I was recently asked to give a wee lecture, introducing the latest intake of GET’s to life in Korea. I thought I’d transfer it into a blog post (not just because all sorts of things came to me after the lecture was over…typical!)
I’VE tried to make things as universal as possible. I live in Gyeongnam Province, way in the south of the country, and there are some things that vary from province to province. I hope that if you’re new to Korea, or thinking of moving to Korea, that this is useful for you!
THIS is going to be a mammoth post – so please grab yourself a beverage and some snacks before you hunker down and get reading!
FIRST up – moving in to your new home. More than likely you will be moving into an apartment provided by your employer. Cross your fingers and hope for the best. Regardless of the set up here are some things to note, and some places to source what you need!
- Koreans can be superstitious. You may find yourself moving into a mess of an apartment, uncleaned and inhabited by a few of the things the previous tenant left behind. This is because the believe emptying out a home allows spirits to move in. If this happens to you, it’s nothing personal! In practice, I’ve not personally heard of many instances of this.
FINDING things to furnish your apartment is always more daunting than you think it’s going to be! Where do you go? How do you get it home? How will you know it’s a good deal? How do you know you’re buying the right thing? Here are a few places you can go.
KICKING off the list with physical stores and top of the list is Daiso – you can’t beat it for value for money. You may or may not be familiar with Daiso. I wasn’t – but I gather there are stores in the US and Australia. I later found out that Daiso is known as Living Plaza in Hong Kong, answering the question of why so many things looked the same. Here’s a link to there English site so you can find your closest store.
DAISO is where you will find your boxes, storage containers, waste paper baskets, crockery, stationary, cleaning products, decor, candles and million-and-one other things that you didn’t know you needed, but you totally do! It’s a one-stop-shop that will make your apartment instantly feel like a home!
Take a friend, garab all you need, and don’t forget to grab a snack or two for your organisation adventures when you get home – if you’re new to Korea, Daiso has all sorts of exciting snacks you can try.
NEXT up we have the big three supermarkets: Lotte Mart, Emart and Homeplus. All carry a wider range of international food, varying from store to store, and also carry a range of electrical goods and small furniture, depending on the size of the store.
FOR anything big and bulky, or more niche, I direct you to Gmarket. Here‘s a link for the English site. I was introduced to this before I even landed in Korea by my recruiter – Shout out to Alistair and the team at Korean Horizons! I was told to have a look, think about what I needed for when I arrived and let them know. They would then purchase them and I would pay them back after my first paycheck landed. This was a huge weight lifted. All I asked for was a set of bedding and a large towel and having those in hand when I arrived made my first few days so much calmer. Since then it’s my go-to for most things.
GMARKET is pretty cool – not always the cheapest, but if you know how to scour, you can find a good deal. Search for things in Korean, have a translation app on hand, and you’re good to go.
ONE of the things I love most about Gmarket is the payment options. You can pay by card, bank transfer (which you can also do from your phone on your banking app) or even by ATM. It’s simple, it’s effective and allows you to retain some manual control on your spending.
UNDERSTANDABLY, many of the imported items are far more expensive than you’d like – sometimes eye-wateringly so. I’ve found it best to let things go, or get visitors to bring you the things you miss most, or send them if they can. When it comes to pass that things to pop up for a limited time only in physical shops, it makes them that much more magical!
AS with any job, anywhere in the world, the make-or-break factor is the personalities you are working with. In Korea, you need to add a layer of cultural differences on top of that and you can imagine that not ever Co-Teaching partnership is going to be a match made in heaven. What is important in School is to abide by the rules of the culture you have voluntarily chosen to live in, be flexible – and if you think you’re not, you’ll learn fast – and take what you can from the situations you find yourself in. Here are a few words of advice:
SLIPPERS – Wear them. Don’t question it, just do it (there have been those who haven’t!) We wear school slippers inside the school. Period. You can grab a cheapo pair from any stationery store, convenience store or Daiso until you get a pair you fancy, or you can use the ones for guests that the school provides. However you go about it – wear them!
BOW – The students bow to the teachers, the teachers bow to each other… I’m going to quit this list before I get ahead. In a nutshell, if you’re walking down a corridor and another teacher is coming your way, bow. If you see the Principle or Vice-Principle, definitely bow. Throw in an “안녕하세요!” and you’re laughing. It may not seem like much, but it shows a willing engagement that will be appreciated by your co-workers.
SMILE – Honestly, a simple smile works wonders. Many Koreans, whether they fess up to it or not – will have a pre-disposed notion as to what a foreigner is (and for “foreigner”, read “American”). As much as it is our job to assist in teaching English, it is also our job to show them that the other people out there in the world are actually pretty cool, and we’re a pretty diverse and fabulous bunch – and not all American!
EAT LUNCH – Unless you are lost in a mire of dietary restictions, eat lunch with your colleagues. Food is a very social thing in Korea. Again, it is a small, but not unnoticed, display of willingness and effort that will be most appreciated. And, for the most part, the food’s pretty good too! In the same vein, make sure you go to the hwesik’s (staff dinner’s) too!
BRING SNACKS TO SHARE – Following on from lunch, if you bring food or snacks to school, make sure it’s shareable! I bake, and bring cakes to school. I get to stress-bake, but I don’t eat all the cake, so everybody wins! There’s usually some sort of snack or coffee floating around, so get involved too! It will be appreciated!
BE FLEXIBLE – Korea is known for having a “bally bally” culture: everything done at speed. Whilst this is true, it also means that many things are done (or not) last minute. I like to affectionately call these events a “Korean Surprise”. In my early days in Korea, these threw me a little bit. Now I’m used to planning, not in advance, but in case. It becomes habit. And it’s not just us GET’s who have to deal this – everyone’s in the same boat.
TALK TO YOUR CO-TEACHER(S) – An open discourse with your Co-Teachers is vital. Whatever form it takes, keep conversation flowing.
IT’S ONLY TILL MARCH – If it should come to pass that you end up with a CT with whom you have a difficult relationship, remember in elementary schools that the teachers change every March. Cross your fingers and you may get lucky.
BE RESPECTFUL – This should be a no brainer, but in Korea, it’s easy to make a misstep. There are many sensitive issues floating around the peninsula, and Korea’s is a culture that developed relatively untouched for centuries, until the Japanese occupation was fully realised in 1910. As a result, it is no wonder that now Koreans are holding on to their culture and traditions as tightly as possible. This may make things difficult at times. Sometimes actions and accepted behaviours may be hard to comprehend, but it is what it is, and we are guests here. Do what you can to not rock the boat – it makes for an easier life. Either feign ignorance or don’t comment on Dokdo (read more here) and definitely don’t call it Takeshima! Tread lightly around the comfort woman issue, and remember that the Korean culture as we know it was nearly lost. Respect is as different even if you can’t embrace it! I reference these in-particular as there are three photos in ever classroom in my school, at the behest of the Principle. I remember being told, before I ever set foot in Korea, that Koreans didn’t value their history, something in relation to buildings. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Now that’s done, a few useful purchases for school, with some suggestions – feel free to search for your own! The red pencils (really useful for marking work) can be found in any Daiso or stationery store.
Marking Pencils | Desk Calendar
EATING out in Korea is what dreams are made of. It’s cheap, there are more vegetables than you could ever need, often it’s cooked right in front of you, and banchan (side dishes) just keep coming. For free. I was aghast when a friend informed me that at a Korean barbecue restaurant in London, you have to pay for lettuce. Pay… For lettuce… What even is this…
THIS balances with the fact that buying groceries is more expensive than back home (I’m using the UK for reference). That being said, bills and travel are so cheap that it all balances out.
WHEN going out for the weekly food shop (or however often you do it) you have 2 main options. The big marts or the local ones. The big three I’ve mentioned already in this post: Lotte Mart, Emart and Homeplus. The small marts are everywhere, have a million-and-one names and are affectionately called Ajumma Marts (well, by me and mine, anyway!) Both have their pro’s and con’s. If you have decent Korean, then the local markets (시장) are open to you as well.
AS a general rule, I will head for the Ajumma mart for most basic things. It’s cheaper in gneral, and you don’t have to buy a massive bag of carrots when just two will do. Living alone, it’s easier to get my fruit and veg from the Ajumma mart or the local market, so I have more control over the quantity. If I want a more niche item, an out-of-season vegetable or something imported, I’ll head to one of the big three. No two big three supermarkets are the same. Their stock seems to depend upon their size, location and clientele.
My top hints:
Vegetables – Ajumma mart or local market.
Meat – Always try Ajumma marts first!
Chicken – Easier to find at the big marts than the local ones, unless you’re lucky!
Chocolate – the cheapest chocolate you can find is Emart’s No Brand chocolate (milk and dark) less than ₩2,000 for a 100g bar, which is insane considering it’s at least ₩7,000 for a 100g bar of Lindt!
Wine – Also an Emart purchase. They hare a lovely selection – also the most cheeses (which in the grand scheme of things, means nothing… I miss cheese!)
Brandy – Christmas is coming as I write this, and brandy is a pretty integral part of Christmas cooking! I got mine from Homeplus! At around ₩7,000 it’s not for drinking, but it does mince pies, Christmas cake and sangria just fine!
Foreign Food – The Big Three! If you are one of the lucky ones living in Seoul, you have Itaweon at your convenience, and there are a couple of excellent foreign marts there.
After all this, there is a massive downside to food in Korea. If you are vegetarian, vegan, or allergic to nuts or gluten, you are going to have a tough time eating out. If you’re vegan and coeliac, as a friend of mine is, eating out is next to impossible. Most stocks are made with seaweed and anchovies, fish sauce is in a whole host of foods, and soy sauce and gochujang (red pepper paste) are full of gluten – and they’re in pretty much everything… It’s not that you can’t come to Korea, you’re just going to have to be super prepared – it’s not like it is back home!
FEAR not. Iherb keeps my vegan and coeliac friends stocked up, and recipes are always adaptable!
IF you don’t look, or behave like a Korean, this cartoon is an accurate depiction of what goes down. You will always be a source of curiosity. I’m now well into my 6th year in Asia, and I don’t bat an eyelid at the stares anymore, for the most part. Every so often I may get a particularly nasty or lecherous stare (and not always from the locals) but that is definitely an exception to the rule. Mostly, the locals are curious, and it’s not as much of a taboo to stare here. Meet it with a megawatt smile!
CHILDREN will also point, stare, or even full on yell to their parents. I still remember the day a wee girl clocked me, turned to her mother and shouted “어마, 어마, 왜국인!” (Mum, Mum, it’s a foreigner!) Waygook is an interesting word. Generally it’s translated as foreigner, but Korean is more nuanced than that and it seems, following conversations I’ve had with my colleagues, that waygook means “non-korean” rather than “foreigner”. It has lead to a few grumbles, being labelled a waygook. Personally, I own it!
Aujumma’s are known for more than their stares. They are awesome, fearsome beings (in the coolest of ways) – do not anger them. They’re scary! They can also do no wrong! Confucianism is strong in Korea, and you must respect your elders. You can’t speak up against them and as a rule of thumb, eye contact with someone older than you is a no-no. All of the above depend on the group of people you’re with – there are always exceptions. Back to Ajumma’s – here are my two favourite Ajumma stories.
>>MY first story occurred during my first year in Korea, I worked in a second school on Thursday’s and Friday’s. This school was a bus ride away, and the best bus to take was an express bus, meaning I had to head to a bus stop a wee bit further away from my house. Next to the bus stop there was a convenience store (there were actually three on the way, but I always went to this last one). So there I was, early in the morning, grabbing a bottle of water. I put it down on the counter to pay the lad on the till, and the Ajumma in front of me – brazen as you like – picks up the bottle, cracks it open, takes a swig, and walks out. The lad and I watch her go knowing full well there is nothing either of us can do. A shrug and a laugh and off I went to work.
THE second story also involves buses. There I was, minding my own business, waiting for a bus in one of the Daegu bus stations. It was winter and I was wearing a navy wool coat. My hair was longer and the odd runway strand was on my coat. An Ajumma came along, started picking hair and fluff off my jacket, brushed it down, then walked away again. Not a word. I still laugh when I tell this one!<<
TALKING of bus stops, but rides in Korea are something else, I kid you not, this ROKetship cartoon tells no lies!
I love buses in Korea. They’re cheap, frequent, and the drivers will get you there in hella good time if the traffic is in your favour! On the downside, although the drivers will get you there, it’s not a proper bus journey unless you’ve fallen over at least three times! I swear there are two gears: Speed and Break!
DOWN in my neck of the woods we have three different city buses: Green, Blue and Orange. The Green and Blue buses (more “local”, and make more stops) are currently ₩1,300 and the Orange bus (wider area covered, fewer stops made) is currently ₩1,800. Children travel for less, and if you’re using a travel card, ₩50-₩100 off the price. ₩1,300 seems to be an average fare around Korea. For more check this page.)
IF you happen to live in a city with a subway, the fare for an adult is currently ₩1,350, with a travel card it’s ₩1,250.
I’VE mentioned travel cards. There are several in Korea, the most common being the T-Money card – just ask for one in any convenience store. These can be used all over Korea, there’s a full list here. The Cashbee card can’t be used in a few places, and though they can be used in Daegu, T-money cards can’t be topped up there – they have their own. Travel cards are also non-refundable, so top up in small amounts!
ONE last note on traveling. When public holidays are coming up, book in advance. The KTX (train) tickets go early for Chuseok and Seollal and bus tickets can be sketchy. The same with booking hostels/pensions/motels. I haven’t taken the KTX in years, I much prefer the bus, and taking away the rest stop in the middle of the journey, it’s only about 20 mins longer than the fastest train from Changwon to Seoul!
SHOPPING in Korea is a yo-yo of high’s and lows. We return once more to ROKetship to give a brief pictorial overview…
SO on the down side, if you don’t conform to Korean standards and can’t fit all the free-sized clothes they have, being told there are no clothes your size (true or not) is not fun to hear. It happens with shoe sizes too. Women’s shoe sizes stop at 245/250, which is a 5/5.5 UK size which I believe is an 8/8.5 US. I just make it inside the cut off point, but if you’re feet are any larger, the options diminish. Gmarket has started stocking a wider, nice range of womens shoes in larger sizes!
HOWEVER, in beauty stores especially, “Service” is great. This is when you get free samples of things to try. It makes up for the shop assistants tailing your round the store, or invading your personal space. They will do this. No one likes it, foreigners and locals alike, but it’s what they have to do – go shopping with a friend!
WHILST we’re on clothes, here’s one more ROKetship gem:
IT’S not the done thing to show shoulders and chest here, yet the shortest of skirts and shorts are totally ok! There seem to be two camps of people, those who have noticed their style change in Korea, and those who have seen it merely adapt to fit purpose, but remain as-was outside of school. Do you – but keep it conservative at school.
INTERNET is everywhere in Korea. And it’s fast! It’s no wonder that there are entire stores dedicated to the Kakao Friends characters – emoji’s are big business here!
HERE are some apps I recommend. First up, communicating and getting around! Of course Kakao Talk is first on the list. Everyone uses it here. Everyone. Forget every other messaging app – Kakao trumps them all!
1. Kakao Talk | 2. Kakao Maps | 3. Kakao Nus
4. Kakao Taxi| 5. Kakao Navi | 6. 고속버스 모바일| 7. Korea Subway
LEARNING at least some Korean is going to be invaluable – more on apps for that a little later. Kakao Maps is all Korean, but it’s infinitely better than Google Maps, which although improving, is pretty pointless in Korea. Kakao Bus has a some English, and Kakao Taxi has just updated and now has a whole lot of English!
The Goseok bus app (6) is entirely in Korean – get someone to help you set it up! If you plan on traveling around Korea, this app will make it so much easier. You can book intercity bus tickets in advance, pick your seat and your ticket is a wee QR code and saved in the app, so no losing it! Once it’s set up it’s easy to use, and makes traveling a breeze!
I include this particular subway app because in this one app you can jump between the four cities that have subways (Seoul, Busan, Daegu and Daejeon. There’s also a whole lot of travel information. It’s pretty neat!
BACK tracking a little to learning Korean. Duolingo has finally added Korean to it’s roster. I personally like the way Duolingo works.
TALK to me in Korean is a super awesome resource. There’s the App, the website, and a great collection of books. Which option you go for is up to you, but they are pretty fabulous. Outwith these, head over to your nearest Kyobo bookstore. The Languages section has a decent collection of Korean language books in English.
WHEN learning Korean, I cannot stress how important it is to stop using romanizations as soon as you can – it makes things a whole lot easier.
FINALLY – yes, we have made it to the end – Facebook is your friend. There are all sorts of expat community groups on Facebook, featuring content ranging from buying and selling, activities, to general life and all sorts of chat, find the groups in your area and go from there!
YOU made it to the end of my ramblings. I hope you found something useful in here. If there’s anything else you want to know, or if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to comment below!