Ten years. How can that be? I came to Korea on a one-year contract in late 2006! After that, every year I found myself saying, “One more year.” After three years my mother stopped believing me, I think, and after five or six I even stopped believing myself. Which leaves me here, now, in 2017.
Still, I have no regrets. Korea is the first place I moved after finishing school, and the first place I truly lived as an adult, not a student. It’s the place I found the love of my life and learned to love my work. It’s also a place where I’ve learned more life lessons anywhere else.
So why, exactly, did I always stay?
Well, that’s a complicated question, but there are a few clear answers. The first is that there’s always something new to explore here. Of course, nowadays that’s clearer than ever, with thousands of themed cafes and quirky restaurants around the peninsula. But I’ve always felt that way. The first couple years here, I used to take a bus almost every other Wednesday to see some temple in the mountains, sometimes as much as 3 or 4 hours of travel away. I searched for the ones that had something eccentric or distinct, and I easily found them. A lot of them weren’t even listed on the tourist website and were so quiet, despite their obvious beauty, that I would end up having tea or potatoes alone with monks who had lots of questions. Then I started exploring abandoned buildings… which Korea has a LOT of, by the way… and found a new and special beauty in each of those. Then I started going to any cultural festival I could find. Kimchi festivals, flower festivals, mud festivals, mask festivals—all of them! Trying the local specialty foods, the seasonal foods, the luxury foods… all of it. My point is that there’s a LOT to do here, in a country that is as small as my home STATE in the U.S.
Another answer is about the people. Sure, there are a lot of things that rubbed me the wrong way in Korean society, like the need to look flawless, be thin, or always be ranked the highest, but it’s the people and their jeong that got me. When I had to visit a hospital, people would escort me personally to ensure I didn’t get lost, and give me juices or cookies to cheer me up. When I hiked mountains alone, groups of ajummas would invite me to their lunch circles and cook something up for me. When I traveled to small towns to explore or photograph places, hordes of excited students would help me and guide me and share their candy and stickers. This is special.
I’ve been to almost 50 countries now, and ten years feels like a long time to spend anywhere. But if you have to spend it somewhere, Korea’s a pretty good choice.