5 Things No One Tells You About Living in Korea

Seoul Tower view5

I’ve been mulling over how to write this post for some time now. As many of you will know, Matt and I lived in Korea for a year, and blogged about it pretty extensively. At the risk of offending someone, I usually shied away from being too negative about any of our experiences. We enjoyed our time in Korea, truly, and we have a ton of blog posts to prove it. But now that there’s some space between us and Korea, both physically and emotionally, I feel like there are some negative aspects about life in Korea that I want to be blunt about. Because the truth is, some parts about living in Korea were really hard for us, and heavily contributed in our decision to only stay one year. I’m a really positive person by nature and I’m a people-pleaser, so I was afraid to tell some things exactly how they were for fear of a backlash of negative comments from people who disagreed with me or were offended by my opinions. But I’ve decided to share them anyway, because after all, they are in fact my opinions, and this is my little soapbox.

[Editors note: There are a few things I want to clarify. This post specifically refers to our experience in a small town in South Korea, not in Seoul, where many of these observations don’t apply. Big cities everywhere in the world are more progressive than their small town counterparts. Also, please note that these were our experiences in Korea in 2011-2012 — obviously some things may have changed since that time, and we haven’t yet been back to say whether these things are still true. Please don’t take these observations as facts — these are our experiences, our feelings. And lastly, I loved Korea and this is not meant to be a bash-fest, again, I am simply sharing some of my observations. Thanks for reading!]

Gwangju market

If you’re planning on moving to or visiting South Korea, people will most likely tell you all the amazing things about it. Those things are 100% true and you should absolutely go, but there are some things that often remain unsaid. In my opinion, these are some of those things–the things no one tells you about living in Korea.

1.) You will be an oddity. Once you get to know Korean people, they’re almost always amazingly nice. I assume this is true for most people in the world actually. But the initial reception in Korea as a foreigner is a little odd. Unless you’re going to be living in one of the popular neighborhoods in Seoul that get a lot of traffic from people from all over the world, you’re most likely going to be a novelty for the people in your city. You will get stared at. You will get pointed at. You will hear people whisper (or in some cases, loudly shout) in Korean “Foreigner!” when they see you. Salespeople will argue over who has to help you, because they’re worried you’ll make them speak English. Sometimes, people won’t want to sit by you on the train or bus, because you are different. In restaurants, they may automatically bring you a fork instead of chopsticks. When you go shopping, you might not be allowed to try clothes on because the salespeople are worried your big foreigner body might stretch out the clothes.

Jill and Andrea in crowd

Through all of these experiences, it’s important to remember that Korea has been an incredibly isolated country for much of its existence. There aren’t a lot of tourists in Korea compared to the rest of Asia, and therefore foreigners are not a common site for the average Korean living in a small town or off-the-beaten-path in Seoul. Many of the older Korean’s experiences with foreigners are centered around the Korean War–not necessarily happy memories or positive associations. It can be really hard to face what feels like blatant racism at times, but the best course of action is to just be polite, respectful and do your best to follow Korean social customs.

2.) The winters are truly horrible. People had actually tried to warn me about this, but I was overconfident. I grew up in a place with extreme seasons–in Spokane, it’s frequently in the 100’s (Fahrenheit) in the summers and well below zero in the winters. So when I heard the winters were extremely cold in Korea, I scoffed.

Gray snowy day in Korea

Turns out, Korean winters are no joke. Not only is it below freezing, there are also icy winds that come down from Russia. Literally, Siberian winds. If that doesn’t sound unpleasant then I don’t know what is! Another thing I didn’t really take into account was the fact that when I’m in my hometown and it’s cold, I move mostly from my heated home to my heated car to my heated school and/or heated workplace. In Korea, I had to walk everywhere. Plus, my home was toasty warm, but for some strange reason, the schools just do not heat the schools enough. This is a complaint nearly every foreigner from every country will tell you about Korea–I don’t know if it’s an energy saving measure or what, but the in the winters, the school’s are frigid. Kids wear their parkas in class. It’s so, so weird to me. I actually did write about this once, but I don’t think I fully conveyed the depth of the resentment I felt for this kind of weather. I felt cold, and bitter about being cold, for months in Korea, and if I’m being honest, it did taint my overall impression of Korea a little.

3.) Western food is really hard to find outside of Seoul. This is basically true of all foreign food. When you’re looking for a little taste of home, chances are the grocery stores or local restaurants won’t be of any help to you. We would often ride busses and subways for two hours into Seoul to reach Costco, places that served sandwiches, Indian food, Italian food, etc. Our little town had some foreign food, but mostly, it was slim pickin’s.

korean school lunch

I really love Korean food, but for me, growing up in America where the food choices are so varied, it was beyond weird to eat the same kinds of things every. single. day. I like kimchi, but I can’t imagine liking anything enough that I would voluntarily eat it every meal for my whole life. It was a big life change to eat like that–and while I didn’t hate it, I would have happily welcomed a little more variety in my diet, at least at my school and when we went out to eat. I survived by doing a lot of my own cooking!

4.) The societal norms are very different from the West. A few instances come to mind: first of all, sexism is alive and well in Korea. If you’re a woman, you’ll likely feel disrespected at some point during your stay, simply for being a woman. Things that are illegal or that would get you sued in the US, Canada and Europe are the norms in Korea. For example, my school principle, a man, felt totally comfortable telling me to my face “You’re very beautiful.” While that sounds nice, it made me extremely uncomfortable. If I had a boss say that to me in the US, I would likely report them to human resources. I was also told things like “Women shouldn’t smoke in public” and a friend of mine reported that her school told her women weren’t being included in an after-school sports activity for teachers.

The second big societal norm that comes to mind is dress style–in Korea, it’s considered inappropriate to show cleavage, bare backs, shoulders or clavicles. However, micro skirts and shorts are all the rage, and even elementary school teachers will wear these minis to work. This is essentially the exact opposite of the US–I remember in school having to show that my skirt or shorts were longer than my finger tips when my arms were down, but we were allowed to wear tank tops and lower-cut tops.

short shorts in Korea

For men in Korea, the dress is much fancier on average than American men. Men in Korea always seem to be in suits, even elementary school teachers. That was kind of weird to see–male teachers in suits, smudged with chalk. Seems impractical to me for an elementary school!

5.) Despite all of this, it’s very easy to live in Korea. This may sound like a strange statement, but here’s the thing–when you’re a teacher in Korea, your rent is paid, food is cheap, public transit is cheap, heavy drinking is common and encouraged and overall, you might simply have less responsibilities than back home (outside of work that is). These things make it easy for life to be comfortable, sometimes too comfortable, and I’ve heard many people complain that it’s easy to get in a rut in Korea, or to feel like you can’t leave because life is just easier here. It’s almost like going back to college–many people in Korea re-enter a party phase of life. I’m not saying this to be judgmental, it’s simply something I’ve heard a lot of expats complain about. Korea has a big drinking culture and it can be easy to get sucked into it if you like to party.

nightlife in korea

If you’ve lived or traveled to Korea, do you think my perceptions are accurate? Is there anything you noticed that I’ve left off? Sound off in the comments!

Want to hear the other side of the story? See my posts Things I Miss About Living in South Korea and My Love/Hate Relationship With Korea!

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  1. Yes about winter! I’m from South Carolina, so I’m still getting used to the idea of winter. Because I lived in Pennsylvania the year before coming to Korea, the first winter in Korea was nice not having so much snow. This past winter became so long… and then all of a sudden BAM summer came. haha

    One of the “annoying” things about living in Korea, like what you mentioned in #1 is when shopkeepers come up to me and try to ask what I’m looking for and convince me to buy something. Can’t they hear my terrible Korean and realize that I really don’t understand them? I do wonder if they do this more to foreigners than to Koreans. Guess I’ll never know since I’m not Korean. haha
    Vanessa recently posted…50 Facts About Dan and Vanessa: From Chulmu the CatMy Profile

    • I agree about the snow–there is a lot less snow in Korea than where I grew up, but it just seemed so much colder and grayer!

      I really, really hated shopping in Korea, and I love to shop! The shopkeepers would either refuse to help me at all, or would follow me around the store and not leave me alone for a second! It seemed like there was no happy medium. Also, they were so so freaked out every time I tried on clothes. I’m 5’9 so I guess they thought I wouldn’t fit…but I’m not big and I wouldn’t try on something if I didn’t think it would fit anyway! I found it endlessly frustrating and basically I stopped shopping unless I desperately needed something. A good way to save money I guess? 🙂

      • Hi Andrea, I am thinking about coming to south Korea but I would be signing for a year, I also am 5ft 9 and I was concerned about my having to find clothes to fit and basically sticking out like a sore thumb! are you still there? Id really like to get in touch with you and have a chat if you wouldn’t mind? i have left my email address there for you, Thanks, Niamh:)

        • Hi Niamh! The comment system doesn’t show me your email address, but you can email me at andrea@world-walk-about.com if you have questions! I’m no longer there and as for shopping, I had the best luck with the chain stores — GAP, Forever 21 etc., because they’re not specific to Asia and therefore had a better range of sizes.

    • I lived in Korea for four years about twenty years ago. Well, I think we can find things we like and dislike about anywhere we live. I personally like and dislike different aspects about where I’ve lived or visited before. Paris? Beautiful and stressful. Berlin? Awesome and boring. Southern Arizona? Beautiful but dull and conservative. Korea. Thailand? Awesome, but limited and same same. China? Incredible, but concerns about what you eat and drink. San Francisco? Awesome, but crowded. And on and on.

      • I agree–there is good and bad in every place, I just think as an outsider (traveler or expat), it’s easier to see and pick apart those things than it is about your home country or city. I agree with every one of your examples though! Part of the reason I love traveling so much is seeing all these places for myself, and being able to make my own judgements about them.

      • How were you able to live in so many places? What was your job if you don’t mind me asking?

        • Hi! Thanks for reading. I only lived in Rome, Italy, when I studied abroad in college, and Gwangju-si, South Korea, where I taught English for a year. After my contract was up in Korea I traveled around Asia on money I had saved while working, and made a tiny bit of money from this blog. But mostly, I was not working during those three months of traveling.

    • “It can be really hard to face what feels like blatant racism at times”. Welcome to the everyday life of a minority in America! Must be nice to only experience racism as a foreigner and not as an actual resident of your own country 🙂 Sorry if I sound insensitive, but this is the first instance I have seen regarding a white person claiming victim to racism, it’s almost laughable. Besides the silly statement you made, good post.

      • I’m sorry to offend, I certainly didn’t mean it like that. The post is meant as advice for foreigners who want to live in Korea, so that applies to people of all backgrounds. It’s true that in my experience, foreigners are treated differently than native Koreans in Korea, but that certainly doesn’t mean the same is not true elsewhere. I absolutely don’t mean to diminish anyone else’s experience, I’m just attempting to share some insight on life in Korea, based on my own experiences.

        • Your post is soooo spot on Andrea! ESPECIALLY about the racism and feelings of sexism. Your boss saying you are beautiful. It makes me so uncomfortable and there is nothing you can do about it! That’s the thing. Whenever racism or sexism occurs in your own workplace you are helpless because the social norms are so different and no one will understand that unless they lived/worked here with all Koreans. I have found actually living in Korea to be fun. Like you said. It’s easy and traveling is great. However, the racism and constant feelings of disrespect in my own workplace has driven me absolutely insane. One Korean woman didn’t want the foreign teachers in her office so they moved us out. Just catering to racism and xenophobia is nothing that I could have ever imagined in a so called “first world” country and all i can do is comply. It really makes me sick sometimes. While like I said living here is all well and good, but working here with mainly Koreans is another story. Thank you for your post! It was really great and makes me glad to know I am not alone! I am most def. not renewing.

          • Hi Sarah, thanks for your comment! I think working in Korea provides a whole different set of challenges than just traveling there. You get a peek behind the curtain at the institutionalized issues, which is what I’ve tried to convey in this post. As an American used to pretty much doing whatever I want, the sexism was mind blowing to me at times. My husband didn’t experience the sexism, obviously, but he disliked the experience of working there even more than I did (I actually look back pretty favorably on the experience), and so we knew pretty early on we wouldn’t be renewing. However, now that I’m home I miss a lot of things about Korea, so soak it all up while you’re there and enjoy yourself while it lasts!

      • As a minority living in the US, I read both your statements and the only one I find “silly” is yours, Samie. To belittle how she felt because you think she has no right to feel it as a “white” person is childish. It’s like saying I don’t have the right to say ouch after a paper cut because someone somewhere had their foot cut off. We don’t all have the same experiences but that doesn’t mean racism isn’t racism because it’s not felt by a minority in America. Whether it’s happening to a white person or to a minority, it is what it is and it should be called out as such. Aren’t you being racist by implying that she has no right to feel that way since she is white? In any case, she is a minority in Korea and she did experience racism, whether it seems that way to you or not. The next time you feel someone is being racist to you, perhaps you should remember people were once lynched for being different and then maybe you’ll see your experience is laughable as well in comparison.

      • You’re comment is racist by nature in making an assumption that whites can’t be victims of racism. Even in America there are areas where whites are minorities and thus victimized by racism within their own community. However, in relevance to this article, being a victim of violent racism in Korea I can assure you it’s no joke. My friends and I were fortunate to be accompanied by some very large, well-trained Korean friends who defended us, but it’s a pretty shitty situation when you have to decide between defending yourself and getting deported.

  2. Really interesting reflections on your time in Korea, and I’m glad you were candid and decided to share some of the things that were less than ideal. It’s really useful when people out there are trying to make an informed decision! Tony & I have been thinking about what we might do when our travel fund is drained and we have to return to the real world… we’ve really been loving Asia, though did not visit Korea, but tossed around the notion that maybe we would go there to teach English for a year or two because we had heard the pay is really good and it would be a pretty nice way to quickly earn more money to then go traveling again! 😀 I don’t think any of the things you mentioned would be deal breakers for us (though the sexism isn’t great), but it’s nice to have all the facts!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…Coming Home in TaipeiMy Profile

    • The best thing about working in Korea is that they usually pay your rent, so if you’re looking to save money for traveling it is a great option! The sexism can be pretty frustrating, but since you know about it going in maybe it’ll piss you off less…I was caught a little unaware on that one 🙂 If you want to know anything else about Korea or the process of applying for jobs in Korea just let me know!

      • Hello, i am very curious about working in South Korea as i wish to teach English as a foreign language after i have completed my TESOL Course. I will be 21 when i have finished this course. Can you give me any advice for the best place’s to look for a job doing this and just general tips.
        Many thanks

          • Jonathon. I taught for a year in Busan and absolutely loved it. I am actually going back next year. I liked Busan more than Seoul (i only visited a few weekends). It is much simpler and quicker to get around to the other parts of town. The expat community is large enough that you don’t have to hang out with expats you don’t like and small enough that you run into many people you know when you go out. Also a lot of good food places, foreign and korean. If you have any questions feel free to email.

          • Thanks for your input Eric! I only visited Busan, but I too think it seems like a nicer place to live! The atmosphere was just more laid back, and I love a good beach town 🙂

          • Okay. this is trivial but I must ask… Will it be okay to use my hair dryer. I have unruly curly hair so it’s the only way for me to fix it! I’ve had the experience where I blow a fuse because of the dang thing in apartments here in Dallas… So, yes, I must ask…

          • I personally think it’s just easier to buy hair dryers, curling irons, etc. once you get to wherever you’re going to be living (in any country). You can find that stuff anywhere and it’s much less likely to melt or do something weird if you just buy it there 🙂

      • Hi…I was thinking about teaching in Korea for a year. I love immersing my self in new culture and I’ve been learning Korean for five years. Which program do you suggest and how do I get in. My email is getsomg@gmail.com

        • Hello! Thanks for reading 🙂 Teaching abroad is a great experience, and if you already know some Korean you should do great! I have a whole section on how to start the process, but the first step is to get the proper certifications, and then get on with a recruitment company. Here’s the link to all the information we think you need to get started: http://www.world-walk-about.com/teach-esl-in-korea/ Happy reading! Definitely reach out if you have any more questions or need any clarifications. Good luck!

      • I’m thinking of going there to experience working and living in seoul (or near Seoul) for a while. But I’m not an English major. My field is in IT, but I do have background in writing (in school publication) way back in college. I also do random blogs. I don’t know if I will qualify in teaching English. But my skills are mostly in technical, like I’m a computer technician, electronics tech, writing of course & freelance photography. I also knew a little in audio systems, MIS, & operates media in birthdays & weddings. What can you say about the chance of being hired in Seoul (or near Seoul)?

        Btw, I liked your blog, I am really researching right now how (working) life is in Korea. Thanks for this insider info. ❤️

        • I don’t know if the rules have changed, but when I was there your field of study didn’t need to be English as long as you were TESOL or TEFOL certified to teach English. I have no idea about job prospects outside of teaching. You might try this Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/2370296695/) to ask about that. Someone might be able point you in the right direction. Good luck, and thanks for reading! Let me know if you have any more questions 🙂

      • Hi hi tnx for the sharing of ur comment but am loocking to go s.korea & am from ethiopia i just wan go & work as the same time i wnat to learn what did u advice me ? How did u find it overall for foreigners ? Tnx in advance

  3. Totally on point. There’s also one other aspect that I think it difficult in Korea and that’s that often things are done just for appearance sake, rather than substance sake, if that makes sense. For example, working extra hours is seen as desirable even if you’re just sitting at your desk accomplishing nothing. There’s a certain brand of logic (or perhaps anti logic) that exists right across the board and as foreigners we found this extremely difficult at first. Eventually, you just stop asking “but WHY?” and relax, but it takes a while.

    • I definitely should have included that–the appearance of working hard was maddening to me. People were always telling me how busy they were, but then I’d see them at their desks doing nothing. That was quite perplexing…at most of my jobs in the US, if I finished early and had nothing to do, I could go home and just work longer another day. So that was a bizarre adjustment–just sitting at the desk for hours on end with nothing to do. I graded a lot of tests (many that weren’t for my classes) simply because I was bored, and I did a TON of work on this blog during work hours!!

  4. Good points all! I liked Korea in general but a few things made me happy to leave after a year, and you’ve pretty much covered them. I also found adjusting to the different expectations in the workplace difficult – not to mention the fact that touching/personal space is dealt with very differently which was a problem at school for me.

    • Ugg, the lack of personal space was so frustrating! I am pretty sure living in Korea made me phobic of crowds. I’m only half joking–I feel panicky when I know we have to go somewhere really crowded now, and I think it’s cause of flashbacks from Korea!

  5. This was all very interesting and eye opening! It really helps to get a well rounded vision of life in Korea, and for that matter other cultures that are so different. Some of it is more like life here was 60 yr. ago! Gram Anne

  6. I really find South Korea an interesting country… There are many South Koreans in our country and I think it’s really cool to visit their country…

    “When you go shopping, you might not be allowed to try clothes on because the salespeople are worried your big foreigner body might stretch out the clothes” – Thank God I’m Asian so I won’t have this issue… 🙂

    • Korea is a cool place to visit, it’s just best to be prepared for being treated as an outsider! Obviously this changes once you get to know Korean people though. Do you plan on visiting Korea soon?

    • Interesting. I always tell people I’d love to see Korea in 10 years to see if things have changed, but it sounds like culturally at least it’s not too different from when you were there. I did see a lot of differences in the mindsets of the younger and older people, so I like to hope that Korea will be a more hospitable place for foreigners to live in the future, and that more tourists will have discovered it as a destination, making it less strange to see foreigners on Korean streets.

      • After twenty years, I didn’t notice much change in Korea. But does anywhere really change in 20 years?

        • Interesting. I think some places can change a lot in twenty years–for example, Berlin or Croatia or Rwanda. I think technology and the fact that Korea is more connected with the rest of the world will bring big changes in Korean culture over the next decade.

    • Wow, that’s funny! I grew up in the valley and went to CV, and we were just over in Gwangju-si, guess you just missed us! (We came home in December). What year did you graduate?

  7. Hi there! I stumbled on your blog when I was looking up information about the waterfalls on Jeju Island. My husband is stationed at Osan and I read these points to him. It was a great conversation piece and some I’ve definitely heard in only the 2.5 months we’ve lived in Korea. It’s taking some getting used to but we’ll be here for 3 years so there is lots to see and do. I’ve met two Korean families I am tutoring in English and I have loved getting to know them in just the few times I’ve met with them. Due to my husband being in the military, me getting a job to teach English would be tricky. I DEFINITELY agreed on the personal space comment. I took my girls, ages 7 and 9 to the Lantern Festival in Seoul back in May and it was crazy. No personal bubble at all! I enjoyed reading your piece and wish you luck in your future travels. We have plans to travel from here and hope to put Japan on that list as well! After Hawaii and Thailand 🙂

    • Well I hope I haven’t painted too negative of a picture for you! There are a lot of good things about living in Korea, and what a great experience for your young girls! Regarding your comment on the lantern festival–we basically just avoided festivals, parades, etc. like the plague because of how chaotic they were and the massive crowds. I just couldn’t handle that many people!

      Definitely check out Jeju if you get the chance, it’s much different than mainland Korea–so many less people and a much more laid back atmosphere. Thailand is also great! The only place we visited in Japan was Okinawa, but that was a fun trip too! Good luck on your travels, and feel free to hit me up for recommendations anytime!

    • Hi Christy, can I pick your brains as am interested in teaching in Korea. I’m a teacher with EAL. Being married, with two young kids, sounds like you also are in this wonderful ‘boat’!!..a family perspective then could be useful, in terms of where in Korea would you suggest?

      We don’t need flash Big City, but on the other hand, don’t particularly want to be the novelty stranger in town. On the other hand, it could be full immersion, so open – minded.

      I like to be able to have on hand some kind of healthy park, to ensure kids get work – life balance.

      Lastly, do you know what options would be realistic for a 6 and 2 yr old; again in recommending centre choice. I guess I would be the bread – winner also, so again, know I don’t need high cost of living centre.

      Appreciate any replies; most helpful. Some great threads on this!


  8. I completely agree! I have been living in Busan for a little over three months now. I am just beginning to experience these frigid winters, but I can already tell that my walk to work is about to get a lot more unpleasant. As with you, getting used to being such a social outcast has been really difficult at times. As an introvert, I get uncomfortable when people are staring or pointing at me. However, as frustrating as this can be, it pales in comparison to how amazing all of my experiences here have been. Not to mention, I feel like there is so much opportunity to grow as a person in the face of adversity and I can feel myself growing more confident and self assured as the days go on. Also, like you said, as soon as you get to know a Korean, you find that they are incredibly nice people and as often as I have been treated in a rude manner, I have also experienced wonderful acts of kindness from complete strangers. I would recommend Korea to anyone 100 times over! I loved your post!

    • Thank you! I’m glad you liked the post. I think living abroad, no matter where you live, is kind of a mixed bag, and there are always going to be good experiences and bad. I made several lifelong friendships in Korea, and for that I’ll always be grateful. That, and there’s no better way to experience a new culture than by living in it! Overall I do think it was a rich experience, the kind that stay with you forever.

  9. Hi Andrew, thank you for such a great post!
    I’m really interested in your experience at Korea. I’m thinking of travelling to Korea for a year. The idea seems extremely exciting but it seems very difficult to live in a country without knowing the actual language.
    I’m from Australia, I can’t speak korean and don’t know much about the language.
    You mentioned that you had taught English in Korea. I’d like to gather some more information about that. Eg how did you apply? How can you teach Koreans without knowing korean? Did you attend any special courses to be able to teach?
    It would be great if I can gather some more information from your personal experiences!

    • Hello, thanks for reading! Almost no one that comes to teach in Korea knows Korean, and you don’t really need to, especially in the beginning, because most of the teachers and students know some English. English classes are taught almost exclusively in English, with some additional explanations in Korean by Korean co-teachers. I wrote a lot about getting started–check out the posts here: http://www.world-walk-about.com/teach-esl-in-korea/

  10. Hi, I’m Korean living in Seoul, and it was really interesting for me to read. Even though I was born and raised here, 4 years of living in Canada made me see my home country from a different perspective. I’m having a little hard time getting myself adjusted to this culture(which is funny!) since I’m back. And some things you pointed out – I just had to agree. Although I don’t think it’s easy to live in Korea if you were Korean, haha. Anyway, it looks like you generally enjoyed your stay. I’m glad:)

    • Thanks for reading! I totally understand what you mean abut adjusting back in your home country–now that we’re back in the US I feel the same way! I’m much more aware of my country’s quirks and flaws after having been away. I think you’re right that it’s not easy to live in Korea if you’re not Korean, but that is part of the experience, and being out of my comfort zone was a great life experience!

      • I think she meant that it is not as easy to live in Korea if you ARE Korean…
        As an English teacher our apartment is paid for and so is our plane ticket which is a huge bonus.. Also the job is more relaxing and our hours are low… as a korean they are constantly in a giant competition with each other and working over time for up to 12 hours a day with no over time pay …

  11. This Was Such An Awesome Post. I Love That You Were So Honest And Insightful. My Husband And I Got Stationed In South Korea And Will Be Going This Spring. I’m Trying To Get Opinions On Cell Service…Should We Keep Our Smart Phones And Just Get A Chip Or Will We Have To Purchase An Entire Phone Plus International Chip There?

    • Thank you! Cell phone plans are super confusing in Korea…honestly, we just got the cheapest thing possible (not a smart phone), but most people I know got a smart phone and a plan once there. A good reference for phone stuff would be http://www.thearrivalstore.com, I think you can get discounted smart phones there and someone who works there could probably talk you through plan options better than I could.

      • Hi,

        I am an American Black man 6’3 with green eyes(exactly I stand out in the US) lol. I plan on traveling to visit Seoul, Korea for 10 days for vacation…decided Korea, cause I love the food here

        Before traveling there, what are some of the steps, actions or documents I will need? I also would like to make a couple friends prior to my visit, to make my stay more enjoyable. How would I go about doing that and which district should I travel too?

        Oh, is there anything I should be aware of considering I’m a man of color?


        • Hello! I’ll try my best to answer your questions. To travel there for a short stay you don’t need a visa, but you do need an exit ticket, and they’ll fingerprint you when you arrive in the country. To make friends/find travel buddies, the US military hangout of Itaewon is probably your best best. I’m not sure about making friends before you arrive–you can check out this Facebook group though, that might help: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2370296695/

          For sightseeing, the neighborhood Jongno-gu (at least I think that’s the subway stop name) is good because it’s near Gyeongbokgung Palace and some museums. For nightlife check out Gangnam, Itaewon or Hongdae. And lastly, the only thing to be aware of is that you will definitely get stared at in some neighborhoods! The main touristy areas I’ve mentioned shouldn’t be too bad, but overall, Koreans are less accustomed to foreigners than other places. Good luck and have fun!

  12. The one thing i noticed when my husband and I went to Korea is how easily they could come off as rude. My husband is Korean American and he felt the same way. For example, they don’t say thank you when you hold the door for them or they don’t hold the door for you. When I complained about it to my other Korean friends, they said that something like that is not very common in Korea so the response is different. Honestly, if we didn’t have family members in Korea, we probably won’t go back. Yes – shopping & food are amazing in Korea but other than that, I really did think it’s a little over-hyped.

    • I agree that sometimes people seem rude too–but I really don’t think they are meaning to be rude. I struggled for a long time with the fact that when you ask someone for something, you don’t say please in Korean. Finally, a Korean teacher explained to me that the only word for please means something like “I’m begging you” and is too extreme to use for everyday things. I had to face the fact that that was a huge cultural difference! It’s not necessarily rude or not rude, it’s just different. But I agree–super hard to get used to!

    • Try living here for 13 years, I’ve just been diagnosed with a massive brain disorder from the chronic stress, and even though I make a lot of money and have a loving fiancee, the stupidity around me that I see from native Koreans is staggering, to a point where it’s making me physically ill. Stay away from Korea, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. You and your husband deserve better. I’ve always though, it’s nicer to live in the States and be happy, no matter what your financial standings, then live like a king in Korea. You cannot avoid stupidity, if it is like the pacific ocean and you’re a small raft stuck in the middle of it.

    • The longer I’m away from it, the more I miss it! There’s good and bad in every place, and overall I agree–Korea is pretty awesome. It’s definitely a unique place!

  13. I wish I had read your blog before I´d gone to south korea, in my case I went for business purposes but had to spend like 1 month in my client´s home. I am a 32 year old single woman, red haired, blue eyes, so let me tell you my story so you can laugh for a while.

    When we arrived to the airport, me and my assistant, who by the way he´d already been there, my first observation, were men, and their hair, super shinny hair. So I thought, ok in Korea there are a lot of gay men, so I asked my assistant, he said, oh no just fashion, just trend, but for god sake, they had better hair than me, and I buy lots of hair products, then what about their super skinny pink jeans, but my assistant said, no, no gay here, just fashion, but I swear I saw a guy with skinny leather pants that no matter what they say he was gay. So then we went to eat something before meeting my client and his mother, you read well, his mom was going to deal with us in our business.

    So while I was drinking my soju that tastes like hell, in a huge screen there was a group that later I found out was Super junior, one guy kissed the drummer of the band in the mouth, then licked his tongue, so at that moment I said, well I am out of here, lol
    . I thought I´ve seen it all but I was so so far from that. so while my assistant was trying to convince me to stay and do business and stop thinking about the guys kissing, which btw I am pro gay and all, just little shocked, so then we met my client and his mom

    We are stock traders and my client owns a small entertainment company, he is also a singer and an actor and we could see his face in all the make up stores, later I found out in a very ugly way he was extremely popular, but let me keep with the story. So we met in an office in gangnam with some of his crew and of course his mom.
    My first weird experience was, they only wanted to talk to my male assistant, a cute guy with blonde hair, so I thought fine, they like him, but 20mins after I started talking and no one seemed to be interested, so I asked my assistant to bring me some papers and my laptop so I could explain them and suddenly everone was quiet, then told me why I was giving orders to a man, who also was blonde, for an strange reason a woman cannot be a boss in south korea and give orders to a man, so that was my first experience with sexism, then during our meeting with my 25 year old client, wearing black eyeliner, his mom asked us to stay in Korea so she would be able to understand our work nearly.

    I thought, well this is weird, but thought fine, people normally does not know how stock market works and since the client is paying for all then I said fine, but oh god no, things were not as I thought.
    So we stayed in a hotel in gangnam in cheongdamdeum or something like that, my assistant was a walking celebrity, people taking selfies with him, and touching our hair and pointing at us, staring all the time, sometimes honestly I wish i had gave them the finger, lol.

    But I had another experience of sexism, some men asking me if I were Russian, and for god sake I am mexican, but my assistant was kind of worried for my security so then we decided to move to our client´s home, a very secure place. So I learned how is life in a kind of typical korean home, eat kimchi, rice all the time, but one scary thing was when my client arrived drunk every night wearing make up and funny clothes, I think he had hidden heels in his shoes too. I tried to wait until he removed his make up and his costumes so I could talk to a normal person but guess what, he seemed so comfortable so I was talking to a guy with eyeliner about stocks and listening how popular he was with girls.

    I tried to forget my whole day going to bars and I met some english teachers that I guess had it harder than me, they drank way more than me, lol and always complainning, I liked to complain with them too, like a complain racing, lol.

    So finally we finished our job there, but in spite of all the things I wrote before were true I thank to Geun Seuk´s mom for being so kind and feed us with rice and kimchi 3 times a day, sometimes I miss it, also very nice moments with his crew, they showed us lots of fun places, the beautiful and girly clothes I bought there, the hello kitty cafe, really rocks, I loved my bittered teacher friends of the bar, I miss you guys, hope you still complain about your hard life there, yeah sure, they got plenty of beautiful korean girls every night and still complain, lol.

    The camping with lots of luxury and style, the boats in the hang river, you guys drive like hell, the korean pop, I still hate you and always will, now I blame you for me thinking men wearing make up look kind of hot, lol .I learned that having a korean friend is a friend forever, so will I live there, no way, I am a bossy woman and love it, but definitely will visit my friends there, and will give the finger to the ajusshis who called me russian, lol.

  14. This blog is so informative especially if you plan to visit South Korea either as tourist or working expat. My two year stay there was a bit of rollercoaster. First, before I landed in Korea I used to be a social drinker but things changed rapidly and sooner than later I became a party zombie consuming at least four bottles of soju a day. Secondly, Koreans are much obsessed with white skin colour so me being an African meant I had to endure being looked down upon regularly in public transport and places. On ther other hand, if I can pin point some highlights one was that I met with other expats mostly from North America and Europe who made my stay enjoyable. If you stay in small towns better yet come to Itaewon once in a while to feel the Western ambience…it really helps. I also found out saunas to be very relaxing even though you must literally get naked to use the jacuzzi or the hot rooms. All in all they are just my opinions anyone can beg to differ. Keep up the good work I love this blog.

    • Thank you! I agree about getting into Itaewon once and a while–it always refreshed us to spend just a little time not feeling like an outsider, and then we could go back to our small town feeling better! I really do like Korea, and as I’ve said a few times before, there’s good things and bad things about it–you just have to find a balance!

  15. Hi . Really interesting .because i have experence working in us army. Studied in canada for short time. Now i live in brasil.so i always wonder what people from other countries real impression. I agree with yo most of them you mentioned. It was So funny on story regarding dressing culture.

    • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed this. It’s definitely interesting and fun to find out what’s unique about each place when traveling 🙂

  16. Hello.I am not sure you still check this blog but I have been dying to talk to someone who has visited korea. I am a young darker skin African American, I have two small biracial child ,the oldest dad is Thailand , my youngest is half white . I am a single mother traveling alone with kids .I wanted to travel or maybe work in south korea but not sure it’s a good idea for kids ..have you seen any American kids ? Would they be racist towards us ? Any great advice or suggestions on my situation .I would appreciate it .thank you

    • Hello! Thanks for reading. I’m sure you and your children will be fine. Korea is very safe, and overall, people are kind. Because foreigners are less common in Korea than elsewhere you might have strangers who want to touch or hold your children because they look different–some people we knew were okay with that attention, others weren’t. You also might receive an occasional dirty look or comment, but that can happen anywhere. We knew several Americans who had their children with them in Korea, including their biracial children, and they got on just fine. People are going to stare at you no matter what, because there are simply less foreigners in Korea than other countries. I found that whenever someone was staring too much or being overly interested in me, I would smile and say in Korean “hello.” They would either return the words and smile or turn away and stop staring. Good luck!

  17. Hi,

    Thanks for your article – it’s great to read something more honest and detailed than “it’s so much fun! Go find out for yourself!”
    My boyfriend lives in the States, and I’m in the UK, and we’re both looking to go teach in South Korea together next year, and so would like to be placed in the same city, and live together. Having looked at a few recruitment sites in advance, it’s hard to tell whether this is possible, and how that would work, but I was wondering if you could give me some advice considering you went together?


    • Hi Pavi, thanks for reading! It’s definitely possible to get placed in the same city, however many schools will not place you together in an apartment if you’re not married. We’re married, so we didn’t have any difficulties with that. However we knew plenty of unmarried couples that came together, often they would just each get their apartment assignment from their schools and then choose the bigger one of the two to share, or if the schools allowed them to take a stipend instead of using the school’s apartment then they would combine their money and find an apartment to share. Or sometimes they would end up just living in their separate apartments for simplicity. Your recruiter might be able to help you through that process. Good luck!

  18. You also forgot to mention:

    Their horrible self centered driving, that is beyond comprehension. If you turn on your signal, they will speed up to block you from entering into the lane, or moving into another lane to take the exit. Those are the ‘normal’ drivers, then you have the taxis and buses that drive like they’re driving blindfolded with their feet.

    Personal space, yes that’s an issue, but not because of the reasons “most” people think of. You would think it’s because of the lack of space right? Wrong. You could be walking on a wide, empty street, with a single person walking towards you. I mean wide as in a 20 foot wide street, with NOTHING ELSE on it. That person will STILL bump into you. You know what though, that’s not even the part that upsets me. When you confront them about just reason why they bumped into you (or the lack of a small apology), they will look at you like YOU’RE the crazy person, being a douche for pointing out something that is so normal here.

    Oh yeah, and you foreigners think that they (Native Koreans) only stare at you? Wrong. I look as Korean as can be, but I still feel violated on a daily basis. Koreans will stare the living shit out of you wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. Especially when you’re eating.

    Native Koreans also have a planet sized inferiority complex, meaning that whenever they are in the wrong, or they feel like you might earn a better living, or drive a nicer car, or speak English fluently in front of them, they will despise you for it and let you know how they feel. I love how when they make an obvious mistake, and you point it out, they will retaliate by swearing at your like a sailor and threatening you.

    • I never had a car in Korea, and we only rented a car twice, so I can’t really speak to that. As for the staring, I think staring happens to anyone who doesn’t blend in. I think this is simply because Korean’s are not accustomed to foreigners.

  19. I really want to live in Korea, I was there two times and really, that’s my place to live. It’s ideal for my personality. But there’s one problem… I don’t know how? I can’t find any job because I’m from Center Europe and I’m not native english speaker, so I don’t know what to do. I’m looking to find a way for 6 months right now, everyday, not sleeping at night because searching through internet, to maybe find some way finally… But nothing, I’m hopeless right now and don’t know what to do ;c I can’t find any student exchange with my country either… I’m going to cry in a corner for the rest of my life, really…..

  20. Hi
    Thank you for your article
    I really enjoyed your article and all coments of here
    As native korean,
    I learned many things that how and what feel forigners who live in korean from your posting
    I think it help me get more objective sight
    As I know, Korea is one of the country to change the most quckly in the world. sexism is one of a social norm that is quickly gone. And it is not just korean culture. It is East Aisia’s culture. I think If you consider it as just defferent life style, you can feel better

    • Hi Dan, thanks for reading! I’m glad you felt this post was insightful–I too always like to hear what people living in my country from other countries think about it!

  21. Hi Andrea,

    Nice article overall as your reasons for not wanting to live in Korea gave me cause to reflect as an Asian male living in the U.S. As to your first reason for not wanting to live in Korea I would like to caution you on what you might perceive as blatant racism from Koreans. As you said Korea is an isolated nation. Now if you were to look at history when California was like Korea is today at the turn of the 20th century you would find that the few asians like the chinese who made it to the golden state were being persecuted outright to the point of ethnic cleansing so please keep that in mind if you ever fancied the thought of korea being a racist country. The fact is that whites in korea are the least discriminated amongst foreigners whereas other groups like southeast asians have it really tough. And finally I need to point out that despite the west being more multicultural the fact is that people like myself are more likely to face blatant racial hostility whether it be in northern ireland, italy, belgium, russia or the deep south usa than you would in korea. Not trying to belittle your experience but please try to keep things in proper perspective. Have a good day.

    • Hi Brian–First of all, I never said these were reasons for not wanting to live in Korea. I lived there for a year and I very much enjoyed the experience. This post was about a handful of things I felt less happy about while living in Korea. My blog is filled with pages and pages of things I loved about Korea. I completely understand Korea is isolated, and I never meant to insinuate that Korea is the only place where you can experience racism. In fact, compared to a lot of places, Korea is quite accepting. However, I haven’t lived in many other countries, so I cannot speak to the experience of living there, and I have lived in Korea, and these were my experiences there.

  22. What you mentioned did not sound harsh or unkind to me. From what I experienced during my short time in Korea it sounds about right. However, I would add the winter might be cold but the summer can be a killer. The heat plus humidity can be very uncomfortable for both work and play. Overall it is an amazing country to visit or live in. It is definitely a place where the past and the present have found harmony together.

    • Hi Jae–thanks for reading! The humidity is pretty bad, but I prefer warm weather so I didn’t mind that nearly as much as winter! 🙂 It is a nice place to live and visit, and I encourage everyone to go visit and make up their own minds.

  23. hi andrea! I’m going to be a senior in high school this coming school year, and so I’m thinking about college. What I want to do is teach english, and SK is my ideal place if I’m going to teach abroad rather than in the US. Do schools in SK look at whether you major in education or not? Because I was thinking of just going for an english major.
    Also, I have a physical disability. I was born without the lower part of my right arm (basically, I have a right arm but it only goes up to an inch past my elbow; I have no hand but I do have a prosthetic to help me). How badly would this affect my job prospects? And if i do manage to land a job, what kinds of mindsets would other native SK teachers and students have about me? Here in the US, I think people are more lax. I feel like I would I be looked down upon in SK and I hear there are a lot of bullying incidents too…
    Also, I am chinese american, and after watching an EatYourKimchi video on Youtube, it sounds like koreans are a unfriendly towards chinese people. is that true?? Haha sorry for asking so many questions 🙂

    • Hi Elizabeth, thanks for reading! Teaching in South Korea is a great way to travel and see the world, I love that you’re planning on doing that! You don’t need a major in education for most schools in Korea, you just need a TEFOL or TESOL certificate. As for having a disability, I can’t imagine the reaction would be too much different than anywhere else in the world–likely the children will stare and ask you what happened, but children everywhere would probably do that! Just be very honest and tell the staff and children what you can or can’t do upfront, or make sure they know you have no limitations. Interviews are usually done via Skype or on the phone so I don’t think your disability will hurt your job prospects. Lastly, I knew several teachers in Korea that were Asian-American (not Korean), and they didn’t have any problems. The kids are interested in their teachers because we’re foreigners, so likely they’ll just ask you a lot of questions–about being American, being Chinese, about your disability, etc. I think as long as you are not easily offended by questions you will do great! Check out this page on my blog for more resources about how to get started if you want to teach in Korea: http://www.world-walk-about.com/teach-esl-in-korea/how-to-get-started/ Good luck!

  24. Hi Andrea and calling all families established,

    Can you give any tips please about where would be best, in terms of location ‘ideals’ for a family – (I don’t have a job lined up yet, as want to consider location) I have 2 kids of 6 and 2 years. I’m the breadwinner, a teacher with EAL. We don’t need bright glitz or glamour. Other consideration, is schooling for our kids; do any centres provide it?

    I am aware of international schools; but tough to get onto, so please assume this is not on the cards.

    Thanks and appreciate suggestions; lots of great useful posts.

    • Hi Jonathon–thanks for reading! I feel I really don’t know enough about these matters to speak intelligently (about having a family in Korea, schools, etc.), but I recommend you connect with a recruiter, and they can help you line up a job that will be a good fit for you and your family. Usually your school will provide housing, include family housing if needed. Again, a recruiter might be a good person to help. I recommend the folks over at Adventure Teaching: http://www.adventureteaching.com/. I knew of some foreign teachers who sent their kids to Korean public schools, but other than that and international schools, I really have no idea! I know nothing about the private school system. Anyway, I hope that helps, good luck!

  25. I am a Korean American that lived in the US for a quite a long time. My English is fluent and my Korean is too. In Korea, there are places you would want to avoid as a foreigner. You should try to live somewhere near Gangnam Station, in Seocho-dong. There, you will find MANY restaurants serving western food. Almost half of the restaurants there serve western food. Also, in teaching of teaching in a Korean school, you could go to Daechi-dong(where learning centers, “academies”, teach many children English. Some “academies” including ILE, and Peai have many FLUENT students that you can teach. You will not feel too strange there, since all the teachers there speak English very well. I think for a person that can speak English perfectly can really fit in Korea, if that person lives in Seocho-dong, since it has a perfect workplace nearby, and since you can enjoy your food there too!

    But of course, there are some downsides 🙁
    1. The housing there are EXPENSIVE!!!! Most housing is in a Soviet Style apartment in Korea. I know. It is wierd.. There are some apartments that made the building look better, (Remian, Lotte, etc.) Anyways, Korean “land” is usually measured in “Peong”, which is about 3.3 square meters. If you want a 30 Peong apartment, it would cost you about a million dollars, since housing near Seocho is so expensive.

    2. If you want to go to Daechi, it will require you to drive, ride a bus, ride a taxi, or the subway. You normally want to go to Gangnam Station, or Shin nonhyuk station, and ride bus number 420 to get to Daechi. The bus number 420 is usually FILLED, unless you get on it early. Academies DO NOT open until AFTER the school ends, which will make you ride the bus, when it is FILLED. For the taxi option, I wouldn’t recommend it. It is expensive, like all taxis. If you want to drive, trust me you will HATE Koreans… The way Koreans drive is not nice. They don’t let you go in front of them, let you change a lane, and they really don’t care about anyone else… I don’t know how this came to be, but driving in my opinion is not an option. Lastly, the subway. You will need to change trains many times…. And it will take forever to Daechi.. Just don’t take the subway!

    I think that is all I need to say about living in Korea 🙂 Just a reccomendation 🙂
    Jason recently posted…Being a Beach Bum in MexicoMy Profile

    • Hi Jason, thanks for reading! I wouldn’t even say there are places to avoid, as I never felt unsafe anywhere, but I definitely agree there are better places for foreigners to live, simply for comfort and convenience. We lived in Gwangju-si, a suburb of Seoul about 45 minutes outside of the city. We never had any problems in Gwangju-si with safety or with our schools, we just sometimes felt our “outsider” status there more than we did in Seoul. Our apartment was definitely exactly how you described it–a big, Soviet-style complex, but luckily, our housing was paid by our school so we didn’t have to deal with the high rents. Although I disagree with you about taxis–taxis in Korea are so cheap compared to the USA, we loved taking taxis!

  26. Thank you for your post! It was quite interesting to read! I disagree with you on a few points. I was in Seoul this summer and walked everywhere. I only had a person staring at me once and it was because I was sitting down outside the subway eating crisps. I never felt like an outsider and people never treated me like one. In terms of clothing. I bought tons of clothes there and I didn’t have a problem with any sales person at all, on the contrary! In terms of culture, well, I’m Southern European and our “general” culture is pretty similar to Korea’s so I guess it depends where one comes from in the West. The only thing I did notice was that I couldn’t find shoes that fit me but then I can hardly find shoes that fit me in Southern Europe. Korea is very much like Southern Europe! People are warm and friendly and kind and willing to help even when one barely speaks the language. In regards to eating Western Food, first western food comprises of so many cuisines, second who goes to Korea to eat Western food? If one misses it so much, one can purchase the ingredients and cook. Third eating kimchi and rice, so what? In Southern Europe we eat rice or potatoes every day and we love it! It’s all a matter of where one comes from!

    • Hi Anna, thanks for reading! Let me clarify something–most of the times we felt like we stood out or were stared at were NOT in Seoul. Seoul is a huge city and there are plenty of foreigners in certain neighborhoods. We lived in a smaller town about 45 minutes outside of Seoul, and did some traveling in the less touristy areas of Korea. Those were the places we really stood out and were stared at. The same goes for your point about shopping–in Seoul, I never had any issues. It was when I tried to shop in my town (Gwangju-si) that I encountered issues. We were in Korea for a year, so of course we craved other foods at some point, and in our town, there were very few non-Korean options. We did a lot of our own cooking, but I just meant when you go out to eat, it might be hard to find something other than Korean food, even other Asian cuisines. And I love rice and kimchi, it’s just like you said, in Western culture we eat a variety of cuisines from all over the world, so it was weird for me to eat the same thing every day. I don’t mean to bash Korean culture, but for expats living in Korea, I just wanted to offer some tips.

      • Hi everyone. I think I might be able to clear some things up here. I lived in Korea for two years as a young man and lived in several cities including many areas of Seoul itself. I was a missionary AND, now don’t fall over, I arrived in 1980. I lived with the people, learned the language, and I am laughing cause something’s have not changed. The difference is I know why Koreans do what they do.
        First, when you are in public, you are part of the public. You are no longer a private individual. And that is the reason it’s acceptable to be stared at, talked about, and bumped into without a thought or apology, even if no one is around. Conversely, once you go into a native’s home, you will be treated like a king. I never thought twice about being stared at or talked about…. And, I knew what they were saying…..”their noses are so big, look how deep their eyes are in their face, look at all the hair on their arms etc”. This public persona gives you a chance to be an ambassador. If you speak very slowly and say “hi”, they would get a kick out of saying something in English or they will get embarrassed and stop and walk on….as you said.
        I did have a status advantage over all of you who have posted here. I was a member of the clergy and with my language ability, I was afforded the highest status of respect equal to a Dr., lawyer, engineer etc.
        There are some ways to achieve status. Dress the part of a businessman or woman. You’re in Korea, it’s not U.S. Culture! and if you want to have the best experience then adapt. Learn the Korean alphabet which is easy and use it to write down your new Korean friend’s names in front of them. Koreans are very nationalistic and love their country, their rich heritage AND LANGUAGE. Show a modacom of respect for that and u elevate yourself immediately. KOREANS have one of the highest literacy rates in the world. And, that because they left
        Chinese characters mostly behind and developed their own phonetic alphabet. You can learn it in a day and get good with it in three months. The U.S. language institute which serves the U. S. Government ranks Korean as the third hardest language for an English speaker to learn. You will have to put some effort into it and I mean legit effort to just get some basics and phrases down but your stock will soar.
        I still speak Korean and meet Koreans all the time in every city I go to. I love the Korean people and culture and language. Having said that, understand that Koreans are very slowly coming around on things like race and even as it relates to white European Americans. I know from constructive adult conversations on the matter that they are very proud of their very homogenous identity and “pureness” as a people and see Americans as mutts. My dad is German, my mom is English. You get it; they don’t get it that people from both countries originated from the same Caucus sp? Region. And, they do hold a harsher opinions of African Americans. Because, if you think white people freak them out, we’ll, then you can only imagine. I hope they continue to evolve in this area but having gone to segregated schools in the American south growing up in the 60’s, I look more to my own county’s history and register my criticism right where it belongs….here in America. But, having said all this, Koreans will treat anyone they are given a chance to know and who they are comfortable with, a big chance and opportunity. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE TO GET THEM COMFORTABLE, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.
        Because none of you have the history I do, women will be pleased to know that the sexism is improving. It was way worse when I was there. It was like the 40’s when I was there…..probably like the 50’s now. But, it’s improving. But, women of status had status when I was there and were treated very well. If you act like a fool culturally or socially, it will be very hard to shake off the stigma. A couple things to understand that contribute to this culture. First, men have to serve in the military unless they are the eldest son. Women don’t have to serve. Second, why doesn’t the eldest son have to serve or the “only” son….because the eldest son is responsible to take care of his parents when they’re older and He is not to be exposed to excessive risks. BUT, THE WOMEN carry no such expectation. Under these conditions, one at least starts to understand the culture behind the attitudes and why it will be slow to change.
        And, please remember, unless you immerse yourself in the culture and language, you will not see the most formal side of Korean customs. You see the equals going out to drink, I saw the younger generation prostrate themselves before their elders on special occasions. And, it STILL is the custom. You would have to understand Hyodo, in order to fully appreciate what I am speaking about. I think western women really have an opportunity to thoughtfully find a way to explain the evolving role of women in the west and influence the Korean culture in a positive way…while understanding and respecting how male dominance is historically rooted in the very survival of both the patriarch and matriarch of the family. Obviously, with progress, the role of the male dominance will lessen as Korea modernizes it’s retirement systems and sexism will naturally decline.
        For the poster who said things don’t change inKorea, I’ve got news for you. The neighborhoods I lived in don’t exist. The subway system was just starting to be built and other than an electric blanket, I had no heat source at night during the worst winter since the Korean War. If the electricity went out or my blanket broke, I froze. There was not one western place to eat and the bus system was old and broken down. And, the trains were from WWII. Even the language has evolved since I was there and I have to be tutored in the changes before I go back next year. When I lived there, there was a military dictator, there was a curfew from 11pm to 4:30am. We did regular citywide blackout drills in case we were attacked by the North Koreans. I arrived the week of the massacre in Kwang Ju where the people rose up and we’re put down so brutally and killed to such an extent that it is now celebrated as their “Independence Day”. Korea has changed physically, culturally, economically and politically. You truly have an opportunity to experience one of the last democratic, western friendly Asian cultures that is still largely isolated and not overly tarnished by exaggerated western culture. You will never experience what I did, but none of you could of handled it anyway. Lol 🙂 Savor the differences, enjoy the differences and UNDERSTAND WHY THERE ARE DIFFERENCES. Also, they don’t need to say please, if you know the language and speak the correct level, it is built into every verb you use. it’s a structural humility built into the language and it inherently conveys gratitude. If you open the door for a woman or offer your seat in public, you could be demonstrating a level of familiarity that a Korean would not be comfortable with from anyone. Offering your seat to an elderly man would be highly regarded and show you actually know the culture. In public, everyone is a non-person and the best behaved Americans would not eat or drink openly walking down the street. Its rude. Now,that is loosening up amongst the young. Trust me, what goes on now was non-existant when I was there.
        P.S. I’m American but I lived in Europe 4 times for 8 years, France and Germany, and Thailand for 2 years before I arrived in Korea at age 19. When I left I went home to Germany. I understood day one to not try to see Korea through my American eyes. Be a cultural Ambassador and put your heart into it and love the Korean people and their culture and you will discover a gem that you will hold close to your heart forever. They WILL love you back. They will never let you go and Korea will never let go of your heart. ciao

        • Hi Brad! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights. I do agree that while you may get gawked at in public, once you are with your friends, coworkers, etc., you will be treated fabulously — lavished with compliments and food. Thanks again for sharing your experiences!

        • Brad, while reading your entry, I became so touched by your obvious humanity. I’ve read almost all of Andrea’s blogs and responders regarding her experience in Korea. Your entry has resonated with me on such a fundamental level. I’m leaving with my husband in about a month for a four month stay in Korea. My husband is a professor and accepted an assignment at a Global University approximately 25 miles outside of Seoul. There are at least 4-5 universities participating in this cultural/academic experiment. We are both retired live alone now. So taking this assignment is a huge step outside our comfort level.

          I thank you for sharing your experiences and insight, Brad. I also consider your blog, Andrea, to be immensely informative and helpful. I offer you both my sincerest appreciation!

          • How exciting! Good luck on your upcoming adventure. I hope you know that these negative experience here were just a drop in the bucket — overall, my experience in Korea was wonderful and life changing. You’ll have a great time!

  27. Hey I just came across this post, and I really appreciate the upfront attitude about this post. I have always wanted to visit but I knew I would be stared at a lot, and I really can’t stand that. I have social anxiety. Also your examples for sexism were a little weak but I do believe that sexism is very much alive in Korea. I was going to visit next fall but I’ve decided to try getting over my anxiety before doing so. Just wanted to thank you for this, it has helped partly in my decision!

  28. I’m Korean living in Seoul at the moment. I loved your observation of Korea. I’m sorry that you had hard time but… I totally agree with everything you wrote here and you made me laugh hard. BTW, the reason they stare at you is bc they have never seen a person with different color (other than black or dark brown) hair or eyes. It seemed that you were staying quite a far place from Seoul. Lot of ppl in countryside are uneducated and lack of common sense (i guess that would include the principle at your school). We have TV programs that shoots those countryside ppl and actually lot of viewers find it amusing how shamelessly they can speak foul words and how they express things we would not do in public. And even if u were in kyung-gi area for example, we have a huge gap within the same Kyung-gi province. And abt cleavage, it’s bc usually korean women have very small boobs and men go crazy with big boobs. U know all the korean celebrities on TV? Or even the ones that u find with big boobs in sauna r the ones who got the boob job done. Winter is horribly cold in Korea and the vacation is short. It suck so much they don’t have enough heat in class. They don’t bc they have to save money. I know it’s unbelievable but sadly it is true. Thanks for your blog! I love how u have put this together :):)

    • Thanks for reading! I actually really did have a great time living there — these were just a few things I didn’t like. And most people I met were wonderful. I agree that things are different in small towns, I never had much trouble in Seoul 🙂

  29. Hii I am very curious to live in south Korea I am studying catering science and hotel management . Did I get a job in south Korea give me a idea

    • Hi Anitha — I really have no idea about the job prospects in the hotel industry. I think your best bet is to find a recruiter and speak with them. Maybe the ESL teacher recruiters could at least point you in the right direction. Good luck!

  30. I am renting out two rooms for the foreign guests in my house. The house (villa) is close to the sea. I am willing to introduce my homestay for the Korean guests. Please let me know the best way of getting publicity. Regards

  31. Will someone please tell me how to edit a post I just made??? All I want to do is edit the entry of my last name.


  32. Hi Andrea,
    Thanks for this honest article. I am originally from India, living in New Zealand and I travelled around Korea for 11 days and it was a wonderful experience. While i did get stared at, it didnt bother me much since i was only there for a short time. I loveD my experience there so much that i am trying to find a way to live there once i graduate with a BPharm. unfortunately, immigration laws are pretty strict (so im told) in Korea unless youre going to teach English so future moving plans are pretty doubtful. I can always visit again however! Thanks again for a great article 🙂

    • Hi Angel, thanks for reading! I have heard that it’s pretty hard to get a visa to work in Korea if you’re not teaching English. If you’re a citizen of New Zealand you should be able to get that type of visa though–they’re just strict for those that you must be coming from a country where English is the native language, and I think the only exception is the Philippines. But don’t take my word on that! If you’re interested in looking into it more, I recommend connecting with a recruiter (I’ve listed some here: http://www.world-walk-about.com/teach-esl-in-korea/how-to-get-started/), they can get you all those kinds of details. Good luck!

  33. Hello so glad i stumbled on ur blog…I am actually planning to go to korea for my studies latest by end of this month or march in Jeonju, South Korea. I live IinIndia but my actual origin is Mongolia and I m Christian.I got a scholarship to study dr. I have a degree in engineering. M very worried about how it will be living there, about the people place and weather. I will be learning korean as soon as i reach there. I noticed some saying about the skin color and m worried about dat too…my skin is not dark but in comparison to koreans I will be.India is not much a land of opportunity so i was happy about the scho but now m worried about living there for two yrs can u give me some suggestions and advice.

    • Hi Leah, thanks for reading! Chances are everything will be fine and people will be nice to you. Just be prepared to be stared at. Most people will look at your curiously but won’t say anything to you, especially if you follow Korean social norms like giving a small bow or handing things to people with two hands. It’s just as important to learn the customs as the language, and I think once you know what Koreans consider polite/impolite you’ll do just fine. I also learned that giving a friendly smile to people who were staring too much usually made them stop. Good luck and have fun!

    • Glad you had a great time! And good luck on your job search. I read over the article you suggested and I agree 100% — especially about the food! 🙂

  34. Reading the comments have been really enlightening. I’m a soon-to-be nurse from Canada and cannot wait to travel around the world once I graudate. I’ve recently discovered an urge to visit other Asian countries than my place of origin, Philippines. I feel, living in Canada, the cold weather will not be such a big problem, though I plan on visiting Korea around the summer time. I feel traveling is essential in understanding the differences and similarities of various cultures. I’m itching to explore all of Asia within my lifetime and I’m pretty excited for the adventures and people I’ll come across. I think to better prepare yourself for travel is to learn a bit about the countries’ cultures and mannerisms to ensure that you have a feel of what to expect once you arrive. Cultural competency, even just a bit, would be very helpful. From taking cross cultural psychology in school, I think it would be beneficial to just allow yourself to be open into learning their cultural practices. Anyways! Love the blog!

    • I’m glad you found it helpful! You’ll have a great time in Asia, it’s a wonderful part of world, and you’re absolutely right, being prepared helps with adjusting to the cultural differences. I hope you have a wonderful experience! Thanks for reading 🙂

  35. I’m glad to find an article speaking about these fingers pointed and loud shout etc, so far I felt like I was the only one who had to live that there, it made me so uncomfortable !! But my friends didn’t… the fact is that even if they were not Korean, they were asians, so maybe that’s why ? I don’t know, but anyway this first point is so true ! I was glad to read this article 🙂

  36. Hello,
    I just came across your blog because we are currently thinking of moving to Korea for a small chunk of time. It sounds like you had a great time with some growing experiences in between. One of my main concerns is the public access to porn and filth that I was able to easily see out in public in the 90s. Has this changed much? We have children so this has been a big item.

    As far as the pointing and yelling…..I lived that throughout my childhood here in the states and we still get it from time to time; I’m just hoping our girls will be able to not notice till they are older. Just letting you know it was worse when I would date another person that would not be the same ethnic background as me. So it sucks and I know it, and I’m sorry you had to live through that. It does not matter who you are when you’re in that situation it can be very uncomfortable.

    • Hi, thanks for reading! I’m actually surprised to hear you say there’s public access to porn, because we never saw anything like that. In fact, I think Korea is much more conservative when it comes to sexuality (on television and in advertising) than the US and Europe. And as for the pointing, it was a minor discomfort, nothing more. I’m very tall and blondish, so I stood out wherever I went! I think being half a head taller than everyone made me stand out a bit more. Other friends that were shorter or darker haired didn’t experience that quite as often. But yes, it’s uncomfortable at times. I’m sorry you deal with that here in the states!

  37. A lot of good info, but a lot of this is part of the reason we visit foreign counties….to experience what’s unique and what beautiful about other cultures

    • I agree Eric — the good parts of living abroad completely outweighed the bad for me. These were just a few things I either didn’t know about coming in or that I found a little hard to deal with. Overall, it was a very positive experience for me and a I totally recommend it to anyone interested in living abroad!

    • I am completely on the same opinion, traveling is the best way to broaden ones horizons! I’ve been to multiple countries in Europe and it’s amazing how you can feel yourself different – enriched and wiser after every travel to different country!

      • Exactly, it’s totally life changing! I’m completely addicted to traveling now, I just love the way it makes me see the world a little different each time I go somewhere!

  38. Hi,i am not a korean but i wantto become a kpop star and i will ,i live in pakistan thats why i am searching sbout south korea i think this is also a good place for living but please can you tell me about entertainment companies i mean big hit entertainment where would i live and can i study bieng a kpop star…,?

    • Hi Simi, I really have no idea! I’m sorry. I was an English teacher, pretty big difference from a pop star 🙂 Good luck though!

  39. I found your review about the weather and ease of living in Korea helpful. However, I found the other points to be petty, and these are things that anyone travelling outside of the US should expect to encounter at some point.

    I particularly didn’t like is your example of sexism being someone telling you you’re beautiful. Westerners look very exotic here and will often be told they are handsome (for the males) or pretty (for the females). I admittedly don’t know the situation surrounding your comment, so it very well could have been agressive or displeasing in some way. However, I’d hate to see every Westerner that gets complimented for their looks (which will definitely happen) react negatively. One of my biggest pet peeves in America is how everyone is ready to sue the pants off everyone else at the drop of a hat.

    • Hi Khris, thanks for your comment. The reason I disliked the comment by my boss was because he was my boss. It just seemed so inappropriate — he didn’t offer any comments or questions about my work or background, just a comment on my appearance. Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but I just felt kind of weird about that. If this was a random person on the street it wouldn’t have been as weird (at least not in the same way). It was simply that a person in power, above me, said one sentence to me (basically the entire time I worked there), and it was about my looks. That’s why it felt sexist to me. I have never sued anyone and certainly do not adhere to that attitude even at home in the States, I was just making a comparison about what’s considered appropriate in South Korea vs. the States. And you’re right, a lot of the other points are true of living in other countries too, but that was kind of my point. When you’re getting ready to move abroad, often people will only tell you the most positive aspects of that country, and you don’t hear about the less ideal aspects until you’re already there. I’ve also lived in Italy and didn’t experience all the same things as I did while in Korea–although Italy presented other unique challenges. I never meant this piece to be a Korea-bashing article, as I mentioned before, for the most part, I loved my time there.

  40. Hi, I know looks are very important in South Korea. I’ve heard that looks will play a role in your hire-ability, because Koreans prefer a certain type of person as an English teacher. Apparently race, age, and general appearance are huge factors while job hunting in Korea, obviously they are looked at in America too, but even more so in Korea. Not to be vain, but I know I am an attractive person, I get a fair amount of attention, except that I could loose some weight. Will I be highly looked down upon or find it difficult to find a teaching job? Please be very honest with this, it wont hurt my feelings a bit. I already have a B.S. degree in education and will have TEFL certification. I’m a white American woman in my early 30’s. I look young for my age, no fine lines, blonde hair, fair skin, 5’9″ and moderately over weight. Will I find it very difficult to find a job? Should I delay even trying before I return to a normal weight? Thanks for honest info.

    • I cringe that I even feel the need to mention my race, I’m not used to it but I know it’s a thing, all around the globe unfortunately. If I’m lucky enough to live and work in an interesting foreign country for a while I plan on just rolling with the punches and focusing on the amazing, fun aspects, but yeah, please help me prepare for how I’ll be perceived. Thanks 🙂

    • Hi Emily, thanks for reading! I feel there’s really no right answer to your question — honestly, it will depend on the person doing the hiring. Typically you’re required to include a headshot with your resume (so weird) and often you’ll have a Skype interview or be asked to make a YouTube video so they can assess your voice (at least that’s the official reason). So you can sort of control what the interviewers will and won’t see, if that matters to you. Lastly, just know that Koreans are culturally just very blunt — including to each other — so be prepared for frequent comments on your appearance and/or weight and just try to be good natured about it and know it’s a cultural thing. It can feel harsh at times but try to remember not to take it personally. And the kids are the worst, they literally say whatever pops into their heads, but then again, they’re just kids and don’t think about the weight their words carry. I wouldn’t worry too much if I were you. Be confident and outgoing and friendly and try your best to follow social norms and you’ll be just fine. Good luck!

  41. I found your post quite informative. For me isolation in Korea is almost painful, and yet comforting to a degree. A fresh start, new chances to reinvent myself and find out New things about myself. All that is what makes Korea amazing.

    That said, I am focusing on what you said about being in a rut. This is starting to become a concern. I do not drink as my employer is not into it nor are the others so I feel I dodged the bullit there. But, not much is expected. I try to be as helpful as possible but do not want to be seen as lazy. I realize the negative image many foreign teachers have generated for themselves and I do not want to be in that group so I avoid most expat events but that only deepens the isolation.

    All that aside though, Korea is among the most amazing places I’ve been and well worth cold winter’s, icy stares, ill fitting clothes, and isolation. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Hi Lance, thanks for reading! I agree, the isolation in Korea can be sort of intense, and I agree that the expat groups can actually contribute to the problem if you’re not much of a partier. Have you been able to make many Korean friends? It’s great that despite the bad parts you’ve remained so positive — it’s certainly a unique and memorable experience!

  42. Pingback: The Five WORST Things About Teaching English in Korea | International Sam

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  45. For the most part you are exactly correct. However, my wife and I lived for two years in the small village of Buan in Jeollabukdo and found it to be quite nice. Our few trips into larger cities always left me uncomfortable, but I’ll admit to a bit of agoraphobia. The two major issues I had were the attitude about actual work. If I’m given an assignment or job to do, I get right down to it and finish it as quickly as possibly. I learned that “looking like you are working” was more important than actually getting the job done. I did manage to finish writing a couple of novels because of that while there.
    The second criticism I would have is that the pop culture there is so overpowering. I’m firmly convinced that should it become a popular thing for middle school kids to leap naked from a bridge into the Han River that not only would the schools encourage it, the parents would insist that they supply them with a bus to get there. Students over 13 dare not step outside of their peer group’s expectation or face sometimes even the physical wrath of their friends. As a veteran teacher from the US when I went over there, I had to make some serious adjustments to my classroom management style.

    As for the winters, I grew up in Alabama and lived for several years in the heart of the Appalachians where I came to be accustomed to snow. However, I wasn’t prepared for the FEET of snow we got in Buan. (We were to the East of a mountain, right on the coast of the Yellow Sea and the moist air coming off the sea would climb that mountain, cool quickly and dump feet of snow on us when Jeonju, sixty miles to the north, got nothing)

    • I completely agree with your observations! The need to “look busy” while at work was so weird — especially when you would look around and realize most of the teachers were just online shopping or watching shows online. But everyone was always so quick to share with you about how busy they all were! And that snow sounds horrible…I hate snow! 🙂

  46. i have fallen in love with the idea of living in Korea and i would Love to Work In South Korea But the little challenges Am having is that i cant teach Due to my education background Please is there any other assistance U can render Please ???

  47. You should hear the stories I have about South Korea being an Asian American. When Koreans hear me speak English while I’m walking around in public, the look of amazement as to why I speak with and American accent since I’m not white or black, puzzles them. I’ve been asked many times where I’m from, and I reply with America, or American, only to get a reply of “but your not white”.

    Finally the stares mostly from men get to me the most. My city is not that small and there are a lot of foreigners but still they stare. It’s most of a hate stares that I get….it happens so often that I’ve gotten to the point where I stare back or sometimes say something to them while they pass me, like “what the f…k are you looking at? Never seen another Asian person before?”

    In Korea, the accepted foreigner is the White person. A research by a graduate student in Seoul on Korean racism showed that Koreans feel inferior towards white people but feel superior towards black, and other Asian looking people. So if you are a white person and you have your rough moments while you are living in Korea, just consider about what other foreigners here go through that are not white.

    By the way, this post is spot on. I think Koreans living in South Korea need to read this.

    • Yah, I have heard a lot of stories similar to yours. I think bottom line is, if you don’t look Korean while living in Korea, you’ll likely get some unwanted attention. Thanks for reading, and good luck if you’re still there, I hope you’re not having a completely negative experience!

  48. I lived in Seoul Korea for 3 years and just recently moved to the U.S. I made a huge connection to Korea and I wish I still lived there. Like u said life is much easier there and rly safe. I would have to disagree about the racism because it’s way worse in America. The people here where rly helpful to foreigners and so nice. I hate how people say Korea people are races when people in America teach kindergaredeners races song and Asian people. And it’s funny to be racist in America like rly?!? The United States are so racist it makes me to mad. For anyone who is reading this and feel oftened by people from the U.S. Being racist towards you and your culture I feel so bad. I remember my first day at school in Korea and ALL the kids where so nice. They asked me too sit with them and lunch and play with them at recess I wanted to go to school every day. Now I was just new in the U.S. And the kids here are so mean. Not one kid talked to me even asked me if I wanted to sit with them or be there partner for something in school they are to busy with there friends to even care. Anyway Korea was the best place for me and many other people. I know so many families who left Korea and went somewhere else and it wasn’t the same as Korea and moved back and has been living there forever.