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!]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
This page contains some affiliate links. This means if you click on the links and then make a purchase, we will receive a commission–which helps us pay our bills and keep the lights on at World Walk About. Thanks for your support!