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First impressions of JejuA first-person look at the island through fresh eyes
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승인 2011.09.19  16:12:37
페이스북 트위터

I am a new comer to the island of Jeju. I have been here for two weeks and am experiencing the novelty of Korea for the first time. I came here for love and beforehand never imagined I would move to South Korea. I have been preparing to move to Jeju for the past seven months trying to learn what I could about the culture and the language. I met a few Korean-Americans back home in San Diego, California who all became overjoyed when I mentioned Jeju, they looked at me with envy in their eyes. My family’s Korean dry cleaner said he loved Jeju so much he took his entire family here for vacation last year. From these few encounters, I had the impression I was moving to a spectacular place.

▲ Jenna Houts and a ubiquitous Jeju protector... a Stone Grandfather. Photo courtesy Jenna Houts
I have travelled throughout Europe and Latin America but have spent very little time in Asia. Exploring the Korean island of Jeju and its unique culture is a brand new experience for me. I was originally thrilled to live in a country known for its advancements in technology, studious people, and traditional cuisine. My first day on Jeju, I was aware and impressed by Jeju’s immaculate organization. Jeju’s airport was clean and organized, and street signs were abundant, clearly marked, well lit, and translated into three languages. I was impressed by the taxi cabs all equipped with GPS systems and reliable meters. (I was also pleasantly surprised by the cheap taxi fares.) I loved the clean streets devoid of garbage and the plethora of trash and recycling bins lining the streets. I couldn’t believe how cautious Jeju drivers were of pedestrians who often slowed to allow them the right of way. From my first day, I was falling in love with Jeju.

Beyond noticing the streets and cars, I started to notice the kinds of businesses that lined the streets of Jeju City. Strolling down the sidewalk I noticed Jeju City does not lack for coffee shops, PC/gaming centers, cell phone companies, or skin and beauty care shops. I am assuming the huge amount of competition for these kinds of business says a lot about the culture and way of life in Jeju.

I was very surprised by Jeju City’s urban feel. The city camouflages Jeju’s tropical setting with its high rise apartment, office buildings, large billboards, and busy streets packed with cars, buses, and people. I often forget I am living on the “honeymoon island” while walking around the city. Although Jeju City tries to deceive me of its beauty, I only have to take the stairs one flight up to the roof of my apartment building and look out at the views, with the sparkling sea to the north and the magnificent Mt. Halla volcano to the south, I remember how lucky I am to have landed here.

I have come to learn and appreciate the two-faced sides of Jeju living. On one side, Jeju cities boast all the amenities that an urban lifestyle brings. On the other side, I can leave the city behind and experience a sleepy, relaxed environment at world-class beaches. For me, this is the best of both worlds.

I was told before arriving that Koreans do not speak English, unlike other popular tourist destinations where the people have mostly adapted to the English speaking tourist. I studied a little Korean on Rosetta Stone for a month to prepare. Still, I have not found the need to use my pathetic Korean as much as I thought I would. I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of people who do speak at least a little bit of English, despite all the rumors. I have had many encounters with shop keepers, clerks, cab drivers and waiters who try their hardest to communicate with me, struggling to pull English words from the depths of their memories. I feel very appreciate every time someone has stepped up to help translate a conversation and help me navigate the labyrinth of Jeju streets.

I never know what to expect when approaching a local person. Every interaction is different depending on our combined language skills. Sometimes, I have entire conversations with hand gestures and head nods. I find it amazing how much people from two different cultures, speaking two different languages, can communicate with just hands and faces alone. I find the key is to not be shy; more expression the better!

Living and travelling in a foreign country are two different animals. Travelling as a tourist, I have the opportunity to skim a new culture only on the surface. Living in a foreign country, I am able to learn in-depth idiosyncrasies about a culture just from daily life activities. Visits to the supermarket, the cell phone company, the English academy, and a Korean family home, all revealed new aspects of Korean culture I otherwise would never have the opportunity to experience. I learned how to greet locals with a little bow of the head, not a handshake. I spent hours deciphering labels at the supermarket learning quickly to make substitutes with local ingredients when I could not find what I wanted. I learned the cell phone company and English academies enforce strict rules and regulations according to the law and do not stray from these procedures. I took off my shoes at the front door to a local family home I visited and sat around the dining room table, chatting and laughing, much as I would with friends at home.

After two weeks on the island of Jeju, I know I still have a lot to learn and a lot to explore. I look forward to seeing how my first impressions will change and adapt to my new surroundings on Jeju. But, so far, I feel lucky to have landed in this gorgeous little corner of the world.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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