Seoul, South Korea Report of what it's like to live there - 01/01/11
Personal Experiences from Seoul, South Korea
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
A third expat experience, after living in Europe and East Asia.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington, DC.The flight from Dulles to Seoul, Incheon is about 14 hours. It's about 19 hours, if routed through Tokyo with a two hour layover.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Two-Year assignment to the U.S. Embassy
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
High rise apartment buildings are scattered throughout the city. The Embassy compound consists of post-war era duplexes, in a serene neighborhood with plenty of trees. Although it would be much more exciting to live off base, green grass for kids and dogs is a rarity in Seoul.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Food is fresh, but expensive on the local economy. The Noryangjin fish market has excellent seafood at great prices. Vegetables are fairly cheap if you buy them from a market or street vendor. Fruit can be expensive. Everything is very affordable at the Commissary.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
If you have specific toiletry products that you like to use, I suggest bringing extras. If you are not picky about brands, then this won't be a problem. If you have access to the Commissary or PX, you should not have any problems.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
The best thing about Korea is its food. Meals are pretty cheap and always include kimchi and other panchan (side dishes).Two people can easily eat a full meal for 14,000 won ($14) or less. I recommend trying the variety of stews - or jiggae. Bibimbap - rice mixed with meat and vegetables- is a reliable staple and Korean BBQ is also delicious. Samgyupsal -pork belly -- never disappoints!You may also want to try Korean style "chikin" - or fried chicken -- which is quite popular and comes in many delicious flavors. Prices are very reasonable. A meal with any of the above mentioned items easily goes for 7000 won ($7) per person. Korean restaurants generally have very quick service. But there are designated Korean fast-food chains, such as the Lotteria - which serves hamburgers and fries. Kimbap Heaven (Kimpap Chonguk) is another one of my favorites. You can get a generous serving of your favorite kimbap roll (sort of like a sushi roll) in about 2 minutes for under 4000 won ($4).Western fast food is slightly more pricey. KFC, Popeyes, McDonalds, and Burger King are all available. A new Taco Bell recently opened in Itaewon. Korean style Chinese food, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, and Japanese food are widely available in Seoul and other big cities. Coffee shops are widely available.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
Life could be hard here for a vegetarian, at least on the surface. Tofu soup often has a meat broth and even the vegetable kimpap sometimes has a little ham. However, one can find vegetarian restaurants, with a little bit of research. If you're not at a vegetarian place, you have to be very specific about not wanting meat when ordering.
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes can be a problem in the summer.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Government employees use APO.FedEX and local mail services are also available.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Housekeepers come once a week for $160 a month ($40 per week).Nannies are about $800 per month, plus costs of sponsorship. Babysitters are $10 per hour. Dog walkers are also available.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are gyms available on the local economy. The base has two gyms.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
ATMs are very convenient on base. If you don't have access to the base, international ATMs are located at major hotels. Credit cards are widely accepted at major establishments and safe to use. However, when market shopping or bargaining in Itaewon, discounts are only available if you pay in cash. Always have cash available if traveling to smaller towns outside of Seoul.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are churches, temples, and mosques in Seoul. Some of the larger churches offer English languages services or translations.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
The International Herald Tribune, The Korea Times, The Korea Herald
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
The more Korean that you know and use, the better your experience will be. Koreans seem to genuinely appreciate when people learn their language. Knowing Korean phrases and making an honest effort to communicate in Korean pays dividends toward making friends and learning about the culture. In Seoul, you can make it around without any Korean -- but you would really be missing out on a lot. If you plan to be in Korea for a month or more, invest time in at least learning the alphabet (Hangul) and basic greetings. It would feel isolating after awhile to not be able to read the signs or to communicatewith the basics. Outside of Seoul, communication can be almost impossible without some Korean.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Newer buildings are more friendly to people with disabilities than older buildings, but it would still be challenging. Cross walks are equipped with signals for the visually impaired. The subway also has braille on each platform.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The subway is clean and affordable: you can ride almost anywhere in Seoul for 900 won (90 cents). Buses run frequently and are just as cheap as the subway. You can take a taxi across town for under 10,000 won ($10).Taxis are a great place to learn and practice Korean. I have met some very kind taxi drivers in Seoul.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
High speed internet is widely available.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Cell phones are plentiful. Everyone has one.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Our pets did not need to be quarantined and the processing through customs is very simple, if you prepare in advance and have the proper health certificate/vaccinations.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
You will have to shop around, but quality vet care is available throughout Seoul. There is a 24 hour vet clinic in Kangnam (Chiryo Myeong Myeong/ Bow Wow Care)that provided us with excellent care when our dog was sick. There is also a well known vet clinic in Itaewon. Kennels are available. The best one that I have found is a Korean speaking place in Kangnam called Puppy School. It's probably best to have a Korean friend help you when contacting them. Kennels sometimes have breed restrictions.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Yes, if you want to be an English teacher. Defense contractor types also tend to do well.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Very formal at the office. Relaxed, but slightly more formal than in the U.S. in public settings.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Seoul is extremely safe. Women, children, and elderly people walk alone at night, in downtown areas. Itaewon has really cleaned up in the last several years-- don't believe any negative hype. Compared to New York, DC, or any other big American city, Seoul is very safe. Exercise the same caution that you would in any large urban area.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Excellent medical care is available in Korea. Many people get orthodontic work done or lasic surgery. Plastic surgery advertisements are everywhere!
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Generally moderate to unhealthy in Seoul.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The spring is short, but pleasant. Summer is hot, humid and rainy. Winter is long, and bitterly cold. Fall is beautiful, but way too short.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Education fever is very real in Korea. In that light, there are several reputable international schools to choose from. I don't have children, but I have heard good reviews from colleagues with children. There are also DOD options.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Very large. There are thousands of English teachers in Korea, a fair amount of business people, and a large military presence.
2. Morale among expats:
Generally good, but it depends on one's situation. It can be a difficult culture to break into, if you want to experience things in their truest form. If you are not worried about totally integrating with the Korean population, are content with doing "touristy" things, andenjoy living as an "expat"/"foreigner" - Korea can be a very easy place to live. If you make Korean friends, learn some of the language and are open minded about Korean food, you will probably do okay. Do I miss home when I can't walk into a store downtown and find my shoe or clothing size?Sure. But I also enjoy sitting on the heated floor of a small restaurant, trying to make sense of the menu and ordering food in my best Korean. The restaurant worker will usually smile at my efforts and then I get to share samgyupsal, kimchi and all the side dishes with my husband. That's the sort of thing you can only experience in Korea.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
If you like karaoke, norebang (karaoke rooms) are everywhere. Movie theatres are high quality. Korean restaurants are cheap and good. If you are part of the Embassy community, there are many opportunities to join clubs and socialize on base. People host house parties and BBQs. Many expats seem to find ways to volunteer at orphanages and animal shelters.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Like many cities in East Asia, this can be a difficult post for single women who are looking to date. There is a significant military presence in Seoul and throughout Korea, and you sometimes see soldiers who marry each other or the occasional new relationship between an expat woman and an expat man. However, it seems that most expat men here- whether English teachers or military affiliated - date Korean women or women from the Philippines. With that said, I have seen several Caucasian and African-American women who have married Korean men.(But I can count them on one hand.)Single men seem to have many options. This is a great family post. Seoul is safe, has several theme parks and child-oriented tourist attractions, good schools, and good medical care. As a married couple, we really enjoyed our time here. There are plenty of local restaurants to explore and plenty of adventures to be had at local markets and shopping centers, by visiting Jeju Island, or taking a weekend hiking trip.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It seems to be very "don't ask- don't tell."I have heard that there are gay-friendly establishments in Itaewon. In 2000, Korean actor Hong Seok-cheon was the first celebrity in Korea to come out. He was subsequently fired from a popular variety show and has since made a comeback as an entrepreneur.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes. Those who say otherwise have probably not experienced it first-hand. There have been several instances when people have physically moved away from us on the subway and made no secret about not wanting to sit near us. Another African-American friend has experienced the same thing. Once when we were eating at a restaurant with a group of friends, a man approached us and we did our best to have a conversation with him in Korean. Afterwards he said, "I never liked black people, but now I do since I met you."(I am sure that in his mind, he thought this was a compliment.)This isolated incident certainly does not represent the majority of the population in Korea, and it did not define our whole experience. However, it was disappointing to experience this sort of thing in such a large city that has seen its fair share of expats. Other common prejudices include shop keepers and market people ignoring "foreigners" -- even when you speak to them in Korean. Again, the majority of shop keepers and market people will not do this, but it has happened to me often enough that it is worth noting.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Enjoying the lanterns and the crowds during an evening stroll along Cheoggyecheong Stream. Getting out of Seoul and exploring Korea's seven other provinces.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Hiking, skiing, eating, visiting the Yongsan Electronics Market or Techno Mart, going to the CGV movie theatre, shopping in Myeongdong, Namdaemun, and Dongdaemun, visiting a folk village, touring the DMZ, and learning about Korean War history. Practicing Korean.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Hanji (Korean paper) art is beautiful. Perhaps antique furniture? Celedon tea sets? Unique designer womens' clothing, if it fits? A hanbok (traditional Korean clothing)?
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Eating kimchi, a spicy fermented cabbage; buying K-Pop at bargain prices; watching Korean dramas on local TV.
11. Can you save money?
Yes, if you avoid expensive restaurants and don't travel much.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, because I like my job, and I have invested in learning the language. However, if you are looking for a more exotic experience, you could get very bored here.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
perceptions of Korea based on stories from relatives who visited Korea thirty years ago. Tailoring is not cheap and Koreans enjoy a very high standard of living.
3. But don't forget your:
sense of humor and assertive or defensive driving skills, depending on how you look at it.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Lonely Planet Korea; The Two Koreas by Don Oberdorfer; Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick; And So Flows History by Hahn Moo-Sook. Once you arrive in Korea, I recommend searching for a title such as "Our Country, Our Culture: How to Explain it in English."It's sort of interesting to read from the Korean point of view.
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Shikgaek (Gourmet)- The story of a restaurant, two brothers, and how to be the best chef. Makes many cultural and historical references and shows scenery from around Korea. Alone in Love - A drama about a divorced coupleThe Man Who Can't Marry - A drama/comedy that takes a look at the life of an unmarried 40 year-old man.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Seoul has diverse beauty salon options. There are several shops in Itaewon where people get their hair braided and the hair stylists on base can give every type of perm, do braids, and cornrows. Be sure to read about the Korean War before coming.2010 was the 60th anniversary of the conflict and commemoration events will continue through 2011.