One of the major hurdles to adjusting in Korea is trying to establish a new social life. Initially, the task made me feel quite lost even as I was taking in the wonders of a new country. When I’d first landed in Korea, nearly everything would excite the senses and luckily, I’ve still not lost that sense of newness here. There’s always something “new to me” to discover, no matter how mundane. After finally settling into a new city, new apartment and new job, I started looking for the next thing to cement my adjustment to Korea: an athletic routine. Now, I know many people who successfully joined a gym right off the bat but as someone who is terrible at self-motivating herself to exercise and had fallen off organised group sport a while ago, it was an adventure in trying to find something new.
Of course it’s very easy to stick to the group of friends you made from your orientation intake but there also is a sense of satisfaction in trying to “forge your own path” through the Korean social structure. Because the kind of organised sport I was looking for was very intrinsically associated with integrating myself into the social system, I also had to use all two of my brain cells and muster up the courage to speak my basic level of Korean.
Korea has really taught me to play to my advantages and grow a backbone like no other in order to get things done on my own without relying on others. So while we often find ourselves cajoling students to speak in our classes, we (us wide-eyed native English speakers) find it much harder to put into practice by speaking Korean conversationally with others in a natural setting. After a lot of soul searching (convincing myself I really needed a sport so my evenings wouldn’t be so cyclic: work, pick up ice cream, go home, eat, sleep, repeat) I found a jiu-jitsu gym quite some ways from my neighbourhood. I chose this gym for two reasons, first: the distance meant I’d be able to explore new areas of my city and second: I’d get to ride the bus more often. I love the buses in Korea. Seriously. Commutes are a highlight of my day. Immediately, I fell in love with the sport and came to really appreciate the people at the gym. I was the only foreigner to attend but I was well supported by a great community of people who took it upon themselves to help the newbies learn the ropes.
It was also basically a boot camp in getting my Korean into shape so I could talk about at least something with the people who routinely handed my head back to me 3-4 times a week. There is a lot of camaraderie in being part of group sports and that’s the kind of feeling that makes you feel as though you belong. This can be a particularly poignant experience for those who are starting to feel the tugs of homesickness and are doing their best to make Korea feel like “home.” The extra benefit of adrenaline from a good workout also goes a long way in helping you settle in.
With being part of a gym, you’re also privy to social gatherings that follow a training session. After all, it’s not Korea if there’s no hwesik to celebrate. This is a perfect time to get to know your fellow buddies in a more natural setting and come away feeling lighter and satisfied. You also get to be part of new traditions! Of course it’s very special to experience traditional Korean culture by donning beautiful hanboks, taking part in kimjang, and watching a pansori performance- but how cool is it to be part of modern traditions associated exclusively with the sports culture in Korea? One such experience was during a belt testing day between all the jiu-jitsu gyms in the area. In jiu-jitsu, the belt system is a little bit different than tae kwon do or karate in that we start with a white belt and have to literally earn our stripes: four black stripes to a white belt, followed by a blue belt and another four stripes, then a purple belt, more stripes and so on. Whenever someone graduates to a different coloured belt, there is a fun (and maybe a bit sadistic) celebration in which everyone creates a human tunnel with space for the newly decorated athlete to run through. The catch? All of us have our belts in hand ready to catch the person running under on the back. As a good old hearty pat on the back. Except it’s done with a martial arts belt- and those come hefty. The laughter that surrounds you during these moments truly makes you feel so warm and cosy inside that you forget you were ever sat in your room once yearning for home.
I’m feeling quite nostalgic as I write this because it has been just over a year since I’ve moved to Korea and discovered this fantastic community. But alas, all good things must come to an end. Soon after the new year, I suffered a sports related injury that has taken close contact grappling sports off the table. There are of course memories that remain and friendships I still maintain but I quite miss being pummeled so often for the chance of a sweet victory.
If you’re new to the country or just looking for something to do, the first piece of advice I can give you is to get comfortable with the Korean search engine Naver because that’s where a wealth of local knowledge exists. Another is to ask the people around you such as your colleagues, many of whom I’m sure would be happy to help you get involved with local activities.You’d all probably be aware of the number of expat groups on facebook which are also a great place to get started. Even if you’re not the most athletic person in the world (I’ve definitely got two left feet in everything coordination) it’d still be an opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture and socialise every now and then.
If organised sport isn’t your thing, not to worry. You can always engage in the Great Korean Pastime: hiking. No matter where you’re placed, you’re not far from the mountains and gorgeous views waiting for you to stumble upon. It’s an activity great done in a group or by yourself if you need some solitude to fight the blues. And considering that mountains define the landscape here, it’s a unique way to travel around the country and discover it all while making your steps for the year. So if you’re anything like me and thought that establishing some kind of routine that would also contribute to my physical health could help in warding off the uneasy feeling that settles in your tummy when you’re in a new place: you’re in luck. There are many diverse ways to combat it!
All this to say that going out of your comfort zone a little bit, extending your language ability a little bit, and mustering your courage just a very tiny bit can lead to a very gentle adjustment period as you settle into Korea.