I recently wrote a series of blog posts commenting on contemporary Korean society after a year living here, and I was disappointed by the way about half of them came out. Further, I didn’t write down my current assessment of my year in Korea for my own self and life. I intend to do that briefly here.

I originally signed up to come to Korea for a year for two reasons. I had a great deal of curiosity about Korean contemporary culture and society, piqued by spending a month teaching English in a nursing college here in the summer of 2012. And I wanted to study philosophy at a post-graduate level, but I couldn’t apply to start a graduate course immediately after my undergraduate because that would mean I would have to apply with my third year grades before I’d got my fourth year ones, which I knew would be much better as I dropped maths and did only philosophy in my fourth year. I’ll frame my assessment of my time in Korea so far in terms of these two reasons, and then say a little about the remainder of my time here from now until some time between August and November.

Firstly, studying graduate philosophy. It’s easy to build past happenings that seemed undesirable at the time into a grand narrative of one’s life in which they turn out to be beneficial, and our culture very much wants us to see them this way. I’m aware of this, so I don’t take the following too seriously. That being said: I think that going into graduate study straight after undergraduate would have been dangerous emotionally and intellectually, because I had a bunch of dogmatic ideas about academic philosophy and its place in the intellectual and cultural landscapes that I might not have shaken off to the extent that I think I have. In contemporary self-help parlance, I’ve diversified my identity.

Secondly, my attempts to understand and learn from the powerfully non-western elements of Korean culture. This has been much less successful than the above. When I arrived I really threw myself into it. I forced myself to eat spicy food, basically suffering through most of my mealtimes, I met a lot of different Koreans to see if I could forge some friendships, I used Korean products and Korean methods, even making up my bed in the style of my Korean friend from university. And of course I put quite a lot of hours into learning the language, though this was fairly inefficient because I haven’t learnt a language so didn’t know a lot that I know now about how to (and I’m very aware of how far I didn’t really get).

Now, I have a fascinating relationship with my Korean girlfriend which wouldn’t have been come about had I not made the efforts just described. But really she is all I have come out with, aside from a bunch of useful perspectives and insights that result from contrasting English-speaking and Korean culture that I have floating around in my head. I’ve very much wound down my efforts with regard to language study and fitting in, not bothering with a lot of Korean food and not bothering with cultural activities and tourism, because I’ve found that I’ve come out with one close Korean friend aside from my girlfriend, one or two other Koreans who I might see once every few months, and a feeling that there’s not actually that much to contemporary Korean culture after all.

There’s a lot of weird ways that people behave that I’d like to gain a better understanding of than was displayed in the series of blog posts I mentioned above, but you can’t really talk to Koreans about these—and thus try to begin some kind of systematic engagement with the culture—because they quickly take offense. Koreans are strikingly similar in how they handle foreigners. It sounds crude and as though it couldn’t possibly be anything other than a surface impression, but it really does seem that most Koreans would rather like you to just enjoy some food and complain that the rest is too spicy and then they can feel good for being in a cultural club that’s capable of eating it, say that you think various places in Korea are pretty, and then let them know the start and end dates of your temporary sojourn.

I haven’t managed to break past these barriers to serious and rewarding engagement with contemporary Korea. I hope that there are answers, that I just didn’t try hard enough or engaged in the wrong way, but those answers don’t help me who did try as hard as he could and found himself getting very little out of the country. A huge part of this is language, and maybe it’s just my lack of intellectual stimulation here. It’s easy to blame that lack on the country but really, the heart of it is that what culture there might be is just straight-up inaccessible compared to what’s available to me in an English-speaking country.

With all this I need to say why I’m still here and plan to see out as much of the second contracted year of employment as I can before I might have to go back to the UK or even the US to go to university again. The reasons are that I have a good life here and I have my girlfriend. Our relationship is very interesting due to the cultural exchange and differences, and it’s very loving. I don’t know what else I might want to do and I don’t want to think too hard about it until after this likely final round of university applications, so continuing my life here works very well for me. That doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed that I don’t have more than I do.