12 things I’ve learned

My time here is nearing the three-month mark.  Below are a dozen lessons Korea has taught me during the past twelve weeks.

1. Korea is a “go with the flow” society.

But not like this…

More like this…


If change is the only constant in life, this was never truer than in Korea.

2. Korea smokes too much.


Holy smokes, Seoul!

Based on subjective olfactory experience, approximately 75% of males smoke in Seoul. One night in September, I had to sleep on my couch because smoke had permeated through the walls and into the sleeping loft of my apartment. Way to go, Korea. Please, for the sake of your lungs and my sanity, stop.

3. I am selfish.


It’s the darndest thing: I wake up each day, and Korea still hasn’t magically transformed into a dream world! Sheesh, what is WRONG with this place?!

The past few weeks have forced me to re-evaluate my motivation for many things, including why I moved here. I’m young. Growing up causes you to refine your goals and values. Some things get left behind or discarded. I’m learning to appreciate this sieving process, because I’ve realized that a lot of things I used to care about just don’t matter. Becoming aware of one’s selfish ignorance sure isn’t bliss, but I’ll take it any day over stagnation. And when grace comes into the picture, it changes everything.


4. Patience is re-defined when you live abroad.


For an expat, a simple task that took 10 minutes back home could take weeks to complete, if it gets done at all. Seoul is one of the most populous cities in the world, and Korea is one of the most homogeneous societies on earth. These two factors alone provide plenty of opportunities for stretching an outsider’s patience.  Or going bald. For example, last night I had to [literally] fight my way out of the subway. There was no other way.  Koreans aren’t trying to be rude, but sometimes they are. There are too many people here, and they push and shove each other. Confusion arises all the time, and misunderstandings are the norm with my co-workers. I doubt my way of thinking makes any more sense to Koreans than theirs does to me. Life goes on, regardless of how loudly you kick and scream.

5. Korean culture is tough.


Don’t move to Korea, Iron Man. You wouldn’t last a week on the job, and with over 10 million people living in Seoul, there’s no room for your Western ego here.

The Korean school system resembles the military, even in elementary schools. There are big societal problems here, as there are anywhere else in the world. It’s tough for everybody, Korean or expat. Horrible stuff is swept under the rug. There’s corruption. Harassment. Hierarchies. History. A “hurry up!” (“balli balli!”) mentality coupled with an addiction to competition, often resulting in disaster. Lots of things I’ll never understand, and many things I’ll never agree with.


6. Koreans naturally build vertical relationships.


Can you find me? Look down, waaaay down. 🙂

From an egalitarian Western perspective, this approach looks and feels unfair and uncomfortable. But it makes sense to Koreans. Even the language is structured on hierarchy, because you refer to people and end sentences according to a person’s respective ranking in comparison to you.


7. The obvious conclusion is probably the wrong one.


I don’t think I’m in Kansas anymore.

For all the times I’ve kept my mouth shut in response to something that seems ridiculous, I haven’t once regretted it. Sometimes more information will surface later on that clears up the apparent absurdity, but usually not. In Korea, I daily resist the temptation to ask my favorite question: “Why?” It gets me nowhere, so I’ve stopped asking myself this question during confusing interactions, and my stress level is better for it.

8. Calm down.


Sometimes I know of a better way to do things. It’s easy to get frustrated when I’m not able to share my opinions or methods because of language and cultural barriers. But it’s not worth getting angry over. I’m learning to smile and carry on, because at the end of the day, Korea is still Korea, and I’m still me.


9. Tourists don’t experience culture shock.

Culture shock is nasty, messy, and prolonged. It takes time to set in, and even  more time to overcome. One expat blogger in Japan described it this way:

“At every peak and crest of the culture shock wave you’re jostled about. The train conductor won’t refund your ticket and you can’t understand why, your coworkers give you mutually exclusive instructions on what to do (and then tell you to do both), you go to the grocery store and have no idea where to find a sponge and you assume that’s why you feel like crying beside the bath soap.”(http://thisjapaneselife.org/2013/05/22/7-ideas-for-staying-sane-as-an-expat-in-japan/)

While this depiction may seem funny, it’s also spot on. I look forward to crawling completely out of the hostility hole over the next few months. The sooner the better.


10. Relationships matter.


I’m so grateful for my family and friends back home. Every time I receive a letter from one of them, it makes my day, and usually brings me to tears. I’m also incredibly thankful for the friends I’ve made here in Korea. Relationships are a lifeline. They’re a big part of what makes us human.

11. Don’t compare.


The moment I begin to compare my life in Korea to what it was in the U.S., it’s over. My contentment is shot to holes. So, by God’s grace, I’m learning to just say NO to this trap.

12. Enjoy each day. Or at least try to.


Jim Elliot speaks the truth.

No experience is wasted if you learn from it. Life in Korea isn’t easy, but it is life. And life is a gift. I’d appreciate your prayers for wisdom as I learn to take it one day at a time. Thanks so much for reading, and please keep in touch!

Much love,



5 responses

  1. Naomi,
    Thank you for sharing!

    Beautifully written! Wonderful expression of what is going on in your heart. You are very talented putting pictures with your words.

    Love you!
    ~ Mom

  2. Having lived in Venezuela and Costa Rica, which was an easier life than yours, we are filled with compassion and love for you Naomi! We can see the ever-present wisdom of God in your life. You truly are a MIGHTY woman of God whether you always feel like it or not. May the peace and joy that comes as we hear the “still small voice” of Jesus be yours in abundance! We love YOU, Dick and Judy

  3. Loved this paper Naomi! That Yurumi piece is staggeringly beautiful—I was transported! Also loved the picture of the skunk and the dog. You’re a terrific writer! We miss you dear friend! -Dick and Judy

  4. I love you, Nomi. And I miss you! This blog blessed me a ton. Zach and I just found out we are moving to China to teach English in August… with a nine month old baby, and reading about your experiences are helping me prepare my heart, as weird as that sounds.It is a blessing to get to see how the LORD is moving in your life, even if it is a not-so-fun refining process. Know that I am praying for you, and that you are loved beyond words.

    P.S. Did you ever receive my letter?

    • Hi Anna! Thanks so much for your comment. Wow! When in August and where in China are you going? And yes, I got your wonderful letter! I’m so sorry I haven’t replied yet, but I have a card waiting to be written to you. Love you lots!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s