This past weekend we checked out "Alice in Wonderland" in 3D at the CGV IMAX. Even though a few sequences left me dizzy in their 3D rendering (inner ear problems to account for that), it was quite an enjoyable movie. The casting for the roles is superb. Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter is quirky but wickedly so, and his eyes really grab you or freak you out with their color. (Although in some parts I could sense a little bit of Captain Jack seeping through.) Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen possesses the right amount of evil (and even a little humor), which Anne Hathaway charms as the White Queen, and Mia Wasikowska is striking as an updated Alice. This is a much different imagining than you might remember from Disney's animated classic of 1951. The characters of Alice and the Mad Hatter are much more fleshed out, and the story is of a deeper context.
Coming to Korea can sometimes feel like you've fallen down the rabbit hole like Alice. Just as she found Wonderland to be a strange place where almost everything rivaled what she knew as true, so is the initial introduction to Korea. They way of life is based on a sacred set of traditions and beliefs that have existed for hundreds of years. And while more and more Western influences permeate the landscape and changing the ideals of younger generations, Korea still maintains much of its other-worldliness. The mixture of old and new is everywhere: traditional palaces next to high-rise glass and steel buildings, restaurants that boast a "Joseon king's meal" are squeezed in between Lotteria or Starbucks, open-air markets sprawling next to big box stores such as Homeplus or E-Mart. Two women walk by each other on the sidewalk: one is a strikingly beautiful hanbok, the other in a long-sleeved shirt and a skirt that leaves little to the imagination. They city life runs to the beat of "balli balli," while out in the country, people take time to tend to their gardens, enjoy some tea or makkoli, or even just sit to watch the occasional passersby.
Life is changing here, bit by bit. Three years ago, I couldn't have foretold all the changes that would come to my city of Gwangju. Being stared at by children and the elderly was something that happened on a daily basis. Now, people rarely look. (Or perhaps I've just become immune so I don't notice the stares.) The signs and posters everywhere no longer seem so foreign--in fact, I find myself translating most of what I see (and learning new words in the process). The spoken part of the language is one obstacle I have yet to overcome, but it is the hardest part for sure.
If you're contemplating coming to Korea to teach, I encourage you heartily. It is a fantastic adventure you have to see for yourself. The most important things to remember are: (1) have an open mind, and (2) have a sense of adventure. You need an open mind to try and adjust to the differences in cultural lifestyles. Certainly you can read expat blogs that rant about how difficult Korea and Koreans are, but what good would that do? Most of the time, what these people complain about are trivial things that can't be changed. It is unfair of us to go to a foreign country and expect the people of that country to act just as we do. Instead, we should appreciate the country for what it has to offer. Its citizens have lived a certain way for so long it is impossible to change them now--especially not overnight.
And you need a sense of adventure to be willing to try new things. Some people come to Korea and only eat Western food, refusing to try anything outside their comfort zones. Others spend their free time going out every weekend and then not remembering the night before. That might be fun sometimes, but ultimately, where does that leave you? You can drink to excess in almost any country, but there are some sights unique only to Korea that should be experienced. That is the real Korea, not the inside of the newest bar or club. (After all, what pictures would you want to show your family, all your drunken shenanigans or Korea's beautiful scenery?) The same could apply to those who never leave their apartments during their time here. Korea is a beautiful country that is easy to travel around, so why not explore it? The bus and train systems make it easier than ever to go on a day or weekend trip. You can even hop on a boat or plane to head down to Jeju, often referred to as "Korea's Hawaii."
Some of the best advice I received about coming to Korea and living here was not to be afraid of the unknown. Fear is what holds us back from accomplishing our goals and making dreams come true. What will yours be?