Lauren Kilberg works as a marketing coordinator for a Chicago-based architecture firm. She’s a contributing writer for Paste Magazine and explores the intersection of destination and design on her blog Double Takes. Last year, she repatriated to her native Chicago after living and working in South Korea for two years. She’s backpacked her way across Europe and from Indonesia to India, exploring just about every country in between. Simply put, she’s a collector of maps, passport stamps and freckles.
What made you curious to live and work in another country?
I’ve always been interested in other countries and cultures. I attribute my travels to having some of the most profound effects on shaping the person that I am. I thought living overseas and immersing myself in another culture for more than a short visit would prove to be a really challenging and rewarding experience and in the end, it was.
Why did you choose South Korea?
I spent the summer after graduating from college volunteering at an educational youth camp in South Korea. It was a country I knew very little about before visiting but it completely won me over with its customs, culinary culture, and general warmth towards foreigners. While there, the group I was with was quarantined due to a N1H1 outbreak. The Koreans tasked with looking after us were so accommodating and kind. What could have been an unpleasant ordeal remains one of the best experiences in my life. Life’s funny like that. Incredibly positive things can result from the curve balls we’re thrown. When I decided to move overseas, South Korea was an easy choice.
How long were you away, and when did you know it was time to come back?
I lived in South Korea for two years and traveled South East Asia for six months (with a brief visit to the Middle East) before finally landing back in the States.
I originally left the States on a one-year visa. The decision to extend my visa for a second year was far easier than the decision to finally come home. Leaving South Korea was an extremely difficult decision and one that I second guessed well before, and well after, making it.
What took the most getting used to about living in a foreign place?
The culture shock was not as pronounced as I’d expected it to be, especially compared to other countries I’ve visited and cultures I’ve exposed myself to. The challenges of living in a foreign place are half the fun of the whole experience. Struggling through grocery store aisles, having to use charades as a primary form of communication until you’ve grasped the language, ordering the wrong thing on the menu and ending up with a plate of wiggling squid – it’s all a part of the experience and I tried to embrace that.
What were some examples of things you love about Korean culture?The list is long and varied, but oh my goodness the food! The Korean culinary culture is intense and challenged me to try an abundance of new foods and flavors. In many ways, I think my time eating in Korea changed the way I eat as whole. The Korean table is a collage of side dishes that incorporate texture, color and taste into the eating experience. Since moving home, the dinner table has looked a little sparser and often less exciting.
I remember you took cooking classes while you were there; how was that experience?
I took a weekend cooking class near the very end of my time in Korea. After spending nearly two years fascinated by and falling in love with Korean food, it was great getting professional instruction on how to cook and prepare a traditional Korean meal.
Were the activities and restaurants you visited in South Korea planned ahead of time, or did you happen on a lot of it?
Yes and no. I had a guidebook and other resources that I referred to often, but Korea is a great country for spontaneity. There are countless restaurants on every block, temples and hiking trails outside every city, train tickets can be purchased within minutes of departure, and Koreans are generally very willing to help you sort through a menu or city.
How did you travel within the country? What would someone who has never visited be surprised by about Korean transit?
The great thing about Korea is that it’s a small country and you can get anywhere in a day. The rail system is fast, comfortable and affordable. I did most of my inter-country travel on Korail. If I wasn’t traveling far, say within the province I lived in, I’d take a bus. Traveling within Korea is considerably easy, even for foreigners with little grasp of the language.
What did you learn about South Korea as a country by traveling to many of its cities?
I can confidently say I would not have gotten a good understanding of Korea had I not spent so much time traveling between its provinces. Korea is extremely diversified considering its size. Each province and so many of the cities have their own personalities. If you just visit Seoul, you’re really missing the other pieces of the puzzle. The food is different, as it the dialect, the pace of life, and the scenery. I gained a new appreciation for the country with every new place I visited within it.
There was a small Korean barbecue restaurant in the neighborhood I lived in just outside Seoul in a city called Suwon. I’d start there with my camera and my appetite. Those are the only two things I really need to enjoy myself in Korea.
How do you feel when you look back on these images?