I arrived in South Korea at the end of August 2016. Weeks before, I remember looking excitedly at various weather reports detailing highs of 25+°C, which seemed world’s apart from the mild summer temperatures England was experiencing at that time. As prepared as I thought I was in adjusting to the temperature change, I distinctly recall feeling overwhelmed with the heat and humidity of Korean summertime.
The Korean summertime isn’t what you would call a ‘dry heat’ like what I was used to in Europe. Instead, Korea becomes encased in a ‘wet heat’. I found I lost my appetite in the first few weeks due to this and mostly ate fruit and light meals. Be warned: wearing a backpack during summer for long durations will likely lead to you having to physically peel it off your back! Korean people sometimes place their arms behind their backs as a sort-of buffer between the backpack and their skin.
Despite the humidity levels, I appreciated the beautiful blue skies that seemed to welcome me on arrival. The amount of sun exposure in Korea is insane to me, a Brit so conditioned to expecting cloudy skies and rain.
One thing which stood out initially for me was that scooters would freely mount the pavements and drive down them. Another was that vehicles are allowed to turn right at any time, regardless of the traffic lights or pedestrians. Korea’s roads operate completely opposite to British roads: the vehicles coming to and from drive in different lanes, and the steering wheels is on the left- rather than the right-side here. Given this, not only did I decide to never drive here, it also took me awhile before I was even confident in manouvering around traffic as a pedestrian!
Walking along the streets mid-afternoon, I would notice glints of colour catching my eyes between the trees bordering the roads. Upon a closer look, I saw (to both my horror and fascination) luminous spiders hanging like glittering red, green, and yellow gems. They were rather large, similar in size to a house spider in England. Korea suddenly felt very exotic – I wondered what creature I would happen upon next.
As it turned out, my next critter encounter was by sound rather than by sight. These insects are thought to signal both the start and end of summer. I am, of course, talking about the glorious cicadas. Cicadas live in trees and will waken during summertime. They emit a loud noise which is infact their mating call, with the loudest male winning the female’s affections! In certain areas, the cicadas can be qute deafening. Imagine: your introduction to Korea being thrust into the midst of a verbal spree of randy, crazed insects.
Though my least favourite insects must be mosquitoes and cockroaches, both of which are common in Korea. Given that mosqitoes aren’t native to England, my previous experience of them has always been limited to at the most 12 consecutive days. It seemed strange to be now living in a country where I would run the risk of being bitten during most months of the year. Needless to say, I was quite daunted by that thought.
My apprehension was not without cause. Over the years here, on the rare occassion I am bitten, those bites almost always become infected. Without going in to too much detail, the affected skin swells, becoming sore and hot. To tackle this, there are over-the-counter medicines available (I prefer the roll-on balm) to apply once bitten.
Visiting Asia for the first time, I was shocked by the amount of written English I saw. It seemed to be everywhere. I would catch a glimpse of it across buses, taxis, and trains, companies would boldly state their names and logos from the side of buildings, and advertisements would scream out their products and offers from the boundaries of their chosen platform.
English, in short, is commercial in Korea. It opens up access to a competitive global market. I noticed retail stores would often use English names in an attempt to be more marketable – the upside to this being the selected names proved to be quite amusing to Native English speakers. I once passed a clothing store named ‘Ice Cream’ and another named ‘Hunt Kids’. Where English is concerned, it’s best not to judge a book by its cover – or in this case, an establishment by its title.
Korea is a mountainous country. During my first few months in Korea, I would marvel silently at the nearby mountains around me as I went on my daily walk. The landscape is beautiful year round – in Spring and Summer, the mountains are coated in a beautiful deep-green foliage. In Autumn, the mountains preen in layers of gold, red, and orange with no distinct pattern or gradient, and in Winter, the mountains are covered in snow, with the tips of the pine trees highlighting the individual slopes and curves.
Although the ascending nature of the Korean landscape is a joy to witness, the flatlands are where Korea comes into its glory. Wide rice fields stretch into the distance laying on the outskirts of cities and towns. It is wonderful to see the gradual change of the rice fields as they reach their optimum yield. From green to golden stalks submerged in water, the fields are fondly treated by the passing seasons. I often see them travelling by bus from city to city swaying gently in the breeze, with the surrounding waters glistening in the sun.
I learn more and more about Korea every day. From my former self (pre-expat) who knew so little of Korea barring on-going tensions between the North and South, to the existing me now, I feel the added wealth of information like a shroud, not in the process of acquirement, but in that of removal.