How Korea has shaped me over the years as I’m soon to be leaving

Nomadic Samuel Jeffery hanging out at the Korean Folk Village

As I peered outside of the window from my classroom I could see snow flakes gingerly accumulating on the ground. The warmth of the cup of green tea I firmly clenched in my hands was a reminder that my time as an expat in South Korea was soon coming to an end.

I’ve always felt ecstatic when I’ve completed previous teaching contracts in Korea because backpacking adventures awaited me and I knew deep down that I’d return again in the future; however, this time is discernibly different.

Although exuberance over my plans to backpack indefinitely with Audrey is still my dominant emotion, I know deep down this will be my last time ever teaching in Korea and it’s spurred on a state of reflection and gratitude devoid from previous experiences of completing a contract.

Given that I’ve spent more time here than I have in Canada in my mature adult years, it’s become my adopted home away from home.

I eat rice more than I eat bread. I’m as adept at using chopsticks as I am a knife and fork; in fact, I now prefer the former.

Korea has shaped, moulded and plied me in a way that has turned me into a more confident and self-assured person than the shy, wide eyed college graduate who had no idea what he was getting himself into 7 years ago when he signed a one year contract to teach ESL in Korea for the first time.

Korean bibimbap (비빔밥) - mixed meal of various vegetables, rice, egg and red pepper paste.

Eating Habits

I can remember my first ever Korean meal like it was yesterday. My director took me out for dinner and served me a dish called Kimchi jigae (Kimchi stew) that overloaded my taste buds with an extreme dose of hot, spicy and sour flavours that at the time were truly obtrusive and foreign. I silently thought, “If this is what most dishes taste like I’m going to be in for a long year.”

Fast forward until present and I now crave kimchi. I frequently eat rice three times a day. I’ve at times sent dishes back with a waiter to add more ‘spice’ to what is considered a spicy dish even by Korean standards.  The local cuisine is now one of the things I truly love about Korea more than anything else.

Korean pouring customs with both hands

Social Customs

Many moons ago, I waltzed into the office of my Korean principle to greet him for the first time. Nervously, I clenched my hands in a fist which protruded deep into the pockets of my pants. Forgetting to bow I handed him a small present with just one hand. Not realizing it at the time, I engaged in a cascade of social faux pas that would have been exceptionally rude had they been committed by a Korean.

Now I find myself accepting and receiving items with both hands and bowing more than shaking hands. I often have awkward moments when I visit back home and realize I’m behaving more like a Korean than a Canadian :P

Korean student playing music

Work Ethic

Before coming to Korea I thought long working hours were nine to five. I was completely flabbergasted, at first, when I noticed Korean students and workers working or studying well into the evening or wee hours past midnight.

This year, I’ve joined the ranks of the most ambition locals, as I’ve seldom had a week where I’ve put in less than 100 hours of work when I combine my teaching gig with the hours I put in pursuing various online travel related projects.

When confronted with a time sensitive project, setting my alarm for 5 am after going to bed at 1 am has not been an uncommon occurrence. I’ve pushed myself to my limits because I’ve seen others around me doing the same.

Final Thoughts

I’ve had my shares of ups and downs in Korea; however, overall, my time here has shaped me into a more confident, prudent, diligent and well rounded person. As excited as I am to soon be hitting the road I know I’ll miss a lot of things about here. Korea has been good to me and it’ll always hold a special place in my heart and an important role in the course of my life.

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{ 60 comments… read them below or add one }

Maria December 16, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Parting is such sweet sorrow, but I’m excited for you and Audrey and can’t wait to see what you’ll be up to next.

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Samuel February 3, 2013 at 6:48 pm

Thanks Maria, it’s something we’re very excited about :)

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Montecristo Travels (Sonja) December 16, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Home away from home. That is truly what Korea has become for you. I feel that way not about one country but Europe at large. I am more at home there than I am here in Canada. Mostly because as a Diplomats kid – I grew up there. I miss it deeply. Achingly at times. I miss the food, the way people do not define you by what you do for a living. I miss talking about other things besides work, home renos, kids, BBQ and hockey games. Things I have no interest in. *sigh* I miss Europe and its old history – still there for all to see. To learn from it. I miss the dog friendliness. Eating with my canine in restaurants, walking into a farmers market with him…

I will not lie to you. You will not “get over it”. You’ll miss it. Like an old departed friend. The only blessing is that you can, still visit.

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Samuel February 3, 2013 at 6:52 pm

Sonja, I can relate well with what you’re saying. When I come back to Canada I often feel a bit out of place. I hope you’ll get a chance to return again soon.

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Sophie December 16, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Lovely post – best of luck going forward!

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Samuel February 3, 2013 at 7:01 pm

Thank you Sophie! :)

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Grace December 16, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Amazing experience! Especially I liked how Koreans accept and receive items. A welcoming lesson, and I am glad I attended it.

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Samuel February 3, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Thanks Grace, it’s something I still do instinctively now that I’m back in Canada…LOL

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Andrea December 16, 2012 at 4:56 pm

This is such an interesting topic for me among expats – how much we absorb the different cultures in which we live. You’ll probably have some strong reverse culture shock if you’re headed back to Canada now…

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Samuel February 3, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Thanks Andrea, I certainly have experienced that since coming home. Although Canada is always my home country in many ways it’s somewhat foreign to me.

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Elle of Solo Female Nomad December 16, 2012 at 5:20 pm

It can be bitter sweet when turning a chapter in your life. I for one, lived in California for over fifteen years, and decided that I needed to hit the road. It was difficult leaving, so I understand how you are feeling. However, we all know that you have great adventures ahead – so congrats on that!! Happy Travels!

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Samuel February 3, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Thanks Elle, it is hard to leave, but as you said new adventures await :)

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memographer December 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm

It sounds sad… but time flies, and your new adventure is around the corner. Can’t wait ;)

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Samuel February 3, 2013 at 7:08 pm

Thank you! We’re both very excited these days :)

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cheryl December 16, 2012 at 8:15 pm

With every ending comes a great new beginning. While it’s always hard to leave your adopted home which I understand after coming home to Canada after 2 years abroad, there’s so many new and exciting things to think about. Good luck in your new adventures and look forward to reading about them!

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Samuel February 3, 2013 at 7:09 pm

Thanks Cheryl, I’m looking forward to the next chapter :)

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Joy December 16, 2012 at 10:26 pm

It’s fun to look back at how far you’ve come. It’s sad to see things come to an end. But it’s so exciting not knowing what the future has in store! Good luck!

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Laura Zera December 16, 2012 at 11:04 pm

Samuel, this is such a lovely tribute to the country that has hosted you, as well as a great illustration of how travel can lead to so much personal development. To anyone who wonders if they should take time off ‘from school’ or “from career” — in between high school and post-secondary school, or between university and grad school, in the middle of post-secondary, before they start that big career job, or whatever, I say YES! While important, classroom learning doesn’t create the well-roundedness that you’ve experienced from your time in Korea.

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Alexa December 17, 2012 at 1:13 am

What wonderful insights, Sam! I can relate to a number of things you said in this post. LOVE Korean food and have a jar of kimchi in my fridge in California. I am amazed at how much you work… 100+ hours?! Definitely sounds more Korean than Canadian. Another thing I loved about Korea was the public transportation. Some of the best in the world. I miss it!

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Izy Berry - The Wrong Way Home December 17, 2012 at 3:35 am

Very beautiful post :) You never know what life brings so you might end up living again in Korea…

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Lillie - @WorldLillie December 17, 2012 at 3:37 am

Fascinating reflection! Thanks for sharing, and happy onward travels!

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Natalie December 17, 2012 at 5:26 am

I can get where you are coming from. Living in Turkey has changed my habits as well. I think your experience was setting you up for further journeys in your life. Your path is nowhere near the end.

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BlogDaz December 17, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Good luck in you future endeavors, I will look forward to hearing what’s happening in Sam’s World.

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Koren @ City Gal December 17, 2012 at 4:38 pm

Sounds like you had a fantastic experience. Best of luck!!

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Kay Rodriguez December 17, 2012 at 9:35 pm

Samuel,

Good luck in your new endeavors. I’m sure you’ll do amazing things, and I am glad that this experience has shaped you in such a meaningful way. You are such an inspiration. Keep it up!

Kay

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Jenna December 18, 2012 at 5:33 am

I really enjoyed reading this post. It’s interesting and wonderful how living in a place can change you. I’m looking forward to seeing where your travels and English teaching take you in the future.

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Jace December 18, 2012 at 7:22 am

Any specific reason why you wouldn’t be returning to Korea? Either way, I wish you luck on whatever you choose to do! I know you’ll do well!

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Shaun December 18, 2012 at 1:15 pm

transformational (if that’s a word) sounds bitter sweet. Ready to close one chapter but sad to read the last page. Good luck man, and congrats on truly getting insight and amalgamated in to another culture. It makes other Canadians proud of you.

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Arienne Parzei December 18, 2012 at 4:15 pm

It’s the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Although my time in Korea was short compared to yours (2yrs for me) I went through the same transformations during my time in the country and felt such a strong connection to the country and culture when I finally said goodbye. I still crave Korean food and I miss a lot of the finer cultural customs we don’t do here in Canada. But it’s an experience that shapes you in ways you never could imagine.

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Hogga December 18, 2012 at 7:50 pm

That looks delicious!

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Amanda December 18, 2012 at 8:28 pm

It sounds like Korea has certainly had an impact on you! It will be interesting to see if any of these habits stick with you once you’ve been away for a while.

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Traveling Ted December 19, 2012 at 3:39 am

Good luck with the next phase of your life my friend!

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Suzzane from Travel Universally December 19, 2012 at 1:04 pm

It seems Korea is now calling me on, I had never thought Korea would be so beautiful and full of ethic cultures.

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Antoinette | love.antoinette December 20, 2012 at 6:30 am

mMm rice! You have truly converted! I am never fully satisfied with any meal until I have rice in my stomach. Seven years have gone by so fast, and it is going to be hard to walk away from one country you’ve grown to love over the years. However it will always be there, and the good thing is you can always visit, like you said. Best of luck to your next adventures with Audrey! You guys will have so much fun and so many more things to look forward to!

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Micamyx|Senyorita December 20, 2012 at 8:13 am

Your stay in Korea definitely taught you a lot of lessons. I’m sure you’ll miss it more and even little Asian things will remind you of it :) Thanks also to your blog entries about Korea and for being a good host :D You and Audrey should visit the Philippines soon :D

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Alana - Paper Planes December 21, 2012 at 5:48 am

It will be interesting to see what habits/ideas/mindsets you keep once being away from Korea after being there so long. I’d like to think that whenever I leave Thailand I’ll be able to keep of some of the habits or ways of thinking I’ve developed here…but who knows!

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Deb December 21, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Good luck on your journey. It looks like Korea really helped to shape your life. I know that you will take all the lessons you learned with you throughout your travels and hold Korea firmly in your heart. All the best and happy holidays!

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The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen) December 23, 2012 at 11:16 am

Congratulations on your accomplishments in Korea, Sam! As much as I’ll miss following your adventures there, I look forward to seeing where the coming year (or more!) takes you and Audrey. :)

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Erica December 23, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Thanks for sharing. I feel very similarly after having left Japan, my home for 3 years, just a couple months ago. But for me, being excited for the future doesn’t make it any less sad to leave.

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Sherry December 24, 2012 at 9:23 pm

“I’ve pushed myself to my limits because I’ve seen others around me doing the same.”
I love when you say this as it shows how much their culture has influenced your own life and I hope it continues long after you move away from Korea.

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Julia Reed December 25, 2012 at 10:22 am

I think I would need to spend a couple of years in Korea to try that dish with an egg)) Wonderful pics and amazing intercultural experience. I am certain that it greatly contributed to your personal development.

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exotic travels and vacations December 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Korea is a nice place. I want to go there .

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Kenin Bassart December 30, 2012 at 9:26 pm

Sounds like you’ve had an amazing time and it’s prepared you well for your next journey. Korean food is one of our favorite cuisines although it is an acquired by most western standards :-)

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ian December 31, 2012 at 12:57 pm

I can feel the heart break that you are having over Korea. I actually find my self in a very similar situation. Next year I may immigrating to a country far away from Asia and my heart and mind are battling out whether should I go or not. I love Asia the culture and traditions specially that I almost not find in any other part of the world. It is amazing how this part of the world has manage to cultivate so many traditions uniquely concentrated in a small area or country. I wish you the best and hope to see you back here in Asia.

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Abby January 3, 2013 at 4:38 am

Looking forward to the next chapter!!

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Tim Moon January 6, 2013 at 6:27 am

Although you’re headed into an exciting new chapter in your life, I can only imagine hard tough it must be to leave a place you enjoy so much.

Can’t wait to read about your new adventures!

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Stephen S. January 6, 2013 at 11:44 pm

I love how traveling shapes people. It has always made me a stronger and more confident person. I always learn more about myself, and more importantly the who I want to be. Glad it did the same for you.

Where are you headed to next.

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John January 12, 2013 at 10:51 pm

Nice post. I leave Canada after 2 years of being here and although I am excited to continue travelling, it is sad to leave. I glad however that I have not become accustomed to eating Poutine on a regular basis. As delicious as it is, it’s so bad for you.

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hotels near January 13, 2013 at 3:54 am

Yeah mate, travel is such a sweet sorrow…
but hey, you have experience one of the best time of your life!
you can have tears, but never forget to have a gratitude of that :)

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Turtle January 17, 2013 at 10:38 am

Where do you think you’ll be travelling to this year?

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Samuel January 19, 2013 at 1:49 am

I’ll be exploring Asia this year Michael :) How about you?

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Turtle January 19, 2013 at 1:52 am

I’ll be around Asia for the next few months… so hopefully our paths will cross at some point!

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Natalia | Always Trekking January 21, 2013 at 1:49 am

Korea is so culturally rich and different that it has changed me even after just a year of teaching. I’m sure your decision to not come back to Korea wasn’t taken lightly. I don’t think I would come back, as much as I loved the experience. I miss it a lot, but I think it was mostly the experience of being immersed in a different culture. All the best to you and Audrey. I really do hope to have good burgers with you guys again. :)

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Arnab February 4, 2013 at 7:14 pm

It hurts to part ways from a nation, a culture and a handful of close ones, but that’s what travel is all about. Looking forward to your wonderful stories from other parts of Asia. Any plans of coming down to India? Would love to you meet you here..

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Paul February 6, 2013 at 6:14 am

It’s amazing how travel can change you in ways that you never expected. It’s been really interesting reading about the changes that you’ve noticed in yourself, and how they become very apparent to you when you’re back in Canada. I spent only a few months away from English speaking countries and know just how much that changed many of my habits re language in subtle ways. 7 years would be absolutely mind blowing.

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Annie André February 12, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Samuel,
What a beautifully descriptive account of your feelings. It’s such a wonderful feeling to embrace another place as your home. I think it might be hard for you to enter back into western culture at first. I remember feeling the same way about leaving Japan eons ago. I still miss it. You will be talking about and thinking about Korea for the rest of your life.
Looking forward to seeing what is next for you and Audrey..!!

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Julio Moreno April 28, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Your Korea experience seems very similar to mine. I can’t help but bow when I come to a store, or greet someone back in the US. I guess I am like you but one year behind as I am on what will likely be my last contract, followed with, hopefully, long term travel with my girlfriend.
BTW, is that an alpha series camera? We might even have the same one.

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Ria Dancel July 17, 2013 at 8:46 am

I can totally relate to your experiences and learning in Korea. When I was there last year for a teaching post, i was away from family. Korea is indeed a beautiful country with so many honest and loving people. It has shaped me to be one who has deeper compassion than before.

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todd September 21, 2014 at 7:07 pm

Korea is a beautiful country. Sounds like a great place to visit. There is a very unique culture there and the food is quite good.

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Samuel Jeffery September 22, 2014 at 11:59 am

Thanks Todd! I hope you’ll get a chance to visit there soon :)

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