It’s Thanksgiving and I’m at Work, But I’m Still Thankful

One of my friends (okay, I’m using that more in the FB sense, but I’ve at least been to her house several times) posted this recently, and it got me thinking about what I am thankful for, here in the Land of the Morning Calm, at work, on a holiday, thousands of miles from my family. I realize that sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m really not. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for, and I’ll be home for Christmas, so I’ll get to pig out American-style with my family then.

There’s a bit of overlap with Jackie’s list, but these are the things I think about when I think about moving home. Usually, a trip home triggers a temporary desire to move back to the US. Then, I think about these things and realize I would just be moving back to be near my family. The end. Not that they aren’t important, but having my family close by wouldn’t pay the bills.

So, with no further ado, the things I’m thankful for in Korea.

1. Cheap healthcare. I pay a small percentage of my monthly wages (an amount matched by my employer by law), and in return get doctor visits for about $3 on a walk-in basis. I’ve heard you can make an appointment, but I’ve never had to wait more than about 20 minutes. In the US, you are generally expected to arrive 20 minutes early, but doctors overbook, so you then have to wait up to an hour or more past the appointment time before you get a few minutes of his/ her time. When I first came to Korea, doctors padded their receivables by giving you your meds rather than a prescription, but the law changed about ten years ago.

Now, you get a prescription, which will generally also cost about $3. The only downside is that the prescription is only for a couple of days, even for antibiotics. So, you have to make multiple trips to the doctor.

2. Cheap, plentiful transportation. Craig and I go hiking a couple of times a month. To get there, we usually take a KTX (high-speed train) which can get us across the country in 2-3 hours. When we finish hiking, we are  usually tired, so we flag down a taxi to take us back to our hotel. We have yet to be in a place so remote that we can’t get a taxi  in short order. This past weekend, we had to call a taxi, but he was there ten minutes later and drove us one hour back to our hotel for less than $30.

Living in Seoul, it is easy to get spoiled by the public transportation. I could happily live the rest of my life without driving again. For about $1 each way, I ride two subways and a neighborhood bus to school. If I wanted, I could ride the subway all the way down to Jackie’s house in the next province or ride the same line all the way up to the DMZ, for less than $3. That line extends nearly 170km north to south. The Seoul subway has lines which reach three provinces outside of the city. Craig and I went to Jungdo by subway recently. It was 96km and cost 2500 won. The subways and buses are inexpensive, frequent, wide-ranging, clean, and safe. If you are traveling outside of the city, inter-city buses and trains are just as frequent and there are different grades to suit different budgets. The “deluxe” buses cost slightly more, but have three seats to a row, rather than four, and fewer rows.

There are three grades of train, the slowest is quite cheap, but stops at every podunk station, making it feel like a subway ride across the country. The KTX can cost $60-70 (first class) to get you to the far reaches of the country, but you’ll be there in less than three hours. As with the buses, the first class cars have three seats to a row and fewer rows, and standing passengers aren’t allowed to stand in the first class cars. At that price, I don’t bother with the regular cars.

If none of the above suit, taxis are everywhere and unbelievably cheap. The cars are all fitted with navigation systems, so you don’t have to deal with drivers “getting lost” to jack up fares. Even if you are in an isolated place, you can generally find a supermarket and have the clerk call a taxi for you.

3. Safety. Yes, there are thieves and rapists here and a large percentage of taxi drivers are ex-cons, but the level of safety I feel here makes me feel unsuited to going home, like I’ll never be able to build my guard back up to where it was when I arrived here. I have no qualms about walking down the street alone late at night.  I can fall asleep on the subway, and my purse is sitting there, untouched, when I wake up. I can leave my computer as my table holder at a coffee shop while I go order (on a different floor) or go to the bathroom (sometimes in a different building).

A few years ago, a coworker left her iPod on the bus. She called the bus company, and it was in the lost and found. When I was married, my husband used to leave his wallet in taxis on a regular basis. The cab driver always returned it, cash inside, the next day.

Korea isn’t some crime-free utopia, and the police leave A LOT to be desired, but in my day-to-day life, I don’t worry that someone will break in my house or assault me on the street. Not that I have ever been a victim of crime in the US, but I always felt like it was a possibility.

4. The postal service. Every time I go home, my mother has multiple new complaints about their mailman. Her neighbor found a check they had been waiting for lying on the sidewalk a few blocks from their house. Packages just dumped at the front door without even a knock. Mail that just never arrives. Me, I get cheese delivered still chilled from a country town down south, for 4,000 won. All domestic mail is next day delivery, and you get it, even if there’s no zip code. When I lived in a four-building complex in Bundang, I got mail without my apartment number, because the mailman knew my number and was willing to go the extra mile.

5. Restaurants. Korean food is awesome, and even little dives usually have decent food. It’s also cheap. You can eat healthfully for fairly little money here, even if you eat out regularly. In the past few years, a lot of truly Western restaurants have opened up, and now you can get whatever type of food you crave. The Western food is still going to cost you, but the days of watered down ketchup on ramyun noodles seem to be past. Most restaurants deliver, even McDonalds. Some deliver 24 hours a day. The ones that don’t deliver will probably pack your order to go.

6. Work. Over the years, I have agonized about getting state certification and teaching at home. It has never filled me with joy. Ever. Here, I have been lucky in my current and most-recent previous job in that I look forward to going to work. I think about it when I’m not there– how can I do things better, what can I do to make the language more accessible to my students, etc. I get paid a living wage, am treated with respect (if not the same level as my Korean counterparts, certainly more than in the US, where a recent study has shown that teachers are overpaid by about 30%), and have students who may not be excited to study English, but accept it as an inescapable part of their life. I don’t teach private lessons, so my savings are not what they could be, but I have a comfortable life.

7. Internet. Having high speed internet has really spoiled me. When I go home for a visit, the internet seems to crawl at modem speeds, because what the US providers call high-speed is much, much slower than the standard basic internet service here. As a result, I can download my favorite TV shows in a minute or two and while away too many hours browsing online.

8. Craig. I’m not going to get too mushy, partly because he’ll see this, but if I weren’t here, I wouldn’t have met him. Suffice it to say, I’m very happy that we met.

There are lots of other reasons I love my life here, but these are the things that immediately come to mind when I think about leaving. It’s not paradise, but I have a pretty sweet life here.

I try not to post things out of order, but it’s Thanksgiving today and I’ve still got to add photos to the three posts I’ve got written.