Taking Control of my Life from 5,000 years of Tradition
Hi, welcome to my blog! I’m Lauren and I was born and raised in Korea.
Korea is known for many things:
- K-pop, BTS, Parasite, Taekwondo, K-beauty or Kimchi
But there’s more to it.
It’s a country where there’s one socially acceptable path in life of going to a good school, working for a big company, getting married and having kids.
I never wanted other people to decide my life for me, so I spent my whole life resisting.
I still get a ton of “life advice” from my relatives to settle in Korea, but I’m happy to have control of my future now.
This story is about how I chose a completely different path.
I was born in October, 1988.
This was no accident.
You see, it was the year of the double dragon and considered a good time to have children. Koreans sometimes do things for reasons like this.
Plus the Olympics added a special significance to that year, since it was South Korea’s coming out party.
This is how a chubby girl weighing 7.5 pounds came to be.
Growing Up in a Small Town
I’m from what’s considered a small town in South Korea of only 1 million people.
I’ve known one of my close friends since I was 3. It’s that kind of small town.
Since everybody knew each other, my mom taught me to always greet people on the street.
When I was little, I enjoyed this and socialized a lot.
The fact that ajummas complimented me on my polite behavior and gave me some candy was a plus.
I loved my hometown until I went to middle school.
Every student in Korea wears middle/high school uniforms, so we only get to wear our own clothes on the weekends.
Like every other girl, I enjoyed wearing cute dresses that turned out to be way too short for a small conservative town.
A lot of people gossiped and I had to hear nagging from my mom all weekend.
Studying My Butt Off
Korea is the land of education.
Name anything you want to learn, there’s a private educational institute for it.
There’s even a fortune telling and tarot card academy.
Growing up, I loved practicing piano at one of these institutes, even though my instructor was scary. She would motivate me by hitting my hands with a ballpoint pen when I made a mistake.
I also enjoyed learning Taekwondo. That is, until my mom became afraid of me joining the slacker kid’s gang, and stopped sending me to the academy.
Despite this, they were pretty relaxed when it came to academics. I appreciate that my parents never scolded or forced me to study like 99% of parents in Korea.
On top of private academies, Korea prioritizes education above all.
During my senior year in high school, I had to go to school by 7:30 AM and study until midnight.
Korea has something called, “evening self-study”, which is supposed to be voluntary, but seemed pretty mandatory to me since everyone did it.
Koreans are very good at using social pressure to get people to do things. This continues into office life.
Evening self-study begins at 7 PM and usually ends at 10 PM, except for the advanced class.
Being in the advanced group, which has the top 30 students out of 380 according to grade ranking (in Korea, they rank you in everything including height), was advantageous.
An exclusive room with private desks, chairs and lockers were provided. Since students here were aiming to go to top universities, this room was dead quiet and it was normal to study until midnight. (11 PM was mandatory.)
Around midnight, parents were lining up in cars to pick them up.
This may sound like child abuse, (which I would agree to some degree) but I learned patience.
Feeling Like a Frog in a Well
After getting tired of living in a small town, I only applied to universities far away.
I ended up going to Inha University on the polar opposite end of the country.
Although it was my third choice, I was happy to go, not because it was a top 10 university in Korea, but because it was the furthest away from my hometown.
I finally made it to a bigger city.
Freshman year was very fun. I drank a lot and had a blast bar hopping until 5 AM.
My dormitory had a strict rule of closing from midnight to 5 in the morning.
So, I couldn’t sneak in. Even back in 2007, my dorm had some serious security like you’d see in a Mission Impossible movie with impregnable barriers and fingerprint entry.
It was a bit shameful to walk back to my dorm at 5 AM when seniors were going to private academies to study things like English.
My first GPA was not so great, of course. And I didn’t mind.
I only had a wakeup call when some of the more influential Sunbae (seniors) urged Hoobae (juniors) to drink more and completely give up on their GPAs. They even scolded me for getting decent grades.
They just lost my respect and seemed like frogs in a well.
Who knew that this bigger city was just a bigger well for the frogs?
As a rebellious kid, I ignored all their advice, decided to focus more on studying, received scholarships a few times and graduated with a 4.09/4.50 GPA.
Being Obsessed with Self-Improvement
Korea is an interesting country.
People are way too educated. 70.4% enter college as of 2019.
And still, Koreans consider themselves “not enough”.
Even after going to college or getting a decent job, people keep studying to improve themselves.
For example, one of my friends has a well-paying job, but he learned Python at a coding academy on the weekend, and is studying investment at another academy now.
Another friend recently started French embroidery as a new hobby, but she is getting stress from not having better results, rather than enjoying the journey.
I speak Korean, English and a little bit of Japanese, but I feel like it’s not enough.
I can also play the piano and drums, but I’m not confident enough to perform in front of people.
It never ends.
As a Korean, I never learned how to take a break and enjoy the moment.
Playing a relaxing game like Stardew Valley or the Sims on the weekend makes me feel useless and lazy, even now.
I try really hard to fight this sense of self-doubt and obsession over self-improvement.
Living as a Girl in Korea – Part 1. Age
Korean guys say that girls are like Christmas cakes.
Nobody wants them after the 25th.
I even heard that a girl after 30 should have 10 grand extra in savings, and need to add another 10 grand every year, to make it work.
If you consider Korean age where people are born at the age of one, and one year is added to their age on the first day of the New Year, it’s not even fair.
I’m 31 (33 in Korea), and I consider myself young.
But whenever I visit Korea, all my relatives bring up my age, saying that I’m too old and should get married and have kids, etc.
The fact that I’ve been running a business with my partner for 7 years and traveling the world for 5 years doesn’t interest them.
When my body almost gave up on traveling last year, I briefly thought about settling in Korea, because I missed my friends and was too tired to appreciate travel.
One week in Korea was enough for me to buy a flight out of Incheon.
Living as a Girl in Korea – Part 2. Looks
Looks are everything in Korea.
If you’re pretty/handsome, life can be easy. If not, you’ll have a hard time, especially as a girl.
In my middle school graduation, 1/3 of the students, which was about 100 people, showed up with bruised eyes after getting double eyelid surgery.
After summer or winter vacation in high school, some of my friends showed up with nose jobs.
In university, one of my roommates got facial bone contouring surgery during the semester and couldn’t even chew meals for a couple months.
She got 8 more surgeries before graduation, and turned into a completely different person.
Some of my friends even changed their names after getting plastic surgery.
A lot of people I meet overseas asked me about plastic surgery either out of curiosity or as a joke.
Not every Korean gets plastic surgery. I think many Korean girls are naturally beautiful.
It just saddens me that society pressures girls to get plastic surgery to pass a job interview or even date a guy.
I hope people can be kinder to them because they can’t even imagine what they’ve been through.
It doesn’t end with a pretty face. Korean girls are pressured to have flawless skin, zero body fat, and perfect grooming at all times.
I am very lucky to leave that toxic environment and have a partner who loves me even when I have skin troubles or gain weight.
Learning English and Eye-Opening Experiences
I had one semester left and wanted to see a bigger world before graduating college.
So, I decided to go to the United States and study English.
When I first arrived at SFO, I wished I could grow up in a Western country, because I was shocked to see a 4-year-old kid speaking English fluently.
I was 21 and couldn’t speak English at all, despite years of study.
My first frustration was trying to order a sandwich at Subway.
Imagine you had no idea what Subway was or how to order there, and you don’t even speak the language on top of that.
My face was getting flushed as the line behind me was getting longer.
After that Subway experience, I once again studied my butt off to be somewhat fluent.
Aside from English, I immediately fell in love with the culture and people.
At least in California, everybody was so friendly and smiley. People even started small talk at grocery stores.
In Korea, people don’t talk to each other unless they know each other.
They often mistook my smile for weakness, just because I smile a lot.
I was very happy to find people with a genuinely positive vibe.
Another part of living in California I loved was that I didn’t have to dress up and put on makeup every day. No one criticized me for that.
If I showed up without makeup in Korea even during an exam, every guy would point it out and say my face had “no manners”.
I thought this was normal until I went to the States.
Trying Out Jobs
After spending 10 months in the U.S., I had to go back to Korea to finish school.
I started thinking about a career as well. Since I chose to get a scholarship over getting a part time job, I had no idea what I wanted as a career.
Most of my alumni got jobs at big conglomerates like Samsung, LG or Hyundai. Whether I could get a job there or not, I just didn’t want that life.
It was just another step in the life that society had planned out for me before birth.
I wrote down things I liked and the main one was traveling.
Which job would let me travel? Cabin crew of course.
So like a good Korean, I went straight to a private academy for becoming a flight attendant.
Soon after, I realized that I needed some work experience to apply to airlines like Emirates or Qatar, which I didn’t have.
Luckily, I made it to the second interview round for Asiana and third round for Singapore. But in the end, I didn’t get the job I thought I wanted.
Meeting my Partner
The cabin crew academy I chose provided an English interview class with a native speaker.
In the first class, a handsome guy walked in and started making small talk with everyone in the class of 10 students.
I just shook hands with him and talked like a normal person, but he seemed very surprised and frozen.
I thought he was kind of being weird at first, but he told the class that my small talk was perfect.
Since his class was most helpful, I took it for 3 months.
Back then, I was dieting and wearing Hollister hoodies a lot. I thought no one would be interested in me dressed up like a tomboy, but we learned that we had a lot in common.
After I finished the course at the institute, we hung out a lot and went on a date.
Even though I never became a cabin crew member, I met the partner of my life, so the over $1,000 in tuition was totally worth it.
Working at Companies
After failing to get a cabin crew job, I somewhat lost my confidence and tried random jobs like working at the executive lounge of a 5-star hotel, a fine dining restaurant as a supervisor, a PR agency and a translation agency.
My parents wanted me to work a desk job at one company forever.
But that wasn’t me.
Aside from enjoying new jobs and industries, I was never satisfied. Maybe because of undesirable work environments.
Examples include the following:
- Having to work while standing in high heels almost permanently deformed my feet at the hotel.
- Working overtime at the restaurant in Singapore and not having free time caused mild depression.
- Translating almost 200 articles (media coverage) all day while starving at a motor show for the luxury automobile company drained me and made me feel like a slave, regardless of my job title of PR agent.
- Being forced to drink at a hweshik (office gathering) by a lonely CEO of a translation agency felt like harassment.
Plus, it’s considered rude to leave work before your boss. And many of them hated going home. I never understood why I had to stay at work after finishing everything on time, just because my superiors didn’t leave yet.
I especially disliked hweshik culture. The boss man always forced us to drink so much soju. Furthermore, some demanded entertainment shows with singing and dancing at the noraebang (karaoke).
Starting a Business
After having my self-esteem crushed by a number of companies, all I wanted was to have no boss.
From an early age, I wanted to be an entrepreneur like my dad. I just assumed that I would, once I was old enough.
When is old enough, though?
I thought it’s better to do it now than later or never. Even if I failed, I could always look for another job.
After having lots of discussions with Richard and helping each other out with work, we decided to become business partners.
We already knew we could well travel together, so starting a business seemed like the next step.
It was an easy decision since he is more of a big picture guy, whereas I am a detail/task-oriented person.
We selected the translation industry, signed a partnership agreement, registered our company, and prepared to run a business.
I was 24 and brave.
I didn’t even tell my parents or anyone that I quit my job until we made our first revenue.
Running a business was not easy, but rewarding. All the hard work paid off directly into our pockets.
It has been 7 years since our business registration in 2013, and this has been the longest career I’ve ever had.
I felt like I was stagnating in Korea after running our business for 2 years.
We wrote down our 3-year, 5-year and 10-year vision and plans. We found out that both of us wanted to travel eventually.
Why not now?
We did a test run in Taiwan for 2 weeks, and it turned out to be relatively easy and exciting.
We sold everything in Seoul, and became minimalists (without knowing what that was since it wasn’t trendy back then).
This felt liberating like going “into the unknown”.
And after 5 years, we are still traveling slowly and working remotely.
My dad still calls me and asks, “are you going to be a wanderer forever?” and my answer is “I don’t know yet.”
There’s still so much more to see and do.
Growing Affection for Animals
Growing up in a sea of apartments, I’ve never had a chance to meet animals other than at the zoo.
Then, slow travel changed everything for me.
When I met Sophie the turtle at Richard’s parent’s house in Orange County, I learned that turtles can enjoy eating dandelions and be very affectionate. If I settled, I definitely want a turtle to be part of my family.
I took a selfie with an adorable Alpaca in Cusco, Peru. In Mtskheta, Georgia, I played with a happy dog enjoying the view. I was photobombed by a cute kangaroo in Australia.
I fostered numerous friendly cats in Balkan countries like Croatia and Montenegro.
Being super lucky to meet them, I started to cherish all these moments and animals as they bring so much joy and a smile to my face.
I used to be a meat lover and hate vegetables, and I can’t say that I’m going to be a full vegetarian yet.
But I eat less meat and care more about shopping cruelty-free.
Thank you for reading!
It’s never easy to focus on what you want, especially with everything going on around us.
I had to separate myself from Korea to get to know the real me.
I miss my friends and family sometimes, but it has been worth it.
After choosing my own destiny, I found self-fulfillment and self-esteem.
If someone like me from a closed society can take control of their life, I believe anyone can.
Either way, it’s worth a try.