Moving to South Korea? Prepare for a crazy yet amazing cultural experience.
And after the initial cultural awakening, I slowly adapted to living life in Asia, and started to embrace my life as an English teacher in this small yet memorising country.
First off, Korea is a culture shock. I always thought the expression, ‘it’s a small world,’ was as true…until arriving here. My first impression was that I was on a different planet—but it was exciting. Learning about a new culture only made me a stronger, more worldly, and open-minded person. It was in Korea, that a lot of growing was done.
Below, a list of things to expect and prepare for your life in South Korea.
— There are four distinct seasons. Extreme summers and winters, which usually last much long than autumn and spring, and are sometimes hard to acclimatise to. You can expect unbearable humidity in summer (getting a Brazilian blow-out kind of out weather, for sure).
— Finding bigger clothing and shoes is difficult. You will however be able to go to the more global stores when you’re in Seoul or a larger Korean city, such as Forever21 and h&m, who stock more of a variety size-wise. Otherwise, it may prove difficult for bigger people. Shoes usually go up to a UK size 6 (for women). You can, again, travel to Seoul for those things.
— If you find yourself locking eyes with a stranger in Korea, they probably won’t give you a friendly smile. A nod/bow is their way of saying hello and goodbye, and it is also a sign of respect (younger Koreans always bow to those older than them). Additionally, they’re very intrigued with foreigners—or dare I be so bold as to say nosey. They love to stare, either in adoration, fascination, and sometimes disgust.
— The level of English is appalling, so be prepared to use Google Translate, pictures, and hand signals to get by. The Korean alphabet is very easy to learn however, and will also help you a bit once you know a few words or sentences.
— Students spend many hours a day studying. After regular school, they attend after school programmes – such as English and Taekwondo lessons. They usually only get home very late at night. If you are teaching at an English academy, you will work longer hours as opposed to a public elementary, middle or high school.
— The transport is fantastic, making it very easy to travel. The buses, subway, train and taxis are great. However, taxi drivers are usually quite rude.
— Koreans don’t wear bathing suits at the beach. Instead, they will swim in their clothes. They also don’t appreciate women who show their shoulders and cleavage in public. Short shorts however, are appropriate.
— I would suggest you bring your own towels (size-wise), toothpaste, deodorant (very expensive and a lack of variety), clothes for all seasons if you’re bigger, and medication that you’ll need for the year.
— Koreans share food. You will hardly ever get your own plate of food unless you are at a western-style restaurant, which is always more expensive. A typical dining experience in Korea is comprised of a do-it-yourself style BBQ at a pretty dingy-looking restaurant, a zillion side dishes, shots of Soju, and tons of fun. But don’t expect to have a knife and fork available—it’s all about the chopsticks.
— The Internet speed is amazing and you can pick up open wifi just about anywhere. I’m not talking -coffee shop wifi-, I’m talking -people in their homes leave their wifi connection open- kind of vibe. Perfect, isn’t it? Truth be told, I went an entire year without paying for Internet (shh!).
— Koreans will drink soju with meals and it is seen as a great bonding tool, especially with business men. But when the party is over, don’t be surprised to see said-men legless, vomiting, or even sleeping in the street. Soju is a type of alcohol with a similar taste to vodka but with a less percentage of alcohol. It’s super cheap, can be bought at any store, and is drunk in shot glasses. A typical summer night is spent drinking Soju outside a convenience store among foreigners.
— There are convenient stores e v e r y w h e r e.
— Stores usually open around 10 or 10:30am and are open until late.
— The foreigner spots in Korea are Itaewon and Hongdae. There, you’ll probably find a restaurant that sells your country’s food, clothes in different sizes, and tons of party spots.
— Try to keep your personal life to yourself because Koreans like to gossip—especially at work!
— Korea is a very safe country, and you can leave your doors open and or unlocked, walk the streets at night, and take transport by yourself at anytime.
— Foreigners in Korea are always up for making new friends. There are many Facebook groups for foreigners in different cities, and they have regular meet ups. You’ll probably meet one or more people that’ll be your friend for life.
— If you are going to teach in Korea, you will be given an apartment, rent-free, but you won’t have the option to choose it yourself. They’re usually quite small but if you’re lucky, you’ll get a decently sized place. You won’t have any glass or doors around your shower, which means that there’ll be a drain in the middle of your bathroom floor, and a shower head dangling somewhere—open plan shower!
— Women use squat toilets, and if you’re at a Korean restaurant or at a public place, such as the bus or train station, you’ll most likely have to use one of them. Your apartment will however have a western-style toilet. Also, Koreans do not flush the toilet paper, but throw it into an open bin next to the toilet.
— The men spit on the streets, a lot.
— Koreans are crazy for fried chicken, beer, kimchi, dumplings, rice, and Kpop.
— During your holidays, most foreigners will travel to other South East Asian countries with Air Asia (the RyanAir of Asia). I had the luxury of visiting The Philippines, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Japan during my time in Korea.
— There are private karaoke and DVD rooms everywhere, which are very popular. You can get a group of friends together and sing your fave English (or Korean!) songs, or go watch a movie on a big projection screen, decorated with a couch, whilst drinking or eating snacks. Little tip though—the DVD rooms are mostly used by Koreans who want to do the nasty.
— As a South African, it is more expensive in Korea. I suggest bringing around $600- $1000 for your first month.
— It is not rude to use your cell phone during dinner or social events. I went to a Korean wedding and the guests were chatting and using their phone throughout the ceremony.
— Drinking in public is legal (woohoo!).
— You’ll be asked to wear ‘inside shoes’ or socks when you’re indoors, and take off your outdoor shoes at the entrance of a place. This rule applies at restaurants, schools, and homes.
Having said all of that, if you have any specific questions re: teaching or living in South Korea, please feel free to contact me! I’m more than happy to help out!