21 Life Lessons Learned in South Korea

Apr 09, 2017

“The life you have led doesn’t need to be the only life you have.” – Anna Quindlen

~Note: A new episode of The Simple Sophisticate podcast did not go live on Monday (4/10) due to my loss of voice. Argh! However, I do hope you enjoy today’s post as I reflect on my recent week-long trip to South Korea. 

The gifts of travel continue to amaze, surprise and elude even my attempts at guessing what I might return knowing, feeling or having become as I pack my luggage prior to the journey. And my trip to South Korea last month did not deviate from this learned truth.

Choosing to wait a full week before composing today’s post, I wanted to savor, reflect and ensure I did not forget even the most minor of details. While I am certain there will still be remembrances that will pop up as the weeks and months unfold, the time of pause has shown itself to be fruitful.

As I mentioned above, this past weekend, following a head cold, my voice as well decided to go on its own vacation. As is the case, often it is our bodies that need to take charge when we haven’t given it the rest it needs. And while upon returning to Bend last week, I hit the ground running at work, not easing into the everyday schedule allowing the jet lag to gradually wear off. However, sometimes opportunities arise that we could never have predicted, and we must leap. And I am so thankful I had the opportunity to say yes to such a gift of a trip.

Many TSLL readers and IG followers have ask why I went to South Korea, and while I shared briefly on IG, I have been keeping the reasons fairly close to the vest. Why? It involves my heart, and I will leave it at that for now. I thank you in advance for honoring my privacy as the journey of exploration continues. In the meantime and always when I travel, I am looking to see what can be learned, discovered and broaden horizons, and so I have compiled a list of 21 life lessons I learned during this beautiful journey and would like to share.

1. Knowing how to communicate is crucial.

Not knowing or expecting to be traveling to Korea, I humbling admit, I did not know the language. Certainly, we were at a disadvantage, and while many Koreans did speak English, more than expected did not. Attempting to learn “hello” and “thank you” was the extent of my knowledge which served as an important reminder that it is language, a common language, that is needed to be successful, to make progress and to strengthen bonds and build understanding (as well as to be able to order the food you want ;)). To the many native Koreans and fellow travelers who knew the language and who offered their language prowess, I extend my gratitude and appreciation.

2. Extending gratitude is a priceless form of communication.

Speaking of gratitude, even though we did not know much Korean, the extension of gratitude was something that could be expressed without saying the proper words. With body language (perhaps a bow or a nod of the head in deference), while not the most efficient, does convey appreciation which translates no matter what language you speak. Needless to say, I was doing a lot of bowing.

3. Always be open to learning from those who know more or who have more life experience in arenas you may not. 

The picture above and many of the images throughout today’s post were taken by my love who has far more expertise and experience in photography than I do. Whether it is a skill you are curious to learn more about or a way of better engaging with life, with others, with yourself or your mind, seeking out others who know more and have figured out how to successfully do what you wish to be able to do will never be a bad idea and will only enlighten your world. See below a few of the images he captured while we toured the Korean Folk Village.

4. Bringing a few comforts from home softs the culture shock.

With the ability to bring two checked pieces of luggage for free, I made the most of it and brought more than a few comforts from home. While it is always encouraged to fully experience the culture you are visiting, packing your favorite tea or even your favorite pillow to help ensure a deep, restful sleep is not a bad idea.

5. Vegetables are the most delicious food. Knowing what to do with vegetables makes all the difference. 

From fermented cabbage (kimchi) served with nearly every dish, to leaves and lettuce to wrap our freshly grilled pork or beef after having dipped it in red chili paste, the vegetables were abundant and full of flavor.

~my first bowl of bibimbap! (with a side of kimchi)~


6. Finding parallels of what you love in the new culture can provide a sense of calm, discovery and deeper appreciation.

One daily routine that I quickly missed was having the outdoors at my doorstep, and so on the weekend we ventured out to one of the many national and provincial parks and hiked to the top of Janggunbong Peak. The hike was magnificent, the air so fresh and the afternoon sun exquisite. Take a look at our hike up to the top, as well as a pavilion that at this moment (as I type) is most likely surrounded by blooming trees of spring.

7. Jet lag will happen no matter how hard you try to lessen its effects.

As I mentioned in this post about how to travel well, jet lag will just happen even if you think you’ve stealthily avoided it (as I had errantly presumed). The lesson is to not, at least for me, dive into places unknown by yourself when getting lost may just bring you to tears due to frustration you normally would have handled with no problem had you not been experiencing jet lag.

8. Eat the local fare, but it’s okay to dine occasionally at a restaurant that serves what you know and love. 

After dining at local restaurants and eating many a dumpling (oh, my goodness, so delicious!), oodles of kimchi, bibimbap and more, when Friday arrived and the suggestion was to dine at a French/Italian restaurant, I was giddy. Twirling my pasta in my spoon and noshing on gourmet pizza, complete with a perfectly sized piece of tiramisu, it was a beautiful respite before diving back into the culture.

~Little Nozzac in Dongtan, Korea~

9. Knowing how to entertain yourself will lead to wonderful stories to share and remind you of your tenacity and capabilities. 

Having traveled on my own during most of my journeys abroad, I had the confidence that I could navigate and figure out where and what to do somewhat decently when I was on my own the first few days of the work week in Korea. While the language barrier caused more delays and confusion than I had anticipated and probably taxed my energy level more than I realized, I at least knew I could figure out the transportation (the bussing system is wonderful, and navigating the subway is akin to most major urban metropolis subways) and did meet some lovely individuals as well as see some beautiful sites. While there was much more I wanted to see and still more I probably didn’t know about but would have ventured to upon discovering their whereabouts, I returned each evening I did go out on my own with stories to share which adds to the trip as well.

10. Doing what you want, when you want to is a gift to be savored.

When you do have time to explore on your own, make the most of it. While I did spend two days working on the blog (I had a lovely working space which was quite inspiring), the remainder of the couple of days to wander on my own were lovely. As someone who lives on her own and goes about most of her days as needs arise (hungry? okay, let’s get lunch; tired? let’s take a nap; ready to relax? why not draw a bath even if it is 3pm in the afternoon), I felt quite comfortable with time on my hands.

11. Sharing the exploration with someone special is priceless. 

While wandering about on one’s own is a worthwhile and must-do experience, exploring with someone special is ideal. Yes, learning to travel well together can take time, but when you enjoy the company of each other, those  hiccups can be overcome. Seeing something new together for the first time, wandering about not knowing what you will see next, sitting down for a meal unsure of what you will be sharing, but experiencing it together, all of these opportunities cultivate memories and windows to better get to know each other.

12. No television (only Netflix for a few evenings), less time with cell phone in hand and not reading a newspaper enabled me to invest more fully into the moment.

For the record, I was more stressed about the proximity of North Korea while I was in the states than when I was in South Korea. While the reason for that can be debated, much of it had to do with the limited consumption of news and media I was exposed to while on my trip. And with the time difference (16 hours), in many ways I felt liberated to write, post, comment and explore the internet when the moment encouraged me to do so, not when I felt I needed to.

Often we aren’t aware of the stress we impose upon our lives unnecessarily until we remove ourselves from it unconsciously. As I step back into my everyday routine here in Bend, I am contemplating how I can reduce my habit of news consumption: perhaps limit notifications or maybe unsubscribe to the daily newspaper so that I only seek out news when I am curious? I don’t have the answer yet, but I am certainly exploring what might be a better fit for a reduction of stress and angst about the world.

13. Why not use chopsticks? Doing so slows down eating, and also creates smaller bites.

Forks were not an option, and I was truly thankful to “Do as the Romans do” so-to-speak. While there were spoons available, metal chopsticks were the eating utensil of choice, and while I still use them very slowly, and had days where my fingers would not work with me, I also had other moments in which I was amazed how easily I was enjoying my meal. It is true that if one wants to eat, one will figure out how to do it with the tools available, and because of this simple fact, I am appreciative for this lesson, immensely so. (Admittedly and to be completely honest, at breakfast, I allowed myself to use a fork.)

14. More soup please!

I did not know until I was on my return flight, but upon hearing it, would agree completely: Korea is soup country. The Splendid Table podcast recently did an entire episode titled Koreatown which is how I learned of this truth. From ox bone soup to many different stone bowl soups and soups with noodles (oh, I love the noodles!), the list goes on, and they are delicious.

15. Encouragement to become more proficient in French.

Even though I did not know or learn much Korean, I was reminded of a foreign language I am enamored with and thus was encouraged to continue my practice, French. Knowing how it felt the first time I visited France not knowing a word in 2000, I was taken back to those days of utter confusion and perplexity, and vowed to continue the process of improving my French.

16. Leisurely mornings make for beautiful full days.

As with most vacations or getaways, the schedule is looser and therefore the alarm clock isn’t necessary. While I still awoke early, not having to rush out of bed, but instead leisurely welcome the morning sun into the living space, savor a delicious breakfast and conversation over tea, coffee and delicious food set the tone for a beautiful day yet to come.

17. Civility and calm decorum in public spaces is a beautiful daily way of going about life.

Wherever we went, the subway, busses, city streets, restaurants, the decorum by all ages was calm, pleasant and about keeping to one’s business. This is not to say it isn’t this way in certain parts of other countries, but I found this to be the case throughout each experience I had in public in South Korea. I found it peaceful and as someone who is typically an observer, I didn’t feel rushed, unsafe or uncomfortable at any time.

18. Community over individuality. Why not?

As we would discuss the observation of #16, the concept of community over individuality came up, and perhaps that is the underlying motivation. The idea of an awareness of others and your effect upon them should you only think of yourself. Thinking of others, their comfort, their sense of security and enjoyment, creates an environment in which all are able to enjoy the moment in their own way. Certainly food for thought that I feel I have only touched the surface of.

19. Stepping outside of your life, aside from one familiarity (the person you are with or a job you do), is sometimes the only way to gain perspective on the life you are living.

Anna Quindlen’s quote at the top of the post has been dancing around in my mind since the jet plane left Incheon International airport to return me to the states. With the aforementioned idea that one never knows exactly what they will return with upon embarking on a travel adventure, it is the broadening of perspective, the deepening of awareness about ourselves that is the priceless gift of travel.

One thing I learned that was reinforced was the power of daily routines no matter where in the world I may be establishing them brings me comfort; however, not every routine needs to be brought with me when I travel. Knowing which ones I need to take with me and which ones can stay home is crucial to fully enjoying the traveling experience. And if I don’t need it when I travel, do I need it in my everyday life as I had once supposed?

More significantly, travel puts what we value, or what we thought we valued, into perspective, and sometimes the priority list shifts unexpectedly but with absolute clarity. So much so, it may just shock us.

20. Affording a simple gesture of respect to anyone you come into contact with creates an atmosphere of cordiality, presence and inclusion.

One of the first culture behaviors I learned and was reminded to practice daily, but I was thankful for the reminder as the concept was of respect and recognition, was the gesture of touching the underside of my wrist or arm when I received or gave something to another. (Learn more about South Korea culture etiquette here.)

21. Say yes to visiting destinations you may not have ever thought you would venture; what you discover, what you experience may completely change your life. 

It goes without surprise that I was ecstatic about the journey to South Korea. Was such a trip ever on my bucket list? No, but perhaps it should have been. If nothing else, to pull me out of my comfort zone, to expose me to perceived discomforts that shouldn’t have been feared at all and reveal to me that I would be just fine. I am thankful for the patience, support, companionship and many beautiful moments shared with my special someone, and especially grateful for the invitation.

I will leave you with one more glimpse into my trip . . .

On my last full day, we ventured to the Korean Folk Village and were in attendance to observe a myriad of performances, one of which is captured in the pictures and videos below. Press play on each of the videos and I guarantee you, as was I, will be amazed by the simplistic complexity in which these dancers present their jaw-dropping talents (yes, their ribbons are attached to the top of their hats).


~See more of Shannon’s Journeys here.


13 thoughts on “21 Life Lessons Learned in South Korea

  1. I am so glad you got to make this trip. My first child was adopted from Korea over twenty years ago. We paid a businessman to escort him because we were unsure of the travel and what to do with a baby! I regret now not traveling to Korea to pick him up but was so happy that we traveled to India when we adopted our second child.

  2. Amazing, Shannon! Thank you so much for sharing such thoughtful and inspiring insights about an incredible trip. I always appreciate your attention to detail. Something we always love to discuss when we are coming home from travels: what top sensory details will you take home with you? Top sight, sound, smell, taste, touch? You have answered these so well from your trip. I am currently in Vilnius, Lithuania, with my husband for spring break – I am from Ireland – and today is our first full day. This morning, in the restaurant, they had bowls filled with irises, which delighted me, as I have never seen irises on their own like that before. Definitely a top sight for me already! Thank you again for sharing your experiences so beautifully. And I hope that your voice returns soon. Lots of rest – so difficult for teachers to do, I know. Please feel better soon. xx

  3. While the entire post is uplifting, the one item that resonated with me is the way media does effect our lives. We do need to stay abreast of the world around us…just maybe not in as much detail as is available. I have learned to choose the sources and more importantly the timing of information I gather. Thank you for putting this into words for all of us. Laurel Bledsoe

  4. I am so happy that you enjoyed South Korea. It wasn’t on our bucket list either but we took the opportunity to go when our daughter lived there. The people are wonderful and very helpful. Exploring on your own when you can’t speak the language is definitely challenging.
    I’m hoping you get plenty of rest and your voice makes its return soon. I was more that a little annoyed when a new episode didn’t show up this morning. I just knew it was something I was doing wrong!!! Never occurred to me that there might not be one!!!

    1. Yvetta, thank you for understanding. We are back on schedule for next week for sure. Mending now. 🙂 Yes, the people are extraordinarily kind, helpful and lovely. I will always remember their congeniality.

  5. Lovely post. I’m a Korean adoptee who had the great privilege of going back to Korea for several years as a pre-teen. I can’t wait to go back.

  6. Such a lovely post and fabulous pictures! I confess, though, I was waiting to read what you thought of all those amazing Korean skin care and beauty products, lol! Did you get the chance to try any while you were traveling? Wonderful post and a beautiful trip.

  7. Shannon, you seem very happy with your special someone! I am interested in seeing how your journey for a TSLL is affected. The reason I am curious is because I have loved reading your posts and have found them very inspiring and true in my own life. incorporating your suggestions, have made a real difference if my own journey to TSSL. However, I have had to adapt my journey sometimes, quite often, to the needs and schedules of 2 teenagers and a husband. Having enjoyed living on my own for 11 years before getting married, I admit that upon reading your posts, I sometimes longed for the carefree lifestyle before having a family. While each persons version of TSLL is their own and very unique, I truly feel blessed with my version, as it has unfolded over the past few years. Enjoy your special someone!

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