Life in South Korea

Over the past year I’ve been asked on multiple occasions what life is like in South Korea.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to come to a different country and live here for a year. It’s not that I didn’t work hard to achieve this ambition of mine, I just consider it a privilege to be able to have the support which enabled me to do so.

My knowledge is, by far, not extensive. This is just my experience, talking about a few things I’ve noticed for the newly indoctrinated to the Korean lifestyle. I hope this gives a little insight into what South Korean life is like.

Let me start by saying, overall South Korea is a fantastic country. If you are thinking of coming and experiencing it, go for it! There’s so much to do, and it is an absolutely stunning place. However, with anywhere there are obviously the little things that can get on people’s nerves. Word of advice, have an open mind. Even with all the comforts of South Korea, there are obviously things that are ‘not like home’. However, you can’t expect a different country to be an exact replica of your own. It’s a different culture with it’s own norms and beliefs. I have heard ‘well that’s not like home’ an infuriating amount of times…

Why would you want it to be like home when the nature is this stunning?

Well there’s the negative use of the phrase ‘it’s not like home’ and also the positive. I myself have coined this phrase to describe the public transportation system in South Korea. In the UK you’re not really sure if the trains or buses are going to be on time, so you wing it. This is the opposite of South Korea. Prompt would probably be an understatement. Furthermore, public transportation is AFFORDABLE. Why can’t we have cheap and prompt transportation? I’m terrified of paying over £60 for a single ticket to London when I go back home. Here that will get you a RETURN from one end of the country to the other, with money to spare. Can’t hate too much on the UK, better add something patriotic; “God save the Queen”.

Korea is different for everyone, and people adapt in different ways. For me, there wasn’t much culture shock. This could be down to where I was living (Suwon) which can be seen as an over-spill of Seoul. Seoul itself is very Westernized so when walking around, it doesn’t feel too different. The only thing you’ll realise is that there are definitely less Western people. I, being 6 ft 3, stick out like a sore thumb, so at times I’m very aware that I am one of the only Western people about.

The endless streets of Seoul

For me, when culture shock actually hit me was when I traveled around the country. Going to the less known cities and the countryside, you get to see how different life is. You get to see the contrast between the old and the new. Korea is still developing, it’s cities are densely populated whilst the countryside still holds the charms of old.

One thing you will notice is the politeness and helpful nature of everyone in Korea. They don’t want you to dislike their country or feel isolated. On more than one occasion I have had Koreans coming up to me and asking if they can help. It’s very reassuring to know that help is there if you need it. Furthermore, there is huge respect for elders which is quite refreshing. Basically, what they say goes. Don’t mess with the elders of Korea, they run the show.

The old versus the new can even be found in Seoul. At Gyeongbokgung palace you can witness the changing of the guards.

On the work front, there are many horror stories on the internet. You can either work for private or public schools. The only experience I have is with private schools. These are called Hagwons which are schools for extracurricular study. This means my hours aren’t the normal 9-5, as the kids come to us after their normal school day has finished. Poor guys. I work, what may seem irregular hours, 2-10 pm. I personally don’t mind this as I have the morning to myself. What you have to realise is Korea is not a holiday. Expect to work just as hard, or even more so, as you do in your own country. Thus, something I have come to respect of Koreans is their work ethic. They put in a tremendous amount of effort into their jobs. It is even, in some cases, seen as a good thing if you sleep at work as this means you are working your socks off! Whereas we foreign teachers work 8 hour days and leave, our Korean counterparts will most likely arrive before us and leave after us. I don’t envy their jobs. That being said, as a foreign teacher there is less pressure on us compared to our counter parts.

This is a picture from the top of my apartment block. Nice little neighbourhood.

Lets move on to apartments. I live in a 15 floor building in an office-tel. Pretty much everyone lives in these tall apartment blocks, creating concrete jungles to traverse through. The standard of apartment can vary. I consider myself very lucky living where I do, considering some of the horror stories I’ve heard. However, you can’t really complain considering the apartments are given to you rent free! One of the many benefits of working in Korea. Think of all the things you can buy with that extra income!

Not the greatest picture, but believe me the rooms are a lot more spacious than they seem!

What some people don’t really expect is how good Koreans comprehension of English is. In the cities, pretty much every sign is in English and when ordering coffee (an essential) you can say it in English and you’ll be fully understood. I suppose this is due to the massive Western influence in the country, and is another contributing factor to the small culture shock. That’s not to say that everyone speaks English. Some restaurants, and especially in the countryside, do not speak much English or have English menus. Therefore, it can be handy to know how to order in Korean. This is probably the main communicative skill I’ve learnt to say in Korean properly. Gotta eat!

Moving on, another great thing about Korea is that it has the fastest internet connection in the world. Considering we now live in a heavily reliant social media/social networking era, this is amazing. You will never have a problem with the internet in South Korea. Every coffee shop, and most restaurants, have free WiFi. WiFi is literally everywhere. It’s fantastic. I haven’t had to buy a phone plan because I can just connect to WiFi.

Now lets talk about the attitude of Koreans towards their own country. Koreans are very patriotic. Korea has a rich history and has survived through a lot (have a little look at their history, it’s very interesting). After learning some of their history, it’s no wonder they love their country so much. The one person they idolize above everyone else is King Sejong. He was the creator of Hangul, their language. I don’t blame them for loving their country, they have every right to as it is a beautiful place.

Here’s King Sejong in all his glory outside of Gyeongbokgung palace in Seoul.

Finally, how can I do a blog post without mentioning hiking? Koreans are mad for the traversing of their mountain ranges! Every weekend people frequent the many national parks of Korea in droves! I can understand why they do it. There’s no feeling like it when you get to the top and see the stunning views. Just arriving at the base of the mountain gives you a sight to behold. You see hundreds/thousands of Koreans all fitted out in the latest fluorescent hiking gear and equipment. It brings a whole new colour scheme to the mountains! On the mountains is where you will meet the kindest of Koreans. More than once I have had friendly Koreans come up to me to have a chat and share some of their food with me. The food and conversation are much appreciated, it makes the climb just that tiny bit more enjoyable. One thing I have noticed is that hiking is more popular with the older generation of Koreans. There is nothing more depressing than when you are sweating your arse off half way up a mountain, and an elderly Korean strolls past you without breaking a sweat. How do they do it? My English body lets me down on this front. No matter what exercise I do, I always sweat buckets.

Just one of the many hikes I went on during the last year. An early morning snap of Bukhansan National park in Seoul.

There you have it, this is just some of my experiences of life in South Korea to date. South Korea is a fantastic country, and I would not exchange this opportunity I’ve had for anything, well maybe cake… I’m sure I’ve missed something, so I will most likely do another post at some point about life in Korea!

Hopefully there will be another post soon!

Ciao for now!

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