I want to write my honest thoughts about some things I have encountered here in Korea after living in Japan for a total of 3+ years. I am in a somewhat unique situation, so I haven’t found that many people who can relate to me or share my sentiments. These are all things I’ve gathered through my own personal experience, so (obviously) not everyone will agree with me, but nonetheless I’d like to share them.
When I first went to Japan as a high school student, I lived with a family for about 2 months. It was the first time I’d ever been on a plane by myself, let alone visit another country. I had only been out of the U.S. once to go on a trip to Ireland with my dad. So everything was so strange and different, and I was overwhelmed by the newness of it all. My host family was great, and so were all of my Japanese language teachers. I bonded with a lot of the other students on my program, and I met a lot of Japanese people.
My first thoughts were that Japan was so clean and that the people were so nice, and I loved it immediately. I went back again in high school before going to Kyoto for a year during college. After that, I thought the JET program would be a great way for me to get back to the country I always hated leaving.
However, my rose-colored glasses fell off somewhere along the way, and working in Japan showed me a whole new side of things. In Kyoto, when I was a student, I had so many friends and I worked on a lot of plays with my theatre group (as the only foreigner). I was really excited about going to a new place and making friends all over again while on JET, and I fantasized about all the cool things I would do.
First of all, although at the beginning of our first JET year we all got along okay, as time went by, cliques began to form, and I felt really left out. My predecessor had warned me that she had been lonely living so far away from the other JET participants, but I chalked it up to her not being able to speak much Japanese and brushed it off. It got to me, though, and a few months into my first year, I was really depressed. My mom even encouraged me to quit because I was so upset all the time. Work was hard, and during the day I either felt misunderstood, invisible, or like I had a sign taped to my forehead that said “ALIEN SPECIES”.
I spoke Japanese well, I knew all about the culture, I had lived in the former capital of Japan! But I still had very few friends, and my job was stressful and confusing. The JETs all went out to do fun things together but I never felt included. I decided to make friends with my teachers, and did for a while until I learned that they would be leaving. My favorite teachers were always leaving, so it got to a point where I didn’t want to try building a relationship with the new ones.
I made friends in other prefectures, though, and made a point to go visit all of them. I even went to Hong Kong with one of my best JET friends for Christmas and New Year’s, and we had a great time. I was even ready to be back in Japan afterwards, but it didn’t last. I made a few friends who lived closer to me, but we could only hang out on the weekends, so my weekdays were dull and disheartening. After being laughed at and insulted all day at middle school, I’d go home and try to eat something that wasn’t too much work so I could collapse and try to distract myself from thinking about work.
My second year on JET was a little easier, and a lot harder at the same time. I met Junkyu on a train to Nagasaki to visit my friends, and a few weeks later, we were talking on the phone for hours every night. Talking turned into a long distance relationship, which only made my reasons for staying in Japan at a mind-numbing job decrease. As the year went on, I got more and more anxious to leave, and I got more and more annoyed at Japanese culture. Even as a member of a kyudo club, I felt like I was the token foreigner, always having to explain myself and my culture, so I didn’t feel able to blend in and just learn a new hobby.
I would visit Korea for a week to visit Junkyu, and we would have an amazing time sight-seeing, eating, and hanging out with friends. Then I would go back to my old, tattered apartment, and count down the days until I would see him again. The job, the long-distance, and the frustrations of being a foreign woman alone in a rigid society was too much to handle. But then I started to stress about moving to Korea and getting married, and I wasn’t sure if I was making the right decision.
And then I moved to South Korea. Junkyu and I started decorating our apartment. We visited Seoul and Ulsan and went to the beach. We pet sheep and rode horses and bought an oven so I could (FINALLY) bake cookies in my own home. It was a little tough figuring out how to live with someone I had only seen for week-long stints, but it was so much more comfortable than going home alone to an empty apartment after a demeaning work day.
I found a job I was sure I would love, and then I didn’t. I worked long hours, had coworkers who were incredibly insulting and volatile, and I (again) felt like a placeholder, not a real teacher. My contract finally ended, and I decided I had had enough, so I quit.
We focused on getting married, and we had an amazing wedding with friends and family. We got a cat and started growing our own food. Now I feel so much better than when I lived in Japan. I feel more independent, more able to do what I want. At first, it took a lot of getting used to, and I wasn’t sure I would ever know my way around, but now I’m a pro.
In my mind, working in Japan was a huge hurdle I had to overcome before I could get to a better place, but it was once my life’s dream to be a JET. I used to think I would live in Japan forever, but after only two years of working there, I quickly decided to get out.
Now, in Korea, I automatically compare everything to how I felt in Japan, and everything seems so much better to me. I feel like people are more genuine and open, and less afraid of me. I feel less like an idiot and more competent and capable. Things are a lot more convenient (not having to pay cash for everything, being able to order delivery at midnight from almost anywhere, being able to put my clothes in a dryer rather than hang them outside) and I am not even bothered by most things that other expats here complain about.
Japan is a lot cleaner by comparison. People do wait in lines with more patience and less shoving. People are quieter and don’t bother each other. Everyone who works in customer service smiles and looks extremely happy to serve you (unless you are a white person who is with another Asian person who can’t speak Japanese… then they just get confused and this happens).
But in Korea, even though it’s not as clean and people aren’t as patient or “polite”, I still prefer it here. I can meet people and not have them ask me nonstop questions asking whether or not I can eat rice. At work, I don’t feel like a foreigner, I feel like a teacher. Sure, I still experience some annoyances in Korea, but to a much lesser degree.
Perhaps it’s because I am married to a Korean man. That does come with a lot of perks. But even when I am out alone, I feel less judged and less concerned about being seen a certain way. Japanese society made me feel stifled, to the point that I wouldn’t even dare walking outside with sweatpants on. Korea, in many ways, feels much more liberal.
Despite that, there are so many people in Korea who tell me they visited Japan and like it much better. They say the food is better, the people are nicer, and it’s cleaner. They ask me for recommendations on where to go in Japan, but it’s hard for me as a former resident to give them tourist advice. I wasn’t a tourist. I avoided most tourist places and opted to be a regular at my favorite places. I can see their point, but I disagree with them that Japan is all sunshine and no rain. Once you live anywhere long enough, you can understand both the positives and negatives. Where you like the most depends simply on what your deal breakers are.
Whenever I meet someone here in Korea (where I plan on living long term) it’s hard to talk to them about Japan. The conversations are always about how great Japan is compared to Korea, and when I don’t agree with them, the exchange usually fizzles out. It’s similar to when Koreans tell me they want to visit America and they tell me how great it seems.
It’s all about perspective. That’s kind of what my blog title, Learning to Love Anywhere, is about. I was someone who learned to love Japan with everything I had. Then, suddenly, my world was turned upside down and I found myself falling for Korea. Who knows where we will end up, but for now I’m not too worried. Anywhere is good for me as long as I’m with my husband. As a team, we can find joy anywhere.