Ah, the Korean countryside. The fresh air and the solitude of silent dirt paths. Rice paddies reflecting the clouds, stretching out to the bases of forested mountains. Smiling old couples selling fresh, sweet fruit on the side of the road. If you haven’t experienced the beauty of Korean nature outside of the cities or suburbs, you definitely should.
But do you want to live there?
For some, living in a small village beats the hustle and bustle of city living, and provides a chance to see the “real” Korea. For others, living in the sticks wasn’t a choice, being placed there by their school. Could small-town life be for you? Here are three aspects of Korean countryside life that many find make-or-break.
This is probably the first thing that came to your mind. And you’re right -- it’s much harder to get by in the Korean countryside without at least a rudimentary grasp of Korean. While the concept of “language immersion” isn’t as simple as many people think it is, it is true that you can develop your Korean skills more organically through everyday life -- an experience you probably won’t have in a larger city, where shop owners and other customer service workers will attempt their English the moment they see you.
Susan, an expat who spent four years in the Chungdam Province countryside, had this to say about the effects this had on her language skills: “I believe being in the countryside you pick up more of the language out of necessity - generally people will have more patience with your Korean, as opposed to just switching to English, because switching over really isn’t an option for many people in town.”
Of course, language proficiency grows alongside consistent studying, so make sure to prepare for your interactions by learning the basics and vocabulary.
Small town Koreans are also vastly different from city-living Koreans in mentality. Many rural Koreans are still existing in a post-war perspective of working hard, using every resource you can, and cultivating large families. Nothing goes to waste. You may see old women picking leaves from the grass off the side of the road for eating. You may see some culinary choices being made using ingredients you didn’t know were edible. You may see backyards full of piles of old washing machines, sinks, and motorcycles to be broken down and used for scrap. And above all, you will get stares -- lots of them. You may, as I once experienced on a stroll deep in the Jeollabuk-do countryside, walk around a corner and cause an old lady to stagger and nearly have a heart attack, gasping “waegukin!” between gulps of air.
You will be a novelty, and to the Koreans around you, you will be the ambassador for all “foreign” culture. Rural Koreans are likely to internally (or, sometimes to your face) label you as being from a certain country based on your skin color, and treat you with all the stereotypes that go along with that. It’s possible, having had little to no contact with foreigners, that the Koreans you encounter will have embedded beliefs about all foreigners based on what they’ve seen on TV, or what they saw a foreigner do one time. For example, once when I went to a restaurant with a friend in a small Jeollanam-do village, we received no banchan (side dishes, such as kimchi). This was highly unusual, and I noticed other tables being served banchan, so I talked to the owner in Korean and asked for some. As it turns out, he’d had foreign customers many years prior who didn’t eat the banchan because they didn’t like kimchi. From that point on, he assumed all foreigners didn’t like kimchi.
Confucianism is also very much the way of life in the country. There is a huge emphasis on deference to elders, the importance of a man’s duty to his family and to his community, and the role of women keeping the home. While this can be found in more muted flavors elsewhere in Korea, in the countryside, these are strong foundations for their way of life. It might be jarring to enter this world as a foreigner, especially a Western foreigner, even if you’re familiar with small towns in your home country.
There is another aspect of country living that might surprise you. As Elizabeth, an expat who moved from a mid-sized Korean city to the countryside, observed: “I think a big difference is that there are foreigners here from lots of places, but they aren’t native English speakers. There are so many in my neighborhood.” Rural Korea often hosts many foreigners from Southeast and Central Asia. There is a large number of migrant workers who come during certain seasons to farm crops, and occasionally to do certain construction work. This means that in the country, many of your daily interactions could be not with native Koreans, but with a variety of foreigners, from Mongolian to Thai workers.
The hardest part of rural living for many foreigners is the isolation. It’s the main reason why expats often leave their countryside-based contracts in search of work elsewhere. Sometimes, you’re the only foreigner in the entire town, brought to teach English at the solitary public school. This can mean that, without fluent language skills, you may feel alone much of the time as your Korean colleagues group up together.
There is an upside, though. The familiarity that living in a small town brings, coupled with your notoriety as a foreigner, can be the combination that builds long-lasting friendships. You’re more likely to come across the same people as you go about your routine around town, and it’s likely that people will recognize you. This can plant seeds for friendships as your conversation skills improve (or as theirs improve - or both!)
While the social life aspect of the countryside may not be as robust as in other locations, you might forgive that aspect for the feeling of safety and calm that you can feel in the country. As Susan reminisces: “Arriving from a fairly big and dangerous city in America, I was struck by the solitude -- sometimes it was just me walking along the rice paddies for quite some time -- and the fact that I could walk around at any point of the day or night and be left alone.” For some arriving from home countries with tumultuous social climates, or for the introverts who just need some recharge time, giving rural living a try might not be such a bad idea.
If you decide to move to the countryside, remember to keep abreast of your language practice so that everyday life isn’t a struggle. Savor the interactions that you have with the people you meet in your daily life because those could end up being some of your most treasured relationships. While the different culture may be a shock at some points, take the time to learn about local customs and traditions you find interesting. Last, make sure you’re as socially connected as you need to be … and if you prefer your privacy, don’t be afraid to settle in and enjoy your peace and quiet.