can be summed up with a story about my first professional Korean baseball game (Go Doosan Bears). My wife and I got our tickets and our bottle of Cass beer and headed to our seats. It was a hot day in June and the stadium was packed. A father and his son sitting next to us got up to do something and they decided to “save” their seats by placing a WALLET and CELL PHONE in their seats while they were gone for about ten minutes. Now this sounds absolutely absurd and I was taken aback from this wild move. I felt like I had taken on the responsibility to protect their belongings until they got back, and then I noticed, nobody cared. It’s sad to think this is a foreign move to Americans. I’m quite certain if I left my phone or wallet unattended anywhere it has a good chance of being stolen. This was quite the awakening for me. I loved that there were genuinely nice people out there. They didn’t need to worry about their belongings. They had trust in the strangers around them. This was a good feeling and a great day.
(Picture: Taken by me at the DMZ between North and South Korea in 2015. North and South Korean Soldiers stand face to face at all times. The crowd in the background posing for a picture is a group of North Koreans.)
2) The Food (and alcohol)
I could write a book about the abundance of amazing dishes, restaurants and food experiences I had in Korea. By far our favorite part about Korea.
(Picture: Taken at a street food vendor in Seoul. Generally if you hold a camera up, Koreans will pose for you.)
First let me explain the restaurants. I could never read a menu and to this day I have no idea how I ordered food. I could never tell you what I was eating, but I liked it. Most of the restaurants were mainly Korean BBQ. You order certain meats and they bring you a pile of raw meat to cook yourself on a hot grill in front of you. Accompanying these meats is an abundance of side dishes. Lots of kimchi and other vegetable type dishes. My wife and I would always order a side of white rice to go with our meals.
Eating was an event every time. You often were sitting at a very small table where 80% was consumed by your grill to cook the meat and maybe a small stool to sit on. The waiters and waitresses were very attentive and good at their job. They wouldn’t bother you unless you pushed the button at your table that told them you needed something. I can’t understand why we don’t have this in America yet. It was extremely effective. Dinner was almost always accompanied with alcohol. Not because we were alcoholics, but because it was a custom and because maybe we were alcoholics. We were just trying to fully immerse ourselves in the culture (is what we told ourselves). You would order a bottle or two of flavored soju and a large bottle of Cass beer. Cass is much worse than any American beer but we grew to love it and actually started to acquire a taste for it. The soju was drank like a shot and by the third or fourth bottle was quite tasty. Soju is actually one of the most consumed alcohols in the world, thanks to South Korea. On average, one bottle of soju is consumed a day per male Korean, which is absolute insanity.
(Picture: The remains of a Korean meal I had in Uijeongbu. Stacks of plates and empty bottles are always present.)
Drinking in Korea was definitely a culture. All business was done over drinks. You would regularly see tables full of middle aged men on week nights absolutely throwing down in their nice work suits. There were countless drinking customs and games that seemed to have one objective: to get you drunk, and let me tell you, the Koreans always met this objective. The end of the night would end up with a table full of loud Korean men all hugging and singing and tying their ties around their heads, empty soju bottles everywhere, countless empty plates once full of food and usually one or two men seemingly passed out. It was quite amusing every time.
(Picture: A farewell dinner for me with another American and two of my best Korean Friends, Ryu and Shin.)
A quick argument against Korean food culture. Their breakfast. In 2016 it was almost nonexistent, however, I was slowly seeing it arise. If you wanted a true American breakfast with eggs, bacon, pancakes and other American delicaciesyou were going to have to search for a while, and when you finally found it, be prepared to wait and pay quite a bit. I don’t know if it was because Koreans were too hung-over to be up for breakfast or they just didn’t like eating in the morning, but finding breakfast was difficult. On the contrary, there were 470 coffee shops on every square block. They loved their coffee, but they rarely sold sufficient breakfast foods; mostly small pastries or some other small desserts.
(Picture: My wife enjoying some of the Korean cuisine.)
Eating and drinking in Korea was a very satisficing experience and I barely did it justice. I didn’t even mention the street food, the bars, the McDonalds delivery, or the fact that you can open carry anywhere, which is another page worth of writing. If you plan on going to Korea, walk around and find a hole in the wall restaurant and you will not be disappointed.
3) The Weather
Bit of a set back for South Korea in this category. Winter is a different kind of cold unlike many places in America. It might not reach those sub-zero numbers in Korea, but it can reach single digits quite easily. These aren’t regular sub freezing temperatures either. They are some of the most bone chilling wet colds I have ever experienced. It almost hurt my body to be outside. The same can be said about the summers. It is such a humid heat; you sweat an insane amount just walking around. It can easily reach 100 in July and that is not a time you want to be eating spicy food at a restaurant with no A/C. Then there is the “yellow dust”. I couldn’t tell you exactly what this is, but it is miserable. I was told it was literally pollution in the air coming from China, which I believed. On a sunny day, you can literally see a yellow haze in the air. It covers everything and can really do some damage to your sinuses. Most Koreas wear facemasks to protect them from these nasty particles amongst them. Then there is the rainy season near the end of summer. The rain comes out of nowhere and it can really only be described the way Forrest Gump does about his time in Vietnam. “One day it started raining, and it didn’t quit for four months. We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain, and big ol’ fat rain, rain that flew in sideways, and sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath.” It didn’t last four months, but it rained harder for longer than I ever experienced and it wrecked havoc on everything. With all of this in mind, April-June would be the time I would recommend visiting, quite lovely in those months.
(Picture: My wife and I near the U.S. embassy on September 18, 2015, enjoying the city.)
4) The Transportation
I was lucky enough to have my own beater car while in Korea. Let me tell you, as a thrill seeker, driving in Korea was pretty awesome. It wasn’t complete anarchy; people followed normal road rules for the most part, but just like their walking pace, they all seem to be in a bit of a rush. You know that guy speeding down the highway weaving in and out of cars…. Yea that’s about 75% of their drivers and it’s a blast. The speed limit is a bit of a “recommendation” and turn signals are laughable. You can’t get into an “American road rage” mood either. They might be driving wildly, but they don’t get mad or upset at any moment. You won’t find a Korean flicking you off as they pass you.
(Picture: Left is my wife’s car and mine is on the right. That’s about all I have to say about that.)
The public transportation is really efficient also. Their metro can reach to almost any part of the country. It’s quick, clean, organized, on time and very affordable. What more could you ask for? It can get quite crowded at certain parts of Seoul, but it can’t be related to an American city’s metro. You will never feel uncomfortable or unsafe (unless there is a group staring at your red hair and your wife’s blonde hair). All around, I kind of enjoyed traveling throughout the Country. I always saw new things on the train, and always got my thrill junkie fix driving myself.
(Picture: My friend and his little brother on the train headed home after a successful night in Seoul.)
This article was more of a broad over view of my time in Korea. I could go into much more detail about my time there, but that is for another day. It is an amazing country with a lot to offer. I will never forget the friends I made and the experiences I now have.
(Picture: Uijeongbu, Feb 26th, 2015. My first day in Korea I met up with my wife for some shopping and coffee.)
If you would like to know more about my stay or you’re planning a visit/the Army is sending you on an extended stay, please ask, I have many more stories and tips.
(Picture: Also Uijeongbu. I never learned what this statue represents.)
Thank you for the memories, Korea. You changed my life forever.
(All pictures are my own)