Busan Newbie Awesome



Recently I discovered the appropriately named “Book of Awesome” by Neil Pasricha. The back cover cheerfully contends that

Sometimes it’s easy to forget the things that make us smile. Sometimes it’s tempting to feel that the world is falling apart. But awesome things are happening all around us: popping bubble wrap, the smell of rain on a hot sidewalk, hitting a bunch of green lights in a row, waking up and realizing it’s Saturday… [and] picking the perfect nacho chip off someone else’s plate.

While reading this blurb, it was to be only the first of many times throughout reading this book where I would simultaneously laugh out loud, think “that is SO true” and emit a passionate cry of “PREACH it” with one hand over my heart and the other on the “Book of Awesome” like it was the Bible.

And then it got me thinking. You know what’s awesome? Travelling. But, how many times have I struggled to capture an awesome travel experience in eloquent discourse? Um, like a LOT. I inevitably find myself talking about architecture, history, politics, culture and cuisine like I’m a bad travel documentary host.

Obviously those documentary-style offering are important and an integral part of articulating what it means to be in a new country but it’s always the quirky, little things that I truly enjoy and remember, that make a new place really – well to use the word of the hour – AWESOME.

The following is a list of my top five awesome things as a Newbie in Busan. If you’re new or soon to be new, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you’ve lived here for more than a month, you’ll already be disdainfully chuckling at my wide-eyed rantings. But maybe, just maybe you’ll stop and remember a time when you still called kimbap ‘that sushi stuff’, a time where you were shocked and amazed at how ridiculously friendly the expat community was (before you realized that they were mostly just drunk or trying to get into your new-meat pants), and a time where you truly thought you were the first person to make the pun “I’m soju-runk right now”. Maybe you’ll remember these things and smile recalling that once upon a time you were the special Busan Newbie variety of AWESOME.

Ok, let’s get this bus (an) moving. Destination the first is:

1. The Won-Dollar Conversion Game

Moving to Korea to teach is cheap. Flights paid for? Check. Apartment covered? Yes indeedy. Look at you, world traveller or far away places! You made it to the heart of South East Asia impressing your friends, colleagues and family with your bold daring and genuine citizen-of-the-world status. Christopher Columbus? Psscchhhh… that schmuck has nothing on you kid.

But did such an endeavour require you to toil away in some unsatisfying in-between job back home for a year to achieve his usually financially-menacing feat? No siree. Even better, getting by over the first month only requires around a month worth of savings from a job at even the lowliest of polyester-uniform hospitality/temp type jobs that are way below your level of intellectual prowess so clearly demonstrated by that liberal arts degree and the leather-bound journal you in which you sometimes write excellent post-post-modern blank verse.

But even you weren’t prepared for the cheapskates-high which was about to flood your veins with more euphoria than a Korean school-girl feels unwrapping a mountain of cartoon animal, grammatically suspect English covered stationary on her tenth birthday.

It started that first time you handed across a 10,000 won note for a hearty lunch and got a sweet 4000 won handed straight back to you as change. That’s right my friend, you were seriously considering a quick trip to the bathroom to throw up, that’s how ridiculously stuffed full of delicious Korean food when it happened; you asked a fellow expat how much 6000 won is in your homeland and were nonchalantly informed that it equates to a measly six bucks.


But wait, how much should you tip?

You shouldn’t globe-traveller. You can’t. Those sweet, sweet waiters wouldn’t accept your tip if your tried. If you did, they’d say “Pal, your money’s no good here. Now scram” in the voice of Tony Soprano.

Since then, you’ve played the Won-Dollar Conversion Game countless times on your groceries, booze, cigarettes, taxi fares and Hello Kitty pencil cases. The high is dizzying and addictive but you’re a junkie for now injecting that glorious conversion game narcotic into your already $1.50 soju-filled veins.

What do they call this feeling?

Ladies and gentlemen, may I formally introduce,


2. The “Oh you’ve only been here X weeks” Incredulity

There’s a reason why that undeniably cool nineties group named themselves “New Kid on the Block”. Because being new is just that: cool. Way cool, in fact. Almost as cool as Marky Mark’s brief stint as a Calvin Klein model.

And cool is exactly what you are for the time being as a Busan Newbie. Over the past couple of weeks of “outings” (way-too-frequent nights and days of boozing), I have been continually amazed and bemused by how impressed people seem to be upon finding out you are a recent arrival in Korea. When I tell people how long I’ve been here the reaction goes something like this:

“Wait, wait, WAIT! WHAT? You’ve only been here X days? Hold the phone! Pump the breaks! Back up there homeboy!”

I can almost see their eyes bulging cartoon-like in shocked surprise as giant bubble-font question and explanation marks spew out of their mouth like *DING DING DING DING*. Apparently, I’m something akin to a child genius for my Newbie status.

“So you’re in Korea only X days after coming here? To Korea? Sir, let me remove my hat in awe and admiration. I’ll ring the Nobel council immediately and alert them of this stupendous achievement!”

Ok ok, maybe that is a tad beyond the reactions of the seasoned veterans but like any needy middle-child, I know that praise feels good. Even if that praise is the adult equivalent of completing a page in your colouring book.

Great job kid.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking you foolish sucker, you foolish, foolish sucker. Colouring is awesome.

And that’s exactly what the “Oh you’ve only been here X weeks” Incredulity is:


Please note that there is a slight variation of this one called the Kootchi Kootchi Koo, You’re New! reaction. This is where upon finding out you’re new, someone proceeds to wrap you in muslin cloth, sprinkle you with talcum powder and pinch your baby-soft Newbie cheeks like you’re the sweetest newborn piece of adorable cuteness they’ve ever seen. Included in this category are the people who have tried to explain to me how a bus works, how to use a gas-top stove and how to book a plane ticket on the internet (actually, maybe this kind of advice can be attributed to people thinking that because I’m from New Zealand, I’m unfamiliar with such technology. True, it usually it is Gandalf that gives us this kind of advice when we need it so these maybe these people are just genuinely trying to be helpful). Anyway, while this reaction is enjoyable, I think we can all agree that it’s more fun to be cool than cute which is why Kootchi Kootchi Koo, You’re New! only receives a nomination.

3. The Receiving of Unwrapped Food from Small Children

Raise your hand if you like food? Thought so.

Raise your hand if you like food that you didn’t have to buy, prepare or acquire yourself? Thought so again.

I know I do. Even better is getting food from those adorable miniature human beings known as children. And I’ve been enjoying this in a-BUN-dance lately (MAN , the buns are good here).

If your initiation to teaching in Korea was anything like mine, then the first few days were a blur of feeling overwhelmed, unsure and kind of like you don’t really know what the eff-word you’re doing. As you sat in the teacher’s room kind of needing to pee but not knowing where the bathroom was, trying to decide whether it would be out of line to ask your hundredth annoying question of the day to your co-worker who’s just trying to enjoy one peaceful game of Angry Birds in their precious down-time, then maybe you got your first twinge of homesickness like I did.

But before that twinge could twang, you saw a tiny hand outstretched to you offering you a serving of slightly soggy prawn snacks.

“Teacher” blink, blink, blink. Tiny arm stretch, stretch, stretch.

You know what to do. Consume your tasty gift with joy. They say food is love after all which means someone loves you. They really, truly love you.

Sure, in about two weeks you’re going to get a nasty bout of whatever bug or cold is currently circulating the children of Busan. But for now, just enjoy this simple act of kindness. Baby, you deserve it.


4. The Spontaneous Synchronized Dance Performance

When I was a kid, we owned two videos: The Sound Of Music and Mary Poppins. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we watched one or both of these videos everyday for years on end. Aaaannnd, sometimes more than once. My sisters and I could list all of Maria’s favourite things in alphabetical order, the names of all the nuns, and the items in Mary Poppins’ carpet bag no sweat. AND do all the dance moves to “Votes For Women” like we actually were disgruntled British suffragettes.

(And to those people that had the good fortune not to be from a “musical/show-tunes” family like mine, suffice to say that we spent a lot of time watching musicals).

The point is, and it’s kind of embarrassing to admit, I honestly thought that life was a musical for a while. I didn’t understand that spontaneous song and dance weren’t a feature of real life. I remember breaking into song once as a kid while playing doctor with my friends and them just being totally silent and bewildered. But did I recognize that that were weirded out at the time? Nope. I just thought ok, I guess they’re the chorus and I’m taking lead today. Take it away Elizabeth. Ya da da da da DA!

Obviously I realize now that life is in fact, not a musical where people break into spontaneous song and dance at the inkling of a feeling. But then most of the world know that.

Or do they?

See, if you’ve had the good fortune as a Busan Newbie to end up in a bar that isn’t full of expats and is in fact dominated by Korean-folk (go figure! Right here in Korea?), then you may have had the privilege to see the Spontaneous Synchronized Dance Performance. Usually accompanied by a techno remix version of “Sex on the Beach”, Korean men in their twenties will dance routines in rehearsed boy-band-esque perfect unison with the kind of gusto that even Julie Andrews would be proud of. And probably even a little turned on by.

Kick-ball-change, open square, close square, swivel, swivel , and extend, jazz hands on 5, 6, 7, 8…

Oh yeah, you can’t deny as you take all of it in for the very first time that you’ve just experienced some of that


5. The Keepers

Yup, so as you can see being new in Busan obviously has some perks to it. A few times I’ve even seen people try to hold onto their Newbie status for longer than is deemed acceptable and I can understand why they do it. Last night I heard a girl who has been here for three months say that she was “new’ and the instant and ferocious backlash of disgust and disbelief was kind of awkward.


It was as if she was asking for money to buy shoes while wearing Jimmy Choos on her feet: not likely to get any takers.

But although it’s fun playing the conversion game, being the new kid on the block, getting unsanitary treats from children and seeing grown-men dance like the cast of Glee, it’s not all roses being new. See despite the new-kid popularity, a small part of me gets home after a day at school, a dinner with Korean colleagues or a night out with fellow foreigners and thinks “Do people, um, like me?”.

See, a place or time is only as good as the people you are with and so, like any Newbie, I want to make friends. That sounds dorky but every one of us is a dork in our own way and it’s important to find other dorks of your variety who you can share this amazing city with. Weeding through the potential friends here, it can suck to realize that the person you’re hanging out with is kind of a douche. Or worse, they think you are.

(On this note, I heard of one guy here who liked to take new people to his group aside and say “Hey, just so you know we’ve all talked about it and no one really likes you” to ‘test’ them. Obviously reactions aren’t usually great. I don’t know, maybe that’s hilarious? You can decide. For me, I’m just a little bit green to find that funny. But then again I do laugh really hard when people fall down the numerous marble staircases here so I’m not perfect. The best reaction I heard of was from my sweet and sassy Kiwi friend who just laughed and said “Huh. That’s so funny you should say that considering that no one likes you”. Kiwi: 1, Douchebag: 0)

To the point now: what is great is finding the Keepers. The people that astound you with their kindness, hospitality, intelligence, wit and ability to have a good time. I know for me, what could have been a lonely and awkward first couple of weeks have been made straight up amazing thanks to people like this

I am truly grateful.

Ok, ok I’ll stop. The cheese-factor is already dangerously high for my metaphorical cholesterol.

The best thing about being new to Busan? Thems the Keepers!

Keepers, you be



Re: Busan Newbie Awesome

Nice to read something positive.

I fell in love with Busan the moment I stepped of the plane. Busan was raw and I liked it. It's been domesticated (emasculated?) but it still has some charm and character that deserves the "awesome" designation.

You should have been here when you could pick up that 6000 won meal for 2000 won, and the exchange rate was 725 KRW to 1 USD. The old 1.2 million won went much farther than our current 2-point-whatever you're lucky enough to make now.


But it's still awesome being here. It's even more awesome if you make the mistake of going home for years and then come back and realize how much awesomeness you missed while gone.

Re: Busan Newbie Awesome

Okay.  First of all, Korea is in Northeast Asia, not Southeast Asia.  I'm not sure if that was a slip of the typing fingers or just good ol' "I don't know that the fuck I'm talking about", but I'll chalk it up to the former.  Second, if you're paying 6,000 won for lunch, you're getting ripped off.  There is a much larger world outside of Kimbab Cheongook.  There are TONS of little, family-run, hole-in-the-wall joints that'll give you a good feed with tons of side dishes for 4,000 won.  You just gotta look.

I kinda stopped reading after that, but I'm a jaded old asshole lifer.