This has been a long time coming. I meant to post this much earlier but exams and final projects got the better of me and I found it rather challenging to balance everything. Still, I promised you, dear readers, 10 things, and 10 things you shall have. While the first post of this series dealt with the logistical/utilitarian aspects of living in Korea and the second dealt solely with food, this last one shall deal more with the cultural aspects of day-to-day living in Korea as a non-native. Without further ado, let’s get started – I present to you the final four things I feel one should know before living in Korea.
7. Learn at Least Some of the Language
I’m going to tell you a story. While I was studying at Yonsei University in Seoul last year, one weekend a student from California, a good friend of mine, and I decided to get out of Seoul and go somewhere we hadn’t previously gone. Eventually we decided on the small city of Onyang because there was a famous bathhouse there and it was accessible by the Seoul metro. The bathhouse was connected to a hotel that was kind of pricy, so we decided to sleep at a jimjilbang (it’s like a bathhouse/sauna, only there’s sleeping and recreation areas as well and you can stay overnight – cheap and good in a pinch). Eventually we found one but we wanted to go have a drink somewhere because it was still rather early. Since Onyang is a small city and it was a weeknight, many pubs were closed, but eventually we found a place that was open and decided to try it.
While we were in Onyang we did not see too many other foreigners, and my friend and I are your quintessential white North Americans – blond, blue eyes, the works. When we walked into the pub, which was full of middle-aged locals, the whole bar stopped talking and turned and stared at us – it was quite intimidating. However, we spied an empty table and walked over to it as naturally as we could muster, with every eye tracking us. I felt as if I were entering a saloon in a cowboy movie. We sat down and studied the menu, which not surprisingly was all in hangul (Korean script), the whole bar still watching us and no one making a sound. I was starting to feel that we weren’t welcome.
After what seemed like a long while, a middle-aged woman came out of the kitchen. Upon seeing us she looked somewhat surprised and eventually approached us. She said to us in Korean, rather meekly, I thought, “Uh . . . hello. Can you speak Korean well?” I responded in Korean, “Yes, a little bit.” As soon as I said it the whole bar erupted in applause, with the various patrons clapping and making sounds of pleasant surprise. A second round of applause followed after we ordered makgeolli (traditional unfiltered rice wine) and kaeranmali (a sort of rolled omelette filled with veggies). After that we had a wonderful evening drinking and talking with the pub regulars, who were curious about what had brought us there, and a few of them practised their English on us. We also enjoyed a lot of freebies (known as “service”), which was really nice. We must have spent hours there! That night is one of my fondest memories of my various stays in Korea.
The point of this story is that if we couldn’t read the menu or speak to the manager, things would likely have gone very differently, and I’m convinced we would have been shown the door. While this is a pretty extreme situation, knowing how to speak the language and understanding even just a few key phrases can get you pretty far and offer opportunities that other visitors might not have. I understand that learning any language – Korean in particular – is a tall order, but at the very least you should learn how to read (and hopefully write) hangul, especially if you don’t have local friends to guide you. In Seoul and Busan, English is everywhere, but once you get out to the countryside or even many of the smaller cities and towns, being able to at least read the script (even phonetically) can make the difference between getting off at the right bus stop or being totally lost.
Fret not! The Korean alphabet was designed to be easy to learn! I remember reading in one of my textbooks that early scholars referred to hangul as “washroom writing,” because you could learn it easily even if you only studied when you went to the washroom! It only took me a few months to get really comfortable with reading it, and I was just studying casually, in my spare time, before the age of smartphones (now there are numerous apps that make it fun and even easier). A few weeks of intensive practice is all it should take for most people. I promise you, it’s worth the effort. When I first went to Seoul in 2008, some of the buses didn’t have English maps, and if I hadn’t taken the time to learn the writing beforehand, life there would have been quite a bit more frustrating. Also, if you want to make friends with Koreans at your place of work or study, you really do need to speak some.
8. You Will Stand Out
Whether your heritage is Korean or not, if you something gives away the fact that you were not born in Korea, you will get noticed sooner or later. This experience tends to differ greatly depending on your ethnicity and gender and can lead to outcomes both positive (such as receiving additional food at a restaurant) and negative (being excluded from more esoteric events and activities).
While staying in the big cities you may not receive too much attention, but in the small towns and the countryside, where foreigners are still somewhat rare, you will get everything from stares to middle-schoolers saying “I love you” in English to win a dare with their friends. While I was working at a farm in the countryside, on my first day I happened to walk by a middle school where classes were just ending for the day. As soon as they saw me, all the students started waving and yelling random English phrases such as “I love you” and “Yo, man!” This can be amusing, but while it can be kind of neat to feel special and different, it can also be alienating at times. If you are the sort of person who likes to blend into a place rather than stand out, I imagine this could be rather frustrating.
I’ve also heard from many of my Korean-Canadian friends that some older Koreans can be pretty hard on those who appear to be Korean but can’t speak the language well, which must be very stressful and discouraging to those who experience it. Just be warned – if you’re a foreigner and want to live in Korea for an extended period of time, you will have to put up with being “unusual” from time to time. This is fairly understandable, as Korea has been ethnically and culturally homogeneous for the past few millennia. Only in the past decade or so have foreigners really started taking widespread interest in the country.
I’ve seen these reactions to foreigners catch a lot of people off guard, so I think it’s a good idea to mentally prepare yourself for standing out as a foreigner if you want to live in South Korea. Still, there are many advantages as well. You might be thought of as a “guest” in South Korea, but in Korean there is a saying, “The guest is king”; to that effect I have experienced much kindness and generosity from many South Koreans. In any case, I have known both the positive and negative aspects of being a foreigner in South Korea. In my case I’ve found most Koreans, both young and old, to be friendly, spirited, outgoing and most of all inclusive, and that suits me just fine! Naturally everyone will have a different experience, but try to keep your mind open and you should have a fairly comfortable time of it.
9. A Little Goes a Long Way
This ties in with number 7 a bit but has more to do with culture than language. I imagine it’s probably the same for just about any foreign country you might visit. If you’re going to Korea for a long period of time, you may want to educate yourself to some degree about the country’s customs and history, even if it’s just glancing over the “South Korea” entry in Wikipedia. While in many cases Koreans tend to cut foreigners a lot of slack if they don’t know their way around drinking etiquette, for example, you will leave a much better impression on people if you’ve familiarized yourself with the rules. Seriously, something as small as handing money to a convenience store clerk with two hands instead of one can make the difference between an indifferent grunt and a smiling thank-you. It will make your experiences and daily interactions way more positive.
Even showing that you know some of the country’s history can be a huge boon in your social interactions. A good example is when I met a past girlfriend’s uncle in Seoul. I was extremely nervous and didn’t really know how to talk to him, but my girlfriend tipped him off that I was very interested in Korean history. It turned out that his job was working for a company that built traditional Korean houses (hanok), which required him to be very knowledgeable about Korean history, and it had become a passion of his. As soon as I entered the restaurant and sat down, he asked me what my favourite period of Korean history was, and after that we talked for hours (it’s the Silla era, by the way). By the end of the night we were fast friends, and we met a number of times before I eventually went back to Canada. This is an unusual situation to be sure, but the point I’m trying illustrate is that if you equip yourself with even the most basic knowledge about a country and its customs it can make a world of difference.
“But, Alex!” I hear you saying. “How can I teach myself about Korean etiquette and history!? Where do I start? Do I have to read a bunch of books and things!?” Reading up on these subjects is easy enough, as there are numerous blogs, articles, and dedicated publications on the subject. However, if you’re not the bookish sort, you can actually learn a lot from watching Korean television and film. Movies, TV dramas, and even variety shows have constant references to Korean etiquette and history. All you have to do is pay attention. And it’s totally worth it! Many Koreans, especially older folks, will be tickled pink if you show genuine knowledge of and interest in their culture and history, and you’ll be all the better for it. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I have such positive memories of my times in South Korea. Note: This is especially true if you are dating a Korean person and get to meet his or her parents!
10. K-Drama and K-Pop Are Fantasies
Perhaps this goes without saying, but I feel that this is a very important thing to realize, especially among the Hallyu generation. I think it is fair to assume that for many young (younger than me, anyway) Korea enthusiasts, K-drama and K-pop were likely their entry points into Korean culture. There is nothing wrong with that at all; I like quite a bit of K-pop and I watch K-drama almost every day. However, while studying at Yonsei I met more than a few fellow exchange students who had totally bought into the K-drama/K-pop representations of South Korean living. They ended up being quite disappointed with the reality of what they found there, some of them to the point where they were considering not coming back.
I imagine many of the young girls had imagined going to Korea and meeting a young, handsome, suave and romantic Korean gentlemen who resembled Kim Soo-Hyun (or whoever); they would go on picnics and bike rides with him, wear couples shirts, etc. etc. Or the young men may have hoped to find a girlfriend who resembled their favourite member of SNSD – cute and sweet and eager to accompany them on equally contrived romantic adventures. While something like that does happen to people from time to time, those who choose to live in South Korea for an extended period will find that, just like Canada (and every other country in the world), South Korea is a complicated place, made up of complicated individuals who tend to look and act quite differently from one another (duh, right?).
K-pop and K-drama, while illustrating specific aspects of South Korean society, tend to be heavily exaggerated or dramatized and thus paint a somewhat limited picture of the extensive scope of Korean life. As I mentioned before, you can learn a lot about Korea from watching K-drama, and listening to and familiarizing yourself with K-pop is fun and can be a great way to break the ice with locals – after all, most people in the world listen to music and watch TV. However, just make sure that you take it with a grain of salt and understand that, just as with pop music and movies in North America, they don’t necessary accurately portray the reality of living there. Remember this and I think you will have a much easier time coming to terms with living in South Korea. Once the initial shock and wonder of being in a new place wear off, you’ll find it’s much like living anywhere else, with its own trials, tribulations, and rewards. In my case, I can’t wait to go back!
At the end of the day, South Korea can be a wonderful, friendly, and endearing place to travel, live, and work and I hope that these 10 tips can help make your experience more comfortable and positive. Everyone’s experience in South Korea will be different, and there are many more tricks and tidbits that can help you get by, but in my experience these are the top 10 things I wish I had known before I went there. I hope that with this knowledge you will be able to avoid some of the inconveniences I experienced. Now go forth, brave traveller, and discover the wonders of South Korea for yourself! I think you’ll have a blast.
Bonus Material: Useful Tidbits!
The following are some useful facts about living in Korea that I felt didn’t quite merit their own sections:
* Korean power outlets are 220 volts instead of the standard 120V used in Canada, so you’ll need an adapter. And it needs to fit into the circular recess of the outlet or otherwise its practically useless. Even with an adapter, don’t forget to check your chargers and electronics to make sure they can handle 220V without getting damaged.
* If you want to swim in any public pool in South Korea you need a swimming cap. No one tells you this but you’re expected to wear one. You can buy them at most swimming pools but they’re usually overpriced – best to get one at E-mart or a 1000 won shop (essentially a dollar store).
* Security deposits on apartments tend to be higher in South Korea than in Canada (it was two months’ rent for me). But don’t worry – if you’re good you’ll get it all back when you move out.
* Recycling and garbage disposal work similarly to in Canada, but you have to purchase municipal garbage and recycling bags (usually available at your local convenience store – not that cheap but not horribly expensive) and find your neighbourhood collection point. Leave your bags there and the sanitation workers should take care of it. If you live in a dorm or apartment building then I don’t think you have to worry about this.
* Getting around Korea is fairly easy and inexpensive compared to Canada. Express buses can take you to most places for less than $30 each way, and there are rest stops every two hours for washroom and food breaks. Alternatively, you can take a Korail train, which is also quite cheap but often takes a long time because of all the stops, or the bullet train, which is much faster but sometimes costs more than twice as much. The Seoul metro goes to many places in Gyeongido outside Seoul, so if you want to go to a small town or experience the countryside, in many cases you can just take the subway!
* Currently there are five cities in South Korea with subways: Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Daejeon, and Gwangju. New lines are constantly being built and the subways are very rarely delayed, very well maintained, and have signs in English, Chinese, and Japanese. To make your subway experience easier, for smartphone users I recommend downloading the Jihachul Subway app, which is available in several languages and tells you the best routes to places, saving you a lot of time and frustration.
* If you are studying at a university in Korea, attendance is mandatory. Missing a certain number of classes (usually 3 to 5) can result in failure of that course. Remember to save your sick days for when you’re actually sick!
* There are public washrooms everywhere in Korea, and they’re usually pretty clean compared to in Canada. In the countryside, however, while Western-style toilets are becoming more and more common, there are still some areas that have squat toilets exclusively. Also, many washrooms on hiking trails and in the country routinely don’t have toilet paper, so bring your own if you go hiking. Be prepared!
* Taxis are very affordable in most cities, but you have to be able to tell the driver in Korean where you’re going. (Translation services are available by phone, but they can be awkward to use.) If you don’t speak Korean, it’s best to write down the address (in Korean) and show it to the driver.